2015 Guide to Penalty-Safe Link Earning

Links are still the king of the Google algorithm hill. Along with site optimization, quality content, and user engagement, great links are the crown jewel of the search-ranking formula. Yet the conundrum most webmasters face is the fact that although Google requires links for sites to rank, it strongly discourages active link-building and penalizes sites for article marketing, low-quality guest blogging, paid links, and directory submissions.

From the beginning, Google has sought to reward sites with good content that was worthy of earning a link. So the model has finally, and truly, shifted away from BUILDING links to EARNING links. This was always Google’s goal, but only in the last two years has it become a reality. By policing SERPs with manual and algorithmic penalties, Google is able to punish sites that BUILD links and benefit those who EARN links.

So how do you EARN links if you don’t have an audience? If no one knows about your site, how can they link to you? But how can they find out about your site to link to you, if they don’t know you exist?

Let’s Start With the Don’ts, According to Google

Google’s Webmaster guidelines are very specific about how to avoid Penguin penalties in 2015 and beyond. According to Google, “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

To stay in Google’s good graces in 2015, Google insists that you:

  • Don’t buy or sell links — or posts that contain links — that pass PageRank.
  • Avoid excessive link exchanges and link quid pro quos, such as “I’ll link to you if you link to me back.”
  • Don’t flood big marketing or guest-posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
  • Don’t use automated programs to create links.
  • Avoid unnatural links, including links in footers or templates, forum comments with links embedded in them, hidden, keyword-rich or low-quality links embedded in widgets, and low-quality directory or bookmark site links.

So that’s what Google doesn’t want. Now that you know what to avoid going into 2015, let’s look at how to earn links the right way. Earning links is a seven-step process that requires discipline and almost military structure.

1. Get the Right Tools

The first step is to lay the foundation by acquiring the right tools for the job.

Chrome and Chrome Extensions

Google Chrome is the preferred Web browser because of the extensions it enables its users to install to help out along the way. Make sure to pick up the following Web extensions:


Podio is an excellent collaborative project-management tool. It affords its users incredible flexibility in assigning tasks to writers, editing and rewriting content, distributing content to websites, and keeping track of that content to make sure it doesn’t fall between the cracks.

Podio works on a hierarchy framework of several workspaces within an organization, several apps within a workspace, several items within an app, and several tasks within an item. Specific people can be included on tasks. When changes are made, they are tracked and notifications are sent to all interested parties.

Get to know the basics of Podio and the Chrome extensions, and then get ready for step two, which is the development of your content assets.


Podio offers users amazing flexibility and keeps all stakeholders on the same page as a collaborative tool.

2. Develop Your Content Assets

The key to building links is to have content worth linking to. Great content is everything — there is simply no shortcut. People don’t give away links or link for no reason. They link when your content is compelling, which means there has to be something truly unique or outstanding about it.

Before you even start writing, spend time researching and looking for content gaps – what are some of the pain points that your target audience faces, and how can you help them solve their problems?

Search for ideas by taking into consideration what people are talking about. You can do this using tools such as Buzzsumo, which measures social media shares. This is an excellent tool because it reveals what’s causing a buzz, what’s generating discussion, and what’s evoking emotion among actual human beings, as opposed to what an automated Google algorithm determines to be valuable.

By determining which content has performed well in the past, your goal should be to expand upon it, improve it, and advance it.


Buzzsumo tells you not what a numerical algorithm approves of, but what actual people are talking about, writing about, and craving.

Beyond Written Content

Most people think of content as just an article. Start thinking beyond the written word and think multimedia. Presentations, interview videos, infographics, and animated videos are all compelling ways of presenting information. Content can be repurposed through a different vehicle after it’s been created once. If great information is contained in an article, for example, it can be displayed a second time in a more reader-friendly infographic.

Owned Content vs. Hosted Content

It is incredibly difficult to create strong content on your site and then try to get other sites to link back to it — yet this is the strategy that many blog owners employ. A good strategy is to create two pieces of compelling content for each link you’re trying to build — one for you and one for the site you hope will host the link. You can find a site by conducting keyword research and reaching out to see if they’d be interested in hosting your content.

If you write an article on a certain topic, for example, you can create a companion infographic for the target site. The article, in this case, is owned content, and the infographic is hosted content. This methodology of owned and hosted content creates both an asset that is link worthy and an asset that is relevant that other site owners will accept. It’s a powerful two-punch combo that WORKS.

Determine Your Link Strategy

The next move is to determine how you will link. There are two parts of every link, the target URL and the anchor text. The target URL is the page where the link leads, such as a homepage or an internal page, and the anchor text is the word or words that are clicked.

Previously, people used money keywords as anchor text. This is dangerous in the post-Penguin world — especially leading into 2015 after the release of Penguin 3.0. Consider instead using brand terms like your company name, “naked” URLs, which are just a Web address spelled out in full, or “noise” text. Noise text can be something like “for more information” or “check out this resource,” which indicates to the reader where it is the link will lead. Noise links can also be contextual with a descriptive phrase.

