A Model For Link Building: Beyond “Great Content”

by on March 15, 2011 | posted in Miscellaneous Strategies

Content isn’t everything. Content isn’t the only thing. Often, it’s not a thing at all.

I would say “content is king” is accurate, but only because there are only 44 current monarchs, the system doesn’t work everywhere, and those monarchies only account for a small proportion of the world’s population.

If you’ve read my post on content link efficacy, you know that content as an explanatory model for everything link building is simply ludicrous. Creating the best piece of content, ever, on an insurance website will not produce the same results that the best piece of content – ever – will evoke on I Can Haz Cheeseburger. Therefore, there is a lot more to the link building thing than just “create great content”, and even “content is king”, in general, gives content a lot more link building credit than it’s due – and otherwise, takes a lot more credit away from us, the creative link builders – the people who can create a mass of links with barely passable content and no money at all.

Value Propositions Are King

The “king” in link building isn’t content. Yes, content is a huge part of it, and the more socially-friendly your vertical, the more it weighs into the equation. But the real, true king of link building is your overall value proposition. When you ask for a link, your value proposition – the comprehensive, all-encompassing blend of content plus marketing, in whatever combination, is what ends up getting the link at the end of the day. And that very, very often can come in a blend where the value proposition has zero to do with your actual website. If you find yourself living and dying by the “content is king” mantra, you will end up missing out on a calvacade of links.

Building a Model for Acquiring Links

Now that we’ve grown up and developed intellectually past “content is king”, we can start talking about the totality of the link acquisition equation, our link building model. The link building model has two sides – value propositions and webmaster psychology – and they both run the show as it comes to whether or not you will ever see that sexy blue hyperlink.

Value Propositions

First, let’s start with value propositions.  Each one of these have the potential to exclusively acquire you a link – whether you’re good friends with someone, you pay enough – or you have great website content. But most of the time, they will almost always work together in some way in determining whether or not you’re worth linking to. In example, if you offer $1000 to the New York Times, they won’t link to your business insurance site. But if you offered one million dollars, I think they’d find the time to fit you in. Similarly, if you’re in San Francisco and have a great business website located there, there’s a decent chance you could extract a link from a San Francisco blog – but not if you weren’t based in San Francisco and not if you didn’t have a great business.


The most controversial of the value propositions – but also, undoubtedly, the most effective – money as an value proposition can illicit links like none other. The problem, of course, is that Google is outwardly against it, and it can get you blanked on the Big G.  Bing stated at SMX last week that they aren’t necessarily against paid links – they’re against bad, off topic links. Sound familiar?

Wherever your ethical and potential-risk radar may lead you, cash as a value proposition will always be a front-leading methodology for acquiring links. In situations where cash is offered, your content matters little – most times, it would only need to pass a level of acceptability and/or relevance to be listed. Being “great” has no real credence.

Tips for Using Money to Acquire Links:

  • Set up Google Alerts for “Sponsorship opportunity”, “Thanks to our sponsors”, & “donate to our charity” – These three searches will give you up-to-the-moment results for natural, paid “non-paid” links that might even help support a good cause.
  • When offering to sponsor an event/charity, use price anchoring – Price anchoring means setting the original price when negotiating a buy. Even if they list a sponsorship price on the site, open contact with an offering price significantly lower as if you had not seen their initial anchor. They will frequently agree to this # in fear you will not agree with a higher one, and if they do counter, they will likely counter lower than what they would’ve if you had asked “What should I contribute?”
  • Utilize StumbleUpon’s advertising program to acquire viral traffic. If your content is social friendly, utilizing StumbleUpon’s advertising feature to get eyeballs on your content and then push it forward can be a great way to start the churning the viral contagion.
  • Buy listings with the BBB, TRUSTe, & PR.com. BBB and TRUSTe offer strong links, with immense value in their own right – but they also offer badges that will help conversion on your website by increasing user trust. If you believe the brand signals hype, it’s very possible that those two links would offer an extra “boost” to your domain in the present or future based on the standard for inclusion there. The third site, PR.com allows hosted profile links with targeted anchor text, and also allows you to disseminate press releases at an additional cost.


One of the most underutilized value propositions, location can be used to obtain links on local blogs, in local directories, your Chamber of Commerce, forums, and elsewhere.

Tips for Using Location to Acquire Links:


Outbound Content

Outbound content is any kind of content or external provisions you provide outside of your own website for placement on another website. This can be a guest post, an infographic, a whitepaper, a widget – or really anything you can think of – in addition to the link back to your website – that you offer to another website.  Whether you run a car insurance website or the New York Times, if the free content you offer is strong enough, it will frequently outweigh a terrible website and get you a link back.

