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6 Things I Love About Zapier’s SEO Strategy: A Case Study

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6 Things I Love About Zapier's SEO Strategy: A Case Study

Zapier is an “automation platform.” If you look at this single phrase that defines its category, there is not much search demand: 200 monthly searches in the U.S. and around 1.1K globally. It doesn’t seem quite like a $144M ARR business opportunity. And judging by search demand, it’s not something you’ll promote with SEO. 

Yet, Zapier’s blog alone brings 1.6M organic visits every month. That’s traffic worth about $3.7M and 67.5% of its overall organic traffic. 

Organic traffic to Zapier's blog

So let’s see why Zapier didn’t turn away from SEO and how it managed to make SEO work like a charm.

1. Pitching the product through the back door 

SEO is generally worth it if one of the following things is true:

  1. Potential customers are searching for what you sell or do.
  2. Potential customers are searching for solutions to problems your business helps to solve.

But there seems to be a third way. It’s when potential customers are searching for solutions you can improve upon or even disrupt. Zapier seems to follow this tactic exceptionally well. 

Chart about pitching a product through the back door

The whole concept reminds me of using a back door. Here’s an example. This article about “to-do list” apps can’t possibly talk about Zapier directly because Zapier is not that kind of app. 

Zapier's article header: "best to do list apps"

So instead, the article introduces the app through a series of “back doors.” Here’s back door #1:

Example of "back door" product pitching in content

And back door #2:

Example of "back door" product pitching in content

There are even more back doors here leading to product marketing articles:

  • Link to another blog post with more automation ideas
  • Links to product landing pages explaining the entire integration with a given app (example)
  • Link inside the “related reading” section 

Why build these back doors? Because thanks to high-volume keywords and their long-tail… 

High volume organic keywords for Zapier's article

… this one article gets 58.8K organic search visits monthly. 

"Best to do list" article's total estimated organic traffic

That’s a ton of traffic Zapier can channel to its money pages. 

Add some more articles like that, and you’ve discovered the pattern behind the best-performing articles on Zapier’s blog. 

Best-performing articles on Zapier's blog

But not only is the organic traffic impressive here. Rankings are too. There are 2,397 keywords with the “best” pattern ranking in positions #1–3 in the U.S. alone. 

Keywords with the “best” pattern ranking in positions #1–3 in the U.S.

There’s more. Some of those “best” articles earned backlinks from hundreds of referring domains, including high-DR ones. 

Backlinks from high-DR domains

Takeaway

If you’ll like to replicate the “back door” tactic, the process can look something like this: 

  1. Publish an article explaining a use case of your product 
  2. Look for keywords with high search demand related to that use case
  3. Write an article directly targeting that high search volume keyword and insert a link to the article explaining the use case—that link is the back door 

This way, searchers can get what they expect from an article directly targeting the broad keyword and then some more, thanks to your use case. Keep in mind, though, that some of those broader keywords can be tough to rank for. 

There may be another approach to creating the back door. You can start from keyword research:

  1. Look for keywords with high search demand and are somehow related to your product 
  2. See if your product can improve what people are searching for and write an article describing that use case (the back door) 
  3. Write the article targeting the broad keyword and insert the back door inside the article 

It may also be worth noting that this tactic is as good as the sign on the back door, i.e., the call to action. I mean, who wouldn’t want to automate their tasks for free? 

Zapier's irresistible CTA button
Automate the what? Oh… then yes, please.

2. Ranking for other people’s keywords. Because Google and searchers demand it

Let’s take a look at the next biggest source of traffic after the blog. 

Site structure report for zapier.com

So what are “apps”? That’s a bunch of product landing pages that get their traffic from pure demand for Zapier’s apps or features, right? 

Not exactly. The main driver of traffic to those pages is demand for somebody else’s apps. 

Zapier doesn’t simply list its apps. It lists other people’s app integrations with other people’s apps. 

And if I’m not mistaken, we’re not necessarily talking about the demand that Zapier invented. We’re not talking about an out-of-the-blue invention like Metallica + Lady Gaga. 

Unstable search demand caused by a one-off event
Don’t get me wrong. This cross-over connection makes sense when you think about it.

We’re talking about things that people all over the U.S. actually plug into Google because they need things like Dropbox and Google Drive integration in their lives. 

Organic keywords showing Dropbox and Google Drive integration demand

But why are we even talking about integrating Dropbox with Google Drive and not Dropbox and Zapier? 

Here’s the thing. Zapier integrates with Dropbox, which can be integrated with YouTube, Gmail, Office 365, Notion, and tons of other apps. This means that Zapier integrates with the above apps too. On top of that, there are also three-way connections like Dropbox + Drive + Slack. 

