SEO – three letters that either put dollar signs in your eyes, or instill the fear of a heavy handed media monolith in you. For those who’ve been tooling around with SEO long enough to forget, it actually stands for something– search engine optimization– and it’s been lauded as the best (and only) way to get recognition in Google’s coveted search engine. Methods of attaining SEO have varied over the years according to how savvy online entrepreneurs have gotten to Google’s rules of ranking.

One cheque that hasn’t been fully cashed, however, is the backlink (a link back to your site from another domain).

There’s no question that getting backlinks is still recognized as one of the most valuable SEO strategies to gain rank in Google. According to Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, “link building will still be relevant for the foreseeable future. Google has experimented with search results that do not use links as part of the ranking algorithm, and in its tests, links consistently and significantly boost the relevance and overall quality of its search results.”

The real question is where those links are coming from, and how to go about getting them.

Lots has been said about which practices are fair game when it comes to achieving higher rankings and carrying out a successful SEO strategy. General consensus supports the idea of good old fashioned quality content lending itself well to organic linking, while also avoiding any link trickery that’ll most certainly get you the axe by Google. But the “build it and they will come” mantra isn’t always as easily done as it is said.

Here, I’ll go through the do’s and don’ts of gaining backlinks, and the best way to create content that’ll land you organic links.

Google’s rule book

Google’s algorithm changes might be a mystery, but the company is generally transparent when it comes to outlining what is deemed an acceptable SEO practice, making those rules openly available in its Quality Guidelines.

Below are some of its biggest no-no’s when it comes to a backlinking practice, and what you should do instead to build up your ranking with backlinks.

1. Don’t: Link exchange

One of the biggest red flags for Google is when two companies agree to backlink to each other in what’s known as a link exchange. Saying “Hey, I’ll put your link here if you put mine there” is massively frowned upon by Google, and doing this excessively will dock you points in Google’s books. It’s not just links though– Google will penalize you for anything resembling an “exchange”, whether that be a link in exchange for a piece of content, for a free product, or even for money.

The same can be said of creating an overtly positive piece of content in the hopes of pitching it to get a strategic backlink after the fact. If this borderline advertorial content is detected by Google as a backlink scheme, it could be a blow to your ranking.

Do: Outreach

Having said that, it is okay to do outreach both before and after a blog post has been written if it’s done in a natural way. Before writing an article, you might reach out to someone as a resource or contributor to add weight or credibility to the piece. Once the piece is complete, that person will be much more likely to amplify or link to it because they’ve provided useful insights and information about the field that they’re the most familiar with, getting more visibility for their efforts while providing you with SEO benefits.

As Steve Rayson from BuzzSumo notes: “in researching your content you can also consider who will help amplify your article and why people will want to link to it. I generally think people don’t spend enough time thinking about amplification of their content from outreach to paid promotion.”

Social media is a great way to get engaged with someone before writing a piece, putting yourself on their radar so that when it does come time to reach out, they’ll recognize your active engagement with them or their brand. From there, post-article engagement becomes a lot easier. Something as simple as tweeting at a person, company, or brand mentioned in your article could get you that coveted backlink, as long as the content is of a high quality.

Another strategy is to look for sites which have already mentioned you, but haven’t linked to your site. Reaching out to recover that link is common practice for marketers, and there’s even software to help you find out where those missing links are.

2. Don’t: Do excessive guest blogging

Guest blogging used to be all the rage in the quest for backlinks, but Google has since become privy to its abuse, tightening up its rules for what’s considered acceptable guest blogging over the past few years. Matt Cutts, a longtime Google engineer and head of web spam, has extensively outlined on his own blog the problem with guest blogging.

For starters, he says, plain and simple, that guest blogging is not a good link-building strategy.

With the advent of content marketing has come the onslaught of very mediocre content, and guest blogging has become one of the biggest culprits. Not only can the content itself be quite thin, but it’s often salesy and filled with links. Some guest bloggers have even been known to pitch and publish the same guest blog to multiple sites with minor, if any, changes to the content, while others just stuff the post with their own links in the hopes of passing on PageRank.

Its these practices that Google has cracked down on.

Writing (or accepting) a guest blog post filled with links trying to pass PageRank either for an exchange of money or content is considered a spammy practice by Google, and when that’s the case, Google simply won’t count those links.

