Let’s begin with the tactics, tools and techniques that are most popular right now. The questions in this section focus on the day-to-day side of link building and seek to learn more about how link building is done in 2022.
Asked to all respondents, this question seeks to get an understanding of the most popular ways that agencies, freelancers and in-house teams build links.
Similar to 2021, content marketing was by far the most popular answer, with 68% of respondents saying that they used content as a way to build links. The next two most popular techniques were competitor analysis (54%) and guest posting (47%).
Looking at the results this year vs last year, there are some interesting changes.
I'm not surprised to see content marketing decrease slightly (from 76% to 68%), as with the media landscape constantly changing, this type of activity is becoming riskier. However, I am surprised to see that Reactive PR hasn't increased (49% in 2021 vs 45% in 2020) on the back of this.
It's also interesting to see that influencer outreach is still being used for SEO, even though, if abiding by Google's guidelines, the techniques within this (i.e. gifting or payment) wouldn't result in the right type of links - especially since the Google update in 2019.
Equally, it's interesting that Guest Posting has increased since last year (42% to 47%) - especially as it results in unnatural links, which are problematic for Google. Whilst Google is not penalising for using guest posting, John Mueller has been noted as saying they "catch most of these in the algorithm anyway", therefore they wouldn't be bringing value for the brand - so brands could be wasting their money!
I'm so surprised that guest posting is ranked higher than reactive PR! In my opinion, Reactive PR is one of the most beneficial tactics for link building. Chasing brand mentions also feels like an underutilised technique, especially when partnered with outreaching a creative campaign. I personally have had a lot of success converting mentions to links from campaigns and is a technique I use daily.
Resource page link building, while not the hottest tactic, should be higher than it is. When researched and produced well these pages can provide huge value to users and gain links with absolutely zero outreach. Stats pages for example, when targeted to writers/journalists in a niche, can bring in 50-100 relevant links each year, which many content marketing campaigns would love to get. If you update these each year, it's an easy way to keep some passive links coming in.
I am so happy that the humble guest post is used by 46% of respondents. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s one of my favourite link building tactics. However, there are a lot of ways to get it wrong. To keep yourself on the right side of the tracks, ask yourself this question before you pitch: will this piece of content be good for the web? The point is to identify whether your guest post will be genuinely useful and for a relevant audience, or if it will poison the web with another poor quality article that’s only 400 words long with links to sales pages awkwardly jammed in.
It’s also a relief to see that so many people are link building through a variety of tactics, which all have their own merits and purposes. It can be easy to be swept up in the glamour of digital PR and assume that ideating creative assets and pitching reactive lifestyle pieces are where you have to be to make it in the outreach game. In my opinion, digital PR is one umbrella tactic, which can be activated in several ways. If your aim is to build links, particularly to support your SEO strategy, don’t be afraid to get inventive!
Backlinks that help the domain should be chosen carefully, not all content works and not every competitor makes the right decisions. Many backlinks cost a lot of money but do not help in the ranking. It is important to research carefully beforehand.
From my perspective as a journalist, I do wish reactive PR was higher on the list below. Though I understand it's a tricky method for agencies to monetise, there are a handful of agencies who absolutely nail reactive PR and I've linked to their client's websites multiple times across various publications I've worked on.
There's always a demand for experts to comment on everything from doctors and pharmacists for healthcare stories, to psychologists for sex and relationship stories and lawyers for stories about driving fines and driving law changes. And, it would be great to see more PRs executing this well with speedy quote turnarounds and insightful responses from their clients – rather than generic comments.
Why are nearly 50% of respondents still spending time and resources on guest posting? In a 2020 Search Engine Journal article, "Google's John Mueller stated on Twitter that Google not only frowns on guest posting for links but has been devaluing them for the past several years. He also said that Google has years of data for training algorithms to catch and devalue guest post links so that they don't help a site rank better."
Guest posting sometimes can be seen in a negative light as in the past some people went overboard and it became spammy. It is good to see it is still effective if done well of course. If you are sharing quality content to a targeted/engaged audience, people will want to read and link back to that source.
Jo Juliana Turnbull
I am beyond happy to see the predominant form of link building is through content marketing. When done correctly, no other link building technique can compare. This forces us to develop content strategies which focus both on meeting the intent of our searchers and writing higher quality content that is unique enough to earn links and brand citations from reputable resources.
Surprised to see guest posting so high on the list. Especially considering that most reported that link building is done in-house.
Do you use any of the following tools for link building purposes?
Next, we wanted to understand how SEOs used tools as part of their link building process. Respondents were allowed to select as many answers as they wished and once again, Ahrefs was the most popular tool, with 82% saying that they used it.
In second place was Google Sheets (60%), followed by SEMrush with 56%.
Who would have thought that Google Sheet is actually an SEO tool? Obviously that's not its primary purpose and it's not an SEO tool...but it's clearly part of an SEO's toolkit. It speaks volumes on how powerful it can be since it is way ahead of other specialist SEO tools.
And it is free.
I'm so happy to see this stat. Ahrefs has been my ride-or-die for link building. I do think a lot of their features are under-used. For instance, the content explorer is an absolute goldmine. I use it to dig up diamonds from Pinterest, and I use non-topical words (like "how many") to reverse engineer linkable assets.