If that’s the actual functionality of the app and some of those connections have “impossible to ignore” search demand, then Zapier will need to create a landing page for each of those situations. 

Guess what. That’s exactly what Zapier did. And it turned out beautifully, driving 16% of the entire organic traffic. Here are some of the top-performing integrations in terms of traffic. 

Zapier's top-performing app integrations landing pages (in terms of organic traffic)

Let’s see what’s inside that “apps folder.”

When you pick one of the apps, you get a landing page with a corresponding title, H1, and URL. 

Example of programmatic landing page

Then you add another app to the mix. Again, a landing page with custom H1 and URL. 

Example of programmatic landing page

But what if the customer wants to connect Google Sheets, Trello, AND Slack? This calls for another landing page (just one more connection before turning into a Rube Goldberg machine). 

Example of programmatic landing page
By the way, these app logos act as breadcrumbs.

Perfect. However, the longer that “train” gets, the fewer keywords the consequent “wagons” rank for. The first page from the above gets an estimated 1.9K organic visits while ranking for 444 keywords. But the last page (Sheets-Trello-Slack) gets no organic traffic.

Programmatic landing page with no organic traffic

The way you create tens of thousands of landing pages within one lifetime appears to be programmatic SEO and Zapier Partner Program.

Thanks to programmatic SEO, Zapier was able to generate the pages instead of manually creating them. While the “human touch” quality of inserting unique content into each of those pages was provided by allowing owners of the apps to write it. 

Recommendation

According to this study by Ryan Berg, Zapier has recently transitioned to a pure programmatic approach. I’m not entirely sure this is the case, but it seems that the amount of original content on the “integrations” pages has, in fact, diminished. 

Before:

App profile before the change
More text, and it’s unique.

After: 

App profile after the change
Less text, and it’s pulled from another page.

Check out Ryan’s case study to learn more about the effects of the programmatic approach over time. (Ryan started analyzing Zapier in 2018.) And while we’re at other Zapier case studies, this is also an interesting one by Jessica Greene: Does Updating Website Content Work? [Zapier Case Study].  

Zapier uses this kind of landing pages to leverage branded search too.

Keyword research for “zapier” shows over 25K results in the U.S. And that list is full of branded keywords like these: 

Some of Zapier's branded keywords

Most, if not all, of those keywords already have corresponding programmatically generated landing pages. 

By the way, I won’t be surprised if it uses keyword research for market research. It can just see what people plug in Google to invite new partners or build new features. 

Takeaway

There are probably multiple takeaways here. But the main one is search intent, if you ask me. 

Zapier’s app landing pages get so much traffic from other people’s branded keywords because those pages align with search intent flawlessly. 

If you look at the SERP for “google sheet integrations,” there are hardly any content types different from a product landing page. So the investment in devising a system to generate all of those app landing pages seems to work really well. Good thing Zapier didn’t try to target those with how-to blog posts. Blog posts likely don’t stand a chance here. 

SERP for "google sheets integrations" with a clear dominating content type

By the way, I find it fascinating that its Google Sheets integrations landing page ranks at #12 for simply “google sheets.” 

Google Sheets integrations landing page ranks at #12 for “google sheets”

I wonder if there’s anything SEO-wise it can do to jump back to the top 10 like in 2018. 

Google Sheets integrations landing page used to rank at #8 for “google sheets”

3. Self-building content hubs

What I call a self-building content hub (aka topic cluster) is a situation where you organize your existing content into a content hub structure and link new related content (subpages) as you create it. 

Using this strategy, you can commit to creating more content only if the subpages make sense themselves. In other words, you don’t need to take big risks investing in creating or expanding a content hub.

Let’s look at the big picture to give this more context.

Some content marketers build topic clusters in a set-and-forget approach. You see an opportunity, design a topic cluster, build it, and that’s it. You never or hardly ever come back to it. 

Nothing wrong with that. 

But here’s the thing. If you continue to create more content on the same topic, that means that the initial cluster has been expanding all along. And a bigger topic cluster is usually a better topic cluster because it’s more comprehensive. All you need to do is to make the connection like Zapier does. 

To illustrate, we’ve got this guide (a topic cluster, technically speaking) on remote work. In 2017, it was a set of 14 links. It contained only content developed specially for that hub. 

Remote work content hub in 2017 via Wayback Machine

But Zapier hasn’t stopped publishing more stuff about remote work. It’s been busy with creating more guides, listicles, videos, case studies, and reports. 

So it’s included links to all of that new content in the hub. And right now, some five years later, that list of 14 links has grown to over 50 links and some embedded videos. All of them organized into seven categories, plus the initial guide from 2017. 

