How to make your link building profitable

Wil Reynolds told us at MozCon that we as SEOs are the ‘ugly fish of marketing’. The room laughed as we mocked those fancy traditional marketers…

Wil likened us SEOs to those fish that eat shit off the bottom of the tank all day and still thrive..

The fact remains though that traditional marketers are eating our lunches and laughing at us ‘SEOs’ because we are perhaps not really doing ourselves any favours.

Before you stop reading… this post isn’t another one that harps on about ditching SEO as a job title for “inbound” or “content marketing”. It isn’t even a post that bangs on about how good Wil’s talk was although Do Real Company Shit Stuff‘ was one of my favourites from MozCon…(I’d seen a few recordings of Wil speaking at various events and I was a fan but wow his talk captivated an entire room. Not to mention that he is a really down to earth, friendly and pretty funny.)

But, I digress.

My aim with this post is to illustrate potential ways to make your link building more profitable. Marketers may laugh at us if we use terms like Domain Authority or mozRank but if we can start to show our clients just how much money our link building activities are making them then, we win – who’s laughing now.

#1 – Be realistic but consider the bigger picture

I hate pie in the sky blog posts – the ones that you can get drunk on the kool-aid of a fancy technique and then as soon as you finish reading you just alt tab back to the spreadsheet window you had open to carry on sifting through guest blogging opportunities.

I want to be realistic. I am not here to tell you that every link we get will or necessarily can drive referral traffic and lead to sales.

If you are selling yourself or your company as doing SEO but then you deliver absolutely no improvement in rankings then it is kind of up for debate whether you’ve done your job or not.

[UPDATE - Iain Bartholomew quite rightly pointed out in the comments below that 'rankings' is a fairly misleading metric so I wanted to clarify the point I was trying to make here...Some SEOs focus too much on the other stuff online forgetting that they were probably hired to drive/lead/improve search engine performance. How you measure that performance whether rankings, organic referrals, category visibility or a combination of metrics is of course your choice. Your remit may be broader than search but I simply wanted to reiterate the importance of not losing our USP as an industry - search as a channel is a powerful driver of traffic and business growth and it is the area we should all excel in.]

In most markets you still need a bit of volume to achieve the kind of search engine visibility your client expects.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got pretty stringent standards here at Skyrocket but a two tier approach to link building is nearly always necessary. By two tier I mean that some links are fair (they meet the standards, they were fairly low friction to get but probably aren’t going to do wonders for your traffic or sales but they do help drive rankings) and alongside this group there are the gem links (those that drive traffic, enhance brand visibility and lead to surges in customer activity and sales).

The 30 second guide to making those volume links count

I’m not talking about the 30 seconds it takes for you to spunk your PayPal balance to the first chap to offer you hundreds of “100% white-hat, penguin proof” directory submissions for $9.99.

This is about scaled (to a certain degree) quality link building as a means of driving larger business goals.

  • Think bigger picture – as one, that ‘fair’ link is not much more than another cell in a spreadsheet but as a larger mass, a cluster of links can help you to blanket a market and win the all important ZMOT (See below).
  • Think second tier – target your link building efforts around improving the search engine visibility (and consequently driving additional traffic) to the best performing pages and posts on your site and the guest posts and reviews perhaps off-site. Read Ross Hudgen’s Guide to Second Tier Link Building

The 60 second guide to finding gems

  • Opportunity mapping – using software like MindMeister, start with the client’s core customer groups and work outwards looking at markets, how these connect and a handful of the big sites that are active within these sub-niches.
  • Identify the direct opportunities – identify the sites where your core customer groups are spending time and make a pledge to get in front of them. Google’s free AdPlanner tool is a very good place to start this exercise – Richard Baxter wrote up a great guide to link building using this tool.
  • Bridge seemingly unrelated topics to find the indirect opportunities – your customers will have other interests and needs beyond your immediate “topic realm” and often there are great indirect link opportunities to be seized by bridging two often seemingly unrelated topic areas.
  • Get to work – acquiring those gem links aren’t easy but they’re worth it.

