I spent a couple of hours researching this question myself, and here’s my conclusion:
There’s no straightforward definition of off‐page SEO.
I mean, many people equate “off‐page SEO” with link building, but is that really all there is to it, or does also it embody other aspects of SEO?
In pursuit of a definitive answer, we quizzed some of the SEO world’s best minds, asking what they personally felt “off‐page SEO” embodied, and what it didn’t.
In this post, we’ll look at:
- Their answers
- The differences between “off‐page” and “on‐page” SEO
- Why both are equally important
- The six most important off‐page SEO strategies.
Let’s get started.
What is Off‐Page SEO?
If you Google the phrase “off page SEO”, here’s the definition Google shows in the SERPs:
From this definition, it’s clear that off‐page SEO includes “link building”. But aside from that, it’s extremely loose.
In fact, I’d argue that by this definition:
“…techniques that can be used to improve the position of a website in the search engine results page”
It would also embody many of the things we think of as quintessentially “on‐page” (e.g. meta tags, site structure, formatting, etc.)
Here’s another definition from Webopedia:
“These factors are off‐site in that they are not controlled by you or the coding on your page. Examples of off‐page optimization include things such as link popularity and page rank”
And another from SEW:
“[when we] refer to “off page,” we’re talking about items external to your site: link generation programs, social media efforts, and buying links”
While these two go a little further and define off‐page SEO as anything outside of the page itself, they’re still far from definitive. They also refer primarily to link building.
So here’s the real question: what does off‐page SEO involve other than link building?
If you’re not familiar with /r/bigSEO, it’s essentially a subreddit where roughly 14,000 of the smartest and most knowledgeable SEOs hang out.
I felt that by asking the SEO community, I’d be able to get a definitive, community‐driven answer to this question.
I’d then be able to lay it rest once and for all.
Here’s what I asked:
I also tried to spark the discussion myself by suggesting a few crazy theories, to see if anything would stick:
It didn’t take long for this theory to effectively get “debunked”. A couple of people were quick to point out the flaws in my argument:
OK, so I guess my argument was a little loose and farfetched.
But what did people actually say?
Well, here’s the “answer” with the most upvotes:
Most others suggested that “off‐page SEO” pretty much just came down to link building:
It was at this point that I suggested the following:
This idea makes sense in theory, but here’s the problem:
On‐page SEO is a complex beast. It would be literally impossible to define everything that falls into the “on‐page” bucket.
I, therefore, have no intention of trying.
But, I am going to define a “high‐level” view of what “on‐page” and “off‐page” SEO each embody:
On‐Page vs. Off‐Page SEO
Let’s start with “on‐page”.
In my opinion, there are two main “sub‐buckets” that, together, embody everything “on‐page”:
Content + technicalities.
When I say “content”, I’m not really talking about things like length, formatting, outbound links, keyword density (woah, flashback to 1998!), or any of the more “technical” stuff.
I’m referring to the idea of creating content perfectly suited to your target audience.
For example, Ahrefs’ target audience consists of SEOs, inbound marketers, entrepreneurs, etc.
These are people that want to read in‐depth, well‐researched and often highly technical posts, such as our huge list of SEO tips:
But this style and format won’t suit everyone.
For example, an audience of graphic designers may prefer more visual content, such as this incredible color scheme generator:
Sometimes, even factually accurate content may not be what your audience wants to see, as demonstrated by this post from The Onion:
Just to clarify: I’m not defining “content” as anything technical here. I’m effectively defining it as what you say and how you say it.
Sub‐bucket #2 is the “technical” stuff.
I’m talking about things like:
- Placing keywords in your title and H1 tags
- Site speed optimisation
Now, onto off‐page:
Like I said earlier, if we can define on‐page SEO, everything else must technically be off‐page.
Therefore, anything not mentioned above effectively falls in the off‐page SEO bucket.
But, much like with on‐page SEO, I’d say there are two main off‐page sub‐buckets to off‐page SEO:
Links + exposure.
If we forget about links for a second (you can find plenty of link building strategies here), most aspects of off‐page SEO are all about exposure.
Because exposing your content to your audience is going to have a knock‐on effect on a number of factors that could potentially influence rankings (e.g. mentions, links, citations, etc.).
For example, when Dale Cudmore wrote this post for Ahrefs:
It got posted to inbound.org, where it got tons of exposure:
After this, it got talked about (which means citations) on numerous blogs, such as UpCity:
And even got linked to a few times too:
Now, this post ranks #4 for the phrase “skyscraper technique”:
I’m not saying that all of these links/citations came as a result of being posted on inbound.org.
