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9 Essential Steps In Building A Winning SEO Strategy

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9 Essential Steps In Building A Winning SEO Strategy

Online shopping has taken over the world.

While people still run to the store to pick things up, the allure of buying just about anything from the comfort of your home is unstoppable.

From plumbing fixtures to pizza rolls, if you want it, you can get it delivered with the push of an app – without leaving the house.

And even if your business sells services, rather than products, there’s an incredible chance that the majority of people are shopping for it online.

This means ecommerce should be a focus for every company that’s selling something. And that means you need an increased focus on web traffic.

After all, you could have the best website in the world, with cutting-edge design, optimized for ideal user experiences, and copy that would make David Ogilvy gnash his teeth in envy, but if no one ever sees it, it’s not doing you an ounce of good.

You need to get found. And that, of course, is why SEO is a crucial part of any modern marketing plan.

You want to rank highly in search engine results pages (SERPs), so you get found organically by your targets.

However, this is much easier said than done. But don’t fret, we’re here to help.

Whether you’re an experienced professional looking to brush up on the fundamentals for a client or a complete newbie trying to figure out how this whole SEO thing works for your business, you’re in the right place.

Here, we’ll walk you through the steps of creating, implementing, and optimizing an SEO campaign that will have your site shooting up the rankings in no time.

What Is An SEO Strategy?

You’ve probably already figured out that an SEO strategy is your plan to make your website or landing page more appealing to Google and other search engines

The goal here is to rank higher and drive more organic traffic (and hopefully conversions).

It sounds simple enough, but there’s a big catch: Search algorithms are always changing.

As Google seeks to enhance the quality of its searches and provide users with better solutions to queries, its algorithms are updated several times a year.

What that means for SEO is that you can’t just set it and forget it. Every search engine optimization needs iterations.

You need to regularly analyze and course-correct to ensure you’re taking advantage of the latest best practices and strategies.

That’s good for SEO professionals – otherwise, we’d be out of jobs rather quickly

But it means a bit of a commitment for you.

To stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the world of search, you need to regularly consult with reliable sources (like this one).

Luckily, there are a wealth of resources you can mine for quality information. Whether you prefer articles, webinars or podcasts, there’s SEO content available for you.

Do You Really Need SEO?

Right now, some of you contrarians are sneering at your screen and asking if you really need SEO to find customers.

You have somebody handling paid search or affiliate marketing for you, so you’re not sure there’s much of a benefit to investing all this time into organic search. Don’t fall into that trap.

Organic search is what drives more than half of all website visits and should be an important part of any organization’s digital marketing strategy, whether you’re a multinational mega-corporation or a mom-and-pop shop.

And it’s especially important for direct-to-consumer sites. By providing useful content, you’re not only building trust, but you’re matching your website with customer intent, which means higher quality leads.

And even better, you’re not paying for every click, which means a lower cost-per-conversion.

So, even if you have the world’s best pay-per-click (PPC) and affiliate marketing campaigns routinely driving motivated customers to your site, you’re still only fighting half the battle by ignoring organic search.

Creating An Effective SEO Strategy: 9 Fundamental Steps

Though SEO requires a comprehensive strategy, you can break it down into several manageable steps.

1. Align SEO With Business Goals & Define KPIs

First things first, you need to know where you currently stand, where you want to go, and how you’ll measure success along the way.

You’ll want to begin by performing an SEO audit.

This is the roadmap that will guide you throughout the entire optimization process and allow you to benchmark against your current site.

You need to examine a variety of aspects, including:

  • Domain name, age, history, etc.
  • Page factors like headlines, keyword & topical targeting and user engagement.
  • Content organization, content quality, and the quality of your images (no one trusts stock photography).
  • Duplicate content.
  • Website factors like architecture, schema, markup. and click-through rate (CTR).
  • Past and upcoming website updates.
  • The quality of inbound links.
  • On-site factors like sitemaps, image optimization. and robots.txt.

For a step-by-step guide on how to perform this audit, we have an excellent series that will guide you through it.

Once you know where you’re starting from, it’s time to plan your timeframe and allocated budgets and resources.

This is yet another area of life where you get what you pay for. If you’re looking for fast and cheap, you’re not going to get the results you would by investing more time and money.

Obviously, your budget and timeframe will depend on your company’s unique situation, but if you want good results, be prepared to pay for them.

For an idea of how much you should be spending, consult this article.

