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If you don’t have a solid link building strategy guiding your SEO campaign, you might fall short of your goals because of mediocre results. There is no “one size fits all” link building campaign, despite what you may find with other illegitimate ‘SEO firms’. A true link building strategy needs to be custom to provide optimal results, which includes researching your competitors, understanding the status quo of your site and establishing the strengths and weaknesses of your backlink portfolio.

Situation #1: Extremely authoritative site, 5+ year old domain and no prior SEO campaigns.

  • Symptoms: Websites that fall under this category have significant age– at least 5+ years. You must be an authority within your industry both online and offline and have had no prior SEO campaigns. Websites in this situation are interested in getting on the SEO bandwagon, but haven’t because of a focus on other marketing channels.
  • Diagnosis: So, how do you improve your rankings based on this situation? First things first, if your website is highly authoritative, start with a complete site optimization by adding your keywords in the appropriate sections. Chances are, once this is completed and is indexed, your keyword rankings will have an initial spike.Then, run a report in OpenSiteExplorer.org and “Show ALL links from ONLY EXTERNAL pages to THIS PAGE.” Click the “Anchor Text” tab. All websites naturally accumulate links from random websites across the internet. This will show you what the most used anchor text will be. Likely, it’s going to be branded terms.The type of link building that you engage in to boost those rankings is very important. Right now your website’s link portfolio doesn’t have the right balance of quality and quantity. If you haven’t done link building before, chances are you already have many quality links, but they’re missing critical elements needed to translate into better keyword rankings.

  • Treatment: Your website needs more links using keyword specific anchor text. This doesn’t need to be exact match anchor text, but the search engines are currently only seeing your brand name. While it’s not the highest quality link building, simple directory submissions or quick article distribution websites using your keywords in the anchor text will go a long way. Don’t go overboard. Remember, everything in moderation.

Situation #2: 2-5 year old aged site, little authority and highly optimized onsite and offsite.

  • Symptoms: You’ve been playing the SEO game for the past few years, with both link building and onsite optimization. Maybe you’ve gone through a couple of outsourced SEO firms that did mediocre work, or you’ve attempted link building before, but with no real direction.
  • Diagnosis: The fact that your site has little authority shows that the link building that’s been done was subpar. Likely only directory submissions, bookmark links and shadier-than-normal article directories. If your website is in this position, it’s likely that the SEO wasn’t really taken seriously, and the “get rich quick” mindset was all too involved.
  • Treatment: It’s apparent that the SEO thus far has been substandard. I would recommend reviewing the onsite optimization for the pages you are trying to rank. How relevant are these pages for their keywords vs. other pages? Do you have internal linking going on throughout your blog/article section and on other key pages? Once that’s corrected, link building should consist of mainly press releases, viral pieces (e.g. infographics, widgets, tools), guest blog posting and very selective industry forums/directories. Unless the anchor text you’ve used in the past was only branded, I would recommend staying away from exact match anchor text since that’s what is commonly used with poor, bulk link building. Use branded anchor text or a mix between branded and keyword specific text.

Situation #3: Brand new website, no links and no optimization of any kind.

  • Symptoms: Your website is less than 3 months old, you don’t have any backlinks and you haven’t started optimizing your website for your keywords. Essentially, this is starting from scratch.
  • Diagnosis: Link building strategies for new websites are actually fairly simple. OpenSiteExplorer.org is going to be your best friend for this because you need to look at your competitors to see what they’re doing. What is their ratio of non-branded terms to branded? How many links do they have? How many of their links are using exact match anchor texts? Emulate these good practices in your new link portfolio.The term “everything in moderation” is truer in this situation than in any other. You have no authority or history with the search engines, which essentially means they don’t trust you.
  • Treatment: Your website needs authority, and the best way to do this is through guest blog posting. Focusing on this link building method will also prevent you from getting an over optimization penalty, which results from too many links containing too similar of anchor text. We need to make sure these links look natural to the search engines. It’s best to widely vary the anchor text you’re using, and including branded terms in anchor text is also highly recommended. Don’t count out industry or local specific directories (these are still very valuable) but I wouldn’t recommend going out and blasting 300 directory submissions every week. Article distribution services should be used sparingly, and press releases will be very valuable because of the authoritative websites you’ll be getting the links from. The key to this situation is to not overdo it, because you could potentially be hit with a penalty. One last note– don’t be surprised if you cannot rank for highly competitive terms in the first 9 months. The conspiracy theorist in me is a believer in Google’s “sandbox theory”, which doesn’t allow your website to reach its potential in the search results for X amount of time for highly competitive search terms.

Situation #4: Extremely authoritative site, 7+ year old domain and highly optimized.

  • Symptoms: Sites in this situation include major industry leaders for massive keywords like “hotels”, “SEO” or “computers”. The work your team has done is probably plateauing, because traditional link building methods don’t move the needle like they used to.
  • Diagnosis: Smaller, newer websites don’t really have a chance of ranking for these keywords unless they are backed by years of SEO work and a strong presence, both online and offline. Because the keywords for this situation are so competitive, that is the problem you are running into.
  • Treatment: If you want to rank for million dollar keywords, you need to think outside the box. Directory submissions, bookmarking links, article distribution sites aren’t really going to serve the purpose that they do with smaller websites. Where you’re going to find the value, at the very minimum, is guest blog posting. Key factors that play into the success many large companies have with their SEO include running contests, promoting infographics, distributing press releases and having a major social presence and following.

Situation #5: 18-month old website, little authority and possible Google penalty.

  • Symptoms: You had success at some point over the last 18 months, but something happened. Either Google updated their algorithm, or they finally caught on to your spammy link building tactics. Your keyword rankings were rising, but now that they have been hit, you don’t have anything on the first page of Google anymore.
  • Diagnosis: I’m going to guess that the majority of the link building you were doing consisted of low level tactics like directory submissions, bookmark linking and bulk article distribution sites. While those have their place in some search engine optimization campaigns, you were putting all your eggs in one basket. On top of that, the anchor text you were using was rarely varied. These are all classic symptoms of an over-optimization penalty from Google.
  • Treatment: Stop what you’re doing! Google doesn’t it like it, and now they don’t like you either. You need to start guest blog posting, submitting press releases, building tools and providing quality content to your readers. By doing this, you will become a real resource within your industry, and one that Google can trust. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to send Google a reconsideration request through Webmaster Tools just to cover all of your bases. Get involved in social media and start promoting your content there. With all the buzz around the new social signals that the search engines will be using, you don’t want to be left behind and play catch up again.Do not expect a quick turnaround. You could be working at repairing your rankings for 4-6 months before anything starts to come back. Spammy tactics don’t pay off. It’s kind of like the phrase “don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time”.

I’m 100% certain that there is more to add to this list. As this is a great starting point for many site owners, I encourage all of you to add your advice to whichever situation you’re familiar with. I’ve had client experiences that touch on every situation above, but I want to hear from you!