3. The Outreach Process

Great content is nothing unless it’s backed up by a good outreach strategy. Unless you already own a dominant, well-known, wildly popular site, outreach must be part of your game plan.

Locate the Right Sites to Contact

So how do you know which sites to get in touch with? A good place to start is by revisiting your content research. When you were brainstorming about topics, you certainly discovered many sites that contained relevant information. Keep a list of those sites for potential link hosts.

Another method is to harness the power of Google by using the right search operators to find sites that have hosted similar content in the past. Anyone can perform a Google search, but understanding the subtle nuances that produce the best results is a real skill. Familiarize yourself by studying a comprehensive guide to search operators, which will teach you how to use the tilde, quotation marks and phrase search operators to get the most out of your search.

Keep Track

Create a spreadsheet for both the keywords you’ve searched and the potential sites to contact. Consider using Trello instead of Excel or Google Drive. It allows collaboration and is more intuitive. Once you collect a list of sites, verify their quality by examining:

  • Mozrank
  • Domain Authority
  • Trust Flow
  • Citation Flow
  • SEMrush Rankings
  • PageRank


Trello is more intuitive and functional than the old-fashioned Excel spreadsheets.

Collect Contact Information

Now that you’ve narrowed it down to qualified, relevant sites, it’s time to find out who to contact and how to reach them. This is an important step and you have to be extremely thorough. Find the “contact us” information on your target websites, but also look for contributor guidelines, leads on social media profiles and direct email addresses to avoid having your pitch land in customer service or, worse, a spam folder.

Create Pitch Letters

Site owners get tons of unsolicited email and requests for guest posts. It’s imperative to separate yourself by:

  • Use the source URL in the subject
  • Make your letter SHORT and SCANNABLE
  • Personalize the letter so people know you’re a real person
  • Be friendly and personable — it’s a lot nicer to deal with and it proves you’re not a spambot.
  • Use flawless grammar. Really, zero errors are acceptable.
  • Present yourself as an authority on the subject.
  • Link to examples of your work on credible sites.

Get a Gmail account and send the pitch from a personal email address so they don’t think it’s an advertorial. Also, make sure to include the site’s target URL in the subject.

4. Begin your Outreach Efforts

Instead of using email marketing tools to send your pitches, which could get filtered out, use Gmail in combination with Streak, which we discussed in the preparation phase. Streak creates a box for an email, which is subsequently linked to all emails from the same person. It helps you treat every email as a potential contact, and breaks down communications into “stages”.

Use this article to learn how to set up Streak — just make sure to choose the CRM options. Finally, you will customize all of your stages. These categories may include:

  • Send Ideas/Needs More Information
  • Auto Response: Out of Office
  • Pitched
  • Pitched/Needs Attention
  • Needs Content
  • Ordered
  • Accepted
  • Published
  • Published/No Link
  • Rejected
  • No Reply
  • Not a Good Fit

Now that Streak is up and running, it’s time to start sending your emails!


Streak transforms your inbox by breaking each email down into “stages” of contact.

6. Respond to the Emails You Receive

You should start getting responses — even if they’re just vacation auto responses — soon after you start sending. This can get cluttered and unorganized very quickly, and you can lose opportunities in the confusion. Organization at this stage has to be meticulous and methodical.

Sort, label, and streak your emails. Try to include as much detail as possible. Don’t presume you’ll remember anything.

7. Streak Stages

You’ll have to go through your Streak stages section in Gmail to ensure that you’ve completed all the necessary stages.

When you get a response, it’s time to immediately start cultivating a relationship. Familiarize yourself with the tone, subject matter, and readership of the site and generate some topic ideas to send by using Buzzsumo or Feedly, which is a free tool that you can sign into automatically with your Google account.

8. Creating and Tracking Your Content

When you get the green light, that’s where Podio comes in. Create an app and assign it the necessary elements, including a title, status, author, due date, editor, word count, target site, document URL, live URL, days TBP, paid status, transaction ID, and any notes. Go through the necessary editing phases with your writer.

Using Podio to track the content stage will substantially aid in organization and making sure you don’t forget articles that were written in the past, and that they all move along through the appropriate stages.

Now it’s time to add images to your content inside of a Word document and submit it to the target site. Make sure to add a friendly note advising them that the content is ready for review. Take this opportunity to thank them for the opportunity and ask them to let you know if they have any questions. Make any necessary edits and change your status in both Podio and Streak.

9. Following Up

Now is the time to follow up. Nice, pleasant reminders can go a long way to ensuring that your content will be published. Remember, they are busy and probably appreciate a gentle reminder.

When the link goes live, make sure to check it out and re-read it before updating your Streak labels and send a thank you to the site representative once you confirm that it’s gone live.

Link Earning Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Earning links clearly takes time and massive effort, but the results are worth it. While other sites are “taken down” by the Google police, your site’s rankings will just keep improving, particularly as you earn authoritative, powerful links. In a few months or years, you’ll have built such a strong, healthy link profile that you will be one of those dominant brands that Google loves and rewards with a steady stream of traffic.

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