Guide to Link Building in Japan – How It’s Different and What Works in 2021

Link Building Techniques in Japan from Zo Digital

As an SEO agency, we get many requests from clients to build links to their Japanese websites. In the last few years, we have tried a variety of techniques. Some of these techniques have worked really well, others not so well. In this article, we will share what we learned over the last few years. We will also discuss how building links in Japan is different from Western Countries. If you are interested in building links in Japan, read on!

Most SEO experts consider backlinks to be one of the top 3 ranking factors for a page or a website. And for many competitive niches, it is considered the most important factor.

Algorithmically, using backlinks to evaluate sites is not a perfect science. Interestingly enough, Google admitted that it has tried removing backlinks from its algorithms. But unfortunately, there is no better metric. As imperfect as Google link evaluation algorithms are, it is still seen as one of the top-ranking factors.

Is Japanese Link Building Similar to the US or Europe?

In a word yes. The same “Penguin” algorithms from Google that evaluate links, work almost the same in Japanese as they do in other languages. However, there are business, cultural, and sometimes legal differences between Japan and the West. So your approaches may vary. We will cover some of those here.

Elements of Google Backlinks

So let’s review some common elements of high quality backlinks. This applies to Japan as well as the rest of the online world.

  1. What matters are good quality links on the page
  2. Backlinks need to come from a high authority site
  3. Backlinks need to be relevant 

Let’s do a quick review of each of these. These elements apply to Japanese, as well as other languages.

#1 Good Quality Links On the Page

The position of the backlink on the page matters a lot. The highest quality backlinks are in content links that are relevant to your topic. Being mentioned in the top 2 or 3 paragraphs is big. Links hidden in footers or sidebars don’t work nearly as much as in content links.

#2 Backlinks Need to Come from A High Authority Site

Getting a backlink from a high authority site has much more value than a site that is unknown, or is not trusted. Site authority is usually measured in 2 ways, 1. The number of backlinks the site has and 2. The number of branded searches the site gets. Also, an authority site is usually a reliable source which is respected by knowledgeable people in the industry. In the US some examples of high authority sites are New York Times, the New England Journal of Medicine. In Japan high authority sites can be news organizations like Nikkei,  Toyo Keizai, Yahoo Japan News, Huffington Post Japan, ITMedia, MSN, Infoseek, etc.. However, it should be noted that there can be smaller high authority sites in each niche.

#3 Backlinks Need to Be Relevant

A backlink to your site needs to be relevant to the content at hand, as well as your overall site. Relevance is by far the most underrated factor when evaluating backlinks. Most SEO tools like AHRefs or SEMRush do a good job of reporting links to your site, but they don’t make any attempt to report relevance. (Exception, Majestic SEO’s Topical Trust Flow).

One common “hint” Google has traditionally used to measure relevance is the “anchor text” of a link. Does the anchor text match the primary keywords of the page it links to? Is the topic being discussed around the link match what is on the linked to page?  Anchor text still matters in 2021, but not like it did 2011. Based on our experience, and experience of others, what matters more these days is “page relevance” or “site relevance” of the link. 

All and all, what matters is having a good but relevant “Link Profile”.

Some History of Link Building in Japan

When doing link audits for more mature companies in Japan, we often find old or outdated techniques that worked before Google released the Penguin Algorithm in 2012. Surprisingly, some SEO companies still employ these techniques today. These days, Google’s algorithms are smart enough to ignore gratuitous backlinks. And in some cases, you could receive a Google Penalty.

Link Building Techniques That Don’t Work in Japan

Based on our experience, the following techniques either don’t work at all, or only provide minimal gains. 

1. Directory Registration

It used to be that you could rank by just entering your site in a number of free or paid link directories. One such directory was JOY (Japanese Yellow Pages) or Portalnet.info. 

A good list used to be maintained here, but the site is down.

http://japanseo.org/free-japanese-directories (link disabled)

2. Paid Submissions

There also used to be paid submission sites like Submit!. You pay them a small fee and viola, you could rank. But these have gone the way of directory links.

3. Link Trading, Reciprocal Links

“I’ll link to your website if you link to mine”. We both get value from each other’s links, right? Google has said the Reciprocal Links aren’t necessarily bad. The classic example could be PR announcements, where 2 companies form a partnership. However, if you overuse this technique, you are likely to incur a Google Penalty.

