Here, we take a deeper dive into the most popular method for building links - content. All questions below were shown to respondents who stated that they use content as part of their link building process.
Do you produce content with the goal of generating links?
For the 86% of respondents who said that they produced content with a goal of getting links, we gave them a specific set of questions with the goal of getting specific insights about what is the most popular way to build links.
The goal of any content should be for it to provide genuine value to users. If this is the case, then users will wish to reference, return, and link to it. When it's done well, "building links" should be a metric for "building value", and all content should do that.
As a creative person, I love that as an industry we are moving away from traditional link building tactics and leaning more towards content-led link building. Whilst there’s still room for some traditional link building, the creative campaigns allow us to not only build links but also create brand awareness and trust from consumers.
We sure do! While the majority of our content is written to inform, we publish several Data Journalism articles each quarter that has the main goal of driving high-quality backlinks to our sites. Part of our strategy is to look for valuable insights in our data that is unique to us. We will then work to display that data in ways that make it super consumable and shareable. Before it's even written, we have an idea of the sites we would like to cover the article and link back to us, optimizing the content to appeal to those outlets, increasing our chances of getting backlinks.
Content marketing for the win!
If you do create content specifically to generate links, in the past 12 months have you created a campaign that generated:
We were keen to understand the kinds of results that content marketing can drive when it comes to link volumes. Respondents were asked to select multiple answers to indicate whether they’d experienced campaigns achieving ranges of link volumes.
The most selected range for a campaign to achieve was 1-9 links, with 53% of respondents launching a campaign that achieved this number of links.
I'm relieved to see so many of the campaigns sitting around the 1-9 links mark. We all know that not every campaign flies and we all have our flops, but sometimes it can feel like you're failing your job when you have a campaign that "underperforms".
It's also important to remember that if you're building topically relevant links to priority pages from high-quality sites, then you do not even need hundreds of links to see an impact!
There has always been somewhat of a correlation between the number of links and the number of people who manage to achieve this high number. We would all love to achieve hundreds of links for our link building campaigns.
But the fact of the matter is that very few people achieve that, as the survey shows. Hopefully, this will give assurance that just because you didn't achieve a high number of links, it doesn't mean that you have failed, nor does it mean that you are the only one who does that. It happens to most of us.
People might think this number is low - but I've seen great results from small numbers of links. If anything, consistency in link building is key and the effects will compound.
In most cases, a regular cadence of content pieces each earning a lower quantity of link placements is more valuable than 1-2 pieces of content with a large number of links. It is, however, understandable for certain sites to have a goal of hundreds of links for one very helpful resource of which they are an expert in the subject matter (i.e. GitHub explaining what 'git' is).
Do you set link targets for each campaign that you launch?
Continuing on the theme of link volumes, we asked all respondents to say whether they set link targets for each campaign. The majority (59%) said no, they didn’t set targets for each campaign.
This should change in the future. Especially as budgets for link building grow. To continue to get support for budgets you're going to have to set some metrics for success to determine if the cost of acquisition is worth it.
Typically, how many links does a campaign need to have in order to be deemed a success?
In terms of setting expectations around success, we asked SEOs how many links a campaign needed to generate in order to be deemed successful. The most popular answer with 37% was 1-9 links, closely followed by 10-19 links with 28%.
Combined, this means that the majority (65%) of SEOs believe that a range of 1-19 links per campaign is successful.
For me, it's less about the quantity and more about the quality of the site linking to us. One strong, in-content media link with placement in a highly relevant piece of content is way more valuable than a thousand lower quality links.
This is really encouraging to see. The market has been flooded with black-hat link builders offering tons of links at a low cost (and quality), and it's done a disservice to the whole industry by lowering the apparent value of a link. Those of us who work in earning links rather than buying them know how valuable high DA/DR links can be.
I agree with the majority here and studies keep consistently showing that a successful campaign does not equate to virality.
Importantly too, success needs to be in line with the size of the team on the project, the campaign budget, as well as your own goals. For some, success could look like 5 links in niche industry press that are hyper-relevant to the brand. The industry could do with celebrating that a bit more too.
