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Show Me The Links! How to build links on a smaller budget




Julie Joyce: Hey guys, we are live right now with the SEMrush webinar series, Show Me The Links. I've got some great guests today. If you could just give us an introduction about yourself, who you are, what you do, that sort of thing.

Gareth Hoyle: I'm Gareth Hoyle based just south of Manchester in the UK. I've been running link building agencies for the last 10 to 12 years.

Garrett French: Hi folks. I'm Garrett French. I'm with Citation Labs. We've been building links for about seven or eight years.

Ross Tavendale: My name is Ross Tavendale. I'm the managing director of a company called Type A Media, who are a team of SEO consultants based in London, just outside London Bridge.

Julie Joyce: Excellent. What did you do before you got into SEO? Gareth, did you do anything before SEO?

Gareth Hoyle: I've had a few jobs over the years, shall we say. I think the best decision I ever made was getting involved with SEO.

Julie Joyce: Garrett, what about you?

Garrett French: I started in 2001 at a newsletter company. It was a wonderful and really fun place to start working. The only thing my readers wanted to hear about at the time was SEO, so I started going onto forums and reporting on forums.

I really got into the industry from ultimately a back door, not really knowing anything about doing SEO. I was at an SEO agency. Then that imploded. It was the largest in the world at the time. Then I started a link building agency and a couple of tools. Here I am.

Julie Joyce: Awesome. What about you Ross?

Ross Tavendale: I've actually only ever worked in search. My first professional job was with the agency called DigitasLBi. They're part of the Publicis Groupe.

Best Low-Cost Link Building Tools

Julie Joyce: These are some interesting backgrounds. The first question I have since we're talking about smaller budgets, what are your favourite free or low-cost tools to use?

Gareth Hoyle: The biggest challenge is to define low cost. If you can get a basic Majestic account for 50 bucks a month, if you can't get that account working for you, you're doing it wrong. In terms of free tools that we look at using for trying to build links, Google, LinkedIn. Just thinking on your feet. The phone is quite a good link building tool that many people overlook.

Then we do try and look for more all-round tools. A big fan of SEMrush of course, things like Ahrefs. Tools that allow me to spy on my competitors’ links are always nice for us because if it's working for them, it'll probably work for us.

If I was to give my answer, I would say Google, LinkedIn and the phone, but then if we're going to spend a bit of money, Majestic at 50 bucks a month. Ahrefs is $99 a month. SEMrush I can't imagine is much different from that $99 a month for the basic account. If you're finding that $99 a month is too much for a tool, then I believe you're doing this job wrong.

Julie Joyce: Garrett, what about you?

Garrett French: I'll second Gareth's Google suggestion. I think that's hands down probably the tool I use the most primarily for prospecting. Nothing right now beats it in terms of just being a waiting database of opportunities.

I like the LinkedIn suggestion. We haven't started using that for link building, just for lead gen right now, but I think there's a big relationship between lead generation and link building.

As far as free, Google and your email are hands down the ones we couldn't live without. Paid tools, I think we've got subscriptions to just about all of them. Google and email and then whatever else you think you might have the budget for. Go as simple as you can.

Julie Joyce: I really agree with that.

Garrett French: Each tool has different tactics that it'll support or that it'll enable. We're also talking about what tactics should you be starting with on a low budget?

Ross Tavendale: I'll go slightly left of field. I love a tool called All My Tweets. All My Tweets is essentially if you put in anyone's Twitter handle, it just pulls every single tweet that they've ever put online. Just like a massive big data dump. You do a control F to find email signature stuff. If you're trying to find contact information, that's a nice one. In terms of cheap/free, SEO Tools, Excel is good for basic data manipulation as well.

Gareth Hoyle: To back up what Ross was saying about the tweets, just setting up a nice if recipe to just scrape hashtags and stick it into a Google doc. That works really well. That will cost you nothing and take you 10 minutes.

Are Directories Worth Submitting To?

Julie Joyce: Are there any good free directories worth submitting to anymore? What do you guys think?

Gareth Hoyle: Less than 20 in the UK specifically. We tend to use the directories mainly for NAP mentions these days for local SEOs. We're talking Yell.com or the Yellow Pages, things like that. Occasionally, you'll find alumni discount directories. They usually work well for getting .edu or .ecuk links.      

