The 17 Deadly Sins of Outsourcing Link Building for Agencies
For most marketing agencies, their link building service is a necessary hassle. It’s practically impossible to improve your clients’ SEO rankings, or earn them respectable referral traffic, without an ongoing link building campaign. But without the right staff, the right knowledge, or the right investments, link building can be both time-consuming and fruitless.
That’s where outsourcing comes in; it’s a convenient way to build links that relies on a link building specialist. But as I wrote in The Agency SEO Pro’s Guide to Link Building, if you aren’t careful, even your best link building efforts with an outside agency could wind up hurting you.
The Advantages of Outsourcing Link Building for Agencies
I want to start by clarifying the advantages of outsourcing your link building, because there are many to be had (assuming you’re avoiding the “deadly sins” I’ll be covering in the next section). These are some of the most powerful:
Convenience. When an external agency is handling your link building, you won’t need to hire someone internally to do the work. That can spare you hours of time and effort, which you can then use to improve your client relationships in more productive ways.
Expertise. Link building agencies have spent years building their businesses to master the art of link building. It’s only natural that they’d be better at navigating this terrain than most general marketing agencies. As a result, their links tend to be higher-quality, with better results.
Accountability. If something ever goes wrong with the campaign, you’ll have someone external to hold accountable. It will be on them to find the mistake, take corrective action, or suggest a new strategy to make up the difference—and they might even lend you special services for free to make it up to you.
Affordability. Though you might be reluctant to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a month on an external service, the reality is, most link building agencies will be far less expensive than trying to do the work yourself. Hiring someone in-house is almost always more expensive, and you might get inferior quality work as well.
Outsourcing Link Building for Agencies Gone Wrong
If you want to see these benefits, you’re going to have to avoid these deadly—yet common mistakes:
1. Picking a cheap provider.
Most marketing agencies looking for a new link building provider want to save time and/or money. Accordingly, they act rationally by shopping around for the best price.
But in the link building world, the lowest price isn’t always the best price. In fact, it tends to skew in the opposite direction: you get what you pay for.
By paying less for an agency, you’ll probably get one or more of the following:
Cheaper labor. Writers and editors who get paid less for their work tend to have lower standards, or less experience overall. That means your off-site articles and link building portfolio are going to suffer. I covered this deadly sin in my article at VentureBeat titled Getting a good deal on SEO? Think again!
Fewer checks and balances. Reputable agencies tend to cost more because they have more internal positions to account for; they might have a team of writers, a team of editors, a team of reviewers who examine the work before publishing, and a team dedicated to managing publisher relations. If you try to pin all this work on one or two separate teams, the end result will be more mistakes, lower quality work, and less consistent work.
Fewer guarantees and assurances. Cheaper agencies aren’t as dependable because they may not have account managers who truly care about your brand. They may also rely on quantity of clients rather than quality, and therefore may be willing to lose your business over a disagreement.
Lower-quality publishers. The more authority a publisher has, the more valuable it is. Unfortunately, that authority comes with a cost; it takes more time and effort to establish and build that reputation, and much more work to maintain it. Low-cost agencies can’t possibly afford to maintain these systems, and may instead favor low-authority publishers, which can damage your campaign.
Does this mean you should seek out the most expensive link building agency you can find? No. But you should consider far more than just the price of the agency you’re working with. Get quotes from multiple providers, and figure out exactly what you’re getting for each price point. Treat this as an investment, rather than an expense, and optimize your strategy accordingly.
However, speaking generally, non-native English speakers tend to write inferior content, when compared to native speakers. They may mistranslate certain phrases, be unable to use slang or idioms in a natural way, or use clunky phrases that make the content seem less fluid. People won’t want to read this content, and top-quality publishers won’t be willing to accept it, which means it’s practically impossible to build a successful campaign on it.
