Author: tonyxrandall

How to check a bunch of pages for a link to your site

How to check a bunch of pages for a link to your site

Let’s say you’ve got a list of pages you need to check to see if they’re linking to your website or not.

Maybe you emailed a couple hundred websites asking for a link and want to check if they did before following up with them (I think we’ve all followed up with a webmaster or two only to have them reply “I ADDED IT ALREADY” very angrily. Happens to me way more than I wish it did.).

Maybe you found a bunch of target sites by scraping search results and want to check to see if they’re already linking to you. Or a competitor. Or a broken link.

Or maybe you’re doing your monthly client reports and want to do a quick last minute check to see if you missed any of the links you built this month.

There are lots of reasons I could see this being a useful skill to have. And it can literally save you hours over manually checking each site. I’ve seen people do that. WHY? Idiots.

There are also lots of great tools that can do this for you, like Buzzstream has this built in, and you can do it with Screaming Frog too. There are probably a billion others. But what if you don’t have subscriptions to those and need a tool that’s super simple, free as hell and will make you feel a little smarter while using it?

Build one!

It’s real easy. You just need Google Sheets (god I fuckin love Google Sheets) and this little function:

=iferror(substitute(IMPORTXML([CELL #],”//a[contains(@href, ‘[URL]‘)]/@href”),””,””),”Not linking.”)

Notes:

CELL # is (obviously) going to be the cell correlating to the page you’re checking.

URL is (obviously) going to be the website you’re checking links to.

For URL I exclude http://, www, any subdomains, etc. and just use the root domain. This can lead to Google Sheets importing a completely different website that happens to contain your root domain which is displayed in my example below, but more importantly it’ll make sure Google Sheets lets you know about any links to the non-www version of your site or any subdomain links as well (also luckily displayed in my example below).

Tutorial

I’ve done a quick Google search for some dog links pages (god i fuckin love dogs). Real basic search string: dog toys inurl:links.

And let’s say we want to check to see if any of them are linking to PetSmart.

I’ve pasted the pages I found all in a new Google Sheet.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-11-56-45-pm

Now for the fun. Paste your formula in any cell and reference the first page you want to check in CELL #. Also insert the website you’re checking links to in URL.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-11-59-18-pm

Hit enter and you’ll see this:

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-01-58-am

Click that little blue box at the bottom right corner and drag all the way to your last cell:

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-22-06-am

At first all will say “Not Linking” but give it a couple seconds to do its thing and then:

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-09-22-am

Cool! Now we know which of those pages are linking to PetSmart.

As you can see it also revealed all4petsmart.com, but if we would have used http://www.petsmart.com in our function this would have been the result and we wouldn’t have known about that subdomain link:

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-13-02-am

That’s the quickest example I could think of. I’m sure you’ve got a long list of pages you’ve contacted for links. Take 5 minutes to do this with that list (after you do this the first time it becomes literally a 30 second process) and there’s a solid chance you’ll find at least 1 link you didn’t know existed.

How to actually get people to respond to your emails: the anti-tips.

How to actually get people to respond to your emails: the anti-tips.

One thing that really grinds my gears is marketers romanticizing outreach strategies. I see these conversations all the time: you absolutely must personalize every email and connect with every webmaster on a deeper level if you want to build the relationship necessary to get them to link to you; you can’t scale outreach; don’t use template emails.

In my opinion, no matter how well written your outreach is, there is only one reason someone will ever add a link to your site: because it makes sense to do so. Everything else you do or say to them is secondary.

Some situations may differ, sure, but as long as you’re not a complete jackass you can probably turn just about any email conversation into a link provided that first requirement exists. It absolutely has to make sense to link to you. And if it doesn’t make sense, no amount of email etiquette or clever positioning is going to work.

At the same time, before you can show someone why your link makes sense to include on their website, you need to get noticed, and more importantly, you need to get people to actually respond to you.

I did a quick Google search for articles with titles similar to this one, and they were all honestly almost the complete opposite of what I’ve found to work best for me – someone who has over 250 emails to send nearly every day.

General outreach tips.

