What if I told you one post could earn 300+ links? And what if I told you none of those links were from outreach?
We create a lot of content. But we also do a fair amount of outreach. In fact, half of a content marketing specialist’s role here is to promote the work they wrote and built.
In the past, we considered a 5-7% placement rate a solid outcome, which meant our clients were seeing a cost per link of $650-$800 depending on the post.
Short term, this was great, but long term, some of our content performance started looking like this:
But wouldn’t you rather see a graph like this?
After some evaluation, we uncovered the ideal content type: the passive link earner.
In this post we’ll dive into this strategy and how we execute it for our clients.
Strapped for time? Watch our Director of Content Strategy Alex Heinz outline the full process.
What is Passive Link Acquisition?
Passive link acquisition is the method of acquiring links naturally through no method of manual link building.
Building links passively isn’t new, but most of the recommended tactics are using low quality methods of earning links (e.g. reciprocal linking, header/footer placements, badges, etc.).
Our new method focuses on three core steps:
- Target keywords geared towards a link friendly audience
- Build content around those keywords
- Get it ranking
By focusing our efforts on these topics, it creates a natural link pipeline for our clients and frees up our time to not focus on grinding out links manually month over month. An example growth chart will look like this:
|Months Post Publish||Number of Links|
Our Findings + Methodology
To conduct this study we gathered 531 posts across a variety of industries (most notably eCommerce, SaaS, insurance, finance and home) and logged the following:
- Cost to create the post
- Total number of keywords
- Links earned one month, six months, 12 months and 18 months post publish (using Ahrefs referring domains graph)
From this evaluation, we picked up on the following trends:
Links Increase, But Velocity Depends
Overall, we saw a general trend that the content created continued to earn links following the “active outreach” period in the first month. In some cases, that content earned only 1-5 more links over the course of the 18 month period, whereas others saw more explosive growth.
For content we defined as “passive link content,” the link growth over that 18 period time was as high as 900%.
More Keywords = More Links
At a high level, the content that saw passive link growth ranks for more keywords. Looking at the top 100 posts with the lowest cost per link, the average was more than 2,000. The bottom 100? A measly 4.
This may not be correlated necessarily as the more links a piece earns, the more Google sees it as relevant to rank for more queries. But it’s safe to say that the wider net you can cast, the greater chances your content has of being seen and linked to.
Domain Authority Implications
The next question you may be asking is, “how authoritative are these passive links?” If you’re not controlling who links to you, is it all just spam?
Looking at the top 25 posts with the lowest cost per link, the average domain authority was 21. This is lower than what we try to hit during manual outreach, but this type of natural linking activity is also what Google likes to reward so we’re less concerned about this as an outcome.
In short, make something valuable that people can find and link to = good graces with Google bots.
When Will Passive Linking Not Work?
There are a few niche cases where a passive linking strategy won’t work—or you’ll at least need to focus your strategy on manual outreach and different content formats first in order to get there.
Low Domain Authority + Ability to Rank
The reality is that people only passively link to the top three results. If you’re not confident in your ability to rank for that keyword, it’s likely you won’t see results from this approach.
Looking at a query like “customer service statistics,” below is the backlink profile for a post in the top three vs. the backlink profile of post at the bottom of the page:
Volatile Link Growth
When researching these opportunities (more on that below), be discerning between a smooth, up and to the right curve and a more volatile link growth.
Anything with a dropping link rate or overall flat line trend isn’t a good option.
For example, “golf swing tips” may seem like a strong opportunity for people who want to find tips or tricks to reference. But if you look at this piece ranking on page 1, the backlink profile is pretty volatile—spiking up and down but ultimately flat over the entire year.
Choosing the Wrong Audience
This mindset takes some more thought than simply coming up with audiences. In our past brainstorms, we would map every piece of content to at least one “linkable” audience. An idea would look something like this:
With this passive link strategy, not every idea in the same market will achieve links naturally.
