Expert Roundup: How was 2019 for link building and where it’s heading to in 2020?

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably made it through another year of navigating the digital marketing currents. 2019 has seen a number of important updates by Google to its ranking algorithm. These cap a decade of immense change in the industry.

Depending on your results, you either want to build on your success or make sure you don’t miss out on possible improvements. To help you out, we’ve asked the experts about where they think white hat link building strategies are heading to in 2020. 

Without further ado, let’s take a look at what some of these leading experts in the field have to say.

What was the biggest link building breakthrough in 2019?

The biggest link building breakthroughs in 2019 are Google’s new link attributes and the rising prominence of social media. 

Google introduced the “UGC” (user-generated content) and “sponsored” (paid links) parameters as part of its drive to organize the web and ensure transparent and fair guest posting practices:

Despite all the speculations, it looks like Google cannot really get along without links. This is my biggest takeaway from their announcement of two new link attributes rel=”ugc” and rel=”sponsored”. This means high-quality community-driven link building is as important as ever which is the greatest news of 2019! (Ann Smarty Twitter; LinkedIn)

And, Matt Janaway agrees that “The two link attribute; rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc”” are two of 2019s biggest shifts.

Secondly, with 2.48bn users, the potential of social media to boost your content marketing campaign is well known by digital marketers. Social media promotion is a must. However, working smart and not hard with strategies like targeting influencers can lead to link building gold. Here is what the experts have to say about social media’s role in link building:

It [link building] is more a technique. We started looking … at the types of content that were getting links to ranking pages and then doing a LOT more research into articles discussing similar types of the subject but ones that had not been covered well… A sure sign is that it would work well if we just built better and got it in front of the right people. Paid search and social can help there. (Dave Davies Twitter; LinkedIn)

In my opinion, adding social distribution to the more traditional Skyscraper technique which worked well in the past. Adding an additional layer of distribution (social) to an existing, proven method of link building works well, as you may get additional distribution via shares or search visibility via social. (Eder Holguin Twitter; LinkedIn)

Obviously, both Google and consumers are also getting even more picky about content. Creating content that makes an impact through value and learning to track that impact is more important than ever:

Build the link you want to follow. (Dave Davies TwitterLinkedIn)

For us, it has been learning to directly connect link impact to organic traffic changes. (Garrett French Twitter)

Which of the strategies worked for you in 2019?

Link building strategies of 2019

Quoting experts helps with the quality of the content and of course many of those experts also link back one way or another. (Christoph Trappe Twitter; LinkedIn)

Basic link building strategies still work. But every detail must be continuously improved to serve the demands and needs of linkable audiences”. (Venchito Tampon Twitter; LinkedIn)

Both the experts and the statistics clearly point to link building as the dominant content marketing strategy for 2019. Traditional guest posting (75%) remains popular because of its accessibility, range of tactics, and effectiveness. Broken link building is also still an effective strategy to get your guest posts published.

Unlinked mentions are surprisingly effective, likely because they seem less promotional and more like genuine recommendations.

Furthermore, Garrett French (founder of Citation Labs) had the following to say about the benefits of traditional link building strategies for SEO:

“Most effective at scale and in tandem with traditional PR/Earned Media efforts.”

According to Scott Polk (CEO and founder of Marketing Nomads), good old strategies like the skyscraper technique, directories, blog and commenting forums, etc. are still worth using:

The biggest breakthrough for 2019, is that tactics that should not work still do. As good as Google has gotten over the year in determining relevancy and quality, they are still missing the mark by quite a bit. We still seeing large “obvious” link networks still powering ranking from a lot of sites in competitive spaces.

Sniper or Shotgun Approach?

Sniper and shotgun approach statistics

The experts (almost) unanimously agree: quality almost always outranks quantity when it comes to effective link building strategies. Particularly if you’re just getting started, Christoph Trappe recommends: “Be strategic but expand targets.”

