[Link Building Case Study] How I Built 300+ White Hat Backlinks With Outreach
How did my new website go from scratch to ranking for 30,000+ keywords in the super competitive fitness niche (including rankings for super powerful keywords like “dynamic stretching” which gets over 10,000 searches per month?)
Note: you can verify everything I say in this case study by visiting the links I provide and by checking out the stats for my site manvsweight.com, in Ahrefs, SEMrush or your favorite SEO tool.
If you guessed that the answer is by getting high quality, powerful backlinks (and a lot of them), you are right.
Here are a few examples below...
We’re talking about backlinks like this EDU backlink from the Canadian MacEwan University (sites.macewan.ca) (click the link to see that it really does link back to manvsweight.com) which has a Domain Rating of 72…
…or links from super authority sites like the DR 66 Dr. Sircus (drsircus.com) (click the link to see that it really does link back to manvsweight.com) ...
...and the DR 60 WellDoing.org (welldoing.org) (click the link to see that it really does link back to manvsweight.com) linking to affiliate review pages on my site.
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If you don’t believe me, just check out everything for yourself: go to Google and search for my website, check out its statistics in Ahrefs, visit the URLs I showed to see if my backlinks are really there.
Are you back? So you believe me now? Great!
Because these are just a handful of examples of the type of white hat, super relevant and super powerful in-context text links I built during the course of 3-4 months when I was actively working on Man Vs Weight (because sadly I long lost interest in the site).
As you can see from this Ahrefs screenshot below, there are hundreds and hundreds of more examples I could give you, but you’d literally have to sit here all day and I don’t want to waste your time.
Now to top it all, I must tell you that I built all of these links for free and frankly with little effort, without money, capital, an email list or any connections in my niche whatsoever.
If this peaked your interest, you’re in for a treat! Because in this case study, I’m gonna document, step by step, how I got these results!
Let’s get started!
So what link building strategy am I talking about?
Well, I’m talking about outreach link building strategies, just like Brian Dean’s famous Skyscraper Technique. But with several very important twists that make it work much better for the „underdog” as well.
Note: If you don’t know what the Skyscraper Technique is or don’t know any outreach link building tactics at all, don’t worry, I’ll explain everything later in this case study.
Of course, my system is not 100% hands off, you do have to put in some time and effort, but it’s still relatively little work. If you have 2-3 hours per week, you’re good to build at least 5-10 of these links per week.
If you're new to outreach link building and you'd like to see a super useful guide about reaching out to influencers for social shares and links, I highly recommend Matthew Woodward's guide titled "How To Increase Blog Traffic With My Simple Step by Step Strategy".
My SEO Experiment (Why I Think Outreach Link Building Is The Only Effective SEO Strategy)
Let me tell you about a little SEO experiment I did when I was just figuring things out for ManVsWeight.com. I went to Ahrefs, typed in some popular websites from my niche like NerdFitness or TheArtofManliness and analyzed their backlinks.
What I found was loud and clear: the reason these types of super authority sites rank sooo well (and never get penalized) is because their links are 100% in-context backlinks from related, high authority sites... just like Google loves it!
In their link profile, there is no sign of web 2.0 links, blog commenting links, heck not even guest posting links (seriously, just check it out for yourself if you don't believe me). Instead, these sites have the types of links everyone wishes they had: in context, relevant backlinks from authority sites, run by real live human editors who only link to a select few websites naturally.
And this realization made me decide that no matter what it took, I HAD TO build the same type of backlinks also for my own sites from now on.
Luckily, I managed to „crack the code”, so if you read the rest of this case study, you too will be building these types of backlinks, so your site’s link profile will look just like the link profile of these huge, authoritative websites. Alright, I admit, you won’t have so many links, but your "link juice strength" will far exceed most of your competitors'.
Should You Worry About Google Penalties With This Link Building Strategy?
Remember, this isn’t a PBN or guest posting training, it’s outreach: the links you build will be indistinguishable even by humans or Google from 100% natural backlinks.... they will look like they were placed in the content out of the own will of the webmaster because - guess what - that will be the actual case.
So worrying about Google penalties due to this link building strategy is completely unnecessary. The chances of you getting penalized for the links you build is exactly as high as NerdFitness or TheArtofManliness getting penalized: close to zero.