We sometimes let link trading happen after we carefully evaluate the target site. If the site’s overall content is relevant enough to yours, a link from your site to that site should be considered natural. 

There are still some that have a “link-exchange sites list”page (called Sogo link list page in Japanese). These may be good to get instant, easy backlinks, but most of them are not relevant to your site at all, thus wouldn’t add much value or even you could be penalized by Google in the future, so they are not worth in a long run. Here are some example of Sogo links or related links pages below:

These Sogo links still look good because list somewhat relevant sites:

https://www.lominoclinic.com/hawaiilink.php

Gray or not good:

http://www.shinjinkai.net/link.html

http://www.toolfirst.jp/link/

While we still see cases where link exchanges seem to work in Japanese, we don’t recommend it. It’s only a matter of time before Google link detection algos figure things out and shut you down.

4. Buying Old Domains For Links

Trying buying an old website with lots of backlinks and redirecting the links to your website. 

We tried a similar technique of merging 2 websites for a client. We had a client that built a website as a travel agent years back. Then later, they pivoted and built a different website aimed at overseas study. The travel agent domain had all kinds of backlinks, some spammy and some good. So we thought it would be a good idea to “merge” the domains and redirect all backlinks from the old travel agent website to the newer overseas study website. After setting all redirects, we found that it didn’t work at all. We had exactly no improvements after the merge. 

Most of these techniques were shut down when Yahoo adopted Google as its search engine in Japan. And in 2012, when the Penguin algo was released. There was also a Japanese specific content release in 2017. However, you can still find vestiges of these things on the Japanese web. 

How is Link Building in Japan Different from the Rest of the World?

While Google’s algorithms are mostly the same from language to language, the market in Japan has some significant differences. That person you reach out to may give you an unexpected response. 

Keep in mind that Japanese business world is a “Relationship-Based” business culture. While US and Europe business cultures are more Task oriented. These concepts and many more are discussed in this book, “When Cultures Collide” by Richard D Lewis. This applies to when doing Link Building, PR, content promotion, or any type of outreach activity.

Use of proper Japanese Language

If you are a link builder living in the U.S. and working with US audience, you may find it a bit strange to start your outreach email with “Dear Sir or Madam…” but in Japan, you can never be too polite in any business situation. 

Writer in perfect honorific business language, “Keigo”, is a must. If your email is not written in the proper Keigo, it looks like you don’t respect the email recipient and your email would be ignored or discarded or even he or she may mark your email as spam. 

That’s why it’s important to hire a Japanese native speaker to write perfectly written outreach emails or at least, proofread them before you start sending a campaign. Non-native speakers, or even young Japanese speakers who have no business experience, will not be able to write the proper language, or even edit a template. Most machine translation software will not use proper Keigo for this context.

Be Aware of Japan’s Privacy Laws

Japan has its own set of laws similar to GDPR in Europe. The  Act on the Protection of Personal Information applies to all business entities. According to the act, all information which allows you to identify an individual is considered as personal data to be protected. For example, only a surname is not subjected to the law, but an email address is included. And you have a legal obligation to get permission before you collect personal data and explain what the given data is used for. 

As a digital marketer in Japan, you should also know the Act on Regulation of Transmission of Specified Electronic Mail, which regulates obligation to opt in/out and disclosure of the email sender. 

From our experience, the Japanese privacy laws are stricter than that of the US, and it’s similar to the GDPR. You can reach out to publishers, bloggers, and influencers as long as they disclose their contact information publicly. If you do link building outreach, you should be careful with email finder tools such as Hunter.io, which provides assumed email addresses that are not publicly available. 

Finally, we are not lawyers, so the information here should not be construed as legal advice. Consult a Japanese lawyer if you need help.

Finding the Right Contact in a Company

Because of stricter privacy regulations, you may find it difficult to reach out to the person whom you want to talk to at the first outreach. Usually, you should contact through their company email or contact form, according to each company’s rules. The good thing is that all emails are shared with the relevant person or department properly in most of the cases, even if you send an email to contact@company.com. So, if they are interested in talking to you, you are likely to hear from the right contact person. 

Finding the Right Influencer

Whether you are targeting a blogger, an affiliate site, or a YouTuber, finding the right influencer can make a big difference in terms of the quality of backlink or mention. Japanese marketers love to use the expression WIN/WIN. So approaching influencers in Japan with that attitude can lead to some great results.