Seven categories in Zapier's remote work content hub

But why create a content hub in the first place? 

So let’s imagine it hadn’t created that cluster at all. Then it wouldn’t have amassed 4.4K backlinks from 1.1K domains to date. Nor would it have reached the point of 1.1K organic traffic every month to that single page. And that’s on top of the results that each of the linked subpages gets. 

Overview of Zapier's remote work hub via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

And like I said, Zapier doesn’t need to create more content for the hub. As it creates content, it can simply link subpages that make sense to the hub.

SEO metrics overview from one of the cluster content pieces linked to the hub
An example of a subpage incorporated into a content hub. Judging by organic traffic, Zapier could create it just for the sake of itself and not necessarily for the hub.

What if it hadn’t added all of those additional links to the cluster? That’s a tougher question to answer. But I guess that is part of the reason why referring domains to the pillar page keep growing steadily over the years. After all, adding more helpful content should make the hub more attractive, hence link-worthy. 

Referring domains graph for Zapier's remote work hub

Let’s not forget those links are, in fact, internal links that distribute link equity from the pillar page to the linked pages. 

All in all, the whole structure of this topic cluster reinforces itself. More content makes the topic cluster more helpful and link-worthy. And when the pillar page gets backlinks, it “gives back” to the linked content by distributing link equity. 

Takeaway

Simply put, consider creating a content hub utilizing your existing content. You can then expand it with new subpages only if they make sense themselves. 

Have a content hub already? See if there is any additional content you can link to on the pillar page. 

Of course, creating a content hub from scratch is still a good idea. That’s what Zapier initially did and then expanded. As we can see from its results, it creates a new “entity” able to generate backlinks and traffic on its own. 

4. Link baiting at the rate of 1.5 domains per word 

Original research makes great link bait

But what makes original research good enough to make people link?

This Zapier research shows that it’s not necessarily about the length of the study. 

Header of original research by Zapier

Excuse me while I use a completely made-up metric. But just to show how “efficient” that link bait is, there are 1.5 domains linking to that page per every word used to describe it. That’s including the title and the methodology note. 

But are the linking domains any good?

Here are some of the +90 DR domains linking to this 637-word research, along with their traffic: 

Some of the +90 DR domains linking to Zapier's research

I think this bite-sized research is so powerful because:

  • It answers a really well-posed question: How many Americans had a side hustle? 
  • Side hustles are a sign of the times. 
  • The research gets right to the point. It starts with the most important thing (the answer).
  • There are graphics that tell the story, just waiting to be shared by linkers.
  • After all of that goodness, I don’t think anybody has any problems with the study content including a soft PR pitch of Zapier and a few relevant links to its content. Naturally, those links help to distribute link equity. 

Takeaway

Original research can get you hundreds or even thousands of links. But doing that is no small feat. 

However, Zapier shows that this kind of content doesn’t have to be long to get a ton of links. You don’t even need to do it yourself (Zapier outsourced its own). 

Just make your research timely, important to your target audience and/or the audience you want to pitch to, and get right to the point. 

Some “auto promotion” here and there likely won’t be frowned upon. But first, give people what they came for. 

Oh, and don’t worry if your report won’t take off on social media.

Remember that one of the reasons people use social media is entertainment. Even LinkedIn.

Man celebrating Friday by sipping wine from a wine glass while sitting in a bathtub

5. In Zapier’s world, everything is connected. Or at least interlinked 

What struck me about Zapier’s SEO is how everything is densely interlinked. 

We’ve got:

  • Links inside the blog posts to other content and product features. 
  • Links inside content hubs.
  • Links from original reports. 
  • Links as breadcrumbs in the app directory. 
  • Links to selected content on the homepage. 
Zapier's homepage footer with dense interlinking
The homepage’s footer, or should I say a carefully woven net of strategic internal links.

And it matters because internal links help pages rank higher. Google utilizes internal links to:

  • Discover new pages.
  • Pass link equity between pages.
  • Understand what a page is about.

Takeaway 

Use pages with a lot of backlinks to boost other pages. You can boost your “boring” money pages with link equity from pages with a lot of backlinks. This is called the middleman method

But keep in mind these two caveats to using internal links: 

  • Theoretically, the more links you have on the page, the more they will compete with each other for clicks and “dilute” the authority transferred to other pages. So just watch out for “spamming” your pages with internal links. 
  • Too many internal links, especially inside the content of an article, can lead to poorer UX. 

6. Zapier blogs about substituting coffee with hot water???

If Zapier is so good at SEO, why does it create content that gets little-to-no search traffic? Sometimes, those articles don’t even have any kind of search demand. 

