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A 6-Step Guide on How to Get SEO Clients

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Whether you’re an established SEO agency or a freelancer just starting out, leads are the lifeblood of your business.

To generate new, relevant leads and clients, you need a system that you can implement and improve over time. And we’ll help you do exactly that.

In this article, you’ll learn the definition of an SEO lead and the six steps to getting great leads.

An SEO lead is a potential client who has expressed an interest in your SEO services. They either find you first and get in touch, or you proactively reach out to them and offer your services.

And here’s how you get them.

Step 1. Provide tailored SEO service for specific client segments

The first step is creating or providing a tailored SEO service for particular industries. These services can range from offering SEO consultations with a minimal monthly retainer to serving a specific niche (e.g., lawyers).

When I first pivoted from web design to SEO, I made the mistake of trying to offer a full SEO service.

Then at the time, Ryan Stewart said in a podcast to be great at keyword research and sell it to agencies.

So I did.

Looking around the SEO industry, you’ll find people and agencies doing well by specializing in a particular service or niche.

Look at Rankings.io, which specializes in law firm SEO. Or check out Full Stadium, which specializes in the accounting firm sector.

SEO agency focused on lawyers and law firms

You can go even narrower. For example, Haro SEO builds links for clients from the Help A Reporter Out website. In other words, it caters to a niche within a niche (link building/digital PR).

HARO SEO service as an example of a very niche SEO offer

Hence, you can consider niche SEO services such as keyword research, SEO strategy, on-page, off-page, technical SEO, content, YouTube SEO, or local SEO.

Once you’ve defined your target industry and services, there are two ways to find prospects: inbound and outbound marketing.

Inbound

Inbound is where prospects come to you instead of you reaching out to them. Let’s run through the most popular inbound marketing channels that generate leads.

Website

Provided you have a website, you can use it to generate leads if you make people aware of your SEO services and encourage them to take action by either calling you, sending you an email, or downloading an incentive.

Look at this landing page that explains and communicates the growth benefits of the company’s SEO services. The page also includes a strong call to action: get an SEO quote today.

Compelling landing page for SEO services

SEO

You already know that organic traffic is the main traffic source for many websites.

Use Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer to identify the relevant keywords your prospects are searching for and assess the potential of that traffic.

  1. Type “SEO” and select your country
  2. Use the Include filter to enter the industry or niche you are targeting, e.g., accountants, contractors

You can see the Keyword Difficulty (KD), search volume, global volume, and Traffic Potential (TP) metrics.

Filtering SEO niches in Keywords Explorer

Now select the “SERP” button to view the traffic to the top pages.

Checking organic traffic of pages ranking for "seo for contractors"

Next, create a landing page targeting this topic, outlining what you offer and how to get in touch.

PPC

You can drive traffic quickly if you need leads urgently using Google Ads.

You can see this agency’s Google Ad campaigns and the keywords they target using the new paid search feature within Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

Example of keywords a marketing agency bids on in Google Ads

Groups and communities

My path into SEO was via traditional marketing and web design.

As a member of an Adobe web design forum, I generated leads from other web design agencies that didn’t have an interest in or resources for SEO.

Also, the Ahrefs Insider group regularly runs SEO Speed Dating, where members are free to post jobs or projects they need help with—great for lead generation.

Connecting people in the SEO industry via "speed dating" in Ahrefs Insider group

And agencies that use Ahrefs can apply to be featured on our SEO directory and generate interest in their services.

SEO agency directory listing in Ahrefs

Building your reputation

You can build a reputation for your services by blogging, using social media, or appearing on podcasts.

With some hard work, I grew my organic traffic to several thousand monthly visits. I then used email marketing to offer my services and training courses for opted-in subscribers.

Email marketing

I’m fortunate enough to have built up an email list of opted-in subscribers and prospects. But before that, I simply went through my email account and found the email address of every contact I knew.

I added them to ConvertKit as a segment and emailed them regularly with useful SEO guides.

Email subscribers in ConvertKit

Social media

Samuel Schmitt builds his social reputation using Twitter and LinkedIn.

On LinkedIn, Samuel posts various resources, such as article links and videos, as well as comments and likes content from people in his network.

Building reputation on social media

Podcasts and videos

George Chasiotis is the managing director of Minuttia, a SaaS SEO agency. He has built up his reputation as an expert in semantic SEO and topical authority.

I first listened to George on the SEO Rant Podcast and heard him again talking about topical authority with a partner on YouTube.

Building brand through podcasts

Events and conferences

You can attend many SEO conferences to network with others in the industry and build connections and potential business.

But do events and conferences exist if you want to connect with clients directly?

