The Definitive Guide To Understanding Link Building Psychology

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For decades, bloggers, marketers, and SEOs have been focusing on link building from a technical perspective – they talk about numbers, domain authority, anchor text, relevancy and a ton of other vanity metrics.

It’s easy to forget that your targets are real people on the other side of the screen; in fact, that’s why most people fail when it comes to link building.

In order to get better results, you need to take your link builder hat off and try to understand people. By taking this approach, you’ll be able to develop more effective campaigns.

That’s exactly why I decided to create this guide – to show you how psychology affects link building, and how you can use it to achieve better results.

Let’s rock and roll:

Link building psychology: The definitive guide

Chapter 1: Why do people link to other sites?

Chapter 2: The link building funnel

Chapter 3: The power of data

Chapter 4: The psychology of visual content

Chapter 5: Link triggers

Chapter 6: Outreaching techniques that work

Chapter 1: Why do people link to other sites?

Chapter One

The first thing you need to understand about link building is why people link to other websites. This way, you’ll be able to focus your energy more effectively, and although every person may have their own reasons, I’ve listed the most common ones below:

1) Reference material

When creating content, bloggers generally want to prove that what they’re saying is true. If your site has information that supports what the blogger in question is writing, he or she is very likely to link to your site.

As chapter 3 will cover, that’s exactly why data-driven content works better than the common blog post. Bloggers love to support what they’re saying with data. For example, case studies, scientific research, and experiments.

Ranking Factors

2) Social currency

(As chapter 5 will cover) The principle of social currency states that people generally want to look good – people care about what others say about them.

In simpler words, if your content makes others look good, they’re very likely to link to your site.

Let me explain:

Let’s say you’re a food blogger who constantly states the paleo diet is the best diet in the world, and one day you come across a scientific article that demonstrates that what you say about the paleo diet is completely true.

Would you link to that article?

I guess you would.

That’s exactly how social currency works.

When your content provides information that supports a certain conclusion, you’re very likely to get a ton of links. This is why it’s very important that you’re up to date with the industry news, trends, and angles. This way, you’ll be able to create content around such things.

3) Utility

People constantly link to stuff that will help their audience do specific things.

Here’s where freebies come in very handy. Things like calculators, customized spreadsheets, free plugins, software and so on, tend to collect a ton of backlinks (especially when they’re free).

For example, Content Row offers a free link bait title generator that allows you create compelling headlines within seconds.

Link Bait Generator

That single page has racked up over 400 backlinks from 141 different root domains.

Link Bait Generator Or Backlinks

4) Partnerships

One of the main reasons why bloggers link to other websites is to build relationships with other bloggers within their industry; thus, helping each other and growing faster.

By no means am I talking about link exchanging or any kinds of dirty practices. I’m talking about “reciprocity”.


Credit: Ciasf

Reciprocity helps you build healthy relationships with other bloggers. If they see you constantly use their content as a reference, they will be more likely to link yours too in the future.

5) Copyright guidelines

Sometimes, bloggers just link to other sites because they “must”.

For example, when a blogger shares a copyrighted image on their blog, he or she “must” link to the original author if they don’t want to get in trouble.


Credit: Convince and Convert

Additionally, although you need to first request permission from the author in order to use copyrighted material, more often than not, bloggers don’t ask for it; they just use the material and link back to the author’s site to get a clean conscience.

6) Disgust

It’s odd, but there are bloggers who constantly link to other sites just for the sake of defaming. For example, bad customer reviews, anger customers, or as a result of personal conflicts.

Bad Reviews

Credit: Shout ME Loud

But don’t worry; these kinds of links are not that bad.

Yes, they can hurt your brand, but they won’t definitely hurt your rankings.

By no means am I saying you should pursue these kinds of links just for the sake of better rankings, but often you wouldn’t be able to do anything about those links, so instead of fighting with those people, keep calm and let it be.

7) Controversy

When you challenge what most bloggers in the industry are saying, you’re very likely to get mentioned a lot (especially if you promote the hell out of your content).

For example, Derek Halpern (author of Social Triggers), created a post called: “The content is king myth debunked.”

Content Is King

There he stated that design is more important than content (challenging the popular belief of “content is king”). Derek used data, stats and facts to support what he was saying, so the post attracted a lot of attention.

In fact, over 160 root domains have linked to that piece of content.

Content Myth Links

That’s the power of controversy.

Now Listen:

The points I’ve just covered aren’t’ all the reasons why people link to other websites. As I said before, there may be a ton of other reasons, but the seven I mentioned above are generally the most common ones.

