Why some sites link, and others don’t

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Yesterday on this blog, I discussed eight questions to ask for better link building. These are questions you should try to answer about the sites you have targeted for links to your content. The ninth question — WHY did they link — is not as easy to answer as the others.

One thing, among many, that I learned from Avinash Kaushik’s book Web Analytics: An Hour A Day is that we can only observe behavior — we have to infer intent.

When it comes to better link building, we can only note WHAT our target sites linked to, but we have to use our most educated guesses as to WHY.

The hook

Hook for link building

I used to consider there to be only three hooks: interesting, useful and funny. But there are far more than that. This resource details a few of the more classic ones. But I’ve come to consider a hook to be anything that causes an emotion. Emotions move people, and we’re hoping they move them sufficiently to want to share your content with others.

A hook could be based around almost any emotion, including shock, horror, fear, anger, compassion, lust, envy, pride and even nostalgia. I fell for the nostalgia hook the other night when I discovered a Transformers infographic. Not the new blockbuster movie, but the original cartoon—the one I watched with my friends at my 10th birthday party! I mean, come on—I fell for that one hook, line and sinker!

Besides emotion, it’s worth bearing in mind that, when trying to figure out the hook that grabbed people, there may have been other reasons for linking out, e.g. persuasive outreach, incentives or existing relationships.


With regards to persuasive outreach, some people swear by Cialdini’s weapons of influence. They certainly can be effective, but must be used with care, or you could end up sounding like a bad commercial.

Other aspects of persuasion can be as simple as being personable, and showing your human side.


People may also have been offered an incentive to link. They may have been paid, offered a discount, received gifts, or it may even have been a necessary condition for inclusion in a competition.

This is a whole can of worms I don’t intend to open right now, but it happens, so it’s worth being aware that it may have been influential in other sites getting the links you’re trying so hard to get.

Existing relationships

Existing relationships can often be revealed through a natural pattern of linking between the sites in question. If they appear to refer to each other regularly, this can be a strong indication of an existing relationship. If all of the links from a group of sites appear like this, you might be trying to break into a tight-knit community. It’s do-able, but will likely require a longer game plan.

The recap

So there you have it: 9 questions to ask yourself about your link targets before embarking on a link-building campaign.

  1. Have they linked to this type of content before?
  2. Have they linked to content on this specific topic before?
  3. Have they linked to sites like yours before?
  4. Have they linked in this particular way before?
  5. How frequently and recently have they linked out?
  6. Was the timing of the content important?
  7. Who was responsible for the link?
  8. Where exactly did they link from and to on each site?
  9. Why did they link?

Ask these questions before you create the content. And it’s also worth stopping yourself at different points as you proceed with content creation, to make sure you are still on track. Creativity and analysis are very different beasts. It is very possible to do all the necessary analysis at the start, and end up creating something very different.

The goal here is not to eliminate risk, but to mitigate it. If you want to eliminate risk, you’ll be resigned to tactics like directories and low-level link-building that everyone can do.

But if you can answer each of the questions above at the start of your creative project, and satisfy them by the end, you will be giving yourself a greater chance of link-building success.

Mark Johnstone is an SEO at Distilled.

One Response to “Why some sites link, and others don’t”

  1. TSSVeloso

    Hi, Mark, great post! So many good tips, and, btw, thank you for the kind mention to Visual Loop!

    Keep up the great work!!