What Is Tiered Link Building? (Benefits, Risks + Alternatives)

Adam Steele
Jun 14
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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?

What Is Tiered Link Building?

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?

Ok, 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.

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Tiered link building pyramid. Source: ThinkMobiles

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:

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Tiered backlinks illustration. Source: ThinkMobiles

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.

What Are Tier 1 Links?

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:

  • Forbes.com
  • Entrepreneur.com
  • Inc.com
  • HubSpot.com
  • Wikipedia.com

…and so forth.

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 Moz, Ahrefs, SEMrush, or Loganix.

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.

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The domain authority for HubSpot

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.

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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.

What Are Tier 2 Links?

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:

  • Press release links.
  • PBN links.
  • Directory links.
  • Personal blog links.

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.

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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.

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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 Links (And Beyond)

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:

  • Profile links.
  • Forum links.
  • Blog comment links.
  • Social media links.
  • Directory links.

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.

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Buzzsumo company profile

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.

Now, among them is the title to that same article that points to HubSpot. 300M Articles Analyzed: 18 Examples Of Awesome B2B Content Marketingis the headline and it’s featured as a nofollow hyperlink.

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A sample Tier 3 link.

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BuzzSumo profile links were identified as nofollow by the Ahrefs backlink checker.  

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.

Tier 4 links

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:

  • Bookmarking site links
  • Index submission site links.
  • URL shorteners.

None of them are worth your effort and time.

What Are The Benefits Of Tiered Link Building?

#1. Incrementally passes on link equity

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.

#2. Establishes a robust and healthy backlink profile

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.

#3. Minimizes risk exposure

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 from links that would, otherwise, attract severe search engine penalties.

In desperate situations, you could even go ahead and automate the building of Tier 3 links without openly compromising your rankings. In the event Google manages to flag them up, it might not be able to conclusively establish a direct connection to your site.

What Are The Risks of Tiered Backlinks? (& Is It Black Hat?)

On the question of whether tiered link building is a black hat SEO strategy, we’d tell you yes and no.

You see, according to Google;

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

In particular, the guidelines point out the following as violations:

  • Distributing keyword-rich anchor text links through large-scale content marketing or guest blogging campaigns.
  • Creating backlinks via automated services or bots.

These form part of the template that Google’s advanced algorithms are now using to flag possible tiered backlinks built by black hat SEO practitioners.

But then get this. Although Google continues to improve the intelligence of its crawlers, they are still not 100% all-knowing.

On one hand, the highly advanced algorithms are penalizing low quality backlinks while, on the other, they have this inclination to favor strong backlink profiles.

If your web page is being endorsed by inbound links that appear “natural” and relevant, Google proceeds to pass on the link equity to your site, which then translates into better SERP rankings.

Now, this is where we come in with white hat tiered backlinking – which, unlike black hat techniques, calculatedly applies Google’s quality guidelines to the whole hierarchical structure. The result is a multi-level backlink profile that seems perfectly natural and worthy of improved rankings.

But, that doesn’t come without its fair share of challenges. Some of the most notable ones include:

#1. Penalties from Google

With Google currently rolling out 500 to 600 algorithm updates per year, it’s exceedingly getting better and better at picking up on quality issues that tiered link builders have been getting away with. We’ve now reached a point where you cannot afford to jeopardize your tiered link building with risky techniques – as they could easily land you in trouble.

Take, for instance, the private blog networks that offer SEO teams a quick way of setting up a tier of links. The option might seem quite enticing at first, but Google is bound to catch up with the whole scheme at some point in the near future.

That has been the trend over the past couple of years, and the advanced algorithms continue to crack down on even the seemingly less obvious PBN links.

If you happen to get caught up, you can expert Google to penalize not just the PBN publishers, but also the beneficiaries.

Another equally risky technique is the use of link building bots. RankerX, GSA, and the likes might get you thousands of links all right – but the resultant footprint could leave your site exposed to penalties from Google.

You should, in particular, avoid using the technique for backlinks in the highest tier levels. All the links to and from your primary referring sites ought to be built manually with extreme caution.

Otherwise, if you ever consider experimenting with automation, restrict the tools to the nofollow links in Tier 3 and below. At least that might partially shield you from Google’s penalties when it begins to clamp down on the spammy links.

#2. Time-consuming

On average, Google takes an average of 4 days to six months to index a single backlink. Then as for the SEO impact, you’ll be waiting for about 10 weeks or so to improve your ranking by a single position.

