What Are Earned Links? (+ How Do They Help SEO?)
The importance of backlinks—HTML links that point from an outside website to your website—would probably be one of the first lessons in an SEO 101 course.
However, all backlinks are not created equal. Some can help your SEO score a little, some help a lot, and others can actually damage your rankings.
Earned links are a type of backlink that you earn rather than pay for, and the best of these are SEO gold.
In this article, we’ll go over what earned links are, why they matter for SEO, and how you can set yourself to earn plenty of high-quality links to your website.
What are earned links?
Earned links, also sometimes called organic links, are a type of backlink that is placed presumably because the creator of the link finds a piece of content interesting or relevant enough to link to.
They exist in contrast to paid links which, as the name implies, are purchased. Succeeding in SEO is a long-term project that never really ends.
If you’ve achieved a high SEO ranking, you can’t just be complacent and enjoy it, because new content is always being created that can supplant yours. Additionally, there are always tweaks and improvements to be made based on Google’s latest algorithm changes.
One thing that has stayed consistent despite many algorithmic updates is the importance of backlinks, also known as inbound links or external links.
However, the nature of backlinks favored by Google has become more specific. Any old backlink won’t do, and there are plenty of kinds of backlinks that are seen as fraudulent and therefore can damage your SEO score.
Earned links are the creme de la creme of backlinks because they are considered authentic and indicative of high-quality content on your site. They are “earned” because your content or website is so great that another site chose to link to it, over every other possible alternative they could have linked to.
How are links ‘earned’?
Earned links are typically earned because the content being linked to one of the following
- Educational – It does a particularly good job of demonstrating an idea or concept
- Inspirational – It succeeds in motivating or energizing audiences, or is particularly aspirational
- Informational – It provides high-quality, trustworthy details about something
- Entertaining – People get a kick it out of. Think of the highly shareable potential of a successful meme
When a piece of content meets one of these criteria, it has the potential to be seen as valuable by external websites that will want to link to it purely because of the value of the content, rather than because an exchange of money took place or because pressure was exerted.
As we’ll see in a moment, there are ethical, above-board things you can do to increase the number of earned links pointing to your domain.
But first, why are earned links so special from an SEO perspective?
Earned links and SEO
While the specifics of Google’s algorithm may be opaque, they do make the aim of their algorithm very clear.
Here’s the best approach to gaining links to your site, taken directly from Google’s documentation:
“The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”
There’s no question that links are valuable on the internet. Call it link juice, link equity or page rank: the fundamental idea is the same…
Links share value from the linking site to the linked site, acting as a vote of confidence or recommendation for the linked site.
The more this happens, the more Google has reason to think that your site is relevant and authoritative, and worth being placed at the top of its search engine results pages (SERPs).
In response to this reality, plenty of shady link-building schemes, also known as black-hat link-building techniques, have been tried. From directory websites selling links to marketers flooding comment sections or forums with links to their site, it’s all been tried. Google always wisens up to these schemes, devaluing those links and even making them count against a website’s SEO score.
For this reason, a shift in thinking has taken place in the SEO world away from “link building” toward “link earning”. The idea is to move away from quick-fix schemes to creating long-term strategies that create value for a website over time.
Links on some random, unrelated website that exists only to sell links won’t help. Conversely, links from relevant, high-authority websites are weighed more heavily. Links from smaller sites help too, but not to the same degree.
The overall link profile—the mix of linking websites and the total number of high-quality, legitimate links—matters. For example, 100 links from two websites will likely count for less than 100 links from 100 different websites. That’s because the second example seems more natural and authentic.
6 Benefits of Earned Links
Earned links are the gold standard of a great link profile because they imply the linked content has true value.
Here’s why focusing on gaining earned links is well worth the time and effort:
1. It’s safe
All those not-so-ethical link-building practices that we mentioned?
They probably worked for a little while, at first. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth trying to “trick” Google. Sooner or later (likely sooner), their engineers will wisen up to whatever the latest scheme is, and make adjustments to the algorithm to downgrade those links.
Earned links are the most future-proof link because no one can accuse you of having unethically gained them.
