I hate giving clients bad news.
In my 20 years as a digital marketing professional, I’ve had to deliver plenty of bad news.
Changes in an algorithm, new governmental regulations, website hacks, a great SEO manager leaving for another opportunity – and sometimes things just didn’t go the way you thought they would.
There’s plenty of bad news to go around.
The worst bad news?
When you deliver something you think is amazing, but it’s taken bad news.
This happens too frequently in link building campaigns.
Common Sense is a Common Problem
You’ve seen the email subject lines: “We guarantee 5,000 links for $500!”
If you don’t know SEO, this sounds like a great deal.
Common sense dictates the more links, the better.
Most people with a simple knowledge of the Google algorithm know that links are an important part of ranking.
But what many don’t realize is that earning links is a quality game, not a quantity game.
We charge a minimum of $2,000/month for a link building campaign – and usually more than that.
Why? Because building quality links takes a lot of time.
The approach we take is more akin to a public relations campaign than a technical campaign.
In fact, the only technical thing about our link building is the use of tools to qualify the links we want.
A typical client may only see 3-4 links per month.
In the beginning, it may be lower than that, as we start building relationships and are still researching the influencers.
That seems super expensive, almost $1,000 per link at times.
But it works. And we have 10 years of case studies to prove it.
No matter how we try to set expectations, we always hear the disappointment in the client’s voice when they’ve only gotten a couple of links.
We’ve been fired several times after a month of getting a client links from major publications like The Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post.
But inevitably, as we build these links, something magical happens.
The organic traffic skyrockets.
And the traffic is super relevant.
Sales and leads go up (sometimes after some conversion rate optimization work, but that’s another column.)
But I’m not here to brag about us. We don’t have any magical formula or proprietary methods.
What we do isn’t genius. It’s just many hours of hard work.
Link Building Is Hard Work
Every link building campaign is different. They have to be.
You can’t build links for a plumber with the same campaign you would use for a payday loan company.
Both industries have their challenges, but the plumber doesn’t take as much effort as the payday loan company.
In fact, I would posture that building links for the payday loan is the most challenging link building out there.
But this doesn’t mean that every link building campaign doesn’t have similar aspects.
Basic Building Blocks of Link Building
Every link building campaign should have the same basic premise:
Find the right people to link to the right content.
A simple premise that requires an inordinate amount of creativity, hard work, and analytical thinking.
Here are our steps. This isn’t the bible, so these aren’t the only correct way to build quality links, but this process has worked for us.
Step 1: Link Analysis
The first step is to look at your links and your competitors’ links. Who is linking to people in the industry?
We use Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and a few other tools to help with this analysis.
Be on the lookout for informational sites, sites where content is being created about your industry. These aren’t always that easy to find, so spend some significant time on the analysis.
Look for patterns. Sort the links by authority and go down the list.
Don’t just look at the URL, go look at each site.
It isn’t always possible to look at every site – but it is always possible to find the best ones by starting with the best authority sites and going down from there.
You don’t need hundreds of sites. The idea is to build up a list over time.
Step 2: Leverage Existing Relationships
This should be low-hanging fruit, but it always seems to take more effort than we expect.
It’s amazing to me that clients never seem to want to ask their trusted partners, vendors, customers, and the charities they work with.
Work to gather a list of your existing relationships and create a communication to ask for links. If you have a marketing automation system, use it to communicate.
Ask the people who deal with your partners to ask for a link. This works – and the links are surprisingly relevant.
If you have a relationship with someone who has a website, it’s almost always OK to ask them for a link.
One thing to note here – frequently when you ask for a link, you might be asked to reciprocate. In some cases, this is OK, but try to avoid it if at all possible. This is where link evaluation comes in.
Step 3: Narrow Down the Target List
This may seem counterintuitive to those who want plenty of links. But as I said earlier, we aren’t after a bunch of links – just good ones.
We narrow down our targets to between 10-15 links we want to get.
As a link opportunity is obtained or is no longer relevant (they said no, they didn’t respond to anything, they aren’t relevant anymore, etc..) it goes off of the target list and new opportunity is added.
Unless you have a lot of resources, it usually isn’t productive to target more than 10-15 sites for links at a time. It takes time to build relationships with the influencers and webmasters to get the links.
On average, it’s taking us about two months to get a link in most cases.
The way we narrow down the list is more of an art than a science. We take into account a site’s authority, but we look more for a fit.
- Based on the site’s content, would they link to us?
- Do we have the content they would want to link to?
- Or could we get them to write content for our site? (See my article: 4 Easy Steps to Effective Guest Blogging That Will Make Google Happy.)
We also have a process that we use to evaluate links that includes both qualitative and quantitative ranking methods.
Step 4: Build Relationships
Now that you have your list, it’s time to develop your outreach strategy.
Cold pitching rarely works.
Just sending an influencer and e-mail asking for a link is a poor outreach strategy. I get several link requests per day and so does every site owner on the planet.
You can’t break through that clutter – and since most of them are spammy, regardless of how well you pitch, your chances for success are slim especially since we are only targeting a few links at a time.
The best thing we’ve found is to interact with the individuals on social media.
Twitter works really well for this – but some influencers aren’t active there, so you may need to find where they are.
If they allow comments on their content, comment – but don’t pitch or link to your site for your comment. In the beginning that’s almost always counterproductive to relationship building.
Don’t just talk about your site.
You should know the industry. Ask the influencer their opinion on current issues the industry is facing. Send them articles you find about the industry.
Help them. Engage with them. Build a real relationship.
If possible, meet the influencer face-to-face. Buying a beer for an influencer is usually good for a link.
The main no-no is to come out of the gate asking for a link. You’ll fail more times than not, and you’ll also lose the trust of a possible great linking partner.
Step 5: Get Creative
So now we have our list, we’re building relationships, and we’ve worked to get our vendors and partners on board with linking with the site.
Now it’s time to fire up the right side of your brain and get creative.
This is the fun part, but it takes a lot of work.
This is where you take a hard look at yourself and ask, “what can we do to make people really want to link to us?”
Possible items to create include:
- White papers.
- Case studies.
- Funny and serious insights.
Try something out of the box. You or your client’s risk aversion may get in the way of the creativity, but work to push the limits.
No one links to dull or irrelevant content. No one wants to link to brochureware of sales material.
You need to find your hook. Sometimes you need a different hook for every influencer on your list.
Yes, this takes a lot of time. Yes, this is hard work.
But the ability to create something that the right people want to link to is what separates a good SEO from a great SEO.
Step 6: Rinse and Repeat
Link building never ends.
You can always find more high-quality links.
You need to keep looking for opportunities to create linkable content and find the right people who will link to it.
It is a good idea to work on specific “campaigns” in order to continually refresh your strategy.
But you can’t stop building links. If you do, you will eventually get passed by your competitors.
Google may be looking at AI and other factors for ranking sites – but links will always be important.
In fact, if you follow the practices in this column, the links will frequently provide value beyond the SERPs.
Yes, you can get sales and traffic from links. In fact, if you do it right, you’ll get both an SEO boost and direct, relevant traffic to your site.
And that’s what we’re all trying to do in this digital marketing world, right?
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