  • Keep it short.
    Everyone’s got better shit to do than read your link pitch. Most of my emails are 2 or 3 sentences long.On the other hand, I’ve written several 800+ word emails, although all of those were written in response to questions or concerns from site owners. And I turned most of ’em into links. 99% of my first cold outreach emails are about 60 words or less, though.
  • Be clear and concise.
    Ever had some old lady webmaster screw up a link and then you have to spend another 12 emails back and forth with her trying to get her to fix it? Assume every webmaster is that old lady, because even the ones you’re pretty sure are competent enough to insert a link onto their WordPress website will find a new and absurd way to screw it all up.I know the industry frowns on giving super specific instructions when asking for a link (“Let the webmaster decide what anchor text to use. It’s more natural!”), but it could mean the difference between a good link, a shitty link, or no link at all.
  • Butter them up.
    In my opinion, this is among the worst outreach advice. I think most people writing this post would suggest to find something on a website to compliment them about. And that’s how I was trained to do link building outreach. Don’t do that unless it’s 100% natural and you know what you’re talking about and can hold a conversation about it. Otherwise, it becomes painfully obvious what you’re doing, and it’ll hurt your chances of getting a link more than it ever could have helped if you even get one small detail wrong. Especially if you’re building links for a site in a niche you don’t know a lot about. Save yourself (and your client) the embarrassment.
  • Spelling, grammar, format.
    Obviously.
  • Don’t bug them.
    The quickest way to get someone to decline your link request (aside from your link not making any goddamn sense on the website you’re contacting) is to bug the hell out of them. That being said, I’ve gotten a few links after sending 12+ cold emails (I’m not exaggerating). That’s where positioning comes in though. If you’re going to go that route, you need to do it really, really well. In every such case, I knew that my link made sense for them to include and did my best to demonstrate that until they responded in agreement. So this can really go both ways, but your link still needs to be relevant in order for bugging someone to pay off.
  • Use their name.
    I know everyone recommends first and last names in email greetings, but personally, I like to go with just the first name. Probably doesn’t matter either way. However, in my honest opinion, if someone is going to respond to you, they’re going to respond to you regardless of whether you use their name or not (again, as long as your request makes sense and your email doesn’t completely suck) – it’s the rest of the email the matters.
  • Be timely.
    You want to be emailing people when they’re going to see it or have time to act on it. An email sent at 3pm on a Friday afternoon might get read, but it probably isn’t giving the recipient enough time to do what you’re requesting them to do, especially if they have other work to finish before the weekend. On the other hand, I have quite a bit of success emailing people on the weekends, especially if they’re a small operation. A mom & pop shop might have more free time to work on their website on a Sunday afternoon than in the middle of the week. However, an email to a government or university employee might be buried on page 3 of their inbox by Monday morning.

 Okay?

I know, you learned nothing from those “tips.”

Here’s the thing: no matter what kind of quality links you’re going after – whether you’re emailing a small personal blog no one reads (aka anthonyrandall.com) or someone at a .gov or .edu site – the fact remains that your job as a link builder is literally to spam people (I know, I know, you don’t call it that. And that’s an unpopular opinion for someone who builds “white hat” links to hold, but whether or not we’re spamming is not for us to decide. You don’t get to be an asshole to someone on the street and then deny that you’re being an asshole when they call you one. Same with being a spammer. If you’ve ever had someone accuse you of sending them spam – and every link builder has – then you’re sending them spam. Period.).

And sure, there are times when you’re genuinely trying to start a relationship with someone you’re emailing, but let’s face it: as a link builder, most of the emails you send to people are simple and quick requests and you may not have the intention of ever talking to them again after you get them to link to your site (or tell you no).

That might even be the case for the majority websites you contact (if it’s not, you’re definitely ignoring a lot of potential link opportunities). And if you don’t have any intention of maintaining a relationship with someone beyond your link request, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend the time crafting the perfect email. Especially if you’ve got a long list of people to email today. Maybe it only takes you 3-5 minutes to find something to compliment them about, write the perfect email, and proofread it, but if you’re emailing 50 people, that time really adds up. And it’s time which could be better spent finding more websites to contact or building content.

You might even be emailing site owners as a completely fictitious person (or “persona” as you call them in your team meetings) and if that’s what you’re doing, you’re really not above trying to “trick” someone into reading your email, responding to you, and (hopefully) linking to you. It’s fine if you use persona email accounts. I do it. For multiple reasons. For some clients, I might use my own name, personal email address or even Twitter profile and be as transparent as possible. For others, I may have no interest being associated with their industry, and I probably don’t want a few hundred people who I don’t know to know my name or anything about me. People are insane and webmasters are no exception. In fact, webmasters are among the worst people I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. I’ve had them try to get me fired because I emailed them (after one email!). Julie Joyce has had them threaten actual murder:

Like I said, there’s no shame if you want to use email personas. It’s probably even the smartest (and safest) way to go about it for a lot of clients. But if that’s the case, just realize that you’re already being pretty deceitful to every webmaster who isn’t a giant asshole, so you’re really not above any slightly shady strategies trying to boost your response rate.

You can be as ethical as you want with your link building, but none of it is going to matter if your emails aren’t getting read.

How to actually get people to respond to your emails.

Here are some sneaky little things that I do to get people to respond to me. They are almost the complete opposite of the tips I listed above.

These aren’t magically going to convince anyone to link to you. These are to help you stand out in an inbox and hopefully solicit a response. And I’ll admit, the are a little spammy. Nothing a quick apology wont cover, and most importantly, I think they make you look like you don’t send a couple hundred emails every day.

You’re still going to need to have a good website to offer and you’re still going to have to “sell” the link. But, used wisely, these can help you get your foot in the door:

