Off Page SEO: An In-Depth Guide
Off-page SEO is one of the most difficult parts of digital marketing.
It can feel like there are more ways to get it wrong than to do it right.
Somewhere between the advice to “do this, not that” are useful approaches for promoting websites that won’t give cause to looking over one’s shoulder.
Off-page SEO traditionally means acquiring links.
And, because links continue to be an important ranking factor, off-page SEO is an important part of SEO.
Google’s John Mueller acknowledged the importance of links when he said:
“Links are really important for us to find content initially.
So it’s like if nobody links to your website ever then we’re going to have a hard time recognizing that it even exists.”
But Mueller has also said that one shouldn’t be creating links:
You shouldn’t be creating links to your site in general. I’d recommend checking out our webmaster guidelines for more.
— 🥔 johnmu (personal) updated for 2022 🥔 (@JohnMu) November 10, 2021
Google’s documentation on how to do SEO primarily focuses on optimizing what’s on the webpage (also known as on-page SEO).
The SEO advice provided by Google rarely discusses off-page SEO, except in the context of guidelines on what not to do.
Approached realistically and with the clear eyes of a pragmatist, it’s possible to navigate an off-page SEO strategy that keeps within the narrow boundaries defined by Google – and makes more money.
What Is Off-Page SEO?
The narrow definition of off-page SEO is: It’s link building.
An expansive definition embraces promotional activity outside the website, including press exposure and links (with or without nofollow), and brand awareness campaigns that can involve publishing on other sites and newsletters.
SEO is normally considered in direct relation to attributable search rankings.
When something is done for the purpose of SEO, there is an expectation of better rankings and more search traffic.
And that’s because, in the early days of SEO, search analytics showed which keywords were responsible for each search-derived site visitor.
So, it was simple to attribute search rankings to traffic directly.
And from search traffic, it was possible to attribute clicks from search results to conversions directly.
That made connecting the dots between SEO activities, rankings, and earnings easy.
But that’s not possible any more — because browsers hide the keywords.
And that made it easier to begin thinking of SEO in terms of traffic and earnings, even though it can only be indirectly attributable to SEO.
Anyone who has ever worked in niche B2B knows there is more to cultivating online traffic than what’s available through search engines.
Search traffic is relatively low across many B2B keyword phrases.
For B2B marketers, survival often depends on reaching potential clients who might not even be aware that a solution exists – as is the case for specialized tools such as organization chart software or performance management applications.
While promotional activity doesn’t directly influence search traffic, in the short term, it does influence traffic. In the long term, as it will be shown, it may eventually influence search traffic.
Nobody can search for a product or company if they don’t know either of them exists.
Underlining the importance of promotional activities, Google filed a patent describing how branded searches could be used similarly to links to associate a company with a search term and rank that company higher in the search results.
From that perspective, it makes sense to include online promotional activities in an off-page SEO description.
On-Page SEO Versus Off-Page SEO
On-page SEO is about optimizations done on a website that make it easier for search engines to crawl and understand.
That includes internal linking, using proper canonicalization, editing for content clarity, creating descriptive title tags, and writing unique meta-descriptions.
On-page SEO ranking factors are about what a page is relevant for and are considered stronger signals than off-page SEO factors.
That’s why content is understood to be the strongest ranking signal.
Yet without off-page SEO, a webpage will struggle to rank, especially in highly competitive markets.
Off-page SEO helps search engines discover webpages to crawl and understand what the pages are about. It’s best to think of off-page SEO as promotional activities related to attracting links. But it can also include promotional activities to let consumers know the company exists and what it does.
The documentation available at Google for on-page SEO is extensive. That’s not the case for off-page SEO, presumably because offering that information may provide hints on how to manipulate rankings.
Why Off-Page SEO Is Important
Off-page SEO matters because a website lacking citations from other sites resembles a site that’s not worth crawling and indexing.