Many influencers are in business to make money. So they are looking for a “pay to play” scheme. Sometimes these can work, and they can actively promote your product for you. However, many are not good candidates for high quality backlinks, as they are not providing truly high quality content. 

Some bloggers are truly passionate about their topic, enjoy keeping their audiences engaged and fulfilled, and are less motivated by money. These are THE BEST influencers to target. Getting a highly relevant backlink or mention from a well known influencer in your space is worth more than many links from a paid affiliate site.

Be Prepared for Longer Negotiations

As this is Japan, and decisions are based on consensus. Decisions can take 2x sometimes as high as 10x longer than Western Companies. Many times this applies to link building discussions as well. So you need to budget for extra time. However, for smaller sites that are run by one person, decisions can happen quite quickly.

Need to take into account relationships

In some well established smaller industries, many of the companies that appear as competitors are in fact well interconnected. That seemingly innocent “ratings site” could actually be a front for a competitor. And many times competitor A might also own competitor B, or have a strong hidden relationship. Sometimes a competitor can own a group of websites. In Japan, business relationships are not always documented publicly on the internet. As a result, you need to tread carefully when doing outreach.

Major News Sites have Tight Control

In Western Markets, major news and media sites exhibit tight control over their content and are unlikely to give you a DoFollow backlink. There has been a tendency for large media sites like Forbes to not give a DoFollow link or even Nofollow link since a few years ago. 

The same is true in Japan. You may get your content featured successfully on some of the largest media outlets in Japan, like Yahoo or ITMedia, but they are unlikely to link back to your site or only give you a NoFollow link. 

However, we still recommend to reachout to major news media sites using PR techniques. Why? 

First may get super powerful brand mentions from them. It adds trust to your brand and lets you showcase your expertise and experience. What would happen if you could say in the next outreach campaign that you’ve got your content featured on the New York Times? 

In addition, since Google mentioned the use of off-site sentiment, brand mentions or citations also have SEO value. And Google has stated that NoFollow links, which add value to SEO rank as a “hint”.  This leads to a more natural pattern or ratio of citations, No Follow Links and DoFollow links. 

Finally, If a major news media outlet in Japan publishes content without a backlinks, other smaller sites may pick up on the story, and provide DoFollow backlinks. These “secondary” sites can often provide good “link juice”.

Not all techniques work in all industries

We have built links in many types of industries and many niches. One thing we found is techniques that work for one type of niche may fail completely in another niche. You need to allow time for testing and iterating what works best for your outreach campaigns.

What Link Building Techniques Work in Japan Today?

There are a range of link building techniques you could try. Some techniques are more easy to implement than others. And some techniques are more black hat and gray hat, while other techniques are clearly white hat. 

This diagram gives a good overview of where most common link building techniques rank. On the vertical or Y-axis, you can see how difficult it is to implement a particular tactic. On the horizontal or X-axis, you can see how black-hat, or shady the tactic is.

Link Building Techniques in Japan from Zo Digital

Now we give our opinions on which techniques work best for Japan.

Technique #1 – Rank in comparison articles

Use SEO tools to find out which sites link to your competitors, but don’t yet link to you. Often you will find comparison articles that don’t mention your service. Reach out to them, and make it really easy for them to include you. In one case, we not only provided the text and backlink, but we also used their CMS to publish content on their behalf. We essentially did all the work for them.   Start by searching for “commercial intent” keywords.

Technique #2 – Associations and Vendor Directories

It is helpful to register for associations and other vendor directories. Most of these directories do not yield value. However, we have seen noticeable improvements for associations that have high authority, limited entry, and have high relevance. Some of the more savvy industry associations have built high authority sites that often rank for niche searches.

Technique #3 – Creating Shareable and Linkable Content

Just like other countries, websites in Japan see a lot of value with infographics, especially if the data is really interesting. But linkable content can be YouTube Videos, interesting stories, charts of interesting data, or even an image.

Here is one such example of an infographic that got a lot of attention in our client’s niche. This is a country-by-country ranking of the total market for Fashion EC sites. This graphic is hosted on the Printful Japan blog.

Technique #4 – Offer tips, a service or fix

One technique known as broken link building, where you find broken links on a prospects website. Then offer a better link to your site. 

Another similar technique is to offer a set of tips to the webmaster on how they can improve their website, or improve traffic to their site. Offers a little free Digital Marketing advice goes a long way. 

