Mar 15, 2022

Link Intent Study – 5 Reasons Websites Link to External Content


Nicholas Rubright


Nathan Winfrey

With search engines today using backlinks as a signal for content quality, their impact on rankings is well-known among the SEO community.

In fact, if you look at popular SEO guides on the internet, like this one from Moz, there are frequent mentions of link building as a means of acquiring backlinks.

Google even mentions outreach on their SEO starter guide as a way of acquiring links to your site.

Other guides on the internet, like this one from Semrush, list outreach strategies as a primary means of acquiring backlinks.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, we run a number of link building strategies for our site as well, and we even sell link building services, so it’s definitely an essential part of any SEO strategy. Even for large sites, it can help push new pages up the SERPs, faster.

However, even we’ll admit that link building is expensive to maintain and scale up.

Scaling up link acquisition doesn’t have to mean scaling up your outreach, though. You just need to create content that’s designed to attract high-quality backlinks naturally.


Satisfy link intent.

What is link intent?

Link intent is a phrase that explains the “why” behind a link placement.

It’s the reason a blogger, journalist, or other website owner adds a link to their article or website.

Basically, it’s how most natural links happen on the internet.

Understanding link intent can help you organically come up with unique link building ideas because it gives you insight into the behavior and linking purposes of your link building targets.

How we conducted the study

In our agency, we run tons of link building campaigns. Mostly in the form of guest posting.

Over the past few months, we’ve been gathering data from our writers about their link intent by surveying them about their linking behavior after they write an article.

Each time they finish an article, they enter the following data into our internal link intent sheet for each link they added to their content:

  1. The anchor text of the link added to the article.
  2. The keyword they used to find the referenced article if found via a search engine like Google.
  3. A short answer to the question “Why did you add this link?” so we can map intent to their linking behavior.

At the time of writing this article, our link intent data set has 258 entries.

From this data set, we then used Ahrefs to map our entries to similar linking behaviors online to verify our assumptions the best we could.

We also analyzed the primary sources of information writers and journalists are using to create their content, such as:

We did look at the intent behind social media behavior as well, but the reasons for outbound linking appear to be very different from the reasons behind sharing something on social media.

Obviously there’s a lot left to learn here, but based on our interpretation of the data and our labor-intensive behavior analysis tangents, here are five reasons people link to stuff on the internet from their blog or website.

I realize lots of websites link out because they were paid, but for the purposes of this study, we focused instead on links that are placed naturally, without payment.

Reason #1: Emotion – “Check this out!”

If you can hyper-target something that’s a personal interest of a blogger or journalist you’re after, you can get backlinks just because you made something fun for them.

The emotional intent behind linking is similar to the reasons people share things on social media. This is especially true for personal bloggers and large media sites that are trying to come up with content ideas that would work as emotional triggers to pull their existing readers back in.

Basically, for sites that are primarily focused on gaining traffic from their existing audience, content that they are convinced will result in a desired emotional response in their audience will work well.

The reason mainstream publications like to publish emotionally focused content is because emotional content has the potential to go viral.

This is because viral content typically evokes high-arousal emotions, such as excitement, anger, or fear.

According to Harvard Business Review, “Viral content tends to be surprising, emotionally complex, or extremely positive…because they achieve the right configurations of arousal and dominance.

In another study, researchers discovered five emotions that made people more likely to share a piece of content.

Specifically, they were:

  • Awe 🤯
  • Surprise 😲
  • Anger 😡
  • Anxiety 😰
  • Interesting 🤔

Basically, content that generates a stronger emotional response is more likely to get more social shares.

For example, this Star Wars infographic got tons of backlinks from huge sites.


Well first of all, it’s epic.

Second of all, it’s over the top, unique, and creative, which appeals to journalists who are also looking for content that excites their audience.

For example, Kwame Opam who published the infographic on The Verge frequently wrote about TV entertainment.

So because his audience consisted of people who regularly keep up with things related to TV entertainment, an over-the-top Star Wars infographic was a perfect fit to excite them.

If you can find content ideas that excite the audience that your target bloggers and journalists are trying to reach, they’ll be excited too because this stuff is hard to come by. This is why infographic promotion can still work if you’re actually offering something of value.

How to build content that aligns with emotional link intent

There are tons of ways you can come up with content that aligns with emotional link intent.

There’s no single way to do this right, but here are three steps you can follow based on how we do digital PR.