As time goes by, will we still need the volume? Who knows? If you have both (and a minimum standard to boot) then you’re probably in good shape however things pan out.

#2 – Winning ZMOT with link building

Traditional marketing told us that a customer goes through two ‘moments of truth’ when they are making a purchase. The first one being the experience they had at point of sale (packaging, staff, displays) and the second being when they got the product home and use it.

Bob Thacker, the former CMO of OfficeMax, says “Engagement with the customer today isn’t just pouring a message down their head and hoping they get wet…you must be present in a conversation when they want to have it, not when you necessarily want to.

There’s now a moment of truth occurring before the second or even the first – it’s been dubbed the zero moment of truth or ZMOT. It’s the point at which (following a stimulus) the customer goes on an informational search mission, they use on average of 10.3 sources online to inform themselves about your products and services. (There’s more to ZMOT than this – I strongly recommend downloading the free eBook which explains the concept in great detail).

It happens in b2c and b2b – across nearly every market. Whether it is mums using their smartphones to compare the prices of a food item, a young couple deciding whether to book with a certain airline or the founder of a company deciding whether to hire a particular SEO company – this is the moment that matters.

If your organisation isn’t visible at this moment of truth then chances are it’ll be your competitors that are winning the business.

What does all this have to do with link building?

Building links in contemplation of the informational & decision making path that your customers go down can prove incredibly profitable and is frankly good business sense.

A link is more than just some text that’s hyperlinked to a page on your site, that link is on a web page in its own right. That might sound like a strange and fairly obvious thing to say but that page is extra internet real estate that you can be leveraging to your benefit:

  • Link build to 3rd party properties – the concept of ZMOT teaches us to work with consumers and have conversations on their terms rather than our own. If you’re in the hotel business for example then for some keyword searches, the user may prefer a 3rd party review website (e.g. TripAdvisor) to show up in their search results rather than your own website simply because they want to read real customer reviews. It is for this reason that you need to spread your link love. Wouldn’t you rather influence the customer by helping to promote the 3rd party review websites that convert the best for you? You’ll still be winning the ZMOT just in a slightly smarter way that’s more useful to the customer.
  • Own the SERPs – remember I said a link is extra internet real estate? Well use your link building campaign to try to gain as many placements for your key search terms as possible. Google ‘Skyrocket SEO’ or ‘James Agate’ and you will find numerous interviews I’ve done and guest posts that I’ve written sitting alongside social media profiles and of course the Skyrocket SEO website. Most days we ‘own’ these SERPs (apart from a few rogue WarriorForum posts that are nothing to do with us but sell blog network links that “Skyrocket your SEO results”). Owning these SERPs was easier than it has been for some clients but now if anyone is seeking to verify the credentials of myself or the business they can see that we practice what we preach.
  • Links for social proof – link building is often about earning media. I’m not going to demonise paid media but any chump with a cheque book can get a billboard Ad, to get a link on Mashable or The Guardian is not an easy thing. These kinds of links (and mentions on any influencer’s website even if they are influential only within the niche) will help a company to gain trust and social proof in the eyes of a customer that’s in ZMOT mode. Perhaps they are considering a purchase from an eCommerce retailer they’ve not heard of before, a few Google searches later and they can see the website has been featured on TechCrunch and a few of their favourite bloggers have written about their great experiences with the website. That customer probably can’t get punch in their credit card number quick enough.

Still think links are just about metrics? This is making that transition from mere spreadsheet monkey to a link builder that’s considering the customer purchasing path (without forgetting the point of SEO of course).

#3 – Turn ‘linkbait’ into profitable content assets

Give the obvious baiting a swerve this month and try to work up a content asset which sits at that sweet spot between ‘being interesting’ and ‘actually generating some relevant visitors’.

I was guilty of not doing this around 18 months ago. A content project we worked on for a client (after a small amount of initial seeding) got about 12,000 visitors from StumbleUpon. Exciting stuff, it was a small business we were working with so they’d never seen that amount of traffic.

