Why most brands fail at link building: Top 5 mistakes

Why most brands fail at link building: Top 5 mistakes

Competitive spaces are competitive for a reason. 

Money. Mullah. Dinero. 

That works in two ways: 

  • Lots of money to make, with oodles of demand and lucrative payouts, but…
  • Also, lots of money your competitors have to splash the cash to outbid and outrank you.

They can spend it on hard costs like pushing CPCs through the roof. 

Or on soft costs like savvy operators who’re scrappy and ambitious – producing more, better marketing assets to create a competitive moat to keep you out. 

Lots of good content is one example. But then the other is links.

Here’s why most brands fail at link building and how to build high-quality links month after month after month.

Sure. I guess, if you’re in a low-to-no competition space, like pet food niche sites or something, you might not need to build links for long-tail, tiny keywords.

But guess what? There’s a reason there’s “no competition” (read: there’s also low-to-no money, either).

Take any big, competitive, juicy, profitable space like finance.

I took a list of 1,000 popular finance keywords, then grouped them based on the following Ahrefs data:

  • Keyword difficulty range.
  • Referring domains per page (for the top SERP).

What you’ll see holds true for other similar spaces. There’s a bell curve. 

While some keywords are not too difficult, and others are incredibly difficult, most fall in the middle.

That means, on average, you’re looking at a keyword difficulty range of ~30-60 with around ~50-200 referring domains per page.

Keyword difficulty range and referring domains per page

Let me say that again:

~50-200 referring domains (or backlinks). Per page.

So, if you can’t reliably build/attract/acquire ~50-200 external links for each individual article or page you want to rank, you’ll never, in a million years, be able to compete in a profitable space.

In competitive spaces, you need both quality and quantity to succeed.

Take a big juicy commercial keyword like “how to make a website.” Peep this SERP:

“how to make a website” search results

The lowest DR on that page is 76, while four of them are 90+.

The lowest number of referring domains to each page is 56, while the average is “several hundred” or higher.

So, how do you expect to ever compete with these brands? These DR ranges? Or the number of referring domains to one page on your site?

The answer? You don’t.

Not unless you can scale both quality and quantity of links. One vs. the other isn’t good enough. 

Not in a red ocean bloodbath like this.

Average and small-time marketers think links will show up magically on their doorstep.

If you build it, they will come. They say.

Ah, to be that young and naive again. Maybe if you’re HubSpot or Coca-Cola or American Express, it might be true.

But for all of us other mere mortals? 

Ain’t gonna happen.

Let’s take another lucrative example, the commercial keyword “best project management software.” 

Ahrefs estimates you’ll need ~273 links just to compete for the first page.

Commercial keyword “best project management software” 

Now. These are just estimates. 

Many other factors, like the quality of said links or your domain rating or topical authority, etc. mean you might need more (or less).

But the point is sound. 

You think that ~273 links are just going to magically show up on your heavily commercial product comparison page? 

Ha! Fat chance.

So instead of just trying to blatantly buy links, like a chump, you need to figure out what other potential link partners might actually want or need from you in exchange.

That typically boils down to three things…

  • Money: Think of a content site that needs advertisers.
  • Content/Assets: Think of a brand that needs creative assets.
  • Visibility: Think of an influencer that needs your audience.
What do they need?

In other words, what are your own assets or core competencies that you can leverage to help someone else out first

Before asking to return the favor.

Then, you’ll get links. Lots and lots of them. Consistently.

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OK, so you know you need to build links by this point.

They won’t just magically show up, unfortunately.

But here’s the problem:

Most marketers still try to apply the wrong link tactics at the wrong time. Which limits their success, squanders resources, and, once again, keeps them poor.

Cold outreach is a perfect example. In most industries, outside the unsophisticated and broke ones, cold outreach typically only works on lower DR (read: smaller) sites.  

How about high DR (read: big) sites? You need warm tactics, a foot in the door, a referral, or something they need.

Scale vs. quality.

Where people get this wrong is by doing the wrong tactic at the wrong time.

They try cold outreach on large sites while wasting precious time looking for warm intros on small sites.

Instead, you should be thinking about link building tactics or strategies as a sliding scale.

Take small DR or DA sites on the left, with the largest DR or DA sites on the right.

