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Link Building Case Study - The Passively Obtained Natural Backlink
by Eric Ward | Updated June 2011 - original 2003 | More posts from Eric Ward
First, a definition. A passively-obtained natural backlink is a link given from one site to another site that the receiving site had nothing to do with obtaining. You got a link, and you didn't know a thing about it. You didn't ask for it, didn't pay for it, didn't swap for it. It just happened.

The search engines all love passive links like this. Why? Because they can be trusted.

Here's an example (disclaimer, client). It's circa 2003. Your site is Earthbound Farms, major grower and seller of of organic salads (note they rank#1 for that today). Produce. Veggies.  You sell your produce all over the U.S., to hundreds of stores, food chains, and specialty markets. You've rarely if ever ask for a link to your site, yet your site has several hundred links. 

How can this be?

Explanation 1: Many of the stores and restaurants Earthbound Farms sells organic produce to also have web sites, and on their sites they have sections like Suppliers, Vendors, or Purveyors. Here's an example. On the Paul Martin's American Bistro web site they have a "Purveyors" page where they list the companies they purchase products from. When those companies have web sites, like Earthbound Farms does, they often provide a link to the company. Have a look.  Classic passively obtained natural backlink for the organic produce company.

Explanation 2: Your company is going to attend a upcoming trade show for your industry, or maybe sponsor an event related to your industry. Trade shows have web sites, and so do special events, and on those sites there's a section with links to the web sites of all the companies that are going to attend, or be sponsors. Heres an example. Bingo, another passively obtained backlink. Side note: argue with me all day that this sponsor link was sought after and thus not natural, but in the grand schme of links, this is about as white hat as it gets.

Search engines likely judge these types of links as being
better signals of quality content on 
the site being linked to...

These are just a couple reasons a site might have links they didn't actively seek. And search engines judge these types of links as being a better indication of the quality of the content on the site being linked to than the links you DO actively pursue and obtain. This makes sense to a certain point, since the basic nature of the web from the early days was a massive network of passively obtained links. Back in 1993, nobody was seeking links in order to improve their search rankings, because none of the search engines looked at links. They looked on-site only.

But here's a dirty little secret. Many links that appear to have been passively obtained are in fact actively obtained.

How do I know this? Because many of the links I mentioned for the organic produce company in "Explanation 1 above exist because I requested them. Many of the grocery web sites and restaurant web sites existed before the organic produce company had a site, so the grocery stores and restaurants sites couldn't link to the organic salads site, since there was nothing to link to

But, once the organic produce company launched their web site, now there was something to link to. The only catch is that most of those grocery and restaurant sites have no idea the organic produce company has launched a site, so they have to be told. Link requests have to be made.

So, what appears to be a passively obtained backlink is in fact an actively obtained backlink.

But all this masks two important lessons. First, these links above were earned based on merit.  Earthbound Farms was not going to obtain a link from either of those sites above unless they had the goods (no pun intended) to earn the link in the first place. Every web site has its own universe of inbound links it can reasonably expect to come about from a passive approach. Second, you can't just sit back and wait for a grocer or restaranteur with a web site to notice your site, remember they buy from you, and link to you. 

The key is to be strategically active, rather than randomly active. Make sure you know which sites are the best targets for your link requests. If you aren't sure, seek advice from someone you trust.  Me maybe. 

The goal is not to trick the engines into thinking an actively pursued link is a passive link. The goal is to make sure you obtain the merit based links your site deserves and has a natural and logical reason to obtain. 

Identifing the natural and logical targets is 90% of the battle. 

Link wisely,


About the Author
Eric Ward founded the Web's first services for announcing, linking, and building buzz for Web sites, back in 1994. Ward is best known as the person behind the linking campaigns for Books,, The Link Exchange, Rodney Dangerfield (, the AMA, and His services won the 1995 Award for Internet Marketing Excellence, and he was selected as one of the Web's 100 most influential people by Websight magazine. In 2009 Eric was one of 25 people profiled in the book Online Marketing Heroes. In 2010 Eric teamed with AdGooroo to create Link Insight, a link quality control and  linking intelligence tool. Eric has spoken at over 100 industry conferences and now publishes LinkMoses Private, a subscription based link opportunity and strategy service. Eric has written linking strategy and advice columns for SearchEngineLand, MarketingProfs, ClickZ, Search Marketing Standard, SearchEngineGuide, Web Marketing Today, and Ad Age magazine. Learn more about Eric and his content publicity and link building services at

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