This is a guest post from Glen Allsopp from Gaps.com, who (fun fact) was featured in SPI Podcast Session #3 from over six years ago! He was one of the first in the world of SEO to really inspire me back in the day, and someone, although quite a bit younger than me, I very much look up to.
He’s been diving even more into the world of SEO since 2010, which is why I wanted him to share a guest post about what’s working today.
Take it away Glen!
I’ve been actively involved in the SEO world for eleven years now, and if there’s one thing that has kept me so interested in the topic it’s the ever-changing landscape of what works, right now.
Since I was sixteen years old, I’ve been writing articles on what Google looks for when ranking websites. Back then I would talk about things like constantly adding content so your website appears “fresh,” how many times your target keyword should be on a page, and making sure all of your URLs had keywords in them, like this: terms-you-want-to-rank-for.html.
Easy to use CMSs (content management systems) like WordPress were not really a thing at that time so most changes people recommended for your site—like your URL structure—had to be done by manually editing files on your server.
While I prefer how much easier technical changes are these days, I do miss one thing from the past: picking up backlinks was so much easier.
We didn’t have the ‘nofollow’ attribute so people could devalue the links they were giving out. People actually linked out to articles they enjoyed reading rather than sending a tweet or giving a Facebook like. You could write articles for other sites without people thinking you were doing it just to manipulate Google rankings. And when blogging did start becoming a thing, we would use something called “pingbacks” to let people know we linked out to them, with the favor often returned.
That was a long time ago, so instead of reminiscing on the past, it’s wiser to think about the future.
Ranking in 2017 and Beyond
You could rightly say that the only constant in SEO is change, but almost all of us who try to improve the rankings of our website in Google would agree that links have always played a big part in their algorithm and will likely do so for a long time to come.
For those of you new to SEO, that’s simply getting people from websites that are relevant to yours to link back to you. Google follows these links, and it’s how they get a picture of the web.
In a recent round-up interview with some well-known SEO experts, they all unanimously stated that links will continue to be a big factor in 2017 as well.
Dan Sharp, creator of the popular Screaming Frog Spider, said, “I believe links will continue to play an important role in scoring in the longer-term.”
Dan Shure, a popular SEO podcaster, said, “Links will in my opinion always play an important role in rankings.”
And Marie Haines, one of the prominent leaders in SEO, said, “I think that links will always be important for ranking.”
With the premise that links are still hugely important in mind, the questions I want to tackle in today’s article are these: Are links really harder to get than ever before? If so, how do you go about building them?
I’ve spent a lot of time covering legitimate forms of link building (known as “whitehat”) like earning links naturally and also the more “greyhat” side of things like utilizing private link networks and creating private communities who link to each other.
Today, I only want to focus on one form of link building, and that’s writing content which entices others to link out to you. In other words, earning links by offering value.
In December 2016 I launched a new blog sharing online business opportunities with my audience. I hoped they would react well to my new focus—away from constantly writing about SEO. The results were far better than I expected.
In its first full month online (January 2017), the site attracted more than 140,000 unique visitors, which I couldn’t be more happy about. Visitors found Gaps via my email list, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, where I was the number one story for the day in the “Entrepreneur” subReddit.
There is just one noticeable downside to reaching so many people that wouldn’t have happened in the past: I wasn’t picking up any links.
Some of the articles I’ve written on Gaps would have picked up hundreds of links in years gone by, but today the links that trickle in are those from social aggregators like Inbound.org or Growthhackers which link out to dozens of other sites on a daily basis. I haven’t picked up any of the powerful links I would have done previously from some of the biggest names in marketing.
I’m not writing this to complain. Not at all. But if links to content are harder to get than before, does any content still attract links?
Do People Really Link Out Less Than Before?
It’s easy to say something like, “People are more likely to tweet than give a link,” but I would rather not make any claims without backing up what I say with real numbers.
Link building certainly isn’t dead. I did pick up a few links from forums where people talked about my articles and someone even wrote about how much money I spent on my domain name. But is it fair to say that sites which regularly pick up links struggle to get them in the same numbers as before?
Let’s find out.
