I’ve been lucky enough to have spent the last 7 years working for a large UK based search marketing agency, where I spent pretty much all my time working in and around link building. From a part time link builder in what was then a small start-up agency, to heading up a large multi skilled department of digital marketing specialists, implementing creative “link building” campaigns for some of the UK’s biggest brands, it’s safe to say I have seen pretty much every tactic, trick, fad and approach there is when it comes to building links; black, grey and white hat. And I’ve tried most of them too.
In this time I’ve witnessed the SEO industry change radically. And for the better. And perhaps the biggest change has been to “link building”.
How it’s changed
The change in link building is actually very subtle and can be summed up fairly easily; building links has changed from a process to an outcome. Link building is no longer a process. You shouldn’t “do” link building. The development of links should instead be seen as the outcome of a range of creative and strategic marketing activities that focus on creating content for, and engaging with, the relevant target audience.
This probably isn’t new information for most people. For the past few years now, the importance of investing in content as a means of generating links has been written about and covered in huge volumes. But here lies the problem. Just adding an element of content creation to a link building process is not the answer. The recent boom, and then almost immediate bust, in the use of infographics as a link building tactic is a typical example of this. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great infographics out there, but these good ones account for probably 1% of all the other awful ones, created purely to build links, a type of link camouflage that doesn’t fool anyone. And infographics are just the tip of the iceberg. Just because you’re not paying people to link to you doesn’t mean this is okay. This is still just “link bait” that serves no other purpose, and apart from the fact that this is not how Google want you to go about generating content or links, it just doesn’t work.
In 2015, people are much more aware, savvy and sceptical to link building. As soon as someone knows you are in it for the links, it becomes a business transaction, and people want to get paid, and rightly so. This process of link building is after all just a type of advertising. This is the reason why getting people to link to you is so much harder today than it was 2 or 3 years ago and this is the reason why outreach, the backbone of the traditional link building process, just doesn’t work any more, not as a sustainable approach. And don’t fool yourself to believe that just because you don’t explicitly ask for a link, that they don’t know what you’re after. As the owner of a blog, I know what my response would be to someone representing a commercial organisation, asking me if I would like to write about their new shiny content, even if it is really good; “what’s in it for me?”
And that’s not the only problem. This process based approach to doing link building results in a never ending cycle of create, promote, get links, repeat…….. forever. It just isn’t sustainable and it simply doesn’t work. It’s impossible to get links to everything you create, unless you are prepared to compromise your standards of quality. Fatigue will set in, you will run out of ideas, you will run out of valid people to outreach to. By positioning links as the sole aim of your work and measuring the success of everything you do in links, you are setting yourself up to fail and you are setting your clients up to be disappointed.
By approaching link building as a process, you are actually making it harder to generate the links you need. So don’t.
The New “Outcome” Approach
The new approach replaces the focus on links, with people. Create, publish and promote content to engage with real, relevant people. Carry out activities to grow your on-line reach so that you can get your content in front of more people. Pay for your content to be distributed to people. Create content that will be interesting and relevant to the people that have the ability to publish content in places that your audience go to consume content.
If you succeed in doing this, and almost as a by-product, your content will get linked to. Links are now an outcome.
It’s a simple concept, by creating really good and relevant targeted content, while at the same time improving and increasing the reach of your content and thus getting it in front of more relevant people, you will naturally develop links.
By approaching link building as an outcome, not only will you build more relevant and authoritative links, in an organic fashion that Google want to see, in a manner that is sustainable and beneficial to the morale of staff and clients, but you will generate a host of other great things as well. Content has a much bigger role to play in your on-line marketing than building links, but that’s probably a different post for a different time.
Implementing the Change
Implementing this change in approach can actually be really difficult. Re-educating staff and clients, changing and managing new expectations, investing in new skills, staff and tools, changing internal processes, changing how you report and changing how you sell your services and are all issues that need to be addressed and will vary across different organisations. However, there are some constant rules that won’t change and that are vital to successfully implementing this change in approach.
Stop thinking about links. Don’t think about how many links you want. Don’t think about where you want links from. Don’t think about where you already have links from. Don’t think about anchor texts. Don’t think about no-follows. Don’t think about the domain authority of your links. Don’t think about links.
Stop talking about links. Stop calling it link building to clients. Stop calling it link building internally. Don’t mention link building.
