Tactical Link Building Insights with Jon Cooper and Brian Dean

by Jason Acidre on July 29, 2013 · 38 comments · Search


This week, I had the chance to pick the brains of two of the most creative minds in the link building sphere today – Jon Cooper and Brian Dean.

A week ago, we received a tweet from Dean Gareth Davis about having us three talking about link building. So I guess this post is a sneak peek of how might that go in the future.

I sure do hope that we can do this again next time with the rest (Ross Hudgens, Garrett French, James Agate, Julie Joyce, Eric Ward, Paddy Moogan and Mr. Link Building himself – Wil Reynolds).

Anyway, with no further ado, here are some of our insights on how to tackle link building these days.

1. For agencies (knowing that they mostly work with clients in different verticals/industries all at the same time), what do you think are the best ways for them to scale and simplify the process of link development?

joncooperJon: Scaling for an agency comes down to three things: people, process, and relationships. First, you need to be able to correctly & quickly hire to keep up with demand.

While you don’t want to rush into hiring someone, you need to be able to quickly assess whether or not they’re a good fit; otherwise trying to take on more work at an accelerating rate while waiting for the perfect hire is what’s going to cause some short & long term issues.

Second, you need to have the right processes setup that standardizes most of the repetitive tasks you’ll be performing. The biggest priority is simply having one; it doesn’t have to be even close to perfect, you just need to have something in place so you can start from there in terms of improving efficiency.

Lastly, save yourself some pain & effort and try to develop relationships that you can tap into for multiple clients, otherwise sending out a blast of cold pitch emails each time around is going to be frustrating & time consuming.

One thing I’ve been considering is specializing in a certain vertical (i.e. just health or just real estate) so you can build up those relationships and tap into them for every client, and not just the few that you’ll get within the same vertical (in that case, blogger personas would be a good route to go).

Scaling for an agency comes down to three things: people, process, and relationships.

brian deanBrian: Let’s face it: a campaign for mobile phone site is going to look A LOT different than one for a local landscaping company.

Interestingly, your client’s niche didn’t really matter before Penguin: you could build the same type of links for all of them.

In fact, when I first took on SEO clients (before I really knew what I was doing), all I needed was their target URLs and keywords. Whether they sold business consulting or microwaves, my approach was exactly the same.

Needless to say, those days are long gone.

Because today’s SEO clients need a lot of TLC, I’ve noticed quite a few agencies specialize in one vertical (law, dentists, hotels etc.). It saves them a lot of set-up time. They have guest posting targets, broken link building opportunities, and relationships ready to rock.

There’s no need to spend time searching for “keyword” + “write for us” or “keyword” + “inurl:resources” when a new client comes on board. You already have your pre-prospected targets in an Excel spreadsheet ready to go.

So that’s one way to scale: carve out a niche and focus on client acquisition in that vertical.

The other strategy would be to invest in training your team. If you delegate the bits and pieces of link building to low-skilled staff, you don’t have a “link development team”…you have a backlink assembly line.

Yes, it’s efficient. But it’s not the holistic brand/content development/right brain approach that’s crushing it right now.

I recommend that agencies try to create a staff of Jon Cooper’s, Garret French’s, Jason Acidre’s, and Eric Ward’s.  This caliber of expert can come up with a 100 powerful link developed campaigns within seconds of seeing a new client’s site.

That makes link building easy to scale: you don’t need to spend weeks figuring out the best approach for every single new client you take on. Instead, when you land a new client, the experts on your team bang out a custom, winning plan on day 1.

So that’s one way to scale: carve out a niche and focus on client acquisition in that vertical.

jason acidreJason: I actually wrote a piece last year on Buzzstream on developing advanced processes for agencies and enterprise-level SEO teams, and I believe that those structures are considerably efficient nowadays, especially with the constant changes occurring in the online marketing space.

Aside from getting the right people, and having a system in place where your talented staff can work around with – it’s very important to have solid core principles (on how you approach web marketing)  in which your process/people can stick to or base their actions from – and eventually enhance along the way.

