How relationship-based links stack up against spammy link building techniques
By the end of 2021, there were over 1.9 billion websites, 4 million new blog posts daily, and 91% of organizations worldwide used content marketing. Over 3.96 billion people used social media, and people made millions of social media posts every day.
If those figures tell us anything, it's that the internet is full of content. Naturally, if you want to stand out and win backlinks, you'll need to work smart.
What does working smart mean in this context? For many brands, it means developing good quality content, finding websites with a high Domain Ranking (DR) / Domain Authority (DA), and asking them to boost your content's performance by giving you a backlink.
But there's a problem with this approach: traditional outreach is dead. “Why?” you might ask. Read on, and we'll show you by comparing traditional outreach to relationship-based link building.
Types of link building
If you google “link building,” you'll find guides for several different types of link building, including black hat link building, outreach-based link building, and relationship-based link building.
While these techniques carry similar names, they couldn't be more different. Let's define them before we start our comparison.
Black hat link building
Black hat link building is a backlinking technique that exploits loopholes to boost your website artificially.
Black hat backlinking gets its name from its shady nature — as black hat techniques use manipulative tactics like link stuffing, spamming links in comments, stealing and republishing content, and content cloaking (when you present different content to readers and search engines).
While black hat link building may win you traffic in the short term, we don't recommend it. Here's why:
- It may damage your domain ranking by associating your website with dodgy sources
- Google may give you a penalty
- Search engines may find your website “spammy” and block it from search engine results
- It may violate local laws (depending on your jurisdiction)
Outreach-based link building
Outreach-based link building (sometimes called “cold link building”) is a white hat backlinking technique where brands send cold outreach emails to websites asking for a backlink. If you run your brand's “info@” email, you've probably gotten one of these outreach emails.
Traditional backlinking is popular because:
- It's the most well-known
- It's affordable
- It wins you high-quality backlinks
Traditional backlinking is best suited to brands with a strong website or reputation. Why?
Backlinkers send tens of thousands of cold emails to websites asking for links every day, so to stand out, you'll need the person reading your email to recognize you and view your link as more valuable than links from competitors.
Relationship-based link building
Relationship-based link building is a white-hat backlinking technique where brands build relationships with other brands with good content. Then, they source statistics and insights from their partners to improve the quality of their articles.
Relationship-based linking is popular because:
- It gives you a list of high-quality sources to use when researching new content
- It gives you organic links from domains with high DA/DR scores
- It helps you provide the reader with high-quality sources for further reading
- It allows you to help other great brands grow
- It gives you a great Return-on-Investment (ROI)
Relationship-based link building is suited to brands with an established network or the resources to build relationships within their industry. If you don't have these things, you can also team up with a relationship-based link building agency like Mediaberry.
Relationship-based linking vs spammy outreach
Black hat link building is useless unless your goal is to lose money, damage your domain, and tank your brand's reputation — so let's take it out of the conversation altogether. That leaves us to compare outreach-based link building and relationship-based link building.
Though these two approaches have similar outcomes (i.e., you get backlinks), they have vastly different costs, time requirements, and rates of effectiveness.
Here's an infographic to compare them:
4 types of outdated outreach methods (and how they compare to similar relationship-based link building methods)
While comparing outreach-based link building and relationship-based link building by their cost, time requirement, and effectiveness can help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, it gives you a very high-level view of backlinking.
And though this executive view is crucial in making digital marketing management decisions, it doesn't tell you the whole story.
Truthfully, your success with backlinking will depend on the techniques you use and how closely you follow best practices.
Let's compare four standard (and outdated!) outreach methods to relationship-based link building methods to see how they stack up.
Shotgun/skyscraper link building
The shotgun/ skyscraper link building technique is a backlinking practice that sees you creating linkable content to rank against your SERP competitors. To use it, you follow these steps:
- Find a high-quality blog post that's earned lots of great backlinks (for example, you might use a comprehensive guide article like our “Complete Guide to Landing Pages” article)
- Recreate the blog post and improve its content with more pictures, examples, statistics, or information
- Publish the post
- Message the websites that linked your SERP competitor's article and ask them to link to your article instead (many brands use cold message software to speed this step up)
- Rinse and repeat
When done effectively, the shotgun/ skyscraper method can earn your post quality backlinks.
However, there are some limitations — including that you only get links to one piece of content, you need to put in a lot of work, and you have no guarantee of success (as there is little incentive for the publisher to link to you instead of their original source).
So what could you do instead?
Using a relationship-based link building technique like link trading allows you to reap the shotgun/ skyscraper technique benefits without the downsides.
When you use link trading, you show your content to network partners in a list of link assets. Then, your partners use these assets when they need a good source.
But just how effective is it?
Over fifteen months, we used link trading as part of our work for a “mover and shaker” ecommerce furniture brand. Specifically, we created a link asset for the brand and helped them share it with network partners.
The result? The client's referring domains increased by 290% (from 3,879 to 11,261!).
Best practices for earning backlinks through linkable content and link trading:
- Create articles worth linking to
- Offer new insights (new statistics, case studies, infographics, etc.)
