The Link-Earning Stack Every SEO Should Strive For

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Being an SEO, you can’t go a day without hearing about links: “Links are crucial!” or “Prioritize links!” or “Links are the nourishing lifeblood of the almighty algorithm!”

But for those of us who’ve taken the next step to actually figure out how to earn said links, we realize it’s not that straightforward.

It’s hard to sum up all of that in the tweets and LinkedIn posts that get shared about link earning, because the truth is, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all link earning approach or vendor. You need a link earning “stack” that appropriately reflects the complexity of your marketing and content goals.

In an ideal world, here’s what that stack would look like. (Hat tip to Paul Zalewski, SVP of Marketing at Verblio, who gave me the idea for this breakdown!)

Passive link earning

Objective: Set up a foundation for link earning with lower effort over time

Content needed: A “linkable content” asset (this is key)

Promotion needed: Manual outreach and promotion to acquire the first one or two links, to help the page initially rank

Passive link earning is any content you can create that will naturally earn links over time without having to actively promote it on an ongoing basis. These pieces are designed to carry their weight in earning links without much active promotion (which is what separates it from the next category, post-specific link earning). They’re often not directly tied to your product or service, though if they are, that’s certainly a bonus.

When SEO teams can collaborate with content teams on creating “linkable content,” passive link earning magic can happen.

Some common examples of linkable content include:

  • Statistics-based or definition-focused posts: People are always looking for stats to cite or definitions to link to.

  • Tools or other interactive resources: If they’re useful, folks love to share them!

  • “Best”/”Top” posts or annual reports: People like to reference lists they’re on or share lists that are interesting, valuable compilations.

Andy Crestodina at Orbit Media Studios is excellent at this strategy.

This post presents new data points around blogging, and it’s earned 2,761 linking domains! How? Because there are so many blog posts about blogging (meta) that want to include statistics relevant to the point they’re trying to make — and Andy is providing them.

Here’s an example of an Alexa blog post citing a data point from the Orbit Media piece:

If you want to dive into this link-earning type more, I recommend reaching out to either Andy or Alex Heinz, who I just saw give an awesome presentation on this very topic.

Targeted link earning

Objective: Help elevate a particular, valuable post in the SERPs

Content needed: N/A — the post you want to boost already exists

Promotion needed: Manual outreach and promotion to more niche sites

You write a piece of content and you know it’s killer, but you want an initial boost to elevate it on page one.

You probably want to build credibility to that page by earning a link or two that will help demonstrate its value.

This is post-specific link earning. It usually involves highly tailored outreach in which you pitch sites to link back to your post. While it’s often a pretty manual effort, even a couple of links can make a huge difference.

I’m going to use Golden Thread Tarot as an example. I do not work with or for them, so I can’t confirm they did any manual outreach. But this example still illustrates my point. Also, tarot reading is my newest obsession.

Their page on how to read tarot ranks in positions 1-3 for highly relevant terms:

This is a great example of a page that should be prioritized for targeted link earning so they can continue to maintain their positions. Why? Because people searching to learn more about reading tarot are the perfect potential customers for their tarot deck and app. Notice how the page has plenty of calls-to-action.

Obviously ranking for “money pages” won’t always be easy, especially for higher-volume terms with greater competition. But if you’re truly creating the best content in response to the searcher’s intent, a couple of links can give you a boost.

There is some overlap between targeted link earning and passive link earning, but the primary difference is that in the former, you’re designing a piece of content from scratch with the sole purpose of building links. The latter is link outreach you conduct in order to boost a page that’s important to your audience acquisition and conversions.

Site authority link earning

Objective: Improve the overall authority of your site/brand

Content Needed: Original reporting and/or newsworthy data

Promotion Needed: Pitching journalists or setting up syndication relationships

A rising tide lifts all boats. In this case, the boats are your specific pages of content, and the rising tide is your site’s domain authority.

If your site and brand are deemed authoritative, it increases the chances that your individual pieces of content will be considered authoritative, as well.

I’ll use one of our brand partners, Sidecar Health, as an example. We’ve been creating newsworthy stories on their behalf and distributing them through the Stacker newswire since December, and Sidecar Health’s domain authority has increased by four in a few months.

The strategy is to create top-of-the-funnel, newsworthy content that authoritative news publications would be interested in running. That way we can earn links/canonicals that demonstrate that the brand is producing valuable content.

Our first story for them was about rural hospital closures across the country. It earned 300+ pickups on sites like MSN, SFGate, The Houston Chronicle, and more.

When you earn this type of link equity to your site, you can then leverage internal linking to distribute that equity to pages that are important to your SEO goals. In using this strategy for just a few months, Sidecar Health has seen a 77% increase in keywords in positions 1-3 in the SERPs.

This type of link earning is often the missing piece for brands who have found that their on-site content is top-notch, but their traffic is plateauing anyway.

Niche link earning

Objective: Earn more relevant authority in your specific niche

Content Needed: Original reporting and/or newsworthy data

Promotion Needed: Pitching journalists or setting up syndication relationships

You can view niche link earning as a spinoff of site authority link earning. Niche link earning just focuses on a lower DA and higher relevance.

I’ve been talking a lot about authority in this piece, and for good reason: it’s one of the most important aspects and benefits of earning links.

But relevance is a piece of the puzzle as well. You don’t want to be earning links that have nothing to do with your brand, even if you’re taking a tangential approach mentioned in the previous section.

It’s good to supplement your general link earning strategy by ensuring you’re earning links from more relevant sites, that are specifically aligned with your brand offering.

To continue the Sidecar Health example, in addition to the links we’ve earned for them, their backlink profile includes links from sites like Verywell Health and Healthline as well as even more niche sites like Health Care Business Today and Electronic Health Reporter.

If you’re finding that you’re not naturally earning links from respected sites in your industry, it’s certainly worth trying to pitch them on your content or build syndication partnerships with them.

A well-rounded link earning strategy

Any one of these link-earning strategies can help move the needle for your organic growth, especially if you’re just getting started.

However, as you mature your program, you’ll need all of these strategies in order to grow sustainably and consistently. The trick becomes understanding how to implement these strategies — whether in-house or outsourcing. A common approach I see is having an internal team that focuses on post-specific and niche link earning while hiring outside help with passive and brand authority linking.

Whatever you try, remember to consistently check that you have your bases covered so you achieve the organic traffic growth you’re aiming for.