Scalable, White Hat Link Acquisition Tips – SEO Theory


Scalable, White Hat Link Acquisition Tips comply with search engine guidelines, don’t entail paying other people for links, and offer no guarantees of influencing search results. The links should create real value for human visitors wherever they are placed.

I’ve historically divided link acquisition between “link building” and “earning links”. But the Web has evolved beyond such simple divisions. Have you really earned a link if a robo-scraper grabs your RSS feed and populates 1 or more autoblogs with excerpts that link back to your site? I like old school aggregation, where someone with an opinion carefully chooses a list of RSS feeds to republish on their site. But auto-blogging takes all the personal opinionating out of the process.

For that reason, and a few similar reasons, I think it’s time to say that link acquisition comprises at least 3 classifications:

  1. Earned links, editorially bestowed (even if requested)
  2. Built links
    • Unpaid, self-placed links (social media profiles & shares, forum posts, sister site interlinking, etc.)
    • Paid, syndicated links (press release distribution, paid guest posting, etc.)
    • Unpaid, syndicated links (guest posting, directory submission, reciprocal linking, etc.)
    • Spam injection (software-created blog comments, forum comments, profile links, etc.)
  3. Unsolicited auto-generated links
  4. Shadow links

Not every “built” link violates search engine guidelines, but in my experience — based on discussions I follow on Facebook, Twitter, and various Web forums, I’d say the majority of link building is based on paid linking. Paid guest posts, PBNs, and paid direct linking remain popular with Web marketers from all countries, all industries, and all levels of experience.

The potential consequences of paying for links remains one of the least discussed aspects of Web marketing. Buying links — and link building in general — is not “search engine optimization”. At least, it’s not SEO in the sense of how SEO Theory defines the process — which is: “1) The practice of analyzing search engine protocols, actions, resources, and guidelines for the purpose of improving Website compliance and performance in search results. 2) The practice of managing the relationship between a business or entity and the search environments to which it is exposed.”

You’re not optimizing for anything if you’re just throwing money at Websites that sell links, given that you have no way of knowing which links pass value, for how long they pass value (or when they begin passing value), or if they’ll hurt your site.

Buying links is like pouring fuel into a vehicle with a few dozen holes in the fuel line. Some gasoline reaches the engine but a lot of it spews out on the road behind you as your vehicle moves down the road.

Worse, many people claim their link building is the reason their sites earn a lot of traffic with no valid evidence to support their arguments. The people whose successful sites I’ve examined — that is, among link buyers — practice good on-page search engine optimization. And they often publish new, useful content. So as I’ve often said, many sites that violate search engine guidelines rank in spite of themselves (or their paid links).

*=> The best link is the link that both drives traffic and helps with search engine optimization.

You may not be able to tell if the link helps with SEO, but you can see the traffic it sends (unless it uses the “noreferrer” link attribute). If you’re tagging your links, then you can see the traffic they drive.

Bottom Line Paying for links is a high risk proposition. No one can prove the links they sell will do what you want. And that is why so many people buy links in volume.

Do paid links help? Some do. Anyone whose backlink profile grew only through paid strategies — and who enjoyed corresponding growth in search engine referral traffic — will tell you they attribute that growth (at least in part) to the paid links.

But you lack 100% certainty about what you’re buying. If you’re providing Web marketing services to clients and you acquire paid links for them, you ethically owe it to them to tell them:

  1. There are no guarantees
  2. You don’t know which links will help (or hurt)
  3. There is no way to track the flow of PageRank-like value in the search indexes
  4. Buying links may get their sites penalized or de-indexed by the search engines

No one should be doing business with an SEO provider who isn’t honest about these facts.

Is White Hat Link Building A Thing?

In the sense that “white hat SEO” seeks to comply with search engine guidelines, then, yes, white hat link building is real. It’s also very different from aggressive (guideline-violating) link building.

You’re allowed to link to your own content from within your own content. And that’s true regardless of whether you’re interlinking 2 Websites or only building cross-referential links in the content of a single site.