For example, below are two ideas both marketed to the same audience (gardening, home decor) but very different link outcomes:
Both of these posts achieved their short term link goals, but the second one clearly continued to improve (with a major spike in the last ~3 months, likely due to improved rankings). While the second post is ranking better and earning more traffic, it was able to earn more passive links because the topic had a clear link intent.
Meaning, when creating this type of content, ask yourself:
- Would a reader want to share this post naturally?
- Can I reduce the friction to link to my content?
- Is this idea simple enough for someone to recreate on their own?
If you answered “yes, yes, no” to the bullets above, you’re on the right track.
Download our helpful flowchart to help walk you through this process:
How to Target Passive Link Topics
Now that we’ve sold you on the strategy, how do you go about finding these keywords? Here are our methods we use in our brainstorming:
Ahrefs Top Pages View
One of our favorite content marketing tools is Ahrefs. After they added root domains to their “Top Pages” view, we let out a “Hallelujah!” Our favorite quick method to find these opportunities is to search a competitor blog or domain in this view and see what content received the highest linking root domains:
You’ll have to export the list into Excel to sort findings from high to low in the “RD” column. Be sure to check the referring domains growth of each topic before finalizing. As we mentioned before, link volume doesn’t always mean it was done using this strategy. Other factors could play into it such as a naturally high authority website, viral hit, manual outreach, etc.
Finding Passive Link Frameworks
After building out this strategy over 5+ years, we’ve found some standard frameworks that fit this model. If you can back your brand and industry into these frameworks, you have some quick content wins. Additionally, if you’re able to build blog post templates to fit these frameworks, you have an easily scalable solution.
A popular passive link strategy is to find “statistics” type queries and build content around that. Statistics (and similar data driven frameworks) work because writers, bloggers and reporters are usually looking for supporting data to add to their story and will cite your resource as the citation.
Some examples of content in this framework:
- Customer service statistics – ranking in the top 3 with 200+ links
- Statistics on Millennial spending habits – ranking page 1 with 150+ links
- Rice nutrition facts – ranking #1 with 120+ links
Think about ways you can lower the friction to link, such as easy copy/paste buttons, “tweet to share,” a table of contents and more.
With Google slowly cannibalizing “what is X” type queries, it may seem useless to create content around this type of keyword. But we’ve found that if you’re in a niche industry (like tech or medicine) where acronyms, products and industry jargon is not well defined, there’s good potential.
- What is OAuth – ranking in the top 3 with 100 links
- What is a backlink – ranking #1 and has 900+ links
- Knitting abbreviations – ranking #1 with 90+ links
Industry Data Point
Similar to “statistics” above, if you have proprietary data around a trend, cost or question that your audience frequently asks, that is a great opportunity to build content around it.
- Wedding photographer cost – ranking #1 with 160+ links
- FAFSA deadline – ranking page 1 with 90+ links
- Plumber hourly rate – ranking #1 with 50+ links
Target Low Search Volume
A passive link strategy won’t always align with high search volume. Taking the statistics framework example above, if you look on Statista’s website, the content that earns them the most links isn’t always highest volume:
Above you’ll see some topics in the 500 or less monthly searches, but earning 100+ links. Don’t ignore these long tail keywords!
Find 2-3 Examples
When vetting potential topics, don’t focus on the success of just one post. Instead, focus on general trends. Otherwise, you’ll risk trying to replicate the success of one brand when they may have additional factors you can’t match.
For example, if you wanted to create content around the keyword for “labor statistics,” you’d see BLS is ranking #1 with 23,000+ links. But after that, linking root domains makes a steep nose dive:
Obviously, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is going to be the authority in this space. It’s unlikely any writer will want to link out to another site.
Pull up queries in Ahrefs keyword explorer and look to the SERP overview to see a clearer picture of how all top ranking content is performing vs. just the #1 post.
Less Time Grinding Out Emails
Outreach can be a very labor intensive process to do correctly. There is definitely still room for pitching and PR efforts. But more and more we’re focusing our content on strategic ways we can build a healthy link pipeline and in turn focus our efforts on higher value needs.
Need a recap? Listen to our podcast episode on the study below: