The safest way to build links if you want to avoid a Google penalty is to use white hat link building techniques.
Google loves these links. And the search engine’s algorithms will reward you for your efforts to build links according to its guidelines.
The problem is that what exactly constitutes white hat links isn’t always clear. This can make it tough to stay on Google’s good side.
Even with the best of intentions, generating links in a way that is completely white hat can be tricky.
With this in mind, here is our guide to what we consider to be the most effective white hat link building techniques. These are all great ways to generate links from high-quality websites and blogs.
We’ll also start with a deep dive into the ins and outs of white hat link building.
What Is White Hat Link Building?
White hat link building is building backlinks using strategies that completely adhere to Google’s guidelines. It’s the safest form of link building and is the least likely to generate a Google penalty that affects your search engine rankings.
White hat strategies can be slower than other forms of link building. But if you're building a site for long-term results and don’t want to take any risks, stick to using these techniques.
Our resident white hat link builder...
What Makes a Link White Hat?
The exact meaning of white hat link building is up for some debate.
Google recommends building links by creating content that “can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.”
The use of the word “naturally” in this sentence means that, in the strictest sense, any kind of content promotion with the aim of getting links could go against this guideline.
However, most people consider some form of outreach to be a necessary part of generating links.
We consider links to be white hat when they are placed in the content after some kind of editorial oversight. The link should have a genuine reason for being there, and it shouldn’t have been influenced by a payment.
Here are some examples of this in action:
When a website owner discovers your content and links to it organically
When a website owner receives your content promotion outreach email, decides the content will benefit their audience, and links to it
When a website owner decides that their audience will be interested in your guest post pitch and agrees to publish it
In each of these situations, the main reason for the link being placed into the content is to benefit the website’s audience.
It doesn’t matter that in the second two scenarios, one website owner has reached out to another about getting a link placement.
Gray Hat vs. Black Hat vs. White Hat Links
White, gray, and black hat link building are different link building philosophies. While white hat means adhering as closely as possible to Google’s guidelines, gray and black hat strategies aren’t quite as strict.
Black hat link building uses techniques that are explicitly against Google guidelines.
This can include using Private Blog Networks (PBNs), link farms, or automatically generating comment links. Some of these strategies used to be quite powerful and they can still work in the short term. But they are becoming more ineffective as search engines get better at spotting them.
If you have long-term plans for your business, it’s best to avoid these strategies completely. You’re putting your website at serious risk of a manual penalty if you use them.
Gray hat link building is the area in between white and black hat. It’s doing things that aren’t necessarily spammy but also aren’t completely white hat.
A common example is if you reach out to a website about them linking to your site and they agree, but ask for a fee in return.
It’s gray hat because while you started with a white hat outreach strategy, Google says you shouldn’t pay for links.
In reality, it can be very hard for Google to tell the difference between a gray hat and a white hat Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy.
In some industries, gray hat strategies like buying links are incredibly common. These link building techniques can be useful, as long as you know what you are doing and you are happy to accept some form of risk.
White Hat Link Building Techniques That Generate Results
Here are our four favorite white hat link building building techniques. Each one is an effective way to generate links on high-quality websites.
These aren’t the only white hat strategies—unlinked mentions and broken link building are two others—but they are the ones we have had the most success with.
HARO - High-Quality Backlinks on Authoritative Sites
Once you get the knack for these services, they are incredibly easy to use and you can generate links on high quality websites.
The idea behind HARO is super simple: it’s a newsletter that connects journalists and writers with sources for their stories.
Each day, the company sends out three emails filled with requests for sources. Each request contains information about the story and what the writer needs input on.
You can see an example in the image below. This was a request we sent out when creating an article about the top link building strategies.
All you have to do is search through the email to find requests in your area of expertise. You can then send an email with our input.
If you're chosen, the site will typically link to your website when it goes live.
These links are white hat because they are placed in the content for editorial reasons.
And the service is used by some extremely high DR sites like Business Insider and Forbes, making it one of the only ways to generate this kind of link.
The Key to HARO Is Optimizing Your Process
To generate links with HARO, you need to optimize your process for replying to requests.
We find that the best ways to increase your chances of being chosen are to:
Respond to requests quickly
Be selective when choosing opportunities
Be concise in your reply and make it super relevant to the request
PR link building strategies are a great way to generate links from authoritative publications at scale.
The way it works is that you create something newsworthy and then send press releases to journalists and writers with information about the story.
When done right, you can generate hundreds of links from top publications in a very short period.
The reason it works is because when one website notices that a story is doing well on another site, it often publishes its own version for its own audience. This contributes to a flywheel effect that sees your story get more and more links.
These links are also incredibly white hat. They are editorially placed and the publishing website will only write the story if it thinks it will interest their audience.
This story we ran for one of our clients is a good example of this strategy in action.
The premise was that we would look at Donald Trump’s history of tax evasion and publish it as a timeline with unique graphics. The story was for an accounting institute, so we had the authority to make it work.