Once again, thinking with a WIN/WIN mindset goes a long way in Japan.

Technique #5 – Offering updated info or content

This is a variation of the technique above. There is while the web has been around for about 20 to 30 years, there is already a huge amount of outdated info or outdated content. You can often find links to outdated content. By providing a link to updated content, they will likely link to your site. WIN/WIN strikes again.

Technique #6 – Promote on SNS

It is always wise to promote contents via social networks in Japan as well as the rest of the world. Promotion of contents leads to more backlinks. In Japan, Twitter is by far the most popular social network, but LINE and Facebook should also be considered. LinkedIn is not so popular at this time, but is slowly gaining popularity.

Technique #7 – Guest Posting

Guest posting is not common in Japan, So it can be considered a goldmine of opportunity.

Cultural issues come into play. Maybe because there is no culture of “doing something for free” or there’s a stricter editorial control in general. But that means an opportunity because you don’t have many competitors. Most sites, especially traditional media may consider it too strange and just ignore it without consideration, but there are always niches. There are more flexible and innovative people who find your offer valuable. We once got a call from the CEO of an online media and he said, “Hey, it’s the first time I got such a proposal but it’s actually great!”

Unfortunately, in 2020 Google has stated the Guest Postings are “unnatural links”. Like many techniques, it may not provide much value in the future.

Technique #8 – Sponsored posts or content partnership   

We often get requests for some free to post our content, which is typically known as sponsored content or paid guest posts. Though we don’t usually proceed with any “paid” content placement to avoid unnatural backlinks, it’s not absolutely necessary to throw away every single opportunity for it when the target site is:

  • Relevant enough to your business/product
  • Has a good domain authority  

And of course, the prices. Also, we found that some sites were really worth having a partnership with because they have various content syndication networks to be used to promote their content. So one guest post or getting your product featured may cost $200 but you may end up obtaining 5 backlinks and even getting other types of content published like a video that they repurpose for different social platforms.  

Link Building in the Future

To quote hockey great Wayne Gretsky, you want to skate to where the puck is going, not where it is now. So you want to pick strategies that will get you backlinks, now and in the future. Google is methodically stamping out most black-hat techniques, and will continue to do so. Just like most email spamming techniques have been neutralized.

Writing Effective Contents

Writing effective contents is still effective in 2020, and will likely continue for the next decade.  More than anything else, you need to use effective contents to build links. As Google algorithm becomes smarter, it is best to utilize link building techniques that work now, and for the years to come.

While you can get links to your home page and some product pages, you need to have quality contents to attract valuable links. 

Moving from Link Building to “Digital PR”

Here at ZD, we call our team “Digital PR Specialists” instead of a “Link Builders”. The fact is, Public Relations or PR type work is conceptually the same as before. However the battleground has changed. The magazine and TV pitches of yesterday are being replaced with smart marketers who use advanced SEO tools to find quality backlinks and referral traffic. 

Our Digital PR team builds effective “linkable contents”, then they reach out to prospects who would benefit from those contents. The next result is high quality honest links.

All in all, we have avoided sending mass emails to prospective partners. Instead we have sent highly targeted emails proposing a “WIN-WIN” type of proposal that gives values to our prospects, as much as it gives value to us.

And Link Building in Japan itself has changed. Today’s and future link building requires varied strategies and multiple skill sets. It’s no longer just sending emails and hoping for the best. Instead we need to take it from very different perspectives to be able to make creative approaches.

About Zo Digital Japan

We are a “white-hat” link building agency. We believe that the best way to accumulate quality backlinks is to create great contents that provide a unique viewpoint, then reach out and promote those contents. If you are interested in building more links to your Japanese website, be sure to contact us. Go here for more information about our Link Building and SEO Services.

About the Author Jeff Crawford

Jeff Crawford is a Digital Marketing expert, technologist and Manager. He has worked for technology companies in Silicon Valley such as Apple, WebTV and Microsoft. He has lived in Tokyo Japan since 2004, working for companies such as Microsoft KK and Adobe Systems Japan. Jeff is founder of Zo Digital Japan, an SEO and Digital Marketing agency based in Tokyo. Jeff started the Tokyo Digital Marketers Meetup in 2016, which now has over 2000 members. He has also presented about Digital Marketing at such events as Ad-Tech Tokyo, WordCamp Tokyo, Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC), and the Japan Association of Translators (JAT).

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