And why are they so… unrelated? Examples:

  • Don’t work more when you work from home.
  • ​​How to be a good co-worker to your pets.
  • Why I replaced my morning coffee with a cup of warm water.
  • What a giant pile of laundry taught me about productivity.
  • How a mid-day walk changed my energy levels—at work and at home.

Clearly, these articles haven’t been created for SEO reasons…

One of Zapier's articles ranking for irrelevant keywords

By no means is this an attempt to troll Zapier. I get it. All of the above titles are certainly an interesting read for people concerned about productivity and well-being. 

My point is that while Zapier is great in SEO, it doesn’t make its content marketing only about ranking for keywords with traffic potential.

When you tie only SEO goals to your content marketing, you risk creating an operations-centric approach instead of a customer-centric approach.

A customer-centric approach is when you know certain topics interest your audience, so you pursue them. Even if they have 0 search volume and you won’t rank in a million years. But hey, your audience will still appreciate your effort. 

One condition, though: You need to have a way to communicate with your audience directly, such as a newsletter. 

Zapier's newsletter sign-up form

Takeaway

When you’re great at SEO content, there is a temptation to focus only on SEO content that “converts.” It’s good to know where to draw the line. 

If you’re trying to nurture an audience, develop a relationship with them, make them read every newsletter you send them, and make them trust and recommend your blog, then maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and think outside of keyword research. 

So if you have an opportunity to publish an interesting article that won’t necessarily bring you organic traffic, it still may be worth it if you can promote it via your direct marketing channels

Final thoughts 

I’ve heard a couple of times from different marketers that they don’t pursue SEO because they are in “a new niche with no search demand yet.” I think Zapier’s case shows that if you dig a little deeper, you may hit a motherload of SEO opportunities. But you may need to enter through the “back door.” 

After all, theoretically, there must be some kind of market demand that you’re building your product on. And if there’s market demand, you will likely find search demand. 

Got questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter



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Google Answers Question About Toxic Link Sabotage

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Gary Illyes answers a question about how to notify Google about toxic link sabotage

Google’s Gary Illyes answered a question about how to notify Google that someone is poisoning their backlink profile with “toxic links” which is a problem that many people have been talking about for at least fifteen years.

Question About Alerting Google To Toxic Links

Gary narrated the question:

“Someone’s asking, how to alert Google of sabotage via toxic links?”

And this is Gary’s answer:

I know what I would do: I’d ignore those links.

Generally Google is really, REALLY good at ignoring links that are irrelevant to the site they’re pointing at. If you feel like it, you can always disavow those “toxic” links, or file a spam report.

Disavow Links If You Feel Like It

Gary linked to Google’s explainer about disavowing links where it’s explained that the disavow tool is for a site owner to tell Google about links that they are responsible for in some way, like paid links or some other link scheme.

This is what it advises:

“If you have a manual action against your site for unnatural links to your site, or if you think you’re about to get such a manual action (because of paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines), you should try to remove the links from the other site to your site. If you can’t remove those links yourself, or get them removed, then you should disavow the URLs of the questionable pages or domains that link to your website.”

Google suggests that a link disavow is only necessary when two conditions are met:

  1. “You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site,
    AND
  2. The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site.”

Both of the above conditions must be met in order to file a valid link disavow tool.

Origin Of The Phrase Toxic Links

As Google became better at penalizing sites for low quality links and paid links, some in the highly competitive gambling industry started creating low quality links to sabotage their competitors. The practice was called negative SEO.

The phrase toxic link is something that was never heard of until after the Penguin link updates in 2012 which required penalized sites to remove all the paid and low quality links they created and then disavow the rest. An industry grew around disavowing links and it was that industry that invented the phrase Toxic Links for use in their marketing.

Confirmation That Google Is Able To Ignore Links

I have shared this anecdote before and I’ll share it here again. Someone I knew contacted me and said that their site lost rankings from negative SEO links. I took a look and their site had a ton of really nasty looking links. So out of curiosity (and because I knew that the site was this person’s main income), I emailed someone at Google Mountain View headquarters about it. That person checked it and replied that the site didn’t lose rankings because of the links. They lost rankings because of a Panda update related content issue.

That was around 2012 and it showed me how good Google was at ignoring links. Now, if Google was that good at ignoring really bad links back then, they’re probably better at it now, twelve years later now that they have the spam brain AI.

Listen to the question and answer at the 8:22 minute mark:

Featured Image by Shutterstock/New Africa

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How To Build A Diverse & Healthy Link Profile

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How To Build A Diverse & Healthy Link Profile

Search is evolving at an incredible pace and new features, formats, and even new search engines are popping up within the space.