Step 1: Choose an audience

In many cases, businesses choose audiences for the content they’re building based on who their customers are.

This isn’t always a good idea because your customers might not be a valuable audience to the journalists you’re after.

The thing is, when you’re publishing content for your own use case, coming up with ideas that appeal to your customers makes sense.

However, if links are the goal, your audience isn’t the customers who read the outlets you’re after. Your audience is the audience of the journalists you’re after.

So to help journalists, we need to focus on what their audience is responding to. If we can come up with ideas that trigger an emotional response from their readers, they’ll publish what we pitch.

Here’s an example from our own perspective:

  1. At Ranko Media, our customers are business owners looking to increase their Google rankings.
  2. These customers read outlets like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc., etc. so we want links from those places.
  3. The readers of these magazines are our audience – not the intersection of customers who read these outlets.

See the difference?

For example, we aren’t after the people reading Forbes who are after SEO services. We’re after building something that emotionally connects with all readers of Forbes so their editors will want to publish it.

Step 2: Find their triggers

Since we now know our audience is the readers of our target outlets, we can analyze their previous content to see what their audience cares about.

We can do this by looking at how people are responding to some recent stories on their social media feeds.

I use Facebook for this because the Reactions make it easy to quickly see how people feel about something, and at what scale.

For example, this post about Elon Musk is getting lots of laugh reacts (signaling emotional response), comments, and shares.

This one from Forbes is getting lots of angry reacts:

What I gather from seeing lots of this is that posts about rich people are getting strong emotional reactions and lots of engagement.

Step 3: Pick a tangent

Now that we know the types of stories that are getting emotional reactions from the readers of our target outlets, we can look for ideas.

There are tons of ways you can do this.

  • Use tools like BuzzSumo and search for keywords related to your industry. Review what types of content gets the most social shares from your target outlets.
  • Browse Reddit to find relevant subreddits related to your industry and see what types of content get the most engagement and how people are responding to it.
  • If you have a team, brainstorm about potential topic ideas.

My favorite way to do this is with AnswerThePublic.

By putting in the different topics that are getting reactions from our target outlets, we can find creative crossover ideas.

Following this process can help you come up with tons of ideas.

Before you move forward with the idea, you can use data from other concepts similar to yours to get proof-of-concept.

  • Backlinks: Check backlinks on content that’s out there and similar to your idea. Lots of links to similar content proves that link intent exists for it.
  • Subject coverage: Look for other answers to the questions. It’s okay if there are others who’ve addressed the same thing, just make sure you make your case differently.
  • Subject relevance: Why will their audience care about the content you’ve built?

Many of the answers to these questions are subjective and there’s lots of research to be done on how human emotions impact virality, but this is how we approach this right now and it works relatively well.

Reason #2: Storytelling Context – “For example…”

People often share others’ stories to make a point about their own.

For example, (ha!) Copyblogger’s guide about how to create epic content links to articles like The Death of the Boring Blog Post as examples of epic content.

In the context of journalism, we often see journalists referencing stories in tangential ways to back up their own.

Just look at how this Forbes story about 2022’s most valuable sports empires references an article from Institutional Investor about private equity entering the sports world to support a point about the additional inflow of money into the sports industry.

This is why content that tells a unique story attracts so many backlinks.

In fact, news, opinions, and interviews frequently attract backlinks from other news outlets that want to piggyback off of the story.

For example, this Joe Rogan-Elon Musk interview where Elon Musk smokes weed got nearly 9,000 backlinks.


Well, after the podcast went live, Elon Musk started trending on Twitter.

So news sites started responding by publishing stories like this

Which then get referenced in tangentially related stories by other outlets to add weight to their stories, like this

This doesn’t just happen in big media and journalism. Writers and bloggers of all niches reference outside stories and statistics to provide better context to their writing. It’s a normal part of the writing process for them.

How to build content that aligns with storytelling context link intent

As you might be able to tell, it’s not just about the story. As Brian Clark of Coppyblogger puts it in his article Why People Don’t Want the Real You, “Your story absolutely matters, but only to the extent that it helps people tell the story they want to tell about themselves.”

What this suggests is that, to earn backlinks in the context of someone else’s story or an example, you need to share a story that puts you, or your content, in a position to be an example.

Here are three ways you can do this.

1. Publish newsworthy content

If you have a unique perspective on something in a way that contributes to an ongoing story, you can win some epic backlinks as a result.