Make sure to take this information into account when designing your content marketing and link building strategy. This way, you’ll be able to achieve better results.

Further reading:

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Chapter 2: The link building funnel

Chapter Two

Have you ever heard about the conversion funnel?

It’s a technical term used in marketing to describe the path people follow from the moment they come across your product until they to convert into customers.

The conversion funnel is fragmented in three sections: TOFU (Top of the funnel), MOFU (Middle of The Funnel) and BOFU (Bottom of the funnel).

Conversion Funnel

In each section, people have a different behavior, so you need to use different strategies, languages and ways to treat people.

For example, when a person arrives on your site for the first time, you can say that the person is in the TOFU, or brand awareness stage.

On the other hand, if that same person decides to subscribe to your email newsletter, you could say that person has entered your MOFU or consideration stage.

Cool, but what does this have to do with link building? You ask.

Well, I’ve found that people react very similar when it comes to link building; before someone decides to link to your content, he or she follows a path from the moment they see your content to the moment he or she actually links to it.

I call it “The Link Building Funnel”.

This Funnel helps you determine the approach you need to take in order to get better results.

Here’s what I mean:

TOFU (Brand awareness stage)

In this stage, people start by researching — whether it’s for personal references or editorial purposes or even just for entertainment purposes. However, people are not familiar with your brand, so the likelihood to get a mention is very low.

Let me explain:

For example, let’s say you’re writing a blogpost on CRO (conversion rate optimization), and want to learn more about your topic, so you perform a search on Google and come across a website you’ve never seen before.

After reading the content on that post, you think it’s good, but want to see what other people are saying about the subject, so you go back to the search listings and click on another result, but this time, you’re familiar with the brand.

When it’s time to selecting the content you’re going to link to, you’re statistically more likely to choose the page you’re most familiar with – even if the content was the same.

That’s the bottom of the link building funnel.

How to approach this stage

In this stage, you should focus on building trust first, rather than getting backlinks. It doesn’t mean you won’t receive mentions; tough, but it’s not the most important factor.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to link building is to outreach to people who are in the bottom of their funnel – they’ve never heard of the link builder’s site, there’s no trust.

That’s why most people fail.

It’s much better to start by building trust first, and once people trust you, getting a mention will be much easier.

How can you build trust?

You can start by linking to your target’s websites. As chapter 6 will cover, people always react positively to positive acts. In addition, follow them on social media and become a part of their community. This will put you on their radars.

MOFU (Consideration Stage)

In this stage, people are more familiar with your content, they know the kind of articles you publish, your personal voice and the angle you take on the topics, so they’re more likely to link to your site if they find your content while researching.

Here’s where people remember the post they read on your site, and decide to mention you, or they find you on a search listing and recognize your brand, so you stand out from the other results.

How to approach this stage:

In this stage, your link building efforts will be more effective. As I said, people already know you, so you only need to put your content in front of them (outreaching) and they will do the rest.

Here’s where traditional link building tactics work best. If your content is good, getting a mention will be insanely easy.

BOFU (Selection)

In this stage, people are loyal followers of your site; they’re usually in your email list and sometimes skip the research process, and go directly to your site to see if you have content on the topic they’re writing.

When people are in this stage, they’re very likely to link to your content, and generally you don’t even need to ask for it. These people are also known as “brand evangelists”, and although this group is generally small, it’s what drives the most backlinks to your site.


Since people are very familiar with your content and like your style and tone, you don’t’ even need to ask for a link, but it doesn’t mean you can do nothing to improve results.

Here’s where incentives come in handy. You can thank every person who mentions your brand or create some kind of gift for your brand evangelists.

For example, Ana Hoffman– from Traffic Generation Cafe — publishes a weekly roundup called: “Weekly marketing skinny”. There, she mentions the blog posts where she has been cited recently.

That’s a great way to entice brand evangelists to keep spreading the word. In addition, this kind of strategy pushes people who are in the middle of your funnel to also start linking to your content.

Make sense?

Further reading:

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Chapter 3: The power of data

Chapter Three

As I covered earlier, people tend to link to websites that provide some kind of value for their audiences, so think about it:

What better way to provide value than creating content with a ton of stats and data bloggers can use as a reference?

As a matter of fact, recent studies have demonstrated that data-driven content generates 283% more backlinks than the common blog post.

Data Driven

That’s why case studies and infographics are so popular; they’re specifically narrowed to show data.

But you don’t need to take my word for it, let’s see some real world examples:

Brian Dean is one of the bloggers that constantly publish case studies. In fact, he recently published a post called: “SEO Campaign Case Study: 1,117 Social Shares and 15% More Organic Traffic (In 2 Weeks)”.

