For our 2021 State of Link Building Report, we decided to delve deeper into content-led link building as a tactic to try and uncover as many insights as possible. After all, for the second year in a row, it was listed as the most popular link building tactic from our respondents:
One area that we wanted to learn more about was the content format that the SEO community feels is the best one to use in order to generate links. Specifically, we asked:
“When it comes to the execution of your idea, which of the following do you find to be the most effective in generating links?”
And here are the results where respondents were allowed to select up to three options:
Today, I want to dive into each of these to see how we can use them to bring to life our link building ideas and importantly, when they may be the most appropriate to use. This is important because the way in which you execute an idea should be led by the idea, not the format. So whilst thinking about what formats can work best, try to avoid saying “I want to create an infographic” or “I want to create a video”. This means that you may bend an idea to fit an execution that may not actually be the right one.
Let’s get into it.
Long-form, report style content
Our most popular answer from respondents was to use long-form, report style content to execute link building campaigns. Personally, I found this somewhat surprising because generally, you see very few examples of this format shared by the SEO community at conferences, in case studies or on Twitter.
Having said that, we’ve had a lot of success with this format at Aira and it’s one that appears to be gaining traction amongst agencies and in-house teams.
The attributes of long-form, report style content
In terms of the details, this format can often include things like:
- Lots of copy: these formats are often very heavy on copy and are likely to have a bigger word count than an average article, often going into thousands of words as opposed to hundreds.
- Split over several pages: unlike most formats that are used for link building, a report can sometimes be split over multiple pages in order to better present and break down the volume of content.
- Visuals to support data and insights: typical examples of this format will include images to break up copy and also to illustrate key points, often related to data. On the downside, this sometimes means that common stock photos can be used to pad things out when other visuals aren’t available.
- Broken down into different angles/sections: with a large volume of content, key stories and angles can be lost. This means that reports will often be broken down in ways that allow link building angles to shine, meaning that outreach teams can promote different parts of the content to different audiences.
- Not tied to specific events or timelines: because of the investment of time required for this format, the promotion can often take place on an ongoing basis, as opposed to being tied to an event or day of the year. This often means that this format is naturally quite evergreen in nature.
The advantages of using long-form, report style content
Let’s look at some of the advantages of taking the time to execute your idea in this way for link building:
- As mentioned above, long-form content is often more evergreen in nature which means that it can be continually promoted, reducing the risk of your outreach failing and you not being able to adapt and rescue it.
- You can also update this content as your outreach progresses to adapt it. This is often easier than updating a more complex execution such as an interactive infographic because it is usually a case of updating copy and visuals with new ones.
- Lots of different angles can be covered in one campaign, allowing you to promote multiple angles to different audiences which can increase your chances of link building success.
- This format can also lend itself well to adding credibility to your brand and is great for thought-leadership style campaigns.
The disadvantages of using long-form, report style content
- If you do it properly, this format can often take a good chunk of time to produce. This is partly due to the research that is likely to be involved but also because long-form content can take much longer to review and edit, as opposed to a single infographic.
- You’re fairly unlikely to “go viral” with this format because they’re unlikely to produce stories that will make the front-pages of top-tier newspapers or magazines. They’re far more likely to be a “slow burner” when it comes to links. One campaign that we did at Aira generated over 100 links, but did so over a 12-month period.
- Your core angle or story may not be immediately obvious because of the volume of content. This means that you’re unlikely to succeed with audiences who want super quickly, snappy content to read and share. Your audience is more likely to be people who value in-depth content and longer reads.
Long-form, report style content isn’t likely to give you a quick hit of links or go viral, but they can certainly generate high quantities of links over time, as well as adding real value to your website. They can be great for naturally attracting links too because in-depth content has a good chance of ranking in it’s own right. This format is best utilized when you have an idea which can go in a number of directions and can be explored at great depth, as well as when the idea is very close to the expertise and credibility of the website you’re working on.
One of my go-to examples here is this long-form deep dive into the world of Amazon which cleverly included a few interactive elements alongside the in-depth copy, such as this chart which shows how much Amazon employees, including Jeff Bezos, earns every hour:
Not to mention this amazingly long-form piece called What is Code,, published back in 2015 by Paul Ford which has over 500 linking root domains now.
Interactive piece of content
Next in our list was interactive content, with 41% of respondents saying that they felt it was an effective way to execute a link building idea. I was probably expecting this to be number 1 given that it’s often “shiny” content like this which grabs the attention online and is often shared within the SEO community. This ties directly into some of the attributes of this format which we’ll discuss now.
