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A Beginner’s Guide to Inbound Links: What Are They & How to Get More of Them

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Inlinks, backlinks, inbound links.

They all mean the same thing – someone else’s web property is linking to yours.

A hyperlink from one webpage to another.

A simple, integral part of the internet.

Spend any time in the SEO industry and you would think links directly equal profit.

Some SEO pros spend their entire careers specializing in obtaining links.

Why are they so sought after and how can you get them?

Why Inbound Links Are Important

PageRank

To understand why links from other webpages are so important to SEO professionals we need to look at Google’s PageRank algorithm.

PageRank was developed to help Google understand how a webpage fit into the rest of the web.

In a now archived Google guidance page, PageRank was described as working

“…by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.”

This admission from Google that links are important to its ranking process is what spurned an entire industry to go chasing after them.

Other Search Engines

Google is not the only search engine that uses inbound links as a ranking signal.

Bing’s Webmaster Help and How-To guide mentions how the search engine perceives links:

“Bing prefers to see links built organically. This essentially means the links are built by people linking to your content because they find value in your content. This is an important signal to a search engine because it is seen as a vote of confidence in the content.”

Yandex also considers inbound links within its algorithm.

It gives guidance in its support documents on the importance of links and how they are gained.

The Perceived Power of Links

When surveyed by Moz in 2015, over 150 SEO professionals reported on what they believed to be the top factors that influence a page’s ability to rank well.

The respondents rated “domain level, link authority features” as the most influential factors, followed by “page-level link metrics.”

Although this is a study based on the opinions, it does go to show the perceived importance of links within the industry.

What Makes a Link Valuable

Not every link is created equally. That is, not every link will be as useful to a site as it would be to another site.

This is because of the ways the search engines use links to determine the relevance and authority of a webpage for a given search.

Importance

Google states in its help documentation:

“Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.””

A link from a website that is considered important will be of more benefit to your site than one from a website than a low importance one.

There is however a caveat to this. Relevance.

Relevance

It is not just the “importance” of a page that determines how useful it is in determining the rank of the page it links to.

The contents of the linking page will also have an impact.

Ensuring the website has a similar or related topic to the page that is being linked to will help reinforce the subject of that page.

This in turn can help it to be perceived as more relevant to search queries about that topic.

A Word About Metrics

There are many tools available that contain metrics to help you gauge the importance of a page.

You may have come across scores for “domain authority”, “page authority” and “domain rating” before.

These are the tool manufacturers’ attempts to quantify how the search engines perceive the importance of a linking page.

They can be useful guides but it is crucial to remember they are not used or recommended by the search engines themselves.

There is no longer any publicly accessible score for how Google rates a page’s authority.

Why Is Gaining Links Dangerous?

Search Engine Guidelines

Although links are a good way for search engines to get third-party verification on the importance of a page, they are also easily manipulated.

Over the years the voting system became compromised by link purchasing, link exchange, and other schemes.

Due to this, the search engines had to become proactive in identifying where links had been gained for the purpose of higher rankings.

Google has strict guidelines on what is considered a manipulative link. As does Bing, and Yandex.

The search engines do not want links built that will artificially give the impression the site is more relevant and important than it is.

The penalties for engaging in link building that contravenes the guidelines can be severe.

In some instances, entire websites might be removed from the search engine results pages.

This makes link building a contentious subject.

The mere practice of trying to increase links for the sake of rankings is technically against the guidelines of most major search engines.

Links Change Over Time

The other important point to note is that the value of a link changes over time.

For instance, what if the page that links to yours change its content?

The relevance of that link to your site might increase if the content becomes more aligned with yours.

If a website linking to yours acquires more relevant links to itself it might be perceived as even more of an authority by the search engines.

This can make the link to your site even more powerful.

The opposite can happen too of course.

What if the site linking to yours gets hacked?

Suddenly the search engines’ concept of what that site is about will change, so will its relevance to your site.

Good Ways to Gain Links

The all-important question is, if links are so powerful how do you get more of them?

Below is a quick overview of some popular tactics to gain new links.

However, link building needs to be a strategy, not a tactic.