Data Driven Backlinko

That single post has generated over 600 backlinks from 31 different domains. That’s awesome, considering the blog post has been published for 2 weeks at that point.

Backlinko Case Study

But Brian Dean is not alone, just take a look at the following case study from Groove: “How We Got 1,000+ Subscribers from a Single Blog Post in 24 Hours”.

Groove Case Study

That Case Study generated over 80 backlinks from 57 different root domains:

Groove Links

Can you see the power of data?

Here’s another outstanding example from HubSpot. This time, they used data to create a compelling infographic that has racked up over a thousand backlinks from 36 different root domains.


The bottom line?

Make sure to include visible data within every piece of content you publish; this way you increase your likelihood to get more backlinks exponentially.

One extra tip:

Focus on sharing data that people can actually understand and apply in their own businesses and personal lives. Pure numbers are useless if people can’t understand what they mean.

Further reading:

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Chapter 4: The psychology of visual content

Chapter Four

In today’s world, people have a limited amount of attention. They’re constantly bombarded with thousands (literally) of advertising messages every day. If you don’t do something about it, it’s really easy to get buried in the ground under your competitor’s messages.

When it comes to link building, the same thing is happening.

Over two million blog posts are written and published every day, and if you don’t do something to stand out, your content will get buried. Therefore, nobody will link to it.

What can I do? You ask.

Well, you can start by simplifying your message. If people can understand what you’re trying to explain in your content, they will be more likely to link to it in the future.

Here’s where visual content comes in very handy.

According to some resources, our brain is wired to understand and retain visual content. In fact, our brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than just plain text.

Visual Content Facts

Awesome, right?

As a matter of fact, BuzzSumo recently ran an experiment where they analyzed over a hundred thousand blog posts from different sites, and they found an interesting pattern:

Average Shares

Blog posts that contained at least one image received more social shares (especially on Twitter and Facebook.)

What about backlinks? You ask; is visual content a tool that helps you attract more mentions?

Let’s see what experts say about it:

I’m sure you know who Neil Patel is, right?

He’s one of the most prolific marketers in the world.

Here’s what Neil says about visual content:

“Visual content pieces are generating more backlinks than any other form of content I publish, which—in the long run—help increase my search engine rankings and overall readership numbers.” – Neil Patel

Now, how can you get similar results?

Well, although there’s no “one-size-fits-all” kind of visual content, there are certain types that work better than others.

Listed here are the three types of visual content that I’ve had the most success with:

1) Video

Video is one of the most powerful ways to communicate a message in a simple, understandable way. As a matter of fact, several studies have demonstrated that video increases people’s understanding by 74%.

Video Marketing

So it’s not rare that videos constantly generate a ton of backlinks. If people can understand and apply the information you’re sharing, they’ll be more likely to remember your content and link to it in future blog posts.


According to Business 2 Community, videos generate 3 times more backlinks than content without video.

Video doesn’t work equally for all industries, though, so you need to analyze your competitors and see if they’re incorporating video within their content. If so, analyze what kind of topics they usually cover and start by modeling their strategy.

In addition, you should ask your audience if they’re interested in video content. This way, you’ll know whether videos can work for you or not.

Take into account that when it comes to video marketing, it’s very important that you add an embed code (when you’re hosting your videos on your own server), so people can easily embed your video in their sites.

Embed Code

Credit: Moz

2) Infographics

Infographics work extremely well when it comes to link building.

As a matter of fact, according to recent studies, infographics generate 37.5% more backlinks than a regular blog post.

That’s just awesome.

For instance, saying your average blog post is generating 30 backlinks; by adding infographics to your content, you could be able to increase that number to 41.

It makes sense:

We’ve discussed the power of data and its influence on building links, remember?

We’ve also talked about the power of visual information.

Infographics are powerful link magnets, because they combine both visuals and data, so bloggers can not only use them to support or prove conclusions, but also infographics allow people to interpret those data and actually understand the message.


Credit: kissmetrics

3) Images that explain your points

Infographics are not the only way to simplify a message. You can also use customized images within your content to explain what you’re trying to say.

These kinds of images don’t need to be fancy. For example, if you’re explaining to people how to do something, by adding screenshots of what people need to do in each step, you’re simplifying your message.


Credit: Convince and Convert

On the other hand, if you want people to understand an idea, you can use an image that exemplifies your idea.

Here’s where visual storytelling comes in handy. Try to use images that support what you’re saying and help readers understand the message and pay attention to your use of color too as this can have a huge impact.

Things like charts, mind maps, and niche clouds are good examples.

