More than ever, online marketing demands a new approach. Search engines—the primary drivers of website traffic for most businesses—require a more sophisticated, thoughtful approach in order to achieve visibility, traffic, and sales. In stark contrast from dangerous, spammy tactics still perpetuated by many marketing agencies for their clients, achieving SEO success requires strategic branding and authority building, and there’s one strategy rapidly growing in popularity that provides more consistent, powerful returns than any tactic that has come before: brand mentions.
The Benefits of Brand Mentions
Brand mentions are linked mentions of your brand name on major media publications like Mashable, TechCrunch, or The Wall Street Journal.
Brand mentions begin with great content. If you have fantastic content on your website, such as an infographic with unique insights, or an in-depth blog post written by an industry expert on your staff, journalists at major media publications may find it helpful to cite those resources to support claims within stories that they’re writing.
When a journalist publishes a story that cites or references your content within their story, you get credit in Google’s search ranking algorithm. Google’s algorithm has grown so sophisticated that the mere mention of your brand in an authoritative context (even if it’s not linked) is enough to pass trust and authority to your site. Google uses mentions and links as the primary ranking factors in its search algorithm; the more brand mentions you have from authoritative, trustworthy, quality publications, the more Google will trust your brand, and thus display it higher in search results.
But brand mentions are far more than just an SEO strategy. There are 4 main benefits:
1. Increased Referral Traffic
Mashable. TechCrunch. The Wall Street Journal. You recognize these names because they’re some of the most popular publishers in the world. Each article published on these sites attracts thousands of views during the course of its existence, and each reader will become aware of your brand if it’s present within the article. The end result is new, direct visits to your site from these referral sources. One of our clients has earned more than 10,000 referral visits from brand mentions, with new referrals still coming in daily—a result that would typically cost $100,000 or more through a traditional PPC campaign like Google AdWords. The same client has also seen an increase of 75,000 unique monthly visitors from search traffic, growing from 100,000 to 175,000 and beyond.
2. Increased Brand Visibility
The value of brand familiarity is incalculable. Each time a potential customer is exposed to your brand name, that customer grows more familiar with your business. Studies have shown that familiarity results in favorability, and thus higher conversion rates. Appearing more frequently than your competitors also makes it more likely your brand name will come to mind first when potential customers are ready to make a purchase. Making your name visible and available through brand mentions greatly increases your brand’s visibility, which results in greater conversion rates.
3. Improved Reputation and Trust
Once you’ve gotten published on a major publisher, you’ll earn the right to brag about it. An “As seen on” section on your homepage or “Contact Us” page that highlights logos of publishers on which your brand has been featured serves as extremely strong social proof, thereby increasing conversion rates.
4. Compounding Returns
Appearing in a published article through a brand mention isn’t a one-time tactic; it’s an investment with compounding returns. Articles published on major media publications almost always remain online and indexed in Google indefinitely. The more time that passes, the more views each article will receive, and the more referral traffic you’ll earn. The more articles you appear in, the more authority you’ll build, and the better reputation you’ll develop.
So, How do I Get My Content In Front of Journalists?
Earlier, I discussed how brand mentions begin with exceptional content. There’s just one problem; how do you get that content in front of journalists so they can reference it in their stories?
You have a few options for doing so. The DIY-approach is to identify publishers on which you’d like to acquire brand mentions, then identify journalists and editors at each publication, then contact them to make your pitch. Unfortunately, this approach tends to rarely yield any responses because of the high number of spam emails journalists and editors receive from eager business owners hungry for a chance to have their brand mentioned on these publications. Additionally, it’s often difficult to find contact information for journalists and editors, as many have hidden it as a result of growing tired of the bombardment of cold outreach.
The next alternative is to hire a PR agency. PR agencies build email lists of journalists and send them story “ideas” or “interview opportunities” via email. These emails often become annoying after a while; as a journalist myself, I receive up to a dozen of them per day. This is called the “spray and pray” approach. If they send enough emails, maybe a journalist will bite; it becomes a numbers game for the PR agency. Unfortunately, they generally have no idea how many journalists will respond, or from which publications.
At AudienceBloom, we take a different approach. We build relationships with journalists and then provide elite support for them, assisting with writing, editing, obligations, and quotas. If they need a story, or a source for a story, we work with them directly to write and edit the perfect story, or identify the perfect source. Within these stories, we identify opportunities to reference our clients’ content, in order to highlight our clients as experts or authority sources within each story. Using this approach, we bridge the gap between your content and journalists at major media publications, and we’re able to include our clients in the content writing and approval process.
This approach results in a much more clearly-defined deliverable than what PR agencies offer. Rather than guessing at the number of placements you’ll get, or on which publishers they’ll appear, we’re able to tell our clients exactly which publishers will be publishing each story, and allow our clients pre-approval of each story before publication.
In reality, brand mentions are nothing new; nor is content marketing, which is at the heart of the strategy. What’s new is the rise in popularity of the strategy, which is a direct result of recent Google algorithm changes that emphasize brand signals over other metrics. Google has evolved its algorithm to favor brands that show strong ties with trusted publishers, and specifically branded links and mentions on trustworthy sources.
These changes have resulted in an explosion of popularity in content marketing, which many have called “the new SEO” and blurred the lines between PR and SEO. Google has finally created an atmosphere where cheap, spammy gimmicks don’t work, while real, quality content publication and branding signals do work. Unfortunately, the majority of SEO and digital marketing agencies are still stuck performing tactics that no longer work for their clients, because they haven’t developed the resources, processes, or relationships to keep up with the evolution of the industry.
How to Get Started With Brand Mentions
We’d be happy to help you get started acquiring brand mentions. If you’re ready to get started, or if you’re just looking for more information about the strategy, just get in touch with us!
It’s almost impossible to survive as a small business in the modern world without some kind of online marketing strategy, even if that’s just a website and a basic social media presence. Assuming you could build up enough foot traffic and reputation in the physical world, you’ll still have to deal with competitors who offer everything you do, plus the online visibility component.
But getting started with an online marketing strategy (and managing one long-term) isn’t exactly straightforward, nor is it easy, even for an experienced entrepreneur. The truth is, small businesses are facing some hard challenges in the online marketing world. Fortunately, there are always alternatives and workarounds:
First off, marketing can be expensive. There are many cost-efficient ways to market your business, but even then, you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars a month at a minimum to start seeing results. For many small businesses, especially newer ones, this is a crippling additional expense. Plus, in the first few months of your execution, you may have to deal with a negative ROI or break even until you learn how to make the changes necessary to become profitable. Don’t write off marketing because it seems like an unnecessary expenditure; even though it demands additional investment up front, it will pay off if you’re willing to grow your strategy. This is an investment, not an expense.
2. Strategic Basis.
As a small business owner, you’ve decided to start online marketing. You have a budget of $2,000 per month, and you’re excited about the potential benefits you’ll see. But what exactly do you do with that money? Do you start with a website and start building arms of your strategy around it? Do you distribute that money evenly across many strategies, or invest exclusively in one to maximize its potential payoff? There’s no one answer to these strategic questions, especially at the beginning of your campaign, when you don’t have any historical data. Though it might be scary, the best thing to do is pick a direction and run with it—you’ll always have time to change later.
3. Time Investment.
The time investment is another concern of small business owners, on two levels. On the individual level, it takes several hours to plan, execute, and even understand a marketing campaign. Even if you’re working with an agency or another external partner, the time burden can be significant. On a broader level, most online marketing campaigns only pay off significantly in the long-term; for example, it’s usually several months before a content marketing strategy or SEO campaign starts to pay off. For small businesses in need of more immediate revenue, this is disconcerting.
4. Trusting an Expert.
There are thousands of self-proclaimed marketing experts available on the web. Some are individual consultants, some are freelancers, and some are agencies. Each of them claims to have the “secret” to marketing success, but each offers a different price level and very different range of services. As a small business owner without much dedicated expertise in this area, it can be challenging to sort out what constitutes a “good” marketing strategy from a “bad” one. Schemes are always a problem, to the point where Google has several support pages dedicated to helping users understand these schemes.
Online marketing is popular for a reason; it’s effective. If you’re entering the game for the first time, you’re going to face a wealth of competition, the most concerning being from well-established businesses who have longer histories and bigger budgets than you do.
Finding a way to beat these competitors can be tough, especially when you’re just starting out. You may need to be selective about the strategies you use, or find a specific niche to get a good angle. Otherwise, your already-tight budget is going to be stretched thin, and you’ll have a hard time breaking a profit.
Small business owners are usually inexperienced when it comes to marketing analysis—they may look at a statistical report and not know what questions to ask, or how to make sense of the data. Because of this, it’s easy to misinterpret the data, or even to draw the wrong data in the first place. To make matters worse, you won’t have much historical data on your company at all, giving you no basis for comparison. The best thing you can do here is rely on multiple external sources and don’t be afraid to experiment.
The marketing realm is changing all the time, with new trends and technologies to consider. The most successful marketers are the ones who see these changes and are able to adapt to them, even though it’s easier to stick to the same old strategies you’re used to. Since your attention will be on developing your small business, it’s hard to dedicate enough focus to adapting your marketing strategy to new circumstances, but it’s a major priority if you want to succeed.
If you’re facing some—or all—of these online marketing challenges as a small business owner, you can at least take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. Again, these problems won’t go away immediately, and there are no shortcuts to fix them, but they can be addressed, and reasonably, with the right ambition and direction. One by one, as you correct or compensate for these challenges, you’ll find your marketing potential growing in a concretely measurable and consistent way.
Few SEO strategies are as discussed or debated as much as link building, and for a few good reasons. Despite some claims to the contrary, link building remains an integral part of SEO—so it’s always relevant in discussion. Thanks to Google’s Penguin update (and subsequent updates), the process of link building has changed dramatically over the past decade—so it’s in a state of evolution. And it’s less precise and calculable than certain “gimme” SEO strategies like ensuring your onsite SEO is in order—making it more uncertain to many practitioners.
On the surface, link building seems so simple, so how can it be so complicated?
The apathetic marketer will denounce link building as being too complex to approach, and the frugal marketer will see the costs of link building—which often run up to thousands of dollars per month—and immediately write it off as too expensive. But the reality is, link building is incredibly valuable, usually worth far more than the money you put into your campaign. Yes, I’m biased, but if you break down the benefits, the actual value of link building is more or less provable.
The Trouble With Pinpointing an Exact Value
I’ll make this statement early, so you aren’t misled. I’m not going to be able to put a firm numerical value on “link building” or the value of a single link, or anything like that. Pinpointing an exact value is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for the following reasons:
Ambiguous authority measures. Domain authority (and subsequent ranking power) is one of the most important benefits of link building—you can measure it easily with any number of online tools, often for free.
With link building, you’ll be able to track gains in your authority, but it’s almost impossible to correlate these to individual links or efforts in your strategy.
Unpredictable variables. Assuming you could calculate the precise value of link building, there’d still be a problem with projecting its overall value—unknown and unpredictable variables. How many people will see your offsite article? Will your publisher replace your link with a nofollow link? How long will it stay up?
Peripheral values. Link building has a number of calculable values, but also some incalculable values, such as visibility and reputation increases. This complicates our ability to measure the value of link building.
Overlapping influencers. Despite being one of the most important SEO strategies, link building is still just one strategy. In conjunction with onsite efforts and ongoing content, it’s hard to isolate which influences came exclusively from link building.
Long-term gains. This is a long-term strategy, so measuring your short-term gains isn’t enough to give you an accurate depiction of your overall earned value. By extension, it’s almost impossible to project your growth over subsequent months and years.
Strategy variation. This should go without saying, but every business is different, and will need a different strategy to be successful. Some of these are more expensive than others, and some yield more value than others.