Google’s algorithm still prioritizes backlinks when ranking websites. If you want your website to be visible in search results, you must account for backlinks and your backlink profile.

A healthy backlink profile requires a diverse backlink profile.

In this guide, we’ll examine how to build and maintain a diverse backlink profile that powers your website’s search performance.

What Does A Healthy Backlink Profile Look Like?

As Google states in its guidelines, it primarily crawls pages through links from other pages linked to your pages, acquired through promotion and naturally over time.

In practice, a healthy backlink profile can be divided into three main areas: the distribution of link types, the mix of anchor text, and the ratio of followed to nofollowed links.

Let’s look at these areas and how they should look within a healthy backlink profile.

Distribution Of Link Types

One aspect of your backlink profile that needs to be diversified is link types.

It looks unnatural to Google to have predominantly one kind of link in your profile, and it also indicates that you’re not diversifying your content strategy enough.

Some of the various link types you should see in your backlink profile include:

  • Anchor text links.
  • Image links.
  • Redirect links.
  • Canonical links.

Here is an example of the breakdown of link types at my company, Whatfix (via Semrush):

Screenshot from Semrush, May 2024

Most links should be anchor text links and image links, as these are the most common ways to link on the web, but you should see some of the other types of links as they are picked up naturally over time.

Mix Of Anchor Text

Next, ensure your backlink profile has an appropriate anchor text variance.

Again, if you overoptimize for a specific type of anchor text, it will appear suspicious to search engines like Google and could have negative repercussions.

Here are the various types of anchor text you might find in your backlink profile:

  • Branded anchor text – Anchor text that is your brand name or includes your brand name.
  • Empty – Links that have no anchor text.
  • Naked URLs – Anchor text that is a URL (e.g., www.website.com).
  • Exact match keyword-rich anchor text – Anchor text that exactly matches the keyword the linked page targets (e.g., blue shoes).
  • Partial match keyword-rich anchor text – Anchor text that partially or closely matches the keyword the linked page targets (e.g., “comfortable blue footwear options”).
  • Generic anchor text – Anchor text such as “this website” or “here.”

To maintain a healthy backlink profile, aim for a mix of anchor text within a similar range to this:

  • Branded anchor text – 35-40%.
  • Partial match keyword-rich anchor text – 15-20%.
  • Generic anchor text -10-15%.
  • Exact match keyword-rich anchor text – 5-10%.
  • Naked URLs – 5-10%.
  • Empty – 3-5%.

This distribution of anchor text represents a natural mix of differing anchor texts. It is common for the majority of anchors to be branded or partially branded because most sites that link to your site will default to your brand name when linking. It also makes sense that the following most common anchors would be partial-match keywords or generic anchor text because these are natural choices within the context of a web page.

Exact-match anchor text is rare because it only happens when you are the best resource for a specific term, and the site owner knows your page exists.

Ratio Of Followed Vs. Nofollowed Backlinks

Lastly, you should monitor the ratio of followed vs. nofollowed links pointing to your website.

If you need a refresher on what nofollowed backlinks are or why someone might apply the nofollow tag to a link pointing to your site, check out Google’s guide on how to qualify outbound links to Google.

Nofollow attributes should only be applied to paid links or links pointing to a site the linking site doesn’t trust.

While it is not uncommon or suspicious to have some nofollow links (people misunderstand the purpose of the nofollow attribute all the time), a healthy backlink profile will have far more followed links.

You should aim for a ratio of 80%:20% or 70%:30% in favor of followed links. For example, here is what the followed vs. nofollowed ratio looks like for my company’s backlink profile (according to Ahrefs):

Referring domainsScreenshot from Ahrefs, May 2024

You may see links with other rel attributes, such as UGC or Sponsored.

The “UGC” attribute tags links from user-generated content, while the “Sponsored” attribute tags links from sponsored or paid sources. These attributes are slightly different than the nofollow tag, but they essentially work the same way, letting Google know these links aren’t trusted or endorsed by the linking site. You can simply group these links in with nofollowed links when calculating your ratio.

Importance Of Diversifying Your Backlink Profile

So why is it important to diversify your backlink profile anyway? Well, there are three main reasons you should consider:

  • Avoiding overoptimization.
  • Diversifying traffic sources.
  • And finding new audiences.

Let’s dive into each of these.

Avoiding Overoptimization

First and foremost, diversifying your backlink profile is the best way to protect yourself from overoptimization and the damaging penalties that can come with it.

As SEO pros, our job is to optimize websites to improve performance, but overoptimizing in any facet of our strategy – backlinks, keywords, structure, etc. – can result in penalties that limit visibility within search results.