I know quite a lot about directories. Personally, we just don't touch them. If they're going to drive any traffic or if they're going to have an influence on our name, address and phone number listings, then we'd use them. My answer has to be less than 20 really.

Julie Joyce: What about you, Garrett?

Garrett French: We don't ever do any directory link building at all. I think we're typically building links to client content or in some cases sales pages. I would look less for the directory and more for the business associations or professional association type organizations that might be out there. Those will have great lists on them.

Julie Joyce: Ross?

Ross Tavendale: If the industry is quite small, it's weird if you're not in the directory. Moz actually has a directory of trusted suppliers as well. I think industry-based stuff, but more as a badge of honour or something to validate you as the quality within the industry. Not so much for passing page rank and things like that.

Are Nofollow Links Worth Pursuing?

Julie Joyce: Would you bother pursuing no followed links if you're talking about a really small budget? Do you think they're going to make an impact?

Ross Tavendale: When I think of links, I use the Majestic metrics of trust flow and citation flow. Are you going to shy away from a link on the BBC or CNN or the Wall Street Journal because it's no followed? Probably not because the trust signals that that's pushing are going to be worth something. When you ask a Googler, they're always like, "Yeah, but it passes absolutely no page rank."

It doesn't pass that little bit, but what about the rest? What were the trust signals coming from that? Google's got a seed list of a couple of thousand websites that are in the trusted list, where Google bot starts to crawl. Surely that's a good thing if you get a link regardless of no follow or do follow.

Julie Joyce: I agree. What about you Garrett?

Garrett French: Our clients don't like to pay for them, so we often don't pursue them, but I think they're a natural part of every link graph. There's potential traffic benefit or audience-facing benefit and branding potentially also. We're looking at some of the non-search values of link building, which I think especially when you're on a budget is very important. I say get every link you can essentially. As long as it's not going to cause harm.

Julie Joyce: Gareth, anything to add to that?

Gareth Hoyle: If it sends traffic, hell yeah. If it gives a nice NAP mention for local, hell yeah, like a phone number or address.

Getting Links From Visual Media

Julie Joyce: We've got a question from the chat. "How can you build links using photos, infographics and videos?"

Gareth Hoyle: Dependent on the quality of your infographic, photo or video, look at seed sites. If it's something interesting to a specific community, maybe they're on Reddit, maybe they're on Quora.

If you have good content and it's actually interesting to the audience who you're trying to put it in front of, seed it to Reddit because those guys will let you know if it's rubbish. They'll also let you know if it's good. It has to stand on its own two feet. If you're looking at a low budget, and you've spent all your money on production, then seed it on a few places like I've just mentioned and see what you get for now.

Julie Joyce: Okay. Ross, do you want to go?

Ross Tavendale: I want to tell you a horror story just to kick off this one. In my old agency, who I think I actually already named so this is feeling a bit awkward, we spent £50,000 creating a moving infographic. You could take a picture of yourself. It was like a circuit of a Formula 1 track and you could move around it and things like that. Would you like to guess how many links we got for that, guys? Would you like to guess?

Garrett French: 50.

Ross Tavendale: 50? You're so nice. We got two, one of which was from my personal blog, and the other one was from the client's travel enthusiasm blog. When it comes to spending money on creative, the story leads all the time. If you've got an infographic and it's a bit rubbish, I would actually start chopping it up and see if I could pull out any interesting data on it.

When it comes to infographics, unless you're really spending a good amount of money and it's actually engaging in the story leads really nicely, I would tend to just keep to plain text content because it's easier to produce and push.

Gareth Hoyle: We often find that with our clients, it's almost like they spent so much money on the TV ad, they had no budget left to buy the slots. Maybe that's a way of thinking about how much of the budget you should spend on creative versus how much you should spend on actually outreaching and marketing the asset.

Julie Joyce: That's a good point. Garrett, what about you?

Garrett French: I really like the idea of parcelling out any given infographic into smaller chunks. Thinking in terms of rather a single, enormous swing for the fences infographic, I'd like to see either embeddable portions like a chopped up infographic, where there are complete ideas in each section.

It can all hang together on a single page, but as long as I, as the link builder, can portion out or take out little chunks to illustrate, for example, in a guest placement somewhere or on smaller more audience-specific pitches, that's something I would definitely be looking for. We don't ever do infographics. They terrify me. I don't know or understand that world.

We have done really small supporting graphics that explain a point really clearly or a very frequently given bit of advice in any given how-to space we're writing into. Something that really illustrates a very small point very precisely I think can sometimes be as effective to get a single link out of.  