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The time it takes to see results from a single-tier backlink. Source: Moz

If that sounds excruciatingly long, try to imagine the amount of time you’d need to build and generate results from multiple layers of links.

Tier 1 alone requires months of piecing together relevant assets on your website, coupled with weeks of pitching guest blogging ideas to high authority publishers, and maybe months of waiting to get published.

Sources on Tier 2 might be more responsive – but, remember that you’ll be chasing several links for each of the Tier 1 webpages.

It gets even worse on Tier 3, as you’ll be expected to continuously engage audiences and distribute thousands of nofollow links across social platforms.

As such, it could take you even a year for PageRank to finally compute the compound impact of all your tiered backlinks.

Quite the contrast when compared to the one-to-three month period it takes 51% of marketers to see positive results from general link building campaigns.

#3. Resource-intensive

Apart from consuming a lot of your time, tiered link building tends to have an equally huge toll on the marketing resources.

You’ll notice, for instance, that the whole process of creating, tracking, and maintaining the layers of backlinks is anything but cheap. The financial costs are bound to pile up pretty quickly, as you’ll be spending money on securing backlinking opportunities, creating content, and acquiring tracking tools.

The average cost for a single paid backlink is about $361.44.

It gets particularly pricey for Tier 1 links, as publishers with a domain rating of 60 and above typically charge north of $600.  The pricing then drops to $600 for DR 50-59 sources, while the 40-49 bracket averages less than $400, followed by sub-200 for the sites rated 30-39.

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The average cost of paid backlinks. Source: Ahrefs

By the time you get to leverage 54 paid backlinks across all three tiers, you’ll have spent over $19,000 – potentially exceeding the combined expenditure for the rest of your SEO tactics.

Alternative (White Hat) Tiered Link Building Tactics

As we’ve explained, the difference between black hat and white hat tiered link building lies in the way in which you approach and structure the entire campaign.

Black hat techniques try to establish the highest possible volume of backlinks in a short amount of time, while white hat focuses on quality and precision. That’s why you’ll find that black hat almost always leads to a more expansive backlink profile, but with less cumulative link equity than their what hat counterparts.

And that’s not all. The biggest problem with black hat links are liabilities they come with. Instead of incrementally propelling your rankings upward, they risk getting you completely blacklisted and deindexed by Google.

You can blame it all on Google being fixated on quality. After a decade or so of computing its keyword rankings based on quantity, it had to re-engineer the algorithms to priortize quality for the sake of providing more relevant results.

This is when the tables turned on black hat SEO, and white hat techniques proceeded to take over the SERPs. Google has since escalated things even further, with more advanced algorithm updates coming in to rid its indexes of unnatural links.

As a result, SEO experts have had to change how they approach tiered link building. Your best chances are with quality-oriented optimizations in which you:

#1. Create links on relevant high authority sites

Don’t publish your tiered backlinks on just any available website. Your backlink profile is as strong as the relevance and combined authority of all the referring websites. Therefore, you ought to be very strategic about the sites that you target as sources and recipients of the links.

At Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels, your outreach campaign should target the popular thought-leaders in your space. These are reputable sites with audiences who’d be interested in your content.

You can confirm their authority level through a quick analysis of their backlink profile on Moz, Ahrefs, SEMrush, or the Loganix DA Checker. The higher they manage to score, the more the link equity they stand to pass on to your site.

Here’s an analysis of Forbes.com to give you an idea of what to expect. It ended up scoring an impressive DA of 95.

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Domain Authority analysis on Moz.

Each of the first-tier sources should have a Moz domain authority score of at least 70-80, while 60-70 would be the minimum for second-tier sources.

The limits are not fixed, though. You can slightly adjust them based on the level of SEO competition in your target niches.

#2. Diversify the sources and recipients

Don’t take “relevant sites” to mean just the publishers in your niche. While it’s always a good idea to seek endorsements from niche-based publishers, overdoing it might set off Google’s alarm bells.

You see, the search engine’s link spam algorithms are always on the lookout for patterns in where and how backlinks are placed. It can tell when links are consistently coming from a specific type of source, as well as instances of links being exchanged repeatedly within the same network of publishers.

Try to avoid such uniform patterns by mixing up the types, niche, and domain authority of the sources.

For example – if your Tier 1 kicks off with a business site publishing your guest post, you could pursue the next backlink coming from a news platform by capitalizing on HARO.