It’s not just about making sure your people know the best practices in SEO/link building, it should be more about them understanding how the web really works (especially with how people consume the web – or the things that make people share and link).

Influence the people within your organization/agency to integrate your value proposition with how they do their work. Like with us, our primary goal for every campaign is to improve conversions, so our methods in link acquisition are almost always aligned with this objective.

Principles drive actionable strategies – and often results to far simpler processes and result-driven actions.

2. Link earning is all about standing out in the competition. So what’s the fastest way to really stand out to start earning high-value links?

joncooperJon: I’m actually against the idea of link earning because I’ve seen far too many great websites, content, and products that “earned” links but didn’t tap into nearly all of the opportunity they could have taken advantage of because it would take some grunt work in terms of traditional link building & outreach.

So understand that standing out (doing something noteworthy) and actually getting high quality links aren’t one in the same; otherwise, we wouldn’t need marketers because the best products & services would always win.

But with that said, there are a few tried & true practices to stand out that are almost universal. The first is simply by finding what the best are known for, and just doing it better. It’s a poor example because it’s from the SEO industry, but I found this to be super popular, so I just redid it to make it even better.

The second is the “be everywhere” approach. Plan a day, probably 2 months out, that you want to be seen everywhere. That means building up relationships with all the bloggers in your industry and seeing if you can get a guest post to go live on their blog on that day.

There’s no set number of guest posts you should shoot for, but aim for at least 10. At the same time, put together at least one or two serious posts on your blog that will wow people ahead of time, and have them go live that day and the next.

Essentially, you want your name to be everywhere, even if only for a day or two.

brian deanBrian: The best way to make a name for yourself is to find the content gap in your industry and fill it with mind-blowing stuff. Your competition is probably too lazy to publish amazing content that blows people’s minds. Their blogs probably bang out boring, useless articles like “5 Tips for …” and “7 Simple Ways to …”.

There’s a place for that sort of content. But it’s not going to make you stand out.

For example, when I started Backlinko, I was entering the crowded, competitive, and noisy SEO space. I knew that I hadto publish amazing stuff 100% of the time if I had any chance of making a name for myself.

And it’s like that for most industries. You need to bring it every single time you publish, especially when just starting out.  The content bar is set very high in almost every single industry right now. If you want to earn links with content, you need to think of ways that you can beat what’s out there on every single level: design, comprehensiveness,utility, UX.

Of course, content alone isn’t enough. The “marketing” part of content marketing is crucial. Another way to stand out is to blitz your industry with guest posts, interviews, infographics etc.

You want to be everywhere your target market is. When they go to a forum to ask a question, they read your helpful response. When they go on Twitter to see what’s new, they see people sharing your new infographic. When they check their favorite blog, they read your guest post. When they go to Google+, they watch your Google Hangout.

If you get yourself in front of your target audience (or the linkerati), over and over again AND impress them with great content when they land on your site, your competition won’t stand a chance.

Content alone isn’t enough. The “marketing” part of content marketing is crucial

jason acidreJason: There are many ways actually, but these are the two that I would mostly suggest people to focus on:

  • Create something that’s really hard to do (and let people/publishers in your space know about it). A lot of starting up brands has been successful with this approach – same thing as to what Jon Cooper did with his complete list of link building strategies and when Brian Dean co-authored the advanced guide to link building, which were both well received by the SEO community.
  • Focus on becoming an authority in a particular niche in your industry (become the go-to-brand in that niche). This is quite similar to my approach back when I was just starting, where I focused more on writing about link building.

3. Most seasoned practitioners know and understand that the first month of every campaign is the toughest one. In content and link development standpoint, how do you manage your clients’ expectations (or their expected results) for the first month? What are the deliverables that you mostly focus to accomplish on the first month of the campaign and how do you justify these results?

joncooperJon: An interesting solution to this problem was found by a colleague of mine who’s doing local SEO for clients, all in the same competitive space (but obviously different cities).

What he would do is during the first few months, not only is he building up the site and doing all the white hat, long term things needed to rank, but he was always throwing up a second site and doing some grey/black hat SEO to get it ranking early on, and as a result, not only was he able to focus on the long term with his client’s main site, but he was also able to drive business for them in the short term (by the time these sites burned out, his main sites were ranking much better).

