SEO Through Backlinks

Email outreach, featuring famous people, and buying links?

This is part of my Entreprenerd: Marketing for Programmers book, which is currently available to read for free online.

Backlinks are arguably the most important aspect of SEO, and indisputably the most frustrating aspect to implement, owing to the challenges and uncertainties inherent in convincing others to link to you and the shamelessness needed to pull it off. Even world-class SEO pros expect to have to solicit ten website owners for every backlink they secure; if you’re a beginner, be prepared to experience a lot of rejection.

There are two ways in which backlinks win you traffic. The first of these is by raising your rankings in Google Search for your keywords, such that a higher proportion of searchers end up learning about and visiting your website. The second way backlinks win you traffic is by channelling a flow of visitors from blogs, forums, and other websites where people in your market assemble, such that these visitors travel your way even without having interacted with a search engine.

My reason for distinguishing these two modes of backlink traffic is because the second form is hugely underrated. Websites acting in some internet sectors, such as pornography, receive hordes of traffic despite being completely banned from appearing in Google Search.

In the eyes of search engines, there are normal links—which attribute search ranking juice—and no-follow links—which don’t. In the olden days of the Web 2.0, it was possible for someone to link to themselves within the comment section on some other website’s blog and gain a search engine boost because of this. But this practice quickly led to a massive rise in comment spam, and, as a reaction, webmasters started installing software that automatically transformed all links in blog comments into their no-follow equivalents.

Many professionals working in search engine optimisation do not bother collecting no-follow links. But this restraint is misplaced if the no-follow link could have appeared on a page visited by millions of readers every month. While it’s true that these links won’t win any traffic via Google Search, they can (potentially) deliver thousands of visitors via referrals from that blog. Don’t underestimate this.

There’s another preliminary point worth making: Not all pages on your website are equally likely to attract backlinks. For example, if you sell life insurance, it’s unlikely that any journalist or blogger in their right mind will ever link to the page detailing your pricing. But the same people wouldn’t think twice about linking to an interesting article you post about the wacky conversations of a quirky door-to-door insurance salesman. It’s unrealistic to SEO every page on your domain, so focus on the ones that are easy sells and let their inbound links boost the average rankings of the other, more boring pages on your domain.

Finally, you should budget, as a minimum, at least as much time and money into gathering backlinks as you did on writing the page you hope to rank for. That means that an article that took 20 hours to write deserves at least 20 hours of promotional efforts. If you aren’t prepared to do this, then you might as well forget about having an SEO strategy.

Include Contributions from People with Big Audiences

This strategy is timeless and will be relevant for as long as there are people who wish to promote themselves. The basic idea is that you either a) solicit statements, opinions, or articles from others for inclusion in your website; or b) write about others in glowing terms.

Once you publish the page concerning them, these third parties will be motivated to promote it because they know that your success feeds back into their own. On a (now defunct) blog, I asked 20 bloggers in my niche to give their top advice for the new year. When this post was published, it won me more traffic in one day than all my other posts put together had earned in the past year.

And, by the way, if you follow plan b) (writing about others in glowing terms), remember that these people will almost definitely not be aware of your work unless you tell them; you’ll need to reach out and let them know when you publish.

Coin Concepts

Have you heard of the email management technique Inbox Zero? Or the term for a passive income business, Muse? Or the Suzuki Method for learning music? These are all relatively recently invented concepts that stuck and have entered our vocabulary.

The advantage of coining a concept is that people will always have to refer back to you (via a backlink) when they write about it or explain it elsewhere. Done tastefully, this is a great tactic.

For a start, you should share your link on your (public) social media profiles and status feeds. These links no longer contribute towards Google rankings1, but are still worth having so as to reach non-search-engine referral traffic and possibly convince them to take a gander over at your website.

Next up are links left on social bookmarking websites like Reddit, Delicious, or StumbleUpon. If your writing is up to par and your topic sufficiently interesting, it’s not at all unrealistic to gain decent traffic (and Google rankings) through a post to the appropriate topic-based section of these websites. If possible, have a friend submit on your behalf—the moderators of many communities dislike self-promotion.

The next stop on your self-posting crusade is commenting—be that on blog articles, forum posts, social bookmarking websites, or question and answer websites (like Quora or Stack Overflow).

A phenomenal source of traffic, if you can find it, is post-it-yourself communities of like-minded people. For example, in the programming world there are a bunch of community-maintained news websites that collect links to the hottest new articles in that field. These can be a great way to reach a large, targeted audience without having to get past the hurdle of an unpredictable content curator.

Email Outreach

This (rather cheeky) approach consists of cold emailing people in your niche and telling them about your article with an email that says something like, “Love your blog, esp. the article on X. I thought you’d like this article I wrote on the same topic.”

Don’t ask them to share or give you a link in your email—but don’t be surprised if they do.

Last time I tried this approach, I got about a 33% promotion rate (which I define as receiving at least a Tweet).

Pitch Your Content To Writers of Round-Up Articles

A perennial favourite among internet users are articles with titles like “Complete List of Twitter Clients for Android” or “99+ Best Web Design Resources” or “Portable Bluetooth Speaker Round-Up 2016”. Considering that the purpose of these articles is to enumerate what’s available, it’s not difficult for you to convince their authors to include whatever you’re offering.

Prominent members of the SEO community, such as Brian Dean, agree that your odds of being included in the list are improved if, in your first contact with the author, you point out something outdated in their article2 (e.g., one of their link 404s, a company they mentioned has rebranded, or the prices they list for a product are obsolete). You have done them a favour, and they owe you one back—payment for which you accept in the form of backlink.

Where this tactic isn’t possible, it’s still worth reaching out to these authors anyway. When doing so, it is recommended that you avoid sending your link to the author in your first email; instead, you should feel out their interest and ask them if they are OK with you forwarding an article for their opinion. Only if the author shows some interest should you send the goods.

Piggyback off High-Ranking Websites

It’s very possible that a page on the third-party website which links to your website will nevertheless outrank your website. Here’s a shady example of this idea in action: I once googled “best indian in Berlin” and noticed that the top result was a link to a Yelp page with a review containing the text “best indian in Berlin”. I subsequently ate there, and it was dreadful. When I returned to Yelp to poke around, I noticed that the reviews were obviously faked (e.g., accounts with no other activity, all created on the same day). The restaurant simply figured out what potential customers typed into Google, found a way to insert that text into a website with decent Google rank, and then benefitted accordingly. Had they written the same text on their own website, it would never have ranked and come to my attention. But by placing a link to themselves on Yelp, this horrid little restaurant was able to leverage Yelp’s popularity.

Guest Post on a Large Platform

The idea is that you write something of extraordinary quality and give it away for free to someone who owns a platform (e.g., to a large blog or a major news website). The platform wins by getting good content for free and you win by slipping a backlink into the copy you send them.3

Google warns against doing this in the strongest of terms, but their bark is a substitute for their inability to enforce this policy, at least when links are bought covertly.

Let’s start with what NOT to do: Don’t buy links in a link-buying marketplace. If it’s public knowledge that a domain sells links, then Google could theoretically detect the sale and penalise you for breaking their policy.

If you want to get away with buying links, the key is to contact a webmaster established in your niche and do a private deal. The link they give you should be integrated naturally into the third-party website’s content such that your paid-for link is indistinguishable from any other natural link. With these precautions in place, there is little chance of Google detecting your bribery.


  2. Brian Dean goes into this in depth and suggests techniques for doing this: 

  3. Specific strategies for finding guest blogging opportunities and pitching are detailed here: 

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