It should be a mix of great content marketing and relationship building.

This article is an introduction to inbound links.

I don’t have enough time to go into detail about how to create an effective link building strategy.

For more information on that you should take a look at these articles:

Common Link Building Tactics

New Content

A good way to build links to your website is by creating content that other sites find informative, interesting, and link-worthy.

Creative campaigns that are designed first as content marketing, second as link-magnets are an effective tactic.

These creative campaigns take many forms.

Write-ups of interesting research, interactive media, and anything that you could see being shared well on social media have the potential to be picked up by digital publishers and linked to.

Be a Source of Authority

A quick check of any thought leader within an industry is likely to reveal a wealth of links pointing to their site.

Why?

Because they are being referenced by other publications.

Consider Search Engine Journal itself.

The backlink reporting tool I use suggests the website has in excess of 14 million links pointing to it. It is often used as an authoritative source in other publications.

Digital PR is an example of effectively leveraging expertise.

Contacting journalists as a source of information they can use within a story can often lead to your website being linked to.

This is especially true if you have an asset on your website that the journalist is referencing in their story.

Existing Links

Often an easy place to start with building links is making the most of existing ones.

Broken Links

Using a backlink checking tool such as Ahrefs, SEMrush, or SE Ranking it is possible to see where links are coming into your website.

These tools will also tell you if those links are still live or no longer work.

If you see that you used to have a website linking to yours but the link has since broken then there is a possibility it could be reactivated.

For instance, when a website’s content changes links are often taken out.

Sometimes the hyperlink itself is removed even though the link is supposed to be there still.

In these instances, you might find it fruitful to contact the owner of the site and ask if the link can be reinstated.

Links to 404 Pages

Over time as you change and grow your website you might let pages return a 404 status code.

If you have links from other sites pointing to these pages then the value of those links is lost.

Regularly checking your site to see if pages that have a 404 status code have links pointing to them, and redirecting those pages, can retain the value of the link.

Existing Relationships

Wherever possible leverage existing relationships.

The likelihood is that if you have an existing relationship with a publisher it is because your organization has some relevance to theirs.

This means a link from their site to yours might actually be beneficial to their readers. As such, the link makes sense.

Local Clubs

Do a lot of your team play for a local club? Do you participate in charity events?

There might be organizations you are already involved in where it would make sense for them to link to your site.

A word of caution:

If you sponsor a local football team and in exchange, they link to your website you are paying for a link.

It is highly possible that the search engines will be able to use the context of the page the link is on to deduce it is a link to a sponsoring organization.

In that instance declaring the link as sponsored using rel=”sponsored” as an attribute for the link.

Otherwise, you may fall foul of their algorithms designed to detect link manipulation.

Manufacturers

Are you an authorized retailer of a brand’s products?

Often brands will list their retailers on their site to help their clientele find a local distributor.

Make sure you are included on that list.

It is a highly relevant link to your site and should also refer converting traffic to your site.

What Not to Do

This could fill several articles.

There are many, many old link building techniques that can be damaging to your site.

For a starting guide on where not to look for link building opportunities, I want to direct you to Brain Harnish’s article: 10 Bad Links That Can Get You Penalized by Google.

I also want to make a plea on behalf of all website admins who manage popular websites.

Don’t email them asking for a link.

They get hundreds of emails a month asking for the same.

Just because they used to link to your competitor’s infographic does not mean they want to link to your infographic instead.

They might if your infographic presents more up-to-date and relevant research.

They won’t if it’s essentially the same information in your company branding.

Be wise in how you reach out to publishers. Build relationships where possible instead of cold emails.

Conclusion

Inbound links are still considered to be highly valuable in SEO.

Good inbound links are hard to build.

If they are easy then they are unlikely going to help bolster your site’s perceived authority.

At worst, they can lead to a penalty.

Link building is a hotly debated topic in the SEO world. Keep in mind that the search engine guidelines around link acquisition are all quite clear.

Links should be gained by your site naturally. Really, without interference from the site’s owner.

If you are embarking on a link building campaign then make sure the links you acquire genuinely add value to the readers of the linking sites.