Do: Strategic guest blogging

Despite a lack of quality guest blogging, however, not all guest blogging is bad. The original idea of writing a guest blog post was to get someone who knew more about a certain topic than you or your pool of writers to contribute their knowledge to your blog. When these expert contributions are done well, they can add value and visibility to your blog.

The biggest problem is that in the online land of self-professed experts, gurus, and evangelists,

it can be hard to determine who exactly can live up to their own holier than thou standards. If you’re getting pitches for guest bloggers, the key is to do some research into who’s pitching the post and for which site, whether it’s a unique angle on a topic, and especially if it might already be online somewhere.

If you’re looking for a specific piece of content, it’s better to reach out to known experts in the field to write about it rather than to wait for a great pitch to come rolling in– most ‘experts’ won’t be hawking their content like a door-to-door salesman.

If you’re the one doing the pitching, remember Google’s rules about spammy links, and try to pitch a new or interesting angle on something– the more interesting the post, the likelier it is to not only get published on a reputable site, but also to get get organic links. As Matt Cutts has pointed out, if you’re guest blogging for links, best practice means that they should be ‘no-follow’ links.

The point is to participate in guest blogging on an ad-hoc basis when it’s relevant, authoritative, and from a reputable source that couldn’t be mistaken for spam.

3. Don’t: Write for search

As an acronym, SEO literally means optimizing content for search engines, but the interpretation of what SEO-friendly content is is quickly changing. What once used to be all about finding the right keyword and putting it in as much as possible, is now considered poor practice. Known as keyword stuffing, Google has become much savvier at detecting if and when keywords appear too frequently and unnaturally in a text. It’s even worse if the page is stuffed with keywords that aren’t relevant to the user. Google penalizes any form of trickery in the hopes of ranking, and this is one of its biggest no-nos.

It’s true that there should be some keyword consideration when writing a piece, but if the text is written around a keyword, instead of optimized for it, the result is a pretty transparent attempt at ranking, and a piece that’s much less likely to get organic links.

On that same note, consider what your main goal is when writing a piece. If you’re trying to rank for a keyword, you probably won’t have the same strategy as if you’re writing for backlinks, especially when it comes to promotion.

As William Harris from DollarHobbyz.com says, “sometimes the goal is getting links, other times it’s impressions, shares, traffic, whatever – but having that plan in place will help you craft a piece that will more easily execute on your goal.”

Do: Write for humans

It’s been said time and again by Google, bloggers, and (real) SEO experts that the best way to get content ranked by Google and linked to from other sources is content that’s high quality and produced for real people.

There’s debate over what high quality content actually look like, but there is general consensus over a few factors that help contribute to high content quality.

As Steve Rayson from BuzzSumo says, “the indications are that people link to authoritative content, reference-style content which tends to be evergreen, helpful and valuable content, long form and comprehensive content, and exceptional content. I suppose I see these content types as cornerstone content for sites i.e. every month or two you need to produce cornerstone content.”

William Harris also points explicitly to data as a big plus for creating authoritative and valuable content. “Good data is hard to replicate,” he says. “Anyone can spew out their opinions, but if you have solid data to back up what you’re saying, it makes your story much more compelling. If you’re the one producing that data, you’ll get a lot more organic links.”

Of course, the ideation of what type of content to produce should always begin with the user in mind too, looking not only at what people are searching for, but at how you can produce content that fulfills their needs. The big idea here is to write for humans, not machines.

As Rayson goes on to say, “it seems like the ongoing development of Google’s algorithms including RankBrain will mean that Google will continually improve its ability to identify content that is valuable to the person searching. Thus creating content that is valuable to your audience should be your focus.

The future of SEO

Google’s getting smarter. RankBrain, it’s machine learning algorithm, has one goal: to match people with the search results that they’re actually looking for. It takes over 200 factors into account, and no matter how much you try to manipulate your ranking, at the end of the day, Google’s AI will almost always outsmart you.

It’s easy to become tempted into using poor SEO practices in order to get backlinks in the short term, but you’ll eventually be penalized. Building up authority and getting organic backlinks requires playing the long game, and although that might mean a slow start, you’ll eventually reap the rewards.

It’s exciting to think that content is returning to a pre-SEO “gaming” state where you can find what you’re actually looking for without having manipulated content or loosely-defined ads shoved down your throat. Although it might take time to completely weed out the good and the bad, if you want your content to be part of the good crowd of content, then it’s best to play by Google’s rules.