With those considerations in mind, let’s take a look at exactly how valuable a link building strategy can be (within the limits of our understanding).
Anatomy of a Modern Link
First, it’s important to know exactly what “modern” link building is, as there are still a number of misconceptions and poor descriptions of the strategy floating around. Link building used to be pretty simple—you’d post links pointing back to your domain wherever you could, sit back, and reap the benefits. Today, Google knows the difference between a good link and a bad link, and publishers are ever watchful for links that are only used to manipulate rank or increase traffic.
Modern link building is somewhat straightforward, but it isn’t easy. There are two main approaches. The first is direct and controllable; a domain produces valuable content that an external publisher would like their audience to read. The content contains a number of links, one of which points back to the author’s domain, and when posted, the link goes live. It’s not a form of manipulation or deceit because the primary goal is writing good content for the publisher’s audience.
The second approach is more about attracting links naturally. With this method, you’ll produce an extraordinary piece of content, syndicate it, and hope it goes viral, getting shared by thousands to millions of people. When this happens, you’ll naturally earn dozens of links pointing back to you.
So, with both of these approaches, you have a handful of important goals. These goals are the “value” that link building provides. I’ll introduce these values as general concepts here, then dig into them in dedicated sections.
Authority. Google uses inter-domain links as third-party verifications that a site is authoritative. The understanding is that an authoritative site will only link to a domain if that domain is trustworthy; using advanced algorithms, Google can trace link networks and site relationships to evaluate which domains (and pages) are most trustworthy. The further away you are from a trustworthy site, the less authoritative your site will be.
Authority is important because it determines your ranking potential. Assuming a user query is relevant to your site, your domain authority will determine how you rank compared to other sites. Getting more links from more valuable sources will therefore rank you higher, and earn you lots of additional organic traffic. Every visitor to your site is valuable.
Referral traffic. Search-based organic traffic isn’t the only traffic that link building provides, however. You’ll want to target valuable publishers, as they’ll give you the most authoritative links, so naturally, these valuable publishers will have a dedicated readership. Anyone who reads the content you post and is intrigued to learn more may follow your link directly, getting to your site as “referral” traffic. Think of this as a secondary way for new users to get to your site from link building. Though standard links are more valuable due to the authority they pass, even nofollow links can generate referral traffic. You can measure both Organic and Referral traffic using Google Analytics.
Brand visibility. Brand visibility is a secondary consideration, because it isn’t objectively measurable the way your search ranks and referral traffic are. For the most part, you’ll be publishing content as a personal brand affiliated with your corporate brand, which gives you additional exposure to new markets on each new publisher. Even if you aren’t, you’ll get an opportunity to make your brand visible when you introduce the link. Brand visibility alone won’t bring you much value, but visibility leads to awareness, which leads to consideration, evaluation, and eventually loyalty—it may even help you earn some word-of-mouth referrals!
Tangential benefits. In addition to the benefits above, there are some tangential benefits to link building. These are less reliable and tougher to measure, but they do have a positive impact on your brand and your bottom line. For example, the strength of your content may serve a value to increase your brand reputation, positively associating your brand as a thought leader in the industry. People may socially share or link to your externally published article, sending more secondary link juice your way. And of course, most publishers socially syndicate your article anyway, earning you more total exposure and possibly an increased social media following.
Not all links are created equal
Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that not all links are the same. In fact, a bad link can actually hurt you by earning you a penalty or sinking your domain authority. I’ll get into the costs of negative link building on my section on Authority, but before I go any further, it’s important you understand the variables at play here. A link on a local news site won’t pass nearly as much authority or see nearly as much traffic as a link on a national publisher’s site—but the latter is, of course, far more difficult to earn. It takes much better content, foundational authority, and a solid understanding of the publisher’s target audience to get accepted.
Accordingly, the value of your link building campaign depends greatly on the value of the links that comprise it.
Let’s take a look at the domain- and page-level authority influences that link building has, and how that translates to an actual value.
Link Building as a Necessity for SEO
First, let me explain why link building is important to any SEO campaign. Quite simply, without some link building measure, it’s impossible to gain any significant rank in Google.
Take a look at the relative influence of ranking factors, according to correlational studies by Moz and SearchMetrics:
Take a look at the top two most important influencers. Don’t let the technical descriptions fool you. These two entries refer to links pointing to your domain and links pointing to your individual pages in question. Links are even more important to rank than keyword- and content-based features, and more important than page-level keyword-agnostic features. Some of the most important factors of SEO still pale in comparison to the influence that link building has on your overall ranking potential.
This has been shown in a number of independent studies, and suggests that the quantity and diversity of your inbound links directly predicts how you’ll rank for a relevant query:
Unfortunately, this correlational data can’t tell us the amount of ranking influence a single link has, but the takeaway that link building is a necessity for earning higher ranks is what we’re after in this section. The bottom line: SEO is not possible without link building.
The Value of Higher Ranks
Now that we know SEO depends on link building, let’s take a look at the value of SEO. As an abstract concept, SEO seems valuable—you, like every other modern consumer in the United States, often consult search engines when you’re making a buying decision. That means any increase in search visibility you have has the potential to be valuable.
There are too many variables to try and isolate any search conditions or direct values—a high rank for a nationally relevant, broad keyword will result in far more traffic than a high rank for a local niche keyword. However, in the case of the latter, it will be far easier to rank. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s possible to earn 100,000 organic visitors a month or more—but what can you reasonably expect?
First, recognize that there’s are some steep cutoffs when it comes to the payoff of search rank:
The vast majority of searchers click on the first site that comes up for their query. This means that, all other things being equal, it’s better to have one or two positions as number one than it is to have dozens of positions on the second page or lower. With the right keyword strategy, your link building campaign can support this upward momentum, helping you to cross the tough thresholds from page two to page one, and up each additional rank.
Value of a Single Link From a New Domain
It’s hard to say exactly how much value a new link can generate for your brand in terms of authority and rank. If you somehow earn a link from a high-authority national site like Huffington Post while you’re still in your infancy as a brand, you could easily move up several points in terms of domain authority, resulting in a kind of “rising tide” that increases all your ranks significantly.
On an iterative scale, any link from a new domain could be the one to bump your keyword ranks to the next level.
So let’s run a quick thought experiment as an example. Let’s say you have a modest range of targets—three keywords that each receive about 30,000 searches per month. You currently rank on the second page for all of them, getting almost no traffic whatsoever. In month one, you earn links from three new domains and you move up to position 5, which gets about 5% of all traffic (according to the graph in the previous section). That earns you a total of 4,500 monthly visitors for as long as you maintain this rank (we’ll project this indefinitely). If your conversion rate is even 2%, that’s 90 new conversions from the authority boost of your links alone.
Now, this model doesn’t account for the time it took to get to page two, nor does it account for the even more massive link to the top spot—which multiplies your traffic sevenfold. It would also take some pretty strong domain links to jump five positions in one fell swoop for what are probably highly competitive keywords. Take this illustration for what it is—an indication of potential. Without any link building, you forfeit that potential.
The Cost of Negative Link Building
This doesn’t mean that you need to build as many links as possible, however. Be aware that there is a sliding scale for link quality, and that scale runs into the negative; building a bad link won’t just stop you from making progress, it could easily reverse some of the progress you’ve already made. Your domain authority will suffer, and you may even incur a manual Google penalty.
There are many link building companies out there who try to make a quick buck by building “bad” links. Not all of these are malicious, per say, just misinformed or misguided. If a link building service is suspiciously cheap, there’s probably a reason for it. Good link building—the kind that actually can earn you sweeping changes in rank—demands experience, investment, and effort, and that costs more money. Though some agencies have higher profit margins than others, as a general rule, you get what you pay for.
Finally, a quick note about the recurring value of authority and organic traffic. When you earn authority, as long as you don’t commit any egregious offenses, it’s hard to lose that authority. Other competitors may wrestle with you over individual positions, but for the most part, your ranks are earned. You don’t just earn organic traffic for a few days or a few weeks—as long as you maintain your link building strategy, you’ll reap organic traffic month over month, indefinitely, adding to the value of your efforts.
All the benefits and value I described in the preceding section is just one of the two concrete ways your link building strategy will earn value in the long term. The other is through referral traffic. Though the concept of referral traffic is simple (the number of people who click through your established link to your domain), the execution and variables surrounding it makes it hard to estimate a concrete value. We’ll strive for a reasonable estimate.
The first and most important determining factor in how much referral traffic your inbound links can generate is the amount of traffic the publisher receives. Assuming you’re getting a spot on the front page or in your industry section of choice, you’ll earn a fraction of the monthly visitors to that section. It’s hard to say definitively, but once you’ve published 4-5 articles on a given source, you’ll have a reasonable estimate for how many visits an article on that source can generate.
Publisher traffic varies wildly, and may change without warning. For example, Huffington Post’s estimated monthly unique visitors is on the order of 200 million, but that number tapered off dramatically when BuzzFeed emerged as a serious competitor. There’s no way to speak generally and accurately about this, but your first circle of external publications will likely generate very little in terms of referral traffic. Once you earn enough authority to post on national-level publishers, you can count on hundreds to thousands of unique referral visitors to your site every month.
The type of link you offer has a significant bearing on how much referral traffic you earn as well. For example, if you simply have your link as one of several examples, buried deep in your content, few people will venture to follow it. On the other hand, if you make reference to a much larger issue, or a separate study, that your link provides access to, it’s likely you’ll pique your readers’ curiosities enough for them to follow it. Your wording and persuasiveness also come into play here, just as they would with a traditional call-to-action. This could mean the difference between earning 100 referral visitors out of 1,000 readers and earning 500.
You’ll need to keep a careful balance here. If you make your links too persuasive, too obvious, or too geared toward attracting new traffic, they’re liable to be rejected by the publisher—especially at the higher levels. If you make them too “hidden” or innocuous, you’ll miss out on tons of traffic.
It’s also worth noting that not all traffic will yield the same value for your brand. You may get 500 visits from a high-level publisher, but if you write for a general audience, you’ll get people who are only fleetingly interested in your business. On the other hand, if you earn 100 visits from a niche industry publisher, you may end up with 100 potentially interested customers.
Again, you’ll need to strike a balance here. If even 25 percent of those 500 national visitors are interested in your products, you’ll earn more total value than with your niche publisher. Maintain a blend of link relationships with different publications to maximize your value, and understand that not every “visit” can be calculated to have the same potential value.
The timing aspect of link building is also important to consider. Most “new” posts get an immediate surge in popularity, earning the majority of their lifetime value of traffic within the first week of publication. However, don’t forget that online articles usually remain up forever, along with whatever links you’ve built to go along with them. If your content is evergreen, you can feasibly syndicate it on an ongoing basis for the foreseeable future, reaping more and more social and referral traffic as new people discover your content. If you land a breakout piece, this effect is multiplied, as your offsite article will start ranking high for related searches and earning regular organic traffic that could filter into referral traffic.
Total Referral Value of a Link
Much of the “total referral value” of a link depends on the value of an average visitor to your site (just like organic traffic). If you have a 1 percent conversion rate and a $100 value of conversion, then each visitor is worth an average of $1 to you, excluding some of the variables listed above.
I’m working under the assumption that your traffic has some value, let’s say $1 per visitor, and that you’re link building on a national level, where it’s possible to earn hundreds of visits in referral traffic for every new post you create. With strong content, strong link placement, and strong publishers, every link you build could yield hundreds to thousands of dollars’ worth of referral traffic. The only caveat to this is the understanding that it usually takes time to work up to this level, meaning the value of your link building strategy increases based on your commitment to it.
Brand Visibility and Tangential Benefits
Though the tangential benefits of link building are difficult to measure, they’re worth acknowledging, since they can affect you in real ways.
