Link Building in Tough Markets


While the truth about link building is that many search markets (particularly local) are still really easy to crack with some fairly unsophisticated tactics, other markets are notoriously tough to build links in, either due to their extreme competitiveness (like insurance) or the stigma attached to them (like gambling). In this post I want to share my experiences of working in tough markets and some tips to planning and running your link building campaigns when it seems the world is against you and your site.

Firstly, what do I call a tough market? Well some of the markets I’ve run link campaigns in which I’ve considered tough would be:

  • Gambling, casinos, poker etc
  • High value financial products like insurance, credit cards, loans
  • Travel (at the uber generic end of the keyword market- think terms like ‘flights’ or ‘holidays’)
  • Dating
  • Pharmaceuticals

And there’s really 3 main acid tests of the ‘toughness’ of a search marketplace:

  • Keyword competition – how many people are competiing for the same pool of keywords.
  • Keyword value – the most valuable keywords are going to be the most heavily promoted with SEO, looking at CPC data from Adwords is a great indicator of this. If companies are willing to spend £25/ click (like in credit cards) then you can bet its pretty valuable to be at number 1 in the organic listings for that term.
  • The bargepole test. If you were a webmaster and someone from this site asked you to link, would you be happy for your site to ‘touch’ theirs? For example most webmasters are scared stiff of linking to the 3 p’s (porn, pills and poker sites) because of their association with spamming. This makes link building tricky.

OK so we know we’re in a tough market but what can we do about it? You can’t get rankings without links in competitive search markets so you need to find a way of building some decent links.

The tough markets problem can really be seperated into two groups with quite distinct difficulties:

Problem 1: The competition is too powerful

Most people are OK to link to your site if they have good reason (this might be money or great content) but the market is so saturated by big players with 7 figure SEO budgets you need literally tens of thousands of quality links to compete.

Example: Car insurance – have over 1/4 million backlinks

Problem 2: The market is too dirty

Other websites won’t link to you because of the industry you’re in regardless of how good your content is or how much you pay them. However the top ranking competition in this market do not have a  particularly strong portfolio of links (usually they just have a lot of them)

Example: Casinos – have nearly 300,000 links but most of them aren’t anything special (relatively speaking)

The truth is you rarely see an market or a set of keywords where the two problems are compounded. I guess this is because everyone’s in the same boat. The worlds best link builders struggle in dirty markets so building lots and lots of high quality links to an online casino or poker site is basically impossible for anyone.

Where to start

Below is a rough guide for how I’d start a link building campaign in one of these markets.

1. Competitor analysis

I personally like to start with some really good competitor analysis. Not looking for individual link targets at first but rather getting a feel for the general patterns and trends in the backlink profiles of the guys who are ranking well already. What I’m really trying to do at this stage is get inside the heads of your competitors link builder. What tactics do they favour, what tricks are they using?

2. Target setting

Although setting targets for a link building campaign can be a bit like blind fire you need to get a sense of how many links you’re going to need and from what sources. Linkscape‘s mosTrust scoring is pretty useful for this type of analysis.

3. Resourcing

What link building resources you have available in your team are going to define what tactics you are able to use. For example if you don’t have a video guy and don’t have the cash to get one in then video is probably out. Identify all the link building tactics which you have the capabilities and budget to do (and do well). Don’t worry at this stage whether you think they’ll work or not in your market, its easy to be overly dismissive at this stage and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

4. Brainstorming

In order to promote your website effectively you need to understand why it exists and for what reason Google should rank it high for your chosen keywords. For example, what makes my car insurance comparison site better than

From here you can develop ideas for content or online PR around your brand. This is much easier to do if you’re working with an established brand with a strong offline presence.

5. Find examples

Next you need to sense check your list of tactics against what your competitors are doing. For example if you think paid links could work well look for examples of where your competitors have used this tactic and see how effective it has been. If you are looking at riskier tactics you’ll also want to do some due diligence at this stage as to whether an competitors are picking up penalties for any of the tactics they’ve used.

6. Prioritise tactics

Now based on this research and your own experience take your list of tactics and put them in order of how effective you think they will be at achieving your goals.

For example I usually find guest posting more effective than article syndication, a few competitors are using guest posting and we have some cool ideas for content we could develop- therefore guest posting would come before article syndication on my tactics plan.

7. Planning

Finally assign resources and costs to each tactic and set goal specific targets. You’ll definitely want to be using a range of tactics for any link building campaign in a tough market so your goals might look something like-

  • Guest posting – find 30 blogs to publish unique content with an average PageRank of 2
  • Article marketing – Publish 10 quality articles with an average of 25 backlinks/ article
  • Paid links – buy 100 links from sites with a mozTrust of 3+

8. Timing

Before you begin implentation you should also set a timeframe for link building activity to keep your growth profile as natural as possible. In tough markets people will be watching and if you’re doing anything even slightly off white you need to be very careful about taking it slow.

What works and what doesn’t?

You really need to analyse this on a case by case basis and use your own skills to their fullest. There’s always more than one way to crack these markets if you’re good enough at the tactics you favour the most. Its quite surprising what tactics still seem to work, particularly when you get deeper into the ‘dirty’ industries. Here’s my quick rundown of what I know about link building these industries just to get you started. Please feel free to leave your own experience/ advice in the comments.

Gambling, casinos, poker etc

Paid links are still massive, pretty much all the top ranked guys still have heavy paid link footprints but they’re also the biggest brands so its hard to know if its the paid links or the few genuine value earned links which are delivering the rankings.

High value financial products like insurance, credit cards, loans

The bigger brands are doing more online PR work now. Its much harder for affiliates to compete in this space now. These guys used to use a lot of co-op type links but that doesn’t seem to have the impact it used to

Travel (at the uber generic end of the keyword market- think terms like ‘flights’ or ‘holidays’)

In travel there’s no excuse not to be doing clever content based link building. There’s countless articles, videos, photos or tools you could create to attract organic links in this market and plenty of people ready to link out so get creative.


Has got really competitive since the national newspapers all got heavily into branded dating sites. Small players used to use a lot of link exchange and sourced low quality links cheaply from adult sites. I can’t see this kind of thing working now. If I was getting into this market today I would probably use blogging and affiliates to build links.


Bait and switch tactics were always absolutely rife in this industry and these still seem to be working to some extent looking at the top sites on popular terms. Exact match domaining combined with cheap directory submission tactics also seem to work still, as does comment spamming. Needless to say you’ll want to stay clear of any of the latter, these are mostly suicide sites which won’t be around in a few weeks. If I was running a reputable pharmaceuticals campaign I’d concentrate on getting a few really trusted links from trade bodies and suppliers then use something low risk like quality article distribution to increase link volume and improve anchor text.

Ok I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with this post, I could talk for days about researching, planning campaigns and the tactics to use but I’ve got to go build some links now:-)