Because off-page ranking factors, like links, measure how important a site is, failure to attain any links may very well contribute to stagnant search traffic.
It’s not unlike having a car with no gas.
The most accurate description of what makes off-page SEO important is that it provides forward momentum to a site by helping it rank higher for more keyword phrases.
Do Links Help Build Authority?
While SEO pros like to think about abstract concepts such as website authority in connection with links, Google doesn’t actually have any kind of metric that corresponds to authority.
Google often says that it strives to rank authoritative content. But, that word is generally used in the context of the quality of the content itself – not as a standalone ranking factor that flows to the webpage and imbues it with “authority.”
Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller debunked the idea that Google uses an authority metric.
He stated it clearly:
“In general, Google doesn’t evaluate a site’s authority.
So it’s not something where we would give you a score on authority and say this is the general score for authority on your website. That’s not something we would be applying here.”
Do Links Build Domain Authority?
Another false notion about links is that they help to build domain authority.
The concept of domain authority has roots in the early days of SEO when Google still displayed the PageRank values for webpages.
What was plain to see was that sites with high PageRank scores tended to rank better than sites with lower PageRank scores.
The home pages of those sites contained the highest PageRank scores.
So, it was understood (at the time) that domains with high PageRank scores ranked better.
Because domains with high PageRank scores were considered authoritative, it was easy to say that they were authoritative domains.
Anyone could see the PageRank scores and how domains with high PageRank were ranked higher than those with less PageRank.
That led to a belief in the concept of “domain authority.”
But Google never actually used any kind of domain authority metric.
The concept of domain authority was simply a loose idea based on what could be visually confirmed.
Eventually, Google adjusted how webpages are ranked so that the PageRank scores played less of a role in deciding what pages ranked highest.
Relevance then began to play a larger role in determining what pages were ranked.
It took more than PageRank to get a page to rank and the proof, once again, was in the search results themselves.
One could see that webpages with low PageRank scores were ranked ahead of webpages from sites with higher PageRank.
But the idea of domain authority persisted.
Articles that insist Google uses domain authority never cite any patent, research paper, or statement by a Googler to back up those claims (because no official confirmation exists).
In a Reddit AMA, Google’s John Mueller answered the question of whether domain authority exists with a witty response:
“Of course it exists, it’s a tool by Moz.”
Three Kinds Of Links
In its SEO Starter Guide, Google’s documentation explicitly condones promoting a website by telling others about it.
Here’s what Google published about obtaining links:
“While most of the links to your site will be added gradually, as people discover your content through search or other ways and link to it, Google understands that you’d like to let others know about the hard work you’ve put into your content.
Effectively promoting your new content will lead to faster discovery by those who are interested in the same subject.”
While Google follows that statement with the caveat that promoting a site at “extreme” levels could damage a site’s reputation, the advice still leaves plenty of room for promoting a website.
Here are three kinds of links that can safely be attained:
1. Research, Write, Tell Others About It
When in the planning stage of webpage content, it’s important to research what kinds of sites link to content pages on that specific topic.
One way to do that is to identify what kinds of sites are linking out and, most importantly, why those pages are linking out.
Every link strategy I create for a client always begins with researching which sites are linking and identifying the topics that trigger them to link out.
Writing the content happens after identifying the right content to publish.
The biggest mistake companies make is writing the content and then trying to get links to it. That doesn’t always work, no matter how good the content is.
Some sites consistently link to clever content that’s riding on trending topics like highly popular media.
Other sites tend to link out according to the zeitgeist.
Every site that links out has a reason for linking out. Find that pattern and write for it.
2. Be Proactive About Getting Quoted
There’s a service called Help A Reporter Out (HARO), where publishers solicit qualified individuals to provide quotes on topics – and maybe provide a link to a website.
Arguably, it could be said that HARO has been overrun for the past 10 years, as there is a large amount of competition from link builders who are swarming the system for links.
And some publishers dangle a quote but never provide one.
