How not to request backlinks for SEO purposes

In the past 10 years, I’ve been bombarded with requests for backlinks. All of them except for one, which I accepted this year, have been ignored.

But why? And why did that one special request get my attention and a link?

Read on, I’ll tell you.

How most people request backlinks now (2022-ish)

Since Neil Patel began publishing his methods for getting backlinks, the numbers of people using his method have steadily increased.

They go and do some research, like this.

And then they copy and paste Neil Patel’s words, which he wrote here, and send out a bunch of emails.

Now, while Patel did the usual thing and told everyone to be nice, to not spam people, and so on, very few people are savvy enough to know what this means.

What they do is they take his words almost verbatim. They copy them into an email template. And then they smash out a whole lot of emails all at once that look ‘personalised’.

They’re not personalised by very much. True personalisation means understanding the audience and doing what it takes to draw that audience in; to help them to appreciate you, and to trust you.

Patel’s work doesn’t do this.

It is a high-churn, impersonal and rubbish way of getting links.

If you take his knowledge (yes, backlinks are godly) but you do it differently, then your positive results will go through the roof. I’ll show you why.

Links are never links, always content

The trouble with backlinks in 2022 is that requests are rarely requests for a link. They’re usually requests for content.

What’s the difference? I’m glad you asked.

One is a link to another page, like this one to my About page. The other is an article that someone else has written, which contains backlinks to their own page (and probably a by-line, to boot).

Both of them are types of content. Both of them have audiences. Both of them have a purpose. Both of them have to be contextually appropriate, useful, and beneficial. That benefit has to be to both the owner of the website and to the audience.

What these requests (nearly) always look like

These requests typically look something like this:

Example of a real request

But it’s got problems.

Here is why I would never respond to that

There are a couple of things about the request that miss the mark. The request above doesn’t do any of the following:

  • identify why this person would be any good at writing for my site
  • identify what types of articles they are
  • identify whether the content is unique
  • tell me anything about the content in any way: Length, topic, nature, argument, fit with the site, fit with my audience, etc etc
  • tell me anything about the links
  • tell me anything about their own website
  • tell me why I’m a good fit for them
  • tell me why I should give them my link juice
  • tell me about their budget, or give me a business case of any kind…

I could go on.

It’s a rubbish request. Yep, it’s polite. But it’s also totally self-serving and spammy.

Just don’t do it.

How to request backlinks instead

The best way to request backlinks is to focus entirely on the person at the other end and that person’s community.

It’s important to support yourself (meaning: It’s important to be at least a little bit self-serving). But what is even more important to do when approaching someone with a cold request is to show them why it’s a great deal.

The internet was built on reciprocity

When I was first using the internet, which began for me in about 1994 (yes, I’m that old), the virtual world was built on reciprocity.

This meant that a link request was always a reciprocal link request. If your request was going to be successful, you had to do what amounted to ‘swapping’ links. I give one to you, you give one to me. And you do it in a public and useful way, which is auditable.

At that time, there was also a phenomenon known as the webring. These were ‘circles’ of websites that were about similar topics or themes. You go into one, you can access the others through a special link. They were amazing for surfacing content. But the very best thing about them was that they often kept information within themselves. You’d find one entry point and then from there discover the others. If you worked your way through the ring, you’d eventually come back to where you began. Geocities was amazing for it! But the thing about them was that they were an example of a community built on reciprocity: Sharing information, sharing access.

Why reciprocal links are so much more powerful

Reciprocal links are so much more powerful than one-off links because they build doorways that go both ways. This means that it’s valuable to both parties: They each have an interest in building traffic, because that link juice benefits both parties.

When both parties benefit, both work for each other. And each one grows as a result.

When a good reciprocal situation is created, both sites provide more value to a person visiting the site. On the one hand, a link offers value because it gives a doorway to a new location. And that new location adds value to the visitor because it’s a perfect fit. The same works in reverse.

Plus, the owners of each site feel good about it! It’s not about making their own sites better. It’s about making the internet a better place for their own visitors.

See the difference?