But clearly, if these people hadn’t been exposed to the article in the first place, they wouldn’t have referenced or linked to it.
And if this hadn’t happened, it probably wouldn’t be ranking for that keyword today.
So, to put it simply: exposure is often a catalyst for more links, mentions, citations, etc. and thus, higher rankings.
Here at Ahrefs, we believe that “exposure” deserves its place in our definition of “off page SEO”.
Here it goes:
“Off‐page SEO” embodies all marketing techniques that happen outside of a website (i.e. off‐page) with the potential to positively impact search engine rankings. “Link building” and exposure of your product/brand to relevant audiences are the two main building blocks of off‐page SEO.
If you disagree with that definition, we welcome you to share your opinion in comments.
OK, let’s talk ‘strategy’:
6 Main Strategies That Fall Into the “Off‐Page SEO” Bucket
Based on my research, here are six strategies that accurately articulate what “off page SEO” is all about.
If you feel there is anything missing, feel free to hit me up in the comments section!
#1 — Knowing Where Your Audience “Hangs Out” Online and Actively Contributing/Participating
If you can learn where your target audience “hang out” online and regularly contribute to discussions, you’ll see a ton of long‐term benefits.
These may include:
- More brand mentions
- More “natural” links
- Increased trust/awareness amongst your target audience (this will likely bring an increase in branded searches)
- Diversification of your link profile
Let’s assume that you worked for Ahrefs.
It’s clear that our target audience is anyone involved in SEO and/or link building, which may include:
- Self‐employed SEOs
- In‐house SEOs
- Agency owners
These people regularly hang out in places such as: inbound.org; warriorforum.com; reddit; quora, etc.
By joining these communities and getting involved in discussions, we’re able to insert Ahrefs into the overall narrative of the SEO landscape in various ways.
For example, we can answer SEO‐related questions over at Quora:
We can also share content directly with the community:
It’s not just about blatant promotion, though. It’s about finding your target audience, engaging with them, and helping with their problems.
If this means mentioning your product/service in the “response”, that’s fine, but:
Your #1 aim should be to add value to the community/discussion.
This might mean responding to a thread on Reddit with a super‐helpful answer that doesn’t even mention your product. Tim did this here:
In the short‐term, doing this gets you nothing more than a low‐quality (probably nofollowed) forum link. This will have very little impact on “SEO”.
But, in the long‐term, the benefits are much greater:
- People will naturally start to link to you (as you’ll be perceived as an authority, and people will be more aware of you + your product)
- Branded searches will likely increase (due to increased awareness)
- You’ll experience a higher CTR in the SERPs (again, due to increased awareness + trust)
- You can dedicate more of your resources to producing mid‐funnel content (as people will already be aware of your brand + product)
Blog commenting is another tactic that brings many of these benefits.
I’m not talking about commenting for links, though. I’m talking about useful, value‐adding blog comments, like my comment on this page:
OK, I didn’t really add that much value per se, but my comment was:
- 100% genuine
- Somewhat insightful
- Relevant to the post
Blog comments like these expose your name/brand to your target audience. This can have a knock‐on effect when it comes to SEO.
You can then quickly jump into the relevant conversations, add value and spread awareness about what you do.
#2 — Actively Guest Blogging/Contributing to Other Sites
Guest blogging is nothing new in the world of SEO.
But, ever since Matt Cutts declared guest blogging as “done” in 2014, it’s something that many SEOs have been much more wary of.
If this is you, let me tell you something: Guest blogging is far from “done”.
Matt wasn’t referring to the entire concept of guest blogging when he wrote his infamous post. He was referring to the idea of guest blogging solely for links.
And this is something that has become extremely spammy over the years.
So, if guest posting primarily for links doesn’t make sense, how is it still useful for SEO?
Here are a few ways:
- It helps you build authority/awareness (for yourself + your brand)
- It increases brand mentions
- It has a knock‐on effect on other aspects of SEO
- It has the potential to bring referral traffic (Ryan Robinson received over 1k unique visitors from a guest post he wrote for Inc, and almost 51% of these people also converted to email subscribers)
- It’s good for building links (yeah, I know, I’m contradicting myself — keep reading)
Let’s demonstrate all of these benefits with one coherent example.
Here’s a guest post by Ryan Stewart (founder at Webris) on the Ahrefs blog:
It’s clear straight off the bat that simply writing for the Ahrefs blog increased Ryan’s perceived level of authority in the SEO world.
It also helped him to build some awareness for his brand and indirectly increase mentions of his company (Webris) online.