The first site I want to inspect is the blog of Seth Godin. The site hasn’t changed much over the years—he writes short blog posts, frequently—so it should be a good indicator of how our linking habits have evolved.
While Seth has a presence on both Twitter and Facebook which he couldn’t have had in the past, he is not behind either accounts. There is nothing personal about them. They just share links to his latest blog posts.
Here are the number of referring domains (unique sites) that have linked to Seth’s most popular blog posts which were published in their respective year.
We can see that the three years from 2008 to 2010 were very good for Seth in terms of attracting links. We can also see there is a clear decline in how many unique sites link to his articles over the past few years.
Moving on, the next site I wanted to look at is Nerd Fitness from my good friend Steve Kamb. Steve receives hundreds of thousands of visitors to his site each month and while he hasn’t been around for as long as Seth, we still have seven years of data to look at.
Although the trendline would have looked very different if he hadn’t written such a killer post in 2010 (The Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet), it’s clear that in 2015 and 2016 his most-linked-to articles simply didn’t attract links like before.
When I started my personal development blog back in 2009, one of the sites that was growing quickly was called The Art of Manliness. Digg, a site similar to Reddit (which Reddit later overtook in traffic), could easily send 30,000-50,000 visitors to a website, and The Art of Manliness was regularly featured on their homepage. They’ve amassed over one million likes on Facebook so the brand is still going strong, but what about their backlinks?
The decline here is much more horizontal, with recent articles still attracting links from hundreds of different domains. That’s a good sign for those of us worried about our link building future, so let’s see if there are any more sites on a similar role.
Tim Ferriss, author of The New York Times bestsellers like 4-Hour Body and 4-Hour Chef, also has a popular blog at FourHourWorkWeek.com. It’s great to see that the decline for Tim here is even less, meaning he’s still able to attract links to recent articles.
If there wasn’t such an anomaly with his results back in 2007, this would have been the most consistent chart yet.
And last but not least, I couldn’t write a guest post for SPI without looking at the data for Pat’s blog as well. I know Pat himself would be interested in this, so here we go.
With an absolutely killer post in 2008, with 454 domains linking to him, Pat really outdid his other content nine years ago. While the numbers are low in 2015 and 2016, they’re not too different from 2009, 2012, and 2013 where his best article received links from around 40 different websites.
As a side note, please accept that the figures above are never going to be 100 percent accurate. We don’t have direct access to Google so it’s impossible to say how many links they find for each site. I used Ahrefs for this data and it is widely regarded as the closest alternative we have.
One could argue that my data is flawed. The older posts have been around for longer which gives them more time to pick up links.
But we can also counter-argue that there are far more people online these days, and with social media, these featured websites are reaching a lot more readers who own websites and could link out to them.
What I care about more than how scientific my results are is the fact that great content still attracts links. So let’s look at what they’re writing about, and who’s linking out.
1,700 Linking Domains to a New Piece of Content
While sites seem to be receiving fewer links than before, they’re still receiving links.
Jon Cooper of Point Blank SEO recently tweeted a great example of an article that had gone viral in link building terms and amassed a large number of links for a relatively unsexy topic. The article was on the state of American consumer debt (I did say it wasn’t sexy) by the blog NerdWallet. Here’s how many links it received.
The rapid growth in the chart is a little deceptive—the article was written in 2015 and then the links were redirected elsewhere—but it has picked up links from places like The Atlantic, LifeHacker, Zillow, and Fool.com.
What should be interesting is not where they’re receiving links, but the context of those links. Let’s look at the actual sentences with the underlined text being where the link would be.
- The biggest sources of debt? Housing education
- According to NerdWallet’s 2015 American Household Credit Card Debt Study
- Roughly 40 million Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion in combined student debt
The links don’t stand out. They’re more of an afterthought to a point that the author is trying to make. This is because the NerdWallet article is focused on data, so when the author from another site wants to make a point, they casually link to that data to back up their claims.
NerdWallet’s data comes from a large survey of their audience, which allows them to present the data in an attractive way each year that only they can produce.
What could you survey your own audience about which could create some interesting charts and numbers for other people to mention?
During a speech at HackerCon in 2015, the founder of NerdWallet stated that his team’s goal is to produce 500 content pieces each month with the aim of generating more links back to their site. They realized that SEO was the biggest driver of new visitors to their site, and certainly learned how to master it.
