Welcome to this guide for creating awesome content that’ll give you a higher chance of getting backlinks in 2021. First, we’ll cover what backlinks are, what your chances are of ranking in Google without them, and why content is the key to unlocking the door to backlinks.

So let’s dive right in.

What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are links to your content from other websites on the internet. They form the basis of what’s known as ‘link building’, where the goal is to improve search engine visibility by getting as many ‘votes’ (links) as possible from other people to say your content is relevant and worth sharing.

You can get backlinks from creating cool tools, like Coschedule’s Headline Analyzer, paid promotion or distribution, reaching out and emailing potential websites talking about your industry, as well as through content marketing (which is what we’re covering today).

There are two main types of backlinks which are:
  • No follow
  • Do follow

‘Nofollow’ links don’t count towards a webpage’s rank in search engine results pages (SERP’s). These links get tagged with ‘nofollow’ in the page code like this:

rel=”nofollow”

It’s like a notice sign to Google and other search engines that tells them not to count the link. Therefore, these don’t affect your ranking.

Why does the ‘nofollow’ tag exist, you might ask? In 2012, Google launched the “webspam algorithm update,” which later became known as the “Penguin Update.” In simple terms, Google built it to tackle what people in the SEO industry call “black hat tactics,” which refers to manipulative linking practices such as leaving spammy blog comments, social media links, sponsored content, and widgets.

That being said, don’t completely discount the value of ‘nofollow’ links. If you’re smart about them, you can still bring in lots of organic referral traffic through them.

Dofollow links are the default state of a link so long as it doesn’t fall within the context of ‘nofollow’ links. In this case, you won’t see any tags in the code with them. These are links that contribute to overall page rank in the SERP’s, and the higher quality the website the link is coming from, the better.

What Are Your Chances of Ranking in Google Without Backlinks?

Google’s own Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist, said during a live Q&A session in 2016 that backlinks are among the top three search ranking factors. They’re pretty important if you want to rank in Google, and most professionals in the SEO industry will tell you it’s impossible to rank without them.

However, while using a tool like Ahrefs Keyword Explorer, it’s possible to find a keyword where the top 10 search results have no referring domains (backlinks), and that’s because of 3 main reasons:

Lack of competition
If the search term is super niche, it’s quite likely there are very few websites competing for the keyword. In some cases, there will only be one website taking up the top 10 results.

The top 10 pages also don’t have any backlinks

Again, if the competition and niche are small, you may find that no one (or very few people) links to their content because fewer people are talking about it online.

The top 10 pages belong to ‘high authority’ domains (already popular websites)

Because these websites are already popular and highly ranked in Google, their newest content benefits from their high Domain Rating and boosts individual page authority.

Seeing a keyword fulfill all three of these criteria is pretty rare, but it’s possible to rank without backlinks if you manage to find that gap. Most of the time, though, you’ll need backlinks to help boost your page to the top of the search.

Why Awesome Content is Key for Attracting Backlinks

Simply put, awesome content will generally either entertain or help people (we’ll dig into this further) and creating content that does either of these makes people want to share it with others.

When someone shares a link to your content, you gain traffic through ‘nofollow’ referrals or boost your page’s rank in SERP’s leading to potentially higher organic traffic through search engines.

In essence, you can compare Google’s algorithm to a ‘voting system’. People who share and link to your content are essentially ‘voting’ for your stuff to appear in the SERP’s. The more high-quality votes you get, the more you’re likely to get into the top 10.

However, if your content is terrible, no-one is going to vote for it. So, of course, backlinks are essential, but only if your content is worth linking to in the first place.

Creating Awesome Link-Worthy Content

So now that we’ve covered the basics of backlinks and why they’re important, here we’ll get to the meat of the article. First things first though, I’ve got to deflate your balloon a little bit before we make it rise again.

Why Awesome Content Doesn’t Always Attract Backlinks

Have you ever created a piece of content for your website you thought was great, but then became disappointed at its performance later on? Chances are, the content wasn’t shareable or link-worthy.

Think about it for a second. Let’s say you’re searching for the name of a particular type of flower you have in your garden, and you find a page that tells you exactly what you need to know. Sounds fantastic, but are you going to share that page with other people? Probably not.