  • Misspell their name.
    And then apologize for it in a follow up or in your next response when you get a reply from them. I’m not talking about completely butchering a name, or calling them the wrong name (doing that is a fast track to the trash bin, regardless of how relevant your link is to them), but something that could be played off as a simple typo such as missing a letter. Ex: Anthony Randal. It sounds silly, but it works. People notice when someone gets their name wrong. Misspell a name and then in your follow up to them own up to the mistake. You’re only human, after all.
  • Quick follow up.
    You want to stay on top of their minds. I’m not talking about following up with them the next day. Email them again literally minutes after your last email. You can send them a duplicate of the same email (so you can pass it off as an honest mistake again), or you can send them a completely separate thought like “Hey, I forgot to mention in my last email, _______.”I like to use an email tracking software to tell me when someone opens my email. And once they do, they’ve got about 5 minutes to respond or I’m sending another one.
  • Purposely leave out information.
    I like to say “Hey, I noticed you have a couple broken links on your website.” and not tell them what those broken links are. Any competent webmaster will probably respond to this. The best part about this is you probably don’t even need to actually know about a broken link on because most websites will likely have at least one. You can literally send that line to 100 different webmasters to solicit responses and then use Screaming Frog for each site as they reply.
  • Reference your previous email.
    Even though there was no previous email. Okay, maybe this one is a little evil. Just say you sent them an email “about 2 weeks ago” and maybe it landed in their spam box because you included a couple links in it or apologize because you suddenly noticed that it was in your Drafts folder and you actually forgot to send it. Ex: “Oops! I just noticed that I forgot to hit send on that email. I’m so sorry about that. I just wanted to suggest ____ for inclusion on your links page.” or whatever it is you want from them.If they ask, just quickly write up an email that you can pretend you already sent them and say “I’ve copy/pasted the original email below:”I don’t do this very much because it’s just as easy to write a good cold email and then give a genuine followup, but this little tactic works way too well.
  • “Sent from my iPhone”
    This is my favorite, so I’ve put it in the middle hoping it gets overlooked.Robots don’t have thumbs so they can’t use iPhones. Add “Sent from my iPhone” to the end of your emails, even if you’re sending from PC. This little line subconsciously tells the recipient that you’re a real (and probably very important!) person.Doing this only really works for short emails and if you’re including links in your emails, then it might not make sense that you’re emailing from your phone. I guess you could put “Sent from my iPad” to make it more convincing if done at the end of a long email, but I’ve never done that.I like to add this to the end of very quick follow up emails. Very simplified example:

    “Hey, just wondering if you’ve had time to consider my last email?? Hope we can work something out!

    Sent from my iPhone”

  • Make mistakes.
    Use your best judgement here. If you’re emailing someone who is an obvious professional then probably don’t write your emails like a complete idiot. Actually, don’t write your emails like a complete idiot no matter who you’re contacting. However, most websites are owned and managed by every day people, and in my experience, there are few industries who would completely ignore an email based on small mistakes.My favorite thing to do with this is to add an extra ? mark to my questions, especially if used in a subject line. Maybe forget to capitalize an “i” in your email. Little things like that.
  • Email the wrong person.
    If you’re having trouble getting responses to your emails, the first thing you might do is check to make sure you’re emailing the right person. That makes sense. But it’s the opposite of this recommendation. Find someone else in the organization and ask if they know who you should contact about your request, even if you already know who the appropriate contact is. Or find the boss of the person you need to get in touch with and email them about your request. An email forwarded from someone they already know and work with will catch the eye of the recipient infinitely better than your cold attempt ever could.
  • Font color.
    Perhaps the most innocent tip I could think of. I noticed a couple years ago that when I changed my email text color to dark blue, I got more responses. This one is probably subconscious as well, but I’m not a psychologist so who knows.

Scaling outreach.

Okay, okay. Yes, some of those tips are pretty shady. Most of my emails fall into the first set of rules, but when I’ve got a tough client or need to get a shit load of emails out in an hour, they are invaluable.

There are a couple of those tactics that I could use to send out 200 emails and then have an inbox flooded with responses that I could hardly keep up with. And if those tactics don’t work, then I still can send a more personalized or detailed cold email a week or two later and maybe that will get a response, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.

Like I said, if your link makes sense, your link makes sense. Personally, I’d much rather spend my time finding more websites to contact than trying to craft perfect emails.

Please also read:
How to Write a Personalised Outreach Email Even When You’re Sending it to 100 People
The Realist’s Guide to Link Building Outreach

 

How to find a shitload of sites quickly with Google sheets (and Bing)

How to find a shitload of sites quickly with Google sheets (and Bing)

I keep seeing people talk about how you can’t automate any part of link building strategy, so I wanted to write a quick thing about why that is nonsense.

I’ll start by saying that I understand the premise of such statements. You probably shouldn’t try to automate every aspect of link acquisition, at least not for any website that you care about long-term. There’s also absolutely zero substitute for highly targeted, and well researched link campaigns.

However, you can still get great links with relatively minimal work. Here’s just one way you can do that, using Google sheets and Bing (because Google are giant assholes sometimes, as you already know).

Let’s say we’re building links for an ecommerce store that sells dog toys. One of the first things that comes to my mind right off the bat is that there are tons of different breeds of dogs, which means that there are tons of different breeds of dog websites. Cool! Except maybe not so cool because it’s going to take me forever to comb through all of those, right? Nope.

Okay so first thing I’m gonna do is Google “list of dog breeds.” Then I’ll copy/paste the list of dog breeds I found into a Google doc.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-8-40-57-pm

Cool. Now I’ve got a list of 199 dog breeds (AKA keywords) in this sheet. Next thing I’m gonna do is highlight all of them again and click copy. Then delete them from the doc (because we’re going to reuse the cells they’re currently occupying). Next, right click on the A1 cell, hit paste special and then paste transpose.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-8-47-06-pm

This will paste that list of dog breeds – ahem, keywords – horizontally. Since I can’t screencap 199 columns, you’re just gonna have to believe me that this list extends all the way to column GQ.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-8-52-12-pm

Cool. Now what?