They’re not the only one who use surveys to good effect. SEO software company Moz.com has picked up thousands of links over the years to their annual industry surveys. It’s interesting they let a guest author share one for 2016, but it still resulted in a very popular post.
You don’t need thousands of people to take part to have value to offer. Some of the best data I’ve seen comes from surveys which only had around 100-300 people take part. And if you’re not design-inclined, you can use a tool like Survey Monkey to help you collect data and create charts.
Tim Ferriss’s Most Linked-To Blog Post of 2016
If Tim’s blog, The Four Hour Workweek, had not had such a well-linked-to post back in 2007, his link attraction chart would have been almost constant over the years.
Even in 2016 some of his articles are picking up hundreds of links from other websites. Of course, it helps that Tim already has a big audience, but he wrote a lot of articles in 2016 which didn’t entice people to link out to him. Tim’s most linked-to post of 2016, which picked up more links than his best articles in 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2015, was his interview with Seth Godin.
Seth Godin has done a lot of interviews with podcasters, but this one was pretty notable. Not only was it over two hours long but it covered Seth’s daily habits and disciplines, something a lot of people were genuinely interested in, especially when said individual has written over a dozen bestselling books.
It’s not the first time that interviews have helped people to get noticed. When Nathan Chan, owner of Foundr Magazine, was on the Smart Passive Income Podcast, he talked about how landing an exciting interview helped catapult his brand into the big time. He pushed for weeks and weeks to interview Richard Branson, and eventually, he got his wish. For a new business magazine trying to show credibility in a competitive market, landing a single interview with a big fish like Richard was enough to do just that.
Tim and Nathan both say they’ve regularly reached out to people for months and months before finally getting them to agree to be interviewed.
Is there a person in your industry who is notoriously difficult to get on a podcast? Or is there someone who has done interviews but hasn’t been asked questions you would love to know the answers to?
It will take a bit of work, and perhaps some outreach charm, but the results could most certainly be worth it.
The Classic List Post . . . With a Twist
If you’ve been using the Internet for more than a week you’ve likely come across a number of list posts popularized by the first bloggers and then taken to the extreme by sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed.
Headlines like “11 Reasons to Eat Avocados” and “6 Quick Tips to Improve Your Snowboarding” are the kind of articles that healthy eaters and snowboarders are likely to click on to get their content fix.
As a marketing tactic, the list post idea has been done to death, but there is a twist that can keep them valuable, and that’s to make them both valuable and timeless.
Instead of whipping up another quick guide for pageviews, try to put something substantial together that people can benefit from for years to come.
The Art of Manliness did this with their guide, 100 Books Every Man Should Read, which has picked up over 4,500 links from 632 different websites. Even more impressive is it still picks up new backlinks every few days.
Another great example of this tactic in action is from The Simple Dollar, who wrote about 100 great tips for saving money. [Editor's note: This blog post is no longer active.]
The article was written just over a year ago and has managed to attract links from over 550 different websites. The key difference between list posts that attract links and those that don’t, seems to be substance. Not just throwing up a quick “7 days to do this” article, but really going into a topic in depth and sharing a lot of insights.
130 Links in the Last 30 Days: The Pat Flynn Approach
Since I’m writing for Pat’s blog today, I had to cover one of the tactics which has helped his website earn hundreds of thousands of backlinks.
The following post, which was written back in 2012 (!), still picked up over 100 new backlinks in the last 30 days. Tools like Ahrefs—used to analyze this data—aren’t only going to pick up great links, but there are definitely some in there.
As Pat has been known to do over the years, he created a step-by-step guide to a topic he knows his readers need help with. In this case, it was getting started with podcasting.
Pat put together a complete tutorial including the “5 things you should prepare before you begin recording.”
The reason articles like this continue to pick up links years after being published is because—just like the list posts which attract links—they’re timeless. Pat can link back to this guide any time he recommends podcasting as a marketing tactic as the overall information hasn’t changed. And if it has, he can update the post.
His guide has picked up links from the likes of:
Besides Lifehacker, these are some of the biggest brands in the marketing world and the exact type of place that any marketing blog would love to pick up links from.