Why would a link building agency work with non-native speakers? There are two main motivations here. First, it’s because they’re cheap. Agencies can get away with paying writers far less in developing countries, which means they can charge their clients lower prices (or, in some cases, pocket a bigger profit). Second, they’re created and managed by people in developing countries, who want a shot at making higher profit margins by working with companies in the United States.
Some link building agencies make it a point to acknowledge that they work with non-native speakers, but for the most part, you’ll have to do some investigating to be sure:
Check their website. Most of the time, agencies that use non-native speakers will also use them when writing their own content. Accordingly, you can check their website for any strange, low-quality content that indicates it was written by a non-native speaker.
Examine their past work. Link building agencies often like to show off some of the work they’ve done in the past, so check it out. Ask for samples if you have to. The quality of the writing should indicate the linguistic histories of their writers.
Ask them directly. You could also just ask your prospective vendor directly if they use any non-native English speakers. Some agencies may try to hide this fact, but if asked point-blank, they’ll probably give you a straightforward answer.
Make sure you’re working with an agency that employs native speakers exclusively for the services you’re targeting.
3. Shooting for quantity over quality.
Outsourcing links usually means studying packages that are primarily distinguished by the number of links they offer. For example, you might be forced to decide between 12 links per month, 50 links per month, or 500 links per month.
It’s reasonable to consider this as a factor, but it strays into “deadly sin” territory when you start using the number of links as the sole determining factor for your decision, or as the most important factor for comparing two companies’ offers. For example, if company A offers a link package with 12 links for $1,200 per month, and company B offers a link package with 50 links for $1,500 per month, you might lean toward company B. you might also go into the selection process with an idea for a minimum number of links you want to build.
But you have to remember that not all links are created equal. If you put too much attention on the number of links a company can provide you, you’ll neglect factors like how those links are built, and what kind of return you can expect from those links. After all, if a single link can net you 1,500 new monthly visitors, it’s inherently more valuable than 500 links that, together, can only net you 1,000 new monthly visitors. What’s more, if a company is promising you a seemingly-too-good-to-be-true amount of links, then those links are probably of very low, spammy quality, thus subjecting you (or your clients) to the horrors of a manual or algorithmic Google penalty which can be hell to recover from.
Assuming all quality factors are equal, more links do have the potential to give you higher returns. And realistically, quantity and quality should both enter your decision-making process. But if you favor quantity over quality when signing with a new agency, it’s bound to compromise your results.
4. Treating all sites as equal.
Along similar lines, you need to be thinking critically about the sites where your link building agency is going to acquire those inbound links. If a link building provider doesn’t publicly disclose which publication sites they use to build links, it could be a sign that they treat sites indiscriminately. Instead, look for a link building provider with multiple “tiers” of publishers, or at least a wide range of publishers that they let you choose from (***hint*** at AudienceBloom, we let our clients choose their publishers because we value 100% transparency!).
There are several qualities to keep in mind here:
Domain authority. Each site has its own domain authority (DA) value—a rough measure of how authoritative Google determines it to be. Though the methods of calculation here are complex, in general, you can rely on DA as an indicator of how much authority a link will pass to your client’s site. In other words, the higher the DA of the link, the more your client’s DA will rise, and the higher their site’s rankings will climb.
Traffic. DA shouldn’t be the only consideration for the discerning agency, however. You should also consider how much traffic the publication gets—after all, links are just as valuable for generating referral traffic as they are for improving rankings. The higher the traffic for a source, the more traffic your client will stand to receive from a high-quality link.
Reputation. Though not as objectively measurable, you should also consider each publisher’s overall reputation—especially if your client is getting a brand name mention. A publisher with high journalistic standards and universal acclaim will benefit your clients’ reputations more positively than a site that publishes any material that comes their way.
This doesn’t mean that you should only target sites with the highest possible value in each area; instead, you should have a diversity of different sources pointing to your clients’ sites. Instead, the mistake here comes into play when you fail to differentiate between sources. Spend some time talking to your prospective link building agencies to learn which types of publishers they use, and strategizing to use those diverse sources to your advantage.
