Lee Odden

Strategic Link Building for SEO

Lee Odden     Link Building, Online Marketing, SEO

link buildingNot many in the Search Engine Optimization game would argue that link building isn’t tactical. The problem is, approaching link building as an end goal and tactically, is very much like a hamster running in it’s cage.  That’s what many mechanical SEO consultants do: Chase links one by one or get creative with link bait to attract an influx of links from blogs that write about the kinds of things other blogs do for link bait. I should know, in the past 12 years of providing SEO services, there have been many opportunities to do just that. It’s not scalable, not sustainable and certainly not strategic.

The best links from one site to another are often a byproduct of something much bigger than standard link building.  They’re evidence, in most cases, that the link destination offers value and that the linker feels will be of value to their readers. Being cited by an online publisher of content that has credibility is meaningful to readers and builds credibility in the same way that being cited by a well respected print publication results in brand influence. Links can drive traffic and search engine bots to your web site.

Building links is a goal, but many companies that do a fantastic job of it see links as a KPI or a proxy measurement to something else. Something more meaningful and bigger picture in a marketing sense. Strategic link building means having an understanding of audience, tactics and measurement as well as how links can be achieved anciallary to other marketing activities. Many of the most successful sites (at link acquisition) don’t ask for links at all. They build up their channels of distribution and focus on providing useful content that recipients link to and pass along to others who might link.

Google’s offers this advice, in it’s special way, on link building:

“The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

That’s fine as a guideline, but there’s a lot left out as far as planning and execution. The web is a competitive place and it’s getting more so. Companies can’t gain a competitive edge by leaving link acquisition totally to the collective wisdom of the web. There needs to be a mix of efforts by internal resources as well as outside expertise. The question is, how to do that.

Our agency’s roots are as a public relations firm and in the course of providing media relations services (pitching journalists to write stories about our clients) the goal of being covered in a relevant industry publication was first and foremost. Often times, those newspapers, magazines and media would publish stories online, as well as in print, and would include a link to the companies being mentioned.

As far back as 2001, we noticed that pure media relations clients (no SEO) would experience increased search engine rankings on important phrases, even though there was no formal effort to optimize content or conduct specific link building tactics.  We would do a certain amount of keyword research for those companies to facilitate searching editorial calendars like Bacon’s (now owned by Cision), or MyEdCals for potential stories and publications. We’d coach executives during media relations training to use some of those phrases in order to stay on message.  A byproduct of the story being published online was a link. Sometimes those links would use anchor text for the keywords mentioned in the interview. Those links from highly credible editorial sources were recognized by search engines and boosted search rankings.

Were links the goal? No, media coverage was the goal. But additional value and market visibility was achived by focusing on the marketing and not on individual link acquisition.  Long term “meritocratic” link building is strategic and focused on creating and promoting content of value that publishers can decide to link to. The idea is to have an understanding of what structure/syntax/format to flavor content with in order improve the chances of earning such links.

What does this have to do with strategic link building for SEO?  My point is that while it does make sense to do a certain amount of forms, profiles, content syndication and link bait type of link building, the longevity of a linking for SEO effort needs to be tied to broader marketing, communications and PR activities. Companies interact in many ways on the web that produce links, or could produce links.  The key is to take advantage of what’s already being done and uncover the link opportunities as a process.

One of the most productive link building strategies is where companies leverage a SEO consultant’s expertise for the mechanics of content based link building in addition to gaining an understanding of how to leverage what corporate communications, PR, HR, Marketing, Sales and even Investor Relations are already doing that could result in relevant inbound links. A process of creating awareness, building value, training on link building mechanics and mechanisms for feedback on performance within a company can do wonders for link acquisition by leveraging existing content publishing and promotion activities.

Here are a few examples:

  • Public Relations: Links can be included in press releases, an online newsroom, within email pitches to journalists and bloggers, pdf documents of case studies, media coverage and one of the best tips:  When a journalist confirms they’re running a story citing your company, ASK FOR A LINK.
  • Human Resources: Job listings and open house events are good opportunities for links when promoted on aggregation sites for jobs and events. Optimize the job and event listing titles and always add a link back to an optimized web page for more information. In some cases, paid job listings will include a link, but one that gets redirected by ad tracking software. ASK FOR A LINK that is direct.
  • Marketing: Companies partner with other companies, join associations and often produce microsites, buy ads, sponsor events/conferences/causes and many other off-corporate-site communications. All of those present some type of link opportunity.  For example, find email newsletters that are archived to the web and that include good links from the ad (and anchor text if possible) and sponsor them. You get visibility via email distribution and when the HTML version of the newsletter is published online, there’s a link back to your site.  Charitable giving often involves a web site that lists donors. ASK FOR A LINK back.

The bottom line here is that for a productive link building strategy, it makes sense to leverage both company communications and marketing resources as well as those of a SEO consultant that understand the specific mechanics of linking and can train client side departments how to leverage their current activities to earn citations online. The resulting links tend to be more valuable for driving traffic and for providing search engines with a signal with which to better rank your content.

If you work as a client side marketer on SEO, what other ways to leverage existing content publishing and promotions have you found to be useful for link building?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. “It’s not scalable, not sustainable and certainly not strategic.

    The best links from one site to another are often a byproduct of something much bigger than standard link building. They’re evidence, in most cases, that the link destination offers value and that the linker feels will be of value to their readers. ”

    “process of creating awareness, building value, training on the mechanics and mechanisms for feedback on performance within a company can do wonders for link acquisition by leveraging existing content publishing and promotion activities.”