The attributes of interactive content
- Visually engaging: this format is usually visually led which, if done effectively, makes it easy to understand very quickly without doing lots of reading. This can often be why you find yourself sharing this content without thinking too much or diving into the details.
- Sometimes data-led: whilst not always the case, this format is a popular choice for anyone who wants to display complex or interesting data in a fun way. This is because you can tell a story very quickly and let people interact with the data too.
- Single page execution: most examples of interactive content will be executed within a single page because the interactivity allows for multiple visuals, data points or stories to be communicated within it.
- Not always suited for mobile: whilst there are exceptions to the rule, many pieces will work best on desktop devices and a far more simplified and toned down version will be used for mobile.
- Light on copy, at least at first glance: some pieces will have lots of copy behind them but initially they will contain minimal copy and attempt to focus attention on the visual elements first.
The advantages of using interactive content
One of the most popular executions for a number of years, there are a number of advantages to using this format.
- Executing interactive content very well can make you stand out from the crowd, especially if you have an eye catching visual upon viewing it for the first time. You need to back this up with a strong story or message, but a strong visual can be enough to grab someone’s attention very quickly.
- Lots of potentially complex information can be presented visually and quickly, whilst encouraging people to “play” with the content and go digging into parts that they find interesting.
- Multiple angles can be included by allowing for interactive sorting or filtering of the data, potentially meaning that multiple outreach angles can also be used.
- Sometimes, a beautiful piece of interactive content can attract lots of links because of the format alone, even if the story or data isn’t overly strong.
The disadvantages of using interactive content
- Depending on the complexity of the piece, you may need lots of time from a web developer and if you go super complex, you may need both front-end and back-end development work which can be costly.
- You may need to compromise on elements when it comes to the execution of the mobile version of your content, meaning that some parts may need to be removed or toned down quite a bit.
- This content often needs to be uploaded by web developers which again, can add time to the project and take some elements out of your control. This can also make it a bit trickier to fix issues that may creep in or to update copy.
- It’s very easy to keep adding to interactive content, leading to it being more complicated than it needs to be and the core point sometimes being lost.
Interactive content can be a lot of fun to work on and hugely satisfying when they work well. However, they can use up a lot of design and development time very quickly which means that you should be as confident as possible with your idea and it’s chances of working well. Also be careful not to get caught up with this execution because of how cool the final product can be – if there is a simpler way to execute your idea and still get links, do it.
The Pudding do a great job of interactive content, a favourite of mine being this piece which visualises every line in Hamilton:
This was another slightly surprising one for me, placing third on our list and listed by 35% of respondents as a format that worked well for them. On the other hand, we can sometimes overcomplicate executions (as we’ve discussed with the interactive content above) so it’s nice to see a relatively simple execution being used a good amount.
The attributes of blog posts
A blog post can often include:
- Short to mid-length copy: blog posts will often be fairly easy to read and not too deep in terms of copy,
- Mix of copy and visuals: typically, we’ll see that blog posts will have a mix of copy and images, often avoiding large chunks of text but sometimes meaning that stock photos may be used to pad things out.
- Good internal linking: a blog post will often be within a larger blog which means that content is fairly easy for users (and search engines) to discover, meaning that they can be good for ranking purposes too.
- Tied to a person: unlikely standalone content, blog posts are often clearly written by an individual and can be attributed to them which works well for building up credibility and trust with a person.
The advantages of a blog post as a format
Whilst it may not be the most popular format in our list, a blog post offers a number of advantages when it comes to executing a link building campaign:
- Blog posts are usually very easy to produce and publish because there is usually an existing CMS such as WordPress which allows for this. You’re not reliant upon developers to help you with this at all.
- Reviewing blog posts is usually pretty straightforward because this can be done while the post is in the draft stage and edits can be made at this point. This is a bit harder with interactive content and long-form reports which may need to be published on test URLs first.
- Depending on the popularity of the blog and subscribers, you may also have a ready made audience who could read the post because it’s part of their routine to do so.
- Editing and updating content is usually easy and doesn’t require much help from developers or designers etc.
The disadvantages of a blog post as a format
- Many blog posts will have a pre-defined template that fits with the rest of the website and styling, this can make it tricky to do anything too advanced or customised with your content, meaning that things have to be kept very simple.
- You may need to shape your content to fit with existing content on the blog because it may be published alongside other posts and editors won’t want anything to look out of place. Whilst generally a good thing, again, it can make things a little tricky.
