With Douglas Millar
“Growing the link profile of a website is critical to gaining traction, attention, and traffic from the [search] engines. As an SEO, link building is among the top tasks required for search ranking and traffic success.” Moz
The importance of link building
Approaching its 20th birthday later this year, Google is still the dominant search engine in the UK. As such, it continues to hold significant sway as to which law firms gain more clients than others through the internet. For those firms looking to take their online marketing to the next level, focusing on link building strategy should be a priority.
Link building is the process of gaining links back to your website from other sources. Some of the key factors which influence search engine rankings (whether on Google, Bing, Yahoo or most other search engines) are content, speed and backlinks. This makes link building an essential aspect of your overall SEO strategy.
If you think your site is optimised, but you’re still not getting results, then it is likely that search engines don’t know enough about you.
Think of each link as a vote for your site. The more votes you get, the better your site should rank in search engines.
A link from a highly authoritative, relevant site will carry much more weight than several links from a group of irrelevant, link-heavy websites (such as low-quality directories).
It does not matter how well designed and optimised your site is, if there are no links coming back to it alerting search engines to its existence (and what it’s about), then you will not rank well, particularly in competitive environments.
How link building has changed
As with all areas of digital marketing, link building practices and procedures have evolved dramatically over the past ten years, forcing marketers to become more strategic when it comes to increasing search rankings.
One of the main updates in recent years was Google’s Penguin update in 2012, which aimed to prevent spammed search results, discouraging the practices of purchasing links or obtaining them through link networks.
Penalties for these activities have become harsher over the years – engaging in unnatural link building schemes can cause rankings to drop significantly and be difficult to recover, setting law firms’ SEO strategies back months, if not years, and indeed causing significant pain for those firms who heavily rely on enquiries from the internet. One of the most noteworthy recent examples of this was when Irwin Mitchell was blacklisted from Google’s organic search results for several weeks in 2014 due to its former agency’s ill-advised link building tactics.
Different ways to build links to your site
Here are some of the main ways to build links to your site that will help you alert search engines to your presence and, in turn, increase your rankings:
- Creating unique, useful content – such as guides, infographics or whitepapers – then publishing to your website and distributing to your audiences via social channels or email marketing campaigns is one of the most powerful methods of link building. Not only can this establish your firm as an authority and thought-leader in your field, it will also encourage others to link back to your site. We discuss the role of content distribution in link building in more detail below.
- Contributing useful content to other sites (also known sometimes as “guest blogging”) can also be an effective way to generate links for your website – providing you’re adding real value, not just doing it for the sake a of link. Rather than solely posting blogs on your own website, approaching industry specific, well-followed sites to post content which links to your website will give you access to a much wider audience, which would previously have been inaccessible.
- Contacting businesses your firm sponsors or associations your firm is affiliated with to ask them to publish information about your firm, including a link to your website, can also be very effective.
There are hundreds of other known ways to build links back to your site and indeed if you think creatively you may be able to discover new ones.
Authority and useful link building tools
Many different signals such as links, citations and mentions are used to determine whether a site is a trusted source and has authority. Popular SEO tool Moz defines authority as a “calculated metric for how well a given domain is likely to rank in Google’s search results.”
Within the context of link building, it is important to be able to assess whether a potential link from another site will have any value in improving your own site’s rankings. In effect you are assessing the other site’s authority.
There are a number of different tools which can help you to understand the authority of a site, such as Ahrefs and Majestic. Each one has its own metrics but they all essentially do the same thing.
Ahrefs started life as backlink tool but has grown into a full suite of SEO tools. Ahref uses two different SEO metrics, URL Rating (UR) and Domain Rating (DR), to assess site authority. UR measures the strength of a particular page’s link profile and estimates how likely that the page will rank within a search engine. DR simply measures the strength of a site’s overall link profile. This is commonly referred to as a site’s “authority”.
When assessing a particular site’s potential for a link, you need to look at both metrics. Think about the overall authority of the site combined with the strength of the actual page you’re getting a link from.
Majestic describes itself as “the planet’s largest link index database” and has been a popular backlink tool within the SEO industry for many years.
