12 Lessons I’ve Learned from 100+ Link Building Campaigns – Wins & Fails
One of the first things that beginner SEOs get in contact with is link building, often far before they even hear about content quality or even basic things like proper keyword research or title optimization.
Link building is the most controversial topic in SEO and I believe that we should encourage people on not focusing too much on links alone . And in years of doing link building campaigns, I’ve learned a thing or two. So here they are: 12 lessons I’ve learned from dozens of link building campaign I’ve been working on.
- BlackHat Spam Link Building Tools Don’t Work
- Building Free Links Manually Takes Ages & Comes With a Lot of Disappointment
- Bought Links and PBNs are Too Expensive & Too risky
- Forum Posts & Blog Commenting ARE Useful for SEO
- Nofollow Links DO Help You Rank Better
- Google Can’t Penalize Everyone & Won’t Penalize You for What You Did 5 Years Ago
- Focusing on Link Building Alone is Just NOT Worth It Overall
- Guest Posts are Useful… But…
- Links With Branded Anchors Work Best
- Internal Linking is An Awesome Way to Include Commercial Anchor Texts
- Unlinked Brand Mentions Can Pay Off Really Well
- You CAN Rank a Website High by Earning Links
1. BlackHat Spam Link Building Tools Don’t Work
If you’re an experienced SEO, you’re probably not very impressed about this first point. But there’s a big reason why it’s first in this list. I’ll ask you a question:
When you first started building links, what was the very first thing you tried?
If you’re an honest man, you’ll probably say that some sort of blackhat link building.
As I said, new SEOs often learn about link building first, far before they hear about anything else. Don’t believe me? Well, with all the (often contradicting) information overload on the internet, people turn to forums to get answers cleared out, because they can read the opinions of a dozen different people at once, or even ask questions directly themselves. Just take a look at one example from a forum:
Now you might be saying “Yes, but that’s a BlackHat SEO forum. I know it.” Well, that’s true, but take a look at how he says he’s new to SEO and has $ 600 to spend, yet he already knows about tools and link buying.
So it’s pretty clear that this beginner already knows something about SEO, just not the right stuff. Why? Because BlackHat SEO looks appealing. You apparently get quick results for very little work. Coming up with cool content ideas is hard and time consuming. Writing them even harder.
In reality, BlackHat SEO tools are expensive and have a huge learning curve. You’re better off building something solid and safe from the start.
How am I so sure? Well, because I’ve been there. I wanted to make my life easy. I purchased ScrapeBox, GSA Search Engine Ranker, Captcha Breaker and other software, in an attempt to easy my job.
I spent weeks if not months to learn the software, time in which I had other expenses that I wasn’t aware of at first, such as proxies. In the end, I realized that most links the tools were building were crap ones, because most websites didn’t only had captchas (which Captcha Breaker could occasionally pass) but were also moderator approved.
The results? Not impressive. Low to medium results with pretty much a lot of money, effort and stress put in. By low to medium results I mean not on page 1.
All this happened because I missed one key point. The user. I was so caught in my link building that I completely ignored other things. If I did any OnPage SEO, I constantly thought of ways to include more keywords on a page without looking TOO obvious, but never actually thought about the end user for a bit.
And I haven’t even mentioned penalties yet. I haven’t really experienced penalties personally (yet again I didn’t quite stick with blackhat methods for long) but many of our cognitiveSEO users and clients that I personally consult know very well the dangers of blackhat link building.
The real results started kicking in when I finally thought about how to make my website and content genuinely useful for the users. Sure, there are a lot of advanced tactics, technical optimizations and marketing schemes you can perform, but at the core, user experience is king.
There are also ISP (Internet Service Providers) issues. If you start spamming the web, they will eventually phone you to ask you if everything’s alright. You’ll have to lie, obviously, because it’s against their ToS and probably even illegal in some places.
A Black Hat Link Building Story
I interviewed a guy once and he told me about how he used to make around $ 1000 – $ 2000 per month by spamming the web. That sounds good, but he ended up with very little profit.
At first, he was only spamming with one computer and a dozen of proxies, averaging about $ 75 to $ 100 per month. So he then thought “Hey, why don’t I scale this up?”. Well… scaling up was a big investment. He ended up buying around 20 computers and also spent a lot of money on the energy bill and the internet service package. The total spending was close to $ 10000.
In about 3-4 months, Google started catching up with his scheme and penalized his websites. He started everything allover again, trying to stay under the radar, but each time, Google caught him. It took less and less for Google to catch up. At first 2-3 months, then 1-2 months until he abandoned everything.