Well, here’s where it gets fun.

The following is a Google sheets function you can use to scrape Bing results for each of those dog breeds.

=importxml("https://www.bing.com/search?q=" & [cell #] & "+intitle%3alinks&count=50", "//h2/a/@href")

This will return the top 50 (because 100 doesn’t seem to work for some reason and not every query will return up to 50 results) Bing results for the query (dog breed) intitle:links. Why not inurl:? Well, because Bing sucks and intitle: works almost as well, at least for this purpose. Why not use Google results instead? Because somehow Google has managed to suck even more than Bing at something.

So what you’re gonna want to do with that function is replace the red text with the cell number of each cell containing a dog breed (keyword).

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-11-48-pm

It will then take a second or so to load the results from that search.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-16-17-pm

Now, see that little blue square at the bottom right corner of the highlighted cell? Click and drag that all the way to column GQ.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-20-26-pm

It will probably take a while for every query to load so you might end up with something that looks like this for a while, but if you wait a few minutes (sometimes it can take an hour or more for really big jobs like this one) everything should load for you. I like to take off for lunch and when I come back all of the data has usually loaded. Even if some never populate, we already have a few hundred target sites to sort through.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-30-03-pm

At this point, it’s really up to you what you want to do with this data, but note that not every link we have here will be a viable target. You’re still going to need to examine the sites to determine which will be worthwhile prospects, but that can be done relatively quickly with some filtering in Google Sheets.

My first step would be combining all of the sites into one column and then I would set up a filter for all sites containing “links” in the URL. Then, sort A-Z to group all duplicate domains together. After that, it might take 20 minutes to scroll through, removing irrelevant URLs and duplicate results.

After I sorted through this particular batch of sites, I ended up with about 500 viable targets.

Of course, you’re still going to need to find contact info for these websites and how you choose to contact them is up to you, but there are ways to automate those as well. You’re also going to need to come up with at least a little bit of strategy on your own! 😉

Here is a quick function I use to pull email addresses from target pages (note: it pulls any email address off of a page which won’t necessarily be the email address you should be contacting so use wisely.):
=iferror(substitute(IMPORTXML([cell #],"//a[contains(@href, '@')]/@href"),"mailto:",""),"No Email Found")

So, there’s just one way you can automate an aspect of link building.

Here’s another way you could use this:

Let’s say I’m building links for a SaaS web application. I would go to a decent SaaS tools directory and copy all of their category titles much like I did with dog breeds. From there I would set up a similar Bing search for each of those categories. You can also play around with the search strings, of course. For the dog breeds, I could have added “breeder” to each of those search strings to come up with an entirely different list of results. For this SaaS example, you could add things like “startup” or “tools” or even “directory” to reveal more useful results, depending on what you’re after.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-10-32-15-pm

Look at all those keywords!

One final thing worth mentioning:
You can scrape Google results in a similar (although much slower, since you will need to do it one at a time) way with this chrome extension.

In defense of (good) directory links

In defense of (good) directory links

Directory links tend to make it to the top of a lot of “expert” SEO’s lists of websites you should avoid when building links. And anyone who has built any amount of these links has probably gotten questioned about them from clients because they’ve read such nonsense and they’re panicked because they think they’re going to harm their website.

Well, I like directory links a lot (actually, I absolutely love directory links and would honestly probably opt for a good directory link over the low authority [inurl:links OR inurl:resources] links that a lot of SEOs like to focus on), I’ve built a lot of them, and I’ve never gotten a website penalized.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of websites that qualify as a “directory” that you should avoid. This isn’t a post telling you how to rank with abcdirectory.com links.

A good directory will meet all of these criteria and more:

  • Serve a purpose beyond passing PageRank or whatever lame metric you want to use.
  • Operate within a well defined niche.
  • Not be a broken piece of shit.
  • Not be linking to a bunch of spammy or irrelevant websites.
  • Probably human edited, or at least monitored.

Why you shouldn’t ignore directory links.

So, why do I love them so much?

They’re bad ass.

Well, first of all, directory links are cool as shit. As a link builder, getting these links actually feels like I’m building something as opposed to sending a shotgun blast of emails begging people for links.

It also feels really, really, really good to rank a website with these kind of links while watching competitors struggle to move the needle with boring “content marketing” and guest posts and /links pages.

Easy to find.

It takes a certain amount of skill to find good directories, and no one seems to be writing any guides about how to do so, but when you learn how to read URLs (like actually read them) you can spot such a website in a half a second’s glance while scrolling through a backlink report. You can also find them pretty easy if you know how to use Google. (Hint: inurl:listing and inurl:company can work pretty well). I’d also recommend making sure any directory you approach for a link is indexed.

No asshole webmasters to communicate with.

Perhaps my favorite thing about a lot of directory links is that you generally don’t have to talk to any greedy or rude webmasters to get them. While true that the best directories are human edited, you can usually be sure when reaching out to these sites that they aren’t likely to ask for anything in return, unless stated otherwise on the site. And if they do ask for some sort of compensation, you can just move along.

Quick.

