Backlinks are the backbones of successful SEO strategies and help drive long-term success. Earning quality links to quality content on your website will, in almost all cases, work to rank your site well for targeted keywords. One way to make your backlinking efforts more impactful is to deploy a tiered backlinking strategy—often referred to as a “link pyramid.” This article will cover the basics of these types of structures, their benefits, and potential pitfalls.
Just the Basics
Tiered backlinking structures are ways to help make existing links more powerful. Backlinks don’t just make your webpages more powerful—they can make the pages linking to your webpages more powerful as well. Tiered backlinking can be done in a completely White Hat way that would avoid the risk of penalty but this isn’t usually feasible from an economic standpoint. This means that most discussions of tiered backlink strategies are done with the assumption that there is risk of violating the Google Webmaster Guidelines and having the possibility of being penalized. That being said; we’ve found tiered backlinking strategies to be highly effective and feel they have a well-deserved place among many different SEO strategies. Considering a few key SEO metrics such as the Moz Domain (DA) Authority and Moz Page Authority (PA) data can help better understand the nature of the SEO benefits of tiered backlinking.
Understanding Page Authority
Page Authority (PA) is a metric used by many SEO professionals to help describe the ranking potential of any single webpage. This metric is provided by MOZ and considers many different factors, many of which are other MOZ metrics like MOZ Trust and MOZ Rank. This score is given on a 0-100 scale with advances in value being of a logarithmic nature. That means, it’s much easier to take the Page Authority of a webpage from 20-30 than it is to take one from 50-60. As stated by MOZ; the single most assured way to increase Page Authority:
“to improve its link profile, which influences its MozRank and MozTrust scores. This can be accomplished by getting external links from other high-authority pages, which in turn act as “votes of confidence” for the authority of your page.”
Example: Site A has a DA of 40 and its main article has a PA of 35. Site B has a DA rating of 80 and its article targeting the same keyword has a PA of 10. In many cases, website A will outrank website B for the keywords associated with these two articles. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a fairly common scenario which helps illustrate the use of the Page Authority metric’s predictive ability.
A Tired backlinking strategy, at its core design, is meant to make backlinks more powerful by boosting their Page Authority. As MOZ pointed out, the best way to increase Page Authority is to build links. Tiered backlinking essential means building links to links that you have already built. That’s to say; if you build a link to your website, building links to that link is going to give it more SEO power. As illustrated in the diagram above; multiple links are used to boost the PA of single page, and then many more multiple links are used to boost the PA of those pages. It’s considered common practice to see a reduction in quality as one moves downward in link tiers. Tier 1 links will be things like manual outreach links, PBN links (if that’s part of your strategy), and some high quality Web 2.0 links. These are the types of links that are surrounded by quality, relevant, and 100% unique content.
You can take more risks with your Tier 2 links because your Tier 1 links effectively act as a buffer between them and your primary website.
Tier 2 links start becoming more about volume than they do quality. Just like you’ve worked to earn multiple backlinks to your primary website to boost its Page Authority, you also want to build multiple backlinks to each of those. It would be better if all the links built to your Tier 1 links were of the same quality but that’s not economically feasible in 99% of cases. This is where we move from White Hat SEO to an area that bends the rules a bit more. Tier 2 links can use techniques like Spintax-generation to create a lot of content that isn’t necessarily 100% unique. Other lower-quality links can be used here like manual comments, forum posts, and even automated linkbuilding techniques if done correctly. You can take more risks with your Tier 2 links because your Tier 1 links effectively act as a buffer between them and your primary website. Still, Tier 1 links often take a lot of time and resources to get so you don’t want to be too cavalier—or else you might earn a Tier 1 link a penalty! We’ll take a closer look at the types of backlinks you’ll want to focus on, as well as some unique considerations, for each Tier of backlinks.
Tier 1 Links
These are your best backlinks that you’ve gone through a great deal of effort to build. These can be things like guest posts, resource page links, PBN links, and Web 2.0 mini sites that you’ve created with extremely high-quality content. All these pages contain unique content and in most cases will likely rank for some related long-tail keywords themselves.