Since last year, the percentage of SEOs that think achieving 1-9 links deems a campaign successful has increased from 27% to 37%! I think this is really interesting and reflective of the way the industry is going.
All links are not valued equally. With Google focusing more on relevancy than volume, a smaller number of hyper-relevant links would have a greater impact for the brand than a higher volume of less relevant links. This means that this result could demonstrate the move toward a hyper-relevant focus - aligning to the way Google is heading.
With the media landscape constantly changing and larger campaigns (e.g interactives and tools) riskier, I've also seen a shift in moving more towards a steady flow of smaller, less 'time intensive' campaigns/content marketing, to drive consistent links. As this success rate focuses on per campaign, this could also reflect this change - less links per piece, but more pieces over time and therefore more links over the year, driving consistency over volume.
You should take relevance and quality into account as well if you're talking about success.
I'm really glad to see that campaign success levels have declined since I worked in Digital PR from 2017 to 2020.
The sometimes-immense pressure to earn 50+ links per campaign was quite daunting and it was easy to feel like you'd 'failed' if you didn't achieve 20+ links as someone outreaching the campaign.
That being said, we were always encouraged to try and get as much out of a campaign as possible and I know that higher link targets forced me to become more creative with my outreach angles and spin-off assets. So, I think agencies striking a balance between the two sides of the spectrum is what's needed.
It is very interesting to see these stats - that people are not expecting a huge amount of links per campaign. For those who are not doing link building, this looks a lot more realistic and something they could achieve. They may have thought they needed to gain hundreds of links per campaign and that may have deterred them from link building.
Perhaps now seeing some of these results, these people will carry out link building.
Jo Juliana Turnbull
Do you count syndicated links toward your overall link target?
We asked SEOs whether they counted syndicated links toward their overall target and answers were generally evenly distributed. The most popular answer with 33% was no, they didn’t count them at all and this was closely followed by pretty much the exact opposite answer - counting the same as other links at 30%.
It is interesting to see that 33% of respondents don't count syndicated links toward their overall link target. It’s a big topic of conversation whether or not syndicated links add value to SEO and personally whilst I do feel organic links provide more value, syndicated links shouldn’t be ignored altogether.
Working at Stacker Studio has altered my opinion on this. Originally, I honestly didn't know the value of syndication links. But what I've learned is it's not clear-cut, similar to link earning. It turns out earned syndication links can be extremely valuable, but only if the site that's syndicating your content is authoritative (again, just like earning links). If you have the canonical established and a link back to your site, that's a huge win. This is what we earn for our clients, and they've seen sustained organic growth from this strategy. I'd encourage any link earners to start tracking syndicated pickups if they're from authoritative sites.
If a campaign misses the link target, what is the usual course of action?
When asked what course of action is taken if link targets are missed, the most popular answer from SEOs (48%) was that they move on to another campaign. Just behind this at 41% was the action of keeping going up to a limit of time or budget.
Only the minority (11%) said that they kept going until the link target was met.
We move onto another campaign
We keep going until we hit target, up to a limit of time/budget
I feel like all options are valid answers. The best answer would be: "It depends".
I can imagine a lot depends on the situation people are in. I would be interested to know if people consider the opportunity cost when making a decision.
Costs and the overall situation should always be reconsidered when the link targets are missed.
Good to see that nearly 50% move on to another campaign if the link target is missed. We should not keep pursuing something that is not working. This is why it is important clients and agencies are open-minded. If a campaign is not delivering the results, we do not need to keep going. It is fine to stop it and move on to work that will yield better results.
Jo Juliana Turnbull
The top result made me laugh my head off. That's the most realistic answer for this question! :)
Moving to another campaign can be a good option, but you should always try and find out what didn't work in the previous campaign. Sometimes it's not the angle or linkable asset, but how replies in the inbox were managed, for example. Or even something as basic as your email deliverability.
Not massively surprising for me to read these statistics, mainly because I've done both. If a campaign doesn't hit, we will generally move on to another campaign and focus on that.
However, if myself and the rest of the team still believe there is link potential there, we will come back to it and promote it more, as well as make any changes needed until it's hit the target we've set or we hit the budget for that campaign.