With only 2-3 moths of full earnings, he ended up banking less than he spend on the whole setup. He could of course profit by selling the setup, which is a lot more time consuming than purchasing it. In the end, he ended up having nothing solid and realized it isn’t worth it.
2. Building Free Links Manually Takes Ages & Comes With a Lot of Disappointment
Clients ask about links almost all the time. “They heard that it helps with rankings, so they want as many as possible.” People usually ask for SEO consultancy offers and how many links per month they contain. it seems that in order to have an “SEO package”offer, you need to have some links there.
However, coming back to reality, it just isn’t possible to promise someone a number of links per month, unless you have a predefined set of website you link out from, which makes everything less relevant and more risky.
Not only that but you also put everyone at risk, because similar link patterns attract more attention and can impact the whole network. This means that if Google hits one site for link spam, it might hit every site with a similar link pattern. This is also the case with buying links, not only with building them. BlackHat tactics affect everyone, not only the performer.
I’ve been able to outrank and pull out my middle finger to websites that had dozens of very expensive links purchased and probably PBNs, all with almost no link building at all. I also did manual ‘link building’ here and there, but we’ll talk about it later in the article. I’ll explain why I’ve put link building between brackets, so keep reading.
To be honest, building links manually is just like using a BlackHat link building tool, but 100000 times slower and infinitely more frustrating, because there’s no filter for the failure (like the software), which now goes directly into your soul.
A friend of mine was recently assigned to build some manual links at his work place. After about one week, he sent me this message: “I feel like I’m doing this for nothing.”
3. Bought Links and PBNs are Too Expensive & Too risky
After finding out that manual link building literally makes you cry blood, I decided to purchase some links.
Here and there, you could get an occasional $ 10 per link, on a random worthless blogspot. For the real links, on news websites, for example, we were talking about $ 400 to $ 1000 per link. Many would also ask for monthly payments of $ 50 to $ 200 to keep a link online.
Of course, these prices apply to the markets I am familiar with; in other niches, links are probably a lot more expensive.
PBNs can probably be more efficient, however the risks are high and you also need to spend a lot of time creating them and making sure Google won’t catch them.
A Private Blog Network’s primary cost is content, which you could be very well creating on your main site.
Here’s a glimpse of how much it would cost you to build a PBN if you want to avoid doing the work yourself. Although these guys probably know what they’re doing, the risks are still there.
As long as you have multiple quality websites that you take care of, I don’t see the problem with interlinking them. However, you have to take into account the fact that Google might see it as a PBN and penalize it. I’d focus on one website first and when it really goes good and competition is already behind, I’d expand with another one.
It’s just that… sometimes, dofollow links ‘for SEO’ are more expensive than a regular advertising post on a high authority, high traffic, well established website. I consider the latter to be more effective. If you find a great advertorial opportunity/deal to get your product or website featured, then by all means go for it. But it’s a better idea if the link has a nofollow tag and if the promotion is clearly specified in the article.
4. Forum Posts & Blog Commenting ARE Useful for SEO
Wait! Isn’t this a BlackHat Tactic? I know, this might sound counter intuitive. But the answer si no, it isn’t a BlackHat tactic.
Forums are communities in which people share opinions, ideas and they are also a great resource. Blog comments are the way readers and content creators interact with each other.
In order to get links, you need to build connections. If you build connections then you’re doing forum posting and blog commenting the right way. Connections help you get more link opportunities. You get to know one webmaster, then they introduce you to another and so on.
But that’s not the only way to build connections. You can also go to meetings. Meetings and events are probably the most efficient marketing strategy you can spend time on. You can build more connections, land more leads and secure more clients in one single event ore meeting than you can in months of online efforts.
Sometimes, it’s not easy to find an event in your niche, but there definitely are adjacent niches where you can go. You just have to think outside the box. Alcohol brands, for example, promote a lot on music festivals. If you make shoes, you don’t have to find a shoemaker meeting. Just go to a fashion meetup, or maybe sports one, depending on your products.
You might often meet bloggers in similar or adjacent niches and you can collaborate with them. You can also connect with them online, on their blogs. Chances of you getting your comments approved now are much higher. Most of the forum and blog comment links are nofollow anyway, but that’s not a problem, because nofollow links actually help you rank better. I have proof, keep reading.
If you have a small/medium website or a blog, don’t dismiss comments and forum posts completely.
5. Nofollow Links DO Help You Rank Better
We all want dofollow links. Not just for SEO, but even for our own sake. A nofollow sounds sort of like mentioning someone, but talking badly of him. In reality, nofollow links aren’t bad. They can still help you rank better. If you want proof, check out this article about nofollow links.
Countless times has it been proven to me that nofollow links help you rank higher.