Link Types: Outreach links, High Quality Web 2.0 Links, Resource Page Links, PBN Links
Tier 2 Links
These are backlinks that have been built with a much larger focus on volume than quality. These links should still all contain human-readable content but can err towards the side of being not 100% original. Understand that not 100% original isn’t our way of saying duplicate. Websites like document sharing sites, wikis, and Web 2.0s are all great here. One popular tool to gauge the originality of content is Copyscape. For the links used in this tier you want to shoot for a Copyscape score of 80 or higher (opinions differ). Another often overlooked source for these links are profile links from smaller random websites that allow for larger amounts of content to be added to the user profile—as well as in-content links. If you’re capable of creating these types of links with software such as GSA-SER feel free to let it rip. If you’re just getting started with such tools, we’d suggest either contract it out or save it for Tier 3.
Link Types: Human-readable Spintax Web 2.0, Quality Profile Links, Document-sharing Links, Social Media Links, Comment Links
Tier 3 Links
In days passed, you could crank out the spammiest of the possible spam here. Blog comments, guest books, social bookmarking sites, and even unrecognizable garble on Web 2.0 sites. Google’s algorithm continues to evolve and so does it’s dislike for low-quality content. It’s been our experience that total spam doesn’t necessarily hurt anything when used this far below your primary website but that it also doesn’t really help anything. Many may be familiar with the Google Penguin update which focused on giving less ranking favor to sites using unnatural link schemes (like tiered linking). As of Q3 2016, Penguin has become part of Google’s core algorithm and is applied in real-time. Also important; Google’s approach for dealing with such spam has changed considerably. As Search Engine Land notes: “the new Penguin algorithm managed to devalue spam instead of demoting.” That means that spammy low quality links get ignored rather than passing along penaltization. However, it’s also important to note that if a manual review were to conclude you were using such tactics for your website you could still receive a manual action towards your website. Arguably, this type of new interpretation is effective at counteracting negative SEO tactics where competitor A might build 1 million spammy links to competitor B’s website to tank their rankings. Think of it like Google swapping out the bullets of two warring armies with rubber bullets to minimize casualties.
Types of Links: Similar to Tier 2 but can be a little lower-quality. Feel free to use automated software here to create comment links, directory submissions, profile links, and document-sharing site links.
You’ll note by just visually glancing at the above paragraphs that each successive link Tier requires a lot more context and consideration. Just ripping out backlinks willy-nilly is—at-best—not going to help your website rank and likely put you at risk of being penalized. The types of backlinks you can used in these structures can help to make voluminous link strategies more economical—but they aren’t carte blanche to create spam. This strategy still falls under the umbrella of what is considered to be a Link Scheme by Google and could get your site penalized. Before some of the more intelligent algorithm updates (in our opinion anyway) one could build millions of backlinks and see continued impact within their link tiers. Those days are long-gone for most use-cases, but the underlying concepts of Tiered backlinking are still alive and well in our experience.
Keep Quality in Mind
Tiered linkbuilding campaigns can be incredibly effective when done properly. They can also be incredibly ineffective—and possibly even damaging—when done incorrectly. Tiered link building isn’t often something needed for websites that have high authority ratings and already rank well for certain keywords. Tiered linkbuilding strategies are most useful to smaller website that are looking to get an initial foothold in a niche, and also for affiliate websites that don’t necessarily have a long life expectancy. For example; if you’ve got $1500 invested in an affiliate website that drives $2500/mo. in revenue for you—who cares if it gets penalized in 2 years? Sure you’ll be out your initial investment but you’d have made plenty in the meantime. For a site you’re investing tens of thousands of dollars in (like your business website) you might want to proceed with a higher degree of caution.