- Some blog posts will have pre-determined internal links or calls to action incorporated, meaning that you may have some unwanted distractions in and around your content.
Whilst not the most popular, the flexibility and agility that blog posts offer as a method of executing an idea make them attractive to many. They will certainly work well if you need to jump onto a piece of breaking news and publish something quickly or if you want to execute an idea very simply. If you believe in your idea and can communicate it easily using copy and some images, then there is no reason why a blog post can’t work for you.
A great example of this in action is this blog post (albeit, a long one) on the most important of questions, Is Die Hard a Christmas film?
Ah the good old infographic. Those of us who have been around the industry for a while will remember the explosion of infographics as a link building method, mostly between 2009-2012 when they seemed to be everywhere. Unfortunately, because of this, they received a bit of a bad reputation because a high volume of them appeared which were very low quality and sometimes, completely inaccurate in terms of the data they displayed.
Even with that in mind and with them being fourth on our list, 25% of respondents said that they thought they are an effective way to execute a link building campaign. Our experience at Aira agrees with this and they can still work very well, although the standard does need to be high.
The attributes of static infographics
Let’s take a look at what you usually get from a static infographic:
- Single image, vertical format: typically, most static infographics will be a single static image which is inserted onto a page. Due to most web pages being long as opposed to wide, they are often formatted in portrait mode rather than landscape.
- Made up of copy and visual elements: despite the idea of an infographic being to display data or information in a compelling way, you’ll see that most static infographics will also include some copy such as a headline, an introduction or even explanations throughout. The irony of placing text inside an image won’t be lost on the SEOs amongst us!
- All information in one image: leading on from the above, copy is often included within the image because the infographic is designed to be shared in full and if this happens, context is required so that someone can embed that infographic elsewhere.
- Minimal branding: whilst most infographics will adhere to branding guidelines in some form, you’re unlikely to see the logo or taglines of the company that produced it front and centre. These are more likely to be placed at the bottom of the infographic, as to not distract from the main point of the infographic or to make it look too commercial.
The advantages of a static infographic
- With a good designer, you can communicate a lot of data and information very quickly and effectively within a single image. Whilst this sometimes means that stories can get lost, keeping things simple and tight can work well and lead to a compelling visual.
- You won’t need a web developer to help you create an infographic, you will just need a designer, reducing the overall cost of production a fair amount.
- Infographics can often be easily uploaded into existing page templates such as a blog post template, because it’s simply a case of inserting an image.
- Static infographics can be shared very easily because they are simply images. Someone visiting your page can save the image and use it elsewhere, making shareability very easy – although you’ll need to use Google Reverse Image Search to keep an eye on usage!
- A static infographic can look very appealing and again, depending on your designer, can really make you stand out from the crowd and grab people’s attention quickly, which can help outreachers with their jobs.
The disadvantages of static infographics
- Complex datasets or stories are much harder to execute because of the infographic being static, meaning that a user can’t drill into data points or sort/filter data at all. This means that you need to be very good at pulling out and displaying the core point straight away.
- Due to being an image, static infographics won’t always look great on mobile devices because they aren’t responsive.
- The bad reputation that they’ve developed over the years can still linger a little bit, meaning that outreach, even with a strong idea, may be a touch harder if you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with your contact.
- Updating them can be tricky because it’s likely that you’ll need to go back to your designer for this, rather than being able to do it yourself.
Overall, static infographics can work extremely well as an execution method but should be reserved for times when you have a very strong angle or dataset which can be communicated simply. It also really helps to have a strong designer on board who “gets” what you’re trying to communicate and understand the idea that you have. One such example is this whiskey flavour map which is very simple and genuinely useful:
Just behind static infographic, we have press releases which 24% of our respondents said they found to be effective for link building. I was a little surprised at how close this was to infographics, but I suspect that this may be in part because press releases can often go alongside other forms of execution, as well as on their own. In this context, we’re going to focus on the press release itself and how we could use it to execute and support an idea.
The attributes of press releases
Having been around for a long time and starting in the offline world, press releases have a number of attributes that may be familiar to you:
- Copy-heavy: the vast majority of press releases will be 100% copy and not include images or any other form of content. Some may include a logo of the company publishing the release but that’s about it.
- 400-500 words in length: press releases are usually quite short and focused on the key angle, which is part of the point because they are written to convey a story.
- A quote from a spokesperson: the majority of press releases will include at least one quote from an in-house or third party expert which can support the data or story being told.