Niche Cloud

Credit: Backlinko

The bottom line?

Whether it’s a video, an infographic or just a graphic that explain your points, make sure to add at least one piece of visual content within your content. By taking this approach, you’ll find that more people actually understand your message, and more people will start linking back to your content.

Further reading:

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Chapter 5: Link triggers

Chapter Five

Contrary to popular belief, when a blog post collects a ton of backlinks, there’s no luck involved.

In fact, several studies have found that highly-linked content contains certain elements that evoke more people to actually link to it.

These psychological elements are called, “link triggers”. If you incorporate some of them to your website/content, your chances to get a link increase exponentially.

Here they are:

1) Content length

According to MOZ, there’s a direct correlation between the word count of a piece of content and the number of backlinks it attracts.

Content Length

Incredible, right?

It makes a lot of sense.

First, lengthy content contains more information, so it’s more likely that bloggers find what they’re looking for on long-form content.

Second, long content evokes a feel of awe, which is directly correlated with social sharing. According to Dr. Jonah Berger, high-arousal emotions (like awe) push more people to share stuff online.

High Arousal Emotions

Credit: TechTarget

There’s no “standard” length of content, though. It really depends on your audience.

For instance, if you’re in the B2B space, average content contains between 1,000 to 2,500 words, so in order to create long content, you should write more than 2,500 words.

But if you’re in the B2C space, average blog posts contain between 300 to 800 words; so in order to write long content, you should write more than 800 words.

Make sense?

2) Humor

As I mentioned in the last point, recent studies have found that high arousal emotions (especially positive emotions) push people to share content online.

And although those experiments were made to measure how emotions affect social sharing, the information can also be applied to link building, because social sharing and link building are one and the same — I mean, highly-shared content is commonly highly-linked too.

Correlation Shares And Links

That means if you incorporate elements to your content that make people feel good while reading it, they will be very likely to mention your brand in future content.


Credit: HubSpot

One of the best ways to evoke positive emotions to your readers is by using humor – adding content like memes, funny videos or images, or just telling a joke here and there increases your likelihood to get a mention.

3) Trust

Here’s the deal:

If people don’t trust you, they definitely won’t link back to your content – even if it’s good.

That’s odd, right?

That’s why it is very important that you focus on building trust signals, but don’t worry; it’s not that hard. As long as you follow the next guidelines, you’ll be ok:

First, pay attention to your website’s design. It’s the first thing people see when they arrive on your website — if your design sucks, you’re screwed.

As a matter of fact, InstantShift found that 5 out of 10 people will cite a website’s design as the main factor in deciding the credibility of a business.

That said, “You need to focus your attention on building a trusty website,” – don’t worry, you don’t need anything fancy, just focus on the following aspects:

  • Consistency on your brand’s colors
  • Don’t use more than 3 base colors
  • Keep updated with your design (style change over time)
  • Use digestible fonts
  • Make sure every element on your site works properly

In addition, focus on building brand signals. People are trusting brands more than ever. If you focus on creating a brand that resonates with your core audience, they’ll be more likely to trust you.

Second, be relevant. You need to make sure you’re providing the solutions your audience needs and wants.

That’s why audience research is very important. The more you know your audience, the more effective content you’ll provide – if your content isn’t relevant for your audience, you won’t be able to build trust.

Finally, be transparent. Honesty is the most important aspect when it comes to building trust.

Without integrity, all your business can collapse.

For instance, Pat Flynn (founder of Smart Passive Income) was the first blogger that published a “monthly income report” back in 2009.


That kind of thing helps people trust him.

Of course, you don’t need to publish your income every month, but you need to be transparent and honest with everything you do.

Remember, trust isn’t something that happens overnight. You need to keep consistency and patience, but once people trust you, there’s nothing that can stop you.

4) Utility

Last but not least, utility.

The more useful your content is, the more people will link to it.

Although there’s no exact science to creating useful content (it depends on your audience and industry) there are certain things you can do to increase its utility.

Here they are:

  • Create digestible content
  • Add information people can apply immediately
  • Create customized tools and resources, so people can get the most out of your content

Further reading:

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Chapter 6: Outreaching tactics that work

Chapter Six

Email outreach is one of the oldest link building methods, but make no mistake, its still one of the most effective ways to get dozens of high quality, relevant links.

The problem with outreaching is that most bloggers, marketers and SEOs approach it wrong – they just reach out to random people and spam them with their links; as I said earlier in this guide, they forget they’re talking to people.

If you really want to get results with email outreach, you need to learn how to speak to people.