5. Allowing link exchanges (or other schemes).
This mistake can be tricky to avoid, since link schemes come in many forms, and no link building agency would make the mistake of publicizing that they utilize schemes.
Buying or selling links. Working with a link building agency that uses high-quality content and established relationships to build links on noteworthy sites is perfectly acceptable. In fact, leveraging relationships with the media to acquire coverage for clients is what PR agencies have been doing for over 100 years. Bribing publication sites to include links for the sole purposes of promotion, on the other hand, is not (according to Google, anyway).
Excessively exchanging links with a limited number of sources. Link exchanges are one of the most common types of schemes. If an agency seems to use the same few sources to build links pointing to each other, it’s a bad sign.
Any automated programs to build links. There aren’t many steps of the link building process that can be effectively automated without risking the integrity of the campaign. If an agency uses bots to publish links across the web, you should probably stay away from them.
Low-quality directories and bookmark sites. Link directories and bookmarking sites exist to host links and direct traffic, so Google doesn’t take them seriously. In fact, your clients might get penalized for being featured there.
Hidden links. Though not a common practice anymore, embedded links that have been hidden in widgets, comments, or websites are heavily frowned upon.
Spammy forum comments. If employed cleverly, forum and blog comments can be used to build high-quality links. But for the most part, comment-based links have no place in a modern campaign.
Since you may not be able to discern whether or not a link building company uses link schemes as part of its services, the best way to evaluate a prospective vendor is to ask them about their practices. Ask them to walk them through their process, and judge it for yourself.
6. Offering no direction.
One of the biggest motivations for seeking the help of a link building agency is to save you time. So shouldn’t you be able to just hand off the reins and stop worrying about your clients’ campaigns?
I get this mentality, but if you pass off your clients’ campaigns without direction, it’s bound to cause chaos. For starters, your link building agency should know what other SEO strategies you’re currently using, and what your history with the client has been like. Only with this information will they be able to work with you to create the right campaign. Though most link building agencies offer different packages with standard features, most expect at least some degree of customization before starting work.
At a minimum, you should be willing to provide the following information:
A description of the brand. A brief understanding of your client’s brand is important for building links properly. The industry, character, and target demographics of the brand should dictate which publishers are used, how links are placed, and a variety of other considerations.
The ultimate goals of the campaign. Is your client looking only for increased rankings? Or would they prefer improving referral traffic? What about reputation benefits? Link building agencies work better when they know what your clients’ goals are.
Past and present SEO efforts. Link building is just one ingredient in a successful SEO campaign. Knowing what else has been going on—both past and present—is useful for tailoring the specifics of the campaign.
Anchor text preferences. Anchor text probably isn’t going to make or break your campaign, and relying on it too heavily can make your links seem spammy. However, targeted anchor text can probably push a keyword or two over the edge.
Publisher preferences. As I mentioned earlier, not all publishers are the same. Working with your link building agency can help you ensure the right publishers are used for your clients’ campaigns.
Setting these expectations early can ensure your client gets what they need, and maximize the efficiency of the campaign.
7. Failing to capture your clients’ needs.
Providing direction to your link building agency is good, but only if you have a good understanding of your clients’ goals—and use that understanding to inform your direction.
Too often, marketing agencies make the assumption that they know everything there is to know about their clients, or otherwise treat all their clients the same. In reality, each of your clients will have different needs, goals, and expectations for how their link building campaign is handled.
On one level, it’s important for you to explain to your clients how link building works, why it’s important, and what kind of results they can expect. Setting these expectations early will help you contextualize the results you get later on, and ensure your client relationship isn’t damaged by missed expectations.
On another level, it’s important to convey accurate information to your link building agency. For example, you might be perfectly comfortable allowing a brand mention of your client’s company in a given publisher, but your client may feel it’s a breach of their values (especially if the publisher is controversial in any way).
The most important thing to remember here is the need for transparency and understanding between you and your clients. Without that, no link building agency will be able to ensure you receive adequate services.
