Please Exit The Link Building

by on April 6, 2011 | posted in Scalable Link Building

Please Exit the Gift Shop. Starring Banksy. Watch it.

I’ve never been as irritated with SEO buzzwords as I am now. Each blog post scanned and tweet looked at means another near-certainty I’ll read about paid links, how content is king, SEO is dead, and now, my new itch – link building – is a relevant description for building five links a week. Each has it’s own special place in my quickly blackening heart, and each one draws in me a special ire that adds more and more gray hair to my head with each predictive rising sun. Link building is the least ire-evoking term of the bunch, but nonetheless, the way I hear it talked about and the way I hear it done makes the term – link building – and what it evokes something way more literal than it should be.

Link building illicits the following image in my head: A construction worker laboring a brick of metal, wavering, up a set of stairs, slabbing some cement on the corners, nailing things, sweating profusely, eating from a lunch bin, hating his job, repeating, repeating, repeating. Link building, as it relates to this act of “building”, is the act of manually trudging through an act repetitively, unable to avoid the exact, unending repetition it requires to slab together a skyscraper worth hosting a Fortune 500 company in. Link building is a geek in a chair, clicking send, picking up the phone, surfing mindlessly through the SERPs, spending 15 minutes on an e-mail pitch, surfing mindlessly through the SERPs, spending 15 minutes on an e-mail pitch, turning in his report of 5 links built at the end of the week, being satisfied.

That is link building. I, then, am no link builder.

Look at the following link graphs of the New York Times and Reddit. Do you really think anybody internally there sat back and “built links” for them? Was there any cold-calling for links or manual, grind-it-out e-mail pitches for the SEOs that worked there? No, there weren’t. But they “built links” like the Pharaoh was instructing an army of nine million slaves to hit the e-mail phone lines.

Look, I’m no asshole. I know there will always be manual work to do, especially in more difficult verticals. But my point is that link building, as a term, is evocative of a slow, repetitive grind, of slogging up a hill, of a lack of scale, and that’s an ideology I, as an SEO (not a link builder), can’t stick with. If I run down the street to make a dinner and you tell my friends I walked, I’m going to be pretty underwhelmed with that descriptor. If I’m a Chief Executive Officer and you introduce me to Natalie Portman as an Officer, that just won’t fly. We – you – have to move past a standard that five links a week is acceptable, no matter how high quality and relevant they are.

Link Prospecting

Bad “link builders”, managed and supported by the terrible SEO Managers that love them – go to Google and mindlessly search. “KEYWORD links”. “KEYWORD resources”. Find a contact e-mail. Change keywords, find another e-mail. Random input in the Google toolbar. Check a PageRank or two. Brag about how high the PageRank of their link was. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Can we scale childbirth? If I put nine women on the job can I get a kid in one month? No? Well, at least I asked the question. That’s what good SEOs do. They ask how can you scale until scaling is physically impossible, and they hit the evocative wall of the mythical man month, which is the point where additional inputs don’t create proportional outputs – otherwise described as the point where you can’t just throw more people at the job and expect that the speed will increase proportional to the number of people working on it.

And if your entire day consists entirely of 15-minute e-mail pitches, cold calling and creating 5-row link building reports, you aren’t close to hitting that mark.

Dilbert

Good SEOs know that there is a lot of time loss spent skipping across SERPs and seeing the same sites over, and over, and over again. Good SEOs know how deep the rabbit hole goes – and it’s generally pretty deep. Link prospecting is not a manual act. It’s an act that should be as close to automatic as you can make it – until creative work becomes a necessary part of the equation.

Good SEOs excute link prospecting by:

  • Doing comprehensive up-front competitive research
  • Grouping all competitors in a list and exporting those backlinks using OpenSiteExplorer.org
    • Compiling all the links in one document by merging all website backlink lists
    • Labeling/coloring links acquired by competitors for explicit differentiation so they can add more links in the future and sort accordingly
  • Creating a mind map of applicable/relevant terms to their websites
  • Grabbing domains up to 100 Google results deep across all connected keyword sets. Adding these to the master link list
  • Using Xmarks.com for keyword searches to compile additional relevant domains to export links of and add to the master list
  • Using Ontolo’s Link Prospecting Toolto export potential search queries for each potential asset type
    • Exporting additional links from OpenSiteExplorer.org using Ontolo’s tool where there is strong relevance/likelihood that there is a backlink list worth exporting (SEOMoz SERP overlay helps)
  • Taking every possible measure to note and sort backlink groups methodically
  • Not settling until an initial master link list numbers in excess of 500k backlinks
  • Removing domain and page duplicates to avoid time loss link prospecting using Distilled and MikeCP’s Excel for SEO guide
  • Sorting methodically using the same previously-mentioned techniques to match value propositions against link prospects
  • When manual contact grabbing is unavoidable, using Google Chrome for efficiency of use. By using CTRL+F and searching for “contact”, fetching a e-mail quickly. As opposed to Firefox, the search toolbar on Chrome is the upper right, making for less time loss when having to scroll from the URL input to the bottom left on Firefox.
    • Using the same “if we have to manual link build” venacular, use Ontolo’s URL Reviewer to open several URLs at once to minimize time loss.

