What does your link building process look like?
If it is anything like ours used to be, it is probably a little hit and miss. Building links is a creative business, unfortunately creative processes tend to be very difficult to scale and depend heavily upon the individual carrying them out. This can frequently lead to inefficiencies and a lack of consistency.
Having a structured system is much more effective and consistent. As a manager, if you are simply delegating the task of “getting x links for clients a, b and c” then you aren’t being concise enough and you can’t really hope for efficiency or consistency from your team.
You need a link building system.
Whilst that system will not be capable of building links automatically by itself, it will be able to run completely independently of a particular person.
In theory, anyone should be able to pick up your training manual and after a short period of time be competent enough to jump straight into your workflow and start being productive. Your system will encourage structured innovation where team members are free to innovate within their small “realm” without impacting negatively on the work of others and whilst ensuring their work complies with the overall standards and outcomes.
I’m not talking about systemising directory submissions or social bookmarking here but more complicated and worthwhile linking tactics like guest blogging for example.
In this post, I’m going to take you through the exact framework we used to scale our link building capabilities without compromising on the quality of the links we were developing.
STAGE 1 – Define
The first stage in the process is to clearly define what the goal of this link building system is going to be.
- How is this going to help your business? i.e. What are you looking to get out of this?
- How will this benefit your clients?
- How is this going to help your staff?
- What types of links are you aiming for?
- What are your minimum quality standards?
You needn’t produce an extensive presentation or thesis on this but a few simple statements as to your intent can help to shape your process design and other important factors like how you know when the test phase has been successful and you are ready to scale up.
STAGE 2 – Design
The next stage is to design a process framework for each type of link that you intend to develop. In most cases the process will actually be quite lengthy so it is essential to break each process down into a series of shorter tasks.
For example; guest blogging as a process has quite a few different stages. Breaking these stages down into a series of smaller steps makes the whole concept much more manageable e.g. How to find guest post opportunities, how to brainstorm content ideas, how to write an outreach email and so on.
Start by documenting what you are currently doing to build a link, literally write down every single step in the process. Monitor yourself and observe your team, taking down as many notes as you can on your current process. You may notice patterns and you’ll almost certainly notice inefficiencies and tasks that some do much better than others.
You are now going to re-design and/or design from scratch a new process. If we were corporate we could call this Business Process Re-engineering. But we’re not, so we won’t.
You may decide that you want to re-design around a current process just eradicating some of the inefficiencies, smoothing out some of the rough patches to ensure consistency. You may well decide to design the new process from the ground up.
I created a process template when I was designing our workflow and here it is…
Get a copy of our link building workflow template
Hopefully the template will be quite easy to follow (just remember to make a copy first). You can create one of these workflows for each of the different types of links you are looking to build.
- Phase – it took us a few attempts to create distinctive phases in the process but you’d probably do well to try to segment according to the skill area e.g. analytics, content and so on.
- Step – a precise action that needs to be taken
- What – an overview (for now at least) of what will be done as part of that precise action
- Who – when we re-designed our processes, we shuffled job titles and responsibilities so initially we just labelled these as person A, person B and so on to help understand how the campaign would flow
- When – not necessarily dates but detail which previous task this one is contingent on e.g. in order to fact check a blog post, you’d need the writer to have produced it in the first place.
STAGE 3 – Train
- Develop training manuals
- Hire people (if necessary) or re-shuffle
- Do the training
Developing training manuals
This is likely to be one of the most time consuming elements to this entire process but if you designed a workflow in the previous stage, you should be in good shape to expand upon the “what” column and detail step by step how someone would go about completing this action. Screenshots, text descriptions and video walkthroughs (we like Screenmail) are all suitable. You could choose to build a private training website (using WordPress and Premise for example) or even just use a collaborative solution like Google Docs or Zoho.
Instructions need to be clear, concise and flow without any gaps. This will probably take you a few iterations before you get a finished and workable training manual. Giving a copy to someone you trust who doesn’t work in your business or industry is also a good move because the real litmus test of how good the manual is, is whether someone without an intimate knowledge of your business could follow the instructions that have been set out.