We don't ever go for big plays or the 1% of media, the CNNs and that sort of thing. We're always looking for how do we get definite links and get everywhere, saturate everywhere except the big places.

I've heard a number of tactics around using photos. We haven't scaled or executed around just using photos. Certainly looking to see if people have used your photo on TinEye or asking for credit I think is a really strong one.

Probably you could do memes if you're good at that kind of thing. If you're a funny person, that could be a way forward as well.

Building links From Your Network

Julie Joyce: Experts often suggest you build links from people you already know or, in other words, work your network to build links. What are the best practices for this effort?

Gareth Hoyle: We build links between ourselves, but don't forget as digital marketers, we're a lot more active online and we actually understand the value of a link, whereas if I was to go to my local cricket club and ask them to email the next town along cricket club, they probably don't even know the log in to the website.

I would also look at converging your offline communities with your online communities because even the local bridge club probably has a website. If you can help them out, if you're a member of the club, then maybe they can feature you as a featured player. I must admit my network is very much SEO related.

Julie Joyce: What about you, Ross?

Ross Tavendale: You're asking if you should contact people that you know and you're friendly with. I just work all the time, so I don't actually have any friends apart from anyone who's in the search community. That's out for me.

Have you ever heard the phrase you've got this little black of book of journalists and contacts? I think that is completely dead. If you think about your average journalist, they're creating eight pieces per day. They're mostly going freelance. If you subscribe to any of those things like Gorkana or MuckRack  which are databases of journalists, every day there's like 50 journalists changing jobs or going freelance.

The idea of having that little black book of contacts of people you know is changing so rapidly. A lot of PR agencies will say, "We've got the contacts." I'm like “no one's really got the contacts anymore, to be honest.” You might have a couple, but I don't think that exists anymore. As long as you're pitching them a good story that fits their beat, you're golden. You don't need to know them.

Just go straight in for the kill. They're busy. You're busy. We know this is a commercial exchange already. There's no need to pretend that you're best pals. Maybe send them a nice Starbucks gift card if they publish it just to keep them on the good side.

Julie Joyce: Okay. What about you, Garrett?

Garrett French: I run another agency called ZipSprout also. We focus just on local link building. We did a great study of the most frequently given advice in the space and the third or fourth most frequent one was “get links from people you know”. Work your network.

I'm just talking about small local businesses here, so this is a whole different world from what Ross was just talking about where you're working a network of reporters at larger agencies.

I think first and foremost you're asking do they have websites? Are they in control of the websites? That is going to help you weed out a lot of people right off the bat. If you're not asking that question, then you're really doing this part of the work wrong.

Providing Value to Facilitate The Link

Secondarily, what are you giving to facilitate the link? The easiest thing is just a review of them that they can put on their site or a trusted vendor badge that they can put on their site. You're really trying to think in the context of this local ecosystem, what is going to make them look good?

Asking for someone to link with no value in that exchange, you're going to have a lot of non-responses. You're really looking for how do I create value for them and the simplest way is to do a review, a testimonial, ask if you can publish on their blog, ask for a guest post that sort of thing.

Can You Get Good Links For Free?

Julie Joyce: Okay, great. Can you get really good links for free if you are not working with amazing content?

Ross Tavendale: Yeah, of course, but then that would be purely networked. The likelihood of it happening is low. I find that if you're just asking and not giving any sort of value exchange, the best you can hope for if you just ask for something for free, is one link, which is fine, but that's a lot of effort.

Whereas if you're building something, it's actually interesting and giving it to people with some sort of networked effect in these publications, whether it be newspapers or magazines, that effort could be multiplied by quite a bit.

Think of it the way venture capitalists invest in companies. If they invest in 10, they need one to work and they've absolutely killed it for that year. That's the way we think about our link building strategies. We want really mediocre results for most of them and we want one to hit amazingly and that really carries things forward in a big way.

I'm sure you can get it without producing good content, just purely by asking but the success rate on that is probably about one in 20. It's a lot of effort for not a lot of links. You might as well just make the content.

Julie Joyce: I'm going to turn this over to Gareth.

Gareth Hoyle: The simple answer to the question is no. Can you get really good links for free if you're not working with amazing content? No, because most people know that it's a commercial relationship. You don't necessarily have to pay. Maybe you can donate some time to a scout group and they can feature you on their blog. Really, as a man that sells links for a living, my answer is no.