For example, it’s been my experience that some publishers abuse the system to collect quotes and article ideas from others without any intention of ever quoting any of the contributors, much less linking out.
Thus, an entire business model has arisen around helping companies obtain what has come to be known as “HARO links.”
But why scrounge like a pigeon jostling for crumbs? There is a better way.
And that way is to be proactive and approach the high-quality sites you want a link from.
Everyone loves a gift – and there’s no better gift for a content publisher than an article that writes itself.
The best way to do that is to do research or compile statistics relevant to the readers of whatever publications are ideal for a link.
As long as the topic is highly relevant, getting quoted in a ready-made article created by a press contact is a good way to get links.
Be sure to request that the article be kept under embargo, which means to withhold publication until a certain date.
For extra punch, publish the entire data set on your own website, then provide some of that data to the publishers and ask them to consider linking to the page with the full report.
What About Infographics?
In the old days, people would produce infographics by creating a visual representation of government statistics, turning dry text into an easier-to-visualize infographic.
But people consume media on mobile phones, and infographics don’t always look great on mobile devices.
The infographics approach for off-page SEO can be considered an expired practice.
Stick To News And Announcements
In the long run, building a list of desirable sites for publication may make more sense. Then, research each site to see what relevant article topics are published, the kind of sources they link to, and article pitches they may be open to entertaining.
They don’t have to be sites that offer link opportunities, either.
There’s immense value in positioning the name of a company in front of tens of thousands of potential clients.
3. Good Old Resource Links
Some sites still publish links to sites that provide a particular kind of resource, like a download, templates, instructions on how to do something, patterns, etc.
Websites love linking to useful content.
But again, don’t build the content and find someone to link to it.
Find out who links to resources, and then build that kind of content.
Be sure to give it a great angle – a twist that makes it stand out from other sites.
Guest Posting For Links… Not
Guest posting has been officially off the table since 2014, when Matt Cutts (a Google engineer at the time) publicly posted that guest posting for links was over.
Matt Cutts wrote:
“So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well.
Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a link building strategy.”
As recently as 2020, Google’s John Mueller explained that Google’s machine learning algorithms had a lot of training data to help it identify guest post links and automatically devalue them so that they don’t help sites rank better.
He had this to say about guest posts for links:
“The other thing is that because this is so old, we have a lot of training data for our algorithms. I wouldn’t be surprised if the largest part of those links are just ignored automatically.”
He then suggested doing something useful instead:
“If all that work is for ignored links, why not just do something useful instead?”
Guest Post For Higher Earnings, Not Links
A better approach to take with guest posts is to use them to build awareness of a site in front of an audience that might be interested in it.
SEO pros will burn an opportunity to build sales by insisting on links.
Why not just do guest posting to build sales? Isn’t money the point of building links and search marketing, to begin with?
There are many opportunities to put your product in a favorable light by forgetting about links and just doing it for sales.
Making money is the point of marketing, so make money while everyone else is wearing out their brain trying to figure out a way to trick a site into giving them a link.
That’s true off-page SEO because once people get to know a site, word of mouth kicks in – and that’s when Google understands that a site is popular, which means the kind of site people expect to see.
There’s even a Google patent about how Google might use branded search queries as a form of links.
I wrote about the Google patent using search queries that contain brand names as if they were links here: Are Brand Mentions Important to Google’s Algorithm?
That shows that building awareness can have an indirect impact on rankings.
The importance of that is to highlight that off-page SEO doesn’t necessarily have to be all about links.
Off-Page SEO Is Site Promotion
It may be helpful to think of off-page SEO as something that encompasses more than just the limited scope of link building.
For that, one has to think of strategies for exposing the company to thousands of decision-makers.
Link builders leave behind many valuable, useful opportunities for building sales and indirectly creating popularity signals that search engines might pick up on.
Off-page SEO is useful for promoting a website to increase rankings, traffic, and earnings.
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