Link Building Tactics That Deliver Without Risks

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June 5, 2024

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Link Building Tactics That Deliver Without Risks

The Perils of Tiers and Tears

Hand off the toughest tasks in SEO, PPC, and content without compromising quality. With the competition for rankings getting exceedingly tougher by the minute, there comes a time you might want to shift into high gear with a tiered link building strategy. This option might seem particularly attractive because, unlike many of the standard SEO practices, tiered link building is categorized as a compound technique – the type of large-scale stuff that could impact your position in the SERPs by a huge margin.

Unfortunately, though, tiered link building comes with a number of caveats. For starters, such a “compound approach” requires a lot of time and resources. It’s not exactly what you’d call a quick or cheap SEO tactic. And then, of course, there’s a growing concern about the accompanying risks. Tiered link building happens to rank pretty high on Google’s list of banned black hat SEO schemes, which makes any participating site a prime target for penalties.

The search engine began cracking down on tiered backlinks as early as 2012/2013, with the introduction of algorithm updates like Penguin, Panda, Phantom, and Hummingbird. Thousands more followed over the years, and Google’s arsenal is still receiving heavy reinforcements to this very day. So, with that in mind, is tiered link building really worth the risk? Or would you rather invest your time and money in other types of backlinks?

Unraveling the Tiers

Tiered link building refers to a search engine optimization technique for creating inbound links from multiple levels of sources. It’s meant to form a compound web of related external links, within which the highest level of backlinks point to the target site, while the underlying levels provide backlinks to the immediate overlying sources.

The whole thing is a structured system of backlinks pointing to backlinks that point to the target site. Confusing? Okay, imagine this. Instead of building numerous backlinks that randomly point to your website, you choose to have your hyperlinks on only a fraction of the referring domains, while the rest are left to publish backlinks that point to your referring websites.

Here’s a basic illustration that puts it into perspective. This represents a tiered backlinking strategy made up of three levels of links – Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, while the crown of the pyramid could be taken as the target site.

Tiered link building pyramid

At the highest level are the first-tier links that connect directly to your website. You can think of them as the primary backlinks, meant to lay the groundwork for the entire campaign. If you ask SEO experts, they’ll tell you that this level is exclusively reserved for high quality backlinks. The type that comes from relevant high domain authority sites.

At the second tier, we have the secondary backlinks, which are hosted on less authoritative blogging platforms and article directories. They don’t point to your site, though – instead, they act as inbound links to the referring sites on Tier 1.

Then on Tier 3, you’d have low-quality backlinks coming from forums, blog comments, and social media platforms. These are predominantly nofollow links, all pointing to second-tier publishers.

Now, if you broke down the whole pyramid into its constituent links, you’ll have a something like this:

Tiered backlinks illustration

Your website sits at the top, linked directly to the Tier 1 referring sites. Second-tier links would then follow in greater numbers, pointing to the overlying first-tier websites. Then below them would be the much more populous Tier 3, offering nofollow backlinks to Tier 2.

The point? This calculated link building approach is meant to establish a solid all-inclusive backlink profile. You get to leverage high quality, low quality, dofollow, and nofollow backlinks from all the possible categories of sources, without getting weighed down by the low quality links.

The plan is to have Google’s crawlers sequentially pass on the link juice through each level of the hierarchy until it all ends up on your website. Tier 3 links vouch for websites on Tier 2, whose backlinks subsequently channel authority to Tier 1 sources, before ultimately culminating on your website.

Tier 1: The Creme de la Creme

Tier 1 links are those dofollow backlinks that lie at the top of a multi-level hierarchy of backlinks, from where they point directly to your website. They act as the primary links between the target website and the underlying web of tiered secondary backlinks.

Now, to rank favorably in the search results, all your first-tier links should come from relevant high authority websites. And by “high authority”, we mean immensely reputable sites that have established themselves as thought-leaders in your industry. Examples of renowned authoritative platforms include:

All these sites boast exceptionally outstanding backlink profiles, composed of thousands of relevant linking root domains. You can confirm the metrics for yourself by running them through a trusted domain authority checker like Loganix, Moz, Ahrefs, or SEMrush.