It is encouraging to see over 40% of respondents have the determination to make their campaign a success, even if it didn't happen the first time around. While it may be easier to simply move on to the next campaign, it is very rewarding to see more placements come in as a result of continued efforts.
While we do not set link targets, we do monitor for success and review article metrics anywhere from 3-6 months after publication to determine if there are any insights we can take from the piece that might be helpful in future work.
After you’ve launched a piece of content, how long do you typically continue to outreach that campaign?
We were interested in the length of time SEOs spend outreaching a single campaign. The most popular answer was 3-4 weeks which 36% said was the usual length of time for outreaching a single campaign. Next up was 25% of SEOs who said that there was no fixed end date for outreach on a single campaign.
This is interesting - I wonder if the "budget" spent on each campaign plays a part here?
I'm shocked to see that only 24% of respondents have no end date for campaigns.
Revisiting and refreshing campaigns throughout the year should be part of any ongoing Digital PR strategy to maximise long-term value. We should be making our content work as hard as possible, always looking out for other opportunities in the media or key calendar dates to jump on the back of, to drive more coverage and links for the brand.
Therefore, we don't always need to create something new. It's helpful if you keep this in mind from the get-go, to ensure campaigns/content marketing stories are evergreen, having multiple touchpoints throughout the year. However, if you looked back at some of your previous content marketing from the past year, I bet you'd find something which has more legs in the coming months, but because you have an end date, you haven't thought about it.
I think the 76% of SEOs who aren't doing this, are really missing out on driving additional value and could really up their link building game by incorporating revisiting campaigns into their strategies.
It was quite surprising to see that the majority of respondents moved on from a campaign within a month.
When I worked at Verve Search, we'd often keep going until we met the target or if we thought the campaign still had potential. This would mean that, alongside other campaigns, I'd be asked to dedicate some time to build more links to existing older campaigns.
As I've said in an answer previously, it forced me to be more creative with the way I approached the story and data and that quality has continued to serve me well when it comes to journalism, too! You could be missing brilliant aspects of a story by dismissing them within weeks, so even if it's just an extra week spent on a campaign a few months down the line, you never know what additional approaches you could find.
Those campaigns only being pitched for a matter of 1-2 weeks or less likely have a lower placement rate. I would not suggest anticipating spending such little time on outreach for a campaign unless absolutely necessary. Consider your target audience who might be on holiday break, on a vacation, or having a business restructure. If your pitch reaches them at a bad time with no intent to follow up later on, you'll have many missed opportunities.
This is a very interesting result and contradicts my experience. I would be interested in knowing more about the type of content with no end date in the outreach campaign. My experience usually shows that the always-valid (evergreen) content usually performs worse in outreach campaigns. Especially once it’s a few weeks/months old. However, it still attracts a lot of backlinks organically.
This is the way I have always operated with my link building campaigns as I have always operated under the assumption that a link will be placed to that particular piece rather than the Homepage. Well, generally anyway.
Once we have hit a link target for the campaign, we will get to work on using internal links to drive this new authority to our brand's "money pages" for maximum impact.
After you’ve launched a campaign, where do you find that websites link to the most?
In terms of where links point to, 70% of SEOs said that, typically, links are pointed toward the page where a campaign is hosted, as opposed to the homepage.
Glad this has been highlighted. It is important that we are not always driving links to the home page. Those who may not be doing link building may not be aware.
Jo Juliana Turnbull
Personally, as a journalist, I think we should be linking to any page a Digital PR asks us to if we're using their pitch for a story so I'm glad to see that the majority of respondents are getting the requested pages linked to.
You're providing something really useful to us by sending us relevant pitches, so if a journalist uses the data/story never be afraid to request links to any page you think would suit your client – and don't take no for an answer when it comes to them linking back to your client's site if they use your story. It's basic journalistic integrity to link to sources and there needs to be mutual benefits for both parties.
A huge challenge for ecommerce sites is generating quality links to category pages, on these types of sites links to products and the homepage are by far the most common and therefore having a solid OOS (out of stock) products process can help bridge / fill the gap of links to categories.