I excitedly wrote up the results, I was pleased, the client was pleased everyone was happy but then I thought, if that client was a big company and I presented that to a board – would I still have had the same positive reaction or would I have been laughed out of the building?

Perhaps not laughed out of the building because clearly having 12,000 people in some way interact with your brand carries some inherent value but maybe I shouldn’t have been as smug as I was.

I started to think about it like this; we put on a party for the client where the bar is free, obviously we got people through the ‘door’ but how long did they actually stick about once the client stopped picking up the tab? Then all the client was left with was a bar tab and a hangover.

To give you another example, we created an eBook that offered ’50 ways to make extra cash’ for a client of ours here in the UK. Did it get as many Facebook likes as some of the other stuff we have done that hooked into news topics? No. But does it consistently get shared? Does it regularly drive leads? Yes. This is a profitable content asset that after the initial creation has needed little more than a few light touch ups.

60 second guide to creating profitable content assets

  • Focus on your customers - help solve their problems and answer their questions with a content piece such as an eBook, infographic or training series on your blog. More than this though you want to identify ways of adding value beyond just regurgitating the responses found on Quora. If you find that your prospective customers are underserved with the information currently available or if there flat-out aren’t any answers for them online then you are targeting the right area. Your asset needs a reason for existence if it is going to be popular and profitable.
  • Promote it – Yes, you’ll have to work harder to promote this than dropping an animated kitten-cupcake-cute-baby-GIF but we’re creating an asset not putting on a free party. Target webmasters & bloggers who want to help their audience, use it as part of your sales process and let your customers share it, use every channel you have to promote it. The idea is to create an asset and navigate it to the point that it is the de-facto resource that is synonymous with that kind of information search.
  • Enjoy long term value (& update periodically) – once your asset ranks well then quite literally ANYONE looking for information, whether they are a prospective customer or a blogger looking for a reference to cite, will see your content asset.

5 Comments

  1. avatar
    Jason August 10, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    Really liked this post, especially the bit about the link bait. We’ve done a few bits and pieces where we build a cheesy viral on an external site like tumblr and use a custom domain to gather links but all they achieve is a bit of traffic and sharing. They often end up being a decent(ish) link for the client – which is and ok outcome – but creating a ‘proper asset’ appeals more.

    • avatar
      James Agate August 10, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      Without a doubt Jason – I think David Ogilvy said it best when he said “If it doesn’t sell then it isn’t creative”…

      Thanks for your comment

  2. avatar
    Iain August 10, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    James, good smart stuff as usual. Only bit I’d query is the third paragraph under heading #1 where you say

    “If you are selling yourself or your company as doing SEO but then you deliver absolutely no improvement in rankings then it is kind of up for debate whether you’ve done your job or not.”

    In my opinion there are far more relevant metrics than ‘rankings’ and using the word rankings with no context is particularly problematic. As I’m sure you will know perfectly well, it’s possible to improve rankings and still not have done your job!

    I appreciate that’s not the point of this article and you didn’t want to delve in to it too deeply, but the way it’s presented seems to me to reinforce the misconceptions that too many non-SEO people have about how to measure our work.

    Good work overall though.

    • avatar
      James Agate August 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

      I agree with you Iain actually – I think I may make an edit to the article because I didn’t mean it like that (as you said) but that paragraph is kind of misleading… I actually meant I think sometimes SEOs focus on some fluffy metrics because they want to be more like traditional marketers but forget that they were actually getting paid to “optimise a site for better search engine performance”.

      I understand often the remit goes beyond but it hopefully that clarifies what I was trying to get across.

      Thanks for your comment as always Iain

      • avatar
        Iain August 10, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

        No problem. I had a client recently receive a report from me detailing an 850% increase (which was with a decent volume, not 2 visits up to 17!) in organic search queries relating to a particular service they offered only to hear back from them that they were unhappy they didn’t rank better for [random phrase they put in Google].

        The benefit they received was clearly from the Search Engines, but not exclusively linked to the performance of their headline terms.

        No matter how well we explain things to clients, I think it’s something hard coded into some of them to come back to rankings at the end of the day!

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