- Update your articles regularly with new information
- Give websites an incentive to link to you (like a link in return)
Guest posting is the act of writing a post for a website, publication, or blog without input from the host's editorial team. Guest posting is a tried-and-true way to promote your website, as you can use guest posts to:
- Establish yourself as an industry expert or leader
- Promote a product or service
- Reach an audience outside of your customer base
- Give yourself a well-placed backlink
Guest posts are a “win/win” link building strategy, as you get free promotion, and the host gets high-quality content to share with their audience for free.
Both outreach-based link building and relationship-based link building approaches use guest posting in very different ways.
When you write a guest post for your outreach-based backlinking campaign, you:
- Write the post before sending it to the publisher
- Are looking to build links over a relationship
- Don't have confirmation that the publisher likes your topic
Alternatively, when you write a guest post as part of a relationship-based link building campaign, you write the post with express permission from the publisher and as a favor for bloggers and brands that you have a prior relationship with.
As you can imagine, a relationship-based approach yields better returns. And here's proof:
Over thirteen months, we built 250 backlinks to a client we call “Company X” through guest posts (among other techniques). As a result of our work, Company X's referring domains grew by 190% — from 3,572 to 6,709.
Best practices for good guest posts:
- Establish a relationship with the publisher (so they trust you)
- Pitch your topic to the publisher before writing your post (in case it doesn't meet their needs)
- Work towards a long-term relationship, not a backlink
- Create high-quality, SEO-friendly content
- Place your backlink contextually (so the publisher won't consider it spammy and remove it)
Link roundup outreach
If you aren't familiar, roundup articles gather examples, statistics, and case studies from multiple sources and present them in a single guide (to see an example of a roundup article, read: “Content Marketing Statistics 2021”).
Thus, link roundup outreach is exactly what it sounds like: you find roundup articles and ask the publisher to add your brand as an example.
Link roundup outreach is a reasonably strong cold-calling technique — as if you have a good example, the publisher has a great reason to give you a backlink.
But how does it stack up?
Let's compare it to a similar relationship-based link building approach: link insertion. Link insertion is the practice of finding content from partners in your network, identifying gaps your content can fill, and offering the partner free material to close the gap.
As the publishers trust you and the free content you offer them, you'll have a higher success rate with link insertion than link roundup outreach.
Want proof? Ask yourself: would you rather place links through this person…
… or through a professional editor you know and trust?
Best practices for link roundup outreach and link insertion:
- Only ask for links in highly relevant pieces
- Create the content for the publisher (as it's easier to say “yes” when you don't need to extra work)
- Look for broken links and offer to fill them with a fresh example
- Don't ask for links in resource pages or non-blog content
- Measure your link building efforts to increase your efficiency
Spray and pray outreach
If you've ever gotten a cold outreach email asking for a link, you've likely experienced the spray and pray outreach method firsthand.
To use spray and pray, you use a data scraping tool to find “info@” addresses for other brands, create a cold email with links to your content, and send it to your list of “info@” addresses.
As cold emails don't have any personalization, they have a rock bottom response rate of 7%. However, it's quick and cheap to send them, so they can also deliver a decent ROI if you can spray and pray at scale.
But how do they compare to relationship-based link building?
There aren't a lot of statistics available on relationship-based link building — but we have a lot of experience from clients. Let's talk about just one.
For six months, we used our network to build links for an AI software company with a competitor so strong their service is a household name. Using a budget of just $35k and roughly 60 links, we drove their domain rating from 49 to 67, boosted their traffic by 2,772%, and lifted their referring domain numbers from 464 to 1,876.
And we did it through relationship-based backlinking.
Best practices for spray and pray:
- Don't ask for a backlink straight away
- Make your pitch emails personal
- Put yourself in the publisher's shoes and ask yourself if you'd accept your offer
Which link building method should YOU use?
So how do outreach-based tactics compare to relationship-based link building tactics? Check out our comparison table below:
|Outreach-based link building|
Made easier by cold calling and data scraping software
May damage your credibility with websites, trade publications, and news outlets
Cold emailing has a low response rate of 7%
|Relationship-based link building|
|Pros||Earns you high-quality links from trusted sources|
Gives you access to good sources for quick content creation
You can leverage your success to help up-and-coming brands
Helps you build a strong link profile
|Cons||Building a network is difficult |
May require insight from expert link builders
In our experience, outreach-based link building can't compare to relationship-based link building.
But don't just take our word for it. Here's what some experts have to say:
Cold outreach is dead: here's why
Recently, Boomerang analyzed over 5 million emails. And do you know what they found? The average email user receives 147 emails daily and deletes roughly 48% of the emails they receive.
Naturally, standing out in someone's inbox is tricky — which is why outreach-based link building isn't the way forward.
In this article, we compared outreach-based link building to relationship-based link building. Here's what we found:
- Black hat link building techniques are risky and not worth your time
- Many outreach-based backlinkers use the shotgun/skyscraper, guest posting, link roundup outreach, and spray and pray outreach approaches.
- When done correctly, these techniques can win you high-quality backlinks (but “correctly” requires a significant investment of time and knowledge)
- Building links through a network is more expensive but delivers better results long-term
- Successful backlinking strategies aren't spammy and won't clog a brands “@info” inbox