Any mention of your brand on an external site is going to increase your brand visibility in some small way. A flippant user may not register your brand name or follow your link, but the next time they see you, they’ll remember seeing you in the past. They may even mention your name to a friend or family member thinking of making a purchase in your niche. Brand awareness isn’t as concretely measurable as referral traffic or organic traffic—in fact, it’s usually invisible—but it can push unfamiliar consumers closer to becoming actual customers.
Personal Brand Reputation
When your personal (or corporate) brand posts on an external publisher, particularly a reputable one, you’ll immediately get a boost to your reputation by sheer affiliation. Take a look at just some of the places where AudienceBloom team members have been published:
Being featured on any one of these publications makes your brand seem more authoritative, and listing all of them out like this makes a powerful first impression. Inbound users will instantly grow more familiar and trusting of your brand.
Social Traffic and Engagements
For the most part, publishers will work to syndicate your article on their own social accounts. Take Entrepreneur as an example:
In many cases, they’ll call out your own brand’s social media information, and might even link to your site depending on the circumstances. This could lend you social traffic to your site, more social followers for your brand, or just more opportunities to engage socially with your readers. You can even jump into the comments section on your post and engage with your users to build stronger community relationships. Again, the value here isn’t precisely calculable.
Growth Factors and Relationship Value
When it comes to starting, growing, and maintaining your strategy, you’ll find a handful of variables that influence how much value your link building campaign actually returns.
When posting new links on the same domain, there’s a law of diminishing return when it comes to domain authority. It’s far more valuable to earn links on new domains than it is to earn successive links on the same domain. However, the referral traffic value remains constant—and may even increase as you earn more loyal readers. It balances out so that there’s only a slight decrease in value with successive link building opportunities.
Getting yourself published on one high authority gives you more credentials to post on similarly high authorities—or even higher ones. This makes even small-level link building opportunities valuable just for the fact that they can lead to high-level link building opportunities. You’ll need to bear this in mind, especially in the beginning of your campaign.
Ease of Entry
To build links effectively, you need stellar content, great relationships with high-level publishers, and an intimate understanding of what makes a “good” link. It often takes years to build up these credentials on your own, meaning you’ll probably be operating with negative value until you cross a certain threshold of experience. Fortunately, there’s a shortcut to this—partnering with an experienced firm who already has the relationships, knowledge, and capacity to execute this work on your behalf.
Putting It All Together
There’s a lot of information in this guide, but I’ve intentionally stayed away from pinpointing a solid number value, for reasons that should be apparent to you by now. Still, I’d like to conclude this resource by attempting to definitively estimate—or at least describe—the real value of a link.
The Real Value of a Link?
In the later stages of a link building campaign, when you know what you’re doing, have existing relationships with publishers, and have the potential to work with high-authority sources, the value of link building is enormous. Assuming you remain consistent, with a targeted strategy, it’s possible for link building to directly influence thousands of organic visitors and thousands of referral visitors per month—even in exchange for moderate effort—and that’s not even counting the indirect benefits. At this level, a single link, accompanied by good content, can yield up to thousands of dollars in value.
The only real problem is getting to that level. Unless you want to spend years and thousands of man-hours inching your way up, there’s only one ideal solution to see this return.
The Value of Outsourcing
You know that low-quality link building, or cheap link building will only hurt you in the long run, but the hundreds to thousands of dollars a month it costs for an experienced link builder seems excessive on the surface. But remember, you’re paying for your partner’s experience. You’re paying for their relationships. You’re paying for their quality. It’s a big investment that yields a big return, as you’ve seen in my illustrations and examples. If you don’t engage in link building, you’re leaving those thousands of recurring visitors on the table.
Companies are always looking for legitimate, natural ways to earn more links pointing back to their domains. One backlink from a qualified external source can be a significant boost to your domain authority, helping you rank higher for keywords relevant to your brand, not to mention its potential to send referral traffic your way. As Google cracks down on low-quality and unnatural links, we’ve been left with only a handful of legitimate methods to get the job done.
One of these reliable methods, sending complimentary or trial products and services, has come under fire recently as Google has made a major change to its stance on the subject.
The method itself is innocent and fairly straightforward. You have a product, or a service, that you want to get more publicity for. You know there are tons of bloggers out there who make a living by reviewing said products and services. As an example, head to any tech site and you’ll see dozens of articles reviewing products:
There’s significant opportunity here. The process goes like this: you make a request to a well-known blogger (the bigger, the better) and offer a complimentary product or a trial of your service in exchange for a write-up on it. Naturally, they’ll post a link pointing back to your domain. The link is important to the review, natural for readers, and valuable for both the blogger and the person receiving the link. Theoretically, it’s a perfect relationship. So what’s the problem?
Google’s Latest Reaction
Earlier in March, Google made reference to this practice, identifying it as an opportunity for unnatural links to develop. Google warns that such an exchange is not conducive to a healthy or valuable network of online resources for users, and cautions bloggers to engage in the following best practices:
Use nofollow links. Google cautions bloggers to use “nofollow” tags for any link pointing to a company’s website, social media accounts, or apps—pretty much anything that could pass any kind of domain authority. Nofollow tags immediately remove these links from Google’s consideration, rendering them completely ineffective for SEO purposes (despite retaining the value for referral traffic).
Disclose the relationship. This one makes more logical sense, and bloggers should have been doing this from the beginning. Whenever a company has given you a product for free or has otherwise compensated you or encouraged you to post a review, it’s a journalistic expectation that you disclose such a relationship. You’ll naturally be more biased in your writing, and users need to know what pre-existing relationships you have before writing.
Provide unique, compelling content. This one should be obvious, but Google wants to clarify that any product review should be a piece that’s wholly original (if not exclusive), and actually important to your users. If it’s just a duplication of something 100 other bloggers have published, it won’t be considered a “good” piece of content.
Are These Links Unnatural?
Taking a look at the first piece of Google’s advice, we can infer that Google views these product review links as unnatural, much like a stuffed link in a blog comment or forum post. In my opinion, comparing these two links is a little strange. Google’s argument is that the link wouldn’t exist if the company weren’t bribing the product reviewer with a free product; however, this doesn’t seem to hold in cases where reviewers review paid-for products. Imagine a scenario where a tech reviewer was planning on purchasing a new phone to review, but the producer comped the device. Is that link unnatural? Since it would exist in either case, the answer is no.
Of course, I get what Google is driving at—if a company uses free things as a bribe to get a free link, that link definitely is unnatural. But the line is blurry, and to instantly mandate that all product review links be nofollow links seems a little extreme.
What Are the Risks?
As for the second two points of Google’s advice—disclosing your relationship with the company and creating unique, compelling content—you should be doing these, no matter what. They’re easy to accomplish and can only reward you. Don’t worry about the consequences of not doing them, and instead worry about the benefits of actually doing them.
As for the first point, and my point of contention, it seems unlikely that Google’s algorithm is sophisticated enough to discern when a blogger’s review is the product of a free gift, and then pick out which links are and aren’t tagged with nofollow. Accordingly, I must conclude that it’s highly unlikely that any bloggers will be formally penalized for neglecting these nofollow tags (unless they’re engaging in egregiously spammy behavior). I’m not saying to ignore Google’s advice here, but I don’t think there will be stiff penalties for continuing to pursue and post backlinks in product reviews.
Even though Google’s warning comes without a significant threat of penalty, it may be wise to heed its advice at this juncture. Remember, even nofollow links are inherently valuable—they’ll earn you referral traffic proportional to your audience size—and brand visibility and reputation are always good areas to improve. In short, even if you’re only getting nofollow links out of the deal, it’s probably still a valuable investment to distribute free samples and trials for the extra visibility—as long as you’re working with the right bloggers.
You’re a SaaS company, and you’re interested in how content can help you get more sales, earn a higher customer retention rate, and possible improve your overall brand reputation in the process. You’ve heard about content marketing, but you might not know what it takes to build an actual strategy. More importantly, you aren’t sure what other, similar SaaS companies are doing, or what’s expected from you from a baseline content perspective.
This is the guide for you. Throughout this in-depth, nearly-comprehensive article, I’ll explain the basic tenets and advanced strategies that you need to take your content marketing game to a dominant, competitive level. I’ll include examples, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each tactic I introduce, and generally guide you to create a content strategy that your competitors simply can’t touch. I’ll do this in four main sections:
An introduction, to follow, discussing the general advantages and goals of a SaaS-originated content strategy.
A guide on content marketing for non-branded topics and an audience specific to your niche.
A guide on help documents and troubleshooting for your current and prospective users.
A section on growth and ongoing development to keep your strategy thriving for the long term.
With that covered, let’s take a look at two major considerations for your content strategy. I’ll dig a little deeper into the benefits and specific tactics to use in each respective section to follow, but to start, it’s important to grasp these principles.
The Competitive Advantage
First, there are tons of benefits to a content strategy, but most important (arguably) and the focus of the article are on the competitive advantage. Your close competitors are all itching to poach your users, whether that’s converting new prospects before you do or stealing them away with special offers. If you don’t already have a straight competitor, you will soon. SaaS is a fast-paced, high growth industry, and it’s only getting faster with time:
Staying ahead of your competition means being more visible, being more trusted, being more valuable, and encouraging greater loyalty. If your content marketing strategy is, on the whole, better than your competitors’, you’ll have no trouble achieving all of these.
A Long-Term Investment
The second important consideration is that content marketing is a long-term strategy. As you’ll see when I describe the benefits of each pillar of SaaS content, the benefits of content compound over time, growing exponentially especially during the early months of implementation. By comparison, a paid advertising or traditional marketing campaign will net you a positive, yet consistent return:
Accordingly, it takes time to develop, but once you’ve established some early momentum, you’ll see a rising rate return for as long as you continue managing your campaign.
Two Main Pillars
With those considerations out of the way, I’d like to present you with the two main pillars you’ll use to establish your content strategy:
Ongoing content, or content marketing, will refer to blog posts, articles, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, and other forms of content that you’ll be publishing onsite and offsite for your users. This will be targeted to both unfamiliar prospective users and current subscribers, and its main purpose will be to provide practical information.
FAQ and troubleshooting content will focus on addressing the needs of your current user base in a number of different forms. Its main purpose will be to improve customer understanding of your app and increase customer retention and loyalty.
Let’s explore each of these in turn.
Ongoing Content (Content Marketing)
There are many types of content you can use as part of an ongoing content marketing campaign, so I won’t go to the trouble of listing them. There also aren’t many rules for where you host this content; an onsite blog is a good spot, but don’t neglect offsite opportunities. Remember, your goal here is to outcompete your fellow service offerers, so it’s all about offering something your competitors can’t or won’t. In this section, I’ll go over the principal benefits of ongoing content marketing, keys to success, angles to direct your strategy, and how to get started.
These are just some of the benefits you’ll receive—many of which are amplified if you’re able to produce and syndicate content better than the competition.
Visibility opportunities and brand awareness. Have you ever heard of Hubspot? Of course you have. Do you know why? Because they have an awesome ongoing content marketing strategy.
When you create and distribute great content that people want to read, they’ll naturally happen upon it (by browsing their favorite sites, searching with a relevant query, getting it from a friend, or finding it on social media). Soon, they’ll start noticing your name attached to the work, and your brand visibility will begin to grow.
Inbound traffic. Ongoing content is a channel to increase inbound traffic, and from multiple directions. Writing good content targeted toward search user interests, consistently, helps you rise in search ranks, which increases your organic traffic. Syndicating on social media will increase your social traffic. Plus, posting on external sites will boost your referral traffic. Best of all, these effects tend to amplify over time.
Brand reputation value. This is especially important in a competitive environment. When you write good content—better content than a user’s ever seen before—you’ll be perceived as the thought leader in the industry. Your reputation as an expert authority will increase, and you’ll earn better conversions and higher customer loyalty as a result.