When you get good at finding these types of sites, you can build quite a few links of them in the time it takes you to convince just one website owner to add your link to their “resources” page, especially if the website you’re building links for doesn’t have much to offer in the way of content or other linkable assets. Because let’s face it, there are a lot of clients who don’t have much to offer beyond the products they sell, and that’s okay! (The absolute last thing the web needs is more niche ecommerce stores with stale “content” that no one is ever going to read.)

NOT Spammy.

Okay, there are no doubt a ton of spam directories but I’m not talking about them right now. In general, I would never build a link on a directory with an “Arts & Humanities” category (it’s usually the first in the list of categories on a vague directory site) or on a directory that wasn’t immediately relevant to the website I was building links for. A niche directory is a website just like any other and the best ones are built with purpose to serve their users. In fact, a lot of times they’re attached to industry publications or blogs.

You have full control.

Every link builder knows the pains of trying to get a webmaster to make an edit to a link they’ve fucked up somehow. Maybe they didn’t add the www. to your link or linked to the non-https version. Maybe they spelled your company name wrong. Maybe the anchor text they used is a little too close to exact match for your comfort. I could write an entire article about things webmasters get wrong. You don’t have to worry about those things when you’re in control.

That control also gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with your link. Maybe you do want that exact match anchor text. Maybe you want to link to a specific product page.

Optimized URL structure.

Good directories are usually structured pretty well which gives you the added benefit of having a URL that tells search engines exactly what that page is about – especially if it contains the category your website is listed in. That’s not something you get from any /links or /resources page!

Potential to drive traffic.

This should honestly be the most important criteria of any link you build, but reality is that even some of the best links might not get clicked very often. SEOs love to talk about traffic potential of links but how often do they really think people are exploring that random professor’s links page on a subdomain of their community college’s website. You know, that one you got him to update for the first time since 2005.

Nevermind what anyone will tell you about directory links, they can be a great way to drive traffic to your website. In fact, here’s an email I got just a couple days ago about a link I built on a home decor directory:

untitled-design

I also got a link not too long ago on a niche directory for a client that I honestly didn’t have high hopes anyone was going to visit. I checked on the link a couple months later to find that one of their pissed off customers had left a negative review. At least I know some grumpy ass old guy was able to find that page, so it must not have been a completely terrible link after all!

Your competition are ignoring them.

Since everyone routinely recommends staying away from these completely valid, useful and beneficial websites, that means your competitors are likely ignoring them. This gives you tremendous opportunity to build a backlink profile full of optimized, traffic-driving links from websites that the competition which will soon be ranked below you don’t have links from.

Copying your competitors means you’re losing

Copying your competitors means you’re losing

A go-to link building strategy of a lot of SEOs is to backlink their main competitors and attempt to replicate their link profiles. After all, if they’re ranking with those backlinks, you should rank with them too, right?

There are a number of reasons why doing so would provide good insight about where and how your competitors are getting their links. It can also help you find low-effort links or publications which you can contribute to. But pursuing your competitors’ backlinks because you think getting those same links is going to help you rank is going to lead to a lot of frustration, and it’s not going to help you beat them in search.

Personally, I think if this strategy makes up any significant amount of your link building efforts (like more than 10-15%), it means you’re losing.

Why copying your competitors’ backlinks is bunk:

Your competitors have already gotten the benefit of those links.

When gathering a list of competitors’ backlinks to try to replicate, most of those links have likely already existed for quite some time (unless you’re regularly stalking your competitors) so if search engines have already weighed those links in favor of your competitor then your competitor has already gotten the benefit of them. Who knows when (if) search engines will crawl that page again. And when (if) they do, that’s even still before waiting around for the benefits of that link to begin taking effect on your own rankings.

Furthermore, if we’re to assume the idea that authority, or “link juice,” is divided among all links on a page is true (it isn’t), it stands to reason that by building links on the same pages as your competitor you would only either 1) further dilute the value of a competitor’s link or 2) receive less than the amount of “link juice” your competitor received for a link on the same page months ago. And again, that is all before you have to wait around to see the results (if any) of that link. Both of those are losing scenarios.

That doesn’t end at old school PageRank division though. Suppose you ask your friend who they recommend to replace the roof on your house and they say Bob is without a doubt the best. Okay cool. Bob does a good job, so you call Bob. Now imagine they say Bob, Tom, Bill and Jennifer all do a great job replacing roofs. Well, now you’ve narrowed it down to a handful of capable roofers, but you’re still going to have to evaluate them each individually to see who you should choose. If you’re a roofer, you probably would want to be listed among them, but that endorsement simply isn’t going to be worth as much as it would be if you were listed on your own.

If your goal is to outrank a competitor, it would largely be a waste of time to target a link which – at best – would be worth less than it was for your competitor when they got that same link.

You don’t know where they’re getting all of their links.

No backlink tool can give you a definitive list of all of the links in a search engine’s index, as evidenced by the fact that examining a website’s backlinks with two or more of these tools will give you two or more different lists of backlinks (with some overlap).

Sure, you could download backlink reports from multiple sources, combine them together into one spreadsheet and remove duplicates to get a more complete list, but there’s still no way to guarantee that the list you end up with is a list of every link that a search engine knows about. Doing this could provide a list of less (or more!) links than a search engine is using to rank a that website, so even if you were to build a link from every single page/domain in that list, the result is still likely to be a backlink profile that is not only inferior to your competitor’s but incomplete as well.