Good SEOs know that the web isn’t static, and for all intents and purposes, is anything but. Good SEOs save a static version of their master link list and reuse it at its original form when it makes sense to. By color coding the original version, they can revisit the list and add to it with fresh links without worry that they’ll end up overlapping previously contacted links. Color coding will do a great job of separating the old from the new.

Good SEOs know when revisiting the backlink list is applicable (and needed), by tracking the backlink growth of their competitors using Yahoo! Site Explorer (the most up to the moment link graph on the web). They use this info to determine when it’s best to revisit competitors’ backlinks, when it’s appropriate to just coast in top rankings, and when current link growth isn’t sufficient to dominate the SERPs.

Good SEOs know that some opportunities are time sensitive, and must be capitalized on immediately. They set up Google Alerts for the most relevant search queries their vertical, add it to one e-mail account, and sort by “week” and “most relevant” to minimize noise. They revisit this account monthly, so time sensitivity is maintained but lots of time isn’t lost meandering through link prospects that just aren’t relevant, so less mind share isn’t lost jumping from query to query.

Good SEOs know the biggest reason for distraction and productivity loss in link building comes when a potential link prospect’s website loads slow. Even if you don’t realize it, I guarantee the time you most waver from your task as an SEO is when a new website begins to load. The pause between ability to act and desire to act causes an area of time ripe to send an SEO off to look at Reddit,  their tweet stream, or some other shiny object. Good SEOs account for this by running parallel tasks to maximize productivity, and/or opening as many tabs as possible to the point of acceptability to minimize mind lag/likelihood they’ll dip into another website or activity as a page loads.

Link Acquisition

Bad SEOs – “link builders”, on the business card, send manual e-mails that take 10 minutes to peel off. They manually find contact e-mails. They think their custom website compliment is clever (“cool link list!”). They believe anything that can be effectively boiled down to as “cold calling” in link building strategy is worth doing.

No, it’s not. Yes, there’s better. Yes, you should be doing it – if you plan on winning. And no, I don’t mean #winning.

Sheen SEO

Good SEOs link build in agencies by:

  • Compiling contact e-mails from their link prospecting master backlink list through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Elance, or other outsourced, low cost sources.
  • Buying cheap content through Textbroker or other content creators, viciously testing quality and then signing on high quality content writers through the service at bottom-dollar prices due to market demands.
  • Working with internal developers to autopopulate e-mail fields with subjects, domain names, e-mails and etc to minimize time loss without increasing the likelihood spam filters will be triggered.
  • Training SEOs to open links in mass to minimize mindshare loss and productivity drips. Instructing them to dramatically lower website load speed by using Chrome and turning off image loading.
  • Creating link acquisition templates that work cross-websites, such as e-mail templates, content outreach templates, code for widget templates, code for infographic templates, and etc.
  • Voraciously building out a black-book of link targets that you have siphoned a link off of or have some kind of warm contact with for use in the future, to be referred back to any time a new link building campaign has begun.
  • Having a go-to set of initial link building practices/directories/queries for every new website that are implemented/executed on swiftly – so the first set of links are the simplest links you get.
  • Knowing that auto-sending e-mails is not the same as automating 90% of the process, and then leaving the 10% to humans who will create 99% of the value.

Good SEOs link build on a website by website basis by:

  • Determining market size of a potential superior-content outreach plan (widget, infographic, externally hosted content)
  • Weighing likely ROI on an X over Y scale for where X is market size and Y is the approximate strength of the content you’re offering where X=Y is 100% link acquisition. If the number isn’t close to 1, and is closer to 0, abandon “linkbait” campaign.

Good SEOs know that sending 400 e-mails in a row isn’t a sustainable activity. They set a standard number of e-mails to send in each burst, then stick to that number when sending outbound requests to reduce burnout and also make the process maintainable. They know this as it comes to the people they manage, too, giving them an assortment of non-time-sensitive tasks to maximize morale and productivity. They also know that distraction can also be a burgeon of productivity, and as such promote reading external content and using Twitter to take breaks from the e-mail sending grind.

The pressure to build five links is on..

Link Reporting and Maintenance

The act of link building itself is only a small part of the process that informs getting more links. In order to make the link building more scalable, you must have more time – and that means less time spent reporting and maintaining metrics. When reporting is minimized, more time can be spent acquiring links instead – the stuff that actually moves the needle. If you’re not working for yourself, though, there’s not much you can do – reporting must be done. And even if you are working for yourself, certain metrics must be maintained to maximize efficiency.

