It’s been nearly two years since Google introduced Penguin. Nothing of that magnitude has been released since, and some are speculating that 2014 will bring with it the next major link penalty algorithm. Either way, Google has been continuously refining its techniques, and many link building tactics have tied off for all but the most spammy SEOs.

Knowing this, how should we approach link building in the year ahead?

Emphasize Branded Link Building

Anchor text simply isn’t the ranking factor it once was. There was a time when exact or partial match anchor text was a strong signal, but in the wake of Penguin it can often end up doing more harm than good.

It’s true that exact and partial match anchor text still correlate heavily with search rankings, but Google +1s outrank everything (besides Page Authority), and Matt Cutts has very clearly stated that those do not influence rankings.

Our data isn’t suggesting any significant bump from matching anchor text when compared with more natural links. The correlation is, more than likely, a side effect of the fact that sites with more links in general are going to end up with more matching anchor text links.

With that in mind, I’ve been encouraging the use of branded anchor text instead.

While it’s true that branded anchor text is much less likely to attract a penalty, this isn’t the only reason we are recommending it.

Using your brand name in the context of a link draws more attention. Even readers who don’t end up clicking the link will be more likely to remember you in the future, especially if they see your brand name mentioned a second time. Links tend to draw the eye more than the surrounding text.

I’d also like to add that branded link building isn’t just about branding your anchor text.

Branded link building is really about using link building opportunities as brand building opportunities as well. A guest post isn’t just an opportunity to build a link and boost search engine exposure. It’s also an opportunity to make a first impression and associate it with your brand name. The same goes for virtually any other link building opportunity, assuming you have any involvement in the process.

Don’t forget our mantra: if this link were no-follow, would you still build it? If so, it’s the best of both worlds. If not, it’s probably a waste of time. For more on our philosophy about link building, this list of misconceptions about links from guest posts should clarify things.

In short, a modern link building strategy is more than just an SEO link building strategy. It’s a way to boost brand impressions, drive traffic, and increase conversions. This kind of link building is a win from both angles: it’s the best approach for earning ROI even without the search engines, and it’s most likely to offer the best long term SEO value.

Build In-House Assets that will Acquire Links Naturally

As much as branded link building can improve your SEO value, it’s not entirely what Google is looking for. Some SEOs have speculated that Google will release an update to target low tier guest posts this year. You can include us in that camp, although 2014 may be betting on it a little early. Either way, it’s clear from Google’s terms of service that any form of link building used to manipulate search rankings can be considered part of a link scheme, and Google can and will continue to redefine what they consider manipulative.

At this point, it should be clear that guest posting purely for SEO value is a tactic that currently stands on thin ice. The same goes for badges, infographics, and press release links.

What Google really wants to see are editorial links. Guest posts (and similar approaches) on high quality, heavily used, human-edited blogs are likely to remain in this category. But links that are given freely, relying on absolutely no outreach, are best of all.

Some SEOs scoff at the idea of purely natural links like these. They argue that these kinds of links rarely occur, and that only sites that have already attained some popularity are capable of doing this.

I’ll agree that you can’t rely on content alone to capture these kinds of links. You will need to promote the content, but it is possible to do this in a way other than outright asking for links. Here are a few examples

  • Posting on forums, which despite seeming a bit web 1.0, are still actually more popular than blogs.
  • Working with influencers. While links directly from that influencer can’t be considered purely editorial, any secondary links that arise from the interaction certainly can be. (It’s worth noting that if no money changed hands, the link from the influencer is still very valuable and probably risk-free.)
  • If the influencer posts on your site, it’s even okay to pay them, and the resulting exposure is likely to result in links.
  • While links from press releases can’t be counted on to help rankings, they are still a perfectly legitimate way to build exposure that can result in links. This is especially true if you pull a publicity stunt of some kind. The more creative, the better. The key is to do something that is worth talking about in the news, and to make it very easy to link to a page relevant to the story on your site.

However you promote it, it’s absolutely crucial that you have at least one top tier asset on your site that is bound to attract links. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about:

  • If you run any kind of publicity stunt, make sure you create a press-friendly page on your site providing journalists with all of the resources they need to cover it. This transforms a pure press stunt into an SEO asset. Press stunts alone rarely attract as many links as would be ideal. If you post a related piece of content on your site, however, you’re much more likely to earn links from journalists.
  • Proprietary data and original research work great as linkable assets. Journalists and bloggers love to reference industry studies, especially if those studies happen to prove a point they’ve been trying to make. Conducting an impartial study on a controversial topic can be a great way to earn links.
  • Interactivity has a way of attracting attention online. Look no further than any one of the top ten sites on the web and you will see that every one of them is built around either an interactive tool or a community of some kind. Releasing an online software tool for free is a great way to earn attention on tech sites. If the tool is designed to be useful for a specific niche of the market, bloggers from that sector are very likely to link to it as well.
  • Think of the kinds of content you would either put up for sale or use to build up an email list. If you produce one of these and make it available to everybody, it can be a great way to earn links.

