If people think your website content is valuable, there’s a good chance they will link to it in their own content.
Search engines love valuable content—it enables them to answer their users’ search queries.
That’s why the number of backlinks pointing to a piece of content is critical in deciding how high it ranks in search results.
Link building has become a big industry because people know that if they encourage or pay people to link to their content, then it will rank higher.
But sometimes, the content is so good and so useful that it doesn’t need link builders to drive links to it. Instead, this kind of content often draws lots of backlinks naturally.
These types of backlinks are called earned links and they are incredibly valuable.
In this article, we will discuss what link earning is, how it’s different from link building, some of the pros and cons of using link earning and how to do it correctly.
Earned links are backlinks that you receive because people think your content is good. It usually involves little or no outreach.
Link earning is different from building links, which involves reaching out to other websites and asking them to link to your content.
Examples of good link-earning content include original research, guides that show people how to do something, and opinion pieces.
A strong backlink profile usually has lots of earned links.
Content that generates earned links will continue to do so over time.
Earned links usually fulfill Google’s EEAT criteria.
What Are Earned Links?
Earned links are backlinks that you receive because people think your content is good. It usually involves little or no outreach.
What makes your content good depends on what industry you work in or who your target audience is. However, it’s usually:
Written by an expert
For example, if your company provides loans to SMEs, you might survey your sector to understand their finance requirements.
You might decide to publish the results as a report. If people read the report and decide it is useful, they might link to it.
You might then attract backlinks from:
News websites reporting on the state of the economy
SME finance websites highlighting common challenges facing the sector
Industry trade associations sharing your findings with their members
Your customers sharing your report on social media
People discussing your findings with others on websites like Reddit
Alternative finance lender ThinCats did just this. It was picked up by Insider Media—a high authority website that gets more than 27,000 monthly visits.
Source: Insider Media
Original research is just one example of high-quality content that earns links. Others include:
Guides that show people how to do something
Entertaining memes and videos
Providing an informed opinion
Showing people a way to save money
Infographics that highlight industry trends
Link Building vs. Link Earning: What’s the Difference?
To help you better understand link earning, let’s take a look at some of the differences between this practice and link building.
🔗 Link earning
When you earn natural links, you’re doing so passively. The links come to you, you don’t go looking for them.
In other words, you didn’t:
Pay for the link
Ask for the link
Swap for the link
With link earning, you attract links organically from trustworthy sites because you’re putting time and effort into creating exceptional content for your own website.
This content is so good that other websites will naturally want to link to it because it improves their content.
In a 2019 Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller said:
“A good link… so I mean the traditional good link is someone who comes across your website and thinks it’s a fantastic website and recommends it to other people with a link.”
Attracting links in this way will help your website rank higher. In fact, earned links are often more effective than links that have been bought or swapped because they are more natural—we’ll explain how this works later in the article.
🔗 Link building
Building links is a proactive approach rather than a passive one. It’s the process of reaching out to other websites and asking, or encouraging them to link to your content.
This will (ideally) help you improve your search engine rankings.
Common link building tactics include:
Search Engines Love Earned Links
When choosing which websites to rank, one of the things search engines look at is each site’s backlink profile.
Search engines measure the strength of your backlink profile by:
The number of links the website has
How authoritative the linking websites are
How varied the link sources are
How relevant the linking websites are
How much traffic the links drive to the website
As mentioned before, earned links are based on people choosing to link to your content because the information is useful or good.
This means they often come from a wide range of relevant, high-authority websites.
This means a backlink profile with lots of earned links is likely to be stronger and has a better chance of ranking well in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Here’s an example from Neil Patel’s website. He has a very strong backlink profile—and you can see why.
He has links from various household name brands, including an e-commerce website, a forum, a global news website, an art package and the world’s largest online encyclopedia.
The Benefits of Link Earning
There are several ways that link earning can help you achieve your business objectives.
✔️ Increase traffic to your site
When you have a link on another website, visitors to that site may decide to click on it, which drives traffic to your site.
Earned links tend to be super relevant and useful to readers. This means there is a good chance that readers will choose to click on your link.
✔️ Build brand awareness
Creating valuable content isn’t just about earning links. It shows people that:
You’re an expert in your field
You have something interesting to say
It’s worth coming back to your website
You produce high-quality professional content
This reflects well on your brand and makes potential customers more likely to buy from you.
✔️ Generate links over time
The good thing about truly valuable content is that it keeps passively attracting links. Creating the article in the first place might involve a lot of work.
But if it’s genuinely useful, it could continue to attract links for years.
✔️ Generate tier-two links
Tier two links are links that point to pages that link to your website.
In other words, someone might read about your content on another website that is linking to it and decide to link to this rather than your original content.
This kind of link will also benefit your website. This “passed-on” benefit is known as link equity.
✔️ Good for EEAT
Experience, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (EEAT) outlines four of the main factors Google uses to evaluate the quality of content.
Google will judge your website and its content based on these four factors. In other words, it needs to reflect:
Experience: First-hand or life experience of the topic.
Expertise: Written by a well-established author with relevant expertise and skills.
Authority: Your website is a trusted go-to source for your industry.
Trust: Is your content accurate, well-sourced and correctly attributed?
The better your content meets these criteria, the higher it will rank on Google. That’s because these factors reflect what Google’s users look for in good quality content.
Link earning content tends to fulfill these criteria. Let’s look at the ThinCats example again.
It shows experience: They have surveyed the industry.
It shows expertise: They are a professional SME lender.
It has authority: ThinCats is an established business, but most of the authority is drawn from Insider. It is a well-respected news site.