The two main metrics that Majestic uses are Citation Flow and Trust Flow. Citation Flow can be defined as the number of links to a page or site whereas Trust Flow is the actual quality of the links. Are the links from trusted and authoritative sources? You can combine these metrics together to provide a ratio called Trust Ratio (Trust Flow / Citation Flow = Trust Ratio). The higher the ratio, the more trustworthy and authoritative a site is.
Link text and attributes
Anchor text is the clickable text shown within a link. When building links, it is important to consider not only where your link should go to, but also the actual text used in the link. Anchor text ideally should be relevant to the page that you link to.
anchor text definition (link pointing to a page defining anchor text)
Anchor text and keywords used in anchor text help search engines work out the topic of the page being linked to and from.
Nofollow link attribute
One thing to watch out for when building links is the “nofollow” link attribute.
<a href=“http://www.example.com/” rel=“nofollow”>link text</a>
This was originally conceived to combat web spam and is now widely used as an indication to search engines that no value should be passed on to the target page.
When building links and working with editorial partners, ideally try to ensure the links you are building do not have this attribute. Nevertheless a mix of followed and nofollow links is a healthy part of any natural link profile.
White Hat v. Black Hat SEO
“White Hat SEO” is a term used to describe any SEO or link building approach which is in line with the terms and conditions of search engines. When embarking on any link building activity it is important to make sure that the tactics you employ do not contravene the quality guidelines of the search engines you are trying to be ranked in. See Google’s Webmaster Guidelines as an example.
Examples of white hat SEO include:
- relevant content providing valuable information;
- fast, mobile friendly site design; and
- well optimised and structured web pages.
Failure to employ White Hat tactics could lead to your site being removed from search engines. This is a massive risk and could have drastic consequences to the future of your site.
Think of White Hat SEO as an investment in your website as an asset. Over time, this will greatly enhance the value of your site not only to your business but also to potential clients as well.
“Black Hat SEO” is the opposite of White Hat SEO. This approach flies in the face of search engines’ quality guidelines. This approach typically uses deceptive tactics employed at scale which seek to exploit the algorithms that search engines use to rank websites. Black Hat tactics can lead to your site being removed from or penalised by search engines. This approach is not advised and should be avoided.
Black Hat SEO can also be used to negatively affect a competitor’s rankings – known as “Negative SEO”.
The role of content distribution
One of the keys to natural link growth is through distribution of useful content. In a previous article we outlined ten tips for how you can effectively distribute your content online. As we noted, “by writing outstanding content about what your clients want to know most, your content once published is more likely to be shared by others.”
So it’s not just about run-of-the-mill blog posts – it needs to be outstanding content, providing exceptional value to your audience. There are two main types: first, useful, topical guides (like The Guardian’s Guide to the Panama Papers); and second, newsworthy “drop everything and share” posts (for an example, see “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk”, a dialect quiz published by the New York Times – indeed one of the most shared posts of all time on the internet).
Such content requires not just words on the page, but also great design, bespoke imagery, video and useful functionality (eg a conveyancing calculator or property valuation tool) and should ideally be updated regularly over time. The content should also be relevant to your areas of practice; if it’s unrelated to what you do and what you want business from, your brand is likely to be diluted.
And once such content is published (whether on your site or elsewhere linking back to your site), acquiring links to it requires its distribution, especially in the form of manual outreach. For every five hours of content writing, we’d recommend at least one hour of outreach. Such outreach could take the form of letting business or journalist contacts know, via social media or via email, that you have published the content and that they be interested in re-sharing from their own sites. Building relationships with journalists in this respect means that you may be asked to comment on future stories, and such comments may themselves be published with a link back to your site.
While Google’s algorithms continue to develop, link building still remains a vital part of any organic search marketing strategy. In an increasingly competitive market, where firms are continuing to invest more into online advertising, link building could help you stand out from the crowd, build on your relationships with others and ultimately generate greater levels of business online.
Gavin Ward is the Operations Director and Douglas Millar Head of Customer Success at Moore Legal Technology, helping modern law firms succeed through effective digital marketing campaigns. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @GavWard. Email email@example.com Twitter @Dughlas.
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