Tips for Using Outbound Content to Acquire Links:

  • Read Justin Briggs post on How to Build Links with Infographics
  • Develop outbound content for the biggest market you can. In example, building a widget for “Top Mommy Blogs” is pretty large, and thus, the potential success rate is high. However, developing a widget for the “Top NY Jets Blogs” is smaller, so it’s more likely you’ll see a lot fewer links back to your website. By widening the scope as far as you can, you increase both the potential return and the chances you’ll execute a campaign successfully. The catch, though, is that you should also let the target know they are part of a specialized group, as going super wide will hurt you if your widget is as general as something like “Cool Music Site”. If your widget says “Top 25 Music Site”, you’ve got a real piece of ego bait – if you play your cards right. 
  • Make placing content as easy as possible. I point my designers towards SEOMoz’s Web2.0 badge page as something to emulate when creating a distribution platform for our widgets. By creating badges of varying sizes, and shapes, and also providing the code to easily cut and paste, it shrinks the barrier to posting for every potential webmaster. For blog posts, I suggest using Google Docs so everybody can access it – even those without Microsoft Office – or simply sending the content in an e-mail.

Friendship/Business Relationships

Ask your friends for links, whether business contacts or otherwise. The stronger the relationship, the less likely your site will need to be anything better than pornography to get listed on their website.

Tips for Using Friendship/Business Relationships to Acquire Links

  • Ask for Blog Archive Links. Although arguably shady, these links can make linking to business insurance on your friends wine blog a little more bearable. Yeah, it probably won’t pass much value, but if you can get a link on authority sites like Wine Library TV or Healthy Hearing..
  • Use intermittently. Don’t ask every friend every time for a link. You don’t want to burn bridges, so do so only occasionally, and as relevant. Add other value props as well – in example, I suggested a guest post on my friend’s internet marketing blog once as a way to discuss my website naturally. This makes it less of a pain point, and a good way to leverage multiple value propositions.
  • Create an Excel document to track link opportunities. I referred to this in my Search Engine Land post as a “black book”. The point is to rigorously manage link opportunities that are formed through relationships – whether hard (in person) or soft (only through e-mail) – that can result in a link. By sorting them in an Excel document, you ensure no potential link opportunity is missed when a new website is added to your link building portfolio. This way, you can return back to this document again and again and again to pillage the value from your formed relationships.

Ego Bait

The most salient (and effective) of the value propositions, eliciting important ego draws can go a long way to acquiring links. Some ways this is effective: compliments in link begging e-mails, badges that recognize accomplishment, and mentions in content that you then notify the author of.

Tips for Using Ego Bait to Acquire Links

  • Create “ego linkbait”. Create widgets that apply to a large group to maximize potential return. This is similar to the bullet point “develop widgets for the largest market you can” under outbound content. In example, AdAge has a widget the Top 150 blogs can place on their website. If they had limited it to 20 – they’d have a lot less potential eyeballs on their brand name, and a much bigger chance that only three or four of the blogs would list their badge.

  • Compliment uniquely. Don’t say “your blog is great”. Say something extremely specific and targeted. In example, if you came to me and said “Ross, I saw you went to Chapman University. I had a friend who went there too! I’ve been using your link valuation post for a while now – its been really useful, thank you.” – and then went on to pitch me your SEO software, I’d be way more likely to check it out in depth. If you just said “cool blog!” I probably wouldn’t believe you – and/or care.  Similarly, if I put out another Top 150 Marketing blog widget – it’s almost certain that none of those blogs would use it, because its already been done. Take a new spin on the approach – so if you see a site with other widgets already posted, think of another unique value proposition to use – rather than same tired “top blogs” image they already have highlighted.

Website Content

And you thought I forgot! Well, it turns out that website content is a value proposition too, and it’s pretty damn important. Build great content on site, and you’ll obtain some good links – most of the time. Even if superior website content can’t always get you links, strong on-page content is important in general because it helps convert users – and at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important.

Tips for Using Content to Obtain Links

  • Use non-sales lingo to market content. I see lots of pages that say “link to our site”! This kind of phrasing is too explicit about capitalist-driven intentions. Using phrasing such as “Share this” is a small difference, but it can divide the line between a link – or a share. Similarly, in link begging e-mails, don’t say “would you please link to my site”. Say “I really enjoyed your WIDGETBAIT resource list. I wanted to know what you thought about my WIDGETBAIT resource, W-I-D-G-E-T-B-A-I-T.tv.” This accomplishes the same thing without being dickish about it, and seems more authentic – thus increasing the chances you obtain a link.
  • Be wary of social norms. Sometimes, doing the above example can get you a link because it’s not a capitalist exchange. Social norms are a strange thing – people will offer you food for free at Thanksgiving dinner, but if you give them $10 at the end of the meal, they’ll be offended and throw you out. So, sometimes pretending to be disconnected from the website, not wanting of a link or not offering any additional value prop – such as a giveaway – can actually increase the amount of links you get. See my post How Offering More Value Can Get You Less Links for more on this subject.