Julie Joyce: Garrett, what do you think?

Building Links to Sales Pages

Garrett French: I think we've focused a lot on building links to sales pages, which some would argue is not great content. No offence to anyone, but often it's pretty dry. It's a transactional page. You're trying to make a sale.

What we've looked at is how do we get citable or linkable elements built into sales pages, like a fact about a product or a fact about something that this product helps you do or some kind of data or detail that could be citable, that's something you could certainly work into a guest placement.

Ross Tavendale: I think that's a phenomenal idea. The way that we do that, that exact tactic, is if we've got a really interesting story with a bunch of data tables and a bunch of research that backs it up, we actually just stick it in a PDF and link the PDF from the sales page and direct the person to the sales page where the PDF is.

For some reason, they naturally link to the sales page, not to the PDF. If they do link to the PDF, if you really want to be a bit sneaky, you can because all PDF links are follow and they get indexed, so you can just internally link back in.

Garrett French: The anchor link there is really helpful, just being able to direct the visitor from the link directly to the portion that's relevant to whatever you cited.

Prioritizing Publishing Content or Link Building

Julie Joyce: I have a really good question from the chat. "If you're trying to get your site to do well, would you prioritize continuing to blog a lot on the site and hopefully attract links or would you take more time to focus on going after links?

Ross Tavendale: It depends how many eyeballs are on you, to begin with. If you're the industry-standard and people are waiting for your quarterly reports to come out, if you've got a massive social media following, then I'd say probably publishing should be where you should be looking.

That being said, the idea of build it and they will come is just complete nonsense. I've never found that just making nice content on blog posts ever really works. It always needs some sort of a kick-start. If you've already got the audience, I think publishing will definitely work.

If you're a smaller company, it's almost definitely better to spend your time actually doing the promotion.

Julie Joyce: What about you, Garrett?

Garrett French: You're going to have to do both. If you were planning to write four times a month, you could write once a month and then try to write things that are likely to be linkable.

The thing we often confuse, as link builders, the link itself is often an expression of value. When we're link building, especially as SEOs, we're very abstract. We just want the link, but you're creating value for somebody or else the link doesn't happen or at least it doesn't happen naturally.

I think the question more is what can I write that will be valuable to others in a way that gets them to share it?

I would be looking for a content model that works, that in your industry seems to work for acquiring links and adapt it to make it easier or simpler. Give it a shot, and really think about instead of, "Should I spend my time promoting or should I spend my time writing?" I think you spend your time writing something that is promotable and worth promoting in your industry. Then also promote it. You're thinking all the way through to the end user essentially.  

Julie Joyce: Good answer. Gareth?

Gareth Hoyle: I think a lot of the time it does depend on the community that you're working in. I know that if I was to publish a blog on the Marketing Signals blog, maybe we'd get 50 hits, but if I was to put it onto LinkedIn, I can maybe get 1,000 eyes on that piece of content. It's much easier for my peers to share my work on LinkedIn than it is for them to go onto my blog, then click a button and it opens Facebook of LinkedIn or Twitter, and they've got to press another button.

If we use Garrett's example of four pieces of content a month, maybe you'd put one or two on your own blog, one on an industry news blog and one on LinkedIn. It depends on how far into the future you're looking. You're going to have to put the legwork in to build your audience. If you're just entering a new market and no one knows who you are, why are they going to listen to you?

The big thing for me is it's trying to get my content in front of the right audience. If the right audience isn't on my own blog, why would I bother?

Ross Tavendale: I think that's a very good point you've just raised. In our agency, we call that a COPE strategy. The COPE strategy is Create Once Publish Everywhere, meaning that you're DJing that content out. What we actually find, if we push it in particular social channels, it actually catches the eye. We deliberately follow journalists in the clients' niche so that we can make sure they've constantly got their eyes on us. I really like that as a tactic, that pushing it out onto social as well to stimulate.

Julie Joyce: Okay. Here's a good question “You've got no money. How can you get featured in the press?” What could you do that's newsworthy?

Ross Tavendale: I was going to say you could just go to London Bridge and take your trousers off. That'll get you in the press pretty quickly. What could you do to get you in the press? You could do something that's newsworthy ultimately. That doesn't need to be horrific.