Here, you’ll see that Loz James (the founder of the site) initially came across Ryan via his guest post on the Ahrefs blog:
Not only did this clearly lead to Ryan being featured in that podcast, it also indirectly lead to a bunch of brand mentions (and links) within that post:
And these aren’t the typical, spammy, anchor‐text‐laden guest post “author bio’ links either. They’re in‐content links make complete sense to be there.
And that’s not all:
It’s also pretty likely that Ryan’s guest post has sent him some serious referral traffic, as it now ranks for a ton of highly relevant keywords:
Because this post is consistently sending traffic his way, it’ll likely translate into further mentions, shares, and links in future.
This means that it will continue to have a knock‐on effect on SEO without any extra work.
And that’s just guest posting; you can also contribute to other sites via other means, including:
Here’s the bottom‐line:
If you’re contributing to worthwhile sites, you’ll experience a ton of SEO benefits without having to stuff your author bio full of anchored links.
Use Ahrefs Content Explorer tool to quickly find articles on popular sites that mention your competitors, but don’t link to your own site.
Here’s how to do it:
Search for your competitors brand name in Content Explorer.
Filter by DR 50+ to see the most powerful sites only, and select “one article per domain” option.
Use “highlight unlinked domains” to see which of these sites have never linked to you.
You now have a list of high‐quality sites that have linked to competitors but not to you — these are perfect guest posting opportunities.
#3 — Building Mutually Beneficial Relationships via Outreach
Let’s get one thing straight:
When we’re talking about using outreach to build mutually beneficial relationships with other bloggers/webmasters, we’re not talking about stuff like this:
I’d personally say this is closer to spam than “outreach”. It seems that 47% of people agree with me too.
This kind of “outreach” will almost always result in a mediocre response rate and low‐quality links (if any at all).
Building mutually beneficial relationships via outreach involves:
- Monitoring what’s happening in your industry (and in regards to your own site)
- Reaching out + making the effort to build genuine relationships with other bloggers (where appropriate)
It also means giving/helping others before asking for anything in return.
It can certainly be time‐consuming, but the benefits are clear:
- It’s a good way of building links (again, this shouldn’t be your primary motivation here)
- You’ll build genuine relationships with others in your industry (i.e. people who may mention or link to you in future)
- You’ll gain mutually beneficial relationships, which can potentially make all aspects of “SEO” much easier in future (as people are generally willing to help you if you can help them).
Here’s a personal example of this idea in action:
A few months back, I read a blog post on this site. I also accidentally came across a broken link on the homepage.
This wasn’t an external link. It was an incorrectly formatted link to one of the blog posts on the site itself.
I clicked the link because I genuinely wanted to read that post. So, I decided to shoot the site owner a quick email to alert him about the issue.
Here’s my email:
I didn’t ask for anything and I had no real agenda, but since then, Ricky (the site owner) and I have been chatting and helping each other out a lot.
Here’s a screenshot from my inbox:
And, because I was genuine and actually helped, he RT’d my post on Twitter (multiple times).
Now, I fully understand that you can’t establish this level of a relationship with everyone you ever reach out to (and you shouldn’t aim to). But, at the very least, your messages should be personalised.
And by personalised, I mean truly personalised.
Simply changing “hey guys” to “hey Tim” and leaving it at that doesn’t count as true personalisation.
It means taking the time to learn about the person you’re reaching out to (e.g. interests/hobbies, what’s happening in their life right now, etc.). You can then use this information in your message.
Here’s one more personal “outreach” example:
I sent this blatant pitch to Julie Joyce (from Link Fish Media). I wanted her to share my post on Twitter.
But, instead of sending a non‐personalised blanket outreach email, I actually took the time to craft my pitch specifically for her.
Here are a few things to note:
- My subject line is an Alan Partridge quote (something I knew she was a massive fan of from looking at her tweets)
- I reference things she’s tweeted about multiple times (and no, this isn’t a lazy RSS feed pull‐in)
- That last “P.S.” is a reference to something she was tweeting about that day
And, despite essentially being nothing more than a pitch, it worked:
And again, here’s my inbox:
I now consider both of these people to be friends. I’m confident that these relationships will pay off (on both sides) further down the line.
But, these are just a couple of examples. It doesn’t always have to be anything this elaborate.
For example, you could simply monitor brand mentions and reach out with a simple “thank you” to the person who mentioned you, like this:
Most people don’t take the time to do this so by doing so, you instantly stand out.
In my experience, it can often lead to great things further down the line.
With Ahrefs Alerts, you can easily monitor:
- Links coming to any page on your own site
- Links coming to any page on your competitor sites
- Links coming to any specific URL (be it an article that you want to keep an eye on, or just links coming to your homepage)
- Mentions of your own brand
- Mentions of competitors brands
- Mentions of any keywords relevant to your niche, your product offering, your services, etc.