As Amanda Milligan puts it in her video on Moz about creating newsworthy content, if you want to attract backlinks with newsworthy content, you can do so by making use of three components:

Check out the video embedded below for her full presentation.

2. Share a unique story

We all have unique struggles that we’ve overcome throughout the course of our lives.

Unfortunately, once we overcome our struggles, they no longer seem difficult to us and we forget that others are still in the trenches that we used to be in.

This is why when people share their personal struggles online, other writers like to point to them as examples in the context of persuading their readers to take action.

TED Talks are perfect examples of this. By leveraging storytelling to enable subject matter experts to share creative and unique ideas, their site has generated over 86 million backlinks from more than 450,000 domains.

Their most linked-to TED Talk is this one about how great leaders inspire action.

It’s commonly referenced in articles about leadership, positioning, persuasion, and other communication and business topics. This is because the message in the video can be used as a tangentially relevant example to support what the writer is talking about.

Check out how this article from American Express about hooking an audience links to it as an example to support the value of asking rhetorical questions.

To pull off the same thing, share unique stories that are helpful to many audiences. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Combine two ideas that haven’t been paired together before: In music, this is how the band A Day to Remember gained traction. They fused metalcore and pop-punk into one sound that fans of each genre haven’t heard before. In your content, bring in things that others aren’t willing to invest the effort in.
  • Share your story along the way: For our business, our super-transparent case studies are how we do this. We often try very new ideas with clients. Once something is successful, we write a story about it. Because the idea was new to start with, the content is unique by default.
  • Share your failures: People are afraid of failure. Because of this, content that teaches through failure often makes for a great example of what not to do. If you succeed after the fact, the failure stories along the way carry even more.

The thing to keep in mind when sharing any kind of story is to think about how it crosses over into the stories your target bloggers or journalists are trying to tell. The TED Talk example worked so well because the subject matter of the video tightly relates to lots of things being taught in business-related content on the internet.

When looking for stories to share, ask yourself, “How will my story help the bloggers and journalists I’m after tell theirs?”

3. Go over-the-top on things your competitors don’t care about but bloggers do

When bloggers and journalists are looking for things to reference in their story, they’re going to look for things that stand out.

If you do things as good as your competitors do, you don’t stand out in a way that grabs their attention.

However, if you go over-the-top when executing anything for your business, people who care about those things will take notice.

Just look at this article Crazy Egg wrote that’s just a list of good homepage designs to teach their readers about good homepage design.

They reference sites outside of their niche, such as Toastmasters International, as examples of good homepage design.

So because Toastmasters International invested in making their website design fitting for their audience, writers about the topic of website design, like those at Crazy Egg, took notice.

When you do anything on the internet, do it well and go big. This way, you position yourself as an example to be referenced when niche writers are trying to teach their audiences about those things.

Reason #3: Persuasive Evidence – “Oh, you want proof? I’ll show you proof!”

When people link to statistics, case studies, or other types of data on the internet, it’s usually to make a case for something.

For example, the sales follow-up statistics page we made for IRC Sales Solutions now has more than 200 backlinks.


Because people are referencing the statistics in the article to prove a point.

HubSpot, for example, referenced us in their article about improving your sales skills to add weight to their tip about following up with potential buyers.

Data and statistics aren’t the only things that are referenced on the internet to provide evidence, however.

Sometimes, referencing other things on the internet to make a point can enter into more subjective territory.

For example, let’s look at the keto diet.

Whatever the case may be with the diet itself, there are lots of businesses that market to people who are interested in keto.

That’s why articles that showcase weight loss stories are so powerful.

For example, this weight loss slideshow from Women’s Health got over 350 backlinks.

Many of them are from sites like this that use the images to make a point about the impact of the keto diet.

This is because the images help them make the point to their readers that the keto diet is awesome, which in turn helps them sell their products or persuade their readers to perform some other kind of action.

When articles presented evidence of any kind, we found that it’s usually in the context of making some kind of persuasive argument. This can be in the form of sales, teaching, or otherwise trying to make a point about something.

How to find content ideas that align with persuasive link intent

The best type of content I’ve been able to create that satisfies persuasive link intent is statistics roundup pages.

The reason these are so great for SEO is because once they rank for any sort of “statistics” keyword, they begin to attract backlinks.

This happens because bloggers and journalists frequently search Google for statistics to support their arguments.

So as long as you fulfill search intent (which would be giving these bloggers and journalists what they’re looking for), you’ll continue to earn passive backlinks.