Casting A Wider Net
Tiered backlinking allows you to have a much larger contextual footprint than you could with natural backlinking strategies. Each article in your tiered structure can contain additional content that allows search engines to build a higher amount of relevancy with regards to your site. This can help you rank for many more related keywords than just the primary keywords you’ve been targeting. For example; your affiliate site’s article about Hiking Boots would benefit from a backlink from an article all about the best women’s hiking boots, water proof hiking boots, and maybe even the best hiking trails. These are all keywords that are related to your main keywords that would likely drive additional revenue for your. Sqeezing them all into a single article isn’t always doable—so linking from a related article helps out. This is the core principle of most internal linking strategies—links from other content on your website—but applies to offsite content as well. This type of strategy helps to rank for more Long-tail keyword variations of your primary keyword as well as build your website’s overall contextual footprint in the eyes of search engines.
Risk of Penalty
Creating links such as these is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and will always run the risk of penalization. More evolved algorithms have seemingly lowered the risk of penalty for these links for the time being but that could always change. Having zero impact is still an unfortunate outcome since it effectively means you flushed your resources down the toilet. One of the few absolutes in SEO is that things change. What gets you penalized today might be ignored tomorrow and what you can get away with today you might not be able to get away with tomorrow. For example, let’s say you built 2000 links to your website with an automated link-building tools that you thought were high quality. Hell, let’s even say they were high quality for such an approach. No matter how well your automated links work now—there’s likely to be some point in the future where they don’t. Google continues to develop their technology related to Search in such a way that favors high quality content and high quality links. If your SEO strategy involves anything other than those two approaches you need to recognize you’re taking a risk.
Reacting to Penalties
his turn of events might result in them simply being devalued but there’s always the chance they’ll pass along a penalty to your website. If you’ve all 200 of these links pointed directly towards your website than you’ve got to deal with 2000 different pieces. On the other hand, if all 2000 of those links had been directed to a single Web 2.0 site which then linked to your primary site—you’d only have to deal with that single link pointing to your site. This is what we refer to as a break point since it allows novel control over the flow of Page Rank throughout your link tiers. This can make you reaction to a slip in ranking much more nimble. Additionally, it can help you compartmentalize different campaigns to gauge overall SEO impact. For example, if your website is about kitchen appliances, you could build a second tier of 1500 links pointed to a single Web 2.0 link, supported by a third tier of 25,000 links pointed to your first 1500—all with the context of cupcake recipes. This would effectively allow you to gauge the effect that pursuing a campaign on cupcakes might have on your overall keyword footprint in the SERP. For example, if you were currently ranking for “best kitchen mixer”, such an approach might allow you to start ranking that same webpage for “best kitchen mixer for cupcakes”. If Google already knows your page is relevant to finding the best kitchen mixers, and then starts to recognize your site as being knowledgeable on cupcakes, it’s likely (we’re making this up as an example) to start showing your page to users looking for an answer related to both keywords.
This also brings up another consideration that should be made; if one main advantage of Tiered Backlinking can be found in the ability to remove certain backlinks if necessary—you probably shouldn’t be building risky backlinks to links you wouldn’t want to remove. For example, it’d be silly (in our opinion) to build a bunch of automated backlinks to a high quality Guest post on a niche relevant blog. You’d never want to lose that link, so you don’t want to do anything risky with it. In fact, tiered backlinking is ultimately just a way to exert more control over your backlink profile in such as way as to imitate the power of such high quality backlinks. Building automated backlinks to natural high quality backlinks would be like ordering a imitation Ferrarri body to put over the Chassis of an actual Ferrarri. The best case scenario is that you’ve spent additional resources to produce something you already had—the worst case being someone eventually recognizes that you don’t have a real Ferrari anymore.
Tiered Backlinking strategies allow the use of lower-quality links in such a way as to mimic the ranking power of higher-quality links while also lowering risk of penalty for taking such a shortcut. There’s no mistake—this is a link scheme that Google wouldn’t approve of. These strategies used to be very effective and could be done in a very cavalier manner. Millions upon millions of automated links could be built among tiers and would pass along a tremendous amount of Page Rank. Websites could be ranked in a matter of days for number 1 positions for very valuable keywords. Those days are long gone but the fundamental principles that allowed them to work in the first place still remain—building authority to backlinks helps pass along more authority to sites they link to.