Link building is a core part of SEO—but most people are just doing it plain wrong. Josh Hardwick is the head of content at Ahrefs, and we kick things off by breaking down some beginner link building mistakes. Then, we’ll get into some mistakes that even advanced SEOs make with link building and creating quality content.
An edited version of our conversation appears below.
SEO can be overwhelming for some people, especially for beginners. Where do you start and how do you decide what to prioritize?
I suppose the fundamentals of SEO are the same whatever you’re trying to rank for. Usually, it’s just a taste of keyword research, creating the content, building some links to that page, and doing on-page optimization. So that’s your fundamental way of doing things across the board. But I think there’s just so much nuance within that whole process that it confuses people.
If I was starting a new site, I’d look for keywords that aren’t too difficult to rank for, at least initially. Obviously, choose keywords and topics that have got traffic potential, so that people are actually searching for these things. Otherwise, there’s no real point in creating content around something.
What are some common beginner mistakes you see?
Maybe the most common mistake is not considering the intent of the search. This type of search intent thing has been around for ages, where you’re basically looking at informational intent or whether someone wants to buy something. But you still get people who are trying to rank on a page that just doesn’t fit within the search results of the keyword they’re going for.
For example, I was recently looking at the search results for “vegan protein powder,” and it’s mainly blog posts like “Top 10 Vegan Protein Powders” and a few category pages here and there. If you’re a total beginner to SEO, you might think, “Well, I’ll go for that keyword. That’s what my website sells.” But you’d be fighting a losing battle. That’s not what people want to see. They want either a list of reviews of the best protein powders, or they want a page listing lots of different choices to buy. They don’t want your homepage. That’s a mistake that even professional SEOs get wrong sometimes.
It’s not always clear just from looking at the keywords—for example, “vegan protein powder”— what people are looking for just from those three words. You’d only really start to understand once you look at the top landing pages, because obviously Google’s just trying to serve the most relevant results to people.
Are there any other mistakes that you see people making, either beginner or advanced?
People focus too much on keywords. There are obviously reasons to do that. Keywords are still important, and it makes sense to focus on the way that most people search for a certain thing. But if you look at the top keyword that pages rank for, it’s still a small percentage of the overall traffic to their web page.
To use the same example again, if you’re going for “vegan protein powder,” maybe you’re getting 1,000 people a month from that exact keyword, but then you’ll have things like “best vegan protein powder” and “best vegan protein powder for men” and all these variations that maybe just get five or six visitors every month. But because you’re ranking with hundreds of those keywords, the sum of all those keywords ends up creating more traffic than the target keyword.
Thinking about things in a broader sense—thinking about topics as opposed to keywords—makes a lot of sense these days. The mistake people make is just going after one keyword and then building anchor text links for that keyword and having a tunnel vision approach to this primary keyword.
You recently published an article about anchor text, and I thought it was super interesting.
We’ve seen a lot of traction with writing about things in a more branded way. If I’m referencing your Ahrefs article on anchor text, for example, I’m not going to use anchor text that just reads “anchor text.” I’m probably going to link to it using a phrase like “This great article by Ahrefs about anchor text…” That’s going to be what actually sends people over, and it’s more natural than exact match anchor text.
Right. I think you’re touching on another mistake that people make, which is they reach out for a link and they say, “I want you to link with this specific phrase.” It’s usually the keyword that they’re going after. But most links, as you say, aren’t going to naturally occur that way. They’ll be part of a phrase.
If you’re trying to force that, it’s going to be difficult to get the link because you’re alienating people by clearly showing them that you only care about the SEO value of what they’re giving to you. And even if you’re successful in what you’re doing, it’s going to end up looking a bit unnatural as well.