Need to train a new link builder on your team?
Want him or her to gain an understanding of link building basics, why links are important, prospecting, competitive analysis, and outreach?
And how about having this all done in, say, 5 days?
Does that sound unrealistic?
One of the fastest ways to teach someone is to have them actually jump in and start doing something.
What follows is what I consider to be a fairly comprehensive training guide that will help you get a link builder rolling in about 5 days.
Please note that results may vary. After all, link campaigns are influenced by many factors, ranging from the site/industry to the client’s guidelines.
Day 1: Crash Course on the Basics
Anyone who can search the web and send an email can build links.
What This Is & Why We Do It
This is wildly oversimplified, but we build links because Google’s algorithm is based on their importance.
Links are how search engine spiders and humans move all around the web so they’re critical for many reasons.
Good links help a site rank but they are only part of a big overall strategy.
I always advise that new link builders do a search just like they would if they were looking for the product or service they’ll be marketing.
If you’re working on a site that sells dog beds, pretend you’re shopping for a dog bed and you want to get a good idea of which one to buy. When you see a site that fits the bill, that’s the type of site you want for your project.
A warning though: one of the best skills a link builder can gain is quickly knowing whether they have a chance with a site.
Many times when a link builder isn’t getting links, it’s because they aren’t contacting the types of sites that will give them links.
If you’re trying to get a link for a local dog grooming salon, don’t contact the New York Times, for example.
Some questions link builders should ask themselves:
- Does the site look legit?
- Is there contact info?
- If it’s a blog, has it been recently updated? Would you trust it?
- Would you click on a link?
Simple stuff to start with.
But it gets more complicated.
A Word About Metrics
Metrics are important in many ways, but mostly they’re important because clients love them.
Check the site you like in whatever tool you’ve been told to use, and check the metrics.
If they meet your requirements, see the site analysis section below. If not, don’t go any further.
Quick Site Analysis
I always move around the site a bit to check a few things.
I like to see a site that is:
- Isn’t full of sponsored or guest posts.
- Looks nice.
- Gives you a good gut feeling.
Keep reading, as we’ll go into more detail on this.
Finding Contact Info
If it’s difficult to find contact info, they probably don’t really want to be contacted. It also isn’t a great signal for me.
People place their contact info in various areas of the site. Some have an About Us page that lists it, some use a Contact Us page with a form, some have it listed at the bottom of the page.
Some simply don’t have anything listed.
Outreach is a process that gets easier the more you do it.
Anyone can get started with a template though, and adjust as necessary.
Handling responses as a new link builder can be nerve-wracking as you’re not sure what to do, and you’ll get responses that confuse you.
Some people will simply respond with “thanks for your email” even if you’ve asked them a question.
Some will ask you to better define what you want.
Some will be rude and tell you to never contact them again.
Some will offer to do something that wasn’t what you asked.
If someone bothers to respond but says no to me, I like to get a reason even though it can be uncomfortable to ask.
You may also get people responding simply to criticize your approach. Instead of automatically dismissing that, I’d take the time to see if what they say makes sense and can help you.
Just remember to always be polite, especially since there’s a lot of outreach-shaming that goes on publicly these days.
Day 2: Prospecting & Due Diligence
Prospecting is just another name for site discovery, which we touched on earlier, but it really is the most important thing to get right.
If you pick the wrong sites, you’re not going to get any, or the right, links.
If you don’t learn how to hone in on which sites even have the ability to link to you, you’re just wasting time.
Some sites have a policy stating that they do not link out, or publish outside material. I’m sure there are cases where people have been able to get links on these sites but I imagine it’s mostly a waste of time.
Based on our usual roster of clients, we don’t try to pursue .orgs, .govs, or .edus. Most of our clients are ecommerce so we know it just doesn’t usually happen.
However, f you’re doing something like scholarship link building, then you’d definitely approach .edus.
It all depends on who you’re working for.
If you’re trying to get links to a sales product page, don’t email news sites or large magazines.
If you’re building links for a company known for leftist political activism, don’t try to get links from a site that’s on the other end of the spectrum.
Use common sense.
You don’t have to use tools, as you can search the web manually, but especially when you’re starting out, these tools can make things so much easier for you.
They do the hard work of gathering together a list of sites to go through, but you do still need to check them all out and not just assume they’re all perfect and worthy of outreach.