(But let’s be honest, we all know Google, they don’t give a shit about anyone’s business other than their own. So in theory you can get penalized by accident any time for any reason... but that is always a possibility, no matter what link building you use, heck even if you don’t build any artificial links at all.)
But enough chatter! Let’s get to the step by step details!
The Problem With The Skyscraper Technique (That No One Talks About)
Let’s talk about the Skyscraper Technique for a minute, and see the pros and cons of it.
In case you don’t know, the Skyscraper Technique works the following way:
- You find a piece of content in your niche that’s attracted a shitton of backlinks.
- You then create a post that is better than this original piece of content (it’s longer and/or more in-depth and/or both).
- Next, you find all the sites that link to the original content.
- Finally, you email all these websites and ask them to link to your content as well, which is more in-depth, better designed or better in any way.
What is the problem with this link building approach?
On the surface, absolutely nothing... until you put it into practice. That’s when you realize that most people don’t give a shit about linking to your content, even if it’s better than what they are already linking to.
How do I know this?
Because I actually tried it. My first piece of content that I created with the Skyscraper Technique in mind was a collection of 227 calisthenics exercises.
As you can see, the page consists of over 200 exercises you can do at home without any dumbbells or machines. Not only that, but the best part is that you can even filter these exercises based on difficulty level, equipment required, which muscle groups they work and so on. (I have to admit, the format for this post was inspired by Brian Dean’s “Best SEO Tools” post.)
I invested a LOOOT of time and money into creating this page.
But guess what happened after I started reaching out to websites who were linking to objectively inferior posts like „Top 10 calisthenics exercises” and so on?
My conversion rate – in other words the number of links I got divided by the number of webmasters I contacted – was terribly low.
Maybe only 1 or 2 people linked to me for every 100 - 200 emails I sent out. Sure, I was over the moon in happiness that at least a few people linked to me, but this was nowhere near as great as the 11% success rate that Brian Dean mentioned in his case study.
How come the difference?
Let’s think about it logically for a second:
Brian Dean is a well know figure, aka big guru in the SEO world. If he asked me to link to him from my SEO blog, I would gladly oblige. Similarly, if Steve from Nerd Fitness sent me an email asking me to link to him, I’d gladly oblige...
But if YOU – a totally new, unknown blogger - approach me with the same email that works for them, I won’t even consider linking to you. I don’t know you, I don’t care about you, and I don’t have the time to check out your allegedly awesome blog post either, so I hit the delete button instantly. And in my experience, most site owners do the same.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to admit that the Skyscraper Technique by Brian Dean DOES DEFINITELY WORK! Period. I experienced it myself, heck, I even sent Brian Dean a "thank you" email when I got my first link thanks to him.
However, I think it has a lower success rate for smaller bloggers than it has for big, established bloggers. That’s why you have to slightly modify it until it works for the “underdog” as well.
The Skyscraper Technique 2.0 (That Works for The Underdog Too)
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Don’t worry, I’m not talking about Earth shattering modifications, just slight tweaks:
Here’s the simple 3 step process to building links with “The Underdog Skyscraper Technique”, which boils down to:
- Make your site look link-worthy.
- Identify (and create) content you want to build links to.
- Find link prospects and reach out to them.
Step #1 - Make Your Site Look Link-worthy
Getting links as an underdog is about making your site look link-worthy. Ok, it’s also about answering „what’s in it for me” for the webmaster that you’re trying to get a link from, but let me tackle appearances for now, and we’ll talk about „what's in it for me” a bit later.
So let’s tackle appearances: how to make your website and content look link-worthy?
Remember, all we are doing when building outreach links is convincing other site owners to link to our content. So your website can’t look bad.
Fortunately, in my experience as long as you have a professional theme, your posts are at least 1,000 words long with a few unique images and are formatted well with headings, subheadings and bullet points, you should be ok.
Two additional tricks I’d like to tell you in this section are:
Trick #1: Be Personal: Put Your Face And Short Story In The Sidebar
The first trick is to put your face in the sidebar and front and center on the homepage. This will prove to others that you’re not just a faceless corporation, but a real human being they can actually talk to.
This not only increases your outreach link building success rate, but it will also help you build better relationships with your visitors, and those better relationships will lead to more sales and more money as well.