The SEO Works in Sheffield joined its Chamber of Commerce as a patron member (like a sponsor).

For £10K, it gets:

  • Featured in fortnightly newsletters to other Chamber members.
  • Advertising space in Chamber magazine.
  • Dedicated email to the business database four times per year.
  • Displayed on the Chamber website.
  • Promoted socially.
  • Invited to networking events.
  • To host its workshops for Chamber members.

If this type of membership is beyond your budget, you can identify web design meetups in your area.

For example, there are various web design meetups in my area.

Web design meetups in Glasgow

If I attend these meetups, I’ll casually drop into conversations I do SEO; perhaps, I’ll find a few connections.

Word of mouth and referrals

Word of mouth refers to recommendations from friends and family, and it can be powerful when it comes to increasing sales.

For instance, I get most of my referrals from my accountant, who referred every one of his clients to me after lockdown.

I gave them a simple audit that compared their website with a competitor’s to “open a dialogue” with them.

Then I scheduled phone calls to discuss ways to prioritize revenue opportunities from SEO-related work.

Now onto outbound.

Outbound

Outbound is when companies send messages to potential customers rather than wait for them to come looking for their services. This can be through email, direct mail, telephone, etc.

Sidenote.

Check legislation in your state or country before doing cold email outreach.

You can find prospects to target using Ahrefs’ Content Explorer.

Let’s say I want to target insolvency practitioners in the U.K.

  • Enter insolvency practitioner site:co.uk and select “In title” 
  • Filter “One page per domain” and “no subdomains”

And now, I have around 249 unique websites.

Finding outreach prospects in Content Explorer

You can change “insolvency practitioner” to the type of company you are targeting.

Do also change site:co.uk to the country you wish to target, e.g., site:ca for Canada.

If you’re targeting prospects in the U.S., enter the business type and location into Content Explorer, e.g., Certified Public Accountant OR CPA AND Houston.

Step 3. Qualify prospects

Now that you have found prospects to target, the next step is to qualify prospects or leads.

Lead qualification is the process of determining which leads are most likely to become great customers and focus on them first.

Inbound and outbound leads are qualified differently.

Inbound qualification

Your website will be the primary channel to get qualified leads, and you can do this by including an inquiry form to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Include a form on your website that collects the following prospect information:

  • What you are looking for
  • What you are investing
  • When you’re looking to start
  • Name, email, URL, and telephone

In this example, here are the three questions a visitor is asked.

Question 1. What help do you need?

What are you looking for help with?

Question 2. What is your budget?

What kind of budget can you afford?

Question 3. When are you looking to start?

When are you looking to start?

If the prospect is a highly qualified lead, they are invited to book a call.

Booking a call with a qualified prospect

A less-qualified lead can sign up for a newsletter.

Nudging less-qualified prospects to sign up for a newsletter

If you’re using SEO or PPC, a form or call to action should ideally be located above the fold of the browser on your landing pages. The following examples are from the website of another Ahrefs blog contributor, Sam Underwood:

Landing page of Sam Underwood's SEO services

Outbound qualification

You must gather information beyond their niche and company name to qualify an outbound prospect.

A Content Explorer report contains metrics such as Domain Rating (DR), referring domains, website traffic, and website traffic value. That’s valuable data to include in your outreach.

1. Export list from Content Explorer into Google Sheets

Following on from step #2 above, here’s an example of the report exported from Content Explorer into Google Sheets:

Researching insolvency practitioners in Content Explorer

2. Clean up the spreadsheet

Remove irrelevant websites and all the columns, except for the content title, URL, referring domains, and website traffic.

Cleaning up exported data from Content Explorer

3. Export CSV and import into Hunter or Mailshake

Now select File > Download > CSV.

4. Find and verify contact

I’ll use Hunter in this example, but you can use any email outreach software.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GE0YFMZknTM

Set up custom attributes to import the Website Traffic and Referring Domains data from your spreadsheet.

Custom attributes in Hunter

Go to Bulks > Bulk Domain Search > New Bulk.

Bulk domain search in Hunter

Select Domain Search > New Bulk > Name your list and follow the screenshot for setup instructions.

Setting up new bulk domain search in Hunter

Preview your list, press “Launch,” and Hunter will find and verify the email addresses of prospects.

Verifying email addresses in Hunter

5. Create a campaign with two outreach emails

Now go to Campaigns and create a new campaign.

Creating a new campaign in Hunter

Below is an example of a sales outreach email. Also, try to follow these four email outreach guidelines:

  1. Write a subject line to encourage the prospect to open the email
  2. Personalize the email with their first name
  3. Offer something of value, e.g., the email below contains a quick comparison of their website traffic with a competitor’s
  4. Include a call to action
Writing an outreach email in Hunter

Then write a follow-up email:

Setting up follow-up email in Hunter

You can use Calendly or Google Calendar to allow prospects to book a discovery call with you.