Search engine employees struggle to advise people who ask “how many sites can I link together?”

The best answer boils down to, “The fewer sites you link together, the better. The fewer links between any two sites, the better.” That said, they concede that the algorithms will tolerate (not necessarily reward with improved rankings) up to 5(-ish) sitewide footer (or sidebar) links between related Websites.

*=> Some travel industry Websites interlink several sister sites in their footers. They don’t appear to suffer any negative consequences for doing this.

Wikipedia also interlinks with its sister sites. There are good, successful examples of sites that use sitewide footer (or margin) links between related brand-equity sites. I recommend you not use that model to interlink your private blog network sites.

I interlink a few of my own sites. For example, SEO Theory links to Reflective Dynamics’ site, and vice versa. The search engines know these sites are related (through the links if not by any other means). I also interlink my science fiction sites, Xenite.Org and SF-Fandom.

I’ve never received a warning or penalty from any search engine for doing this. Not once, in all the discussions I’ve had with Googlers, did any of them say, “Hey, by the way, you should nofollow those links between your sites.”

I’m not saying they endorse my interlinking strategies. I’m saying they don’t see a problem with what I’m doing. Maybe the algorithms ignore the links. Maybe not. But I don’t worry about that. I worry about whether people see the links as useful and potentially click on them.

How White Hat Link Building Works (and Scales Up)

There are no rules for scalable, white hat link building but if I were making such rules my first rule would be that no white hat link building strategy should be scaled to excess. I define “excess” by the likelihood or probability that what seems to be acceptable to search engines today will become a violation in the future. In fact, many of the practices search engine guidelines now prohibit were once touted as “white hat SEO” link building practices.

It’s generally okay you do something 10 times. But if you do it 100 times then you need to ask yourself what real value you’re creating through those 100 easily replicated links. If the same strategy works for different content, well, that’s probably okay. If you’re beating the Web to death with the same 100 links — that’s spam, even if you’re not technically violating search engine guidelines.

So the scalability in “scalable white hat link building” isn’t achieved through mere repetition.

Scalable strategies that generally work well over long periods of time include:

  • Creating lots of link bait (easier said than done)
  • Building loyal audiences that readily share links to your content (easier said than done)
  • Earning media mentions (easier said than done)
  • Asking for links (easier said than done)
  • Moving old content to archives (easier said than done)
  • Creating viral ideas (easier said than done)
  • Creating brand value (easier said than done)

A Viral Idea is not a meme. It’s not a blog post or a FAQ page. A viral idea is a concept that generates attention among people most likely to link to the source of the idea. You might challenge a generally accepted belief, write a series of articles that explain how to use new software, create a television show that generates a flood of online discussion across the Web, or commit some horrific crime that is widely covered in the media.

The idea isn’t necessarily limited to 1 page of content. People may link to secondary content instead of the original content, but as the volume of links grows, the idea originator earns a share of those links.

Brand value engenders links from customers, people who actually use the service or products. Most brand value links come from Web forums and social media, not from blogs and news stories. You may have data you think disproves my point, but you must exclude all self-placed (and paid) links. You must also exclude all PR-driven earned media.

It’s not brand value because your publicist reached out to a few journalists. It’s brand value because someone on the street told a friend or a stranger that they used the product or service, or shopped at the store or Website, and were satisfied with their experience. You get a brand value link if someone in a forum points to your blog and says, “What a piece of crap this guy published.” Brand value links have no relation to sentiment.

The secret to scaling up white hat link earning is to do more of whatever earns links (preferably with positive sentiment). But some people argue that earning links isn’t the same as building links. That is, “creating lots of link bait” isn’t a link building strategy.

Well, yes and no.

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If you’re creating link bait then you’re publishing something somewhere on the Web. You should have the means to link to that something from the same platform on which you publish it. Even if you’re only creating popular Tweets, you can link to those Tweets over and over again. In fact, I often place links to Tweets in Tweets. You don’t have to use the Retweet option. You can link to the same Tweet 100 times, if you wish (I wouldn’t, but you can).