You don’t know which links are actually helping them rank.

Just like there is no way for a backlink tool to identify every link in a search engine’s index, there is also no way for a backlink tool to determine which of those links are helping or harming a website. Sure, an experienced link builder can look at most web pages and determine whether or not they would feel comfortable targeting a certain link and some tools can give you a rough idea of the value of a link based on their own calculations, but the fact is no one is qualified to make those claims except the search engines themselves, and they’re not going to do that for us.

You don’t know which links search engines have crawled; you don’t know which links search engines view as positive; you don’t know which links search engines view as negative. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t know which links are sending them traffic. So it’s best to target links which you know will send you traffic.

Also, a link from a page that is helping your competitor rank doesn’t necessarily mean that a link from that same page will help your website rank, at least not by the same amount. Consider this: a 1200 word article or review written specifically about a competitor featured on a highly respected website could be sending a few different positive signals – natural keywords in anchor text, multiple links, multiple brand mentions, etc. Let’s say at the bottom of that article the author has featured a small section where they link to a handful of websites (with branded anchor text) who provide a similar service for their readers who might not be completely satisfied with the featured brand. I would probably attempt to get a link on that page, but I wouldn’t exactly expect my link to carry the same weight as the links to the website which the article was written about.

Your competitors have no idea what they’re doing.

Judging by the amount of low quality and spammy backlinks in most (seriously) backlink profiles, it’s probably safe to say that most of your competitors have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.

Sure, you could comb through and choose to target only the links which you think are the best. But in reality, you simply don’t know what kind of misguided information your competitors may be following in their SEO efforts. Do you really want to blindly trust their intuition with your website?

You aren’t building your own authority.

This is perhaps the most important reason of all. Let’s assume that you’re able to do something impossible: get a link from every website that your competitor has. Let’s also assume another impossibility: every one of those links is viewed as valuable by search engines. Great, you have now built up a backlink portfolio identical to your competitor, and you may even see some ranking improvements from doing so. There’s just one problem: you haven’t done anything to set yourself apart.

If each one of your links is a carbon copy of your competitor’s links, you’re only telling search engines that you’re as good as your competitor and not better. If your competitor is already ranking because of those links, what incentive would a search engine have to place your website above theirs?

What’s more, the second your competitor gets another link, you’re behind again.

Some reasons you might want to backlink competitors:

Having said all of the above, there are still a few reasons why one might benefit from analyzing their competitors’ backlinks and there is no doubt a lot of valuable information a link builder can learn by doing so.

Identify whether you need to build links to compete.

I might be a little biased since I would almost always answer this question with a resounding yes!. However, since ranking factors can vary by niche (and even by individual keywords), backlinking competitors can give you a clue as to whether the leading sites are ranking because of links or not.

For example, suppose the top 10 results for a given keyword all have what you would consider to be mediocre links – as in, no links that you would consider to be harmful but also very few links that you would be proud to deliver to a client at the end of the month. Suppose they all also have very few referring domains. This would tell you 3 main things: 1) This niche might either be harder than average to build links in OR none of these websites are actively building links. 2) Assuming either of the first statements are true, you will likely see substantial benefits from a good link building strategy. 3) You should examine these sites to determine what other aspects of SEO they are doing well, which you might want to address on your own website before starting to build links.

Compare to other competitors.

You don’t have to compare everything your competitors are doing to your own efforts. Backlinking with intent to compare competitors against each other can help you identify niche trends that you can benefit from as well as what competitors are doing to set themselves apart. For example, you may notice that several of your competitors are all getting links from a particular website (and that could be a valid reason to “copy” them). On the other hand, this analysis might reveal that competitor A is targeting a different kind of customer than competitor B even though they both offer roughly the same product.

Similarly, if analysis for the top 10 websites ranking for any given keyword shows that they have an average of 1300 backlinks with the top 3 ranking sites having double or more than that, meanwhile none of the first page results have less than 600 backlinks, then you can have at least a rough idea of where you need to be before you can reasonably expect to rank among them. (That is just one example of information a link builder might take away from analyzing competitors. Don’t use that as an infallible formula for ranking.)

Identify what they’re not doing.

So you’ve got some competitors who are absolutely killing you in organic search. Through backlink analysis you know what they’re doing right, you know where they’re getting their links and how, but how does that ultimately help you to rank?

The real value in a backlink report is not that it tells you “_____.com got ____ amount of links from _____ amount of domains with an average [insert random metric] of ____.” but rather what it helps you determine they *aren’t* doing. Finding a way to fill those gaps is what is going to set you apart and help you see benefit from link building.

Final Thoughts

It’s undeniable that there are times you’ll find opportunities to get great links by combing through the link profiles of your competitors, but that time is much better spent by building your own authority and finding a way to stand out. If you run an entire race in 2nd place, you can’t reasonably expect to win.

Things that aren’t (real) linkbuilding strategies

Things that aren’t (real) linkbuilding strategies

At the risk of coming off too abrasive, I have to say that nothing makes it more apparent that very few link builders are capable of actually building links than reading the link building strategies recommended by industry (ahem) experts in roundup or Link Building Strategies articles.