If you do purchase an advertorial with a link, not only will you theoretically be legal by using a nofollow link, but you’ll tell Google “Hey, I’m following the rules. Are we cool?”.
Try it and you’ll see for yourself. Just don’t bother building useless nofollow links from spam or random posts on random blogs and forums. Use proper advertising on relevant websites with good traffic and adequate audience. That’s the best way to go for.
It’s funny, I’ve even found another “X link building mistakes” article which states that building nofollow links is in fact a mistake. A mistake is having an unnatural link profile and a 100% dofollow link profile is definitely unnatural.
The problem with dofollow links is that Google wants them to come naturally, without any monetary incentives. So Google decided to create the nofollow tag to be added to sponsored links. Obviously, nobody cared about that and Google had to bring in penalties.
So everytime you buy dofollow links, you’re exposing yourself to the risk of penalty. Google penalizes sites both ways, so publishers started avoiding giving dofollow links altogether.
John Mueller confirmed that adding a nofollow tag to any kind of paid or incentivised link will remove the risk of a Google Penalty.
Nofollow links are fine.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) January 15, 2018
Now I’m just making assumptions, but I don’t find it hard for Google to realize a MyBusiness review is fake, if some account with a high activity in local stores from Texas reviews a restaurant from North Dakota, without ever visiting it.
Same goes with buying links. We’re all using Gmail, and even if we don’t, we’re probably logged in a Google account in some way, through our browser. It wouldn’t be hard for Google to figure out connections between webmasters.
I know, it sounds paranoid, but since they have patents on listening to what you say through your microphone to server you personalized ads… I don’t know what isn’t possible.
6. Google Can’t Penalize Everyone & Won’t Penalize You for What You Did 5 Years Ago
At first, when looking at a very competitive niche and seeing a ton of BlackHat links, you might be thinking that it works and that’s the way to go. That’s not the point. Google doesn’t rank the website with the most links, it ranks the best website.
What John is saying is that most unnatural links are actually ignored. So if a site does have unnatural links, it doesn’t mean it isn’t still the best result out there. Google tries to satisfy the user, not the other websites. If the user isn’t satisfied, it stops coming on Google.
For example, let’s suppose that Adidas and Nike do a lot of BlackHat SEO, but some Chinese ghost brands like Abibas and Nikae do WhiteHat SEO. Should Google rank those when people search for “best sport shoes brands”?
And if all websites that rank for a keyword were to be penalized… who would be ranking? Nobody?
If your competitors are ranking above you but they have a lot of spammy links, you might want to read this article about how to outrun them.
You have to take into account that Google gives a lot more damns about user experience that it gives about links. If you build 100 links and Google boosts you up, it won’t be long until it drops you back forever if your website sucks.
If your competition is full of spammy links or purchased links, you’re at an advantage. Google is always looking for the perfect candidate to put it on spot #1. Focus on doing something better or just as good as them. Only after that think of ways to promote your website and obtain backlinks.
Also, if you start doing SEO for a new client, unless the client is obviously penalized, focus on earning new links instead of getting rid of old ones.
7. Focusing on Link Building Alone is Just NOT Worth It Overall
Now… Don’t get me wrong. Links are useful. You should try to get them, as much as possible. You should be always looking for new link opportunities.
So if someone tells you “Hey, cool content man, I’ll write about it and link to you.” don’t go and tell them “No thanks, man. I don’t do link building.” That would be… dumb. It’s just that people get it wrong and instead of acquiring links the right way, they sell their souls to the devil for links.
Quality links are a byproduct of good marketing, the one thing you should be chasing instead of links alone.
Even here, at cognitiveSEO we’ve focused more on content creation and promotion over the past 2 years. The results were visibly better than anything we’ve tried in the past, when building links was the cool kid. Our traffic went up and so did the interactions with our content.
By writing quality content we were even able to land a couple of guest posts every year, without even asking for them. People would simply read our content and ask us if we can write for them. That’s a great way to get a link back to one of your articles or even products. Now imagine our success rate if we actually chased guest posts. However…
8. Guest Posts are Useful… But…
You see, when you do guest posts, the best possible outcome for you is to write something really good. If you write low quality guest posts, you get low quality results with them. Nobody will read them and the host will probably never work with you again.
If you write a successful post, that ranks high and actually drives traffic to the hosts website and even gets people to link to it, then you’re prone to write again there soon. Isn’t it awesome to have a writer that can bring traffic to your website? I hope you see where this is going.
Wouldn’t you rather have a good writer that brings targeted traffic… on your own website, instead of someone else’s website?
A couple of guest posts here and there on really authoritative websites in your niche are useful, of course, and you should go for it. But I’d rather spend some money on an advertorial on a website that won’t accept guest posts but could actually bring me real traffic. It’s a lot less work and probably a lot more profitable.