By the same token, you can build internal links to your blog posts from within your blog all day long. I interlink related blog posts on the Middle-earth Blog all the time. That’s a white hat SEO link scheme. Technically, the search engines don’t like “link schemes”, but they implicitly make exceptions for content that doesn’t otherwise violate their guidelines.

By the same token, if you know what earns media mentions and you can scale up that kind of publication, you’re building links. Becoming a “go to resource” for journalists is easily within the playbook of white hat SEO. And I’m not talking about subscribing to Help A Reporter Out and pouncing on them every time they ask about a certain topic.

Only this week I received another media inquiry about one of my science fiction sites. I’m not the “go to resource” I once was, but I still get attention every now and then. And I all do is publish honest, sincere content that doesn’t go out of its way to attract media attention. I’m creating content for people, not the media. But there are Websites that earn a lot of mentions from the media because journalists trust them. These sites publish data, or provide public services.

I hate to say it, but Wikipedia is the king of link building through earned media. And their content isn’t even reliable and trustworthy (according to their own internal standards — after all, anyone can change the content — so it’s just not fair to the rest of the universe, is it?).

Bottom Line White hat link building begins with the content you create. You can create content that is designed to earn links and call that link building if you do it often enough.

Interlinking Sites As A White Hat Link Building Strategy

Many people have earned search engine penalties by interlinking sites. It’s a risky concept.

If you do this without violating search engine guidelines, your links may not help (that is, they may not influence search results).

So that brings me back to something I said earlier: I’d rather have a link that drives traffic. Now, I’m not saying you should add “nofollow” or “sponsored” attributes to all your sister site links, but think about why you’re linking to content on one site from another. Is it useful to your visitors?

Worst-case scenario is you get a penalty. So avoid the worst-case scenario. Do that by not rationalizing that it’s really good content and that it’s relevant to the search engine. It NEEDS to be relevant to your readers, and search engine algorithms be damned. If your content can’t pass that test then it’s not good content (for linking to).

If (in an alternate universe) you didn’t create the content, if you found it on CNN or Wikipedia, would you still be inclined to link to it from one of your own sites? If not, then you know why you shouldn’t link to your own content from your sister sites.

It’s okay to say, “By the way, I have a science fiction Website you might enjoy“. It’s quite another thing to say, “buy LoTR Collectibles here“. (That link is nofollowed.)

I don’t need cheap, squealy anchor text from a sister blog. I guarantee you, someone will click on that link just to see what kind of LoTR merchandise I’m promoting on the Middle-earth Blog. I can’t guarantee it’s all in stock, but thanks for looking.

One general rule is that you’re allowed to create all the social media links you wish. Why? Well, most of the social media platforms either use “nofollow” attributes or they redirect their links through portals that block search engine crawlers. You knoew that, didn’t you?

Google may or may not get the link data from alternative sources, but remember — PageRank-like value only flows from Web document to Web document. Don’t delude yourself (or your clients) into thinking you can flow PageRank through social media shares.

The cross-promotional margin (footer) link strategy works well for brands. If you’re not seriously trying to create brand name recognition for a group of companies or D/B/As, I recommend you not use the strategy. Maybe it won’t hurt if you do it anyway, but I make no promises.

*=> Not every brand name is in the entity database(s), but if you can earn entity recognition that should help (in my opinion).

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Bottom Line What scales is your creativity. Create scalable value. Get out of the “scalable link anchor text” rut that 20 years of spammy false SEO has put you in.


If you were hoping for detailed, in-depth strategies for scalable, white hat link acquisition, I’m sorry but I had to disappoint you because what keeps it all “white hat” — that is, compliant with search engine guideines — is the fact that whatever you do is relatively unique.

Any formula for acquiring links en masse via repetition is a spam strategy, even if it isn’t currently forbidden by search engine guidelines.

And if you’re curous about some of the things I mentioned but didn’t explain above, well, consider what that means to the question, “Are they white hat link acquisition tips?”

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