In the previous section, we covered the elements of a healthy backlink profile. If you stray too far from that model, your site might look suspicious to search engines like Google and you could be handed a manual or algorithmic penalty, suppressing your rankings in search.

Considering how regularly Google updates its search algorithm these days (and how little information surrounds those updates), you could see your performance tank and have no idea why.

This is why it’s so important to keep a watchful eye on your backlink profile and how it’s shaping up.

Diversifying Traffic Sources

Another reason to cultivate a diverse backlink profile is to ensure you’re diversifying your traffic sources.

Google penalties come swiftly and can often be a surprise. If you have all your eggs in that basket when it comes to traffic, your site will suffer badly and might need help to recover.

However, diversifying your traffic sources (search, social, email, etc.) will mitigate risk – similar to a stock portfolio – as you’ll have other traffic sources to provide a steady flow of visitors if another source suddenly dips.

Part of building a diverse backlink profile is acquiring a diverse set of backlinks and backlink types, and this strategy will also help you find differing and varied sources of traffic.

Finding New Audiences

Finally, building a diverse backlink profile is essential, as doing so will also help you discover new audiences.

If you acquire links from the same handful of websites and platforms, you will need help expanding your audience and building awareness for your website.

While it’s important to acquire links from sites that cater to your existing audience, you should also explore ways to build links that can tap into new audiences. The best way to do this is by casting a wide net with various link acquisition tactics and strategies.

A diverse backlink profile indicates a varied approach to SEO and marketing that will help bring new visitors and awareness to your site.

Building A Diverse Backlink Profile

So that you know what a healthy backlink profile looks like and why it’s important to diversify, how do you build diversity into your site’s backlink profile?

This comes down to your link acquisition strategy and the types of backlinks you actively pursue. To guide your strategy, let’s break link building into three main categories:

  • Foundational links.
  • Content promotion.
  • Community involvement.

Here’s how to approach each area.

Foundational Links

Foundational links represent those links that your website simply should have. These are opportunities where a backlink would exist if all sites were known to all site owners.

Some examples of foundational links include:

  • Mentions – Websites that mention your brand in some way (brand name, product, employees, proprietary data, etc.) on their website but don’t link.
  • Partners – Websites that belong to real-world partners or companies you connect with offline and should also connect (link) with online.
  • Associations or groups – Websites for offline associations or groups you belong to where your site should be listed with a link.
  • Sponsorships – Any events or organizations your company sponsors might have websites that could (and should) link to your site.
  • Sites that link to competitors – If a website is linking to a competitor, there is a strong chance it would make sense for them to link to your site as well.

These link opportunities should set the foundation for your link acquisition efforts.

As the baseline for your link building strategy, you should start by exhausting these opportunities first to ensure you’re not missing highly relevant links to bolster your backlink profile.

Content Promotion

Next, consider content promotion as a strategy for building a healthy, diverse backlink profile.

Content promotion is much more proactive than the foundational link acquisition mentioned above. You must manifest the opportunity by creating link-worthy content rather than simply capitalizing on an existing opportunity.

Some examples of content promotion for links are:

  • Digital PR – Digital PR campaigns have numerous benefits and goals beyond link acquisition, but backlinks should be a primary KPI.
  • Original research – Similar to digital PR, original research should focus on providing valuable data to your audience. Still, you should also make sure any citations or references to your research are correctly linked.
  • Guest content – Whether regular columns or one-off contributions, providing guest content to websites is still a viable link acquisition strategy – when done right. The best way to gauge your guest content strategy is to ask yourself if you would still write the content for a site without guaranteeing a backlink, knowing you’ll still build authority and get your message in front of a new audience.
  • Original imagery – Along with research and data, if your company creates original imagery that offers unique value, you should promote those images and ask for citation links.

Content promotion is a viable avenue for building a healthy backlink profile as long as the content you’re promoting is worthy of links.

Community Involvement

Community involvement is the final piece of your link acquisition puzzle when building a diverse backlink profile.

After pursuing all foundational opportunities and manually promoting your content, you should ensure your brand is active and represented in all the spaces and communities where your audience engages.

In terms of backlinks, this could mean:

  • Wikipedia links – Wikipedia gets over 4 billion monthly visits, so backlinks here can bring significant referral traffic to your site. However, acquiring these links is difficult as these pages are moderated closely, and your site will only be linked if it is legitimately a top resource on the web.
  • Forums (Reddit, Quora, etc.) – Another great place to get backlinks that drive referral traffic is forums like Reddit and Quora. Again, these forums are strictly moderated, and earning link placements on these sites requires a page that delivers significant and unique value to a specific audience.
  • Social platforms – Social media platforms and groups represent communities where your brand should be active and engaged. While these strategies are likely handled by other teams outside SEO and focus on different metrics, you should still be intentional about converting these interactions into links when or where possible.
  • Offline events – While it may seem counterintuitive to think of offline events as a potential source for link acquisition, legitimate link opportunities exist here. After all, most businesses, brands, and people you interact with at these events also have websites, and networking can easily translate to online connections in the form of links.