Often times the links you get from guest posts aren’t even dofollow. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the best outcome would be if those links actually drove targeted traffic to your website, instead of just staying there only for Google. It’s not even guaranteed that Google will take it into consideration.
Spend more time creating quality content on your website instead of creating quality content on other people’s websites.
9. Links With Branded Anchors Work Best
When you analyse a website, you should always perform an SEO competitor analysis as well.
Most of the times, the #1 competitor has a higher percentage of branded anchor texts, averaging at about 60-70%.
Here’s one competitive analysis from the cognitiveSEO Tool:
If we take a look at the anchor text distribution or the top competitor (the one with score 9), we’ll see that it mostly has branded anchor texts. They know it works, so they do it. This is valid regardless of the naturalness of the link profile. Even if the links are natural or unnatural, sites with more branded anchor texts tend to outperform the ones with only commercial anchor texts.
Branded anchor texts are great because they help grow the overall authority of your website. This means that when you’ll have new posts, they will rank better on their own, without needing to get any links to them.
However, it’s always a good idea to also have some commercial keywords there as well. This will let Google better understand what the page is about.
But it’s just so more much natural for people to link to a website using it’s brand rather than a very specific keyword. Just think about it. If you were to link to a new product, how would you rather do it?
Go to shoes.com if you want to purchase these awesome running shoes.
You can find these awesome running shoes on shoes.com.
Using commercial anchor texts just feels so… forced. It’s so obvious even for a common reader to realize that the keyword is put there on purpose.
Many times, editors and webmasters even naturally use miscellaneous anchor texts like ‘official website’ or ‘click here’.
To get these awesome shoes from Nike you can click here.
However, you don’t even need to build commercial anchor texts externally, because you can do it on your own website, which takes us to our next lesson…
10. Internal Linking is An Awesome Way to Include Commercial Anchor Texts
If you can’t get any commercial anchor text backlinks without emptying your wallet, then you can use your own website to create keyword right anchor texts through internal linking.
The only issue here is content. If you don’t have any, you won’t be able to interlink. If you have a very popular article about a very common question in your niche that you’ve answered, you can use that article to pass its authority to a page you want to rank, such as a product category one.
Lacking internal structure is a massive waste of opportunity, because it’s something you have complete control over. It’s easy to do, but as anything else in SEO, overdoing it is risky. Read our guide about internal linking if you want to learn how to do it the right way.
11. Unlinked Brand Mentions Can Pay Off Really Well
If you want to get some relatively easy links, then look for people that have mentioned you, but haven’t linked to you.
A great and easy way to find these unlinked brand mentions is to use … BrandMentions. Pretty straight forward, isn’t it? The tool does a great job at identifying these and also at filtering them.
Before you reach out to the webmasters asking them to quickly link to your website, remember that building a connection is more important. It’s a good idea to thank them first and then suggest or ask for a link.
This only really works well if you’re an already established brand, but also for local businesses and events. You can also use the tool to monitor when any other keywords (such as your product category) shows up on the web.
12. You CAN Rank a Website High by Earning Links
I’ve ranked plenty of websites without any link building, just by creating great content consistently and promoting it properly.
I’m not saying that these websites didn’t have links at all, I’m just saying I wasn’t building or buying them. The came naturally from genuine connections and proposals and quality content.
Instead of link building, you can take the link earning approach. The concept is simple. Do stuff that deserves and attracts natural links
Easy to say, right?
Well, it’s not that hard to do either, actually. Here are just some ideas, besides the general rule of thumb of creating high quality content.
- debating a long time controversial topic
- engaging audiences in real time through live blogging/vlogging
- interview interesting people in your industry
However, for this to work, you have to remember that building connections is the best thing you can do. Although network marketing can be annoying, the truth is that we all are network marketers, one way or another.
These 5 years of experience taught me enough to know that I can spend my time better somewhere else. I’ve learned a lot more things, but I’ve tried to cover the most important ones. Maybe I’ll expand the list some day.
As a closing note, content creation and link earning > spam & link building. You can try both paths to figure it out yourself, or you can just avoid the pain by taking my advice. In the end, you’re the one to decide.
Building content isn’t only helpful for SEO, but also from a marketing perspective. If you don’t become a publisher, you’ll keep paying publishers to feature your products.
Most of the publishers out there are usually review and affiliate websites, because that’s what people look for before they buy. Of course, if you’re a maker, you can’t review yourself or your competitors. But you can win their trust by answering questions. And trust, in business, is priceless. It cannot be bought. Only earned.
What have you learned about link building in your SEO adventures? Share it with us in the comments and let’s chat about it!