For others though, this approach might not be possible for a couple reasons. First, you’re probably not that good at actually ranking sites with grey/black hat tactics. The second is that it just might not be an option (i.e. because their site is ecommerce and you can’t just throw up a site over night with some textbroker content).

So for the first month, you’re just going to have to suck it up and do things like everyone else; tell the client to focus on the links coming in on a month-to-month basis, and that most movement won’t be seen until at least 3-6 months out depending on your velocity and the level of competition in that vertical.

brian deanBrian: For me, the first month is the hardest because you’re under the microscope. A client that checks his analytics and SERP positions once a week may check once a day during that first month.

One way that I’ve turned the first month into a huge win is by focusing on on-page and on-site improvements. In my experience most new clients tend to make the same fundamental on-site mistakes:

  • Trying to target 5+ keywords on every page
  • Stuffing the keyword meta tag with 25+ keywords
  • Poor landing page design that causes sky-high bounce rates and subpar dwell time
  • Ignoring basic on-page SEO best practices (long content, adding multimedia etc.)
  • Dozens of useless snippet and archive pages that dilute PR and trigger Panda

Fortunately, you can usually overhaul their on-site SEO over a weekend. And the next time Googlebot comes around, you have a tightly-optimized site that will get an almost-instant boost. That way, I can tell them: “You should see a slight-yet-significant improvement within a few weeks. As I start to build quality links for you, this will improve even more over time”.

Giving a client some results in month 1 establishes trust and makes them more patient. That way you can do the long-term link development work (relationship building, infographics etc.) without feeling like you’re under the gun.

jason acidreJason: I believe we use the same approach as to what Brian does – we tend to look for quick wins (through technical on-site audits/recommendations) first, as this is the most important part of SEO anyway.

Although, aside from that, it’s also important to at least come up or develop a solid content asset (or help improve an existing one) on the first month of the campaign, which can attract links/traffic (or will be really appropriate to build artificial links to) on the first month (and also over the next few months of the campaign).

The great thing about this approach is that the result will not just yield links (and potential rankings), as the result may also reflect through the conversions that the content asset can help provide on the first month.

It’ll be so much easier to get the trust of your new clients when they see that your efforts are positively affecting their business goals.

4. What link building methods would you suggest to any organization (agency, enterprise, SMBs, publishers, etc…) that are easy to implement and can somehow drive immediate results.

joncooperJon: There isn’t one universal link building tip for every business model and every sized client. If there was, there would be 10x the link building agencies out there. Most of the easy wins are on-site that drive immediate results.

For bigger sites, if the domain authority is there, you can do a TON with internal linking. A good example of this is a very well-known ecommerce brand. Because they already had a lot of incoming links, all they had to do was create a lot of content so they could utilize it for internal links.

So what they did is they made mashups of “Product X vs. Product Y” (even if X and Y weren’t entirely related). The content used for each was the same in every mashup (i.e. Product X content was the same whether it was being shown vs. Product Y or Product Z), but because they were combining the content in new ways (i.e. X vs. Y is different than X vs. Z is different than Y vs. Z) Google was seeing it all as unique content, thus giving the internal links juice (and thus driving some serious revenue in terms of better rankings).

Would this exact strategy still work today just as it did roughly 2-3 years ago? Who knows. But the takeaway is that there’s a lot of opportunity you can take advantage of from an on-site perspective.

brian deanBrian: Here are a few that aren’t necessarily new and exciting, but they work really well and can be applied to almost any industry:

