For the last three years, I’ve worked at a link building agency. I’ve never handled client communications per se, but I’ve participated in many discussions and client calls. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of, “How many links are you going to build for us?”
Determining an ideal way to bill clients has always been a source of frustration within the SEO sphere.
I envy the industries in which billing isn’t such a complex issue. When I go to a grocery store, I know I’m going to pay a certain amount of money to purchase a certain number of milk cartons. A shop that sells tires can set a specific rate for an individual tire or a set of tires.
It must be nice to sell a tangible product.
Link building doesn’t have this quantifiable luxury. Wait, let me back up – link building SHOULDN’T have this quantifiable luxury.
If an agency or a link builder says they are going to build you X amount of links within a certain timeframe:
This is NOT a good promise to make. It’s actually a potential red flag of services that act outside Google’s Guidelines.
When you hire a link building service or an individual link builder, it’s far more important to focus on the quality of the links rather than quantity of the links.
Before I get into WHY guaranteeing a certain number of links is a red flag, let me first say that I completely understand why an onboarding client may come in with a “how many links” mindset. If I ran a company and I contracted a production agency for television ads, I’d be pretty upset if a year went by and no 30-second spots for my product ever aired.
At the same time, I’d be upset if that company was churning out low-quality spots that didn’t properly present my unique value proposition, or appeal to my audience, just in an effort to meet a monthly quota.
In link building, demanding that your team or agency build X amount of links in a certain time frame can be dangerous to your overall online marketing goals. The quality of links greatly outweighs the rate at which you build any and all links.
Don’t hire link builders with the priority of production goals, a la factory lines. While anyone can build terrible links, in 2015 you need an agency who can build links that will stand the test of time. You need to hire SEOs based on their expertise, not their production rate.
The Danger of Demanding Quantity
When you demand a certain number of links, the relayed message is that quantity takes priority over quality as the primary metric of success.
Let’s imagine a not-at-all-unlikely scenario where your link builder has only built half of their link quota for the month, with only a week left. The links built thus far are good, but you’re pressuring them about the number of links. Is that link builder going to:
- Take an exorbitant amount of the little time remaining to build a relationship that will produce one high-quality/authoritative link?
- Find a bevy of junk link opportunities that will be built instantly, but will also have no impact on your audience?
If you picked B, you win! Tell them what you’ve won Johnny:
If your links aren’t useful to your audience or add value to the internet as a platform, they are nothing short of manipulative. Websites with manipulative links are often penalized by Google’s webspam team or lose rankings via the Penguin algorithm.
Even if Google doesn’t punish you, junk links will likely do nothing to improve your performance in search. There’s no good reason for low quality links.
But if you’re not paying for an agreed-upon amount of links, what are you paying for? You’re paying for time, expertise, and a campaign custom-fitted for your business.
Buying Time & Expertise
When you hire an agency or team of link builders, you shouldn’t think you’re paying them per link. What you’re paying for is their expertise and their efforts. You’re paying them to analyze your situation, create a strategy to increase your organic search visibility, and execute that strategy.
Unfortunately in SEO, we can’t guarantee results. It’s our industry’s inconvenient truth. Anyone who tries to sell you SEO by promising you’ll rank #1 for competitive phrases is being deceitful.
This is frankly true with just about every facet of marketing, online or off. You can never be 100% sure that your investment is going to pan out exactly how you wanted. All you can really do is hire thoughtful, experienced, honest people to put in the work and report the results.
We will do the necessary research, we will do the work, we will create opportunities, and we will build relationships. In the end though, there’s too much we’ll never know about Google’s search algorithm, and there are so many different websites with skin in the game. And it’s not like we have any editorial control over the sites we’re trying to build links from. We can’t FORCE them to link to us. If we did have such control, we would be working outside of Google’s guidelines.
We can’t promise rankings, but we can promise we will work diligently to build the kind of links that earn trust from your niche audience and expand your visibility. Links aren’t all about ranking after all.
Of course, I’m not trying to insinuate that link building/SEO is just a crapshoot. Far from it. I’ve worked in the industry too long and I’ve seen the positive results firsthand. Yet almost without exception, those are clients that have understood that successful link building takes time, and that link quality far outweighs link quantity. .
Link building is a long, arduous process. Here’s one of my favorite images that parodies the SEO experience:
Author note: Two hours with this movie wasn’t in fact 14 years on Earth – it just felt like it.
Immediate results are a rarity in any SEO and/or link building campaign. If you’re on page six on Tuesday, you’re not going to be on page one on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or Friday. Or… you get the point.
Link building is not just a financial investment, it’s a time investment as well.
What Link Building Looks Like in 2015
Link building is an arduous and time-consuming practice, at least if you’re doing it the right way. Technically, doing it the black hat way is pretty time intensive as well. The black hat way will be even more time-consuming, because you will have to clean up the resulting mess.
If you boil down link building to its most basic level, a campaign has three stages.
- What linkable assets does the website have?
- How are the competitors performing? If they’re performing well in search, why is that?
- What kind of content does the audience in the niche respond to?
- Find relevant websites via a myriad of methods
- Perform an analysis to make sure the websites you’ve found are worth the outreach
- Pick the pages on those websites that make the most sense for your link
- Find the contact information
- Determine shared interests between you and the webmaster
- Craft a link pitch
- Follow up (when necessary)
Again, this is a skeletal version of a link building campaign. Here are other components of a more muscular link building campaign:
- Community engagement
- Content creation
That, my friends, is what is required for a successful link building campaign. If you want the links, you have to do the work. Lots of work. And not just anyone can do this work.
Because there is practically no formal education mechanism to support the teaching of SEO/link building, there’s not a gigantic pool of talented link builders to pick from. You CAN train someone with the right personality traits and skill set to become a spectacular link builder, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
What are those right personality traits and skill sets The best link builders are:
- Effective Communicators
- Problem solvers
- Internet savvy
You can’t say this about everybody, or even most people.
I love this tweet because a) it’s true and b) come on, bovine feces.
No Magic Number
I totally understand why potential clients ask for a certain amount of links during a certain timeframe. This is doubly true when it’s apparent the client has only a vague understanding of how SEO works. When you contract someone to build your house, you expect a house at the end of the project.
But this simply isn’t how SEO and link building functions. There really is no magic number of links. Erin Everhart agrees with me:
So don’t stress so much about the number of links coming in, and focus on the quality of what the agency is building in your name.
Featured image created by author for SEJ
Image 1: Created by author for SEJ
Image 2: Used with permission from SEMrush
Image 3: Screenshot taken by author on February 4, 2015
Image 4: Screenshot taken from Search Engine Land on March 10, 2015