To set up alerts, go to the Mentions section of Ahrefs Alerts, and click “+ Add alert”:
Set this up in your Ahrefs account and you’ll have more outreach opportunities than you can process.
Consider hiring a VA who will pre‐process these alerts and send you only those that truly deserve your attention.
Here are a few other ideas for building mutually beneficial relationships via outreach:
- Tell people about issues on their site (e.g. broken links, spelling mistakes, etc.)
- Reach out and tell people how they helped you
- Reach out and ask questions (note: don’t ask pointless stuff, ask genuine questions that you feel that person may be able to help you with)
Remember, don’t ask for anything until the initial relationship has been built.
#4 — Citations, NAP, Reviews, etc. (for “Local SEO”)
Monitoring brand mentions and guest posting on big industry sites works well for larger businesses.
But, many small businesses simply don’t have the budget for this.
This is where simple things like citations, reputation management, and “NAP” come in.
Google looks at NAP (Name, Address, Phone) to determine a couple of things:
- Is this a legitimate business?
- Where should they rank in the organic search results?
Most legitimate businesses will have their NAP on their website.
Here’s my local Starbucks, for example:
But, in Google’s eyes, this one NAP instance doesn’t necessarily infer that this is a legitimate business.
So, in order to verify it, they scan the web for other instances (effectively citations) of that businesses NAP details.
Here’s one instance of my local Starbucks on Cylex:
If the NAP details are consistent across many records (as is the case here), it’s probably safe to assume that the business is genuine.
Google then looks at both the number of NAP instances and the consistency of said instances to help determine where a business should rank in geo‐targeted results.
In general, the more consistent NAP instances you have, the better.
But, NAP is just one part of the equation.
Most potential customers check reviews before doing business with anyone.
This is where reputation management may be useful.
Let’s assume that you search for the hypothetical business, Josh’s Brilliant Plumbing Company (JBPC) and you see this result in #2 position:
This would probably be enough to dissuade most potential customers from doing business with the company.
So, it would be your job to ensure that this result effectively disappears from the search results, by:
- Contacting the writer of the review and persuading him/her to remove it
- Removing the review from the first page of results (using various SEO methods)
It can be a pretty difficult task, but leaving the review there would diminish any hard work done on the traditional SEO side of things.
Recommended reading: Local SEO: A Simple (But Complete) Guide
#5 — Co‐Citations + Co‐Occurrence
In 2013, SEJ referred to co‐citations and co‐occurrence as “the next big thing in SEO”:
Some people even went so far as to suggest that co‐citations and co‐occurrence would someday replace links and anchor text.
We’re still far from that being a reality, but it’s generally believed that co‐citations and co‐occurrence do bear some influence on rankings.
But, before we start discussing that, let’s look at what these two things actually mean.
Here’s how SEJ defines co‐citation:
…Co‐citation refers to the similarities found between two web pages, based on a third‐party web page that successfully mentions the first two web pages in a correlation with each other. Based on that co‐citation, Google identifies a relation – or link – between those two websites, which is then used as an important search engine‐ranking factor
Here’s what that means in plain English:
If site A mentions site B and site C in the same article, then site B and C are related to one another. Why? Because they were cited together in the same article (i.e. they were co‐cited).
For example, let’s assume that someone mentions Ahrefs and Moz in the same article.
Even if there’s no link, Google can infer that there is a link between these two words.
If there was only one instance of this co‐citation, it probably wouldn’t mean much.
But if there were multiple instances of these two words being mentioned together in the same place, Google could confidently infer that there is some connection between these two things.
And, as there are currently thousands of co‐citations for this example:
It would be safe to assume that Google understands there’s some link between the two words.
But how do they know what the link is?
Here’s SEJ’s definition:
…co‐occurrence refers to the association of some particular phrases – or more specifically, important keywords – that come in close proximity to each other. This close proximity of important keywords develops an association and relation that are understandable by Google as an important search engine factor.
In plain English, when a link or citation occurs (e.g. a mention of Ahrefs), Google will look at the surrounding words on the page. This helps them to figure out what that page is all about.
You can view the text surrounding your links using Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Simply enter your domain into Ahrefs Site Explorer and go to “Backlinks”:
You’ll see the link anchor and surrounding text in the “Anchor and backlink” column:
If the same words are being mentioned in close proximity to a link/citation across a number of instances:
Google can confidently infer that said page must be somehow related to those keywords.
For example, here you can see that Ahrefs is mentioned in close proximity to the phrase “SEO tool”:
And here (in a slightly different order):
It’s clear why this is happening: Ahrefs is, in fact, an SEO tool.
