Organic search sends valuable, targeted traffic to your website. But SEO is a long game, and it can be difficult to know which tactics to prioritize given that Google updates its algorithm hundreds of times each year. One effort that will continue to be worth your while: building backlinks. Aaron Uscilla, a managing partner and owner of Milford-based Mad Mango Marketing, tells us why, and then tells us how to go about it.
Connecticut Innovations: Hi, Aaron. Great to talk with you. Tell us: How do backlinks drive traffic?
Aaron Uscilla: Think of a backlink as a signal of trust from one site to another. Search engines strive to present useful information to people. One of the quickest ways to determine whether a site is relevant is by looking at its backlink profile. If the site has a well-rounded profile from other independent and authoritative sites, search engines like Google will be more likely to recommend the page compared to pages with weaker profiles.
CI: And yet a recent Forbes article said backlinks are out. Your take?
AU: This article, which preaches long, well-thought-out content in a contradictory 750 words, accurately touches on one area where backlinks are no longer as powerful: to and from news outlets. This measure was primarily a reaction on Google’s part to “fake news.” I want to give this article more credit but am hesitant because of lines like “Don’t even think about reposting someone else’s content. Google will find you and slap you on the wrist.” This has been proven here, here and here to be inaccurate. To understand SEO we need to think like we own Google, which spends millions of dollars every year to figure out how to answer questions with the best resources possible. What is the quickest and most foolproof way to decide that a website is worth showing a user? Assessing how many other authoritative and independent websites refer to its content. Why would another authoritative site link to something that would diminish its brand? Why would 100 sites do this? Backlinks are a signal of trust, and they will always have a place in SEO.
CI: Makes sense. Will the rules change anytime soon?
AU: No, because the rules have never changed; there have only been holes exploited by “black hats” that are covered up with an algorithm update.
CI: How does link building compare to other SEO strategies?
AU: Once you have exhausted your real-world connections for backlinks, you need to create content that other sites will find useful for their readers. So link building and content creation go hand in hand, but content reigns supreme. Link building alone is not an SEO strategy. You need to focus on hard metrics like page speed and bounce rates, then content, and finally link building.
CI: How do you earn a backlink?
AU: You earn backlinks that are worth having in one of two ways. The first and easiest way is by simply talking to the web team at the companies you do business with. Offer to review a supplier’s product, for example, because the company will probably be happy to post the content on their site. The second option is to create useful web content that adds value to other posts around the web. Don’t get sucked into only writing blog posts, either: tools, charts, videos and infographics are also content.
CI: How do you identify a relevant niche?
AU: If a business operates in your space, it’s relevant. As a link builder for multiple companies, I determine whether a site fits my clients’ niche by looking at what keywords it ranks for and what backlinks it has and from where. Then I give it the eyeball test. If you think you have tapped every niche—though I guarantee you haven’t—and you’re looking for new ideas, here’s a tip: Start by auditing the backlinks of the competitors that rank ahead of you.
CI: What if the site already links to a lot of other sites?
AU: It depends on the size of the site. Large sites should have more links. If you are offered a link on a blog that has more than three or four outbound links per thousand words, you may have stumbled across a private blog network (PBN) or guest-post site that will shop out the post in the future. You should be more concerned with the page than the site, but again, everything comes down to relevancy.
CI: What metrics may tip off a site as a PBN?
AU: Moz’s Spam Score does a pretty good job identifying PBNs. Scrutinize anything with a score of 10 or higher. After that there’s site traffic, which is usually very low or even zero for PBNs. The best way to spot a PBN is to check the backlinks, visit those links, check their backlinks and see if you notice any common junk-looking sites. PBNs have adapted, and analyzing the backlinks takes a trained eye. A good litmus test: Before you start, ask the site owner if they have other sites you can post on or sites they can connect you to. If they send a spreadsheet full of sites, that’s a red flag.
CI: Do page metrics matter more than site metrics?
AU: Page metrics matter more for the average business that is trying to do SEO on its own. Keep in mind that my recommendations are for small- to medium-size sites. Massive e-commerce and news sites may have other link priorities. But SEO is about relevancy. If you have a link placed on a site with 10,000 pages, you are going to get most of your SEO authority from the individual page you’re on. The most important page metrics are traffic to the page and word count. If there are other backlinks, look at the sitewide metrics for each link to make sure the site is healthy and independent of a PBN.
CI: Do site layout and ad placement/quality matter?