- Contact details for the promoter: most press releases will have a contact name, phone number and email address at the end so that journalists can get in touch with additional questions before writing their story.
The advantages of press releases
Despite being perceived as an older tactic, press releases are still utilized a lot and can be useful in supporting the launch of your story. They have a number of advantages:
- Journalists are used to them and understand the format very well. Despite so many being sent to journalists every day, many will be able to scan them quickly and understand if a story is relevant to them or not.
- Additional context and information can be added to a press release which can reiterate or emphasise the core point of any other content that you’ve produced. For example, if you’ve launched a campaign using an infographic, a press release can work alongside that and call out key data points and quotes.
- Credibility can be added to a story very easily using the sections for quotes, especially if this is from a third party expert who is supporting your story.
- There isn’t an expectation for you to customise a press release for a specific journalist, so you can send them to lots of journalists at once. You’ll still want to customise the email itself, but generally you don’t have to customise the release unless you’re targeting different news desks.
- They can be relatively quick to write and distribute, meaning that you could jump on breaking news quite quickly and get a press release out to the world faster than most other content formats.
The disadvantages of press releases
- Whilst you can include images and other media in press releases, they are generally not very flexible on this front and need to be copy-heavy, especially if you’re using press release distribution tools.
- Leading on from this, you only have a limited amount of space and copy to convey your key points and get someone’s attention, so you have to be super clear on your point and communicate it well.
- Press releases distribution can often be seen as spammy, meaning that using tools for distribution may not be as effective as manually writing to all of your key contacts, meaning that you still need a customised email message for each of them.
Whilst being a relatively old tactic, press releases can be great for supporting content campaign launches, but you really do need to narrow down your key points and be an excellent writer in order to stand out. Using them as a stand-alone tactic can be worthwhile if you’re reacting quickly to something, but most of the time, it’s likely that you’ll need another asset to grab someone’s attention.
Whilst not a format as such, we were keen to understand how many people used product pages as a method to build links. It turns out that with just 15%, not that many is the answer!
With that said, let’s briefly look at using real products as a way to execute link building ideas and see what’s possible because sometimes, making a real product can yield a lot of coverage and links.
The attributes of real products
Obviously we’re all very familiar with product pages and what these look like online. So let’s focus on the attributes of a link-worthy product.
- Visually compelling: all product pages online will have an image, meaning that many of us resonate straight away with how a product page works and the fact that there will be an image available. So when it comes to a link-worthy product, there is usually a strong image which hits us straight away and makes us understand why this product is different, for whatever reason.
- It looks real, because it is: a brand will use a standard product page template in order to publish the product, even if it’s done with link building in mind. When we land on the page, we believe that it is a genuine product, which adds to the story.
- They may already exist: you don’t always have to create a brand new product. Some brands will have products which may already be link-worthy, but need a story or event behind them in order to get links and coverage.
The advantages of real products for link building
- Making a real product to go along with the other products for sale on a website often means that you’re connecting with the same kind of audience who the brand wants to be getting in front of anyway. The relevance is often pretty close to what the brand actually does, meaning that people who see the product may also be interested in other products too.
- The product can last a long time, reducing the risk that the campaign is a one-hit wonder and may fail if one or two rounds of outreach don’t work.
- You can generate links directly to areas of a website that are valuable for ranking purposes. Whilst you may not get links directly to other product and category pages, links to a product page may be more valuable than links to other, content-led areas of the website.
- You may already have the product ready to go. If you do, pulling this off can require minimal time and resources because the product and page already exists.
The disadvantages of real products for link building
- Creating a real product can be hard and take lots of time and resources. You can fake it, but typically results will be better if you have something which someone can actually buy or that you can actually send to people.
- Approval can be tricky because you’re asking a company to put their name on a product and this may require a few layers of approval and sign off.
- Having a brand working with you who have naturally link-worthy product pages will be rare.
Link building using real products can be hard to pull off, but when you do, it can work very well. But you need the right brand and team to work alongside you in order to do this as well as needing confidence in your idea because of the resources that are likely to go into it. Although if you’re fortunate enough to work with a brand who has untapped potential to promote and get links to existing products, you may be able to generate a lot of links with relatively little content production.
To wrap up
To finish, I’d like to reiterate that whilst the content format that you choose is, of course, important, the idea is the key. Focus on the idea first and let the format follow based on the best way to communicate your core message and what you’re capable of.
Of course, you can always aspire to produce content that incorporates pretty much every format we’ve talked about above, such as The Story of Palm Oil from The Guardian: