This is part 4 of our multipart series on programmatic SEO.
When you’re trying to dominate an industry programmatically, you can’t do it by doing dumb shit like broken link building, skyscraper method, resource link building and other forms of what we like to call ‘begging for links’. While those may augment a strategy, there simply aren’t enough broken links out there to achieve the quantity of links you need. You need to identify a strategy that scales really far. Then scale it really far.
This piece is a bit different than the others in that it isn’t a step by step guide. While almost anybody could successfully follow our guide to keyword research or competitive analysis to a tee (more or less), link building is much more nuanced. There is no exact playbook, and each company has to figure out what works in its own vertical. If there were a playbook, everyone would do it and it would then cease to work. So, we’ve included five high level strategies with examples to serve as inspiration rather than prescription.
Link building tactics that scale
1) Scalable Ego Bait
Nearly every two-sided marketplace uses some form of ego-bait to get their supply side to get a link back. Often this is in the form of badges.
Yelp, Houzz, Thumbtack, Tripadvisor, ect all offer the businesses on their platform some sort of embeddable badge to embed on their site. Even Airbnb is getting into the badging game.
Typically the way it works is you offer a business on your platform a badge or reward, complete with an HTML embed code as soon as you join the platform. Sometimes it just shows that you’re a ‘[giant aggregator] Certified Business’ and other times it will live update with your reviews or aggregate rating, a la Yelp.
Then, to get even more badges out of the supply base, an aggregators often offer a ‘Best of [year] award’ or other special achievements, making the business feel special enough to show off the badge on the website.
Have a competitor that’s succeeding at badges? One easy way to see which businesses are linking back is to right click the badge and click ‘Search Google for This Image’.
Because badges can get into shady territory, we put together an entire post that dives into badges as a link building tactic.
Software review sites like Capterra and Software Advice also get links back in a similar manner, but usually without the badge. If you look at these companies’ link profiles, you’ll notice that the software vendors themselves typically link back in a more thought out, editorial fashion.
The great part about this strategy is that your link building scales with your growth rate. Even faster if you earn multiple badges per supplier. Just be careful not to get a penalty with your embeddables.
2) Viral Content
Movoto, as detailed in this piece, earned their place in the search engine rankings by taking the approach of being ‘Buzzfeed for real estate’.
The company had a fraction of the budget of competitors like Zillow, yet managed to carve out a valuable spot in a highly competitive niche through goofy, Buzzfeedy, listicle posts designed to go viral. The results are quite remarkable.
Remember, this was during the heydey of social media when list posts like this were new, ads were cheap, and you could get a post to go viral with relative ease. In the piece by Movoto, company members describe their formula for figuring out the viral equation. Additionally, Movoto spent a ton on paid social to get the posts to ‘lift off’. As these posts went viral and gained thousands of page views, they naturally accumulated backlinks.
Movoto did a lot of content that was locally relevant, and repeated for every city as seen below. A great example of finding what works, and scaling to oblivion.
The results are quite impressive and the post is worth a read. However, it is worth noting that the Buzzfeedy type listicles and organic social virility are not what they used to be.
3) Proprietary Data
Thumbtack was founded in 2008, coming to the home services space a decade after rivals Homeadvisor and Angieslist. Yet the company managed to appear at the top of nearly every search result for local services, making them a giant in the space worth $1.3 billion at last valuation. It’s worth noting that Angieslist and Homeadvisor combined (the two merged last year) are only worth $1.3 billion. Shows the power of SEO, but we digress…
At the center of Thumbtack’s dominance is one thing: The Annual Small Business Report.
Thumbtack spent their first 3 years getting a massive supply base of local businesses on their platform. They then survey those suppliers about local business in their region. What do they do with that data? If you guessed that they turn it into a piece of content, well you’re only sort of right. They turn it into a piece of content for every state and metro area in the United States.
These annual reports earn links from news outlets (both local and national), chambers of commerce, and government websites. And local links are exactly what a company trying to rank for local terms should go after.
Another example of a company leveraging proprietary data is Redfin, which uses its database of home sale prices to produce a wide variety of insights that journalists are hungry to eat up.
Redfin regularly publishes newsworthy insights on the housing market. And the housing market is always changing, so there’s always some sort of scoop that journalists and members of the real estate industry are interested in learning.