Competitive differentiation. It’s hard to stand out in the SaaS world, especially if your model is similar to another company’s. Content gives you the opportunity to differentiate yourself. Take a look at Kroll’s unique content offerings, which include events and webinars to attend in addition to basic content—you can even submit your own.
Conversions and new subscriptions. Content also gives you a platform to pitch the value of your product (though your primary focus should be on providing valuable information). If executed properly, content can earn you more conversions and subscriptions directly.
Components of a Successful Strategy
Clearly, an ongoing content strategy is a good thing. But you also know that simply having a “good” strategy isn’t enough. Your strategy needs to be better than that of your competition, so what components are going to help you get there?
Consistency. If you want an ongoing loyal readership, you have to be consistent. That means publishing similar types of material of a similarly high quality on a regular basis. The goal here is to set and then consistently meet your user expectations; consider implementing regular features, such as Zendesk has with its “tip of the week”:
Appropriate targeting. Don’t write for everybody or you’ll end up writing for nobody. It’s tempting to write to a “general” audience for the extra volume, but it’s far better to have a smaller audience who’s hungry for your content than a large one who’s lukewarm. Know which demographics matter, and write to them.
Originality. This should go without saying, but your content must be original! Don’t just find a SaaS competitor with a service similar to yours and copy everything they’re doing on their blog. Find a unique angle and go with it. Make yourself stand out.
Detail. The level of detail you provide is crucial to proving you’re worth your salt—and when I say detail, I don’t mean length. I mean nuggets of specific information your users wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, such as case studies, examples, statistics, and hard facts. Dig deep here.
Practicality. The content that gets shared the most tends to be useful in some way. For example, it might help people be more efficient, or give them a new idea to try in their chosen careers. Again, write to a specific target audience here.
Diversity. Don’t write variations of the same topic over and over, and while it’s a good idea to retain some consistently, it’s a bad idea to use the same formulas and formats too often. Diversify your strategy by adding in new mediums, such as infographics or video, and experimenting with new topics regularly.
Syndication and visibility. Even if your content is amazing, people won’t be able to find it on their own. Work to syndicate your content and make it visible to people outside your current readership on social media and other online outlets.
Propagation. It’s also a good idea to set up separate pillars of your content strategy, such as by building relationships with different publishers. This will also help you earn more high-quality inbound links, with a more diverse backlink profile.
Escalation. All these components in place may seem like enough—and yes, if you follow these, you’ll likely start getting the edge on your competition within months or even weeks. However, you can’t let your strategy remain stagnant. Your competitors will be breathing down your neck, and that means you’ll have to escalate your efforts, iteratively, to see better results over time.
The general rules I outlined above apply to everyone, but they don’t give you much direction when it comes to topic selection or angles to choose for your content. Unfortunately, I can’t give you much specific advice here unless I knew exactly what type of service your company offers and who your target audience is.
Lists. You’ve seen listicles everywhere, and for good reason; they’re digestible and appealing.
How-tos. Help people do what they need to have done.
Futurism. Make bold predictions about the future of your industry (or technology).
Resources and cheat sheets. Give your users long, downloadable guides to use in their professional environments.
Infographics. Infographics have massive share potential thanks to their attention-grabbing nature.
Videos. Videos are only getting more popular—consider video webinars here too.
Quizzes. This may be hard for SaaS companies to adopt, but try to find an application for your specific software.
Opinion pieces. State-of-the-industry pieces and bold, controversial stances can be powerful.
Don’t take this list as the be-all, end-all; instead, use it as inspiration in combination with your audience knowledge and topic selection to come up with all-star post ideas.
If you want to beat your competition, you have to know what they’re doing in the first place, so get researching! Everything starts with strategy, and you won’t be able to form one until you know where you currently stand. Once you’ve gathered the data on your competitors’ ongoing content strategies, you can use this entire section to hunt for weaknesses. What are they doing that they shouldn’t be doing? What aren’t they doing that they should? This information should provide the foundation for your strategy, and once you start following it, readers will naturally be more attracted to your brand’s work over any other competitor.
FAQ and Troubleshooting
Of course, content for SaaS companies isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to only traditional content marketing. Generally, content marketing is designed to attract new customers—but how can you use content to make sure they stick around? Customer retention is crucial if you want your SaaS to keep growing, and one of the best ways to up your rates is by providing a free, comprehensive body of content to answer common user questions, troubleshoot problems, and generally keep your users informed of your software’s latest updates.
FAQ and troubleshooting content takes a lot of work, but the benefits are well worth it. Here are just a few of them:
Improved customer retention. I mentioned this in the introduction, but customer retention is a need you can’t ignore in a competitive setting. Losing a customer is bad enough, but think about the effects of a customer transitioning to one of your competitors—you’ll lose traction, they’ll gain traction, and the word-of-mouth ripple effect could cause even more users to go. You have to fight to keep your users, so make sure your help and resources are better than anyone else’s.
Bad experience recovery. Occasionally, your software is going to leave users feeling frustrated or confused. When that happens, they’re vulnerable, and you need to be there. A fully fleshed-out content strategy can be a major comfort to a distressed user. Check out the comprehensive help that Moz offers as an example:
Prospect reassurance. Your FAQ section, if publicly available, can also serve as a way to reassure possible prospects that your company is the right choice. Seeing a full resource library will demonstrate your commitment to customer service, and could help you close an otherwise iffy deal.
Reduced customer service costs. Think about it this way—if your content library was so comprehensive that it answered every possible customer question, you wouldn’t need a customer service team at all! Though not a competitive advantage, there are cost efficiency benefits to adopting this type of content strategy.
Greater customer ownership. Depending on what elements you offer, you could encourage a greater sense of ownership and participation among your users. For example, a community forum could bring your users together, establishing greater brand loyalty and even brand evangelism.
Circular feedback. Finally, with improved customer participation and small additions like “was this article helpful?” style micro-surveys, you’ll glean new insights from your customer base, which can lead you to even better improvements of your brand and software. Think of it as a glorified customer survey that requires no additional investment.
Components of a Successful Strategy
Just like with ongoing content, there are certain components you’ll need to include if your strategy’s going to be successful. These tenets apply no matter what type of content you’re pursuing—an FAQ page, an encyclopedic-style library, a customer forum, or some other type.
Specificity. Your content shouldn’t speak in general terms. When your customers arrive, they’re either dealing with a specific problem or they have a specific question—your content needs to address this specifically. Otherwise, your guidance will be unhelpful, and your customers may seek a more knowledgeable competitor as an alternative.
Thoroughness. Your customers are probably smart. Very smart. But assume they have no idea what they’re doing. Be as comprehensive as possible in your offerings, with a dedicated article or section to cover every possible complaint or point of confusion a customer could have. Take a look at how many options Unbounce has for its users:
Multi-platform nature. The more platforms you include in your model, the better. Earlier in this section I alluded to FAQ pages, customer forums, and resource libraries as distinct constructions—but why not feature all of them? Why not also include an offsite presence, such as through social media? The more channels you offer, the more ways customers have to get in touch with you, and the more satisfied the majority of your user base will be. Take a look at all the ways Pega has to get support:
Timeliness. This is especially important when you address a new update, a new change, or something that went wrong in your app. You have to be proactive in your offerings, so that when users start looking for something, it’s already there waiting for them. Your help documents aren’t something you can procrastinate on—get them up and running as soon as possible, and be proactive when it comes to addressing new features.
Visual and/or audio elements. Not everyone learns the same way, so it’s imperative that you don’t rely on any one format or medium to comprise the bulk of your resources. Written articles are great because they’re relatively easy to produce and they can be indexed completely in search engines, but video and audio elements are also helpful—even the inclusion of screenshots can take your documents to the next level of quality.
Customer engagement. No matter what forms of help you choose to offer, there should be some way for customers to engage. In a forum, this means hosting an open community that can ask and answer its own questions. In a tutorial series, this might include micro-surveys to gather feedback. Even a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down can make customers feel more engaged and give you more feedback with which to improve your approach.
Ongoing improvement. Speaking of improvements, you should always be making them. Your help and resources section will never be complete, and it will never be “good enough.” To stay ahead of the competition, you need to constantly work to add new content, update old content, and refine your tactics to provide the best material possible for your audience.
Like with ongoing content, there are a few angles you should strive for—though this list is less focused on specific formats and mediums, and more focused on the purpose of the content you provide:
Problem resolution. First and foremost, your content should be able to—theoretically—solve any customer problem on its own. If your content is unhelpful for any reason, you need to have contingencies in place, such as a chat feature or a customer service line.
Curiosity exploration. Next, remember that prospective users will be crawling your help guide to get a feel for what your software is like. Accordingly, much of your content should “show off” the best features of your product, and make it look as simple and appealing as possible to an outside user.
Transparency. The more open you are about problems, issues, and discrepancies in your app, the less room there is for customer criticism. No platform is perfect, and you need to be willing to admit that. Proactively give users the tools they need to compensate for these weaknesses. Take, for instance, SalesForce’s social media presence, which has an entire wing dedicated to customer service:
Customer commitment. Show that you truly are committed to your customers by listening to them. If you have forums, get involved yourself. If you see lots of the same question or complaint, prioritize it as an item for the next round of publication. This will show prospective customers how valuable you are (and will increase loyalty in your existing user pool).
Secondary value. Your resource library can have secondary values in addition to its ability to solve user problems. Take, for example, Wistia’s customer forum, which has evolved into a platform for shared experiences and mutual help in areas beyond the software platform:
The goal here is to be as specific and comprehensive as possible, but you don’t have to do everything all at once. Don’t put that level of pressure on yourself. Instead, start with the basics; a simple how-to guide or tutorial can work well as an introductory measure. Walk through your software as a new user, and document the process. Think up a handful of common questions a user might have, and address them on a simple FAQ page.
From there, you can expand outward. Start digging into more specific problems a user might run into, and gather data about what your customers might like to see. Your resource library here will be a continuous work in progress, so the sooner you get started, the sooner you can reap the benefits.
Growth and Ongoing Considerations
In both a traditional content marketing strategy and a help/troubleshooting strategy, it’s important that you prioritize your long-term growth and ROI. That means making improvements, doing more work, and giving your customers more of what they actually want. Your competitors will continue to be aggressive long after you initially adopt your strategy, so keep them at bay with these ongoing tactics:
Keep what works. If you find a particular type of article or feature is popular, try to learn what qualities made it that way, and replicate them in future additions. Rely on objective data here, rather than your own assumptions.
Throw away what doesn’t. Sometimes, a content idea seems great in theory, but when it’s published and live, it just doesn’t generate any meaningful momentum. Don’t force the jigsaw puzzle piece into place; instead, recognize that it isn’t working, and move onto something else.
Listen to user feedback. If you know what questions to ask and how to get your users to participate, they’ll tell you everything they want and everything they need. All you have to do is listen, and give it to them.
Be better. There are always ways to improve the quality of your content—more detail, more images, more coherent organization, etc. The minute you stop improving, your competitors will start catching up, so always strive to be better.
Do more. Expand horizontally by offering new regular features, new systems, and new areas of development. You don’t have to keep everything (and you shouldn’t keep applications that aren’t working), but you should always be building new wings of your portfolio.
One-up your competitors. Your competitors are sneaky, wily, and unpredictable. If they’ve managed to compete with you this long, it’s because they’re smart and they aren’t afraid to tackle challenges. They’re going to keep coming out with new, innovative content strategies, so keep an eye on them—and work to find ways to one-up them with your own.
