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What is a backlink?
Backlinks are links from a site that is not your own to a place on your site. Here's what to know
Happy Monday, friends! It’s Shelby here, heartbroken by the Baltimore Ravens. I’m not sure how many more times I can put my faith in a team just for them to lose in the final minutes.
Long-time subscribers will recognize much of today’s issue. We’re updating our edition on backlinks with more information to help you grab those much-coveted mentions in other publications.
Next week: What we learned at NESS a few weeks ago! We absolutely loved all of the speakers who shared their expertise and can’t wait to provide our favourite insights.
Let’s get it.
In this issue:
What is link building?
How to check for good links and tools to do this
What to do right now to help your backlink profile
What is link building?
Link building is the process of acquiring hyperlinks from other websites to your own. Since search engines use links to crawl the internet, they will follow links from your site to other sites and vice versa. This is called a backlink, which proves your site is link worthy.
Internal links are links from your own site to another place on your own site. Backlinks are links from a site that is not your own to a place on your site.
Once you’ve acquired a backlink, the work is only partially complete.
For example, Site A may link to Site B (your website) because they loved a story. You are happy because the traffic from Site A and Google is a lot!
But one day, Site A does an update and some of the links drop. You see a sudden decrease in traffic. Now you need to take action to find out how to make back that lost traffic and possibly a drop in rankings on Google.
That link could be lost because the other site no longer functions. Or, say your site goes through a migration process and the URL structure changes where redirects were implemented incorrectly. We must consistently ensure we are maintaining our backlinks.
Link building is one of the hardest processes in SEO. There are a few reasons:
You are working externally. It is no longer only about your own site – you are relying on other publications and their own workflows.
You cannot always know if other sites are linking to you. So we have to do some digging, and this can take time.
Link building means quality. The theory behind link building is that if someone links to another website, they are endorsing this as a good resource. Otherwise, why would we link to it? The quality of a backlink is hugely important here – and that takes time.
Parsing through quality/not quality links also takes time. It’s important to prioritize where to look.
The good news: News publishers have an advantage on regular sites in the link-building world – we produce a lot of stories other sites want to link to anyway (think: service journalism, stories on recent case studies or academic journals, a very good investigative piece, etc.). We can and should leverage this!
🔗 Read more: Moz’s beginner’s guide to link building
How to check for good backlinks
Checking for backlinks is challenging because it won’t be obvious in your internal analytics. This traffic often appears as referral or link clicks – but readers arriving from backlinks are separate from those who originate in search results.
Not all links are created equally. I’m sure you’ve seen in your analytics that you get referral traffic from spam bots or low-quality pages that just shove links in. This isn’t what we’re looking for, and we should avoid these at all costs (spam = not good!).
We want editorial links. These are organic links that send readers to our site because other publications recognize our publication as high quality and valuable.
Tools are very useful in link building because it’s harder to just see a good link. So, let’s go through some that can help you depending on your news organization’s budget.
The best tools for link building
Here are some of my favourite tools to use for external links.
Ahrefs is a personal favourite backlink tool. It tells you on the dashboard how many links you have to your site, from which sites and if you have recently lost any links that you should try to fix.
Ahrefs provides an alert function if you create a custom report for backlinks.
Pros: Literally the world’s largest backlink index and gives you a wealth of knowledge.
Cons: Extremely expensive. The entire tool can range from $99-$999 per month. But, there is a seven-day trial for $7. Their backlink profile will include all links (including spam, but may not indicate which is a potentially toxic or spammy link).
SEMRush is slowly becoming a personal go-to. The backlink checker allows you to audit any site – yours or a competitor – to see what the highest-authority backlinks are and where they are coming from, along with actionable insights. It also provides a toxicity score that will tell you which backlinks may not be so good for your site.
Pros: A very comprehensive backlink index that includes a toxicity score and actionable insights to help maintain the healthiest link profile possible.
Cons: Also extremely expensive, but has a trial and multiple price point levels. SEMRush can take a while if not already set up with your site.
Free! Open source! At your fingertips! If your site is already attached to Google Analytics, you also have access to Google Search Console, which has a tab called “links.” The links panel provides your top externally linked pages, top internally linked pages and even the text that is most commonly hyperlinked (and yes, the hyperlinked anchor text matters, too!).
Pros: Did I mention it’s free?
Cons: Surface-level information, but a great place to start. You can take this and use other tools.
Moz’s Link Explorer is straightforward and provides the information that Ahrefs does, but not to the same depth. That said, it provides the option to see which root domains have linked to your site and if you’ve lost any links recently.
Pros: Cheaper than Ahrefs and offers a free version, a two-week trial and the option to use the tool with limited information. You can see if there are any links lost in the free version.
Cons: That depth of knowledge is not the same as Ahrefs, and the paid version can also be $99-$999 a month. However, Moz provides the information you need to properly work on your link building strategy.
When working through the technical parts of your site, you can audit for broken links across (usually a 404 error) and fix them where needed. This ensures you are not offering a bad backlink experience, as well.
Pros: Free option! You can download the spider (an application rather than an on-site tool) and crawl 500 URLs on your site to check for broken links.
Cons: If you only use the free version, 500 URLs is quite small for a news publication (think about how many stories you publish on the daily). Screaming Frog also requires you to parse through the information.
Bonus: How to use Google to look for mentions
🔥 Hot tip: One of my personal hacker ways to look for mentions, especially in a breaking news situation, is using Google’s search tool.
By using some advanced search symbols/commands, you can look for other sites mentioning your publication.
For example: The Athletic has a scoop, so I want to see all places that mentioned our journalism after we published, but don’t want to include my own site. I could use a search like this screenshot to find all pages that have Russell Westbrook and The Athletic mentioned, but aren’t on theathletic.com.
This can provide a good beginning understanding of where my publication has been credited. I can then see if those URLs link to my page, or if I need to reach out to the publication and ask for a link.
What to do right now to help your link building strategy
Link building is hard and takes time. But it is one of the most important components of SEO. And there are some actions you can take now to help yourself down the road.
Create good, quality stories. And make sure everyone knows about it (push it out on social and newsletters and link to it on other stories on your site).
Anytime you see a story from your publication mentioned elsewhere, ask for the link. You shouldn’t worry about reaching out to the publication – likely they will add the link (pro tip: offer a quality link in return. Quid pro quos are great here).
Reach out to notable guest authors or contributors. They probably have a site or a large following – ask them to link their stories on their own websites or other notable connections.
Does an upcoming or recent investigation have the opportunity to be linked to from major areas? Take note now and prepare to do some outreach once the piece is published – perhaps to other news organizations, activism groups that are interested in this kind of journalism or sites that benefit from your service journalism.
Listen to your social audience. They’re likely going to be talking about a major story that has linking potential, so find out where they’re seeing it/talking about it.
🔗 Read more: Nine easy link building strategies
The bottom line: Links to your site from outside sites is still one of the best signals to search engines about the quality of your site. Building good backlinks and ensuring they are kept over time is a great strategy for news publishers.
THE JOBS LIST
These are roles across the globe we see that are audience positions in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
Hearst is hiring a SEO Manager (London, UK)
MLK50 is hiring its first audience engagement manager (Memphis area)
Google: Introducing site names on Google Search (mobile)
Google: An updated version of the guidelines for site owners (where you should start!)
RicketyRoo: Entities in competitive link benchmarking
The SEO Sprint: How to map SEO outcomes (a framework to measure impact metrics)