The piece picked up over 150 backlinks, including those from top sites like Mashable and Slashdot.
There’s just one issue with this strategy: it’s extremely difficult to pull off.
Coming up with a content idea that will go viral isn’t easy. And once you have an idea, your execution needs to be on point so it generates interest.
Distribution can also be tough. If you don’t have a network of contacts at top publications it won’t be easy to convince people to cover your story.
We're talking about true, authentic guest posting on popular industry blogs.
Writing guest posts is a popular white hat link building technique.
The idea is that you approach other websites and offer to write an article for them. You then link to your website from within the blog post in a way that adds value to the reader.
There are two great things about guest post backlinks:
You can generate links from relevant websites, which are more valuable than equivalent non-relevant links
You can choose which pages to link to, which makes it a good way to point links to your most valuable pages
Guest posting has other benefits too.
You can link to multiple pages in a single article
The article will increase the exposure of your brand or website
You may get referral traffic from the link if the article you write ranks on Google.
To get started with guest posting, you just need to find websites to reach out to.
Some of the most effective strategies for doing this are:
Searching Google for a topic related to your website plus phrases like “guest post” or “write for us.”
Searching for the name of your competitors plus the phrase “guest post.” You’ll see all the places they have published guest posts.
Finding people who have written guest posts on other sites. You can then perform a reverse image search of their profile picture to see other places where they have written posts. Below are the results when you search for Neil Patel’s image.
Searching for a website in a niche you want to target, using an SEO tool to find a list of other websites that publish similar content. Below are websites that share similar keywords to our website.
Once you have a list of websites, you just need to reach out to the website owners.
Running an effective outreach campaign isn’t easy.
The most important things to do are:
Introduce yourself to the recipient.
Make it clear that your email isn’t part of a mass outreach campaign by mentioning something specific about their website or business.
Include several ideas for guest posts that could work on their website. Consider the content they have already published and their audience.
Include links to content you have already produced to show that your work is high quality.
Guest Post Warning
Guest posting is a white hat SEO strategy… as long as you publish your posts on other white hat websites.
Unfortunately there are a lot of black hat websites that offer guest posting opportunities, often for a small fee.
Make sure you avoid these websites when performing guest post outreach. If you end up getting a link from them you will be associated with the website, even if your intentions weren’t black hat.
This won’t always result in an instant penalty. But it won’t benefit your site and it can be problematic if you generate too many of this type of link.
There are several tell-tale signs that suggest a website is low-quality, including templated designs and badly written content. We’ve listed many of the signs you can use to spot spammy websites in this article.
Another potential issue is contacting too many websites. Google actually warns against using “large-scale guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.” Instead, be selective about the sites you approach.
A smaller number of relevant, high-quality backlinks is usually more effective than a high number of low-quality links anyway.
Creating and promoting linkable assets can be an effective way to generate white hat links.
The way it works is that you create a useful resource and then send outreach emails to other websites asking them to promote it.
This strategy was popularized in 2015 by Brian Dean and called the Skyscraper technique.
But its popularity had a drawback; it meant that website owners became inundated with requests asking people to link to subpar content.
It means these outreach posts are easy to ignore.
To successfully run a linkable asset campaign now, you need a truly high-quality asset.
Original studies or research. Writers can then quote your findings in their articles
Useful free tools or software that solve a genuine issue
Explainer content that is much better than any other page currently published
The easiest way to find which types of content might work is to use an SEO tool to discover your competitors’ most linked pages and then create something similar (but better).
Here’s an example:
Imagine you run a marketplace for buying websites. You’d first search for your major competitors in Ahrefs to see which pages have a lot of links.
The image below shows that Empire Flippers has a lot of backlinks pointing to its website valuation calculator. If you were in a similar niche, this could be a good linkable asset idea.
Once you’ve created your content, you need to generate a list of websites in your industry that you can reach out to.
You can do this by finding a website in a similar niche to yours and then using an SEO tool to identify websites that share similar keywords.
When performing outreach, be aware that some websites may charge a fee to link to your content. Google doesn’t like people paying for links. If you agree, your strategy will head into the territory of gray or even black hat link building.
When creating a linkable asset, consider doing so with SEO in mind.
If you can get your asset to the top of the search results it will generate consistent organic traffic. This means it may continue to generate links organically, even once you have stopped outreach.
We built an incredible piece of content for an identity protection software company.
The page generated 27 referring domains within four months of going live and now (almost two years later) it has 62 links.
Read more about how we successfully built 159+ links for Identity Guard in this case study.
White Hat Link Building Is Tough, But Worth the Long-Term Rewards
Building links is much easier if you’re willing to bend the rules a little. Paying for links, for example, will seriously speed up the number of links you can generate.
But this kind of strategy has risks which are unacceptable for many businesses. If you want the absolute safest way to build links, white hat strategies are the best ones to use.