Most of the other experts also agree that sniping high-value prospects comes with a better pay-off:

Quality is important. The old school approach of building tons of low-quality links is just a waste of time. We are really focused on quality. The less time we can spend on link building the better – so, we focus on a small number of high-quality links. Quality 100% trumps quantity. (Marcus Miller Twitter; LinkedIn)

Understanding your audiences and matching up content to your ideal targets is the basis of effectively building quality links. (Eder Holguin TwitterLinkedIn)

You need to be very selective with the links you put time/money into acquiring. (Scott Polk Twitter; LinkedIn)

Not only do higher quality links pass more link juice, but targeted efforts also sit better with consumers. 

However, as Garrett French rightly pointed out, it’s not as easy to scale highly personalized outreaching efforts. This is especially true for email outreach. It seems that the most effective strategy consists of both sniper and shotgun approaches combined:

The best takeaway for us was that to make link building scale successfully we need to make a shotgun shot like a sniper rifle. That is, to implement an extremely customized and personalized approach to outreach campaigns that are sent in blasts. Luckily, nowadays there are plenty of tools that help make this happen. (Victoria Klochkova LinkedIn)

Or simply as Christoph Trappe stated this, “Be strategic but expand targets”.

SEO link building tools of 2019?

SEO tools of 2019

Ahrefs is by far the go-to tool for most digital marketers. SEMRush is also in the top three. Majestic received joint second place with about 17% of the vote.

Ahrefs:

Love usability of Ahrefs and their metrics (traffic estimate, etc.) Also, I often use their broken links feature which is a great place to start any link building campaign. (Ann Smarty TwitterLinkedIn)

Ahrefs continuously update their tool with the latest features to cater to the needs of the market (e.g. Broken Links feature, Top Pages, Content Gap, etc.) (Venchito Tampon TwitterLinkedIn)

Ahrefs is a tool that has been developing by leaps and bounds. For us, the main difference has been that Ahrefs is built on the use-case basis and really helps address almost any single request a link builder might have in mind. (Victoria Klochkova LinkedIn)

Ahrefs is a great tool that covers many aspects of backlink research both the qualitative and quantitative (Omar Kattan Twitter; LinkedIn)

I don’t like to use 10 different tools for 10 different purposes, and Ahrefs has it all in one place. Super convenient! (Oksana Demchenko)

The reason Ahrefs is on top is now understandable. It covers both research (traffic data, trending pages, content gaps, broken links, etc.) and implementation. Having it all in one place helps agencies cut down on complexity and expenses. 

SEMrush:

SEMrush is constantly evolving.  Majestic may give them a run for their money. (Dave Davies TwitterLinkedIn)

SEMrush does almost everything well and covers most of what an SEO team needs. (Matt Janaway Twitter; LinkedIn)

Here is how marketing experts explain other choices:

Majestic:

We prefer Majestic to the other toolsets, in part due to them being based down the road from us. (Marcus Miller TwitterLinkedIn)

Majestic is still my go-to tool for link data. Do not forget the raw exports. (Scott Polk TwitterLinkedIn)

Best link building resources of 2019?

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  • Email Outreach: The Ultimate Guide (Ann Smarty TwitterLinkedIn): Email outreach is not as simple as just sending out a blast of emails and waiting for the leads to roll in. It’s multistep processing involving research, prospecting, outreach, and analysis.
  • Link Search (Link Prospecting) Guide (Venchito Tampon TwitterLinkedIn): Every link building starts with link prospecting. As the basis for all the work you are going to do, you need to know how to do this effectively and by extracting the most value. It also means knowing what tools to use to help achieve your goals.
  • Webmaster Guidelines (Dave Davies & Omar Kattan): In the past, Google was notoriously tight-lipped about how they rank for SERPs. Nowadays, they provide firsthand information via a number of forums and blogs, like Search Console Help. If you really want to be a link building expert, learn straight from the source too instead of just from secondhand information.
  • Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Roundtable, and Search Engine Land (Oksana Demchenko) have been some of the primary sources of quality SEO news and information for some time. Beginners can read about SEO basics while experts can get updates on the latest news.
  • Backlinko (Matt Janaway, Eder Holguin): Backlinko’s blog is another possible source of news, how-to guides, and opinion pieces on all things content marketing. They regularly publish content from guest writers as well so you can find a variety of pieces from regular writers 

Pro-tip for link builders around the world?