    I LOVE this advice. It’s all about content and value. If you keep linking your readers to bad sites, you can kiss those readers good bye. Non-sustainable and non-strategic is an understatement. This method of link building also neglects a key point – if you don’t have the content to keep people on your site, whats the point of getting linked to?

    • Mark, “if you don’t have the content to keep people on your site, whats the point of getting linked to?” Love that!

      • Thanks Lee

        It’s what I tell everyone who comes to see us. That and “Content is king online.” Nothing else really matters. Zen Habits and Get Rich Slowly didn’t explode because they asked people to link to them, they just put up killer content and joined the blogging community.
        There are millions examples of this. (for starters, this page http://maddox.xmission.com/ gets more traffic than http://www.pepsi.com. And It’s pretty easy to guess which one has spent more money on marketing and site design)

        • Avatar Pedro Souki says

          Matts Cutts, the chief of Page Rank Team at Google did that post “Natural links are better than non-natural” Explaining just that.

          The worse thing that can happen to a bad product is to be sold, so the same thing happens with site with worthless content.

  2. Nicely put Lee. You’ve heard me talk about the etiology of link building, i.e., cause and effect and links based on merit. A well thought out online content and linking strategy recognizes links as more than just a residual effect of spinning wheels and tweeting like a monkey on crack. In all and every action, I.D. the link opps, and cultivate what you have right in front of you.

    • Eric, yes I have and I appreciate your longtime approach and perspective for value based link building. Whenever I write anything along these lines, I think of your Link Moses wisdom. 🙂

  3. You need to have valid content on your website that people will find of interest so they will link to it, if your content is of no relevance then people are not going to.

  4. bad content + bad traffic

  5. Hi Lee, that is the most unique and direct take I’ve heard on link building, its refreshing.

    What I understood from the post is that link building should not only be done using one method and channel. Successful link building involves using the most efficient channels (regardless of the medium) and multiple strategies to link build.

    Purely relying on directly requesting links from people is time consuming and not worth the return on efforts in the long run. Just like any successful business strategy, it should use multiple channels and techniques.

    That being said, depending on the size of the blog or business, that does not mean don’t do direct link building by requests, just don’t solely rely on it.

    Well said.


  6. Does Google look more at quality or quantity when it comes to link building? Link building will come “automatically” when you take the time to write useful content.When your visitors appreciate it, they will send it out to Twitter, StumbleUpon and other services for you and link back to you as well.

  7. Your approach to this topic is outstanding and the contribution toprank made in IMU very good. You have a fan (and appreciative one) thank you.


    (I can attest to press / news being an advantage as well along with news feeds where comments can be made)

  8. Hi Lee – excellent post, it got my wheels turning! I appreciate the concept of educating folks to see link opportunities on a daily basis, at all levels of an organization. Do you offer a service along these lines? If so, what do you think it would take to keep these best practices in place? I can imagine it could be easy for non-SEO folk to forget to ask for links… Thanks for the great article.


    • Thanks Garrett, educating our clients on link building is part of what we offer with TopRank consulting services. We’ve found that it takes an ongoing commitment (by both agency and client) as well as proper feedback to make client side link building last.

  9. Good article and I am wondering if you are continually adding valuable content that is something your marketplace will learn or enjoy reading, should this be done on a blog attached to your website or should you have unique articles directly on your website? So where is the best place to put your content on page as well as off page?

  10. I think the key factor is patience combined with link building. The days of a creating a flash bang site and getting traffic instantly are long over. Now it takes dedication and consistency with both content and link building. A site owner who is promoting on his or her own must think in terms of months or years to acquire a solid base of traffic.

  11. I couldn’t agree more. The obsession with stockpiling inbound links has created a breed of marketers that have lost sight of the fundamental goal- to attract quality traffic that leads to conversions.

  12. I see this as a bit of a chicken and egg marketing situation. Without decent content you won’t get links but without links you won’t get traffic.

    My experience is that link building and baiting should be done concurrently. You build links as you’re building your site.

    Happy hunting,


  13. I think if a person sort of puts the idea of “link building” on the back burner and focuses and actively marketing their business online the link building portion of it will just come naturally.

  14. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  15. Hello Lee- I have spent an hour reading articles on your site and felt “compelled” to post a comment. First I wanted to give you “kudos,” you are very informative, engaging and spot on with the advise.

    As an SEO copywriter and provider it’s rare that I find someone as competent in explaining SEO, link building, Social media, etc. It seems I am seeing more SEO providers expand their services to include more than just high organic results or PPC etc. (the basics of SEO business standards.) What I have found refreshing is how open SEO geeks have embraced & study market trends like what and how Social media can help or affect your SEO. In my humble opinion you have to if you are going to stay in business. So it’s a continuous learning experience for me & my team.

    In my experience I have found “natural” link building to be the most successful. Not sure if you have been keeping up with Google’s “profiling” of SEO’s (another topic but one we discussed at length on our company blog I will include it in case you want to share it with your readers – http://www.level343.com/article_archive/2009/06/17/%E2%80%9Cbig-brother%E2%80%9D-google-steps-on-seos/- ) but the operative word seems to be “intent” behind the link. Something to think about.

    Gabriella /AKA @SEOcopy

  16. Rut roh I mucked up on the article post .. here is the correct link.


  17. Really good advice Lee. From studying successful linking strategies, can I also add sponsorship of sports teams and charities who actively promote events is an excellent opportunity for both branding and link building. Makes your brand look involved in community or charity, and gets loads of links for your website.

  18. nice strategy for links building seo. Thanks for you tutorials.

  19. You need to have valid content on your website that people will find of interest so they will link to it, if your content is of no relevance then people are not going to.

  20. Avatar Jeff Roberts says

    very informative! I will be taking different approaches to link building. Thanks!