It can be trusted: Readers know who published the research and can read the methodology. And because it is being published on Insider, people will trust it.
✔️ Optimize specific terms
You can optimize your link earning content to rank for relevant terms.
For example, in the ThinCats example mentioned above, the company may have targeted the term “SME finance research” by adding keywords related to this topic.
This would help people searching for that term to find the report. In turn, this would increase organic traffic to the report and increase the likelihood that people will link to it.
The Downsides of Earned Links
Earned links can be really powerful. But they don’t suit every website. There are some challenges to earning links, including:
⚠️ High resource requirements
Producing genuinely valuable content isn’t easy. If it were, then everyone would be doing it.
This means you’ll need to have the people, time, and resources to dedicate to creating the content.
Alternatively, you could also pay someone to create it for you. But this is likely to be costly.
For example, if you wanted to outsource a research report, then you might need to pay:
Someone with expert knowledge to assess the research
⚠️ Less certainty
Earning links provides less certainty than link building. It may take some time for people to discover it. Alternatively, it might go viral overnight.
This means link earning is generally more effective for more established websites with decent organic traffic.
⚠️ No control over linking websites
With link building campaigns, you can often choose which websites you get backlinks from. But earned links mean you won’t have as much control.
You might draw links from websites that are poor quality or irrelevant to your site.
Generally, these sites won’t do you any harm. But in some cases, a link from a dodgy website could lead to a Google penalty, reducing your traffic.
Check out our article on how to disavow backlinks for more information on how to deal with this.
The Best Link Earning Strategy
Here are our top tips for creating content that earns links:
➡️ Start with a content strategy
Before you write anything, you need to develop a solid content strategy. This might involve:
💡 Brainstorming ideas on what your target audience will find valuable and will want to link to.
💡 Thinking about which of these ideas you can deliver genuine value. Don’t create content if you don’t have anything interesting to say or if someone else has already said it.
💡 Deciding on the best way to engage readers. Ideas could include:
A downloadable report
A blog post
💡 Will you publish content regularly or will this be a one-off?
That last point is important. If you publish valuable content regularly, then people will eagerly await it and refer to it regularly.
For example, Swedish communications infrastructure provider Ericsson releases a monthly report on the world’s mobile broadband networks.
The industry press knows that if they need updated figures on the number of mobile broadband subscribers or the amount of broadband data used worldwide, then they can refer to the report.
💡Tip: Research what works for others
A good way to come up with ideas for link-earning content is to look at what works for others.
To do this, it’s useful to have an SEO tool. We use Ahrefs, but there are others out there.
Ahrefs allows you to see how many backlinks a webpage gets and from what sources.
For example, McKinsey’s State of Fashion Report has 3,600 backlinks from 2,000 websites.
These websites include well-known brands like:
The New York Times
Harvard Business Review
This shows that people interested in the fashion industry find this content useful. If you work in this industry, then you might decide to produce something similar.
Be careful not to simply copy what your competitors do. If your content isn’t original, then it won’t be as valuable.
➡️ Create quality content
Make sure the content you develop is professionally produced and knowledgeable. This means it needs to be:
💡 Be visually appealing
💡 Be easy to understand
💡 Error free
There are a range of skills you will require to do this. It depends on the content you are producing. Examples include:
Subject matter experts
You might have these skills in-house. But if you don’t, it’s worth trying to find freelancers or an agency that can do it for you.
For example, CEM Writing Services specializes in producing B2B research reports.
➡️ Optimize for search
Because you’re building links passively, you need to give your content the best chance of being found online. One way to do that is to optimize it for search.
This involves things like:
Using keywords that your audience is likely to search for
Adding keyword-rich meta titles and meta descriptions to pages
Adding alt text to images
Cite and link to other authoritative websites
Adding multimedia content like videos
This will make it more likely that Google will show your content to users when they make relevant searches.
Software like Surfer SEO uses AI to scan the top-ranking articles for each search query. It identifies common features between these pages and suggests ways you can make your content more likely to rank.
The image below shows a Surfer suggesting a word count, number of headings, images and specific keywords for an article.
➡️ Publicize your work
Just because your content is made to earn links passively, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and publicize it as much as you can.
Some of the ways you can generate interest in your content include:
Press releases sent to journalists
Social media posts
Appearing on podcasts or vlogs
For example, when search engine optimization (SEO) expert Kyle Roof researched Google’s new rules on EEAT, he appeared on several industry podcasts and YouTube channels to tell people about his findings.
✔️ Attracted visitors to his website.
✔️ Helped raise his profile.
✔️ Showed the industry that he was at the forefront of new developments.
Here he is appearing on an SEO vlog, the Doug Show.
➡️ Link building
If your link earning content isn’t getting enough traction, then consider using a link building campaign to get it noticed.
Building links to your content will help it rank higher in the search engine results, which means people are more likely to click on it.
Most companies usually support their content with some sort of link building. Here’s a good example of supporting earned links content with a link building campaign.
Cloud AI software company Dynatrace has published a report on navigating cloud complexity for financial CIOs.
The company’s regional director has published a guest post on TechUK.org talking about some of the report’s findings.
This is a good campaign because:
It’s relevant—TechUK is the UK’s technology trade association
It’s about a current challenge facing their audience—integrating AI into cloud computing
TechUK is a trusted organization—readers will be confident that the report is high-quality
The article is informative and doesn’t try to sell to the reader
Wrapping Up on Link Earning in 2024
Although link earning takes time and dedication, your investment will become more than worthwhile when those backlinks start rolling in.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with active link building—in fact, we highly recommend it—delving into the world of link earning has a big payoff.
If you’re not a writing pro and need some assistance creating compelling content, we can help!