8. Making too many demands.
I’ve already mentioned how important it is to provide your link building agency with direction, but the other end of the spectrum can also be problematic. If you make too many demands of your link building agency during the process, things can go very wrong.
For starters, if you’ve chosen a link building agency with a strong reputation and lots of expertise, you should trust that they’ve had more experience than you have—and more authority on the matter. If you set too many standards for how the work should be completed, you may prevent the company from providing you with their own direction and expertise. Make yourself open enough to hear the agency’s recommendations; they’ve done this for many clients in the past, and may have insights or ideas that you haven’t considered.
Excessive demands may also make your working relationship more complicated. If your account representative has to constantly go back and forth with new requests and demands, the total amount of time spent on your campaign will increase. In extreme cases, this may put a strain on your partnership, or even result in the agency charging you more for the extra work.
You should also know that there are some limitations to what can be done from a practical perspective. Demanding that a link be published within 24 hours is not realistic, for example, because of the many stages of the process (including writing, editing, submitting for publication, editorial review, revisions, and final publication). And if you’re publishing with a site not aligned with your client’s industry, you might have to compromise on the way the link is mentioned. Expecting perfection will set you up for disappointment, and may not allow your agency to produce their best work.
9. Escalating too quickly.
Marketing agencies usually seek link building help under one of two circumstances. Either they’ve taken on a new client and want to delegate a portion of the work to an outside firm, or they’re looking for a way to boost a client’s results.
In either scenario, it’s tempting to escalate as quickly as possible. These agencies want their clients to see results, or at least work, as soon as possible, and in their mind, that means publishing as many links as possible in the span of a few weeks to a few months. The problem is, this excessive link building activity can be counterproductive; if Google notices too many links being built too quickly, it may consider them to be unnatural, earning your client a penalty rather than increasing their rankings.
Most link building agencies know this, and set early expectations with their clients that links should be built gradually over time. However, if you pressure them to churn out more work, they may give into your requests, and publish an excessive number of links at a faster pace than they’re used to. And if you’re using multiple link building services, or are building links on your own, your agency may be unwittingly contributing to a link building strategy that’s growing way too quickly.
Patience is a virtue here. Instead of opting for the biggest or boldest campaign a link builder has to offer, consider starting with a smaller campaign, gradually scaling up as you start seeing more results. While you’re at it, keep your link building agency in the loop about any other link building strategies you’re utilizing; that way, you can work together to ensure that your link building campaign scales at an appropriate pace.
10. Treating all your clients the same.
Too many marketing agencies treat link building as part of some massive, uniform assembly line. They get a new client, onboard them, and sign up for the same link building package they’ve used for past clients, with no new instructions, goals, or modifications, expecting to see the same results.
In many cases, you will see similar results; the same number of links, from the same range of sources, across the same time period will almost certainly increase your new client’s DA at the same pace, and earn a similar amount of referral traffic. However, you could be missing out on some serious advantages by making simple modifications to the core link building program.
Even if they come from the same industry or have a similar background, clients can differ in many ways:
Goals. One client may only care about referral traffic, while another would prefer to see an increase in search rankings. One client may want a general rise in DA (and overall rankings), while another might only care about increasing in rankings for a specific search term. You can’t use the same tactics for two different clients and expect to see two different sets of results.
Current authority. Clients that start with a higher authority will need higher-DA publishers, more intensive action, and (usually) more new links to see results. You can’t use the same package for a well-established industry authority and a newcomer who’s just starting out.
Expectations. Client expectations should also play a role in how you shop for link building packages. Though the experts (either you or your link building provider) should be shaping those expectations, a client who expects faster results will need different care than one who’s ready for a slow-burn campaign.
These (and other) differences will, cumulatively, respond to your strategies in different ways. For example, some clients may tolerate a more aggressive link building campaign than others. Some clients may benefit from specific anchor text more than others.
