How SEO Backlinks Are Actually Built

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By Geoff Roberts

Every month I mentor a few students that are going through Springboard’s Digital Marketing Career Track—most of whom are either in the process of switching careers or learning digital marketing for the first time. A good majority of these students become excited by SEO and with good reason—the promise of large volumes of relevant and sustainable website traffic is compelling! But after a burst of initial excitement most students circle back with me a few weeks later.

“So SEO rankings are primarily dependent on building backlinks, right?” they say. “How do you actually build backlinks for a new website? This stuff is hard!”

They aren’t wrong.

What I tell them is that professional SEO’s often have link building teams or set up automated processes that help them build links as scale. Exact methodologies vary, but they generally consist of automated email outreach to topically relevant websites where you share a piece of content and ask for a backlink. This is a numbers game; send a high volume of emails, and you’ll inevitably land a few backlinks. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach—there’s a time and a place for it.

But in the real world, and in my day to day life as both a start-up founder and marketing consultant, I see the best backlinks built in a non-automated fashion. My objective with this post is to share two examples of what that actually looks.

Baremetrics linked to one of Outseta’s blog posts

Recently a software company called Baremetrics published The Start-up Funding and Financing Guide, a comprehensive blog post covering the various funding options that are available to start-ups. Within that post is a backlink to a blog article that I wrote on my company’s blog entitled The Alternative Funding Options For SaaS Start-ups Cheat Sheet. Here’s what that backlink looks like:

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This is a nice backlink from a relevant industry website and a company I admire—good stuff! But how did I land this backlink? Was it pure luck?

Ultimately this link is a result of two primary factors—the first of which is the blog post that I wrote. It may not be the greatest blog post ever written, but it’s comprehensive at close to 3,000 words and it’s genuinely valuable to SaaS start-ups that are assessing their funding options. I read through all of the fine print of the investments terms for each of the funding alternatives mentioned. I reached out to the companies named in the article and asked clarifying questions. In short, I did the leg work so other SaaS founders don’t need to—rather than spending several hours reading the fine print themselves, they can read my post and get a quick overview of the terms each funding option offers in about 15 minutes.

Aside from the legwork that went into writing the post, I noticed recently that Baremetrics’ Head of Growth, Corey Haines, lives in San Diego (where I live). I reached out to Corey and we grabbed coffee together, chatting about both Outseta and Baremetrics. The backlink that I got was ultimately a result of the investment of time I made in writing the blog post, as well as making an in-person connection with a colleague. This may not be hugely scaleable, but it’s reality.

Thanks for the backlink, Corey!

Original research gets backlinks from writers scouring the web for data to support their points

Recently I’ve also been writing some content for Campfire Labs. Most of this content is very long form, narrative driven business writing that’s supported by original interviews, research, and credible sources. As I write content like this I’m always on the lookout for credible research that supports my arguments or perspectives—oftentimes this has been linking to articles in publications like Harvard Business Review or AdAge or including data from research published by industry associations like Gartner.

While the quality of the content you publish will be the primary driver of backlinks, you absolutely can and should publish content that’s specifically designed to attract backlinks from writers like myself who are looking for credible sources to support their points. Publishing any sort of original data or market research is a great way to do this.

For example, I was recently chatting with Mike Baker, Director of Marketing at corporate travel site Lola.com. Mike mentioned that his team had recently hired a market research firm to survey corporate travelers, resulting in Lola’s 2019 State of Corporate Travel Report. Mike’s team designed a PDF to make the research on-brand and gave the data and findings a bit of organization and structure, but for the most part the report just shares the research findings and data outright.

There’s huge value in publishing this sort of data—any writer who is writing articles on the corporate travel industry and wants original research to support their points will likely find this article and reference one of the dozens of statistics and findings in the report. Making raw research and data like this publicly accessible is a great way to build backlinks from writers covering your industry.

I hope these two examples are illustrative of how backlinks are often built—the best links are most often a result of hard work rather than merely automating outreach processes. Couple the two, and you’ve got a recipe for building great backlinks at scale.