Do you think that links to the homepage of a domain are more or less valuable than links to a campaign URL when it comes to driving increased rankings and traffic?
We wanted to learn more about the value of links and how this value may change based on where a link points toward. Answers were pretty evenly distributed for this one, with a very marginal tilt (37%) toward links to a homepage being less valuable than links to a campaign page. However, very close behind was no noticeable difference (35%) and more valuable (28%) which shows that opinion is very much divided here.
This is fascinating because from my point of view it is more valuable to link to the domain. Because the domain gets the power from the campaign and the campaign the power from the domain. We make better results with domain pages than landing pages.
I think the strong division stems from the variation in goals for link building campaigns. They can be used for branding, boosting a new domain, ranking a money page etc.
The responses trigger a point if the responders are considering link building as a silo activity and not part of an integral SEO campaign.
Earned links are mostly pointing back to the homepage and not the campaign post/page URL.
How the homepage authority is passed on to the inner pages, provided the website structure supports this, is the most important part of SEO success for a business.
I am now curious to know what made the responders think this way.
Do you think that links generated by campaigns that aren't related to the core topic of a website positively affect rankings?
Topical relevance of campaigns is always a hotly debated topic and we asked SEOs if they felt that links that aren’t related to the core topic of a website can positively influence rankings.
The winner with 49% of the votes was yes, links that aren’t related to the topic of the website can influence rankings.
This is still true for now, but I wouldn't expect it to remain true forever. Take advantage of it while it still works but consider that a Google update can change this in a snap.
Relevancy is a tricky thing. In our teams we often have discussions on what is relevant and what is not. It's good to have these discussions because it can open up your link building options, and you can tap into markets and topics your competition hasn't looked into.
Wow, I don´t think so because if your links don´t match the topic the bot ignores the link.
What is the most challenging part of the content-led link building process for you?
We know that link building can be very hard. But what specific part of the process is the hardest? According to our respondents, getting links from outreach targets is the hardest part of the process with 40% of the votes. In second place was coming up with ideas for campaigns which 20% of respondents said they struggled with the most.
It's interesting that getting links from outreach targets is top - same as last year. In fact, the percentage of SEOs that picked this option increased from 35% to 40%. Getting links is definitely not getting any easier, with publications also changing linking policies, and it sometimes depends on who you approach and on which day.
I've found that a good way to check if our outreach targets actually do link out is using the "outgoing links" section on Ahrefs. This enables us to make sure we have the right link targets in the first place when looking at opportunities outside of just link gaps, i.e. we know the publications we're targeting from the start could link to the brand.
Getting links being the hardest part could also be related to the point in second place, "coming up with ideas for campaigns". If you're struggling to come up with ideas, and don't have strong stories with great hooks and angles, you're going to make life harder when it comes to getting coverage and links.
I think we've all suffered from idea fatigue, especially during lockdown when creativity was low due to being in the same environment all week long. It's really important we now try to shake this up and encourage creativity in our teams, through various methods, to help make the whole process a little easier, and a lot more fun (like it should be!).
It's extremely challenging to perform outreach for link building and not come across as spammy. I definitely don't feel comfortable asking for a link and prefer instead to focus on building creatives and data stories that a journalist would feel quite uncomfortable not linking to the resource it came from.
I agree that getting links is getting harder - but it's link builders themselves who have created this situation. It would be great if people think about what the consequences could be for the industry as a whole before they try out a new outreach tactic.
This definitely is one of the hardest parts of content-led link building. As the answers show, we have enough domains to get the links from but outreach is still very difficult. We know the sites we want to target but outreach is time-consuming and we may not always get responses and therefore links from those sites.
This part of outreach may not always get the budget it deserves and because it is time-consuming, it is easier to allocate resources to other marketing initiatives.
Jo Juliana Turnbull
When it comes to the execution of your idea, which of the following do you find to be the most effective in generating links?
We asked SEOs which formats they found to be the most effective when generating links and were allowed to select up to three options. Similar to 2021, the most popular format for generating links is long-form, report style content which 56% of respondents selected.
This was followed by interactive content which 42% of respondents said they felt was effective when generating links.