Here’s a video outlining how to schedule appointments on Google Calendar:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AsmRNiveGc

Selecting leads in Hunter
  • Now add your recipients
  • Select “From Leads”
  • Select the list you created from the left menu and add the recipients to your campaign
  • Press “Next,” and you’ll see a preview of every email
  • Press “Launch” when you’re ready to start your outreach campaign
Launching an outreach campaign in Hunter

Step 4. Schedule and do a discovery call

The purpose of the scheduled appointment is to see if there is a fit between you and your potential customer.

During the call, they’ll want to learn more about your experience, track record, processes, and team.

If they are an inbound lead, you already know they want a rough idea of the budget and start date from the form they filled in.

If they are an outbound lead, you already know their organic traffic and how it stacks up with a competitor’s.

You’ll want to discuss the service they want, budget, and timing. Also, it’s important to determine their future state.

You’ll discuss how you measure success.

You’ll provide pricing guidance, i.e., how you work and charge.

Subsequent meetings and dialogues revolve around the same topics.

Tell me more about your situation

I called a lead, Sam, at the appointed time and asked about his business.

He told me he was paying for leads from others, but he had an excellent offline network and social profile.

I told him a story about an ex-client who had purchased non-exclusive leads. The ex-client then called up prospects who had already received 10 calls from other contractors. Apparently, those contractors had been sold the same leads.

He asked about me.

I explained my business model and provided my traffic and conversion rates.

I proceeded to tell him he would want his own leads rather than purchasing third-party leads.

The bridge

Then to bridge the connection between his business and my business, I said:

If a competing website gets 1,000 visits—let’s say they convert 2% into inquiries. That’s 20 inquiries a month. How many inquiries do you typically convert into a paid project?”

10%,” he said.

So two jobs at £20K are £40K a month or £480K a year,” I said.

Yes, broadly speaking,” Sam replied.

Where do we go from here?

I sensed the call was nearing an end, so I asked, “Where do you want to go from here?”

P.S. This is my favorite call to action at the end of a call or email.

Sam said he would email me the plans for his business as we advance, and we should speak soon.

He texted me that evening.

Step 5. Create a pricing proposal

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is to invest my time writing up a proposal and price only for the prospect to say no or, worse, not return my email or call.

So when asked, you should say a price before writing a proposal.

If they insist on a written proposal, try to resist and provide them with a price range.

Here’s an example: Bill, this project will range from $3,000 to $5,000 to start with, then a few $$$$ per month. Is that in alignment with your budget?

Unpaid proposals you send should fit on one page and include:

  • Where they are now versus their future state.
  • Pricing options anchored against each other.

When you give a client one pricing option, there are only two outcomes: yes or no. And a “no” outcome results in the prospect comparing your price with a competitor’s.

But when you provide pricing options, the client is now faced with Option A, Option B, or no.

For example, my goal is for the client to buy Option A. When I position the higher anchor price (Option B) alongside it, the client can now compare both my options. 

According to Blair Enns, when offered two pricing options, a client will choose Option B 50% of the time.

Here’s a pricing example of a one-off project:

Option A Option B
– Keyword research
– Produce 10 content briefs
– Keyword research
– Produce 10 content briefs
– Professional copywriting for 10 pages
– Publish 10 optimized pages
$1,999 $7,999

Here’s a pricing example of an SEO monthly retainer:

SEO Option A SEO Option B
– Keyword research
– Produce 10 content briefs per month
– Copywriting for 10 pages
– Publish 10 optimized pages
– 1x outreach campaign per month
– Keyword research
– Produce 10 content briefs per month
– Copywriting for 10 pages
– Publish 10 optimized pages
– 1x outreach campaign per month
$5,000 per month $50,000 per annum paid in two installments

Step 6. Send over an SEO contract

Once they’ve verbally confirmed they want to go ahead, you can send them a copy created from our free SEO contract template.

This template includes 13 essential sections that help you protect yourself and set clear client expectations.

You can customize it however you want. Just change the names, edit the price and service descriptions, and adjust the sample terms and conditions to suit your needs.

Final thoughts

When you’re starting out, focus on outbound activity to generate sales leads. Those with an established SEO track record have a different problem: They need to filter inbound leads to maximize their revenues and margins.

Tailor your SEO service for your target industry, find prospects, qualify them, set up a discovery phone call, and give them a price before committing to writing a proposal.

Finally, use our SEO contract template to close the deal.

Got questions? 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.

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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