Remember too that the search engines are forever tightening the net on spammy links.

Their ability to detect manipulative links grows stronger.

What tactics might be flying under the radar now might not for long.

More Resources:

Search Engine Journal

MARKETING

5 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve the Content Experience for Readers

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5 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve the Content Experience for Readers

Who doesn’t like to have a good experience consuming content?

I know I do. And isn’t that what we – as both a consumer of content and a marketer of content – all want?

What if you create such a good experience that your audience doesn’t even realize it’s an “experience?” Here’s a helpful mish-mash of easy-to-do things to make that possible.

1. Write with an inclusive heart

There’s nothing worse than being in a conversation with someone who constantly talks about themselves. Check your text to see how often you write the words – I, me, we, and us. Now, count how often the word “you” is used. If the first-person uses are disproportionate to the second-person uses, edit to delete many first-person references and add more “you” to the text.

You want to let your audience know they are included in the conversation. I like this tip shared in Take Binary Bias Out of Your Content Conversations by Content Marketing World speaker Ruth Carter: Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns.

Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns, says @rbcarter via @Brandlovellc @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet

2. Make your content shine brighter with an AI assist

Content published online should look different than the research papers and essays you wrote in school. While you should adhere to grammar rules and follow a style guide as best as possible, you also should prioritize readability. That requires scannable and easily digestible text – headings, bulleted text, short sentences, brief paragraphs, etc.

Use a text-polishing aid such as Hemingway Editor (free and paid versions) to cut the dead weight from your writing. Here’s how its color-coded review system works and the improvements to make:

  • Yellow – lengthy, complex sentences, and common errors
    • Fix: Shorten or split sentences.
  • Red – dense and complicated text
    • Fix: Remove hurdles and keep your readers on a simpler path.
  • Pink – lengthy words that could be shortened
    • Fix: Scroll the mouse over the problematic word to identify potential substitutes.
  • Blue – adverbs and weakening phrases
    • Fix: Delete them or find a better way to convey the thought.
  • Green – passive voice
    • Fix: Rewrite for active voice.

Grammarly’s paid version works well, too. The premium version includes an AI-powered writing assistant, readability reports, a plagiarism checker, citation suggestions, and more than 400 additional grammar checks.

In the image below, Grammarly suggests a way to rephrase the sentence from:

“It is not good enough any longer to simply produce content “like a media company would”.

To:

“It is no longer good enough to produce content “as a media company would”.

Much cleaner, right?

3. Ask questions

See what I did with the intro (and here)? I posed questions to try to engage with you. When someone asks a question – even in writing – the person hearing (or reading) it is likely to pause for a split second to consider their answer. The reader’s role changes from a passive participant to an active one. Using this technique also can encourage your readers to interact with the author, maybe in the form of an answer in the comments.

4. Include links

Many content marketers include internal and external links in their text for their SEO value. But you also should add links to help your readers. Consider including links to help a reader who wants to learn more about the topic. You can do this in a couple of ways:

  • You can link the descriptive text in the article to content relevant to those words (as I did in this bullet point)
  • You can list the headlines of related articles as a standalone feature (see the gray box labeled Handpicked Related Content at the end of this article).

Add links to guide readers to more information on a topic – not just for SEO purposes says @Brandlovellc via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet

You also can include on-page links or bookmarks in the beginning (a table of contents, of sorts) in longer pieces to help the reader more quickly access the content they seek to help you learn more about a topic. This helps the reader and keeps visitors on your website longer.

5. Don’t forget the ‘invisible’ text

Alt text is often an afterthought – if you think about it all. Yet, it’s essential to have a great content experience for people who use text-to-speech readers. Though it doesn’t take too much time, I find that customizing the image description content instead of relying on the default technology works better for audience understanding.

First, ask if a listener would miss something if they didn’t have the image explained. If they wouldn’t, the image is decorative and probably doesn’t need alt text. You publish it for aesthetic reasons, such as to break up a text-heavy page. Or it may repeat information already appearing in the text (like I did in the Hemingway and Grammarly examples above).