Similarly, you could mix up blogs with directory sites and maybe article networks on Tier 2.

Then for the third-tier sources, you could switch between forums, blog comments, and social media groups. Each should be on a different subject but still relevant to the page you’re linking to.

It’s also important to extend your tiered link building to a wide range of pages and assets on the target website. Don’t channel all the link juice to the homepage alone. Instead, you might want to build a backlink profile that covers multiple target pages.

Here’s a perfect demonstration from a snippet of the backlink profile for Forbes.com. Notice how it boasts nofollow and dofollow backlinks for sources in different niches, with each pointing to a unique resource.

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A snippet of the backlink profile for Forbes.com

#3. Place the links contextually

As you diversify your tiered link building, keep in mind that Google takes into account even the placement and appearance of the link itself.

According to the search engine’s Webmaster Guidelines, backlinks are only deemed natural-appearing if they’re placed contextually within the content publication, while the subject itself should be closely related to the corresponding external reference source.

The connection between the two domains should be seamless, using just the right point of reference to bridge and show the relationship between the referring and the destination pages.

Otherwise, if the anchor text and link seem irrelevant to the conversation, the whole thing might be flagged as potential spam – which would then attract hefty penalties.

Take, for instance, that same backlink published on HubSpot.com. The referring page is on link building statistics, within which it publishes the backlink to Search Engine Land under the subheading “Link Building Opportunities and Challenges”.

HubSpot states that link building is one of the two most important page ranking criteria, and then attributes Search Engine Land as the source of the study.

The destination URL, on the other hand, is a report published by Search Engine Land on the matter.

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The contextual link connecting HubSpot’s article to the reference.

#4. Build the links on quality content

Apart from the subject matter being relevant, the content itself should be comprehensible, articulate,well-written, and insightful.

This is where Google Panda, the content quality master, supplements Google Penguin’s link analysis efforts in separating the backlinks that offer real value from the spammy ones.

The content algorithm is capable of detecting even the depth and language flow of the content – which it subsequently uses to determine if the writeup is genuine and logical, or maybe it’s just a fluffy composition meant to blanket the links.

You can take that as a cue not to engage your tiered link building without a well-thought-out content marketing strategy. The two should run parallel to each other, with the latter providing a great content base on which to build relevant high quality links.

And while you’re at it, remember not to use the same content for different posts. Google will notice the similarities, and could penalize you for trying to cut corners.

The links should always be accompanied by unique content pieces that have not been published anywhere else.

Over To You: How To Get Started On Tiered Link Building

Tiered link building is still relevant to SEO, despite all the quality optimizations that Google has introduced to its search algorithms.

This is one SEO strategy that you can count on to bring in the link equity you need for better rankings. You get to draw quality points from high authority backlinks while, at the same time, leveraging gains from large quantities of low authority inbound links.

All this happens without openly exposing yourself to the risks that come with low-quality backlinks.

But then get this. Although tiered link building is rich in SEO benefits, it can quickly turn into a nightmare if you’re unsure about what you’re doing.

The principal issue here is the extremely thin line between black hat and white hat techniques.

Google itself knows that you might be tempted to game the system to your advantage. So, it has developed a highly advanced group of hound dogs to stay vigilant and report any backlink profiles and techniques that appear unnatural.

Speaking of which, keep in mind that this is not that partially oblivious search engine that we knew back in the day. Google is now more intelligent than ever, with the ability to detect even the slightest indications of unnatural influences in your link profile.

And if you ever get caught, another thing you’ll learn about Google is its zero-tolerance policy and unforgiving nature. A simple omission or addition is enough to get you flagged and penalized as a link spammer.

Now, don’t get it twisted. We’re not telling you to drop the idea of tiered link building – the resultant link building benefits are far too significant to leave out of your SEO strategy. The most thoughtful option here would, instead, be entrusting your tiered link building to the real professionals.

Loganix has been doing it for years, and we understand all the potential stumbling blocks to look out for. Plus you’ll be getting not just tiered link building services, but an all-inclusive package of specialized link building solutions, coupled with data-driven SEO campaigns.

Just say the word today and we’ll swing into action.

Written by Adam Steele on June 14, 2022

COO and Product Director at Loganix. Recovering SEO, now focused on the understanding how Loganix can make the work-lives of SEO and agency folks more enjoyable, and profitable. Writing from beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia.