Most articles about link building (or link acquisition, outreach, whatever you want to call it) teach you about tired old tactics.
You’ve already heard about guest posting, link insertion outreach, HARO responses, broken link building, etc. And you’re probably already doing those tactics.
I’m doing those things, too. And so are your competitors – and everyone else.
If you’re tired of reading about the same old tactics, this article is for you.
How to Build Links that Your Competitors Can’t Duplicate
There is a lot of groupthink in SEO. It’s because everyone follows the same tactics for ranking:
- Copy your competitors’ keywords
- Copy your competitors’ content strategy
- Copy your competitors’ backlinks
- Copy your competitors’ title tags
You can fire up Ahrefs or SEMrush and look at your competitors’ keywords and backlinks. You can see everything that they are doing on their website and in their code. And if it works for them, it will work for you, right?
When it comes to backlink acquisition, you need to do something different. You need to stand out and convince other people (real human beings) that you are doing something special, something notable.
Something so awesome that, when your competitors look at your backlink profile, they sigh in despair. Because they know they can’t replicate it.
To accomplish truly great link building, you need to pursue tactics that aren’t duplicatable. Your link acquisition strategies need to be linkworthy, scalable, and rare.
Here are three types of link to dominate your niche:
1. Build a Tool
Tools are the evolution of content marketing.
More written words are published on the internet than ever before. And dare I say it, more than in the whole of human history. (According to Orbit Media Studios, there are 2 million blog posts published every day.)
20 years ago, owning a website and publishing internet articles was unique.
10 years ago, any kind of consistent, quality publishing was unique. Writing three 500-word articles per week was enough to stand out and get search engine traffic.
Today, in-depth articles with expertise, research, and good imagery/design are the standard.
Source: Orbit Media Studios
As I often tell my clients, the average first position page on Google has 2,000 words.
Video and podcast publishing are becoming increasingly common, too.
But what isn’t common? Building tools.
In the broadest sense, tools are anything that enables you to do something. They could be a calculator, quiz, data visualization, or form generator.
One company that has done this well is Shopify. Take a look at their tools section:
Before we dive into their tactics, let’s see what Ahrefs tells us about their success:
Their /tools/ subfolder has generated backlinks from over 3,380 separate referring domains. Many of those pages rank for associated keywords, so it generates 612,000 in organic traffic per month.
Let’s take a look at their three most linked to tools:
They are the:
- Business name generator
- Slogan maker
Now you’ll note that the business name generator ranks #1 for that keyword:
According to Ahrefs, that one page gets 395,000 per month in organic traffic.
As you can see in the screenshot above, that page has received links from over 1,500 separate websites.
In other words, their most successful tool has more traffic and links than many successful blogs do. In one page!
Now I don’t believe that the technology behind this tool is very robust. All that it does is spit out a list of names from your initial query. See below:
Type in your query, and you get this:
If you were to do it, you could probably hire a smart developer to build the same thing for $1,000.
The difference between you and Shopify is that Shopify did it 6 years ago, and has promoted the heck out of it ever since.
You don’t have to be a billion-dollar company like Shopify to pull this off.
Great tool examples in the SEO industry include:
- Matthew Woodward’s FAQ schema markup generator
- Glenn Alsopp’s on-page SEO Chrome Extension
- Kayak Marketing’s title tag and meta description tool
The above-mentioned companies are small SEO service providers, not multi-million-dollar tech companies.
Still not convinced? Here are a few examples from the finance world:
- The mortgage calculator from MoneyGeek.com
- The credit score estimator from MoneyUnder30.com
- The gold price update tool from GoldPrice.org
Why aren’t more companies building free tools for marketing?
It’s for the same reason that they didn’t write 2,000-word articles with great design and research 10 years ago. They don’t think that it’s important.
Link building techniques, as with many other things in business, follow the technology adoption curve:
We’re still in the “Early Market” phase for free tools. Your CMO and VP of Marketing don’t want to authorize the funding for this because they don’t understand the value that it could bring as a marketing asset.
And they don’t understand its value because their competitors aren’t doing it.
But this is a paradox. Because if everyone was doing it, it wouldn’t be such a good opportunity anymore.