AU: Site layout is becoming more and more relevant. Tread lightly with sites that look like they were created at the start of the internet. The same goes for sites that contain spammy ads. That said, if you are hyper niche, like one of our clients who manufactures laminates, a lot of good backlink opportunities may be on outdated websites. I would focus more on page relevancy than the overall layout, but if you are choosing between one or the other and one clearly has a better UX, that’s the one to go with.
CI: What about authors?
AU: For your average backlink, the author doesn’t hold much weight. But if you get an opportunity to get a link from a well-known writer, the article could get more eyes, which may lead to more traffic.
CI: Why is anchor text important?
AU: Anchor text refers to the words the user clicks to visit your site, so you can imagine how important it is. Just like page placement, anchor text requires serious thought and attention. There are several different SEO terms for the different types of anchor text you can use. I wrote a post on the topic here. If your business serves a community, your best bet for anchor text is the business’s name. If your business is not local, having a well spread-out anchor text profile based on the categories in my blog post is a good idea. Ultimately, you want to provide an accurate description of where the user will be going.
CI: Where should the link point to, and do you have control over that?
AU: You should have full control over the link placement. The link needs to point to the most relevant piece of content on your site for the link. Let’s say you are a 3PL company and you have a drop-shipping page. You find a site willing to add you to their blog about drop-shipping tactics for next year, and you are going to place your link on the anchor text “drop-shipping providers.” You would be best served to have this link point to your drop-shipping page because ideally this page has great content about drop shipping. Linking to the specific page will allow Google to determine relevancy and boost that piece of content more easily. Some people may be tempted to link to the home page, but if we’re looking to provide contextual info to a reader who clicks on this backlink, odds are they would prefer to land on a page dedicated to the topic.
CI: How many backlinks should you try to get? Is there a number that will make the search engines think your site is spam?
AU: There is no magic number that will put you into a spam situation. What you are going for is consistency. In other words, whatever your pace, stay steady. Keep in mind, assuming you aren’t a site with 100k+ daily users, that you should be assessing SEO quarter over quarter, not month over month. Some links take months to iron out.
CI: Should you provide backlinks to other sites?
AU: If they add context for your readers, yes! But set the links to take the user to another window so you don’t lose them when they click.
CI: You’re a big believer in checklists. Why are they important?
AU: One of my favorite business books is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. In it, Gawande, a surgeon, discusses how checklists save lives in the OR, since even the most brilliant surgeon can miss steps in complicated procedures. Backlink building and surgery are very different, of course, but creating a backlink checklist, especially if you are outsourcing the task, can save you from potential penalties.
CI: Can you share the checklist(s) you use? Or tell us what’s on them?
AU: We use content creation checklists more than backlink checklists since you are more likely to get off topic with content than you are to build a bad link. But if we’re talking about a link-building campaign, you have to build your own tolerance level. The links that come naturally from your regular business operations should be straightforward because you know those sites are an authority. For backlink building as a tactic, focus on the following metrics and set the mark where you feel comfortable:
- Site traffic
- URL rating
- Pages quantity and relevancy of keywords
- Pages quantity and relevancy of outbound links
- Domain rating
- Spam score
CI: When should a company look to hire out its backlink building? Is that considered black hat?
AU: Backlink building requires time and perseverance. Simply adding it to your marketing team’s to-do list could waste serious time and frustrate them if they don’t have link outreach or negotiation experience. They can learn how to do it, but outsourcing it makes sense for many businesses since you can avoid the expenses that come with hiring or training an employee or setting up these systems in-house. Hiring an honest link builder is no more black hat than hiring an incredible UX designer.
CI: What’s one thing you wish you’d known about SEO sooner?
AU: WordPress is not the end-all and be-all and can even add more stress to your life than opting for a cleaner builder like WebFlow. Google, and as a result SEO, is more and more content oriented. Even out-of-the-box web builders like Wix work directly with Google to make sure their sites meet the standards to rank. WordPress leaves you far more open to malware through things like outdated plugins, plus there’s no support. If you have a team to manage your site, WordPress is a great choice. Otherwise, look elsewhere.
CI: What is the biggest SEO mistake you see companies making?
AU: Writing thin content and giving up on content after a couple of months. If you are a new site, or even one that doesn’t have much authority, you need to think about content creation in a six- to 12-month timeframe. Google is not going to recommend you without vetted proof, meaning content and links. Once you have settled on a keyword goal, build a service or product page and then look to create four to six pieces of supporting content for the page. The main page you’re trying to rank can be brief—750 to 1,500 words—but each blog post should take a deep dive—2,000 to 3,000 words—into a niche for that service or product.
CI: Thanks for the great advice, Aaron. Great talking with you.
AU: My pleasure.