Take HubSpot.com, for example. A quick check on Moz reveals that it enjoys a remarkable domain authority of 92, which means that even Google itself trusts recommendations coming from the website. You could build contextually relevant backlinks here via a guest post or maybe an article feature that points to a pertinent piece of content on your site. Search engines will interpret them as high-quality links from a credible source – consequently uplifting your page authority, which would eventually translate into more organic traffic.

That said, here’s an example of a first-tier link published contextually on HubSpot.com. Search Engine Land is the target website, while HubSpot plays the role of a Tier 1 referring domain.

Because of their huge impact on the search rankings, these types of backlinks are considered to be the most valuable. The only problem is, such opportunities don’t come easy. Editors here typically respond to only 8.5% of the outreach emails received. Hence, a webmaster can expect to create just a handful of Tier 1 backlinks. About 5 to 10 should be just enough for a standard campaign – but, if luck is on your side, maybe you could stretch that to 15 or so at most.

Tier 2: The Supporting Cast

Tier 2 links are ranked second in terms of importance, quality, and influence. They point to first-tier domains, with the aim of rallying both audiences and search engine crawlers around your referring publications. The likes of Google see this as passing on link equity, which then goes towards reinforcing the domain authority of Tier 1 web pages. That should increase the value of the Tier 1 backlinks, consequently intensifying their influence on your SERP rankings.

Now, to achieve all that, your tiered Tier 2 links should capitalize on quality and quantity. You’re allowed to lower the quality bar just slightly below the level of the Tier 1 links while, at the same time, increasing the ratio of backlinks to the destination pages. As for the tags, the second tier is flexible enough to accommodate both dofollow and nofollow. But, keep in mind that dofollow is the main priority, while nofollow only comes in as a supplementary attribute to make everything appear more natural.

Examples of links that would be a great fit for this category include:

  • Guest posts on reputable industry blogs
  • Contextual links within niche-focused articles
  • Mentions in link roundups and curated resource lists

You could, for instance, reach out to mildly authoritative publishers and then have them publish guest posts that point to your first-tier sources. Or, you could have the referring URLs featured on niche-based article directories and popular link roundups. Whatever you choose for your tiered link building, ensure that you maintain some degree of context and relevance across all the submissions.

Here’s a good example of a perfectly relevant placement that we pulled from the same hierarchy of links leading to HubSpot and Search Engine Land. On tracking the link profile of that Tier 1 HubSpot page, we discovered about 1,179 inbound links from 292 referring domains. 94% of these backlinks turned out to be dofollow, spread out across 87% of the referring domains. All that translates into a pretty extensive set of second-tier backlinks for Search Engine Land.

At the top of the Tier 2 links was a B2B Content Marketing article on BuzzSumo – a platform with a decent domain rating of 75. One of the featured outbound links points to HubSpot’s compilation of Link Building Statistics, which then points to the SearchEngineLand’s report on Google’s Top 3 Ranking Factors.

The Tier 2 Hyperlink as published on BuzzSumo

Therefore, although Search Engine Land’s page doesn’t feature on the Tier 2 article, its web rankings are still getting a boost courtesy of the link equity passed on from BuzzSumo to HubSpot. That’s the whole point of the second level of backlinks in your tiered link building campaign.

Tier 3: The Backup Dancers

Tier 3 removes the restrictions even further, allowing you to create low-value outbound links on platforms whose backlinks carry a nofollow tag by default. Common examples include:

  • Blog comments
  • Forum posts
  • Social media mentions

Third-tier links are largely built on social networking platforms, from where they are expected to drive engagement and direct attention to the publications on Tier 2. In the meantime, the outbound links won’t be passing on any link equity to the recipients – as their nofollow status denies them the privilege.

This, however, doesn’t mean that third-tier links are inconsequential to search engine rankings. On the contrary, Google itself insists that its algorithms exceedingly refer to them as hints about which links to include or exclude from the search results. So, in a way, Tier 3 backlinks are meant to increase the relevance of their Tier 2 counterparts within the search space.

But, not through quality linking. This is the part of your tiered link building campaign where you can drop quality as a priority and, instead, focus entirely on the quantity of the backlinks. The more you manage to build, the further you’ll be able to expand the visibility of the Tier 2 links.