Hire or re-shuffle
In the last stage, I talked about how it wasn’t critical to put a job title or specific individual in the “who” column, well now is the time to start looking at doing this, give each of the people you’ve listed a job title and a set of responsibilities e.g. Person A becomes a Link Researcher who does tasks A, B, C, F and H.
Once you have a team structure you will then want to look at co-ordinating your existing team into this structure and/or hiring new individuals to fill any newly created job roles.
Do the training
[The extent to which you do this will depend upon how big your 'test' is going to be - see stage 4]
We now have a structured training process in place to ensure each new team member gets a consistent programme when they start or when they extend their role. I used to laugh at the rigid training programmes of the big corporate giants, and whilst we don’t show new recruits a motivational video or have them do a sing-song on their first day, I can clearly see the big companies are on to something with a highly consistent training plan.
We have a part-time employee who is dedicated to training new recruits and supporting existing team members with ongoing training. We’ve tried not to over-complicate our training process and in essence it looks like this:
1. Trainee reads through the manual
2. Trainer covers any questions
3. Trainer performs a live run through
4. Trainer covers any questions
5. Trainer supervises trainee doing a live run through
6. Hand-holding phase with trainee getting someone to buddy up with whilst they find their feet
Naturally there is more to it that this but that is a fairly basic outline of how we work for the majority of the training that we do.
STAGE 4 – Test
I would recommend that you rigorously test your newly designed process on a small portion of your team and/or on a test campaign (rather than a live client campaign). Just so you can be absolutely sure that the system works and that more importantly you can maintain and hopefully improve your quality standards.
If you have a small team, you may choose to train the entire team on the process and have them work on a small test project using the new process before then gathering feedback from them on how well it worked.
Due to my inner-control freak, I actually performed the role of each of the individuals identified in the process to be absolutely sure it worked, before I even tested each process with my team.
Analyse the performance (relative to the goals defined in stage 1), fix any holes in the workflow, condense any unnecessary processes and streamline the overall process before considering a roll out. It is much easier to test, control and fix a small scale experiment than it is to roll out across a business and then try to change things or have to pull the plug.
STAGE 5 – Scale
Now that you are confident in your new effective process(es), it is time to roll out across your team and the business. This may mean training more people, recruiting more bodies and tweaking processes as you go.
Operating at scale is likely to be different to your pilot of the process so a gradual roll out is advisable.
Rolling the process out will result in more people being involved so consequently you are likely to identify new issues that come with the scale that need to be solved. Link building is a practice which is continually evolving so your processes will obviously need to move with the times, not only that but learning from your team as to how the process could be more effective is also essential.
Many business process design consultants recommend the use of dashboards for monitoring the performance of business systems, and whilst we haven’t developed a fully fledged dashboard system just yet we monitor the following three metrics (and adjust processes accordingly):
- Efficiency – output per hour
- Performance – quality of that output (based on a spot check)
- Job satisfaction – is the individual generally happy?
I’m keen to hear from anyone reading this with experience of business process design who might like to add their thoughts in the comments below to help us refine our monitoring, metrics and dashboard.
This entire link building systemisation process is actually cyclical in nature. As I have just touched on, link building is an ever moving landscape so evolving the process to keep apace of this is obviously important.
You will also want to improve as your team identify more effective processes, as new software enters the market, as existing tools get updated and so on.
One final note…
People have asked me if “creating a link building production line” has impacted on staff motivation, thinking that my answer would be that my team now feel like they are just pushing buttons.
Quite the opposite though, as humans most of us crave order. We found it genuinely boosted morale as it helps to somewhat reduce many of the frustrations associated with building links. There is a clear workflow, everybody has clear responsibilities and there is room for individual innovation without losing momentum.
We’ve also become a great deal more efficient and seen an overall increase in the quality of output since there is more time to really focus on the tasks within the process that matter.