SEO Process

Content-led Link Building: A Process

Paddy Moogan
Last Updated: Mar. 28, 2024

As many of us who have been in the SEO industry for a while know, link building used to be a bit of an arms race. Pretty much any tactic for generating relevant backlinks worked or at worst, wouldn’t get you penalized. This led to all sorts of techniques being used and as SEOs, we did what we do best – scaled them and got results. 

Now, it’s not quite that simple. Now, a few things are different:

  • Low-quality link building tactics are far riskier than they once were.
  • Link building (and SEO generally) is maturing and becoming much more integrated with other areas of a business such as brand and PR.
  • The signals that Google uses to determine rankings are evolving all the time and whilst links are still an important signal, Google is getting better at refining all of the related signals, including their quality and context.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a number of tactics that work – there are a bunch of ways to build links with the context of these points in mind. I want to talk about one in particular today which we make use of at Aira with the majority of our clients. 

It is also a tactic which, according to our recent survey of over 350 SEOs, 75% of them use: Content-led link building:

This isn’t a huge surprise given trends like this:

The cynical amongst us may point to the Penguin update in 2012 contributing to at least a bit of this growth, but let’s not focus on that too much! The growth is obvious and at least some of this includes the SEO world who are leveraging content for link building. 

So, let’s talk about the process we use at Aira and hopefully, some of these steps are useful for you in your SEO business. First, to anchor things a bit, here are the steps that we’re going to cover:

  1. Set and agree on your objectives
  2. Idea generation and research
  3. Production
  4. Outreach
  5. Reporting and learning

Of course, there can be more and within these, there are lots of micro-steps, but broadly speaking, this is the process that we follow.

Set and agree on your objectives

Whatever activity you’re about to invest time, effort and resources into, you need to be clear on your objectives. The easy answer to this in the context of content-led link building is: links.

Well, yes, links are an objective of link building activity, but you need to think beyond this. Let me illustrate this with an example of the approach we use at Aira, which is to use a content strategy framework like this:

Here is an example of one for a product designed to help you sleep better:

In the context of setting objectives, the important row here is the bottom one on KPIs which, for this example, go beyond links and include website traffic, lead and brand awareness.

The reason for this is that we need to acknowledge a few things:

  • Links are just one part of the picture
  • Some content will help you with other objectives outside of links
  • It forces us to think beyond links

Ultimately, you need to be able to connect this type of link building to business objectives outside of links alone. Even clients who come to us saying “I want links” will work with us to fill out this framework and acknowledge the value of our work beyond links.

Learn more about link building

Backlinks are one of the most important signals for ranking well in Google, but they’re not easy to come by… unless you know where to look.

View our Link Building Course

There also needs to be an acknowledgment that KPIs will cascade and often be split into lead and lag measures. I first came across this concept in the excellent book Four Disciplines of Execution which I’d highly recommend. I won’t go into too much detail here but to illustrate the point, we could break SEO KPIs into these:

Lead measures:

  • Quantity and quality of links
  • Organic keyword rankings
  • Organic search impressions
  • Referral traffic

Lag measures:

  • Organic search clicks (traffic)
  • Organic search conversions

Link building (along with SEO in general) will naturally influence the lead measures in advance of the lag measures. The same can be true for other channels, such as paid search, but the gap between the spike in lead measures and lag measures is often a lot smaller.

Idea generation and research

Once you’ve agreed upon SEO KPIs, the next step is to start coming up with content ideas and carrying out research into those ideas in order to validate them and make sure that they’re link-worthy. The key thing to remember is that there is a big, big difference between a good content idea and a good content idea that gets links. 

The former is fine, you’ll no doubt come up with a bunch of ideas that may be great for generating organic traffic or social shares, but may not provoke someone to link to it. Knowing the difference is super important. 

The key place to start is to agree with key stakeholders what the core topics and themes they are happy to talk about are. Bringing back in our content strategy framework, we’re aiming to agree on topics and themes which:

  • They are credible to talk about
  • They want to be famous for
  • Resonate with their target audience

Keeping these in mind will steer you clear of creating content that is completely off-topic and nothing to do with what the company does. Essentially, it helps prevent you from doing stuff “just for links” and nothing else. 

Let me be super honest – this can be hard. We often talk about tricky or “boring” industries and this can make it hard for you as a link builder. But when it comes to doing the right thing for the company and producing content that gets links, it’s better to suffer this bit of pain now rather than get hurt further down the line because a piece of content gets pulled by someone in the company for a lack of relevance.

Following on from this, you should be aware at this point of any guidelines that the company has which may govern what you can and can’t produce content about. These are likely to come from a range of places depending on the size of the company. For smaller companies, they probably won’t have anything formalized and it will be a case of speaking with the point of contact or company owner. For larger companies, you need to try to catch all people who have an interest in this which could include teams across PR, brand, content or even legal.

All of that to one side, there are a bunch of ways to go and get ideas and the only limits are your own time and imagination. A few places to start could be:

Don’t limit yourself too much early in the process and let yourself come up with lots of ideas which you then narrow down. (You can also try tools from this list of Ahrefs alternatives.)