Good SEOs execute link reporting and maintenance by:

  • Using auto-reporting tools like Raven SEO to automate link reporting, ranking reports, and link data so manually inputting page-level link data never occurs.
  • Evaluating the data auto-generated by Raven to compare link acquisition, anchor text, link value and other variables to determine proper adjustments to budget, anchor text minutiae, and overall SEO strategy.
  • Manually (or automatically if you can build something out) tracking link growth of competitors and own websites using up-to-the-minute data from Yahoo! Site Explorer. With this data, making approximate on-the-fly decisions on link volume required to compete, and then adjusting strategy accordingly.
  • Also, utilizing Yahoo! Site Explorer (or now Majestic SEO) data to track upcoming competitors, noting when they stop and start link building, and when it’s necessary to ramp back up or tail back link building efforts according to competitor link growth. Taking note of volume of links to important internal pages, as well as competitor subpages.
  • Noting when rank changes happen, as Yahoo! Site Explorer doesn’t track links on a per unique linking domain basis. By looking at aggregate link volumes of the adjacent websites when rankings change hands, an approximate “trigger point” can be created so you can determine points at which link building must be resumed if you have a solid hold on #1.
  • Visually representing Yahoo! Site Explorer data in graph format for quick dissection. Reevaluating competitors below you monthly to uncover “sleeping monsters” doing heavy link building.
  • Verifying employee productivity without micromanaging by creating unique user accounts on reporting software and evaluating on a week to monthly basis from there, as trust accrues accordingly.

Good SEOs know that meetings are most often the antithesis of productivity. They take every action to minimize reporting and meeting time, while still retaining the benefits having intelligent peers and superiors evaluate data provides for overall SEO strategy – as well as the residual benefits to overall motivation and team morale.

Exit Link Building – Enter Scalability

Hopefully you’re entering this paragraph with the thought that your five link a week strategy, now, just isn’t gonna cut it. I say “scale” so much that it now illicits laughs in my office, and I’m pretty sure that means I’m doing something right. If scale isn’t in your day to day vernacular, you probably fall into one of the following pools:

  • A) You’re not doing very well monetarily
  • B) You’re not ranking well
  • C) All of the Above

Scalability is the reason programmers are rich. Lack of scalability is the reason you, as a representative sample of the SEO world, aren’t. I’m not saying we should drop the idea of “link building” entirely, because I don’t really have another word to replace it, and trying to get the term link building replaced is like asking The Vatican to rename itself “Ross’s Provincial Palace”.

It’s not gonna happen.

However, I am hoping we can stop accepting five links a week as a successful volume, and that we can move beyond the idea that link building means  “manual” – to move on to something better, something more scalable, and something that will make us filthy stinking rich.

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  • http://oracledigital.com.au Clint Maher

    If more SEO companies actually spent more time help create quality content for their customers then the natural link building/baiting will just come.

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  • http://www.allinonewebsolutions.net Jonathan Santiago

    Wow Ross, I’ve just read through a few of your blog post here and I have to say this is probably the best thing I’ve read regarding link-building this year even though I am a little over a year late to find it haha. Great work, will be sharing this.

  • http://lab41.co Alex

    Just want to say great post. Having read over 30 articles on the subject I have a lot of notes. I am compiling a process from the bottom up…and I must say it’s almost identical to what you outlined.

    Now to fill in the finer details.

    I do think you left 1 aspect out…at the start building a tool to take a list of 10 keywords, generating the various search queries and then automatically compiling into a master list and sorting. Just a thought!

  • Marzena Nowakowska

    Wow, really good article :) You have shed some light and inspired me a lot. Anyway, you mentioned measuring and tracking your backlinks. Yes, this is very important in my opinion too. You can’t just focus on creating backlilnks with no clue like headless chicken. Numbers are great, but quality is even better. Usage of some good, modern tools (currently I’m using Colibri http://www.colibritool.com) can help a lot.

  • Matt Ludwig

    I really like your style of writing Ross. I’m glad I found your blog. I am certainly a recovering ‘link builder’ in process of rebuilding scale. I used to have a strong process set up, got emotionally attached to it. When the building crashed down, I’m a reluctant link builder shoveling scrap metal for recycling ala disavow updates and reconsideration requests.

    Incredible how removing links can effect your intuition for building a new link. Such a high, almost nonconstructive level of scrutiny comes into play.

    This is a refreshing mixture of progressive automated link building scale to sustain.

    Thanks – Matt

  • Patrick

    Hey! I know I’m a little late to the party, good stuff and thank you. I’ve recently been put in charge of SEO revolving mostly around link building but am cautious as the industry rules seem tumultuous
    .

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