Webmaster Psychology

So, you’ve got your value proposition, and now you’re running around throwing it at every webmaster you can get your hands on. Well, missy or mister, that’s a recipe for failure. It turns out that the value proposition alone doesn’t account for the totality of the link acquisition equation. Since a webmaster has to place your link on their website, we must account for the frame of mind of our webmaster when deciding how to do outreach with our value proposition.

Ability to Act

When doing outreach with your value proposition, timing is important. How likely is the webmaster to actually be able to act on your value proposition based on the timeframe they receive your pitch? If they use their smartphone and see it at 11PM on a Friday, it better be a really good value proposition to incite future action. However, if you catch them in a lull period on a Tuesday at 2PM when they’re at a computer – where they have an empty inbox – there’s a way better shot you’ll actually receive a link.

Imagine a situation where you are sent a non-important e-mail with a request a day before vacation – what are the chances you’d act upon it when returning? Almost none if it’s non-important, not work related and you don’t get pinged to act on it again. Use this same thought process when timing your own link-request e-mails – even if my example is exaggerated. Similarly, if your value proposition is strong enough, and they essentially must link to you, you probably shouldn’t worry too much, and timing has little to no effect.

Tips for Using “Ability to Act” to Obtain Links

  • Align webmaster outreach with high traffic periods on your website. If the times when your website is most visited are Monday-Thursday during the early afternoon, there’s a high probability that this is same time when your relevant outreach market is near the computer, and ready to link to your website.  Although this period is pretty constant throughout most verticals (Mon-Thurs in the early AM to early PM), it isn’t always, so adjust it to whatever your website requires. If you aren’t doing mass link building, you can take specific webmaster details into account, such as waiting for a large number of tweets from them in succession on Twitter, or matching up their time zone to a link request.
  • Attempt to have a link request show up as the exclusive item in their inbox. This can be tough, of course, but know that the highest inbox numbers will occur in the early morning – so if your e-mail is read at that time, it becomes significantly more likely that it will become just another thing on the to-do-list. If you can get their exclusive attention in the middle of the day, the impetuous to act upon your request is much higher.

Commercial Intent

There are some webmasters that simply won’t link to sites commercial content, so outreach must be a strong, strong value proposition, or else it will fail. It’s hard to say exactly when this is the case (because having not linked to a commercial site doesn’t mean they never would), but it must be considered when doing outreach. Other ways around this are by disattaching yourself from the website you’re doing outreach for – sometimes, if you use the social norms technique mentioned earlier to appear as a “friend” rather than the owner a commercial website, you can obtain links where you otherwise might not have.

Tips for Using “Commercial Intent” to Obtain Links

  • Create an anonymous e-mail with a female name for outreach, then find broken links. Use SEER Interactive’s post on Broken Links (and the tool within it), to find broken links on sites that might link to you. Compliment them, tell them the broken links, and at the end, offer two other suggestions for sites they might link to – one to a site in a good neighborhood/non competitor, and another to your site. By offering two sites, it becomes more believable that you are not associated with the commercial website, and are doing this for “good reasons”.  And by using a female name on a random e-mail account, you’re more likely to get links – because people just find females less evil, generally. Who knew?

Vertical/Website Specific Minatue

Have an infographic? Well, it’s probably not going to get posted on a non-blog, so you shouldn’t be doing outreach there. Similarly, begging from a business is, generally, lighting your time on fire – so these things must be carefully considered when choosing who to present your value proposition. Other verticals have strange characteristics that must be considered to improve ROI – such as link begging from cancer resources or other grieving type portals.

Phrasing an e-mail in an especially cheery way or using the wrong language could result in not obtaining a link – because it is seen as cold or inappropriate for the subject at hand.

Tips for “Using Vertical/Website Specific Minutiae” to Obtain Links

  • Use the Excel for SEO guide by Mike Pantoliano to segment a backlink list by types. By segmenting a master backlink list automatically, you can quickly find specific targets from a backlink list so you have to expend less mindshare to shift between types of targets, and what kind of outreach/content offering you supply. I would suggest segmenting out “blog”, “links”, and “resources” – you can also use Mike’s resource to grab this info from the title tags using Open Site Explorer, so you can determine a blog/link list outside of the URL itself. Once you’ve found “links/resources” pages, you can jam through this with the broken link tool discussed earlier – from an anonymous e-mail – to maximize the ROI – and minimize the time spent – when performing this type of outreach.

Link Building: A Model

I’m not going to pretend this “model” is built on science, and many of the terms, if you want to play with semantics or overall just be a dick, could be moved around a bit. However, I believe in this model – as every time I attempt to obtain a link, I use many of its prongs – and never do I use anything outside them.

Most importantly, though, I don’t rely on a one-pronged link building model that says “create great content” – as some seemingly tend to do – cause that’s just silly, and I, sir, am no clown.

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