11. Making a transaction instead of building a relationship.
Most link building agencies offer monthly package deals as well as a-la-carte link ordering. This makes it easy to view the link building process as a transactional one; you spend a fixed amount of money, get a fixed number of links, and move onto the rest of your campaign.
However, it’s much more effective to treat your relationship with your link building provider as an actual relationship, and not just a one-time exchange. That means working with the same account rep as long as possible, having occasional meetings, and establishing a precedent for a long-term partnership.
This is advantageous for several reasons:
Better client understanding. The longer you work together, the more your link building agency will get to know your clients’ brands, needs, and expectations. That understanding will lead to more efficient work, and better recommendations for what to do next.
More effective communication. The more time you spend in meetings with your link building agency, and sending material back and forth, the more efficiently you’ll be able to communicate. You’ll pick up on each other’s subtext faster, and will be able to anticipate each other’s needs and concerns.
Discounts and favors. If you stay on good terms, your link building agency may extend special discounts or favors to you, in return for being such a loyal client. This is especially valuable since most link building companies offer peripheral and related services, such as conversion optimization or social media marketing.
Consistency and expectations. Long-term business partnerships also give you more consistency, which is important if you want to set firm standards for what your clients can expect.
If you treat the relationship as too transactional, you’ll end up spending more time and more effort for inferior results.
12. Not negotiating the contract.
Most link building agencies offer a standard contract when you sign up for their services, but you should consider negotiating certain elements of this contract. Consider these factors:
Price. The first thing you’ll probably notice is the bottom-line price. Most agencies charge either a monthly rate or a per-link rate, but you may find some that charge a variable rate, or some that offer different rates for extra services, such as admin fees or research fees. Make sure you know exactly what you’re getting charged for.
Length/volume. It’s also a good idea to examine the length or duration of the contract; for example, if you sign up for a monthly link building service, there may be a minimum contract duration (such as one year), with a fee for early cancelation. Most link builders will disclose these terms proactively, but it doesn’t hurt to check.
Service stipulations. How exactly are these services going to be rendered? Ideally, your contract will state exactly how and when your links will be built, and what recourse you may have if those links aren’t built within the specified parameters.
Other terms and conditions. What other terms and conditions are there? You may be required to sign an NDA, and if you’re utilizing a white-label solution, you should check to make sure the contract specifically defines this relationship.
You may not be able to get a strictly better deal, but you should be able to rebalance the contract to better suit your needs. For example, you might be able to secure yourself a lower per-link price in exchange for extending the terms of the contract. In any case, make sure to review the wording and sections of the contract carefully.
13. Treating link building as the only solution.
Naturally, I’m a major proponent of link building. It’s an invaluable source of referral traffic, domain authority, and reputation benefits. But at the same time, it isn’t a perfect or comprehensive solution for your client’s marketing needs.
Link building is best suited as one of several complementary strategies. It works exceptionally well when paired up with content marketing, on-site SEO, social media marketing, and email marketing, and can take brands even further with a PR campaign or advertising campaign. If your link building agency can provide some of these services, consider providing them. If you can supplement some of these services on your own, consider supplementing them. If all else fails, you can at least set the expectation with your client that they’re going to need more than just link building if they want to grow their presence online.
This is important because it prevents link building from becoming the sole focus of any of your clients. Ultimately, a multifaceted campaign with multiple different strategies working together will offer better results, a higher ROI, and greater risk mitigation should any of those independent strategies fail.
Obviously, utilizing more strategies means investing more time, more money, or both, but those are the costs of a well-orchestrated, interwoven marketing strategy. Don’t put all your clients’ eggs in one basket.
14. Not checking live work.
Once you’ve found a link building agency you trust, it’s natural to assume that the work they produce will match the quality standards you’ve come to expect. They might have glowing reviews, you might have seen some compelling examples of their recent work, and you might have a fantastic relationship with your account representative.
But even so, it’s foolish to assume that a link has been built without checking the live result.