I wonder what percentage of these answers also relate to the budget available and if "in-house, Agency or Freelance", logic alone suggests you are less likely to have access to some of the higher cost tools or a larger array of these tools if you're a freelancer for instance.
A further part of me wonders if the marketing of the tools themselves plays a part here too - some of the tools at the tail end are maybe less well known or less marketed (not as well funded) than some of the bigger, more popular tools. Is reputation playing a part here?
I love how many great tools we have in the industry to help us be better at our jobs - and I'd have to wholeheartedly agree that Ahrefs is one of my absolute faves. From competitor stalking and link tracking to even a spot of keyword research, it's a staple in my digital PR toolbox.
Beyond this, I'd have to say Buzzstream is one of the most important pieces of software that I use in my day-to-day work, and ResponseSource is becoming increasingly more fruitful as more and more of our client base delve into the wonderful world of reactive PR and newsjacking.
It basically looks like Ahrefs has managed to become the market standard. I wonder if this trend will be boosted even more by negative PR around SEMrush.
It’s important to remember that these are still just tools — don't rely on them too much, and do your own research. If the industry is new to you, ask people who work in it, ask customers, etc. to find out what they really read and which websites play an important role.
HARO is great for American contacts and can open doors for longer-term relationships if your content is high-quality.
I have however requested experts through the platform myself many times before and the quality of respondents is often not great. This does mean a decent PR pitch with a relevant expert and well-crafted comment should stand out though! Don't be put off by the competition.
If you could only use one tool, which one would you choose?
Now, we wanted to force the issue a little bit more and force respondents to only choose one tool they’d use for link building. Again, the winner was Ahrefs with 51% of respondents choosing it.
SEMrush jumped into second place here with 9% of respondents choosing it, whilst BuzzStream was third with 6%.
Cheers to Ahrefs for being the most comprehensive, useful tool!
Ahrefs is my favourite tool to understand a website's link profile and its competitors. Also, it's a great tool to visualize the type of links they are getting and the strategy they have behind them.
Having used both Ahrefs and Semrush, as well as a lot of the other tools listed below, it's not too surprising to see Ahrefs at the top.
For link building, it is such a versatile and easy to use tool. During any day of link building for me, I can research what content types are getting my competitors good links, whether any of my content has been a hit for links and, of course, I can monitor links coming into the site almost on a real-time basis.
Ahrefs will forever be my favourite tool for link building. It’s particularly savvy for the more tactical forms of link building, such as link reclamation, unlinked mentions, broken link building, stealing competitor backlinks, pursuing link gaps – the list is (pretty much) endless.
This isn't surprising. Ahrefs does a great job of organizing link data for competitors. It's the best tool available for many of the top link building tactics mentioned.
In this case, I would have replied Pitchbox, as it's essential for running multiple projects. But it also pulls in Ahrefs data ;)
I'm a big fan of Ahrefs and would definitely sit within the 50% who would pick this tool if they could only use one.
For me, it's the number of insights you can access and analyse using one single tool!
Ahrefs doesn't just play a key part in our backlink audits and competitor link gap analysis at Aira. The Keywords Explorer provides great inspiration for themes for content marketing, the content explorer is really helpful for trending topics and prospecting, and site explorer helps to identify if publications actually link out too, so we can be more efficient with our time, and avoid reaching out to sites to convert brand mentions when they don't link out.
I honestly can't think of a day where I haven't used Ahrefs. It's a fantastic tool to help keep track of broken links and links gained, as well as a way to create campaigns around search metrics. It's interesting to see that majestic is so far down on the list too, as it can offer similar results to Ahrefs but also you can complete a competitor backlink gap analysis with this tool meaning we can find out which sites can add the most value when building links.
In terms of your usage of link indexes, which of the following tools do you trust the most when it comes to link data?
Continuing on the theme of tools, we now asked respondents which link data source they trusted the most. Again, Ahrefs was the clear winner here with 64% of respondents saying that they trusted their link data the most, even more than Google Search Console which was second with 14%.
In third place was SEMrush with 10% of respondents selecting it as their most trusted link source.
While I would pick Ahref for sure, Moz taking the last spot is definitely an upset. I have been following the Aira link building survey in the past years and Moz is definitely losing the spot and SEMrush is gaining its popularity. This will be an interesting game to watch out for.
Do you maintain a Google Search Console Disavow file for the domains that you’re responsible for?
We also asked respondents whether they maintain a disavow file and answers were split almost down the middle, with the tiniest of tilts toward yes which received 51% of votes.
I suspect the 51% that is responsible for the disavow files of domains are SEOs, and the remainder is likely to be content marketers or digital PRs.
When you’re in the link building game, no matter what your role or specialism, you’d do well to learn more about how links affect a website, and in turn, what happens when you gain good ones, bad ones, and even take them away.
In my opinion, the disavow file is not used correctly most of the time. When we depend on the SEO tools to pull the so-called "bad links" and disavow them all together, it might harm the domain than help.
Also, Google keeps saying that disavowing is not important and they know what is a good link and what is a bad link. Now, it is no surprise that the responders have split opinion.