Stop selling link building as a process. It’s definitely easier to sell it the old way, but in the long run this is going to cause you all kinds of problems. You need to ensure clients understand your new approach, that they are bought into how involved they need to be and how long it will take. They need to know that they wont receive a set amount of links, of a specific DA, every month and they need to understand why. They need to have the faith and belief to allow you the time to implement the strategy that will prove to be a successful and sustainable way to generate links.
Don’t set targets on volumes of links to be built or specific metrics of links to be built (Domain Authority etc.). There isn’t any point doing this because you have absolutely no control over it. Setting targets on volumes of links to build only achieves one thing, it drives down quality and risks the integrity of your strategy. It’s easy to build a lot of links using a link building process, but they will be a lot of bad links and by setting link targets in this manner you encourage this type of link building.
One of the most common and frustrating questions I have experienced is “how many links will this generate”. This way of thinking will undermine this entire approach. The true answer to this question is that it is impossible to know and so making up a number provides no value, you are simply setting yourself up to fail. Also, generating links is not the objective of everything you do (see rule 11), and so by only considering how many links will be built you restrict the types of activity you can carry out.
People tend to fall back on setting a number of links to be built because it is the easy option. It’s harder to explain why this is the wrong way of thinking about link development and to instead develop trust and investment in an approach that, although less tangible, will deliver long term sustainable results.
Don’t use a monthly “link building” cycle of activity. Instead plan activity and reporting to be carried out continuously over a longer time period; 6, 9 or 12 months. Every website and industry is different, but it takes time to get everything in place to make this approach work. However, this approach will build momentum as it progresses. As you produce more content, improve your social following and on-line reach, sign people up to your mailing list and RSS feed, as your authority increases, as you begin to generate more natural links, it gets easier and easier. This type of approach is known as the fly wheel, and ultimately makes this approach much more sustainable. You need to ensure that a misunderstanding of this doesn’t lead to a perceived lack of results or success in the early stages. Setting up a solid foundation and platform takes time, and is vital to the long term success and sustainability of this approach.
Do think about your audience. Think about who they are, what they like, what they don’t like. More importantly, think about how they consume content on-line, what channels do they use and where do they go to consume it. Produce content for these people, and sites where these people go to consume content.
Do think about and understand the publications and influencers that are relevant to your audience. Which websites are they likely to visit? What blogs do they read? Which influential people do they follow on Twitter? These are the places you want to get your content published and people you want to engage with.
Do work closely with your clients to make the most of their expertise. Your client’s knowledge of their business, industry and audience is probably the most valuable information you have available to you when creating content and campaigns. You can’t outsource expertise, and you can’t be an expert at everything. You need them to be the experts. Your job is to extract that expertise and turn it into engaging content.
Do strategically create and publish content relevant to your audience. Insightful, intelligent and strategic content. Content that remains relevant, useful and continues to deliver results long after it is published. Content that solves a problem, fills a gap, answers a question or satisfies a need. Content that is genuinely interesting to the target audience. Content that is funny, insightful, controversial but still relevant. Content that positions a client as a thought leader, industry authority and expert. Content that is remarkable. Content that has a reason to be linked to.
Do think about how you can get your content in front of as many relevant people as possible. You can do this directly through promotion and out-reach, although this will not always be necessary. You can use paid content promotion techniques. You can use a mailing list. You can promote it through your social channels.
Do invest in “indirect” activities that will improve the reach of content. Activities that build mailing lists, increase readership, increase social following, build relationships. etc. These activities help build a platform that will increase the reach and impact of your content.
Do monitor, track and report on the engagement of your content. Off-site metrics such as referral traffic, social shares, on-line mentions, links (you can think about links again here), as well as on page behaviour and engagement metrics should be monitored and reported on.
Do monitor, track and report on the holistic impact and growth of the domains link profile. This is the ultimate goal, and over time this is where you are going to see benefits of this approach.
By following these rules, you will not only ensure that you are no longer “doing link building” but you will also ensure that your staff and clients are on board with the approach. It’s a subtle change in approach, that actually translates into big, important changes in how you do things, for the better.
Approaching Link Building as and Outcome – Our Own Case Study
Case studies into successful link building campaigns are few and far between and probably for good reasons. However, to back up the theory that link building is an outcome and not a process and with our ethos of accountability and transparency in mind , we wanted to share our own case study that demonstrates this approach does work. Further to this, we wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to implement this creative content and engagement approach to developing links on a limited budget, thus making it a viable tactic for everyone, start ups, SMEs and international brands alike.