Trick #2: Get Unique Graphics For Your Site
The next quick tip is to invest into getting some unique looking graphics for your site. Let me show you what I mean. Quickly check out the graphics on these posts of mine:
You see these posts?
What’s common in them is that they all have that custom designed ripped guy at the top of the page with the Man Vs Weight logo on his clothing.
I had these drawings made for just a few dollars on UpWork and as you can see I re-use these drawings on many pages to save money.
I receive many comments about how great these graphics are and how unique they make my site look, so it’s no secret that these help me get more links from other site owners.
If you deploy the same tactic, too, your site will look like you actually care about creating quality, unique stuff and it won’t just look like yet another “made for AdSense” or “made for Amazon” type of - so called - authority site with stock photos.
These custom graphics go a long way to make you stand out from the crowd even if you have average content, and they are fairly cheap, so I highly recommend you get a designer to create them for you.
In my experience, this is a quick and fairly cheap way to increase your outreach link building conversion rate, and anyone can do it!
Ok so that’s about „Step #1 - Making your site look link worthy”.
- Just use a professional theme
- get a unique logo designed
- put your face in the sidebar and on the homepage
- get some custom graphics designed
- and format your posts well with many subheadings, adding bullet points, embedding videos and so on.
If you’re not sure about something just refer back to my site for inspiration.
It is as simple as that, I promised I won’t over-complicate things. But remember the other very important factor: you also have to answer “what’s in it for me" for the webmaster. But before that, let’s jump to Step #2, which is about identifying and creating content you want to build links to.
Step #2 - Identify (and create) content you want to build links to
Basically, there are two types of content on all my sites: first, there’s content I want to rank for and then there’s content I don’t want to rank for.
Now, why would I go through the trouble of creating a piece of content if I don’t want to rank for it?
Simple: the type of content I don’t want to rank for is super generic, like „weight loss tips”, „stretching exercises”, „push up exercises” and so on. These are very competitive keywords, so while it would be nice to rank for them, I know that’s simply not realistic (although sometimes it happens, like it did for my “stretching exercises post”).
However, it’s still worthwhile to create content for these topics, for the following reason:
Previously, we talked about one of the best outreach link building tactics, the Skyscraper Technique. The way you find link prospects with the Skyscraper Technique is by finding content that has already attracted a lot of links, then building an even better page on the same topic, and then reaching out to all the people who link to that original content and asking them to link to your content as well.
But what if none of the keywords you want to target are a good fit for the Skyscraper Technique?
Let’s say you want to target the keyword „best CrossFit supplements”. The first step to building links to it with the Skyscraper Technique would be to identify a page on this topic that has already attracted a lot of links. But since this is a “money keyword” and not an informational keyword, there aren’t a lot of pages on this topic that attracted a lot of links. Heck, even the first result that pops up in Google, which is a page on bodybuilding.com, attracted only 13 lousy unique backlinks.
So who do you reach out to then?
That’s another problem with the Skyscraper Technique: it can be tricky to find link prospects when you don’t have any pages with lots of links to reverse engineer.
So what’s the solution?
Simple: create content for generic keywords, for which there are bound to be many many pages that attracted lots of links.
For example, which type of content do you think attracts more links? A page on „CrossFit” in general or a page on the „best CrossFit supplements”? Of course, the more generic page attracts more links as it appeals to a wider audience, so there’re more link opportunities to reverse engineer and more prospects to reach out to.
That’s the whole point of what I’m talking about!
So to build links to your site and rank for the high dollar review keyword „best CrossFit supplements”, you’d first create a generic page around the keyword „CrossFit”, then built a ton of links to that page using the Underdog Skyscraper Technique.
Then you’d transfer the link juice from that “generic CrossFit page” to your page on the “best CrossFit supplements” by internally linking to it.
As you can see, by using this strategy you can not only double, triple or quadruple your link building opportunities, but increase the number of potential link prospects exponentially.
It’s a very powerful trick I used for ManVsWeight.com as well. I boosted its Domain Rating by building a ton of links to it and used that Domain Rating to rank for high $ affiliate keywords without actually building any links directly to them.