  • Look for experts who will make your research not only more profound, but also help to get links (ego bait), and keep in mind that 90% of link building success is connections in the niche. – Effective Link Building Strategy in 2019 (Ann Smarty TwitterLinkedIn)
  • Fresh content works and stories happen around us daily that are worth sharing. But older evergreen content often also draws traffic. When we do content well – do our keyword research, write useful stuff, etc. – evergreen content should lead the charts. All. The. Time. – Advanced Link Building: How To Use Internal Links From Old Articles To Drive Traffic (Christoph Trappe TwitterLinkedIn)
  • Optimizing existing content assets is just as important as publishing new pages. SEMRush SWA can be a handy and useful tool to speed up recommendations for content optimization. – How to Use SEMRush SEO Writing Assistant for Content Optimization (Venchito Tampon TwitterLinkedIn)
  • Search has evolved considerably over the last twenty years. However, links still matter. But Google and the search engines will only get smarter. You must create something of value and use that to help you generate links that will stand the test of time. – Ass Backwards Link Building (Marcus Miller TwitterLinkedIn)
  • Collaborating with an influencer can expand your content’s reach and deliver increased traffic to your site. Influencers can help build backlinks, which are important factors used by Google when analyzing a page’s ranking. – Sandstorm Digital Blog (Omar Kattan TwitterLinkedIn)

  • Make a list of the top ideas that you can implement right away and start testing. Tweak as needed to adjust your message, your audience and measure everything to see what works and what doesn’t. Remember, you only need a couple of good tactics that work for your store, your audience and your product to increase traffic and sales. – How to increase qualified traffic to your online store, for free (Eder Holguin TwitterLinkedIn)

Key takeaways

Link building should still be a core part of your digital marketing strategy. However, links are also only as good as the content you create around it and the effort you put into promoting it. Experts are a great way to improve quality while influencers can help you gain traction on social media.

How do you expect link building to change in 2020? What’s your biggest bet for 2020?

As we know, digital marketing is a dynamic and ever-changing space. You can’t expect to stay on top without upgrading your strategies. Let’s see what changes the experts predict for 2020 to stay ahead of the game.

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Google will still care about links

We already know what Google wants: high-quality content, relevance, and authenticity. Speculations that Google is finally going to stop ranking websites based on their backlinks have never been more intense. However, we all agree that it hasn’t happened yet and is very unlikely to happen in the next year. Being sensitive to the fluctuations by staying up to date and being proactive is key to continue reaping the benefits.

I don’t think it will dramatically change. It is slowing becoming more and more difficult to get links – and this will continue happening in 2020 and beyond. (Ann Smarty TwitterLinkedIn)

Think on entities – edges and nodes – not links. Link building won’t die of course … but the way they pass weight and what that weight does … will. (Dave Davies TwitterLinkedIn)

It won’t. The main principles will always be the same. Great content will attract links.  This is even more important in 2020. (Omar Kattan TwitterLinkedIn)

However, algorithms are getting smarter – and stricter

We know from past experience Google will clamp down if they think link building techniques are undermining its algorithm. The more time passes, the harder it will be to cover up spammy practices. As Google’s ranking algorithm keeps evolving, digital marketers will also need to adapt to keep up. For now, that means staying honest and focusing on quality and relevance.

There will be fewer opportunities to build high-quality links, and it seems the only way to make it happen will be to have solid cornerstone content that will be a basis of link building in 2020 (especially when it comes to link building strategies for new websites). (Victoria Klochkova LinkedIn)

Links on sites with Write for Us/Submit a Guest Post pages will be devalued if not penalized (Tom English LinkedIn)

Be honest with yourself about what a quality link really is. If you can determine a link is spammy in nature, then assume Google can as well (even if they do not act on it). (Scott Polk TwitterLinkedIn)

Google gets better and better at understanding links every year. So I expect link building to get harder, but more interesting. It will require more thinking and less technical work. (Oksana Demchenko)

Google will continue to devaluate low-quality links. Not penalise but the kind of links you can easily acquire will count even less than they do now. Focus on content quality and a small number of high-quality links. (Marcus Miller TwitterLinkedIn)

Topical relevance will matter even more

Domain authority and quality content are just two factors that affect your link juice. Relevance is the third, and equally important. Relevance can also help you get found or stand out even when the competition seems overwhelming. Furthermore, it will help you target and attract more high-quality leads.