Trust, but verify. You can usually trust that the work was done effectively, and in accordance with your contract and expectations—but it never hurts to check. You might find that the link was finalized with the wrong publisher, or that the link you were sent was broken. Mistakes like these are usually honest, so catching them early can ensure they’re fixed with haste.
Check for errors. Sometimes, errors can make it through the editorial process and wind up on the finished article. This is your last chance to check for them. Give the finished article a thorough scan for spelling mistakes, inaccurate statements, and broken links. Even the best agencies may slip up from time to time, and it’s far better to catch a mistake on day 1 than day 100.
Get inspired. This is also your chance to view a finished guest post and client link in a live environment. Not only does this put you closer to the process (which can help you manage client expectations in the future), it may also help you brainstorm link building tactics to use in the future, such as a new topic, or different wording or positioning.
Always take a few extra minutes at the end of any order or monthly submission to ensure the work has been completed satisfactorily. It can save you lots of headaches later on.
15. Compromising on data.
Data is the only way to tell if your campaign is working, and the only objective source to tell you what needs to be improved. Your link building company is responsible for proving their results to you (and by proxy, your clients) with objective numbers, and this isn’t up for debate or compromise.
At a minimum, you should know:
The number of links built. This one should be obvious, and might already be in your contract, but it still pays to know. If your link builder is outstanding, they’ll also be able to generate a report for how many total links your client has pointing to them, including ones that weren’t built as part of this contract.
The DA of each link source. Each publisher’s relative domain authority should be public knowledge. That way, you can quantify the value of each link.
Your clients’ DAs. Over time, you should expect your client’s domain authority to grow. If it doesn’t that could be a sign that something’s wrong.
Incoming referral traffic from each source. Referral traffic is another handy measure to gauge the value of each link. The more traffic you get from a single link, the more valuable it is.
If your link builder can’t give you these numbers directly for any reason (such as not having access to your clients’ Google Analytics accounts), they should be able to provide you with the direction and resources necessary to get them. Don’t assume that everything is working—let the numbers show you the way.
16. Failing to calculate ROI.
Most link building agencies provide raw data to their clients, but it’s on you to help your clients understand their ROI from those efforts. If you want to ensure you’re getting adequate results, you need to take things further by calculating your total return on investment (ROI).
There are a few different ways to calculate this as a middleman. You can start by calculating your agency’s own ROI (which is simple). Just take the amount of money your client is paying you (or the portion you’ve allocated for link building) and subtract what you’re paying the link builder. A positive result means you’re making money on this deal.
But perhaps more importantly, you should know whether your client is getting what they’re paying for. Work with your client to figure out the value of the average visitor using metrics like average transaction size, or conversion rates combined with traffic figures. Then, determine how many new visitors are coming from link-related sources (including referral traffic, organic traffic from search engines, and perhaps increased direct traffic from increased passive knowledge of the brand). The goal is to give your client more in value than they’re paying for services.
Even if you’ve had an amicable working relationship, or if you’ve been partners for many years, there’s no reason for your marketing agency to accept mediocre results. You have the data. You have the ROI stats. Now it’s on you to take action if you (and your clients) aren’t seeing the results you want.
If your relationship is in good standing, you can start by having a conversation about your expectations and how they aren’t being met. From there, you can work on a mutual plan to escalate things, and see better results in the future. If your agency is unwilling to make concessions or take extra steps for you and your clients, it may be time to find a new link building partner.
Otherwise, treat this as an ongoing experiment. Work with your link building vendor to make a change, see how it affects your results, then keep the positive changes and reject the negative ones. Once you’ve read and accepted the weaknesses of these critical mistakes, you’ll be ready to start outsourcing your clients’ link building needs.
When you feel confident you’re ready for the next step, make sure to contact us here at AudienceBloom. We have some of the best marketers, writers, publishers, and analysts in the industry, and many of our biggest clients are agencies working with us on white label link building services to get better results for clients of their own. Reach out today, and let’s start a conversation about how we can get you (and your clients) better results through better link building!
Timothy Carter is the CRO for AudienceBloom. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.