External link building is considered the most challenging part of SEO, according to recent data from MarketingSherpa. The organization’s 2012 Search Marketing Benchmark Report reveals that 75 percent of marketers cite link building as difficult.

This week’s SES San Francisco conference tackles the problem of link building head on, and search experts in attendance have offered some great insight on how you can drive links to your site (in white hat ways, of course!).

Here’s Brafton’s breakdown of link building solutions detailed during SES SF:

1. Reverse engineer competitors’ links and strategize

An SEO tip for competitive analysis shared by Taylor Pratt, vice president of product marketing for Raven Internet Marketing Tools, is to identify where your competition is getting inbound links from and which pages attract these links.

With backlink tools (including, of course, Raven’s Backlink Explorer), marketers can identify the sources driving links to the competitors’ sites. For example, if links are coming from forums, you can participate in the same thread with useful, relevant content to drive links back to your web property. Further, reach out to the same websites linking to them to ask about (white hat!) linking opportunities (more on creating link opportunities to follow…).

Additionally, Pratt suggests that you focus on the top-performing pages on competitors’ sites (which drive the most links) to determine what your site may be lacking. Is there something specific to the layout or content of the competition’s most-linked pages? Are they offering white papers or info-rich blog content? Do links tend to point to pages with images?

Seeing what works for sites that achieve the online visibility you desire can help inform your link building strategy. If infographics are attracting significant links for your rival, it’s time to invest in them! Which brings us to the next point…

2. Invest in “Kick-Ass” Content

During her session devoted to link building, SES San Francisco speaker Debra Mastaler, president of Alliance-Link, said, “The best link building tool is a kick-ass copywriter.” She went on to say that content marketing is the “No. 1 important thing to do” for link building.

Her sentiment mirrors a statement from Google. When asked the best way to “increase merit-based inbound links,” Google replied:

“Create unique and compelling content on your site and the web in general.”

(The Google Webmaster Central Blog)

Content is why people link to your site. By making your site a valuable resource to industry enthusiasts, visiting prospects and existing customers, you’ll give them a reason to link to your content pages.

Mastaler suggested how-to content and high-quality landing pages that demonstrate the value of your services is important. But she also shared some insight that may help marketers shape their ongoing content marketing strategies and maximize inbound links…

3. Consider News Content Marketing

Mastaler presented visuals representing the top types of results for various keywords across the web; news content consistently made it to the top of the listings.

There are two ways that brands can get online news visibility. The first is aiming for traditional news media links (which we’ll discuss in-depth later…). The second is publishing news content – and the two are not mutually exclusive.

Brands can employ a news content marketing approach to make their sites link bait. In a session centered on how SEO is “decidedly not dead,” Bronco’s SEO head, David Naylor, referenced a site that was successfully publishing SEO-friendly news content (although he brought it up to discuss a separate issue of how the site architecture was holding back this content…).

SES keynote speaker Susan Bratton suggested that consistently publishing content is key to engaging readers and encouraging links. By nature, news content requires frequent updates.

Moreover, Brafton has reported that news content is increasingly in demand online. Recent Pew data reveals that accessing news is the third-leading internet activity among U.S. online audiences.

If brands don’t have the resources to produce this content in-house, Mastaler advises that you “hire media people and journalists who know what they’re talking about.” Borrowing the professional writing skills of editorial teams can help marketers overcome the common problem of finding the time to create original content, cited as a content marketing challenge by nearly three-quarters of marketers.

Whether you’re using news content or another form of frequently-updated content marketing, you should be publishing articles on your website that position your business as a current and modern brand. Once you’ve set the tone that you can create content worth linking to, you can also reach out to other sites or content providers to try to publish content for them (guest blogging, more on that next…) and reap the link rewards.

4. Offer expertise via Guest blogs and Interviews

SES San Francisco experts agree that publishing content on other sites is a great way to garner inbound links.

Mastaler encouraged marketers not to be shy about reaching out to media sources. “If you have strong content to offer them, you’re providing them with expertise they may not otherwise have,” she says.

With that in mind, marketers will want to be sure they’ve done their industry research before offering guest posts. It might be appropriate to approach a related forum with a stat-heavy infographic that generates demand for your services, while you can turn to a more traditional news site to indicate that you’ve stayed abreast of the latest industry developments and have something to say about how event “X” will shape the market.

Plus, when it comes to providing content for mainstream news sites, Brafton has reported that some marketers may find the media comes to them – 91 percent of journalists search the web for leads, frequenting company blogs and websites.

Jim Boykin, CEO of Internet Marketing Ninjas, agrees that today’s competitive link building climate calls for guest posts. In his SES San Francisco presentation, Boykin told attendees to be confident in how they position themselves as guest bloggers. The more you build up your repertoire of publishing guest blogs, the more you can position yourself as a “published author.”

5. Be a Broken Link Detective

Beyond posting content on other sites (or garnering media mentions for the content you publish on your own site), another white-hat way to seek out links is by looking for broken links on the web. If you find a broken link on a website relevant to your own, you can reach out to the site owner and offer to fix the link in question by pointing to a related resource on your site. You might also offer to add some updated information around the broken link.

Boykin recommended that marketers turn to Xenu’s Link Sleuth to find broken links. You can add a URL and then let the tool find broken links on a given site (and you should also check for broken links on your site as he cites this issue as common to sites hit by Panda!).

Wikipedia links carry weightMeanwhile, Mastaler encourages marketers to look for broken links on Wikipedia pages related to services. If you find a broken link on a Wiki page, she recommends you apply to be an editor, update the information (drawing from the relevant content on your site) and then add a link to your related page in the “Reference” links at the bottom of a Wiki page. Mastaler called this a “secret weapon” in link building because Wikipedia is such a popular site. And speaking of popularity…

6. Go For Social Links

The leading search engines have made clear that social networks influence SEO (check out the related interview Bing and Google gave Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land), so generating social links from authoritative users should be part of your link building agenda.

During the Long Live SEO session, Dave Naylor emphasized that getting Twitter links to your content from “good people” in your industry should be an SEO priority. He reminded marketers that Facebook “Likes” are valuable, but tweets may take precedence; Matt Cutts has stated that Google indexes Twitter links.

Naylor’s fellow panelist Mark Jackson of VIZION Interactive suggested that marketers use KnowEM to identify the leaders in their industries and start following them. He also reminded attendees that authoritative social shares require credible social content. To gain the social links, you must invest in quality content for social marketing – and use social to send the message about your valuable site content.

Mastaler also touched on the value of pushing out content via social media to attract inbound links. “If you’re doing a white paper, infographic, [or blog] Tweet it, put it on Facebook, bookmark it on Delicious – whether you’re publishing it on your site or elsewhere.”

With these link building tips in mind, you’ll hopefully see some success in generating inbound links and discount yourself from the three-quarters of marketers who struggle with link building.

For more SES San Francisco insights, check out Brafton’s event coverage!