That’s why so many people are mentioning the word “Ahrefs” in very close proximity to the words “SEO” and “tool”.
Should Google be using co‐occurrence in their algorithm, they could quite easily infer that Ahrefs is a popular SEO tool by looking at these three articles.
They may even decide that Ahrefs should rank for the phrase “SEO tool”, even though none of these articles link to Ahrefs.
So, the only question that remains is:
How can you utilise co‐citation and co‐occurrence for your own/clients sites?
Here are a few ways you can increase co‐citations + co‐occurrence:
- When guest posting (#2), include keywords you want to rank for in close proximity to your author bio link (e.g. “Joshua Hardwick writes for the blog over at Ahrefs, a leading SEO tool”)
- Work on creating a brand rather than just a website, as this will increase the likeliness of people mentioning your brand name
- Create great content (if you can create content that gets shared and linked to a lot, you’ll naturally get people mentioning your brand in relation to your content)
In essence, if you’re actively marketing your business/website and “doing SEO”, co‐occurrence and co‐citations will occur naturally.
#6 — Ads
Yep, you heard that right: “ads” are a core component of off‐page SEO.
If you can get your content in front of the right people (i.e. those with the ability to share, mention and link to your content in future), things will be much easier.
Most platforms allow you to get pretty granular when it comes to targeting. This makes the process quite easy.
For example, Twitter’s “tailored audiences” feature has the option to display ads to a specific list of users/prospects:
All you need is their Twitter handles (e.g. @joshuachardwick).
Prospects could include anyone that’s shared or linked to similar content before. It could even just be active bloggers you’re aware of in your space.
It’s crazy how powerful this can be.
For example, let’s assume that I wanted to get this post in front of people like Brian Dean, Rand Fishkin, Tim Soulo, etc. I could simply grab their Twitter handles:
And then create a tailored audience.
If I wanted to be slightly less granular, I could also find a bunch of public lists (like this SEO list). I could then target everyone on it in one fell swoop):
Twitter isn’t your only option either.
Most platforms (e.g. Facebook, Stumbleupon, Quuu, etc.) have similar capabilities.
For example — as Ken Lyons points out — you could utilise Facebook’s geotargeting capabilities to get your content in front of local people/journalists/bloggers/etc:
From this, you could potentially attract a bunch of shares, mentions, and links without any manual outreach. Just make sure your content is good enough.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ads. You just have to get creative!
Why Off‐Page Won’t Work Without Proper On‐Page SEO
In my experience, off‐page SEO tends to be where most SEOs spend most of their energy.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (in fact, it actually makes sense for a lot of sites) but here’s the deal:
If you don’t have your on‐page SEO in order, off‐page SEO isn’t going to work.
Let’s assume that your website looks like this, for example:
Does this website look trustworthy?
Would you link to this website?
Obviously, this is an extreme example, but my point is this:
Nobody is going to link to a website that is either straight‐up ugly or looks untrustworthy.
If you’re still rocking the same design that you had built for $200 back in 1998, it’s probably time for a refresh.
Similarly, if your site is littered with spelling/grammatical errors or out‐of‐date info, you’re not going to get that link from Forbes. It doesn’t matter how hard you try.
It’s also unlikely that anyone is going to share your content. And if people aren’t sharing it, nobody will be reading it.
This means that there’s no possible way you can get any of the other good stuff (i.e. links, citations, etc.).
It’s not just the obvious stuff, either.
If you’re accidentally blocking indexing via robots.txt (sounds crazy, but it’s more common than you might imagine)
…or preventing search engines from viewing content with on‐site scripts:
No amount of links is going to get your ranked:
It’s also worth noting that proper on‐page SEO will have a direct affect on rankings.
Because if you rank higher, more people will see/read your content.
If more people see/read your content, more people may potentially link to or cite you in an article.
If more people cite or link to you in an article, the better your off‐page SEO.
The bottom line is this: get your on‐page SEO in order before you even think about off‐page.
Let’s Wrap This Up!
Off‐page SEO is clearly extremely important, no matter what kind of site you’re working on. However, it isn’t all about link building.
Sure, links are still pretty much the #1 ranking factor (and probably will be for the foreseeable future) but remember, they’re only one factor out of 200+ in Google’s algorithm.
(Co-)citations, co‐occurrence, NAP, reviews, etc. can often be equally — if not more — important than links.
What’s more, link building these days doesn’t necessarily refer to a linear process of “build one link, build another, build another…” etc. Successful link building is all about creating a well‐defined strategy for attracting links “naturally”.
This means investing in great content, UX and good on‐page SEO.
Do this, and you won’t go far wrong.