During this step of the SEO process, you’ll also want to define your key performance indicators (KPIs).

This is how you’ll measure the success of your new implementations and figure out what’s working for you and where you need to make adjustments.

Some of the KPIs you should be tracking are:

  • Organic sessions.
  • Keyword ranking increases.
  • Leads and conversions.
  • Bounce rate (keep i mind that bounce rate is an internal metric and  is 100% dependent upon the events you set up on your pages and will be phased out in GA 4)
  • Pages per session.
  • Average session duration.
  • Page load time.
  • Top exit pages.
  • Crawl errors.

For more information on what these are and why they’re important, be sure to read this piece on top SEO KPIs.

2. Perform Keyword Research

Search engine rankings are determined by an algorithm that evaluates a variety of factors to decide how well a website answers a particular search query. And a huge part of that is the use of keywords.

From single words to complex phrases, keywords tell search engines what your content is about. But adding keywords isn’t quite as simple as just plugging in the name of the product or service you want to sell.

You need to do research to ensure keyword optimization, and that means considering the following:

Search Intent

The beauty of the English language (and the bane of SEOs) is in its richness.

But words often have multiple meanings, which makes it crucial to consider search intent, so you don’t attract an audience that was searching for something else.

For example, if you’re trying to attract customers to a haberdashery, ranking highly for [bowlers] may attract people who want to roll a few frames instead of those looking for a new hat.

Relevant Keywords

Once you’ve identified your targets, you need to figure out which keywords are important to them.

It’s usually best to target only a few keywords, as targeting too broadly will make it difficult for the search engine to determine what your pages are about.

Keyword Phrases

These are short phrases consisting of two or more words that people type into search engines to find specific content.

For example, someone looking for dance lessons may ask Google for [tango classes near me].

Keyword Research Tools

The brainstorming process is a great place to start keyword research, but to ensure you’re attracting the right audience and proving your value to search engines, you should utilize a research tool.

Most SEO professionals use Google’s Keyword Planner for this, but it can be a bit frustrating to use, so you may wish to consider other options.

Long-Tail Keywords

These are specific search terms people use to find an exact match for their query.

They tend to be longer and are more likely to be used by people who are closer to making a purchase.

An example of this would be [vegetarian restaurants in San Antonio], which would most likely be used by someone with a craving for a plant-based meal.

Search Volume

This will tell you the number of searches for a particular keyword over a specified timeframe, giving you an overall idea of the term’s value and competitiveness.

[Christmas lights] is going to get a lot more volume in November and December than it will in July. A lot of terms are seasonal, keep this in mind.

Likewise, [used cars] is going to have more competition than [2006 Volkswagen Passant].

Funnel Keywords

These are keywords targeting users at various parts of the sales funnel.

People at the top of the funnel are more likely to be attracted by more general terms like [Cancun vacation], whereas those who are nearer to purchasing are comparing prices and brands and will more likely be attracted by things like discounts or hotel names.

Keywords are as much about your audience as they are your content.

For a more detailed explanation of every part of keyword research and optimization, we have a detailed ebook on the topic.

3. Define Your Most Valuable Pages

Every team needs an MVP, and in the case of your website, that’s your most valuable pages.

These pages are the ones that do the bulk of the heavy lifting for you.

For non-ecommerce sites, these are usually things like your home page, your services pages or any pages with demos or other offers.

These pages are also likely MVPs for ecommerce sites, but will also be joined by category and/or product level pages.

To find which pages are your site’s most important ones, you should consider what your organization is known for.

What verticals to you compete in? What pain points do you solve? Define these or add more based on the high-level keywords you came up with in the previous step.

Once you’ve identified the category and product pages that bring in the most visitors, you’ll be able to focus your strategy on improving them and increasing your organic traffic.

Read more about how to find your MVPs here.

4. Conduct A Competitive Analysis

If you didn’t have any competition, there would be no need for SEO. But as long as other companies are manufacturing refrigerators, Frigidaire needs to find ways to differentiate itself.

You need to have an idea of what others in your industry are doing, so you can position yourself for the best results.

You need to figure out where you’re being outranked and find ways to turn the tables.

You should know which keywords are most competitive and where you have opportunities.

You should have some understanding of the opposition’s backlinking and site structure, so you can optimize your own site for the best possible search ranking.

Learn more about how to perform this analysis and develop a template for it by reading this piece.