Content is more than just a marketing tool, and it’s more than just an ingredient in your overall brand strategy. If wielded properly, content is the ultimate weapon you have to edge out the competition. With a better ongoing content strategy, you’ll be more visible, more authoritative, and more helpful than any of your competitor, and as a result, you’ll wind up with a far higher customer acquisition rate. Similarly, if your troubleshooting and “help” content strategy is better than your competitors, your customer retention will prevent your users from ever switching sides.
SaaS is a crowded, competitive field with lots of turnover, lots of risks, and enormous potential rates of return. You may have a great product, but there are likely dozens of competitors with similarly great products. You owe it to yourself to find alternative routes to differentiation and, of course, improvement to set yourself apart from the crowd. Content is the perfect place to start.
In the SEO world, domain authority and page authority are the biggest indicators for how well a page of your site ranks for a relevant query. Accordingly, search experts prioritize them above all else. For the most part, there’s overlap here—a strong domain authority will lend itself to each of your individual pages, and any actions you take to increase the page authority of a specific page of your site will likely also contribute to your domain authority (in a smaller way).
The factors responsible for increasing your domain and page authority are diverse, and sometimes hard to improve. For example, the age and history of your domain is a major influencer in how authoritative it seems—but you can’t just tack on years to your experience to give it a worthwhile boost. Instead, most ongoing SEO programs rely on inbound link building as third-party indicators that a domain is valuable. The idea is, the more trustworthy the links that point to your site, the more trustworthy your site will be.
Google evaluates the vastly complicated interrelationships between websites, and uses this data to decide which ones are most deserving of higher ranks. We all tend to focus on inbound link building, since our domain is the one we’re concerned with, but what about outbound links? What about a domain’s external linkage to other sites? Are they a significant factor to page and domain authority as well?
User Experience Factors
First, let’s take a look at the practical reasons why you’d want to include outbound links in the first place. Isn’t it better to keep your users on your site for as long as possible?
Actually, outbound links are indicators that you’ve done your homework, or that you’re meaningfully connected to a given industry. For example, you might cite a major study that was conducted by a leading authority in your industry, or make reference to a professional blogger’s article on a semi-related topic. This shows users that your content is well-researched, shows that you’re well connected, and gives them additional, valuable information they can use to make informed decisions. In short, when used as citations, references, and “further reading,” outbound links improve your reputation.
How Outbound Links Can Help SEO
Now let’s look at outbound links from an optimization perspective. When Google indexes your pages, it does consider the types of links on each page. There are a few ways it takes these into considerations:
Authority. Linking out to high-authority, trustworthy sites tells Google that you do your research, and that your content has a trustworthy basis. Accordingly, pages with lots of trustworthy links are seen as more trustworthy by extension.
Relevance. The relevance of your links also comes into play. Google uses your link relevance to gain further understanding of your site’s purpose, industry, and niche. Include links to sites within your industry, or ones that have a particular relevance to your company, to strengthen the accuracy of your associations.
Function. Google wants to see links that add value to users’ experience. If you just feature a list of full-URL links, it won’t look good for you. Instead, embed links in hypertext for meaningful citations in the body of your work.
Diversity. Finally, don’t just link to one or two sources all the time. The more diverse your outbound link profile is, the more authoritative you’ll seem.
Do these considerations look familiar? It’s because they’re almost identical to how Google considers inbound links. All these factors can influence the power an outbound link has, just like an inbound link. However, be aware that since you have more control over outbound links (i.e., they don’t serve as third-party indicators), they tend to carry less power.
How Outbound Links Can Hurt SEO
Unfortunately, there are also a couple of ways your links can damage your page and domain authority:
Poor associations. If your outbound links point to irrelevant sources, or if they direct users to spam sites or other low-authority sites, it will bring down your site’s authority just as high-authority links would increase it.
Overabundance. Google used to have a rule that it wouldn’t index a page if it had more than 100 outbound links. This isn’t the case any longer, but Google still cautions users to use links reasonably. If you feature too many outbound links, it may think you’re a link scheme or spam site. If you want to include more links but want to play it safe, you can always use a “nofollow” tag to prevent Google from considering it.
Best Practices and Takeaways for Outbound Links
Now that we’ve looked at both sides, we can compile a list of handy “best practices” for outbound links on any given page on your site:
Include multiple outbound links to back up your sources and provide additional information for users.
Keep your links authoritative and relevant, and diversify your pool of external sources.
Try to limit the number of links you use to avoid triggering any red flags, and use nofollow links if necessary to mitigate your risk.
With these best practices in place, you’ll see better results for each page on your site (as well as your overall domain). However, this strategy is not as powerful as others in the realm of SEO, such as link building and ongoing content marketing. Keep it as a useful tool in your arsenal—but don’t prioritize it higher than it needs to be.
You’re a SaaS company, and you’ve either decided to start an SEO campaign, or yours is in trouble and you need to whip it back into shape. You know all about the onsite portion of SEO — optimizing your site with the proper technical structure, ongoing content strategy, and meta data—but you’re struggling to find your place when it comes to offsite strategies.
You’ve come to the right place.
This guide is designed to walk you through the fundamentals of offsite SEO, in total, with specific respect to the unique challenges SaaS companies face. If you’re not in the SaaS industry, you can still use most of this guide—just know that different industries face different challenges, and yours may present obstacles I haven’t fully accounted for in this guide.
This guide is also broken down into a few main sections, so feel free to skip to the ones you feel are most relevant to your needs:
Introduction, to clarify what offsite SEO is and why it’s important for SaaS companies
Unique challenges, to elaborate on the main obstacles and priorities a SaaS company should focus on
Guest posting and manual link building, to cover best practices for a manual link building approach
Ongoing considerations, to maximize the long-term returns of your campaign
Without further ado, let’s explore what offsite SEO is and why it’s an essential component of any SaaS company’s marketing strategy.
The Complex Relationship of Offsite SEO
Offsite SEO is a culmination of all the ranking factors Google and other search engines consider that aren’t directly on your site. Because these aren’t on your site, they’re more difficult to control, but they also offer more credibility, as these factors serve as third-party indicators to your domain’s authoritative strength.
Take a look at Moz’s breakdown of ranking factor clusters (which is an approximation, but still relevant):
Link features alone account for a cumulative 40 percent of total rank potential, compared to only 15 percent for on-page keyword and content features. Along with social metrics, offsite SEO accounts for 47 percent of your total propensity to rank—meaning if you ignore offsite SEO, you’ll be sacrificing 47 percent of your search visibility potential (more on that later).
Unfortunately, offsite SEO isn’t as basic as it used to be. Thanks to updates like Penguin, posting links pointing back to your domain all over the Internet isn’t going to boost your ranks—instead it’s going to get you penalized. Instead, you need to carefully balance your strategy, building relationships with other authorities, placing links only when relevant and valuable to users, attracting links naturally with your best content, and nurturing user relationships on social media.
Offsite SEO is a complex web of habits and exchanges more akin to relationship management than construction.
Why You Need It
As I’ve already established, you can’t have an SEO campaign without an offsite component. It simply won’t work; even if your onsite strategy is perfect, you’re still only accounting for just over 50 percent of Google’s ranking considerations.
You could argue, then, that you don’t need SEO at all. It’s possible to skate by without a bona fide SEO strategy (though I haven’t seen any shining examples of SaaS companies who have done this), but let’s take a look at why SEO is an almost-necessary investment.
First, consider the ROI of sales and marketing for SaaS companies:
After hitting a critical threshold of 20 percent investment, there’s a major turn in the growth of monthly revenue. This is because SaaS companies are dependent on visibility to new customers in order to make new sales. Since most SaaS companies operate exclusively online, the only options for increased visibility are advertising and organic improvements, the former of which is ridiculously expensive at higher volumes, and the latter of which is most successfully executed with a content and SEO strategy. SEO also offers compounding returns, compared to advertising, which offers reasonable, yet linear growth patterns.
Long story short? SEO is the best tool you have to sustain long-term revenue growth.
But offsite SEO is about more than just increasing your visibility and traffic in search engines. If done correctly, you’ll increase referral traffic from whichever sources you build links on, your brand reputation will improve, and you’ll earn more customer loyalty as a result. As a SaaS company, customer loyalty is vital if you want to stay alive. Take a look at this customer churn graph:
The fastest-growing SaaS companies are the ones with the highest rates of customer retention, and offsite SEO can help you achieve them in addition to all its other benefits.
Unique Challenges for SaaS Companies
Hopefully, you now see why offsite SEO is so critical for SaaS companies. I’ll get to the “how” in a minute, but first, I want to address some key, unique challenges that SaaS companies face while pursuing the strategy.
Differentiation. The SaaS model has potential for huge revenue growth, but because this is common knowledge, the market’s been flooded with competitors in recent years. If you want to be featured as a thought leader, you need a solid way to differentiate yourself. If your niche is especially competitive, this can be hard to find; think about how to angle your brand to a specific demographic, or what information you can gather that no one else can.
User trust. You can gain ranks pretty easily with a consistent offsite content strategy, but users’ impressions of your brand are an independent concern; just because you successfully earned a link doesn’t mean you’ll generate additional user trust with its placement. Finding a way to build and improve this trust is essential if you want to attract more loyal customers; this generally requires an even greater focus on the quality and value of your content.
Building authority from scratch. All SaaS companies are relatively young, since it’s a relatively new concept. Building authority is easy when you have lots of history and data to support your brand:
If you’re starting from scratch, however, you’ll find it’s notoriously difficult to get your foot in the door anywhere. The most critical period for offsite SEO development is your first few months—you’ll see the lowest returns on your investment, but you have to keep going if you want to scale.
Scaling to new sources. After your early momentum starts to subside, you’re going to find it difficult to keep scaling upward. SaaS companies have a huge potential for future returns, especially compared to SaaP companies:
However, to sustain this exponential growth model, you also need to exponentially scale your offsite strategy. This is certainly possible, but it requires a steady increase in your time, effort, and quality.
Keep these challenges in the back of your mind as you read the next few sections and start planning your strategic approach. Understanding and compensating for these weaknesses is critical if you want to be effective.
Guest Posting and Link Building
Guest posting and link building should constitute the bulk of your ongoing strategy, as it’s the most reliable way to build a reputation and guarantee high-profile links. In this strategy, you’ll be producing high-quality content that other sites host for their users. Many of these posts will contain links that point back to your domain, which in turn pass authority to your site to support your ranking efforts. These links may also be followed by interested users, generating referral traffic, and having your name associated with this content can also increase your brand visibility and authority.
However, it must be done properly, or you risk ranking penalties, growth stagnation, and even consequences for your brand reputation.
Ingredients for Success
First, understand that not all links are the same. There are dozens of qualities that factor into what makes a good link “good,” the most important of which revolve around making sure your links are valuable for any users encountering them.
To achieve this, you’ll need to pay attention to four critical ingredients: the strength of your sources, the quality of your content, the placement of your link, and the overall diversity of your offsite strategy. I’ll be taking a look at each of these, in turn.
Identifying the right sources
The domain-level and page-level authority of your link’s placement source factor in to how much authority it ends up passing to your site. For example, a high-authority site (like an international news publisher) will always pass more authority per link than a low-authority site (like a domain that just emerged and posts questionable-quality content).
There are a handful of ways to determine the overall authoritativeness of a chosen source. The easiest is intuitive—think about whether this is a site you personally trust. The more objective method is to use an external tool to help you calculate a domain’s authoritative score. I’ve done this for YouTube in two examples below, using Moz and SEO Review Tools:
You can see its authority is about as high as it gets, with a long age and millions of root links.
The relevance of your source to your domain may also factor into the quality of your source, especially at lower levels of authority. For example, if your software is designed to help college students study better and you’re posting content on a niche site dedicated to helping the elderly pay their medical bills, you better have a good reason to post.