While most of the link opportunities listed above will have the nofollow link attribute due to the nature of the sites associated with them, they are still valuable additions to your backlink profile as these are powerful, trusted domains.

These links help diversify your traffic sources by bringing substantial referral traffic, and that traffic is highly qualified as these communities share your audience.

How To Avoid Developing A Toxic Backlink Profile

Now that you’re familiar with the link building strategies that can help you cultivate a healthy, diverse backlink profile, let’s discuss what you should avoid.

As mentioned before, if you overoptimize one strategy or link, it can seem suspicious to search engines and cause your site to receive a penalty. So, how do you avoid filling your backlink profile with toxic links?

Remember The “Golden Rule” Of Link Building

One simple way to guide your link acquisition strategy and avoid running afoul of search engines like Google is to follow one “golden rule.”

That rule is to ask yourself: If search engines like Google didn’t exist, and the only way people could navigate the web was through backlinks, would you want your site to have a link on the prospective website?

Thinking this way strips away all the tactical, SEO-focused portions of the equation and only leaves the human elements of linking where two sites are linked because it makes sense and makes the web easier to navigate.

Avoid Private Blog Networks (PBNs)

Another good rule is to avoid looping your site into private blog networks (PBNs). Of course, it’s not always obvious or easy to spot a PBN.

However, there are some common traits or red flags you can look for, such as:

  • The person offering you a link placement mentions they have a list of domains they can share.
  • The prospective linking site has little to no traffic and doesn’t appear to have human engagement (blog comments, social media followers, blog views, etc.).
  • The website features thin content and little investment into user experience (UX) and design.
  • The website covers generic topics and categories, catering to any and all audiences.
  • Pages on the site feature numerous external links but only some internal links.
  • The prospective domain’s backlink profile features overoptimization in any of the previously discussed forms (high-density of exact match anchor text, abnormal ratio of nofollowed links, only one or two link types, etc.).

Again, diversification – in both tactics and strategies – is crucial to building a healthy backlink profile, but steering clear of obvious PBNs and remembering the ‘golden rule’ of link building will go a long way toward keeping your profile free from toxicity.

Evaluating Your Backlink Profile

As you work diligently to build and maintain a diverse, healthy backlink profile, you should also carve out time to evaluate it regularly from a more analytical perspective.

There are two main ways to evaluate the merit of your backlinks: leverage tools to analyze backlinks and compare your backlink profile to the greater competitive landscape.

Leverage Tools To Analyze Backlink Profile

There are a variety of third-party tools you can use to analyze your backlink profile.

These tools can provide helpful insights, such as the total number of backlinks and referring domains. You can use these tools to analyze your full profile, broken down by:

  • Followed vs. nofollowed.
  • Authority metrics (Domain Rating, Domain Authority, Authority Score, etc.).
  • Backlink types.
  • Location or country.
  • Anchor text.
  • Top-level domain types.
  • And more.

You can also use these tools to track new incoming backlinks, as well as lost backlinks, to help you better understand how your backlink profile is growing.

Some of the best tools for analyzing your backlink profile are:

Many of these tools also have features that estimate how toxic or suspicious your profile might look to search engines, which can help you detect potential issues early.

Compare Your Backlink Profile To The Competitive Landscape

Lastly, you should compare your overall backlink profile to those of your competitors and those competing with your site in the search results.

Again, the previously mentioned tools can help with this analysis – as far as providing you with the raw numbers – but the key areas you should compare are:

  • Total number of backlinks.
  • Total number of referring domains.
  • Breakdown of authority metrics of links (Domain Rating, Domain Authority, Authority Score, etc.).
  • Authority metrics of competing domains.
  • Link growth over the last two years.

Comparing your backlink profile to others within your competitive landscape will help you assess where your domain currently stands and provide insight into how far you must go if you’re lagging behind competitors.

It’s worth noting that it’s not as simple as whoever has the most backlinks will perform the best in search.

These numbers are typically solid indicators of how search engines gauge the authority of your competitors’ domains, and you’ll likely find a correlation between strong backlink profiles and strong search performance.

Approach Link Building With A User-First Mindset

The search landscape continues to evolve at a breakneck pace and we could see dramatic shifts in how people search within the next five years (or sooner).

However, at this time, search engines like Google still rely on backlinks as part of their ranking algorithms, and you need to cultivate a strong backlink profile to be visible in search.

