If you are up to date on the SEO industry, you have very likely come across references to HARO link building over the last couple of years. HARO has quickly become one of the primary ways in which businesses build high-value backlinks to important landing pages, increasing their ranking on search engine results pages and, consequently, organic traffic.
We have been doing HARO successfully at scale for a number of years now, and we have put together the below guide. The goal is to provide some of our hard-earned insight into the complicated and often difficult to crack HARO process and convince you that it is well worth your time.
What is HARO link building, and why do you need to leverage it
HARO is unparalleled when it comes to building high-quality backlinks from authority sites. HARO is a trusted name used by a wide range of the internet's biggest blogs, businesses and news sites and represents your best chance at high quality earned media. While not the only link building approach to focus on, the biggest advantage of HARO link building is that you avoid the cold emails and hit or miss solicitation that is involved in other link building methods. Journalists and bloggers are looking for your thoughts and opinions; all you have to do is share them. Importantly, access to HARO is free.
HARO: A Brief History
HARO stands for Help a Reporter Out, and in its purest form, it is a relationship broker between journalists and sources. It started as a Facebook group back in 2008 by Peter Shankman and quickly became the biggest media outreach mailing list in the English-speaking world. Eventually, it was bought out by public relations software Vocus Inc. in 2010 and finally merged with another PR and earned media company, Cision, in 2014.
What HARO has Become
HARO is still a way for journalists, bloggers and expert sources to connect, but it has also become a fundamental component and facilitator of SEO, particularly in the content marketing ecosystem. This is because HARO, not exclusively, but increasingly, is a place where bloggers and content writers trade "Authority" for "Expertise" in an effort to satisfy E-A-T content requirements.
E-A-T refers to "Expertise," "Authority", and "Trust"--Google's criteria for judging and ranking content. As part of Google's effort to control and shape the internet, the company is increasingly focused on ensuring that its users are shown high-quality content.
The people on the query side of HARO are looking for "expertise" to include in their articles. Those on the pitching side of HARO–people looking for branded mentions, backlinks, etcetera–want the authority that comes with a link back to their website from one that is already viewed favourably by Google.
For example, if you are a startup software company with a link back to your site from a major tech publication, Google sees this as your site being vouched for by an established player in the industry. The more such links you have, the more worthy the search engines consider your site and, over time, the higher up on the search engine results page you will appear.
Why HARO link building is a Must: ROI and Quality
HARO link building is unrivalled at building high-quality backlinks to a website (especially landing pages). These links are a foundational variable in Google's page rank algorithm and what the internet's largest search engine uses to determine where a site will fall on the results pages.
Your backlink profile is, therefore, highly correlated with the organic traffic you will end up receiving. HARO is so valuable because it provides link opportunities that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get anywhere else.
When it comes to ROI, your cost per link should be your main KPI. If you spend more on labour and link placement fees than the value a link adds to your site--in increased traffic and conversions--that's negative ROI.
HARO link building, therefore, offers an unprecedented value proposition:
- The service is free.
- It connects you with a large number of high-quality websites that are actively soliciting your contributions (as opposed to you cold emailing site editors).
- The people you are reaching out to are gatekeepers for websites you would otherwise have a far smaller chance of making contact with. These big sites get bombarded with solicitations all day, every day.
The Anatomy of a Pitch
While HARO can produce big results, there is a science to it. Depending on the site in question, the journalists and bloggers you are contacting receive sometimes hundreds of pitches per query. Separating the wheat from the chaff has to be done quickly because writers are often on tight deadlines. It is impractical to give equal attention to hundreds of emails.
A lot of articles have been written on how to write the perfect HARO pitch. The truth is, there are a lot of variables to consider. Everything from your subject line to the first few words of your opening sentence impacts your open rate and whether or not a reader is going to bother continuing on to the body of your pitch.
A pitch should be instantly recognizable as a pitch in a person's inbox, and you should get to the point as quickly as possible. Don't waste time on long introductions or niceties.
Crafting a subject line
For subject lines, you don't want to do anything fancy. Copy and pasting the verbatim title of the query is usually the best practice because many journalists and bloggers will be filtering responses this way. If you try to get too original with your subject lines, your great pitch might be relegated to a spam folder.
Your body paragraphs and headers should be under 300 words total. If you surveyed the word count requirements that are often (though not always) mentioned in queries, "under 300 words" would probably be the most frequently noted stipulation. However, even at 300 words, if you're writing an article and you get 150 responses that are all 300 words long, that's 45,000 words to parse. That's a short book.
Font and Formatting
Your font size, spacing and general formatting matter in HARO link building as well. If a journalist opens your email and sees different fonts, sizes, and spacing conventions, it is much more likely to be sent to the trash.
You need a solid e-signature to cap it all off. Include your full name, title and, ideally, your social profiles (especially your Linkedin). HARO is awash in fake profiles trying to score easy link juice, and more and more writers and bloggers are wise to this. Your social profile and hopefully a bio section on your website are your credibility.
Paying for HARO
In addition to the labour and opportunity costs of your HARO link building efforts, you will also need to decide whether you want to pay for the service. There are both free and paid versions, with the main difference being first access to journalist queries and premium support with the latter.
The idea that HARO is a time-sensitive endeavour is debatable. Given the sheer number of pitches received by each query, it is plausible that being first to the punch, provided your pitch is good, is helpful. Then there are people who believe that having a pitch hit an inbox as close to the deadline as possible is even better--in which case, the free version is all you need. If you are pursuing this tactic, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with Gmail's "schedule send" feature.
If you had to pick an approach, quality over speed would always be the better choice, which is achievable with the free version. You get all the queries the premium users do, just sent en masse rather than piecemeal as they become available.