Including all the great prospecting tools in this post would be insane and you’ll probably be instructed on which one to use, but Buzzstream and Pitchbox are two popular ones. Many link tools also have prospecting ability.
Just remember that a list is only that. You still need to go through and vet everything.
Advanced Search Operators
I have a love/hate relationship with search operators but they can be invaluable, and all link builders need to know how to use at least a few of them.
They can narrow down results and give you less fluff, but they can also sometimes narrow things down a bit too much.
Brian Harnish wrote a great guide to search operators here on SEJ.
Social Media Prospecting
Twitter and Facebook searches can sometimes turn up some interesting content and help you get in touch with webmasters.
Social media can be great in many other ways, which we’ll cover later in this article. You can find some great resources here that may be too new to be able to rank highly.
Search Engines Other Than Google
Bing and Dogpile are two alternative search engines.
Dogpile especially has been getting a lot of praise, albeit privately, from link builders lately, so it’s worth checking out.
I probably love alerts a bit too much. With them, you can have emailed results pop into your Inbox whenever you like, which is a good passive method.
I use both Google Alerts and Talkwalker Alerts because I get different results from each. It can be tough to wade through all the results you’ll get in your Inbox but you can find some great stuff that you might have missed.
One big use of alerts is to find unlinked mentions so you can try to turn them into links, but I have found that setting up alerts for specific topics can be highly useful.
HARO stands for “help a reporter out”. This is another useful way to get links, but you will have to wade through a lot of opportunities that won’t be suitable for you.
Journalists will list topics they’re writing about and if you fit the bill, you contact them.
Basic Due Diligence Checks to Make
If you have found the site through a Google search, it’s obviously indexed in Google.
If you haven’t, you definitely want to make sure that it is by doing a site:site.com search. If you don’t see results, that’s a bad sign.
Is there contact info? I make this check first because if there isn’t, I usually don’t even bother moving forward.
- How is the traffic and does it look like it’s coming from the target area? You want to see steady or increasing traffic, coming from the U.S. if that’s where you’re targeting, or France, or the UK. etc.
- How is the writing? Not everyone is a brilliant writer but you don’t want to see posts that look like they were hacked together.
- Does the site appear to be in existence for the sole purpose of selling links and guest posts? If every post on the site appears to be a guest post I avoid it.
- Will a link look like a natural fit here? And will someone click on it?
Everything really depends on prospecting and due diligence. It’s a waste of time to reach out to sites that won’t work.
Day 3: Competitive Analysis
Competitive analysis is much more than just trying to get the same links as your competitors have, although that’s also useful.
It’s seeing what a typical profile in your industry looks like and using that information to build better links for yourself.
Keyword research is critical for content and, whether you like it or not, anchor text.
You certainly don’t want to overoptimize your anchor text so if you figure out that top keywords for your site are blue widgets and green widgets, you don’t want to insist on webmasters using those terms constantly.
Anchor text is also useful for users with visual difficulties so it should make sense, but it’s definitely an area that is highly abused.
In terms of tools, there are tons of them so I’ll point you to two recent articles that describe some good ones:
- Top 7 Keyword Research Tools for Agencies
- 6 Unique and Free Keyword Research Tools You Didn’t Know You Needed
Looking at your competitors’ backlinks in the tool of your choice, you can usually quickly pick up on a trend of what types of sites tend to link in that industry. This can be especially useful when you’re working with a client in an unfamiliar industry.
My main concern with doing this is that you can sometimes be blinded by specific metrics (e.g., Domain Authority or unique linking domains).
No two sites are the same so if you see that three of your competitors have around 200 unique linking domains and you have 150, that doesn’t mean that you need to get 51 more domains and you’ll outrank them.
Competitive analysis really can give you loads of ideas on how to proceed so that you’ll have the most success building links.
All that keyword research is also useful when you’re conducting discovery. Seeing what the average link profile in your industry looks like helps you formulate goals.
There are also tools to help you figure out where your competitors have links but you don’t, which makes for a great list of opportunities to start out with.
Day 4: Importance of Outreach
Next to prospecting, outreach is the most critical practice to master.
Some people conduct it on social media, some on the phone, some (probably most) using email. Some people even do it face to face.