10 years ago, getting an offer of a “free guest post” was exciting, because site owners weren’t getting pitched 10 times per day with that same offer. It was new and fresh still. The “yes” rate wasn’t 1-in-a-100, it was 1-in-5.
And they surely didn’t require that you pay them an “editorial fee” to do it! They were excited to take advantage of your offer of free content.
2. Do Original Research
This is actually a common method among the best link builders, but you still don’t see very many content marketers doing it.
In fact, according to Mantis Research, only 39% of brands have published original research within the past year.
(See how I just linked to their study?)
Based on experience, I would guess that that number is far lower in many industries.
If you’re serious about link acquisition, you need to be doing original research.
Think about it: why is it that people link to other websites from articles?
- To cite data of some type
- To refer readers to something that they really like
- To get users to buy something or take some desired action
Transactional links generally get edited out of good publications. And if they don’t, they’re supposed to be tagged “nofollow” or “sponsored”. (Which means that they have no SEO value.)
So that leaves two reasons for linking: citing data or referencing awesome things.
Citing research is one of the only three reasons to link.
According to the PR and backlink outreach experts at Fractl, there are three sources that they gain unique data from:
- Private datasets
- Government datasets
Surveys do cost some money to create. Sometimes private datasets do as well. But government datasets are entirely free. Even with surveys, the barrier to entry usually isn’t that high – as low as $1,000, but there are ways you could do it even cheaper.
Here’s one example of a survey that was used for backlink acquisition:
(example with screenshots)
Leveraging private databases can often be done for free. Rand Fishkin did this really well for his startup at SparkToro:
He partnered with web data provider SimilarWeb to provide unique search engine data.
And the data:
- Fit a controversial narrative that’s worth talking about
- Is completely unique to him
And according to Ahrefs, this particular page has 548 separate websites linking back to it:
Rand’s narrative is that Google is a monopoly. And that it’s hurting smaller businesses by sending them less clicks, because it wants to keep users on its own platforms.
His data fits his narrative, and he shouts it from the rooftop wherever he goes. In industry guest posts, public speeches, social media posts, email newsletters, and webinars, he’s always harping on this same point.
Someone else who has been doing this successfully for years is Brian Dean of Backlinko.
Like Rand, Brian often gathers data on trending subjects in his industry. For example, he did studies on how Google Lens searches work and page speed stats. In both cases, these were trending topics in the SEO community when he published these articles, and there wasn’t much data available about them.
But the example that I would like to hone in on was a study that he did about an evergreen, non-trendy subject: The SEO Jobs Report.
All of his study articles strictly conform to a copywriting template. First, he states an oddly specific number about where the data came from:
Then, he shares what you’ll learn in the report, invites you to read on, and proceeds to an overview section called “Highlights and Key Findings”.
The “Key Findings” are a numbered list, which serves as a table of contents of sorts for the rest of the article. Most numbers in the list are bolded.
Then, the rest of the article is an expansion of the key findings. Each key finding has a unique data visualization to accompany it, that matches his site’s branding. Like this:
And, of course, the study has been successful in attracting links:
Now, backlinks from 79 separate websites may not be too exciting, when compared to our other examples. But consider that this particular article is one of his least successful studies, in terms of how many backlinks it received.
How would you like to get 79 backlinks to your least successful articles?
I had been following Brian on and off for years before I realized something astonishing: every piece of content on his entire site is entirely templatized.
Every single study on his website conforms to the structure that I just mentioned to you above.
90%+ of the content on his website conforms to one of three template types:
- Definitive Guides
- How to “Listicles”
His team builds lots of links to each of them. But dissecting how he does it for the other articles is another article in and of itself.
What I like about this particular example is that he used publicly available data from GlassDoor and LinkedIn, that was either free, or only had to be accessed by paying a cheap monthly subscription.
The rest was good old-fashioned elbow grease.
There are plenty of software companies willing to share their aggregate data with you for free, in exchange for the publicity.
If you’re a FinTech or SaaS company, you’re probably already sitting on loads of data that can be leveraged for a unique study or two.
And if you’re using it to glean high-level takeaways of aggregate data, then there are no privacy concerns, because you’re not selling it or divulging anything personal.