In a list of fifty to a hundred SEO professionals trying their hardest to write a coherent or clever response about their best, most successful and highly recommended strategies, MAYBE 5 of them will be decent ideas worth pursuing.

The rest are typically slight variations of these:

Content!

Seriously, read just about any link building strategies article and Ctrl+F “great content” and count how many times that phrase is mentioned (hell, do it in this one). As if investing dozens of hours into content creation is a sure-fire way to get links. (It’s not.)

The reason this is terrible advice is because the kind of content that is likely to attract links on its own, is EXACTLY the kind of content you should be actively building links to. So recommending to simply “create good content” is very short sighted. On the other hand, in my experience, content created with the main goal being to attract links is typically pretty shitty content.

Content isn’t a link building strategy. It’s just an asset that makes good link builders’ lives easier. Good content rocks. But if you can’t build links without it then you’re not a link builder. Sorry.

Just “build great content!” is a cop-out by people who can’t actually build links. (That’s fine. It’s really hard, and at times really boring and there is a lot of other SEO work that should be done prior to building links.) 

So, absolutely invest in content. Just don’t stop there.

PR

I get it. Public Relations professionals are great at communication, have a ton of connections and they can undoubtedly help you get featured on a ton of publications that I or other link builders might have trouble even getting in contact with. They definitely offer benefits to nearly any company’s digital marketing efforts.

But assuming that PR can replace link building is an insult to professionals who dedicated a huge amount of their time staying up to date. I know exactly zero (good) link builders who don’t read and keep learning about link building or SEO in their personal, unpaid time away from the office. There’s simply a huge amount of knowledge that can only come with working to build links for hours a day, and that’s not what PR does.

And any link builder who has been hired by a website which has previously hired a PR firm to build links knows that there is almost always a lot of clean up to do.

Anyways, Gisele Navarro recently wrote like a billion words about this in a much better way than I could express it, so I’m just going to link it here: http://neomam.com/blog/pr-is-not-a-replacement-for-link-building/

Scholarships

Oh, god. I guess this could be considered a strategy, but it’s the kind of strategy you fall back on when you’re struggling to build real links for a website. Therefor anyone who talks about how they got 40 “high quality .edu links” by building a scholarship landing page and blasting the same email to a couple hundred colleges is getting nothing but an eye roll from me.

It’s great if you honestly want to give students money to further their education. Otherwise, setting up a mediocre $500 scholarship for this purpose is literally just buying links.

Also, look at just about any scholarship page and there’s a solid chance you’ll see some scholarships from SEO companies. That’s reason enough to steer clear of this “strategy”.

.EDU websites might typically be high authority, but they’re usually not incredibly relevant (for most clients, without some real stretching). As if a backlink profile full of .edu/scholarships links doesn’t look spammy. You might not get in trouble for it (yet; I wish you would), but there’s no way search engines don’t know what you’re doing with this.

Relationship building

I keep seeing people talking about building relationships as a great way to get links. The long con. Absolutely leverage pre existing relationships for links if you can, but other wise this just seems like 1) something you should be doing regardless of SEO 2) a huge waste of time as a link building strategy.

If it makes absolute sense for someone to link to your website, there’s an almost 100% chance they would do so regardless of any relationship you’ve built with them over a dozen emails. In the time it takes you to build a relationship to the point where you could comfortable ask for a link from them, you could have found hundreds of perfectly relevant websites which would have been likely to link to you simply because it makes sense.

Reality check: you can be a white hat spammer.

Reality check: you can be a white hat spammer.

(it takes one to know one.)

I’m not trying to advocate for black hat tactics, but here’s the thing about Black Hat SEOs: at least they don’t routinely hide behind the facade of “ethics” while still doing incredibly shady shit. Furthermore, just because you conduct your efforts within Google’s guidelines (actually, in one way or another, there’s a reaaally good chance you don’t.) doesn’t mean you’re doing SEO ethically. It doesn’t mean your “White Hat Link Building” agency is morally superior to any service a black hatter provides. And it definitely doesn’t mean you’re not spamming the internet.

When SEOs talk about spammy link tactics, they’re usually referring to some of these:

  • Blog comments
  • Reciprocal links
  • Paying for links
  • Signature links

All of these link types are easily and very often abused, there’s absolutely no denying that. They are also completely ineffective if used as a sole link building tactic. But when considering how normal internet users behave, they are all completely valid types of links.

MISCONCEPTIONS.

It’s fine if you don’t want to use these dated tactics (and best if you don’t) – I just wish the community would admit that they’re not using them because they’re ineffective, not because they’re morally “above” spamming the internet:

Blog commenting: This is something that normal people with no knowledge that SEO even exists do all the time. Not to mention the fact that most blogs literally invite you to join the discussion in the comments. SEOs love to talk about blog commenting negatively, meanwhile you can take a look at virtually any SEO blog that has a Website field in their comment form and you’ll see lots of links to “White Hat” SEOs’ websites. LOL @ that.