In between, within ranges, there are generally different strategies you can employ.

For instance, break down the following DR/DA ranges:

Websites - DR and DA ranges
  • Under 30: These will actually come naturally if you’re doing your job correctly. So don’t bother actively chasing.
  • ~30-60: Here’s your cold outreach sweet spot, where smaller, less savvy webmasters and site owners will naturally reply and link out.
  • ~60-90: The jaded, knowledgeable people running these sites have a higher bar and have seen all your cold outreach templates before, so prioritize giving them creative assets or content or bartering partnerships to scratch each other’s back
  • Over 90+: At the top of the top, you need personal relationships, a strong network, or a big budget for content syndications, sponsorships or donations, and more.

Is this perfect? Are these universal rules? No. 

But they’re mostly accurate for most sites in most competitive spaces. Most of the time.

Marketers ruin everything.

Take list posts like this one. Always a classic. Never go out of style.

Until marketers everywhere ruin the format by producing giant list posts that are literally useless.

“1,093,394,560 link building tactics” posts are the absolute worst. 


Because not only are they misguided, but they actually give you a false sense of belief.

No, you don’t need a few thousand different link building tactics. You don’t even need a dozen. 

You just need ~2-3 legit ones to start.

And then you need to double down as often as humanely possible.

Take Candor, who struck gold during the pandemic with their hiring freeze database (this was the OG-layoffs.fyi)…

Candor - hiring freeze database

Which was then picked up by major media, like VentureBeat:

Candor - Venturebeat

Now, put yourself in these shoes.

You just literally hit a link building goldmine with proprietary data + linkable assets.

Should you now switch gears for some classic 404, broken link building outreach emails?

Of course not! 

You go back to the well and continue producing new, related proprietary data + linkable assets, as fast as possible, until you drop dead at your keyboard.

That’s how you win in link building. 

Not by chasing shiny things that are overplayed or cliche or worn out or commoditized.

Mistake 5: Prioritizing the wrong pages at the wrong times

It’s true.

Big brands are ranking for more and more stuff across categories they seemingly have no business ranking in, with fewer and fewer links required.

Is that right? No. 

But is this the real world we all live and compete in? Yes.

We can complain and point fingers. Or we can double down.

Big brands don’t need to build links to low competitive pages often because their topical authority + content quality + internal links often help them squash little competitors.


The other thing big brands understand is how to become a big brand. Meaning: how to prioritize link building strategies by link targets and pages on their site. 

For instance: 

  • Homepage: Brand building! A rising tide lifts all boats, so building brand recognition should constantly be a top priority for the rest of time.
  • Commercial/product/service pages: Almost nobody (sane) links to these “naturally” (see point #2 above). So, you have to get creative and help others see the value or get creative and get them to scratch your back so you can scratch theirs.
  • Pillar pages: Focus on the most competitive query in a hub and spoke content web, usually with some commercial intent, and then spreading the love with internal links down to child pages.

Now, what don’t you see up there? Links to long-tail, typically TOFU-type pages.


Resource allocation. Big brands focus on those three categories above and, if done properly, can build topical authority and use internal links to naturally rank longer-tail, less commercial stuff.

If you’re a new or small site? Then yes, you need to start somewhere. That probably means links to long-tail stuff.

But the pros move beyond this point ASAP. 

They add all the points we’ve made here and focus on both high quantity + high quality link building strategies to these key pages to scale in a fraction of the time amateurs do.

Balancing quantity and quality in link building

That’s your challenge.

That’s why link building is hard. But also why it pays off handsomely if done correctly.

And that’s what separates the pros from the amateurs who routinely make these same five mistakes.

Link building is often misunderstood.

On one end of the spectrum, people think it’s illegal. Don’t worry, it’s not.

Yet on the other, they simply think they don’t need it. Also not true.

The truth, like most things in life, is actually somewhere in the middle.

This nuance is what separates the pros from everyone else. It’s why they can consistently grow small sites into big ones, time after time, like the song says.

They understand how to apply leverage to the right tactics, at the right time, from the right sites, to get the right types of links, to the right pages on their site.

No tricks or gimmicks or silver bullets or hoping and wishing and praying for things to work – which is what amateurs do

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