As a link building agency in Japan, we often get many requests from clients to build links to their website. In the last few years, we have tried a variety of techniques. In this article we talk about various link building techniques in Japan. We share our experience regarding what techniques that have worked well, and what techniques that have not worked so well.
Algorithmically, using backlinks to evaluate sites is not a perfect science. Interestingly enough, Google admitted that it has tried removing backlinks from it’s 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.
In a word “yes”. The same “Penguin” algorithms from Google that track 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.
So let’s review some common elements of high quality backlinks. This applies to Japan as well as the rest of the online world.
Let’s do a quick review of each of these.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
The latest Google Algorithm update related to backlinks is known as December 2022 link spam update, which “neutralizes” the impact of unnatural links on search results by both mechanical and manual reviews.
A few latest link spam updates were intended to negate the value of unnatural links rather than to penalize the site by taking down the rankings. However, it doesn’t mean that you are safe after building many backlinks using black hat techniques because you’ve already been “penalized” by having spent time on something totally invalid. Also, you can be penalized by upcoming updates anytime in the future.
It’s sad to say that after providing link building service as part of the horistic SEO strategy for more than four years, we haven’t met any link builders or link building agencies who really practices white-hat techniques nor build links in creative ways in Japan.
Instead, many of them just ask for a backlink directly offering money or build hundreds or thousands of PBN called “satellite sites” and simply give links back from these sites. Some reasons may be because of lack of experienced personnel and low cost-effectiveness especially in the case of agencies. Link building in Japan is challenging and costly.
Based on our experience, the following techniques either don’t work at all, or only provide minimal gains.
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)
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.
“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 may 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. After the latest link spam update, these reciprocal links, which are easy to be detected by Algorithm, will not add value or even you could be penalized by Google in the future, so they are not worth your time.
Compared to a decade ago, there are much fewer sites built for purpose of creating automatic reciprocal links like the examples you can see in this article (at the 相互リンクで避けたいこと section):
However, you might find a lot of people asking for link exchange when doing link building in Japan. It’s still a typical way to get backlinks for Japanese marketers and siteowners, even for editors of online media. We are often asked for a reciprocal link and try to avoid it as much as possible. Instead, you can offer alternative value to convince the prospect to give a link to your site, such as a social media post or a link from your partner site.
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.
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.
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 feel offended.
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.
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.
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 them through their company email or contact form, according to each company’s rules.
That directly influences lower response rates. One thing we do to get more responses is to combine multiple communication channels strategically. For example, sending the first outreach message through the site’s contact form, then if we don’t hear back from them, sending a followup message through their most active social media channel like Twitter or Instagram. We see a tendency that it’s likely to get more responses on social media recently. But of course, it depends on your business and industry, and the individual site you’re reaching out to.
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.
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. We often jump on a call to introduce ourselves and explain what we want and what we can offer. So you need to budget for extra time. However, for smaller sites that are run by one person, decisions can happen quite quickly.
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
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 backlink, other smaller sites may pick up on the story, and provide DoFollow backlinks. These “secondary” sites can often provide good “link juice”.
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.
There are a range of link building techniques you could try. Some techniques are easier 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.
Now we give our opinions on which techniques work best for Japan.
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.
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.
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.
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. Offering a little free Digital Marketing advice goes a long way.
Once again, thinking with a WIN/WIN mindset goes a long way in Japan.
This is a variation of the technique above. 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 #x – Egobait
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 Instagram and Facebook should also be considered. LinkedIn is not so popular at this time, but is slowly gaining popularity.
Sharing contents in your newsletter can also help distribute them. If you have already built a mailing list and you think the content is helpful and relevant for your subscribers, go ahead and share it with them. Some of them may share your content on their SNS or even blog about it, which will turn out a backlink.
Email is the oldest but still the most effective marketing channel with ROI of $36 for every $1 spent. And it’s also helpful to build backlinks to your site.
You can also consider trying to build subscribers on LINE. LINE is the most popular chat platform in Japan, just like WhatsApp and Messenger. Recently, we see more and more bloggers and influencers building subscribers on LINE, instead of email.
Guest posting is not common in Japan, So it can be considered a goldmine of opportunity.
Cultural issues come into play. Maybe because many companies are not open to flexible negotiations, like every deal or partnership should be based on documentations or there’s 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.
We often get requests for some free to post our content, which is typically known as sponsored content or paid guest posts. Such paid content is more typical in Japan and many companies do it to simply promote or advertise their companies or services. So it’s necessary to make sure you can get a Dofollow link from the content when you negotiate with the prospect. Though Google’s attitude towards building links by guest post is unfavorable, you still may be able to consider 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 $500 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.
Note, the publication fee varies depending on the size of the site and its business, but even the cheapest will cost you around $50.
How would you feel if you were considered as an “influencer” or “expert” in your niche and asked to get interviewed? Many of you would feel good, feel respected and proud of yourself.
Expert or influencer roundups leverage this psychological effect. You invite influencers to ask their thoughts and insights on some industry specific questions like next year’s trends. Then you create content including their answers along with a nice introduction to each influencer.
As they are influencers, they often have a blog or a large number of followers on social media. If they share the content there, not only it becomes a perfect backlink, but also is a really effective way to get high exposure in your niche, which can generate more links from other websites.
The basic of link building is to provide some value to the target site which deserves a link in return.
If you have something you can offer instead of getting linked, like a discount coupon or a free account for your service, do not hesitate to do that.
For example, in some B2C products or service providers like interior design EC, we have seen pretty much higher response rates and link placement rates by offering a free product.
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 content is still effective in 2020, and will likely continue for the next decade. More than anything else, you need to use effective content 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.
Here at Zo Digital Japan, we call our team “Digital PR Specialists” instead of “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 value 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.
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.
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).