So let’s get down to the step by step details again:
Step #1: Decide where you want to build links to
Let’s say I want to build links to my page with the list of 227 calisthenics exercises. I chose this because I know there are a lot of other pages on this topic (i.e.: bodyweight exercises) that attracted a lot of links so far, so finding link opportunities should be easy this way.
Ok, Step #1 completed.
Step #2: Find related, competing pages with many in-bound links
The second step in the process is finding pages that talk about this same topic and that have already attracted a lot of links. This step is vital, because you’ll need to reverse engineer these backlinks.
To do this, simply just type in Google keywords related to your topic. For example I’ll type “calisthenics exercises”, “bodyweight exercises” and similar terms and collect all the results in a text file.
Collect As Many Potential Link Prospects As You Can
If you want to go the extra mile, and as an “underdog” you should, because your success rate won’t be as high as that of big gurus, then you should collect as many URLs as you can.
The more URLs you collect, the more URLs you can reverse engineer, and the more URLs you reverse engineer the more link opportunities you can find, and the more link opportunities you find, the more backlinks you’ll end up with. As simple as that.
So don't stop after the top 10 results. Collect and reverse engineer the backlinks of the top 50 results, or even more!
Step #3: Reverse Engineer Your Competing URLs’ Backlinks
Unfortunately for this you’re gonna need a paid tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush. But don’t worry, Ahrefs has a $7 trial as far as I know for 7 days, and that should be more than enough to collect all the data you need.
Once you’re in Ahrefs, copy the first URL from your text file and enter it in the search bar. Then click on Backlinks, and set it to
- show only one link per domain
- and only from the Live Index.
Setting these filters is important, because we don’t want "nofollow" links or links that are already removed.
Once you’re done, just click Export and open the exported file. What you’ll need is the "referring page URL" and the "link URL", so copy these two columns into a separate excel sheet next to each other.
There you have it: in the first column you have the referring page URL, and in the second column you have the URL they currently link to. I recommend you name the headers for these columns something you’ll remember, like Target and Competitor..
While most people only have these columns in their outreach sheet, I add one extra column that really helps me boost the success rate of my outreach campaigns. I’m talking about a Domain column. In the Domain column I insert the root domain of every site I’m about to contact. You’ll soon see why this is important.
Get My Free Excel Macro To Help With Outreach Link Building!
If you have only 5 URLs, then extracting the root domain of the referring URLs is easy to do manually. But if you have hundreds or thousands of URLs this can be a huge time-suck... unless you use an excel macro I developed which makes it a breeze.
Simply input the referring URLs in the first column, and then it will automatically populate the second column with the root domain in the same order.
(Note: don’t forget to enable macros in excel before you use it.)
How cool is that?
Send me an email at email@example.com if you'd like to get this Excel Macro for free!
Step #4: Find email addresses
Next, your job will be to find the email addresses of the sites and then contact them to link to your even more detailed and better page on the same topic.
So now comes one of the worst, most boring parts of any outreach strategy: finding email addresses.
I leave it up to you how you do it (whether you use an email finder tool, do it manually or outsource it).
After this step, your Excel sheet should look something like this:
Step #5: Send your outreach emails to ask for backlinks
This step is self explanatory: you should email your prospects and ask for a link. But what should your email say? How should you ask for a link?
This is where most people expect a template, and I’m sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find that here.
- First, because I see over and over again that whenever someone releases a new outreach template, people abuse it to the point where it won’t work anymore.
- Second, in my experience it doesn’t matter what template you use, as long as you keep the following “rules” in mind:
Rule #1: Include the prospect’s domain name in your subject line. This is why I have a separate Root Domain column in my outreach sheet for prospects’ root domains. I found that if the subject line includes the prospects’ domain name, they’re more likely to open the email and reply. So instead of “I have a proposal for you” say something like “I have a proposal for nerdfitness.com”
Rule #2: (Optional) Greet the site owner by name. While this is optional and I don’t always do this, I know that I personally do delete every email that addresses me as “Dear Sir” or “Dear webmaster” or “Dear Site owner” or “Dear manvsweight.com team” etc… Emails that start with "Dear Steve" are much more likely to actually get a response from me.