5. Plan For User Experience & Technical SEO

Don’t overlook the importance of how your site is structured, both technically and how users interface with it.

The best content and keyword strategy in the world won’t lead to a single sale if your site is constantly broken or is so frustrating to use that people close your page in disgust.

You should carefully consider your site’s architecture and user experiences to ensure people are taking the desired actions.

Likewise, you should find and fix any technical issues like broken links, slow load times and bad site schema.

There are a number of free tools you can use to ensure your site is working optimally.

6. Consider Your Resources

SEO doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it impacts many other parts of your organization, including marketing, sales, and IT.

If you’re looking for the budget to perform SEO, you may find some of your employees are already well-qualified to help.

For example, your sales team probably knows which products people are most interested in.

Enlisting them in your SEO strategy development will help with lead generation and find new targets who are already qualified.

Similarly, SEO can tell your marketing team what types of content resonates best, so they can fine tune their campaigns. And your copywriters and graphic designers can develop the type of content that will help you shoot up the rankings.

Your IT team probably already has control over your website.

Your SEO strategy should be designed around their expertise, to ensure website design and structure, development cycles, data structure, and core principles are all aligned.

And these are just a few ways you can integrate SEO into your existing workflows.

Others exist if you look closely and it’s very unlikely that you’ll need to start completely from scratch.

Evaluate your existing software, technology, and personnel, as there’s a good chance you have some of the pieces already in place.

And if you need to scale production up, you may find the budget already in place in existing departments.

7. Align Your SEO Strategy With Your Customer Funnel

At the end of the day, sales are the name of the game. Without customers, there’s no revenue, and that means no business.

To aid in the sales process, your SEO strategy should align with your customer funnel.

Sometimes described as the customer journey, your sales funnel is a summation of the touchpoints customers have with your company as they go from awareness to post-purchase.

SEO fits neatly with every stage of this cycle:

  • Awareness: In the modern world, many customers first hear about your business online. Through a Google search, for example.
  • Interest: This is where customers start doing research. And what better place to do research than your website?
  • Decision: The customer wants to buy and is deciding between you and the competition. Your meta description mentioning free shipping could be the thing that sways them.
  • Purchase: Ecommerce continues to grow. Having a search engine optimized point of sale makes it easy for people to buy.
  • Post-purchase: Customer reviews, either on your website or on a third-party site are a great way to build trust and increase your relevancy for keywords.

8. Report And Set Realistic Expectations

Reporting is essential. You need to be able to effectively measure and report on the progress you’re making.

Reporting allows you to establish consistent, accurate data that earns trust.

It helps you understand the factors behind your ranking and identify areas where you could improve, and not least of all, it proves the value of SEO to the organization’s decision-makers.

One of the most common mistakes people unfamiliar with SEO make is expecting overnight results.

And because of the variables involved with competition, inbound links, and the content itself, it’s nearly impossible to provide a definite timeframe.

You need to go into the process with an understanding that SEO takes time and the more competitive the keywords you’re going after, the longer it will take to climb to the top.

This needs to be conveyed to stakeholders from the start, to ensure expectations are realistic.

For a guide on how to create impactful reports that generate quality insights, read our guide here.

9. Measure And Document Your Strategy

Congratulations on making it this far, but you’re not quite done.

After you’ve generated the reports on how your SEO strategy is working, you need to track the metrics and prove its impact.

Some of the most important metrics you’ll want to consider include organic sessions, bounce rate, top exit pages, and crawl errors.

By identifying all of these, you’ll get a better idea of what you customers are looking for – and what’s driving them away.

For more information, read this article on top SEO KPIs.

There are a variety of both paid and free tools available that you can use to measure and track conversions, and compare them weekly, monthly, or by another timeframe of your choosing.

Simply find one that works for your budget and needs.

Conclusion

No one ever said SEO was easy, at least not anyone who has done it. But it’s a vital part of any modern organization’s business plan.

However, with a solid strategy, a willingness to learn, and a little old-fashioned elbow grease, even a complete beginner can send their website to the top of the SERP.

In this piece, we’ve given you nine steps to take to get your SEO strategy off the ground. But of course, this is just the start.

You need a unique plan that will work for your industry and your needs.

Luckily, Search Engine Journal can help with this too.

Download our ebook on SEO strategy with a full-year blueprint for an easy-to-follow 12-month plan you can use to develop a solid strategy, track your progress, and adjust to changing situations.

More Resources:


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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:

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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.

More resources: 


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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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