We can also look at a practical example from my search history. The other day I was looking for a ‘financial advice disclaimer’ I could use at the end of one of my articles, if we plug that into Keyword Explorer, this is what shows up:

SERP's results in Keyword Explorer for the term 'financial advice disclaimer'.

SERP’s results in Keyword Explorer for the term ‘financial advice disclaimer’.

As you can see, the top six results have very few referring domains (unique websites linking to their page). These results reflected my behaviour when I decided not to share the page I modelled for my disclaimer.

So when you create content for your website, no matter what niche it falls in, to rank in Google, you’ve got to make it so that people will want to share it with others.

What Makes Content Shareable or Link-Worthy?

The easiest way to figure it out is to look at what you’ve shared in the past (preferably related to your niche). If you’ve shared it, chances are someone else has too, then look at what made you share the post. Was it entertaining? News or innovation related? A guide to a particular tool you use? A useful case study?

All of these elements are what makes up a piece of shareable content, but why?
Shareable content makes you feel something. Whether that’s happy or angry about developments in your field, thankful for educating you, or grateful for providing evidence of a point you’re trying to make.

Let’s dive a little deeper and look at the types of link-worthy content, as well as some examples.

Examples of Link-Worthy Content

Usually, you’ll find four different types of content are link-worthy or shareable. They are:

  • Emotionally driven
  • Informational/Educational
  • Original Statistics or Research-based
  • Stories/Case Studies or Examples

As you can see, these form the basis of arousing a particular emotion or action from the reader. Let’s take a look at them individually.

Emotionally Driven Content

Emotionally driven content has been getting a bad rep in the last few years, mainly because of the rise of ‘fake news‘ or ‘clickbait’. However, this shows us precisely one type of content benefits from strong emotions: news or controversy.

Going back to Keyword Explorer, we can input ‘President Trump’, and you’ll find that most of the top results are taken up by news websites:

Keyword results from searching 'President Trump' in Ahrefs Keyword Explorer.

Keyword results from searching ‘President Trump’ in Ahref’s Keyword Explorer

But let’s flip that on its head because while negative content tends to spread fast, positive content and feel-good stories garner attention too (which is probably what you’re looking for).
In 2016, Kerry Jones, Kelsey Libert, and Kristin Tynski published an article in the Harvard Business Review detailing the ‘Emotional Combinations That Make Stories Go Viral’. In the article, they state that:

” – social sharing was very connected to feelings of high dominance, where the reader feels in control, such as inspiration or admiration. This explains why your Facebook newsfeed may be flooded by friends sharing feel-good stories.”
– Kerry Jones, Kelsey Libert, and Kristin Tynski

An excellent example of this kind of content might be the Zen Habits blog by Leo Babauta, a big name in the minimalism niche. His posts regularly inspire people to take on the idea that ‘less is more’, and look at how that fares him:

Site overview of Zen Habits, showing over 33k referring domains.

Site overview of Zen Habits, showing over 33k referring domains.

He gets around 156k in organic traffic, and his content is clearly shareable with his more than 33k referring domains.

Informational Tools or Educational

Besides content being viral for having a positive or negative story, a piece of content that is a tool for others to use or is informational is one of the most link-worthy types. Let’s take our earlier example of CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer:

CoSchedule's Headline Analyzer Page with Ahref's info on the top bar.

Coschedule’s Headline Analyzer Page with Ahref’s info on the top bar

For CoSchedule, over 6.3K unique web pages link to this single page, which drives $5.1K of organic traffic value. What’s also impressive about this tool is that this whole page is ranked for 2.5K organic keywords.

The critical point here is that it’s shareable because it’s free and useful to many people. That also gives us another lesson: give your best stuff away for free. But let’s move on to the educational content.

People like to learn about topics they’re interested in, so content in the form of tutorials or guides in a niche industry does well. The educational content in a specific niche is also more likely to be shared inside the consumers’ community. Let’s take ‘muscle building guide’ as an example below:

SERP results in Keyword Explorer for 'muscle building guide'.

SERP results in Keyword Explorer for ‘muscle building guide.

We can see here that guides and how-tos perform pretty well, but more importantly, nearly all of them have over 100 unique referring domains – clearly, people who are looking to build muscle think this kind of content is worth sharing.