Rule #3: Get to the point. Don’t write long emails. Quickly get to the point where you say that you saw that they link to nerdfitness.com/calisthenics-exericses from their linkprospect.com/best-bodyweight-training-guides.html page and that you’d like them to add a link to your manvsweight.com/calisthenics-exercises post as well because it’s more thorough or whatever…
Rule #4: Offer something in exchange: THIS is what makes the Underdog Skyscraper Technique work for the – well – underdog, too! While Brian Dean or Steve Kamb don’t have a lot of convincing to do if they want to get a backlink, a new unknown blogger does!
I found that after I started offering something in exchange for the links, my success rate skyrocketed. So if you take away only one thing from this case study, make it this one: OFFER SOMETHING IN EXCHANGE FOR THE LINK!
What should you offer? Anything that comes to your mind. If you’d like to know exactly what and how I offered in manvsweight.com’s outreach campaigns, sign up to my newsletter to get a notification when my link building course tilted Underdog Link Building becomes available. I’ll even share my exact, word for word outreach template in the course.
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Rule #5: Follow up: Send a reminder email if they don’t reply at first. We’ll cover this in the next section.
That’s it for the “rules”! If you keep these things in mind when writing your outreach templates, you’ll do fine.
Why hardly anyone wanted to link to my objectively superior post... and how I turned that around!
Are you now beginning to see what I was talking about when I said that the rules are different for the big guys and the underdog like you or me? The underdog has to offer something in exchange for the link.
While big gurus seem to think that webmasters will be glad to link to you if you have high quality content, that’s is DEFINITELY NOT the case in my experience.
Seriously, just look at my "227 Calisthenics Exercises page".
I spent a shitton of money and time to collect all the bodyweight exercises that matter and present them in a super useful way with different kinds of filters.
Heck, I even hired a programmer to make those filters work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe I’m not biased when I say this is the single most valuable piece of content currently out there when it comes to the keyword “calisthenics exercises” or “bodyweight exercises”.
To this day, I get a lot of emails from my visitors who are praising that content and tell me that they use it in their everyday life, including even personal trainers who use it with their clients!
So if other site owners truly cared about linking to the best content, then if someone is now linking to a shitty low value page like “Top 5 Bodyweight Exercises”, it should be a no-brainer to convince them to add my link as well.
But guess what: when I tried to follow the basic Skyscraper Technique and left out the part about offering something in exchange for the link, I barely had any responses and I had even fewer link results.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but MOST people don’t give a shit about quality content or linking to quality content or helping out someone who creates quality content.
This is the sad reality. Otherwise, building links to a page like this, with over 10,000 words and over 220 video demonstrations all presented with a top notch custom coded filtering script would be easy-peasy.
But it’s not.
Anyway, the point is: offer something in exchange for the link. I don’t recommend you offer money because you wouldn’t be able to pay as much as they ask and it’s against Google’s guidelines anyway, so sooner or later you’d get caught.
Step #6: Send your follow-up emails
After the first emails, it’s time to craft your reminder emails.
I recommend you send the reminder 5-7 days after the first email if you didn’t receive a reply. I don’t want to set in stone what you should say in the reminder email, but I like to go with something like this:
"Hi again, I don't want to bother, just making sure you saw this. If that would help you, I'm happy to suggest a place within your article to add the link, and I'll write a paragraph or two so all you have to do is copy-paste. Please reply if you have the time, or if I'm bothering you just let me know and I’ll stop emailing you. :D"
The most important part of this email is the part where I offer to write a paragraph or two so that the webmaster can just copy what I wrote and paste it in the article.
The reason why this works so well is simple: people are lazy. No one wants to spend time and effort on thinking about various ways to insert your link. If you give them something that they can just copy and paste, your conversion rate will be much higher.
Bonus tip: check out Brian Dean's advice about sending outreach emails (best practices after analyzing 12 million outreach emails).
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While I tried to explain my link building procedure as clearly as possible in this 4,500 word long case study, I know that there are still a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of gaps to be filled.
That’s why I created a course that explains every single detail about how I build backlinks from A to Z. And I do mean EVERY.SINGLE.DETAIL. Heck, there’s even an exclusive Facebook group where people who enroll in the course can ask me for help directly.
While the course is currently not available, you can sign up to my newsletter below to get a notification when Underdog Link Building launches again.
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In the meantime, feel free to ask your questions in the comments section below, and I’ll be happy to answer!