Take, for instance, this BuzzSumo profile that appears on Craft.Co, one of the fastest-growing directories for B2B enterprises. The profile provides basic information about what BuzzSumo does, where it’s based, who it competes against, and how much it’s estimated to make. Then when you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll find a section that features some of the top blog posts recently published by BuzzSumo.

A sample Tier 3 link

Now, among them is the title to that same article that points to HubSpot. “300M Articles Analyzed: 18 Examples Of Awesome B2B Content Marketing” is the headline and it’s featured as a nofollow hyperlink. Besides creating awareness of BuzzSumo and redirecting web visitors to the blog post, this Tier 3 nofollow link offers Google hints about the relevance of the links on the article – including the Tier 2 one that points to HubSpot. This value is then passed on sequentially until it reaches the target website, Search Engine Land.

That notwithstanding, though, it just so happens that a single nofollow third-tier backlink doesn’t really count for much. You need to build them in volumes if you intend to generate real value from the Tier 3 links. We’re talking about expanding the tiered link building campaign to include as many as thousands of blog comments, social media shares, forum posts, etc.

Now, this is where SEO experts bring in automated link building tools like RankerX or GSA. They are built to save you all the trouble by automatically setting up volumes of links per day – sometimes well into the thousands. Their link quality may not be outstanding all right – but they’ll get the job done.

Make no mistake about it, though. The use of bots is one of those black hat SEO techniques that Google is resolutely trying to eradicate. The search engine’s latest major link spam update was, in fact, rolled out in November 2021 – further strengthening Google’s efforts in cracking down on low quality bot links. So, you can expect to lose quite a number of your automated Tier 3 backlinks to the search engine’s advanced algorithms. GSA and RankerX are no match for Google’s incremental intelligence.

On the flip side, however, at least the spammy third-tier links won’t be pointing directly to your site. You might find some webmasters pushing their tiered link building beyond the third level and into the fourth. Now, don’t be tempted to follow suit. While Tier 1 to Tier 3 is fairly safe for white hat SEO practitioners, the fourth tier is all black hat. This is where desperate link spammers set up poor quality backlinks that are meant to help third-tier links get indexed by Google. Examples include:

  • Private blog networks (PBNs)
  • Automated link generators
  • Paid links

None of them are worth your effort and time.

The SEO Benefits of Tiered Link Building

While other basic backlinking methods generate link equity through a single-layered channel, tiered link building allows you to capitalize on multiple levels of link equity at once. You get to incrementally pass on link juice from Tier 3 to Tier 2, followed by Tier 2 to Tier 1, and then the cumulative link equity is ultimately channeled to the target site.

This is an effective way to build up link equity from an extensive range of sources without the suspicion that would, otherwise, arise if you were the sole direct recipient of numerous websites at once. Other than that, tiered link building even makes it possible for target websites to gain link equity from unrelated external content.

Consider, for instance, a scenario in which the content on the target site is related to Tier 1 content, but unrelated to posts on Tier 2. The gap can be filled by establishing a connection between the Tier 1 sources and their Tier 2 counterparts, thus passing on the link juice all the way to the target website.

Whichever way you choose to structure your tiered link building, cumulative link juice from the hierarchy will influence Google’s algorithm to favorably review your rankings. Another great thing about the hierarchical levels is, they end up establishing a firm and strong backlink profile without the risk of you coming off as a link spammer.

This compound structure follows more or less the same formula Google’s algorithms have picked up from organic backlinks. Instead of having just a single layer of numerous referring domains pointing independently to one centralized destination domain, tiered link building sets up a web-like layer of directly and indirectly related backlinks.

What’s more, your backlink profile will feature link equity from all the standard types of links. You’ll have high quality backlinks from authority webpages, which are further endorsed by both nofollow and dofollow links. And that’s not all. It goes much deeper, reaching even social media sites and discussion forums, where social signals provide additional affirmation to the relevance of the mid-level backlinks.

This is how you get to remain in the good books of Google. Otherwise, its crawlers are intelligent enough to quickly pick up on and penalize backlink profiles that appear unnatural. Tiered link building gives you the benefit of leveraging volumes of low quality links, without bearing all the risks that would typically accompany them. This protection comes from the two or three degrees of separation maintained consistently between the target website and the high-risk backlinks.

Site owners should, for example, be able to supplement the incremental link equity with gains

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