Of course, finding the perfect site—one with an exceptionally high authority and relevance to your brand—is hard, and it’s even harder to get content featured on those sources, as most high-authority sources are highly discerning in what they allow to be published. Your strategy should carefully balance sites that are easy to have content posted on and sites that are more authoritative, gradually increasing the overall authority of your backlink profile—but I’ll get into more detail on this later.
Drafting the right content
You also need to make sure your content is up to snuff, for three major reasons:
Publishers will only accept good content.
The strength of your content will support your link’s authoritative strength.
Good content will leave users (and other publishers) with a better impression of your brand.
So what constitutes “good” content here? Mostly the same factors that constitute good content on your site:
A valuable or practical function (preferably related to your software).
A unique topic that hasn’t been done before.
High levels of detail.
Multimedia integrations (i.e., images and video).
Original findings (data, research, opinions, etc.).
A strong, consistent tone.
Proper formatting, with scannability.
These are some of the fundamentals, but there’s one more factor you have to consider when drafting content: the relevance to your source. Users of your target site will be accustomed to certain content features. This may mean a specific formatting, a specific topic, or a specific angle. You need to be prepared for this, and draft your content around those requirements. Otherwise, you’ll be rejected—either by the publisher or by the users themselves.
Securing link placement
Once your content is drafted, you can’t just stuff a link in and expect to reap the benefits. Remember, your link placement has to be valuable for the users, or else you’ll stand to lose more than you gain. Keep the following in mind:
Contextual relevance/utility. Your link should be a citation of facts originally posted on your site, using your site as an illustration of a point you made, or referring to your site as a source of more information. These functions (and a few others) make the link useful to readers.
Appropriate anchor text. Old-school methods required stuffing keywords into your anchor text, but Google now explicitly warns against such practices. Take this snippet as an example of what not to do:
Innocuous positioning. Publishers know that posters often leverage their platforms to build links. Accordingly, they’re on the lookout for link builders—and they’ll weed out your links if they suspect them as being intended to manipulate your rank. Accordingly, you’ll need to disguise your link among other links to make sure it doesn’t stand out.
Timing and frequency. It’s rarely a good idea to include more than one backlink in a single post—doing so makes your effort riskier in exchange for a very small increase in potential value. You may also want to avoid including a link with every post—but I’ll touch on this in the next section.
Diversifying your strategy
It’s a bad idea to use the same tactics over and over again. If you do, you’ll see diminishing returns, and your reputation might start taking hits. The best way to keep your SaaS reputation intact and improve growth at the same time is to diversify your strategy in three key ways:
Sources. Posting more links on the same source offers diminishing returns; the better way to increase authority over time is to seek out new sources. Diversify your backlink profile as much as you can.
Destination pages. Links pass page-level authority as well as domain-level authority, so mix up what pages you link to (i.e., don’t always link to your home page). This will also make your links seem more natural over time.
Nofollow links. Google is wise to link schemes, and is always on the lookout for predictable patterns of link building. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to omit links from your guest content occasionally—but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice referral traffic. Including nofollow links instead of regular links will mask these links from search engines but still give you referral traffic potential.
Now that you know all the ingredients that make up a strong SaaS offsite SEO campaign, let’s take a look at the steps you’ll need to take to go from 0 to 60.
Step One: Building Onsite Authority
If you currently have no offsite strategy, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an initial source to take you on as a guest poster. You’ll first have to build up some authority on your own; that means making sure your website is chock full of great content, including a regularly updated onsite blog. You can complement this with some social media following building or some professional networking—the end goal is simply to make yourself seem like more of an expert.
Step Two: Finding the Low-Hanging Fruit
Once you have an onsite basis of authority you can cite as a kind of “resume,” you can start scouting for sources that present low-hanging fruit opportunities (I’m not a fan of this buzzword, but it fits here). You’re looking for any reasonable opportunity to get your content featured, so start with local publishers who might be interested in your business, such as neighborhood communities or local news publishers. You can also target specific niche sites, like blogs or forums, that only cater to businesses in your industry. This will help you develop an early momentum for your reputation—don’t worry if they’re not the best of the best.
Step Three: Managing Ongoing Relationships
Once you establish a network of different contacts and publication opportunities, work on cultivating those relationships. Submit content regularly, engage with your new audiences in blog comments and on social media, and work to solidify your foundation at this level before you attempt to move on. This means stepping up the quality of your work, writing more types of content that your readers want to see, and giving back to the community (possibly by offering guest spots on your own blog).
Step Four: Seeking Bigger Targets
Once you’ve managed this stage for a while, you can start scaling up your strategy. Start looking at higher-profile targets, especially ones with a national readership, and pitch content to them. At higher levels, don’t be surprised if some of your applications get rejected; competition is tough, and it takes time and patience to earn a spot in these circles. Stick with it, keep improving your content, and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone to build more links; not every publication opportunity necessitates you writing about your software. Once established as a major national thought leader, you should have no trouble developing even more opportunities to place links.
Of course, manual link placement through guest posting isn’t the only way to earn more links. Some have even criticized this strategy, saying it inherently violates Google’s terms of services, which state that any link intended to manipulate rank is a “bad” link. However, rank manipulation is only a secondary motivation when you’re using links to support your arguments or cite facts—as long as your content quality is in check, you shouldn’t have to worry about a penalty.
On the other hand, there is a strategy that can earn you more links without any manual placement whatsoever. In this strategy, you’ll be producing content specifically intended to circulate (“go viral”) and naturally prompt people to build links pointing back to your domain. In effect, you’ll establish yourself as an authority people naturally want to cite.
This is especially valuable for SaaS companies because it naturally encourages a word-of-mouth-based wave of attention. As you gain more social followers (and users of your software), these effects will become even more pronounced.
To be effective, there are four goals you must achieve.
Goal One: Produce Quality Content
The first step is the simplest to understand, yet the most difficult to accomplish. You have to create content that people consistently want to link to—completely on their own. What type of content earns links?
Long-form content, generally more than 1,500 words.
Original content, such as original research or extended reports.
Emotionally compelling content, including content that offers a surprise, or content that stimulates fear, elation, laughter, or sympathy.
Utilitarian content, meaning anything that makes life easier for someone—people want to share useful material with one another.
Multimedia content, especially infographics and informative videos.
It’s easy to digest these qualities, but hard to put them all together in a single, well-written package. There’s no perfect formula for viral content, but these guidelines should serve as a decent starting point for you.
Also, don’t expect every polished piece you produce to be a major hit—sometimes, even the topics and body content that seems like it would perform the best falls flat once it hits audiences. I hate to say it, but there is a bit of luck involved here.
Goal Two: Syndicate!
The mistake most SaaS companies make at this point is assuming that your content will magically start attracting readers and visitors. Yes, once it rolls out to an initial audience, those audience members will theoretically share and link to it in further circles, but you have to syndicate your piece to those audiences first.
How can you do this? Social media’s a good place to start. Leverage all your relevant platforms, especially Facebook if your platform is B2C and LinkedIn if your platform is B2B. Both platforms offer in-depth tools to help you target the right audience; for example, Facebook offers organic audience targeting features, and LinkedIn offers selective screening through the use of Groups.
These are just a handful of the hundreds of SaaS-related Groups that exist on LinkedIn:
Of course, you may be targeting a different niche, such as Human Resources or Stock Investing. Cater to your demographics here, and don’t be afraid to push your content out multiple times!
Goal Three: Engage With Influencers
To give your content even more of an initial push, reach out to major influencers in your niche. What are “influencers?” They’re basically rockstars with huge social media followings, regular activity in the community, and a powerful reputation.
The theory is this: if you can get just one influencer to share a piece of your content, it will instantly generate thousands of new views. Oftentimes, you can accomplish this with a simple request or exchange of value. If you engage with these influencers regularly and start building a rapport with them, it becomes even easier to participate in these exchanges.
Finding a target isn’t that difficult, but think about your likelihood of success before you get too involved. For example, take a look at the CEO of SalesForce, Marc Benioff’s Twitter account:
He has 204,000 followers (which is a lot), and almost 9,000 tweets which shows he’s active. He’s also seen retweeting others quite frequently. These factors make him a decent influencer to target, though you’ll notice his engagement factor isn’t as personal or frequent as some other big names in the SaaS industry.
SalesForce, the corporate brand, has even more followers and a more active posting schedule—but the account doesn’t retweet very often, and its engagements are typically limited to customers talking about the brand.
You’ll find advantages and disadvantages in every influencer you size up as a prospect. The key is to find ones who have the highest likelihood of fitting your needs and the lowest demand for investment of personal time. It’s easier said than done, but once you start landing influencers in your professional network, the power of your content will instantly amplify.
Goal Four: Repetition
Sometimes, it takes a while for a content to “take hold” with an audience and start earning hundreds of inbound links. Sometimes, an “ideal” piece of content will fall flat. Sometimes, a piece of content will explode in popularity after you’ve already written it off.
The world of viral content and “link cultivation” is a volatile, sometimes unpredictable one. The best way to hedge your bets and guarantee a long-term return on your investment is to stay consistent in your strategy, and repeat it. Keep producing new content. Keep syndicating it in new places. Keep reaching out to new influencers. Keep refining your approach. Eventually, you’ll get what you’re looking for.
As you form your strategy and begin to develop it over the coming months, keep the following considerations in mind:
Your reputation always comes first. No matter how juicy an opportunity might seem, it’s only worth it if it makes your company look better to users. Customer retention—and therefore, brand reputation—is your greatest asset as a SaaS company.
Take the best of both worlds. Manual link building through guest posting and link cultivation through content syndication are complementary, effective strategies. Make use of both on an ongoing basis if you want to see the best return.
Make adjustments. Doing the same thing over and over again will make your strategy stall (and might drive you crazy at the same time). Don’t be afraid to make adjustments and try new things, especially as you learn more about what your readers like and want.
Scale with your audience. SaaS is an industry with massive growth potential, but if you want to see that growth, you have to grow your investment in your marketing strategies as well. Keep pushing the limits with better content, higher frequencies of publication, better publishers, and bigger influencers.
Admit when you need help. Offsite SEO is an intensive strategy that requires expertise, commitment, and tons of time and effort. It’s not for amateurs, and it’s not something you can half-invest in. Don’t be afraid to admit that you need help; there are many companies out there, including AudienceBloom, who specialize in client-focused link building, and chances are, they’ll be able to do it more effectively and less expensively than you can.
I feel as though SEO is hands-down the most effective strategy for SaaS companies to establish a reputation, attract more users, and increase customer retention. It’s cost-efficient, scalable, digital, and offers compounding returns over time. But for this strategy to be effective, you need a strong, consistent, offsite component that not only increases your rank, but builds your reputation.
Throughout this guide, I’ve helped you understand the fundamental components of such a strategy, and how a SaaS company should specifically adjust these fundamentals for the greatest possible benefit. Now, it’s on you to start taking the steps to earn these results. Whether you take on the work yourself or work with a link building expert to ease the burden and increase results, your commitment to the strategy is critical if you want it to pay off.
So you’ve started a service or app, your product is ready, and you need new users. Now what?
One of the best ways of getting new users is good old SEO; drive users to your site organically through Google.
If done properly you can get tons of new users to your website with a small marketing budget. The basic equation to SEO is simple: find useful keywords to target + ensure your website is optimized + build links.
The section of SEO that new comers find daunting is link building. It can be tough to build high quality, white hat links to a new website. Also building links to a startup can be very different than to an ecommerce website.
Lucky for you, I’m here to help!
I’m going to walk you through five link building strategies that will get your startup ranking in no time. To demonstrate clear examples let’s pretend we have a SAAS company that sells an appointment booking calendar app… named Calendar Pro.
1. Run a PR Campaign
Good old PR is still one of the best ways to build links to a website. You can get links from massive publications with a little bit of work. Coverage on these publications can also drive lots of new users to your website regardless of links.