Relevance, trust, and authority are true and most important factors in getting results from link building. (Venchito Tampon TwitterLinkedIn)

Increasing emphasis on topical relevance over DA in making publisher outreach selections. (Garrett French Twitter)

Putting it all together

After hearing from fellow SEO experts, you probably can’t wait to take on 2020 and make it your best year yet. Before partying away 2019 and officially kicking off your link building 2020 campaign, here’s a quick recap to help focus your efforts:

  • Guest posting is not dead – benefits like exposure, networking, and introducing a brand with content instead of ads is still unbeatable. Just as long as there are no spammy practices involved and links are correctly labelled.
  • Quality 100% trumps quantity – Sniping for highly relevant and valuable prospects is the way to go. 80% of effort should go into the top 20% of prospects. However, the shotgun method does have its uses – scalability being one.
  • Build the link you want to follow (Dave Davies TwitterLinkedIn)Relevance, value, and trust – these are the most important fundamental principles of link building. Google and consumers will punish those that misuse them and reward those that honour them.
  • Techniques like skyscraper writing, broken links, etc. still work – Certain techniques are popular for a reason. While Google is changing, it will never ignore pure quality and value.

Experts that have contributed:

  1. Ann Smarty – Founder of ViralContentBee.com and Brand Manager at InternetMarketingNinjas.com
  2. Tom English – Tom is a Sr. Outreach Strategist at From The Future with a focus on link building. When not in the office, he can be found pedalling bikes around the Greater Philadelphia area
  3. Christoph Trappe – A trained journalist, Christoph expanded his journalistic storytelling skills in content marketing across many industries, including healthcare, SaaS and publishing.
    Today, he’s a global top 14 content marketer, top 38 c-suite exec in publishing and top 100 digital marketers. His blog has been listed as a valuable resource to journalists and content marketers. 
  4. Venchito Tampon – Venchito Tampon is the CEO and Co-Founder of SharpRocket, a leading link building company that provides high-quality link building services to SEO agencies, Fortune 500 brands, and startup companies in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and European countries. Venchito is a global speaker on content marketing and link building. 
  5. Dave DaviesDave Davies founded Beanstalk Internet Marketing, Inc. in 2004 after working in the industry for 3 years and is its active CEO. He is a well-published author and has spoken on the subject of organic SEO at a number of conferences, including a favourite, SMX Advanced. Dave writes regularly on Beanstalk’s blog and is a monthly contributor here on Search Engine Land.
  6. Marcus Miller – Marcus is the lead strategist at BowlerHat and is focused on helping small businesses get BIG RESULTS from organic search. 
  7. Omar Kattan – Omar has over 20 years experience in corporate and branding strategy, marketing communications and advertising, spanning two regions; MENA and Europe. He has worked with brands like Dell, Sainsbury’s, IKEA, Shell, Deutsche Bank and VW.
  8. Eder Holguin – With over 20 years of experience in digital marketing, Eder Holguin is a serial entrepreneur with the aim of helping company’s take their strategies to the next level. 
  9. Matt JanawayMatt is the CEO of Marketing Labs and a successful Entrepreneur specialising in digital marketing, based in Nottingham, UK. He started his career during the mid-2000s internet boom and starting multiple successful e-commerce ventures. After working in the role of Head of Digital at a leading UK retailer, he is now focusing on running his own digital marketing agency.
  10. Scott Polk – Scott, an industry veteran and regular speaker at Internet Marketing conferences, has built his expertise as a knowledgeable and experienced Search Engine Optimization/Internet Marketing Strategist for more than 20 years. Currently, he is the Founder and CEO of MarketingNomads.
  11. Garrett French – Owner of Citation Labs and ZipSprout (local link building companies).
  12. Oksana Demchenko – Online marketing and SEO specialist working with e-commerce projects and currently involved with MacPaw Inc.
  13. Victoria Klochkova – Founder of Luckyposting.com
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