My favorite example of this is from PPC advertising software company WordStream.
Because they have access to the Google Ads accounts of thousands of customers, they have a unique high-level view of aggregate advertising costs.
They use this to publish their annual Google Ads Benchmarks. They slice and dice the data by industry to compare average click thru rates, cost per click, and conversion rates.
Then they create nice graphics that visualize the data:
They produce nice, snackable data points from it. For example, “The average cost per click in AdWords across all industries is $2.69 for search and $0.63 for display.”
To date, this page has gleaned backlinks from 1,700 separate websites.
Are you seeing any patterns here?
Takeaways for leveraging unique data for backlink acquisition:
- Let the data tell a story
- Create nice visuals as part of that story
- Find data that is interesting to people in your industry
- It needs to be unique
The data can be free or low cost to obtain, and it can be created and promoted in a templatized, scalable way.
Now you might be thinking, “this all sounds like a lot of work.” And you would be right. The last technique is one that is designed to pay you dividends for months or years.
3. Create Links Passively
There are certain types of keywords that indicate that the searcher is doing research. Such keywords include keyword modifiers like “statistics” or “facts”.
For example, “cryptocurrency statistics” or “tax facts”.
Targeting these keywords is great for link building because the people looking them up are probably writing something. So if they find your article in the top results, they’ll probably cite your data link.
Without you having to pitch them.
Let me reiterate that: if you rank for relevant “statistics” or “facts” keywords, you will get relevant backlinks for free on autopilot.
Hubspot, another giant in the SEO industry, has been scaling this strategy to the moon for years.
Look at this screenshot of Hubspot statistics pages, and how many links they get:
First off, you’ll notice that they have 567 pages with the word “statistics” in the page title. And the average amount of backlinks per page on these first 4 results is about 15,600.
Take a look at the backlink velocity of their “social media marketing statistics” page:
That is a great business chart! Up-and-to-the-right.
To get a page like this ranking well, you have to do a lot of backlinking work. So it is a lot of work in the beginning.
But once you’re ranking in the top three, you will keep earning links on autopilot for years to come – as long as you keep the information updated.
I’ll also add that linking to data from a guest post isn’t too bad, because editors see it as a legitimate reason for including a link. There’s nothing promotional or salesy about it.
Which means that you can get links from higher authority, more prestigious sites! You’ll get links stripped from your guest posts far less often.
In this case, Hubspot simply compiled pre-existing statistics from a lot of data that already exists. Like so:
(Hint: if you want to be one of these sources, you’ll need to do original research, as noted earlier in the article.)
Anyone can do this. In any industry. All it takes is some research. I’ve done it in digital marketing, finance, law, and other industries as well.
(In fact, see my digital marketing statistics article as an example of how to do this.)
But if you want to really have success with it, then combine it with the elements already discussed in this article: provide your own unique data, and make great visuals from it.
Some of Brian Dean’s Backlinko studies have used this tactic. The page speed stats article is a good one.
You’ll notice that he followed the exact same template from before.
But this time, it’s targeting a “stats” keyword.
So the backlink velocity is amazing, because people keep linking to it, long after his team keeps promoting it through cold outreach.
It’s truly the “gift that keeps on giving”.
And I should mention that free tools are often the type of thing that people want to link to passively as well. Build a useful, free Chrome Extension or WordPress plugin, and watch how many passive links you’ll get once word gets out in your industry.
Making It All Work Together
Doing cold outreach for backlink acquisition isn’t fun. It’s nobody’s dream career.
That’s why guest posting, link insertions, broken link building, etc. typically get outsourced to recent college grads and interns in undeveloped countries. And there is as much automation as possible.
The problem with these methods is that they’re tactics. Even if you’re doing them in a way that offers value to the recipient, these types of link building will be costly. And they’ll have a high failure rate, too.
But when you’re doing cold outreach to promote unique research on a stats page, or you’re promoting a one-of-a-kind, free tool, then you’re doing something truly special.
Your website domain authority and SEO traffic will grow on autopilot. And this is how it becomes a revenue generator for your business.
See my article about FinTech SEO.
Learn what a FinTech marketing agency could do for you.