It’s surprising to see that interactive content sits higher up in effectiveness than press releases.
I’m a fan of interactive content and bringing data to life as I think these assets show value to journalists to provide a credit link. Any evidence of demonstrating the spend versus link performance working in 2022 would be great to see.
It can be hard to justify to clients the larger resource spend it takes to deliver an interactive page compared to a quick turnaround listicle with expert commentary. But, if its still continuing to work across the industry then that’s super useful to know.
As an industry over the last couple of years especially, I've definitely noticed a larger focus on methodologies and producing more in-depth content, so the love for long-form content doesn't surprise me.
It's often hard to justify the resource difference for interactives when you can get the same results with less design.
The first person to nail VR link building will be onto a winner though!
This is further proof to show that it is worth investing in longer-form content not just for on-page copy but also for link building.
Blog posts are still important for generating links and it is interesting to see how press releases are significantly less impactful than they were a few years ago.
Good content works well and we need to allocate enough resources to ensure quality content is written. It definitely is quality over quantity. In some companies content is still not given the budget it deserves.
Jo Juliana Turnbull
When working in Digital PR, I thought interactive pieces of content were integral to the success of a campaign and, don't get me wrong, they worked extremely well.
However, as a journalist, I now only care about a clear story being there. I look for a strong subject line telling me exactly what the story is, an intro that highlights exactly what the key information or data is (e.g. these are the most dangerous roundabouts in the UK with the most dangerous being in X place), all of the data clearly presented in either a table or bullet points and quotes from an expert (be it the client or an external expert who'll also be linked to).
So, with that in mind, I now think blog posts are the most effective and useful formats for link building campaigns – rather than fiddling with interactive content and infographics.
If the story needs it, long-form, report style content can work, but given the huge amount of pressure we're often under at news desks, I ideally need something easily digestible, short and to-the-point.
The top three results are quite similar, in that it is easier to create those types of content than to create a stunt or create a one-off product. Not everyone will have the budget and resources to create the latter two, but most will be able to create the first three content-type because it's more in your control. You'll have better quality control, you can continuously update it over time, it has the potential to be evergreen, and it is perhaps more cost-effective too.
I agree! I've seen some great results from this type of content. And for any beginners who want to try it out, here's a tip: For your first pieces, you don't need to source your own data. Compilations of data that's already available get links too ;)
When you send static infographics with your outreach pitch, do you find that journalists are now including these in campaign coverage more or less than a year ago?
We were interested in the changing behaviours of journalists and asked SEOs if they included content such as static infographics more or less in coverage than a year ago. The most popular overall answer was actually that 36% of respondents don’t send one at all.
When it comes to using them more or less, the winner with 27% was that journalists were using them less than a year ago, compared to 11% who said they were using them more.
I don't send out static infographics with my outreach
Journalists are including infographics in campaign coverage less than a year ago
Journalists are using them roughly the same amount as a year ago
Journalists are including infographics in campaign coverage more than a year ago
How are you providing journalists with your infographics/design-led assets ahead of them using them in coverage?
Leading on from this, we asked what methods SEOs used to share content with journalists. Again, 31% said that they don’t share design assets at all, whilst among those who did, 22% attached the assets directly to their email.
I don't send out infographics/design-led assets with my outreach
Most of the time journalists say they prefer Dropbox so I'm surprised it's not at the top. I personally fear the wrath of spam filters too much to be attaching images. Links to file folders let you send multiple sizes/a range of images at once too so you can hand over everything at once making the journalist's life easier.
It's interesting to see the majority of respondents sharing that they don't tend to send out infographics with their outreach, because when I started out in the digital PR industry around four years ago I feel like this was much more commonplace.
I personally would not tend to create infographics or design-led assets unless they're the best way to tell the story, and try to work story-first when devising what assets are needed for a campaign.
For your run-of-the-mill data or survey stories, a lot of national publications will prefer to create their own supporting graphics, or will instead use stock or user-submitted images in their features. For this reason, I think it is only worth splashing the cash on getting something designed if it's really going to enhance your campaign and tell the story in a super clear and engaging way.