Here is a request I received that I said YES! to:

Here is a generic email that I received:

First things first: It is not personalised. Even though Adam could have used my name, he didn’t. I didn’t care.

I didn’t care because he presented a business case. He told me:

  • where he’s from
  • what his site’s problem is
  • who his competitors are
  • what he’s looking for
  • the name of his site
  • the URL of his site

He also left this entirely in my court by asking would you see such a possibility?

What this did was encourage me to go looking, to find out for myself. He gave me a link to the website, so I did go and look.

When I did, I realised that his site was bloody good. In fact, I even started thinking that I might be able to leverage it myself. This was an indication to me that it was a good fit.

Thus, I went back to Adam with some suggestions, we discussed it, and then we ended up in a reciprocal linking situation.

Bam! Community built, value on both sides. Both of us were happy with link placement and link text. And on we go.

How do you respond to a link or content request?

If you get a purely selfish content-or-link-placing request, you can do one of two things:

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Reply with a list of questions (or a link to a form they have to complete) that forms a business case.

You’ll never be able to tell if it’s a genuine request unless you get more information.

In my experience, not one requester will come back to you with more information. This is particularly the case when you ask:

  1. For detail about the content or link: Topic, theme, nature, target audience, uniqueness, the capability of the writer (in terms of years’ experience), etc.
  2. For detail about the writer (who you are, why you’re important, how experienced you are, why you’re the best writer for this piece you want to place), etc.
  3. For detail about fit with the publication (why this audience, why this site, how is it a good fit, why will it benefit them), etc.
  4. For detail about their budget, in meaningful figures.
  5. For information about potential reciprocity.

Treat your website as if it is a printed magazine. You are the publisher. You’ve got an audience, a place in the world, a theme, a ‘business’. Act like it.

If you get a request like Adam’s above, go do your research. Then formulate your questions (if you have any) and get into a discussion. But honestly, requests like his are so rare. I’ve received only this one in 10 years.

Some suggestions for processes you can put in place for your own website

A great process that works well for me is this one. You’re welcome to steal it and use it for yourself:

  1. Decide the questions you need to ask to evaluate the value of a request
  2. Put in place a web form (I like Gravity Forms for this).
  3. Direct requesters to the form.

If you decide you’d accept promotional content, establish a fee and do not vary it. If someone wants the space badly enough, they’ll pay you. Just make sure you’re running your business properly (as discussed above).

Beyond this, do your own research.

One of my clients once got a flattering request from someone asking for links. She was about to throw him all of her link juice. Then I went and looked for this guy.

It turned out that he had 5 social media followers, a website that was half-built, and he was attempting to ride on the backs of other, established businesses. When I presented this to my client, she was horrified – but only because she would have simply gush an enthusiastic YES.

To a nobody.

To a nobody with no clarity, no career direction, just a lot of mouth.

Y’know, mouth is useful. But if you’re a link-seeker, better that you actually have in place what you brag about because others will check.

What should you do now?

You can do one of two things:

If you’re managing a site that gets these requests, create your own policy for either link-seeking or link (or content)-accepting. Stick to it like glue! Your site is valuable, otherwise you wouldn’t be getting these requests. Treat it like the precious gem it is.

If you’re looking to build backlinks, do the extra work for reciprocal links. Hell, take a shot at building your own webring. It’s better to do that than to build yet another marketplace, amirite?

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2 thoughts on “How not to request backlinks for SEO purposes

  1. I get dozens of these requests every week, and it’s clear they’re all working from a template, but I didn’t know where the template came from. Now I do. But I’ve been getting new, weird link requests recently: they want me to put a link to their website in my Twitter profile (!?) Since a social media profile allows very limited characters, I found this amazingly selfish and ridiculous. Why would anybody give their own profile to a complete stranger? For no money or perks of any kind? Does anybody do this?

    1. Hi Anne,
      Wow that is amazingly selfish. Unfortunately, I suspect that people must allow it or the practice would disappear pretty quickly. I find that many people are often flattered simply by the request, because the attention is rare (and perhaps hoped for).

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