The most important part of any public relations campaigns is that you have something to talk about. When reaching out to reporters make sure you tell them why your company is different and why what you’re doing is special. What does your app do different? What service are you providing that nobody else is?
Another important aspect is picking the right reporter and getting their personal email. In most cases, pitching to a general support email will go unnoticed. Make sure they’ve covered a similar topic before and what you’re saying interests them. For example, Samantha Kelly at Mashable has written an article about the Google Calendar app.
She’s a perfect person to pitch to! Now you need her personal email. Go to Find Any Email, toss in her First Name, Last Name and Email and get it.
Once you have her email shoot her an email saying:
You saw that she covered a similar article
You have a new startup that she may be interested in
Demonstrate why it’s different from the others
Now that you know the basic process who do you pitch to? There should be two levels to your public relations campaign for link building:
Find relevant local publications that may be interested in covering your story. Local newspapers and blogs love covering things going on in their home town. For example, if Calendar Pro was based in Toronto I might send emails to the Globe and Mail, BlogTO, and CBC.
No matter what your startup does, there are most likely a number of blogs which write about it. In my mind, Calendar Pro falls in to two main categories: SAAS and business organization. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of website which cover these topics. Think Tech.co, Entrepreneur, and Forbes.
BONUS: You can also use HARO (Help a Reporter Out) to get some sweet links for little work. See Quick Sprout’s guide for a thorough walkthrough.
2. Sign up for Startup Lister
Startup Lister is a service which submits your startup to over 70+ directories for a single price of $89. I know, I know people worry about building links from directories but these are high quality listings that will benefit your website.
Personally, aside from links, I’ve seen these listings drive a number of sign ups to new startups.
I believe this is a no brainer for startups that will give your website a little kick in the butt and get you going. The websites they send to include: Venture Beat, G2Crowd, The Verge and Forbes Technology.
They also have higher priced packages where they will do the PR outreach for you to relevant industry blogs. While this isn’t a complete replacement for doing PR yourself… If you’re funded and have some cash to spare it may be well worth it.
**I am not affiliated with Startup Lister at all. Just a happy customer.
3. Competitive Link Building
The premise of competitive link building is pretty simple: get a list of your competitors, find their backlinks and try and replicate them. Calendar Pro would have a number of competitors, but for this example we’ll use Calendly.
To find a website’s links you’ll have to get a subscription to either Ahrefs or Majestic. These programs will give you a list of any website’s backlinks. Ahrefs has a free trial you can use, but I’ll be using Majestic here as they work very similarly.
Enter your competitor’s domain and press “backlinks”.
Then find relevant resource pages or articles where you can ask for a link.
For example, this article from Business2Community is about tools that help with B2B sales management. You can email the author and ask that you be included.
You can replicate this across all of your competitors to get a massive list of link opportunities.
4. Reclaim Brand Mentions
This link building tactic is more passive than the rest, but important nonetheless. It helps you pick up mentions of your startup across the web that may not have linked to the website. Those are golden opportunities for links!
There are a few platforms which let you track your mentions with the biggest ones being Mention and Google Alerts.
The premise is simple… They’ll send you a notification if your startup is mentioned (ex. Calendar Pro). If there’s no link, simply email the website or author and ask them to add your link. If you tell them you’re starting out and it’ll greatly benefit your business, chances are they’ll add it.
And there’s more! You can also add in your competitors to track them online as well. Similar to the competitive link building method, you can chime in and possibly get your link added as well.
5. Create a Free Tool
For this tactic you can either create a new tool from scratch or offer a freemium version of your software. If you’re a startup company, chances are you have developers who can create a small tool with ease.
A free tool is considered a “linkable asset” and gives you a good reason to reach out to blogs.
For Calendar Pro, an example would be to develop a free program where people can input their phone numbers to get text alerts before a meeting. A simple page with meeting time, number of alerts and phone number.
When the tool is developed you can do another small PR campaign and reach out to relevant sources who would be interested. You can also search for “Free calendar tools” on Google to find website who may be interested in linking to the tool.
People are more likely to link to a free product than paid. Also, the tool will get shared organically if it’s useful!
Organic traffic is essentially free and can be generated with a very small marketing budget, which is perfect for new companies. Even a beginner to SEO can follow these techniques. Start your PR campaign, delve in to your competitors backlinks, or build a free tool and see your search rankings soar for your startup.
I love SEO agencies. I should—I operate one. They serve a wide range of needs, from the major corporation that needs to outsource some of the work that its in-house team can’t handle, to the fresh entrepreneur who doesn’t know the first thing about SEO and needs some seasoned guidance.
Unfortunately, even talented agencies with years of experience sometimes struggle to attract and retain clients on the SEO front. SEO has a few factors working against it; it’s a complicated strategy that involves lots of moving parts, it’s hard to objectively quantify your results, and even when you do, those results take lots of time and patience before they start justifying your costs. Accordingly, I’ve seen a number of agencies straining in recent years, sometimes going under, and sometimes dropping an entire wing of service from their lineup.
One of the first services to fold, it seems, is link building. Why is this?
For starters, it’s confusing. On one hand, you have Google engineer John Mueller telling you not to link build at all, and on the other you have respected SEO authority Moz telling you it’s almost impossible to rank without it—domain-level and page-level link influence adds up to nearly 40 percent of a page’s ranking influencers.
Add in the fact that link building parameters keep changing with Penguin (and dynamics within publishers), and the fact that it’s notoriously hard to tie efforts to results, and you have, on the surface, a challenging, unpredictable SEO strategy.
So why do it at all? Because it’s valuable. Incredibly so. That is, if you can get past the barriers that typically lead agencies to flounder.
In my experience, both as an agency owner and as a whitelabel provider to agencies, there are seven main barriers preventing effective link building. I’ll address these one by one.
Barrier 1: Understanding the Client
Imagine you have two single friends. You know them well, they seem to have a lot in common, and they seem like they could get along. You might consider setting them up on a blind date—and you’d have reason to suspect that date would go well. Now, what if you tried to set up the random man you sat next to on the subway with the random lady you saw across the street? You have no idea, because you don’t know these people well enough to gauge their potential chemistry.
This is a colorful and imprecise analogy, but it serves a valuable purpose in identifying link building as a relationship game. It’s no longer enough to build random links pointing to any domain; those links need to be relevant, surrounded with great content, and hosted on sources appropriate to the target domain. How can you expect to accomplish any of these if you don’t know your client that well?
Ask yourself these questions:
What does this client do? This may seem like a laughably simple question, but you’d be surprised how many agencies fail here. You might have a highly technical SaaS provider, or a specialized manufacturer, whose jargon-laced company descriptions make them hard to penetrate. This should dictate the type of topics you choose for your link building material.
Who is their target audience? You don’t have to write every piece of offsite content to please one specific target audience, but this should help you decide on an initial list of sources and publishers.
What is their industry? The contextual relevance of your links is partially determined by the relationship of your link source to your client’s industry. Can you identify that industry?
What unique value do they offer? This isn’t limited to their products and services, either; what unique research do they publish? What unique content do they have on their blog? These are valuable linkable assets you can use to build stronger, more relevant links on your outbound sources.
It might be embarrassing to ask these questions, especially if you’ve been working with this client for a while, but these answers will allow you to build stronger, more relevant, more valuable links on more valuable, appropriate sources. If you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, you’ve been firing blind in your strategy.
Barrier 2: Outdated Practices
Link building has changed dramatically since the early days of SEO. There have been dozens of updates and tweaks, but the big game changer here was Penguin.
This is a basic visual from not long after Penguin’s first arrival, but it helps you understand some of the basic link building practices that are, essentially, “dead:”
Links that appear unnatural.
Links that aren’t useful.
Links stuffed with exact-match anchor text or keywords.
Links using repetitive anchor text.
Links pointing to the same URL over and over.
Too many links from one source.
Links from low-quality or irrelevant sources.
Links from schemes (too many to list here).
It also helps you understand the dynamic relationship between link building and content, which I’ll elaborate on in the next section.
Unfortunately, even knowing about the major changes of the Penguin update, many agencies continue to use obsolete practices, such as posting links in forum comments or spamming links on outside sources without much consideration to their relevance or diversity.
Modern practices demand a more refined approach, usually centered on establishing and developing relationships with a plethora of offsite authorities, especially those related to your client’s industry, or those with a national presence. This demands a lot of work; you’ll spend far more time and energy per link than you would with an old method, but it’s worth it. Too many agencies don’t realize this, and opt for the cheaper, easier “old school” methods in the hopes that they’ll yield some kind of benefit. Believe me, you get what you work/pay for here.
Barrier 3: Content Quality
After peeking at this title, you’re probably asking yourself, “content? Shouldn’t content be a separate strategy from link building?” Yes and no. Ongoing onsite content (e.g., a blog) is important to add more indexable, valuable material to your site (and provide more linkable assets), but as we saw in the last barrier, in the post-Penguin era, content is important for offsite link building, too.
In fact, there are four major ways content affects your link building strategy:
It helps determine the strength of your inbound link. Imagine two articles on a similar domain, featuring a similar link and covering a similar topic. One is highly detailed, thousands of words in length, with multimedia integrations and an authoritative, playful voice. It’ generated thousands of shares and is visited regularly. The other is short, fluffy, awkward-sounding and has generated almost zero shares or visibility. Which link passes more value to its target domain? The former. The quality of your content plays a major role in how much authority is passed, so the better material you produce, the more value the link will hold.
It determines whether or not your content is published. This is especially true as you aim to be published on more authoritative sources. High-authority sites got to be where they are because they’re discriminating when it comes to content. They only want truly valuable, relevant pieces that their readers are going to love. If you submit something hastily written, or poorly conceived, it’s going to be rejected—and your efforts will be wasted.
It influences your relationships with other sites. When you try to start a relationship with a new publisher, they’re going to look at work you’ve posted on other publishers. Providing universally solid content, capable of impressing even the most judicious editors, will help you build relationships with those new sites.
It affects reader impressions and referral traffic. If readers are enthralled by your material, they’ll be excited to follow your link and will come to the site with a more impressed, positive disposition. If your content doesn’t grab a reader, they may not even finish reading the article, and you can kiss that referral traffic goodbye.
I won’t get into the details of what makes for “good” content here—that’s a post for another time. Just know that every offsite post you produce needs to be relevant, unique, valuable, practical, and engaging. If you lack any of those qualities, the efficiency of your strategy could crumble.
Moral of the story? Be as discriminating with your offsite content as you are with your onsite content.
Barrier 4: Publication Networks
The authoritative strength of your source domain (and page) matters to the overall value of the link. If you want to see the highest return on your time investment, you need to choose the sites that offer the highest possible authority.
For this, you don’t have to rigorously calculate the domain authority of the external sources you’re considering, nor do you have to rule out any source that isn’t perfect. You can use your best judgment, based on what you know about the site, to determine whether a source is worth pursuing.
For example, which of the following two sites would be better to build a link on?
The second will provide a massive boost to your domain authority, and the first might get you penalized.
It pays to be discriminating. Consider the old Groucho Marx quote: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” If your target source is the type that will accept any content, or any link, it probably isn’t a source worth building a link on. On the other hand, if it takes time, effort, a pre-existing relationship, and a little luck to build a link, your dutiful efforts are justified. It is hard to build links this way, but that’s what separates successful agencies from mediocre ones.
Barrier 5: The Ability to Scale
When you first start link building for a client, you have to start easy. You have to find sources willing to link to a newcomer and get published on lower-tier sources before you start building a reputation. After a while, you’ll land yourself on some decent sources that pass a decent amount of authority to your client’s domain.