  • Resource page link building: I don’t see this talked about as much as it should be. Almost every industry has hundreds of high PR resource pages to take advantage of. And you don’t need to lie, beg, cheat or steal to get your link. These pages exist just to link out to great content. So if you have that, it’s just a matter of asking nicely.
  • Infographics: The buzz behind infographic marketing has died down over the last 18-months. But that doesn’t mean infographic link building is dead. Because this medium is still new-ish, there are A LOT of tweaks and hacks out there to make the strategy more effective. For example, I’ve been doing quite a few infographic JVs lately. That way you halve the cost and double the promotion from every infographic. That’s just one small tweak. Every time I launch a new one I get 2-3 more ideas like this that I’ve never seen published anywhere. There’s lots of untapped link building potential with infographics.
  • Handyman link building: I use this as the umbrella term to describe improving another person’s site for a link. Broken link building is the most famous application, but there are dozens of others out there. For example, Bill Sebald just created a very cool tool and approach called Content Refresh“. It’s basically finding outdated content and helping the site owner make it more up to date. I know other people that find ugly site headers, buy a nicer one on Fiverr, and then send the site owner the nice one. Lots of opportunities here as well.

jason acidreJason: I also believe that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to link building. But there’s one common thing in any industry or type of business – a customer that’s looking for a product, service, solution or information.

It’s just a matter of how you can find these people and how you can demonstrate that you’re the best provider.

I’d suggest to start by looking for discussions (blogs, forum threads, Q&As, etc…) that are precisely about the solutions/products that your clients offer. Participate and make sure that you’re really helping them solve their problems.

Other things that you can also do:

  • Link reclamation – if the business has been already there for years, then you might also want to check if the site has unlinked brand mentions or links pointing to the wrong URLs.
  • Inviting or hiring expert authors in your industry to contribute content on your site.
  • Comment marketing – to establish your brand as an authority in the field and to also build relationships with other publishers in your space.
  • Distributing content on user-generated sites that have high search share (ex: Slideshare, YouTube, Pinterest, etc…) that can target your long-tail keywords – to get constant referral traffic/leads.

5. What’s in your campaign rule book? Or what are your initial protocols, action steps and goals to be set (for the next 3 – 6 months) when working on a new link building campaign?

joncooperJon: It’s more so of a checklist of different things to run through, just because each campaign is never the same (every site has different advantages/disadvantages, competitors, assets, etc.).

After running through mostly on-site things (i.e. is there unique content on these category & product pages), the first few things to do in terms of link building are just going after the easy wins after doing competitor research.

Depending on what we turn up here, going after those links could mean a month of work or 6 months of work. After that, we usually dive into what exact content can we create that we know we can get links to (throwing mud at a wall just isn’t practical; the content we create always has a link focused purpose).

brian deanBrian: The first thing I do is help them create a linkable asset. Here’s the process that I follow:

1. Look at the client’s market and see where there’s a content gap.

2. See if there’s content on their site that could be improved upon or turned into a linkable asset. That’s usually faster and easier than starting from scratch.

3. If they don’t have that, I help them create a linkable asset. I prefer infographics and ultimate guides because they’re cheap and easy to share.

4. I try to get as many eyeballs on the content as possible. That means posting it on industry forums and trying to get it featured on popular newsletters (a massively underrated content promotion strategy).

5. Once the buzz has died down, I pound the pavement with an email outreach campaign.

This campaign usually gets some brand awareness and quality links to the site. Then I focus on some fundamental strategies, like broken link building, resource page link building, and link reclamation.

Once a month or two has passed create and promote another linkable asset. Rinse and repeat.

That’s the initial protocol and action steps. I actually don’t try to set specific goals besides creating one awesome piece of content every month. There are too many variables for me to say: “You will get between 25-50 links from this infographic”.

jason acidreJason: I always start with the goals and limitations (resources, access and/or budget). Because having these parts very clear at the start makes the strategy development and implementation more adaptive.

With that, you can easily identify tasks to highly prioritize and not – and basically focus on things that will really yield results.

My main rule (personally) is to just make sure that each task is relevant and aligned with the campaign’s long-term objectives. That’s why we always do a project briefing (internally) before working on a project.

If you liked this post, you can subscribe to my feed and follow us on Twitter @jasonacidre, @pointblankseo and @Backlinko.

Jason Acidre

Jason Acidre is Co-Founder and CEO of Xight Interactive, marketing consultant for Affilorama and Traffic Travis, and also the sole author of this SEO blog. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonacidre and on Google+.

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