I’m a big fan of this book (published in 1940!), called a technique for producing ideas. It is super short and easy to read but talks a bit about letting ideas flow and then taking a break from them and coming back to them. If you come up with lots of ideas, it makes it far easier to then let them “marinate” and settle in your head. 

A more modern version of this process and applied to link building is outlined by Mark Johnstone in this slide deck.

Another key step is the validation of these ideas which Mark touches upon in the dec above too. In summary, you need to start to split out the ideas that are good and the ones which are good and get links. We have a super detailed process at Aira for this which will be a post for another day! To give you an idea and some direction though, these are the kinds of things which you need to think about:

  • How is the content going to resonate with your audience – why will they care?
  • Will bloggers and journalists care? Why?
  • Can you find an ample-sized list of bloggers and journalists who will care?
  • What’s the core message of what you’re trying to say?
  • How do you plan to visualize the idea and communicate it?

There is a lot more to it, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what to think about and focus on.


Next up, we have our idea and have validated it, we need to start to produce it. This is likely to involve at least one, probably a combination of:

The key here is that you need to ensure that whoever is working on the production understands the idea and how it needs to be communicated. To make sure this happens, spend the time to brief them properly and explain what you’re trying to achieve. There needs to be a balance between briefing them on your idea and allowing their creativity to flow, especially with copywriters and designers. 

This will get easier the more you work with these people and they learn more about the process. In the early days, allow a bit more time for feedback and check in a bit more often than you usually would. 

No matter what, keep in mind the objectives that you’ve set and keep asking yourself whether the content is on course to meet them or not. Once an idea starts to come to life, it can be very easy to let the core message and objectives get lost in a sea of cool designs and functionality – don’t let this happen.

In particular, on the latter, try to avoid making the format of a content piece interactive unless it has to be. It’s super easy to assume that interactivity is necessary for a piece to do well, but this isn’t always the case. Interactivity should only be used when it adds to the idea and helps communicate it better. Don’t do it just because it’s cool – you may not need to!

Don’t believe me? Look at this graph from Aira client campaigns which shows the average coverage that we get for clients, segmented by content-type:

As you can see, interactive content, on average, gets the highest amount of coverage. But not by that big of a margin. If we estimate that an interactive piece of content may add 50-75% time and resource to a campaign, all of a sudden it may not look to be worth it.


Ok, we’re there – time to launch. 

Now, anyone who has tried to build links, especially content-led links, will know how failure feels. All of the work you’ve put into the process so far is designed to minimize the chances of failure which is exactly why all of the other steps are so, so important. The more time you put into idea generation, validation and production, the less chance there is of failure at this point. 

Having said that, it can and does happen – to everyone. In fact, our state of link building survey showed that over a quarter of us have had a campaign launch that got zero links:

It happens, so you need to know how to address this as quickly as you can and try to revive things and bring things back. I won’t go into loads of detail here because our Head of PR and Content, Shannon covered this in her Whiteboard Friday on Moz.

That aside, the focus here should be on quality over quantity for link prospecting. Avoid automating the entire process here and ensure that you review every prospect who you plan to email by hand. Alan talks about a few cool techniques in this blog post which help you find super relevant and targeted websites to add to your prospecting list.

On top of that, keep a few things in mind:

  • When targeting newspapers and magazines, remember that they will have large editorial teams, so take the time to find the right individual and avoid emailing a generic email
  • For bloggers, keep in mind that some will ask for payment. So plan for this and understand if this is something you want to do or not and that you (and your client) understand the risks of doing so
  • Customize your outreach emails for each and every prospect but don’t be afraid to use templated elements where it makes you more efficient

Again, this step will be far easier if you put the time and effort into the first few steps.

Reporting and learning

Finally, we need to report on the activity and importantly, the results. SEO reporting is partly done in real-time by our team because clients want to be kept up to date with how things are going. 

For us, this means a few things:

  • A “live” Google Sheet which our team keeps up to date with all new links. The client has access to this and can check it whenever they want.
  • A weekly summary of activity and links built, along with any feedback (positive and negative) that we’ve received.
  • A monthly summary and call to bring everything together and look at the bigger picture.

These are all fairly standard and won’t be a surprise to many of you. But I do want to make one important point here – if things aren’t going well, don’t shy away from that. Most clients will be bothered by a quiet launch, but they will be even more bothered if you’re not being open about this and talking about it. Your approach may not change, after all, sometimes things do just take time, but make sure you keep them in the loop.

Remember that outreach doesn’t need to stop after a certain amount of time or when a new campaign comes along. Quite the opposite, we’re big fans of sustainable link building which means building up a “content bank” of evergreen content pieces which can be promoted over and over again. One of our clients now has over 100 pieces of content on their site and we can promote the majority of them at any time. So if one piece if a little slow to take off, we can offset this with outreach for another piece so that we have a consistent, sustainable amount of links coming in.

Learn more about link building

Backlinks are one of the most important signals for ranking well in Google, but they’re not easy to come by… unless you know where to look.

View our Link Building Course