Ultimately, humans are reading this stuff so if you've got something interesting to say or you're an inspiring figure or perhaps you've got a cause that you want to promote. For example, let's say you're running for a very niche type of charity. It's the most niche charity that I think you've ever seen, but what we actually do is we look for journalists that tweet about content around it.

There's like three in the entire world, but those three really, really care a lot because they tweet about it. Finding a good cause and just talking to the people that care. Make something interesting or do something worthwhile and tell people about it.

Julie Joyce: Gareth, do you have some opinions on that?

Gareth Hoyle: Yeah, if you do something interesting that your industry would like to read and see, as well as the wider national press, there's no reason why you can't get some serious legs out of a local news story.

If you can play on it right, then there's no reason why you need to invest massive money to get in the press. Just do something that's interesting to those around you and that people are passionate about.

I suppose my answer to the question is absolutely you can get featured in the press with no money. Just do something that people are interested in.

Julie Joyce: Another question here. "I get a lot of brand mentions, but no actual links. What's the value of that and what should you do about it?"

Garrett French: Send them an email and ask for a link. That's what you should do.

Gareth Hoyle: Amen.

Ross Tavendale: Absolutely.

Garrett French: I don't know how to add any more to that.

Julie Joyce: What is a good tactic with that? I've heard of a lot of people trying to do that and they send the email saying, "You mentioned me, but you didn't link to me?" What's the success rate? Anybody has any numbers on that?

Ross Tavendale: We've got some very hard numbers on that. We have an FTSE 250 finance company on our books. They're getting maybe about 400 or 500 branded mentions with no links on a monthly basis. We're converting about 20% of the emails we send.

We find the shorter and curter the direct emails, the better, but the real secret; find the IT manager of that website as well as the journalist who originally posted it. The reason I say that is because it's not a journalist's job to edit links and change web pages. It's the IT manager of that particular establishment. If you email the IT manager and CC the journalist, there's some weird social conditioning thing that just makes them just do it.

Garrett French: I'm doing that. I think we're getting close to 20% for a client who asked us to do this. It's not our core competency. There are lots of company events that constitute a good reason to send an email out to previous linkers or previous publishers or previous authors.

Julie Joyce: Gareth?

Gareth Hoyle: I haven't got any hard facts like the 20% that Ross mentioned on the PR side of stuff, but we found that we get a much higher link rate if we give the journalist something to link to.

Occasionally, they'll link to the homepage because they're just referencing the business, but you will get a lot more links for your time if you give them something to link to. It could just be a one-hour infographic. It could be an Excel spreadsheet.

Normally, what we try and do there is give them the PDF because, for whatever reason, journalists and publishers don't always see the PDF as being a link. Of course, once the story has run its legs, you can always just 301 the PDF into a money page. Job done.

Are PR links worthless?

Julie Joyce: Yeah, very good idea. "Should I stop doing PR or relying on this as a tactic?" What do you guys think?

Ross Tavendale: Newswire stuff, where you create a press release and you just blast it onto some self-serving thing where it surfaces as a link is probably getting discounted anyway. Typical PR web, PR Newswire links, they're getting discounted. They're pretty much worthless, but the function of actually getting into these places, no, that's totally legitimate.

Julie Joyce: Garrett, have anything?

Garrett French: He was talking about the press releases not having SEO value. Sure, I think they haven't for a long time. We don't do PR at all at Citation Labs.

I think if you can write a press release that actually gets reporters to do something, then the last place you're at is the wires anyways. That's a remarkable talent, to be able to write an effective press release. Why not put them on a Newswire as well after your story has gone out? Again, I'm out of my school. This isn't a space I really know, but I see no harm in them. Just don't go to them for links or to try to impact your search.

Julie Joyce: Okay, Gareth, you want to close this out with your answer?

Gareth Hoyle: Absolutely. I cancelled my PR web account in 2012 and never looked back. A lot of the time, we write press releases to email to journalists. Why would we want to publish them somewhere? We're using them to engage journalists in a conversation with us. If anything, the press release is really just a statement of fact of what we've discovered or what we've surveyed.

If you are still using stuff like PR wires, where it is spam, let's be honest, you're doing it wrong, guys. You know what? Cancel the subscription. Spend the time you spend copying and pasting that crappy press release into Windows and improve the press release and put it into an email shot to some relevant journalists and you'll get much more bang for your buck.

Julie Joyce: Very good. We are out of time. I appreciate you guys. We've had some really good questions.


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