Furthermore, if you follow the advice in this article as you build out your profile, you’ll acquire backlinks that benefit your site regardless of search algorithms, futureproofing your traffic sources.

Approach link acquisition like you would any other marketing endeavor – with a customer-first mindset – and over time, you’ll naturally build a healthy, diverse backlink profile.

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SEO

Google On Traffic Diversity As A Ranking Factor

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Google answers the question of whether traffic diversity is a ranking factor for SEO

Google’s SearchLiaison tweeted encouragement to diversify traffic sources, being clear about the reason he was recommending it. Days later, someone followed up to ask if traffic diversity is a ranking factor, prompting SearchLiaison to reiterate that it is not.

What Was Said

The question of whether diversity of traffic was a ranking factor was elicited from a previous tweet in a discussion about whether a site owner should be focusing on off-site promotion.

Here’s the question from the original discussion that was tweeted:

“Can you please tell me if I’m doing right by focusing on my site and content – writing new articles to be found through search – or if I should be focusing on some off-site effort related to building a readership? It’s frustrating to see traffic go down the more effort I put in.”

SearchLiaison split the question into component parts and answered each one. When it came to the part about off-site promotion, SearchLiaison (who is Danny Sullivan), shared from his decades of experience as a journalist and publisher covering technology and search marketing.

I’m going to break down his answer so that it’s clearer what he meant

This is the part from the tweet that talks about off-site activities:

“As to the off-site effort question, I think from what I know from before I worked at Google Search, as well as my time being part of the search ranking team, is that one of the ways to be successful with Google Search is to think beyond it.”

What he is saying here is simple, don’t limit your thinking about what to do with your site to thinking about how to make it appeal to Google.

He next explains that sites that rank tend to be sites that are created to appeal to people.

SearchLiaison continued:

“Great sites with content that people like receive traffic in many ways. People go to them directly. They come via email referrals. They arrive via links from other sites. They get social media mentions.”

What he’s saying there is that you’ll know that you’re appealing to people if people are discussing your site in social media, if people are referring the site in social media and if other sites are citing it with links.

Other ways to know that a site is doing well is when when people engage in the comments section, send emails asking follow up questions, and send emails of thanks and share anecdotes of their success or satisfaction with a product or advice.

Consider this, fast fashion site Shein at one point didn’t rank for their chosen keyword phrases, I know because I checked out of curiosity. But they were at the time virally popular and making huge amounts of sales by gamifying site interaction and engagement, propelling them to become a global brand. A similar strategy propelled Zappos when they pioneered no-questions asked returns and cheerful customer service.

SearchLiaison continued:

“It just means you’re likely building a normal site in the sense that it’s not just intended for Google but instead for people. And that’s what our ranking systems are trying to reward, good content made for people.”

SearchLiaison explicitly said that building sites with diversified content is not a ranking factor.

He added this caveat to his tweet:

“This doesn’t mean you should get a bunch of social mentions, or a bunch of email mentions because these will somehow magically rank you better in Google (they don’t, from how I know things).”

Despite The Caveat…

A journalist tweeted this:

“Earlier this week, @searchliaison told people to diversify their traffic. Naturally, people started questioning whether that meant diversity of traffic was a ranking factor.

So, I asked @iPullRank what he thought.”

SearchLiaison of course answered that he explicitly said it’s not a ranking factor and linked to his original tweet that I quoted above.

He tweeted:

“I mean that’s not exactly what I myself said, but rather repeat all that I’ll just add the link to what I did say:”

The journalist responded:

“I would say this is calling for publishers to diversify their traffic since you’re saying the great sites do it. It’s the right advice to give.”

And SearchLiaison answered:

“It’s the part of “does it matter for rankings” that I was making clear wasn’t what I myself said. Yes, I think that’s a generally good thing, but it’s not the only thing or the magic thing.”

Not Everything Is About Ranking Factors

There is a longstanding practice by some SEOs to parse everything that Google publishes for clues to how Google’s algorithm works. This happened with the Search Quality Raters guidelines. Google is unintentionally complicit because it’s their policy to (in general) not confirm whether or not something is a ranking factor.

This habit of searching for “ranking factors” leads to misinformation. It takes more acuity to read research papers and patents to gain a general understanding of how information retrieval works but it’s more work to try to understand something than skimming a PDF for ranking papers.

The worst approach to understanding search is to invent hypotheses about how Google works and then pore through a document to confirm those guesses (and falling into the confirmation bias trap).

In the end, it may be more helpful to back off of exclusively optimizing for Google and focus at least equally as much in optimizing for people (which includes optimizing for traffic). I know it works because I’ve been doing it for years.

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