The aim of this project was to develop a strong, relevant and natural link profile for this website, without “doing any link building”. Instead, we would strategically create content that on its own merit would naturally generate links from relevant sources. No outreach or promotion was carried out, so we therefore relied on the strategy behind the content and trust in the theory that strategic content will deliver links as an outcome.
When we began this experiment we didn’t yet have the MRE domain (or know the name for the business). We therefore instead set up 2 micro-site domains to create and publish content on that we have now integrated into the resource section of this site. I have used page to page 301 redirects and the content is all very relevant to our services of digital marketing, so hopefully this is all above board in the eyes of Google. In an ideal world, we would have had all this content on the main agency site from the start, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible.
The strategy was fairly straight forward; to use our own experience and knowledge from working in the digital marketing industry to create content that would be either genuinely useful or entertaining to people similar to ourselves, digital marketing professionals. Something that a) people would be looking for and talking about, and b) something that we would be able to be “visible” for with minimal effort.
Our first idea came about from an issue we had previously encountered when working on client campaigns. In the past we had often looked for relevant awareness days to tie into and help promote various campaigns we were working on, the problem being that we could never find one reliable resource for this information. This was a problem shared by several of my colleagues and people I knew at other marketing agencies . The first idea therefore, was to create an interactive calendar of awareness days. www.awarenessdays.co.uk.
The second idea was also inspired by our day job. Whilst carrying out research we had noticed an ever increasing amount of terrible infographics, blatantly created by SEO agencies to build links. These “gems” were frequently shared round the office, a good sign, and so our second idea was born. A blog poking fun at bad infographics. www.worstinfographic.com
We’re sure you’ll agree, there is nothing really that ground breaking in this content, but that’s kind of the point, it doesn’t have to be. Instead by identifying a common need for something relevant to our service and the people that work in it and also a shared annoyance felt by people in the industry, we created content that had a good chance of being engaged with, shared and linked to.
A key point here is that we were able to do this because of our own experience and expertise. This is why working with clients to utilise their expertise is so vital. You can’t outsource this type of expertise.
The implementation of this strategy was fairly straight forward. We created the sites in WordPress and initially populated them with some content. For Awareness Days we initially put a handful of events per month on the site for the preceding year. From then on, all the other events added have been added by users.
For Worst Infographic we have published on average, one post per month.
And that’s pretty much it. As previously stated, no outreach or promotion has been done. All the results generated are because this was content that people were naturally looking for, interested in and writing about alreasy. The investment in time and cost has therefore been very minimal.
We’ve been running the sites for about 18 months.
To date, links from over 153 unique domains have been generated. Including links from hugely influential and authoritative sites such as Buzzfeed, Slate.com, blog.gov, Search Engine Land and thejournal.ie. As well as these highly authoritative links, extremely relevant links have also been generated from a number of SEO, marketing and PR blogs and websites.
A host of other natural links have also been generated, from news sites, forums, Wikipedia and answer.com type sites.
The full list of links and supporting metrics can be found here and are also visualised below.
The below chart clearly demonstrates the “fly wheel” approach, with a slow start that built up momentum over time as the content was naturally shared and linked to. Each linking domain generated is represented by a blue bar on the horizontal date axis, with the vertical axis representing the Citation Flow of each link.
The link profile created here as a result of this content strategy could never have been achieved through the traditional link building process. These sites simply would not have linked if approached through traditional link building outreach. These levels of relevancy, trust and authority would never have been achieved. Even the volume of links, which has been developed over approximately 18 months is good. A study of the links generated at a previous agency put the investment required to create 1 good link at a conservative £300. At 153 links this project has an equivalent value of almost £46k. The time we invested in this project probably equates to no more than £1k.
And links aren’t the only positive outcome. The traffic to these sections of this site exceeds 30,000 unique visits per month through a combination of organic search and referrals. Now although this isn’t traffic 100% relevant to the services we sell, it is on the whole relevant to marketing and PR. This is great brand building and brand awareness for a new business and has already led to several business leads.
Why did this approach work?
The key to the success of this content is that we were in a position to create something that people where looking for and interested in. It wasn’t just content for the sake of creating content. It had a purpose and a strategy behind it, and one that was based on our own industry expertise.
This content has been written about and linked to by people who were looking for it in the first place. And when they looked for it, it was right there to reference. Also, in the case of Awareness Days, this is a genuinely useful resource, and people love to recommend useful resources. There is a certain psychology to why people link to things, and things that are useful and things that poke fun are high on that list of psychological reasons. Understanding this and turning this into a strategy is how to be a great “link builder”, not through outreach and a link building “process”.