Fix Up Broken Links

For those who don’t know, broken link building is about contacting webmasters, letting them know about broken links on their site, and suggesting one of your own as an alternative.

Some SEOs are starting to move this under the umbrella of “grey hat,” and I think this is unfortunate. I’ll agree that it’s misleading and unethical if you pose as somebody else when you do it (for some reason this seems to be a common tactic), but other than that I don’t see anything manipulative about the practice. Recommending your link in place of a broken link may not be purely natural, but that’s just as true for guest posting, or any other form of outreach.

In any case, it would be hard to argue that links given as a result of broken link building aren’t editorial. These links are being given by humans, and they are pleased enough with the content you are suggesting to link to it. That is practically the definition of an editorial link.

There are a few different ways to approach broken link building. One of my favorites comes from Backlinko, called “the moving man method.” It works like this:

  • Find websites that have changed names, moved, shut down, stopped updating, or stopped offering something. Even if you use a broken link building service tool like Check My Links, many of these pages will still show as working, since they will often be replaced with “this page no longer exists,” or something along those lines.
  • Use a link tool like Ahrefs or OpenSiteExplorer (in this case Ahrefs should be a better choice, since they have a larger link graph), and export all of the sites that linked to the missing page.
  • Now you can go down the list and contact these people, letting them know about the broken link, and suggesting yours as an alternative. Personally, I’ve found that you often get a better response if you just let them know they have a broken link, and then ask them if they would like you to point it out. This is because a lot of people will ignore your first email the very second they see a link in it, sometimes even if it’s a link to their own site. Your job is to get past that initial filter so that they’ll take you seriously.

As I mentioned before, you can use a tool like Check My Links to find broken links as well. This can often be faster, but you will often end up with less powerful links, since these kinds of links are more likely to be caught already.

Take Advantage of Link Prospecting Tools

As much as we believe in natural links, outreach is still a huge part of link building, and I would argue that the majority of SEOs still don’t place enough emphasis on it. There is nothing more “natural” about guest posting than reaching out to webmasters and either asking for links or building business relationships with them.

When it comes right down to it, mass outreach link building often results in more editorial, more natural links than guest posting does. It certainly results in more natural, editorial links than mass guest posting.

While I strongly believe that outreach should be customized for each individual prospect, even the spammiest outreach campaign won’t build a single “unwanted” link. As long as the webmasters are human, and deciding for themselves whether they should place a link, it’s an editorial link.

With that in mind, there’s one tool combo that I think every SEO should be using:

In about ten minutes, Link Prospector can find you a list of a thousand or so contacts related to a search query that you define. You can also add exclusions, so that you don’t end up with a bunch of Facebook pages, specific competitors, or of course your own site. You can also choose whether to search the whole web, or just blogs, among several other things.

Once you have a list of contacts, you can easily export it over to Buzzstream.

We talked about Buzzstream when we talked about 7 tools you should use for content marketing and link building. It’s one of the most useful tools out there for contacting link prospects and influencers, and staying in touch. You can easily sort them by important SEO metrics, and Buzzstream automatically finds email addresses and other contact information. It also allows you to create templates to speed up your outreach.

As I mentioned in the last section, I typically avoid placing any links in my first outreach email. Instead, I try to use the first email to kick off a conversation. The key is to briefly let them know that you know who they are with some kind of reference, let them know what you have to offer, and then ask if they’d like to know more.

When you are willing to ask them a question, it immediately sends the message that you want to talk directly to them. This makes them more likely to think of you as a human being, and more likely to work with you.

While it’s important to keep the email short, it’s also important to keep it very specific. The goal of your outreach should be to solve a problem for your link prospects. The more specific that problem, the more interested they will be in hearing your solution.

I urge you to take a look at our guide to influencer outreach to learn more.

Focus on Internal Pages

As time goes on, it makes less sense to point links to the home page of your site. Of course, this might be the most logical place to link to from an author bio or a sidebar. Typically, though, you should be aiming for something a bit more targeted.

From a pure SEO standpoint, too many links to the homepage signifies artificial link building. But it goes deeper than that. It also means that your internal pages aren’t especially valuable. If the only page worth linking to is your home page, why are there so many pages on your site?

From a user perspective, internal links often make more sense as well. The home page of your site is usually the worst place to send a visitor if they’ve already been warmed up by some other piece of content. Relevance is key. If this was an AdSense advertisement, you wouldn’t waste money sending them to the homepage when you could send them to a more relevant page. The same is true for link building.

Just as specificity is important during outreach, it’s important during linking. Broad solutions to broad problems rarely interest people. They seem too generic, and usually reek of empty promises. When you link to a very specific asset on your site, you are more likely to encourage people to click through and take a look at it.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, here it is: diversify your link building efforts. I wouldn’t count on guest posts alone being enough by the end of 2014. While top tier guest posts will be an important part of SEO for the foreseeable future, lower tier guest posts are at risk. Smart SEOs will need to start thinking about other ways to build and earn editorial links.

So there you have it. If you found this useful, we’d love it if you passed it along. Thanks for reading, and please leave a comment if you have something to add.