If the listener would miss out if the image weren’t explained well, it is informative and requires alt text. General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text. That’s a short sentence or two to convey the image’s message. Don’t forget to include punctuation.

General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text, says @Brandlovellc via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

For both decorative and informative images, include the photo credits, permissions, and copyright information, in the caption section.

For example, if I were writing an article about Best Dogs for Families, I would include an image of a mini Bernedoodle as an example because they make great family pets. Let’s use this image of my adorable puppy, Henri, and I’ll show you both a good and bad example of alt text.

An almost useless alt-text version: “An image showing a dog.”

Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.

It wastes valuable characters with the phrase “an image showing.”

Use the available characters for a more descriptive alt text: “Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.”

It’s more descriptive, and I only used 112 characters, including spaces.

Want to learn more? Alexa Heinrich, an award-winning social media strategist, has a helpful article on writing effective image descriptions called The Art of Alt Text. @A11yAwareness on Twitter is also a great resource for accessibility tips.

Improve your content and better the experience

Do any of these suggestions feel too hard to execute? I hope not. They don’t need a bigger budget to execute. They don’t need a lengthy approval process to implement. And they don’t demand much more time in production.

They just need you to remember to execute them the next time you write (and the time after that, and the time after that, and the … well, you get the idea.)

If you have an easy-to-implement tip to improve the content experience, please leave it in the comments. I may include it in a future update.

All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.

If you have an idea for an original article you’d like to share with the CMI audience, you could get it published on the site. First, read our blogging guidelines and write or adjust your draft accordingly. Then submit the post for consideration following the process outlined in the guidelines.

In appreciation for guest contributors’ work, we’re offering free registration to one paid event or free enrollment in Content Marketing University to anyone who gets two new posts accepted and published on the CMI site in 2023.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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The Ultimate Guide to Product Marketing in 2023

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The Ultimate Guide to Product Marketing in 2023

Product marketing is essential, even if you only sell one or two products at your organization.

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3 email marketing shifts to make in 2023

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3 email marketing shifts to make in 2023

Whew! We made it to 2023! As we closed in on the end of the year in December, the finish line seemed awfully far away. Many marketers told me they were busier than ever. 

I myself was fielding calls for strategy help, working on business deals and managing the chaos all the way to the eve of Christmas Eve, something that rarely happens in my 20-plus-year career. 

Look back and celebrate, then move on

The first business for 2023 will be to step back, clear your head and take stock of all the great things you accomplished in 2022 despite the odds (i.e., coming out of COVID, going into a rebound and COVID round 2, moving into supply-chain shortages and other hiccups, facing down a potential recession) and how they affected the work you did to succeed.

And now it’s 2023. I hope you got your budget request approved and you’re ready to move ahead with a clean slate and new KPIs to hit. You’re probably wondering, “What can I do now to grow my program?

3 directional changes to grow your email program

Naturally, every marketer’s goals will be unique. We have different audiences, challenges, resources and goals. But I’m focusing on three major directional changes with my clients this year. Which of these could help you succeed this year?

1. Stop sending so many emails

Yeah, I know. That sounds strange coming from somebody who believes wholeheartedly in email and its power to build your business. But even I have my limits!

Email during this last holiday shopping season was insane. In my 20+ years in the email industry, I cannot remember a time, even during the lockdown days of COVID-19, when my inbox was so full. 

I’m not the only one who noticed. Your customers also perceived that their inboxes were getting blasted to the North Pole. And they complained about it, as the Washington Post reported (“Retailers fire off more emails than ever trying to get you to shop“).

I didn’t run any numbers to measure volume, isolate cadences or track frequency curves. But every time I turned around, I saw emails pouring into my inbox. 

My advice for everyone on frequency: If you throttled up during the holiday, now it’s time to throttle back.

This should be a regularly scheduled move. But it’s important to make sure your executives understand that higher email frequency, volume and cadence aren’t the new email norm. 

If you commit to this heavier schedule, you’ll drive yourself crazy and push your audience away, to other brands or social media.

If you did increase cadence, what did it do for you? You might have hit your numbers, but consider the long-term costs: 

  • More unsubscribes.
  • More spam complaints.
  • Deliverability problems.
  • Lower revenue per email. 