To find good statistics keywords to go after, the first step is to put the word “statistics” into Ahrefs Keyword Explorer.

You can also use other terms that might signal data-focused searches, such as “average,” “case study,” or “how many.”

From here, click “View all” under “Terms match.”

From here, you can use the filters to find some easy keywords in your niche to go after.

For example, if we were doing this, we’d likely go after keywords that include something like “seo,” “marketing,” or “b2b” in the string because this is tangentially related to us since we’re a B2B company.

So we simply filter for one of these to start our search…

Keywords with high link intent will have a high KD (keyword difficulty) and a low search volume relative to other keywords in the niche.

These factors show evidence of link intent because these signals show us two things:

  1. Few searchers who are finding these pages.
  2. These few searchers are linking to them frequently.

Given these factors, it’s a safe bet that bloggers and journalists are the ones typing those queries into Google.

If you want some tips on creating the content for these keywords to be sure they’ll actually attract links, check out our link bait case study.

Reason #4: Help – “If you need help with ______, then check out ______”

As the name implies, this type of link intent happens simply because the website owner or author wants to help their reader.

Usually, writers link out for readers to explore the “next” thing in the sequence of what they’re reading about on the current page.

This is the link intent type that results in things like resource or “helpful links” pages like this:

Some authors add FAQ sections to the bottom of their posts with links out to more complete answers, like Neil Patel did in this article.

In this article about digital marketing, the author references an external guide about guest blogging to help readers learn how to take action on this step in their post.

Any type of link where the intent is to help would fit into this category.

How to build content that aligns with helpful link intent

If you want people to link to your website as a helpful resource for their readers, you need to create something that actually helps their readers.

Here are three things you can build to accomplish this.

1. Free tools

This type of linking is why free tools like Ubersuggest get so many backlinks (and part of the reason Neil Petal bought this tool for $120,000).

According to Neil Patel, “It was generating 117,425 unique visitors per month at the time I purchased it and had 38,700 backlinks from 8,490 referring domains.”


By purchasing this tool and offering it for free on his domain, Neil Patel bought himself a link asset.

People are linking out to it frequently in articles about keyword research and related topics where this is a use case.

Check out how Wix references it in their article about keyword research as a helpful resource for their readers.

If you can build or buy a tool that helps your niche out in a big way, you’ll be able to leverage link building outreach to position this asset to attract backlinks passively.

2. Ultimate guides

Ultimate guides are basically pages on the internet that entirely cover a single topic.

This link building guide from Backlinko is a perfect example of this. It covers everything about link building, front-to-back.

As a result, the page has over 6,000 backlinks from more than 2,000 domains.

If you know your subject matter in and out, the ultimate guide might be worth the investment. If you want to explore this further, check out this ultimate guide to writing ultimate guides by Express Writers.

3. Uniquely helpful information

When there are a variety of resources available for a certain solution, writers may link out to well-curated lists to help guide their readers to a website they trust.

This article about gaming equipment from The Guardian, for example, links to this gaming TV review list from

With tons of reviews online, why choose for the link?

While we can’t say for certain, it’s likely because, unlike many of the review sites out there, actually tests their products to gain unique insights their readers care about.

Gamers, for example, care about input lag – the amount of time it takes for your TV to display a signal on the screen from when the source sends it.

Their LG C1 review has real, unbiased test results for input lag right there on the page.

I couldn’t find another review online that gets into nearly the level of detail did in their reviews.

I think it’s safe to say that won this backlink because they provide uniquely helpful information to their readers that can’t be found elsewhere.

If you want to win backlinks like these, go out of your way to provide information that will help your readers make their next decision after reading your content.

Reason #5: In Too Deep – “It’s too much to explain in this article, so read this one…”

While the links intended to help readers take action often reference next steps, this type of link placement often references information that should be known prior to reading the current piece.

Think of it like linking out to your pre-requisites.

Linking out to definition pages is a perfect example of this.

The writers know that some of their readers might have a question, or may not understand a particular word, but the intended audience will.

In these cases, it makes sense to link out instead of cover the content on the page because covering things with too much depth would distract from the main point of the content.

You wouldn’t write about how to do addition in an algebra book, for example. Instead, you might reference a book about addition as a prerequisite to the algebra book.

The biggest evidence of this kind of linking behavior is the fact that, according to this content study, “What” and “Why” posts receive the highest number of backlinks.