Research and Data

Closely related to educational content, original research and data also lend themselves well to being shareable. People trying to make a point in their articles or stories will often link to sources on the topic they’re talking about.

For this example, we can look at Optinmonster. They created a list of blogging statistics and updated it for 2021, and it has 744 referring domains. You might think monthly organic traffic of 922 isn’t much, but check out that traffic value of $2.9K, which shows it ranks for some pretty valuable keywords. Not bad for a WordPress plugin.

URL overview of Optinmonster's 2021 blogging statistics provided by Ahref's.

URL overview of Optinmonster’s 2021 blogging statistics

If we look at an organisation specialising in putting out industry research, a popular one is Deloitte. Let’s take one of their surveys on Millennials as an example:

URL overview of Deloitte Millennial 2020 study by Ahref's.

URL overview of Deloitte Millennial 2020 study

As we can see, over 4K different websites have linked to this study in their content. As a result, they’re getting a ton of traffic from this single piece of content. A key point to make about this kind of content is that they often generate more quality leads (through sharing and other means) for those in the consideration stages of a buying decision.

It shows that original industry research can carry a brand a long way in its content marketing strategy.

Case Studies

People love to hear stories or case studies of how someone or a business became successful (or failed epically) in a particular pursuit. We’re biologically wired to enjoy stories, so it’s no surprise that a good case study is highly shareable and link-worthy.

Take this off-topic article in Business Insider of a woman who lost weight quite quickly without ‘dieting’

URL overview of Business Insider article about weight loss.

URL overview of Business Insider article about weight loss

For people searching for ways to lose weight, seeing this story grabs their attention right away, which you can tell by the monthly traffic. We can also see, despite the article being off-topic for a business website, it still has 136 unique referring domains, which shows how shareable this content is.

For a slightly more relevant example, we can look to Backlinko and a case study they posted about increasing search traffic by 110% in two weeks:

URL overview of Backlinko case study of increasing search traffic

URL overview of Backlinko case study of increasing search traffic

It doesn’t have the highest traffic value we’ve seen, but the nearly 2.5K referring domains demonstrate how case studies are super shareable. Besides, the point of gathering backlinks is to give your website more authority to increase your chances of appearing in search, but referral traffic is a nice bonus.

When to Invest in Paid Promotion or Distribution

The most straightforward answer is, right away. Or a cop-out answer is “as soon as you possibly can”. Many people are afraid of investing in advertising or paying for the distribution of their content because they’re afraid it won’t be a good ROI. But what that mindset tells you, is that they don’t think their content is good enough to advertise. Since you’ve gotten this far, you know you can make awesome, link-worthy content worth advertising.
A better way to think about going paid is this:

Compare the cost of paying for promotion or distribution to your hourly rate.

Let’s say your hourly rate is around £30 (just as an example) it takes you a good 8 hours to craft the right message to wherever your audience is, reach out to your network, and some potential new outlets. That’s a total cost of £240 of your time.

That £240 could have bought you a pretty decent PPC or social media ads campaign, and you could have focused on more of your money-generating activities (like creating more content).

You can use social media ads directly or Google Ads (if you know how to use them), but PR Fire can also distribute your content for £50, sounds like a good deal now, right?

There’s also another reason to pay for promotional campaigns or distribution – backlinks of course!
If your content really is awesome, going paid can help you get that great content in front of the right people who are more likely to engage with, and link to your content.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in content marketing is publishing, and just hoping that the right people (with their own web properties) will come across it and link to it. If you’ve already got a decently large audience and an efficient system to broadcast your new content, you might be able to get away with that strategy and still get backlinks.

Otherwise, your backlinks are mostly going to be coming manually through your efforts until you incorporate an advertising budget. And we all know the adage, “time is money”.

Summary

And that’s it! Today you’ve learned what backlinks are, your chances of ranking without them and why creating awesome content is the key that’ll help you get more of them.

Backlinks are still super important in 2021, and at the time of writing, considered one of the top three signals to Google that they should rank your page. Of course, other factors come into ranking, but incorporating link building by content marketing into your overall strategy is a pretty solid way to go.

We also talked about what makes content link-worthy with a few examples and covered paid promotion and distribution. However, the topic itself is pretty vast; in fact, there are tons of books out there for the budding content marketer. But I hope you’ve enjoyed this read and that I’ve given you a taste of what’s possible.