The key to good outreach is simply getting the attention of your target.
You need to find the right contact person, which can be trickier than it sounds. You need to craft your message so that it gets attention and seems interesting enough to garner a response.
That used to be 10 times easier as it is today as we’re constantly flooded with unsolicited requests.
Outreach is definitely scalable using different tools but, in my opinion, being able to conduct it without the use of tools is a very undervalued skill that you should try to master.
However, you don’t have to personalize every single email and that is why some are reluctant to use tools that scale.
We’ve had a lot of success using templates that almost never vary, but it’s different for every link builder, every site, and every industry.
Note: There’s a great article on how to write a personalized email even if you’re sending it to 100 people that I highly recommended reading, and this is a great piece on building links using a nontraditional email approach.
Your subject should state what the content is about, period. There are loads of other ideas about what else to add:
- The recipient’s name.
- The site’s name.
- The format of your content.
If someone receives an email and they don’t know the sender, the subject is going to make or break it. It’s definitely something that you should test.
If no one is opening your emails, try a new subject line.
A Word About Phone Calls
I would not recommend that anyone starting out as a link builder use the phone at first. It’s much easier to use email until you can answer all the questions that might be thrown at you.
I’m including this here because using the phone can work very well so if it’s something that your company does, pay very close attention to their instructions and make sure you are familiar with emailing for links first.
If you’re given a template to use, you’re good to go. If you’re allowed to vary it, personalize it a bit but make sure you’re able to track how well it’s performing.
I’ve seen emails that are three sentences long and they get results, and I’ve seen ones that go on for several paragraphs that get nothing.
I’d love to say there are hard and fast rules but other than stating what it is that you’re after, I don’t think anything works 100 percent of the time.
Just as with phone calls, when you’re starting out you might not use social media for link building until you have more experience. It’s public, after all.
It can be an effective way to get content to the right people but you need to do more than just tweet out your content and expect the links to pour in.
We follow up a LOT. I’ve gotten links by following up over five times.
Unless your company says otherwise, I’d follow up until you’re told to stop.
Day 5: Tracking & Understanding Links, Rankings, Traffic & Conversions
We have some clients who track links but most don’t, as they just want to see that they are getting more traffic, better rankings, and more conversions.
The thing about links is that while they can obviously be tracked and their impact measured in some cases, there are also cases where that’s impossible.
If your rankings improve and you’re building links, hopefully it’s from your work, but it may not be. Maybe the content has been improved, or the site structure has changed.
Links themselves are simple to track. If you build one intentionally, you should be able to locate it.
However, there are definitely a lot of cases where someone gives you a link way later than you’d expected and they don’t notify you.
There will also be cases where someone gives you a link and you’ve never interacted with them.
You can track a link to see if it leads to a conversion and that’s very valuable, but don’t think that a link that does not lead to a conversion is not important.
You can (and should) also use a tool that reports on backlinks so you know what’s there.
If you use more than one tool, you may find that you get different data, so I suggest figuring out one to use for trending purposes in terms of other link data.
Where you rank can determine how much traffic you get, so obviously everyone is concerned about ranking as high as possible.
You will either be provided with a tool that tracks rankings or you simply won’t be responsible for it most likely. You can also manually check rankings.
My biggest issue with rankings is that clients can get crazy over small fluctuations. That’s not an emergency.
If you move back three pages, that does indicate that you should investigate but small fluctuations are fairly normal for many sites.
We all want more traffic to sites. A number two ranking isn’t worth much if no one clicks on it. Getting eyes on the site is critical.
You can use various tools to measure or estimate a site’s traffic. It’s important to pay attention to trends so that you can tell what’s typical.
With my own site, I experience high traffic for a few days surrounding an article’s publication. Otherwise, it’s calmer but that doesn’t indicate a problem.
For an ecommerce site, a big dip in traffic probably does indicate a problem unless it’s a seasonal issue. If your site has been fairly steady for a few years and drops, again, that’s a problem to look into.
Usually, this is the goal for everything we do online, whether it’s selling more services or products, getting the word out about where to get help for something, raising awareness, etc.
In many cases, you probably won’t be involved in dealing with this information, but it’s important to understand that rankings don’t equal traffic always, and good traffic doesn’t always equal conversions.
Good luck and happy linking!