2. They imply great content
If you’re gaining lots of earned links, it means you’re doing something right.
You’re creating content that is genuinely interesting and relevant to your community.
3. They’re cheaper
While there are certainly costs involved in creating and promoting great content, an earned link is technically one you did not pay a website to place for you.
4. They expose new audiences to your business
If you earned a link, the chances are high that the audience of the website linking to you is relevant to your business.
An earned link can potentially expose significant numbers of new prospective clients to your site.
5. They increase traffic
Following the previous point, those new prospective audiences will hopefully click on the link, driving traffic to your site.
More traffic should result in more conversions, meaning a boost to your bottom line.
6. They boost your domain authority
While domain authority (DA) isn’t technically a metric used by Google, higher DA means a higher likelihood of appearing at the top of the SERPs for our relevant search terms.
From an SEO perspective, these benefits can’t be ignored.
So how can you set yourself up for success in gaining lots of great earned links?
11 Earned Links Best Practices
Just because earned links are technically up to others to create for you, doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty you can do to increase your chances of getting them.
Follow these best practices and you’ll start seeing those earned links stack up.
1. Create great content
The old adage that content is king remains true and isn’t likely to change any time soon.
To earn a link, you have to great something worthy of being linked to.
As Google indicates in their own documentation, the best way to earn links is to regularly create great content. This is well worth investing time and resources into.
2. Vary your content
Blogs can be tremendously helpful from an SEO perspective since they give you a chance to use keywords in your niche, link internally, and create content that can earn links.
However, it’s a good idea to play around with different types of content that may be even more likely to be shared.
For example, video has become massive in recent years. A fantastic informative, entertaining, educational or inspirational video may earn you lots of links.
Other types of content to consider are ebooks, white papers, and infographics.
3. Quality over quantity
While fresh content is great, there’s no point churning out tons of blogs or other kinds of content in the hopes that they’ll get you lots of earned links.
One well-thought-out piece of content that is part of a coherent content strategy can earn more links for you than 10 unoriginal blog posts.
This brings us to our next point…
4. Originality matters
If you’re reiterating content you found elsewhere on the internet, why would others link to you over the many other instances of similar content?
If your content is truly original, there won’t be alternatives for others to link to.
5. Offer to write guest posts
Guest posts can be a great way to get links back to your website that isn’t technically paid.
As long as you are using the links naturally rather than in a forced manner, and the guest posts are on authoritative, high-quality websites, this can be an SEO boost.
6. Promote your content
Even if your content is fantastic, it’s no good if nobody actually finds it.
Promoting your content widely can help maximize the number of earned links you get.
Make sure to share your content in your newsletter, on social media, and wherever else it makes sense to do so.
7. Leverage other audiences
To get a wider reach for your content, thereby increasing the likelihood that you’ll get earned links, try to leverage other audiences by.
For example, featuring people with significant audiences in your niche on your blog.
8. Use interactive elements
People love interactivity.
Whether it’s a quiz, a survey, or an interactive calculator, having an interactive element in your content gives others a great reason to share it, thereby earning you a link in the process.
9. Vary the link text
While you don’t always have control over the link text used in your earned links, it’s worth noting that variety here is good.
Varied link text looks more natural and authentic to Google.
For example, if links to your site are always just your brand name, they seem less natural (less “earned”), than if the hyperlinked text says different things, such as descriptions of your products.
10. Ask for a link
If you come across unlinked mentions for your website, consider reaching out to the site owner and asking them to provide a link.
They’ll often be more than happy to do so. In these cases, you can also ask for a particular part of their text to be linked.
11. Write endorsements or reviews
If it makes sense for your website, writing reviews or endorsements of others can be a good way to earn a link if they mention your endorsement.
Earned links communicate to Google that your content is being talked about and shared by others in your niche. The more earned links you have, the more reason Google’s bots have to place your content at the top of the SERPs.
While there are things you can do to increase your likelihood of getting earned links, there are no sneak shortcuts. The more share-worthy content you create, the more links you are likely to earn.Content creation is time-consuming.