Reciprocal links: Online or off, most people don’t do something with no reward for themselves. The reason why reciprocals are frowned upon is not because it’s bad practice to create a relationship with someone where you both benefit. It’s bad because the type of pages where you’re most likely to get a reciprocal offer are complete garbage. If you’re reaching out to someone because “you really think your site would make a great addition to their links page and be of benefit to their site visitors” then wouldn’t it make intuitive sense that sharing their website with your customers might also be beneficial?

Also, if you’re getting a lot of responses asking for reciprocals, it’s because you’re targeting poor websites that would probably be of very little benefit regardless of any reciprocal link arrangement. I’ve never given a reciprocal link, but I could see how I would under the right circumstances.

Paying for links: Most of my reciprocal links elaboration applies to this as well. Obviously reaching out to anyone and everyone offering money for link placement is stupid for a list of reasons, but a one-off payment agreement between two website owners who both have a business to run and money to make/spend is a pretty straight forward business transaction. Also, just because a link might have been paid for doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit the user.

Signature links: Oh my god. You tweet dozens of times per day with a link to your website in your Twitter bio. What’s the difference between that and a forum signature link besides that it takes a single extra click to get there? Obviously keyword stuffed links in forum signatures is a shady thing to do. I just think it’s funny that “joining conversations!” relevant to your brand has SEOs and digital marketers raging, but Cutts forbid actually doing so while linking to yourself in a natural and relevant way that probably lends credibility to your comments! (Just to be clear: Hundreds or thousands of links from irrelevant forums = not okay, obviously. A few dozen (maybe even hundreds or thousands of) links resulting from participating in a forum directly related to your brand = totally okay; probably even good.)

DELUSIONS.

Most link building “experts” wouldn’t be caught dead incorporating any of the above mentioned link tactics into their SEO strategy, which is hilarious considering a lot of SEOs seem to shamelessly encourage other “current” tactics which can be just as spammy.  Here are a couple scenarios you might find yourself in after following the advice of today’s White Hat SEOs, some of which are morally and ethically worse than spam tactics of old:

Scholarships: You create a scholarship for students who are majoring in a subject loosely related to the industry your company or client operates in – because $500 is very generous and really helps those poor students. It’s just collateral damage that you’re gonna end up with dozens of High Quality .EDU LinksTM as a result, so everyone wins, right?! Spam.

Content: You find a great opportunity to recreate some content that your competitors have (only their version totally sucks). You’re going to rewrite it (so it’s better!), maybe add some more information, and just generally “add value” to the web. Okay. Does the internet really need another bland article titled “Top 10 Tools for ______ on a Budget”? I know Buzzsumo showed you several similar articles that got a ton of links and social shares, but that’s still spam. It totally is.

Badges/awards: You create a badge or “award” to dole out to bloggers within your niche – because CrazyCatDude.com will be totally stoked to share with his readers that BobsCatBeds.com awarded him with “Best Decorations” for Fluffy’s surprise birthday party (which was posted on his blog 9 months ago). Not sarcasm. He’ll probably be ecstatic about that and definitely give you a link. That doesn’t make it not spam, though.

Totally relevant story:
A couple years ago, I had a client who sold bird cages. I’m a parrot owner (aka “parront”), so I was able to strike up a bunch of conversations with parrot bloggers pretty naturally. This one in particular had just wrote about one of her birds being sick. Like almost dead sick. As a parront, I felt bad for her. But as a link builder I knew that was a chance to strike up a conversation. And so I did. With an opportunity like that, what’s a “100% relevant white hat link builder” gonna do? Here’s how I turned that into a link: I took a picture of the bird off of her website, went straight to Canva, and overlaid a stylish “Get Well Soon” message as well as a “tasteful” insertion of my client’s logo on the bottom corner of the picture. It actually looked really good even though I totally suck at graphic design. So I sent that shit to her and she was PUMPED. Seriously. She was all “thank you so much!!!” and then posted that picture I made as well as a link to my client’s website in an update about the bird. I got the client a link on a “real” website (one people are actually reading) that none of their competitors were on. The client was happy with it and it made the blogger lady’s day. I felt like a god damn genius, but I also felt kind of bad about it. Pretty sure that didn’t violate any guidelines, but if that “white hat” link wasn’t spam, it was definitely at least a little unethical. Anyways, one of my birds died about a year later. I’m still real sad about it but I guess that’s what I get.

Links/Resources pages: You Googled a simple search string like “[keyword] inurl:links” and now you’ve got a list of hundreds of totally relevant sites who might want your link. You email them all. I’m not afraid to admit that I do this, but it’s something that only a spammer would do. Regardless of how “personalized” you write your emails, blasting out unsolicited messages to a list of target sites is the literal definition of spam. I’ll also never understand how SEOs can think that having a bunch of links from URLs that look like (www.website.com/links) will never be considered a sign of a spammy backlink profile.

YOU CAN BE A WHITE HAT SPAMMER.

Just because you’re not stuffing keywords or spinning content doesn’t mean you’re not spamming the internet. Actually, before I conclude, let’s talk about those two things real quick:

Keywords: Stop being afraid to use them (responsibly).

Spun content: You probably are spinning content. Just because it wasn’t (re)written by a robot doesn’t mean your article isn’t a spun piece of trash. Googling a topic, pulling a bullet point or two from several different articles, rewriting and combining them all into your own piece of content is spinning content and it is spam. You know you’ve done that.