Take what you learned from your holiday cadence as an opportunity to discover whether it’s a workable strategy or only as a “break glass in case of emergency” move.

My advice? Slow down. Return to your regular volume, frequency and cadence. Think of your customers and their reactions to being inundated with emails over 60 days.

2. Stop spamming

In that Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, I was encouraged that it cited one of my email gripes — visiting websites and then getting emails without granting permission first. 

I could have given the Post a salty quote about my experiences with SafeOpt and predatory email experiences (“Business stress is no excuse to spam“) for visitors to its clients’ websites. 

Successful email marketers believe in the sanctity of permission. That permission-based practice is what you want to be involved in. Buying a list means you don’t hire a company to sell you one, whether it’s a data broker or a tech provider like SafeOpt. 

Spamming people doesn’t work in the long term. Sure, I’ve heard stories from people who say they use purchased lists or companies like SafeOpt and it makes them money. But that’s a singular view of the impact. 

Email is the only marketing channel where you can do it wrong but still make money. But does that make it right? 

The problem with the “it made us money” argument is that there’s nowhere to go after that. Are you measuring how many customers you lost because you spammed them or the hits your sender reputation took? 

You might hit a short-term goal but lose the long-term battle. When you become known as an unreliable sender, you risk losing access to your customers’ inboxes.

Aside from the permission violation, emailing visitors after they leave your site is a wasted effort for three reasons:

  • A visit is not the same as intent. You don’t know why they landed on your site. Maybe they typed your URL as a mistake or discovered immediately that your brand wasn’t what they wanted. Chasing them with emails won’t bring them back.
  • You aren’t measuring interest. Did they visit multiple pages or check out your “About” or FAQ pages? As with intent, just landing on a page doesn’t signal interest.
  • They didn’t give you their email address. If they had interest or intent, they would want to connect with your brand. No email address, no permission.

Good email practice holds that email performs best when it’s permission-based. Most ESPs and ISPs operate on that principle, as do many email laws and regulations.

But even in the U.S., where opt-out email is still legal, that doesn’t mean you should send an email without permission just because somebody landed on your website.

3. Do one new thing

Many email marketers will start the year with a list of 15 things they want to do over the next two months. I try to temper those exuberant visions by focusing on achievable goals with this question: 

“What one thing could you do this year that could make a great difference in your email program’s success?”

When I started a job as head of strategy for Acxiom, I wanted to come up with a long list of goals to impress my new boss. I showed it to my mentor, the great David Baker and he said, “Can you guarantee that you can do all of these things and not just do them but hit them out of the park?”

Hmmmm…

“That’s why you don’t put down that many goals,” he said. “Go in with just one. When that one is done, come up with the next one. Then do another. If you propose five projects, your boss will assume you will do five projects. If you don’t, it just means you didn’t get it done.”

That was some of the best advice I’ve ever received and I pass it on to you. 

Come up with one goal, project or change that will drive your program forward. Take it to your boss and say, “Here’s what I’m going to do this year.”

To find that one project, look at your martech and then review MarTech’s six most popular articles from 2022 for expert advice.

You’ll find plenty of ideas and tips to help you nail down your one big idea to drive growth and bring success. But be realistic. You don’t know what events could affect your operations. 

Drive your email program forward in 2023

The new year has barely begun, but I had a little trouble getting motivated to take on what’s shaping up to be a beast of a year. You, too?

I enjoyed my time off over the holidays. Got in some golf with my dad and his buddies, ate great food and took time to step back and appreciate the phenomenal people I work with and our amazing industry. 

What gets me going at last? Reaching out to my team, friends and you. Much of my motivation comes from fellow marketers — what you need, what you worry about and what I can do to help you succeed. 

If you’re on the struggle bus with me, borrow some motivation from your coworkers and teammates, so we can gather together 12 months from now and toast each other for making it through another year. 

It’s time to strap on your marketer helmet and hit the starter. Here’s to another great year together. Let’s get the job done!


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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About the author

Ryan Phelan

As the co-founder of RPEOrigin.com, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.

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