The exact details of Google’s search algorithms aren’t public knowledge, making it somewhat difficult to know exactly what it is the search giant is looking for in quality websites.
One of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of these quality rankings is the importance of "white-hat" link-building as part of a solid SEO strategy. The term refers to the desire to create a good product or a service that people will want to link to (the "white-hat" reference) and that over time may increase your search ranking.
The confusion over white hat was ignited during a February 2015 Google Hangout with John Mueller, one of the search company’s webmasters: Mueller cautioned against the practice of "spammy link" building, meaning that companies were breaking Google’s policies by purchasing links from websites or getting irrelevant sites to link back to theirs.
In November 2015, Google helped relieve the problem by releasing a comprehensive, 150-page guide explaining the company's search quality rankings. The move was meant to allow webmasters to proactively build relevant sites that would avoid the penalties that come with frequent updates by Penguin and Panda (Google algorthms which troll for such offenses as duplicate or low-quality pages).
For anyone who hasn't yet had time to read through Google's copious manual and all the subsequent forums, blogs, and comments it spawned, here are some tips on how to obtain quality inbound links that move your site up the search engine rankings.
1. Scout what your competition's doing.
The first step in creating a link-building strategy is to understand what’s working for others. No matter what you search online, there’s already a slew of results for it. If you expect to compete with these existing sites, you need to play the same game they are.
With the Common Backlinks Tool, you can enter up to 10 websites to see which backlinks they all have in common. If everyone has an inbound link from a specific website, that website is likely a trustworthy and respected source for your industry.
You don’t want to be the only website focused on entrepreneurs that isn’t featured on big sites like Entrepreneur (you know the others). It’s a clue that you’re not a trusted source on the subject.
Once you understand what the competition is doing, you can create a focused link-building strategy that will get you ranked among the leaders.
2. Build business relationships.
Now that you know whom to target, it’s time to build business relationships with those influential companies.
Journalists and other business professionals hate spam and often ignore requests from people they don’t know. To get their attention, you’ll need to get involved with their communities.
On a site like Huffington Post, getting the attention of the blogging team is as easy as linking your Facebook account and leaving relevant comments on articles. HuffPo is a community-oriented blogging site that values and encourages the input of its members. You can also reach out to its staff by finding their names and email addresses, either on individual articles or the company’s masthead.
Every business has contact information that can be found on the company’s website. Start a conversation with the company, introduce yourself and provide valuable information and tips to its staff. This gets you and your business in front of the right people, who are more likely to notice when you post relevant content on your site, using you as a source.
HARO (Help a Reporter Out) is another great place to sign up as a source (and even as a blogger if that applies). By signing up for this service, you’ll receive targeted emails three times a day, listing stories journalists seeking sources are currently researching. If you provide relevant information, these writers will often provide a backlink to your site when quoting you for their stories.
3. Guest-post with relevant content.
Of course if you want something done right, your best bet is to do it yourself. Guest-posting directly on relevant sites is one of the best ways to cement your status as a subject expert. Unfortunately, for marketers (and fortunately for readers), guest-posting is such a common practice that publishers are getting pickier about what content they’ll accept and from whom.
In order to successfully pitch a guest post to a blog, you’ll need to fully understand the tone and voice of a publication. Then you can create specific, actionable and relevant content that fits within the site’s guidelines.
To effectively utilize guest-posting as a link-building SEO strategy, you’ll need links within the content, with varied anchor text that shows Google your site is a relevant source for one-to five-word keywords related to the subject.
Think about how you view a television program vs. a commercial. Although a commercial is an effective marketing tool, you want your content to be part of the show. Instead of directly selling, you’re demonstrating value that leads readers to you when they have problems you can solve.
4. Seek out dead links.
There’s nothing more frustrating than clicking a link to find more information, only to be presented with a 404 splash page (a "page not found" notification). However, as a savvy online marketer, the failure of others to keep links updated gives you an opportunity to pick up a valuable backlink to your website.
Whenever you come across a broken link while researching information on your industry, contact the editor of the publication to point it out and offer an alternative within your site.
If you can successfully explain to the publication why that backlink is hurting its web traffic and how your information can help its readers, you’ll not only gain a backlink, you’ll also build trust with the publication. This is also a great opportunity to pitch a guest blog and even gain an editorial column, as you’ve just proven your value as a trusted source.
5. Use Schema Markup.
In 2013, Google started focusing on including infoboxes within search results using the Knowledge Graph to display relevant semantic information for searches. Instead of having to click through to a website, users could find common answers to common questions on the search page itself.
While this may seem like a wasted effort in link-building, it’s actually an easy way to get your site noticed, as snippets from pages within your site will be displayed directly at the top of Google search results. You can’t pay for this kind of ranking, which takes precedence over even sponsored posts.
Site relevancy is an important rating factor for SERP (search engine results pages) rankings, and Google will obviously see itself as the most relevant site on the Internet. The best part is, you don’t have to be the top search result to be featured in the infobox.
To be a part of the Knowledge Graph, you need to implement Schema markup into your website. Google defines this as "code that you put on your website to help the search engines return more informative results for users." Schema.org, which is sponsored by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandax, has everything you need to know to get started using schema markup.
6. Utilize social media.
As we move into the future, social media continues to gain more and more relevance for determining search results. Gaining backlinks on social media shows search engines that you’re creating content which people are actively sharing within their social groups.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to include social media-sharing buttons on every piece of content you create. It’s a call to action for every reader to share your information and helps a post or page go viral.
When Google’s algorithms notice a page is resonating on social media networks, that page is indexed and presented to search quality rankers to determine why. This is what pulls the URL from the unknown obscurity of page 175648 of the search result onto page 1.
SEO experts have been debating the effectiveness of link-building as an online marketing tool for as long as search engines have existed.
Although Mueller and other Google webmasters have cautioned against link-building as an SEO strategy, experienced marketers know they’re actually cautioning against spammy black-hat techniques.
Simply spamming the comments section of every website or building fake sites to bolster your inbound links will get your site penalized.
Instead, focus on creating content that’s relevant to the real-life questions and problems people encounter. Become a subject matter expert and dispense valuable and factual information backed by statistics to draw in readers and prove your worth.
By building relationships with trusted sources, you yourself can become a trusted online source, raising your brand’s visibility with both readers and search engine robots alike.