Almost every digital marketer knows the importance of link building for improving the search engine optimization of your site. Yet, at the same time, search engines like Google continue to punish marketers who seem to come upon their backlinks unethically.

Walking the line between one and the other is becoming increasingly crucial to successful SEO, so keep reading for 6 keys to building links to your site that help, not hurt your site’s search rankings.

Why Link Building (Still) Matters

First, we have to understand why building a library of links that point toward your site is important in the first place. Google and other search engines use these links as a measure of credibility; simply put, the more links point to your site, the better.

Rationally, that process makes sense. Other websites linking to you indicates that they consider your content a valuable resource, which search engines can use as an indicator to up the relevance of your link. But unfortunately, reality is not so simple anymore.

Consider what Google webmaster John Mueller had to say when asked about link building a few months ago. Considering its importance in determining relevance and credibility, you would expect a relatively straightforward answer. Instead, here is his response:

“In general, I’d try to avoid that,” he said, indicating that link building, long believed to be an essential process in SEO, is no longer advisable.

Mueller’s response alludes to what we wrote in our introductory paragraph: because of the significant potential harm a link can do to your site’s search rankings, you should avoid the concept altogether. Because marketers have exploited Google’s algorithm by buying links to their site, the search engine updated its algorithm to include harsh penalties for anyone engaging in unethical practices like these.

But that does not mean you should avoid even bringing up the concept of link building. Instead, you should engage in a strategy that strategically builds up credible links, helping you increase your site’s SEO on a more organic level. Here are 5 keys that can help you do just that:

5 Keys to Smart Link Building

1) Rely on Others

Above all, link building cannot be a solitary process. If you try to build links yourself (linking to your business regularly via a personal website, etc.), Google might notice and penalize your site.

To be a reliable indicator of credibility, a library of backlinks needs to come from independent sources that have no stake in promoting your links. That complicates the process, but greatly increases its chances of success.

2) Start With Content

When pressed on the subject of link building, Mueller actually offered another suggestion to SEO specialists looking to improve their sites’ rankings. According to Search Engine Land,

He stated that your goal should be to make sure your content “stands on its own” and easy for your users to share on their own blogs and websites.

The idea is simple: if you build high-quality content, other websites will begin using it as a reference. Content marketing is at the heart of smart link building, as it entices others to share your content even if they were only lightly prompted to do so.

3) Go Beyond the Site

Of course, your content is unlikely to get linked anywhere if others don’t know that it even exists. So your link building strategy should also include marketing the content to relevant audiences, via social media, email, and more.

If you have a high-quality piece of content relevant to young professionals looking for a job interview, and promote that content to them via social media, they just might share it with their friends. Your content begins to get traction, other websites link to it, and the organic link-building process is in full motion.

You may even want to consider guest blogging, which allows you to build relationships with credible websites. Linking to your own website from a guest blog is the exception to the ‘never build your own links’ caution we included above.

4) Avoid ‘Bad’ Markers

It’s also a good idea to know just why Google deems a link to be bad. The below list provides a great overview of the types of links that harm your site and can lead to search ranking penalties. Below is a quick overview – for more information, check out the full article here. Search engines like Google tend to flag:

  1. Links from low-quality or questionable domains.
  2. Links that point to content irrelevant to your site.
  3. Links that appear too many times on the same domain.
  4. Links that appear to be reciprocal with a link from your site going the other direction/
  5. Links that are anchored within the exact keyword, even if that keyword is grammatically incorrect.
  6. Links that are isolated from any relevant content.
  7. Links that seem to be part of a link-buying scheme.

Avoid these markers, and your chance of avoiding penalties greatly increases. Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid links from unkosher sites altogether, which is why you should regularly

5) Disavow Backlinks

To avoid penalizing websites who receive links from questionable domains over which they have no control, Google allows marketers to ‘disavow’ links to their site. Disavowing links essentially means revoking ownership of it – these links will now neither hurt nor help your website’s SEO rankings.

Because you never know what sites might link to you, disavowing backlinks should be a regular part of your SEO maintenance routine. Go through your links, and check whether any of them match the ‘bad marker’ categories we outlined above. For help in the process, check out this exhaustive tutorial on the concept on Google’s webmaster website.

How are you building your links and improving your SEO in an age where Google can spot even slightly suspicious activities?