I wrote a guide about WordPress SEO back in 2010 which still picks up links to this day. Steve’s Nerd Fitness has more links to his guide to the Paleo diet than anything else. Steve Pavlina has thousands of links to his articles on how to get traffic to a blog written over seven years ago.
So, ask yourself this question: What would your audience love for you to write a tutorial on? What could you write about now that you could reference in a year or two from now and people would still be interested in it?
Appeal to Your Readers’ Core
Around nine years ago I ran a personal development blog. The site was reaching approximately 100,000 visitors per month after the first year so it’s fair to say I had learned what people were interested in reading about.
Guest blogging for SEO was not something that was looked down upon back then so it’s something I actively did. I’m talking about writing for thirty different blogs in a single month. I didn’t just write for other blogs for links, of course. I hoped to write something valuable that their audience would enjoy and that would, hopefully, incentivize them to come on over to my own website to read more of my writing.
Once such guest post I wrote for a site named Dumb Little Man went viral. The view counter for the article passed 150,000 before they redesigned the site recently and reset all the statistics.
Here’s the headline I used:
I aimed to take people out of the mundane, typical web browsing and appeal to them on a core level.
I’m not the only one who has succeeded with this. Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness recently wrote a post about why your heroes are flawed. It’s a headline that inspires you to learn more about what you’re reading and re-think what you currently believe in.
It’s no surprise then that it’s picking up links in 2017 faster than anything else he has written.
You can really take a different, more personal viewpoint on any topic and turn it into something that readers care about. We’ve already mentioned how successful Steve’s site was in picking up links about the Paleo Diet and his recommendations for it, but you can also turn the subject on its head and attract attention.
The Everywhereist was named as one Time Magazine’s top 25 bloggers, and this is their most linked to article.
As a final example for this strategy, I had to include an article I loved which went viral recently in the marketing and business world.
With over 16,000 likes on Medium, it’s the most popular article I’ve ever seen on the site. If you write something that a lot of people see, picking up links is almost always going to be a natural byproduct.
Can you write a headline that makes people jump out of the frame of what they would typically expect to read, and back up what you’re saying with great points?
If so, there could be a lot of links heading your way.
The Light Bulbs that Attracted 309 Backlinks
With any product on the market you can think of, people are going to be running comparisons. Which brand makes better cross-country running shoes: Nike or Under Armor?
What’s better, an LCD TV or Plasma TV? Is Ultra 4K really that much better than HD? It may be surprising to you that people are also interested in light bulb comparisons.
The Simple Dollar compared exactly that and had more than 309 links sent their way.
Another example of very niche comparisons comes from Bryan Harris who put together detailed reviews of some of the best email marketing services.
It’s not the type of content that’s going to go viral and have the planet talking about it, but it is the kind of thing that people who are unsure about which email marketing tool to use are going to read.
I have been with Aweber for nine years and followed Bryan’s updates like a hawk because I’ve been curious about what features I’m missing out on from companies that have been quicker to uptake new features.
Staying with the marketing world, Search Engine Land recently wrote a comparison between Google Home and Amazon Echo.
SEL picked up over 900 backlinks from 150 different websites with their comparison, including from sites like:
- Street Fight Mag
That’s a lot of links for an article that was only written a few months ago.
The key to succeeding with this comparison model is to compare something very specific to your audience.
People outside of Internet marketing are not going to care about email marketing service reviews and people who don’t care much for being frugal aren’t going to read thousands of words about light bulb comparisons.
What would your audience be interested in seeing you compare?
Share a Journey
Toward the end of 2016 I came across an article from a man named Filipe who had challenged himself to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for twenty-one days.
The resulting article shared a number of interesting insights, and picked up links from big brands like:
- Business Insider
It inspired me to start my own early-rising challenge and I even created a personal website to share my journey. It’s something that gathered a lot of interest from my audience.
Another public journey that was well received was the “12 Startups in 12 Months” challenge by a man named Peter who goes by the moniker Levels.
Just like Filipe, Peter also picked up backlinks from some huge brands like:
- The Next Web
- Hacker News
- Startup Grind
And, as you can see from the chart below, the links keep coming.