The problem is, most agencies stop here. They see their efforts have returned a valuable position, and they keep repeating the process ad infinitum, occasionally adding new sources but ultimately keeping their strategy consistent. They have no ability to scale, and as a result, the campaign begins to see patterns of diminishing returns.
If you want to keep seeing growth in a campaign, you can’t keep your efforts consistent. There is no “cruise control” for link building unless you don’t want to see any growth. Instead, you have to gradually ratchet up your efforts.
For example, consider a restaurant getting a link from this site, a local news outlet:
Is this out of reach for you? Yes. But only in the same way that running a marathon is out of reach. You can’t go from barely ever exercising to running a marathon; you have to go from 1 mile to 2, from 2 to 3, and so on iteratively until you can handle the distance. Similarly, you have to find “missing link” sources to bridge the gap between your current authoritative reach and the pinnacle of industry success.
Again, this takes time and effort, but it’s how you can distinguish yourself from the competition and continue to prove your worth to the client.
Barrier 6: Optimizing Costs
Okay, let’s take a step back and remember that “effective link building” isn’t all about getting the best results when you’re an agency trying to make a profit at the same time. Yes, you truly want your client to succeed, but if you’re spending more time and money than you’re earning from your client’s retainer, you’re ultimately putting your business (and your employees) in a tight position.
The costs of link building are difficult to calculate because they’re based on time, and if you have multiple employees dabbling in the process, it’s almost impossible to calculate how much time they’re spending on a given client’s link building efforts. For example, you might have a team lead who coordinates the strategic directives, a staff writer who generates the content and includes the link, and a relationship manager who takes care of posting and monitoring. Ultimately, just one good link can take 4-8 hours of time to build, maybe even more for long-form content or choosy publishers, and that doesn’t even include the costs of maintaining your ongoing relationships! Even at a modest agency rate of $100 an hour, that’s $800 you’d charge your client for a single link, and depending on what you charge for ongoing “SEO services,” that can eat up your budget in no time.
So let’s look at the ways you can optimize these costs:
Build more links at once. If you’re already writing and publishing guest content regularly, you can streamline the process by having members of your team hyper-specialize in certain elements of the process. This creates an assembly-line setup, which allows you to increase overall productivity; the problem is the overhead, and the time it takes to establish such a system. If you only have a few link building clients, this is hard to justify.
Spend less time. The “shortcut” way is to simply force yourself to spend less time on link building in general. You might go after lower-level sources, rush the writing process, or use the same sources over and over. The problem here, as you can imagine, is that the time you spend really is valuable, and if you spend less of it without a corresponding increase in efficiency, you’ll end up earning less overall value.
Outsource the work. Think of the infrastructure I mentioned in my first point. What if you could achieve it without the overhead costs or complexities of training an entire team? Outsourcing overrides the necessity for these steps. By working with a link building specialist, you’ll be able to build better links on higher-authority publishers for less initial cost. The trick here is to find an agency worth doing business with. There’s no shortage of link builders out there, but only a handful that approach the strategy properly, with modern tactics. Don’t take “link building,” as a service, at face value. Ask questions of your agency, find out what strategies they’re using, and only recruit the services of a long-term partner who can stand behind their work.
Building valuable links without spending more money than you’re earning is a difficult balance to strike, but optimizing your costs is a good way to start. This balance is also responsible for another barrier in agency link building relationships: proving your links are worth the cost to the client.
Barrier 7: Proving Your Worth
Your client is paying you good money for SEO services. You may keep most of your work behind the scenes, but there are two instances where your client will start questioning your link building services:
Your client is unsatisfied with your overall results. Maybe your traffic isn’t increasing, or your ranks have gone stagnant. Whatever the case, your overall SEO results leave something to be desired, and your link building efforts come under scrutiny as part of a collective whole.
Your client learns how much time you spend on link building. In this scenario, your client is unconvinced that link building is worth the time you put into it. They may feel you’re wasting time and money by building links that could be spent doing something better to increase rank.
If you want to attract and retain the best clients, your two goals then should be proving the return of your SEO campaign, and proving the value of your link building strategy, in particular. There are several ways to do this, but I’m going to highlight some of the most effective.
Organic traffic is one of the best measures you have for the overall health of your SEO campaign. It measures the number of people who found your client’s site through search engines, so the higher this number, the more effective your campaign has been, and you can easily measure growth over time. It’s advantageous over measuring ranks directly, because ranks can be deceptive—after all, what good is a number one position if it doesn’t earn you any real traffic?
To find this figure, log into Google Analytics and select your client. Head to the Acquisition tab and click Overview to see a breakdown of your client’s major traffic sources.
Over time, your Organic traffic will likely grow in comparison to your other sources (as will Referral traffic, but we’ll get there in a moment). You can use this as a basis for your value as an agency.
Now, scroll down and click “Organic Traffic” to see a breakdown of just your Organic users.
Here, you’ll see a graph a little like this:
Ordinarily, it’s a bad idea to look at fluctuations on a daily basis; rankings are volatile. However, you can use this to help you find specific effects your link building strategy has had. For example, let’s say you’ve posted two new links on new high-profile sources for your client. A few days later, there’s a spike in organic visits. In this case, you can almost objectively tie your link’s value to your pattern of growth in organic search results.
Don’t forget that organic ranks aren’t the only benefit that link building yields. Head back to the Acquisition Overview section and this time, pull up Referral traffic. This is a breakdown of all the inbound traffic your client received from click-throughs on external links. Scroll down a bit and you’ll find the following breakdown:
Here, you can find tons of information—including total number of visitors—from each of your referral sources. Assuming you know the average value of a visitor (which you can calculate using average conversion rates, conversion values, and long-term customer value), you can objectively calculate the value of a link. Keep in mind this value will be a minimum, as the traffic will only grow over time.
Overall Link Evaluation
You can also prove your agency’s worth by showcasing the total growth of links as it relates to domain authority, one of the best measures of a domain’s potential to rank. You’ll have to use another tool for this; one of my favorites is Moz’s Open Site Explorer, which is partially free.
Enter any domain, and you’ll find domain-related and page-related metrics, such as domain authority, page authority, total links, and root domains.
You’ll also be able to generate a list of each individual link, along with its respective authority scores, which you can export as a CSV file. This is useful not only for showing the ongoing value of your work, but identifying key areas for improvement as well.
The goal here is to show your link building growth and tie that to authority growth; tying those to monetary value may require additional metrics, such as the ones I referenced above.
The main priorities for link building are building higher search ranks and generating more traffic, both of which generate revenue for a site. However, there are also other, less tangibly measurable values that link building can add:
Brand visibility. Every new post that references your client means a further reach for your client’s brand. Not everybody will follow the link immediately, but everybody will see that brand name and remember it.
Brand reputation. People will associate your client as an authority in the industry (if the content is strong), which leads to more referrals, more future sales, and more loyal customers.
Social clout. If users aren’t interested in visiting your client’s site or buying, they may still engage your client socially thanks to your increased presence, adding to a pool of potential marketing targets.
Ongoing growth. As external links are semi-permanent, they tend to grow in value over time. Any metrics you show are only in-the-moment snapshots of value; they don’t tap into the long-term potential of your work.
Don’t forget to mention these when proving your value to the client.
I didn’t say overcoming these barriers was easy, or even straightforward, but with time and effort, you can turn your link building strategy into one that both you and your clients will swear by. Remember, you don’t have to do this alone; rely on the experience and content of others to help guide you whenever you run into obstacles, and don’t be afraid to outsource elements of your strategy to a firm that’s better qualified to handle link building responsibilities. Link building is too important to SEO to ignore, and if done incorrectly, can compromise the ROI of your entire campaign or the relationships of your most important clients.
Sometimes, it seems like SEO comes down to a game of semantics. Today, a good “link building” strategy involves circulating high-quality content and getting people to link to your material because it’s worth citing, yet there may be no manual action of “building” a link. Similarly, “technical SEO” may require little to no actual technical expertise, and “keyword research” may be more about finding new content topics than trying to rank for specific phrases.
Because of this, it’s easy to make assumptions about how different strategies interact with each other, or whether one subset of a strategy can be distinguished from its parent. One of the most significant examples of this I’ve found is the primary focus of this article; you’ve probably heard someone make reference to the idea of “local link building” before, but is that any different from regular, nationally-focused link building?
How Local SEO Is Different
Before we get to the meat of this question, let’s take a moment to look at the ways local SEO, in general, differs from national SEO. There are a number of misconceptions about what local SEO is, and dispelling those is necessary to understand the difference between these types of link building (and if it is, indeed, a difference worth noting).
Local SEO actually functions as a distinct algorithm; that is to say, local search isn’t just a standard search that happens to include local keywords (like your city or state). When Google detects a local indicator (such as your inclusion of geographic keywords, location data provided by your mobile phone, or the common phrase “near me”), it calls upon this separate algorithm to produce three results deemed most relevant to your query.
Note the difference when I search for “pediatrician”:
Versus when I search for “pediatrician near me”:
Ignore the paid advertisement at the top and note the three organic entries that appear above the “standard” results. In local SEO, your goal is to be listed as one of these entries.
To do that, you need to achieve a handful of goals:
Achieve a high domain authority. You can do this by following standard SEO best practices—writing good content, attracting strong links, and optimizing your site for performance.
Get good reviews. Google taps into your business reviews on various third party sources to evaluate your business.
Feature yourself on local directories. The more accurate, consistent, and present this data is, the better your chances of ranking.
Associate yourself with your geographic area. Make sure your address is accurate, and establish relationships with other local sources and businesses.
At first glance, it would seem that regular link building—the kind you follow for a national campaign—is sufficient to improve your domain authority. Hold that thought.
The Tenets of Link Building
External links pass authority from the linking source to the destination source. For example, if you link from an average source (say a competitor of yours) that’s relevant to your industry, you might get an average amount of authority, and your recognition as a member of said industry will increase. If you link on a high-authority source irrelevant to your industry, you might get lots of authority, but only a modest increase in your recognition as an industry authority (assuming your content is related to your industry in some way). Ideally, you’ll find a balance between high-authority sources and sources relevant to your industry to get the “best of both worlds.”
Qualities of a “Local” Link
Now let’s think about what it would mean to have a “local link.” For this, it’s helpful to think of your geographic area as a type of industry of its own. Google looks at the strength of your reputation in a geographic area when it determines the top three results for a local query relevant to you; therefore, having more links pointing to your site from locally relevant authorities (with locally relevant content) can help you increase your local relevance. Examples of locally relevant authorities might include local news sites, neighborhood associations, or organizations exclusive to your area.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking that local links are only beneficial to local companies. This isn’t the case. Any authoritative link can be valuable in boosting your domain authority, so a business in Houston could theoretically increase in rank thanks to an inbound link from a Detroit newspaper (provided it’s relevant); Google won’t confuse you for being a Detroit business, but you won’t gain any Houston-specific relevance.
(Side note: if you live in Houston, you’ve got plenty of choices for local links, so you won’t have to go wooing the folks in Detroit to earn some extra authority):
A Practical Introduction to “Local Link Building”
All this is to say that yes, local link building can be distinguished from traditional link building, if you only seek out local sources. However, because all inbound links will support your domain authority and increase both your national and local ranks, it’s unwise to limit yourself to only local sources.
Instead of thinking about local link building as yet another separate strategy you must pursue to get your business visible in search engines, think about it as a niche subset of your overall link building strategy; oftentimes, local sources are easy to persuade, and if you participate actively in local events, you’ll probably earn these links naturally (and that’s never a bad thing).
If you’re looking for a concise takeaway from this analysis, it’s this: know that locally relevant links can increase your reputation in a specific geographic area, but it’s neither essential nor wise to exclusively pursue local links. Keep them as a subsection of your overall link building strategy.
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