Here are three psychological tactics that will help you get the most out of your outreaching campaigns:

Tactic # 1: Use the word “because”

A common mistake people make when outreaching busy people is to not be clear about what they want – they add too much fluff to their copy.

Remember, when a person receives an email, one question comes immediately to mind:

What does this person want?

By adding the word “because” within the first sentences of your email, influencers will react more positively. Why? Because you’re answering that question quickly.

It’s not just me saying this tactic works.

Dr. Scott Key did an experiment a few years ago. He analyzed a situation where a person is going to use a copy machine, and a stranger arrives and asks them if he can use the machine first.

The first person asked: Mind if I use the copy machine first? Only 6 out of 10 people said “Yes”.

But when the second person asked the same question, but added a reason why, the response was much better.

Here’s the second question: Mind if I use the copy machine before you because I’m in a rush? This time 9 out of 10 people say “Yes”.

That’s the power of the word “because”.

The good news is you can apply the same psychology within an email.

Here’s an example

Hey John,

I’m contacting you today because I’ve just read your blog post on SEO.

Great stuff! I really enjoyed it.

In fact, I’m also working on a blog post on SEO and would love if you give me some feedback on it.

Mind if send you the link?



As you can see, I added the word “because” at the very beginning of my email.

Tactic # 2: Get people to say “yes” immediately

According to Dale Carnegie, author of the book “How to Win Friends & Influence People”, when a person says, “No”, it’s very hard to change that person’s opinion.

Dale Carnegie

Credit: Famous Authors

It’s much more effective to make people say yes immediately when you start the conversation. This way, that person will be more likely to say yes again when you propose them a bigger commitment – like a link back to your site.

But, how can I apply this information to create more compelling emails?

I’m glad you asked.

The first step is to research the person you’re going to contact, and try to find things about their personal life. For example, where he or she lives, things they like and even things they despise.

You’re going to use this information to build rapport very quickly and get your target to say yes immediately.

There’s a Gmail plugin you can use to streamline the research process; it’s called, Rapportive.


Once you’ve installed the plugin, every time you write an email, Rapportive will show you the information of the person in question.

Rapportive 2

Try to find interesting points and make a list of them.

Now, it’s time to craft your email.

There’s no exact science to get people to say yes, but the easiest way to do it is by asking strategic questions.

For example, if you find that your target is passionate about basketball, you could structure your email the following way:

Hey John,

Happy Monday!

I noticed you’re a basketball fan, right? (Since he actually is a basketball fan, he will say “YES” in his mind)

By starting your email with that kind of question, people will start the conversation in a positive way, and they will be more likely to say “yes” when you ask for a link.

Here’s another example:

Hello Carol,

I was searching for information on SEO this morning when I came across your AWESOME post: “10 ways to optimize your articles for SEO”.

Great stuff! I immediately noticed you put lots of efforts into creating it, didn’t you? (Again, this person is very likely to say “Yes” in her mind)

Anyway, I’ve just published a blog post on SEO last week and I think you’d enjoy it.

Can I send you a link? (Carol is more likely to say “yes”).



Tactic # 3: Reciprocity

There’s a psychological principle called, “Reciprocity”. It states that people always pay back to a positive action with another positive action.

For instance, when a company provides a relevant, informative newsletter to their subscribers, they are more likely to reciprocate by making a purchase or contacting the company’s services.

On the other hand, when you constantly link to other people’s content, they’re likely to pay you back by linking to your content too.

That’s how reciprocity works.

The good news is:

When it comes to email outreach, you can apply the same psychology.

If you start by showing the benefits, the other person will have if she or he decides to accept your offer, your likelihood to receive a positive response will increase exponentially.

It’s like SEO expert Lyndon Antcliff puts it: “You have to outline how I will benefit, not only how you will feel”.

By taking this approach, you’ll notice that more people react positively to your emails, and ultimately you’ll get better results.

Further reading:

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Over to you

When it comes to online marketing – whether it’s link building, conversion rate optimization or traffic acquisition – you need to remember that you’re talking to human beings, and the better you understand people, the better results you’ll get.

That’s why psychology plays a very important role in every successful marketing campaign. Instead of focusing 100% of your attention on the “hows”, start spending more time trying to understand the “whys”.

That way, you’ll be able to craft more compelling messages and your link building efforts will be more effective.

What other psychological tactics do you know to get more backlinks?

Related reading: 4 White-Hat Link Building Methods That Aren’t A Complete Waste Of Time.

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Josue Valles

Josue Valles is a content marketing evangelist, strategist and die-hard entrepreneur. He constantly blogs about Inbound Marketing, SEO and Social Media Marketing at Engagebit. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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