There are other things to consider if you decide to pay for the premium option. You will be receiving a lot more emails from Cision, for one. Every time a new query becomes available, you get a new email notification.
It is also essential to consider that the "advanced access" you are paying for is relative. It all depends on how quickly Cision updates its new query database. You might get a 4-hour headstart on a query; you might get 15 minutes. Ask yourself if a 15-minute head start is really worth paying for.
Identifying Pitching Opportunities
An important part of any HARO link building strategy and a crucial variable in your ROI equation is how well and how quickly you are able to identify pitching opportunities. The HARO email is sent out three times a day with a varying number of queries per email (anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of hundred).
You need to be able to scan the emails for opportunities that allow you to showcase both your niche (or industry) expertise as well as your personal experience. You also need to know how to weed out opportunities that won't provide you with backlinks. Dofollow backlinks are an essential part of SEO.
Many journalists and bloggers on the query side of the service understand the quid pro quo of HARO. They are after expertise for their content and recognize that you are seeking authority backlinks for your website. Hard news websites and leading industry blogs are less concerned with this quid pro quo and more interested in legitimate and credible sources for their stories. These are the kinds of sites that tend to give you nofollow links and branded mentions over dofollow backlinks.
Maintaining a Win List
Building and constantly updating a list of high authority sites that reliably provide dofollow backlinks, as well as those that don't, is a big part of HARO success and controlling your pitching costs. While nofollow links and branded mentions are not without their SEO and PR value, dofollow backlinks are the goal of HARO link building.
You must also learn to discriminate based on what you estimate the time requirements of a pitch to be. If you see a query that you like but which asks you to answer a dozen questions, with no guarantee of anything in return, you might decide it's not worth your time. A query that asks one or two straightforward questions, on the other hand, doesn't have such a high opportunity cost.
Anonymous queries present another dilemma. Many high DR/DA websites will post anonymous queries to HARO in an effort to dissuade inappropriate or irrelevant pitchers from bombarding them. Provide a great, quotable response to one of these, and you could find yourself with a backlink in a major journal or blog with millions of monthly views and massive reach.
Avoiding Bait and Switches
- Low-value sites
- Link exchanges
When you pursue an anonymous query, you might also find that you have responded to one posted by a low-value site. It wants your contribution, but it suspected you would have avoided responding had you known the link would be coming from a low authority site.
Then there are the unethical queries you need to look out for. It is not uncommon to find bait and switch queries that tell you your contribution will be featured on site A (a high authority site), but it ends up on site B (a much lower authority site).
It is also increasingly common on HARO to find SEOs looking for link exchanges. They will feature your contribution and reward you with a link, but only if you agree to publish a link of theirs on your site in return. Sometimes these expectations are explicitly stated in the query details; other times, they drop the bomb on you after you have sent your pitch. You can build a list of these sites too.
HARO Faux Pas
As previously mentioned, there is something of a science to HARO link building. Journalists and content writers are inundated with pitches, and even well-thought-out contributions can be easily passed over if they don't present the information in the right way.
Poor Formatting and Walls of Text
Poor formatting with multiple font sizes and inconsistent spacing screams a lack of effort, which can easily get you ignored. Many people new to HARO link building make the mistake of writing their pitches as if they were long-form content. Again, as previously mentioned, if your pitch is over 300 words long, it is unlikely to be read. At the end of the day, you are writing for SEO, and it is important to keep that in mind.
It is a good idea to learn how quotes are featured in blog and news content before starting HARO link building. If your pitch is used, an excerpt from it is going to be attributed to you in the form of a quote. John/Jane Smith, CEO of XYZ Company, believes that "blah blah blah."
You want to try and write the way you would speak, which is to say, with authority, but you are not writing a PhD dissertation. It’s all about quotability. Bear in mind that the average newspaper is written to be understood by someone with an 11th-grade reading level. The bottom line is that it is important to know your audience.
Trying to Ingratiate Yourself
Being cloying or fawning in your preamble is another mistake. Not only does it waste time, but it tends to come off as disingenuous. You can let someone know you enjoyed a previous article of theirs or mention you find the topic of their query engaging, but don't go overboard with the compliments.
Not Getting to the Point
Failing to get to the point quickly is, perhaps, the most fatal of all HARO link building errors. This comes down to--you guessed it--the sheer number of pitches sent for each query. Don't spend a paragraph discussing your bona fides. Don't offer to put the writer in touch with someone who has something to contribute (if you aren't that person, don't contribute).
And don't offer to get in touch to discuss the contents of the query. Sometimes a query will request that you simply let the person know you are interested in sharing your two cents. For the vast majority of queries, however, treat its existence as an invitation to share your thoughts. Just get right into it.
Lastly, while not the most damning of all HARO link building mistakes, you shoot yourself in the foot if you don't follow up with and respond to journalists and bloggers. It is common for your counterparts on the query side to either follow up on your initial response to their query. They might come back with additional questions or requests for clarification and/or reach out after the article has been published to notify you.
In both cases, you always stand to gain by responding. Taking 10 minutes to elaborate on a point you were trying to make can be the difference between inclusion or rejection in that high-authority article. Replying to a notification that you have been featured in an article you pitched with a short "Hi, thanks for letting me know, great article and look forward to collaborating again in the future" can build and maintain important relationships.
As link building strategies fall in and out of favour, it is important to learn and perfect those methods that will continue to produce even as the SEO landscape changes. HARO is undoubtedly one of the most reliably consistent ways to build great links affordably.
Remember that it is not a link building approach that produces results overnight. Links built through HARO can take weeks, even months to show up. However, when done right, HARO link building can land you backlinks on reputable, high authority sites that increase organic traffic and move your pages up in the SERPs.