Is there a personal challenge that you could take on, relevant to your industry?? How about living on just $300 for a month? Or trying to lose 30 lbs? Or beating a personal record in the gym?
If anyone is on the same journey or just curious about how you’ll get on, you may find many links being sent your way.
The Item-Hype Formula: A Secret Template
The item-hype formula is simply the name I’ve attached to a style of headline I see that is both popular and effective at attracting links. The name of this headline style is actually derived from the headline itself.
Item is the subject you’re talking about and hype is the follow up which makes people want to read it.
For example, a post I referred to earlier, “WordPress SEO: The Only Guide You Need.” The start is the item—the topic I’m talking about—and the hype comes after the colon.
Other bloggers have successfully used this title, in cases such as:
- Open Source Blogging: Feel Free to Steal My Content (1,000+ links)
- Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks (1,000+ links)
- Vibram Five Fingers: The Barefoot Alternative (600+ links)
Just think of the last headline in a little more detail to see how it grabs your attention. There’s an alternative to going barefoot? People actually walk around barefoot? The headline creates questions in my mind, and I want to read the post to get answers.
Start a headline with the core topic you want to write about, and then add some hype to what you’re saying.
This is better than the typical clickbait headlines you’ll see from BuzzFeed because you’re setting the tone of the topic upfront. If you don’t have the content to back up your awesome headline, then it’s pointless crafting such a good headline that gets clicks in the first place.
Your headline, first and foremost, is purely designed to get people to read the rest of your post. Even though they’re reading it, they still have to enjoy it if they’re going to share it.
If I’m going to write a post about WordPress SEO and call it “the only guide you need” then I can’t just give a few generic tips on the subject. I have to make it the best guide online.
The Best Advice I Can Give You on Your SEO Journey
Don’t do it alone.
I don’t mean that you need to assemble a team of people to work for you or even partner up on your projects. I simply mean that you should find people on the same journey as you so that you can help each other along the way.
Brian Clark of Copyblogger fame and Darren Rowse of Problogger linked to each other hundreds of times during their first few blogging years.
Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land and Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable did the same.
Jeremy Schoemaker and John Chow grew their blogs rapidly while promoting each other. It’s interesting to note that both blogs seemed to have died down in a similar manner.
JD Roth of Get Rich Slowly and Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar grew massive audiences in sync and supported each other’s journey.
Pat started Smart Passive Income around 2009 and I started ViperChill as a marketing blog in 2010. For the first few years we chatted regularly, mentioned each other’s brands and learned what worked in growing an audience.
Ideally, you’re looking for three to four people who are already on the same journey as you. They’re trying to grow a brand in a similar field but you clearly aren’t competing for the exact same audience; or if you are, you’re not trying to sell the same products.
You won’t have much luck trying to convince people to build a site similar to yours or get involved in the same industry so you can promote each other. Even if you do, those people likely won’t stick around for very long. You’re looking to find people who have already proven that they’re self-drivers and have an inherent interest in the same subject as you.
If you’re active in your niche online, you’ll already know some of the up and comers in your space, or the big players who may be more approachable than you would expect.
The most obvious way to connect with these people would be to introduce yourself via email, but I wouldn’t do that to start with. Instead, I would start looking at how you can add value to that person by leaving comments, linking out to them, or suggesting improvements to their website.
Do it in a genuine way that shows you want to help rather than get something back.
Over time, these random moments of interaction can often lead to something more. You could always speed up the process by reaching out—after some prior value giving—and having a chat on Skype or even meeting up in person if possible.
Again, I recommend trying to connect with three to four other people on the same journey as you. In every niche there are always a few brands which get noticeably more traction and readers than everyone else.
With your new connections you can discuss and take part in things like:
- What content worked that people shared
- How promotions went in regards to product launches
- Which traffic sources are bringing the most valuable readers
- Linking to each other in relevant articles
- Mentioning each other when being interviewed
They say two heads are better than one, and when it comes to link building and creating an online brand, I would totally agree.
There are so many facets to SEO that I have literally written hundreds of articles on the topic, but if you’re looking for content ideas that people are still shown to link to, the examples I’ve covered should help get you well on your way.