This is likely because “What” and “Why” posts can help catch people up to what’s being discussed on the page.

For example, this article from MSN is talking about a new fundraising round for a blockchain gaming startup. For readers who are new to blockchain tech, they link out to this article from The Verge titled “NFTs, explained” to help add further definition to what NTFs are.

Evidence of this kind of link intent can also be observed as seemingly random link inserts inside of an article.

For example, this story about students building an audio editing company references this page about the differences between mixing and mastering, signifying the difference in these.

This type of linking seems to apply when the writer doesn’t want to get too far into things that aren’t necessary to the main point of the article. Hence the name, “in too deep,” which, yes, is a reference to this Sum 41 song.

How to build content that satisfies “in too deep” link intent

To satisfy this type of link intent, the aim is to give bloggers and journalists in your niche a resource that helps them explain complex things to subject matter noobs.

So basically, you want to aim to build content that helps them by giving them a way out of over-explaining.

Here’s a three-step process you can use to find these types of ideas.

Step 1: Find trending topics

Because it can take a while to rank for keywords that people have been searching for forever, a good way to fast-track the success of “in too deep” style content is to find content ideas that are about to explode.

Exploding Topics is a great tool for that.

Basically, with Exploding Topics, you can find topics that look like they’re about to pop off in your niche.

For example, on their Crypto Trends page, we can see that the term “opensea” seems like it could be a good target for the right business given the 133% growth rate over the last three months.

When journalists and bloggers are doing their research, they’re going to see this kind of thing, so this gives us a good starting point for our topical research.

Step 2: Find questions around those topics

There are tons of ways to do this, but I like to use AnswerThePublic for this.

You just type in a word related to your niche and the tool will spit out a huge number of questions to choose from.

For example, here are a few it generated for “opensea.”

The reason I prefer AnswerThePublic to the SEO tools is because it is powered by Google’s autocomplete predictions feature. For example:

This differs from the questions that populate within SEO tools that are usually based on their own internal metrics.

Which is good because these are partially based on trending interest in a query, indicating that these questions are likely being asked by readers of the blogs you’re trying to get links from.

So when a writer comes up with an idea tangentially related to one of these topics, they’re going to be looking for things to link to that address sub-questions of the topic they write about.

From here, you can search one of these keywords in Google and put some of the top ranking URLs into Ahrefs to see which have proven themselves to be linkable assets.

For example, this page from Opensea about their floor price ranks for “opensea what is floor price” and has 68 backlinks from 42 domains.

It also shows signs of link acquisition over time (especially recently).

And the content is weak. It’s just the definition and all fits inside of this screenshot.

So because the #1 ranking page has existing backlinks (some of which were acquired recently) and the content is easy to beat, this is something worth considering in the crypto niche.

Step 3: Address search (and link) intent

Writers and readers are going to want different things from your content.

Readers want search intent addressed.

Writers, however, want to trust that they’re sending their readers to a good place where they can easily get the info they need.

So in cases where your content is going to earn links, it’s not enough to satisfy search intent – you have to do it so well that other influencers in your niche recognize this and take notice.

I follow the “in too deep” linking behavior pretty frequently when compared to other SEO professionals. I like to write my content so anyone can learn from it. This means that I end up linking out to lots of content that explains things newer readers don’t know about.

For example, I frequently reference this search intent guide from Ahrefs.

Even though it ranks #2 in Google for “search intent.”

So why am I choosing to link to the Ahrefs article so much over the Yoast one?

First of all, I felt like Ahrefs put the definition in more basic terms, and that’s what I’m mostly after since my readers would likely not know what search intent is until clicking one of these links.

For comparison, here’s Yoast’s definition…

And here’s how Ahrefs puts it…

So what really happened here is that, because I perceived that Ahrefs better addressed search intent for the keyword, I linked to that over the Yoast article.

It looks like other sites are thinking this way too since the Ahrefs article has more linking domains despite ranking #2 for the keyword.

So in this case, when you build the content, focus on perfectly helping your users by making it truly epic.

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John Adam
1 year ago

Genuinely great article and qualifies for the ‘epic’ description described in it. If I can give one tiny piece of unsolicited advice it would be to tighten up the intro. I almost bailed as it read like a typical guest blog writer’s intro. Luckily I didn’t and got to the good stuff, of which there was loads, but after 2 paragraphs I’d decided it would be fluff and was on the verge of bouncing.