If your company can produce proprietary data as a bi-product of your business operations, and you can package it in a way that’s newsworthy, that’s link gold right there.
4) Commissioned Surveys
Not every company produces a ton of proprietary data, but that doesn’t mean you can collect it. Surveys are a great way to collect data and produce insights that journalists, bloggers, and even governments are interested in.
While surveys require an extra step and a higher cost than proprietary data, they have a key advantage. You can tailor the questions in a manner to hopefully predict a certain response. Asking somewhat leading questions around topics that are controversial or otherwise hot can lead to a juicier story, which leads to more links. But we know you’d never bend the truth for a link…
Anyways, when we think surveys, we think of Bankrate.
Bankrate has been commissioning and publishing surveys for a long time, and they almost always get picked up by news outlets. If you read through a few of these, you’ll notice they almost seem to follow a formula. Nearly every survey contains the following elements, often in the same order.
A personal anecdote highlighting the problem
The main finding from the survey indicating that person is not alone, and there is a larger trend
One or two ‘drill ins’ that either break the data up by a dimension, or show a related insight in order to expand upon the initial finding.
And a conclusion recommending what someone can do to fix the problem.
That story arch is more or less present in all of Bankrate’s surveys, and it works.
Bankrate typically uses professional research firms to conduct the surveys via phone. These are expensive, and cheaper alternatives include Surveymonkey and Google Surveys. However, many high-end news outlets won’t run a story unless the data comes from a professional research firm.
5) Content with high link intent
Sometimes link building really is a function of creating great content.
I think I puked in my mouth saying that. But really, there are a ton of sites that generate so much content that they seem to naturally pick up links. Some of these are likely more or less by accident, while others may have put a little more thought into it. We’ll go over how to put thought into it.
In many verticals, like marketing, for example, people are writing content every single day and looking for sources to use in their stories. You just need to get discovered as that source.
For example, if we were adding an item to this piece about infographics, I might search ‘how to build links with infographics’. And because I’m lazy, I’m probably clicking on the first or second result and using that as my source. That’s why the top couple results here have so many links.
If you’re the top result, you get a lot of links. Which further secures you as the top result, begetting you more links. It’s a positive feedback loop.
A lot of times this virtuous cycle is how companies that pioneered a vertical solidified top placements. Hubspot comes to mind as the player in inbound marketing. Student Loan Hero pioneered the student loan debt vertical – which is on the rise. Just look at what ranking #1 for ‘student loan debt statistics’ got them.
For this strategy to work, you should make it a point to produce content that has intent to link. How to determine this? Typically you want high search volume for informational intent. Additionally, if you see the top couple posts earning a lot of editorial links, you’re probably in the right place. From here, now you need to crack the top few by pitching your piece, guest posting, ect…whatever you have to do to get it to the top. It’s a lot of work without a short term payback, but pays dividends for years to come.
6) Guest Posting
Despite Matt Cutts scaring everyone back in 2014 with his ‘stick a fork in it post’, guest posting is alive and well, for the moment at least. Consensus among the SEO community seems to say ‘if it’s for relevant high quality sites and the anchor text is contextual, it’s ok’. Others disagree. Whether that will remain true forever or not is uncertain, but there are still some companies that are scaling link building through massive guest posting campaigns.
For guest posting to work, you generally need an industry where there are a lot of adjacent blogs and publications that need content. Marketing and software are prime examples of this, as nearly every marketing consultant and software company has a somewhat authoritative blog. Less so in something like home services – there just aren’t that many blogs out there that want a piece on how to unclog toilets.
Software Advice is one player that has appeared to scale guest posting massively. The company contributes pretty useful content for all sorts of verticals.
The company almost always links back to a category page, using semantically related, yet not quite exact commercial anchor text. A little dicey if you ask us, but it seems to be working.
Note that Software Advice’s category pages have a TON of non-commercial information on them, making their backlinks a little less commercial. We would not recommend linking to commercial pages otherwise as that’s clearly manipulative and any manual review would reveal that.
Eventually, the brand takes over.
In most of the examples we analyzed, the older the companies got, the more links they seemed to get out of thin air. Executive hires, IPO filing, earnings reports, company milestones, scandals, ect. So when slogging away at building links brick by brick, it’s important to realize that SEO compounds and eventually gets you to a point where your company is newsworthy enough to start earning mentions and links without even trying. But until then, happy link building.
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