Dear Reader: for entertainment purposes, I left all nuance at the door – so get ready to huff and puff your way through this. Also, the main focus here is link building, not earning.
Everyone hates link building.
You know why?
I asked some of my pals, and here’s what they said:
And so on.
But this all points to the main reason:
Link builders make connections with editors and journalists to get something out of it.
And they want to do this with the least effort and minimal interaction.
I could make an analogy of hitting up hotties at the club, but I think you get the picture: it’s a pretty messed up way to start any conversation.
I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that it underlies a lot of the issues we have with link building.
The Receiver’s Perspective
The ones at the receiving end of link building outreach hate it because they know the sender is only out to get that linky link.
Nobody just “stumbled on your article.”
They didn’t “love your blog.”
They probably didn’t even look at your stuff.
It feels disingenuous and condescending.
The Outreacher’s Perspective
And for outreachers themselves, they’re at the mercy of editors instead of playing godlike engineers in their cozy on-site SEO bubble.
So they scaled up and automatized the whole thing, resulting in untargeted, generic spam.
At its worst, link building can be an endless cycle of annoyance and contempt.
Fortunately, this is not always the case, and there are ways out.
First, you need to know where you’ve strayed from the path, and how to get back on track.
I’d like to point out some link building boo-boos I’ve noticed myself and others fall into.
Avoiding these takes the sting out of your next campaign, and sets you up for an enjoyable ride with links, links, links everywhere!
So, are you ready for some stuff that’s not a secret sauce but y’all clearly need to be reminded about?
Here we go.
Link Building Sin 1: Wandering Away from Your Why
SEO is connected to a lot of other business stuff.
For instance, optimizing search means absolutely nothing when you suck at CRO.
You can send all the traffic you want with the best buying intentions – if those suckers don’t click on your “Buy” button at some point, they’re worthless.
And as part of SEO, link building exists within a context as well.
When you start a campaign, you need to have clearly defined goals in mind.
You can’t just scream like a 3-year old: “Links, links, I wannet!”
Even if you don’t have a clear goal, you need some thought process behind it.
Maybe it’s just: “let’s see what happens if I build this type of link?”
And then follow that through, consistently.
And then this happens…
While you’re in the thick of it, you forget why you started in the first place.
For instance, you run a press release and it gets you 400 links.
You’re impressed with the sheer volume and get link-hungry.
Which is fine, if your goal was to grab as many backlinks as you can.
But what if you wanted some sweet referral traffic from an audience that just started to compare products?
What if you wanted to rank for specific keywords?
You need to pedal back every now and then and see if what you’re doing still aligns with your intention.
For instance – you might get a reply from a big brand that they won’t link to you, but they’ll post about your product on their Insta with one million active followers.
If you were building links to increase your online presence, should you turn down this offer and push for that link placement?
Your goal, your choice, but don’t get distracted.
Your Path to Redemption
Before You Pick Your Strategy & Tactics, Pick a Why
Make it as clearly defined as you can.
If possible try to quantify what success looks like.
Your reason might turn out to be false or stop serving your business at some point, but following a clear compass for a while can prevent you from meandering aimlessly.
When You’re Chasing Links & an Opportunity Comes up, Keep It
Keep asking why this serves your goal.
One of the biggest pitfalls is staring yourself blind at metrics and becoming a link snob, where you turn down perfect opportunities that would help your why.
Or you go for links that are utterly worthless but look good on a report card.
Link Building Sin 2: Focusing on Bad Prospects
If you’re building your links through outreach, you often create prospect lists of sites you want to contact.
You will use some sort of qualifying criteria that answer the question: would I want a link from this site or not?
Everyone does this differently.
Some use a list of metrics. Some focus on relevancy, look, and content. Others look at the link behavior of a site.
And some do all of this and more.
One trap that many link prospectors fall into, is to spend disproportionate time and energy on judging prospects that aren’t suitable.
Wasting Time on the Wrong Things
Imagine you’re building a list of 100 prospects you want to reach out to.
You might be scraping the SERPs or competitor backlinks into a list of 1,000 sites.
In this case, you have to filter out the bad ones.
Or you manually search through websites online, adding the ones you like to a list.
In this case, you’re adding sites to an (initially) empty list.
But in both cases, you’ll encounter prospects that won’t contribute to your goals.
And what I’ve seen in a lot of prospectors, is that they tend to give more energy to the prospects they are unsure about.
For some sites, they go back and forth for five minutes, analyzing them from different angles, throwing them in this tool or that.
When instead, in those five minutes they could have found 10 sites where they knew pretty much instantly they were great.
So why waste so much time on websites that give you enough doubt to investigate further?
Just ignore those and move on.
Focus on the ones that immediately scream relevance, quality, and authority.
Your Path to Redemption
There are two things I emphasize when I’m training a new link prospector:
Choose Prospects That Are Clearly Real Companies, Offering Products or Services
These are less focused on monetizing through their blog, and more on growing their business.
Overall, they will keep content criteria high.
They won’t link out to every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Actually, go for sites you think are hard-to-get.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
If You Doubt Longer Than 1 Minute About a Link Prospect, Remove Them
There are zillions of other websites out there where you won’t lose that much time making your decision.
Link Building Sin 3: Sounding Like a Business or Link Builder
This doesn’t always apply.
Some campaigns require a professional, corporate tone of outreach.
But you’d be surprised at the huge links you can get by simply being personable.
As I mentioned before, a lot of SEO professionals avoid personal contact in their work.
They like tinkering away in their bubble, feeling like a rebel gaming the big baddie (the Boogey-Google-man).
But when your aim is getting unpaid links from editors, webmasters, and founders, you increase your chances dramatically by making a personal connection.
This doesn’t mean you have to make a long-lasting friend.
It means you have to sound less like a business trying to make some dough, and more like a fellow human asking for a simple favor.
In a super laid back, non-demanding, non-begging way.
So screw sounding formal.
Screw sounding professional.
As soon as an editor sniffs you out as a link builder hustling links for a company – they know you have a monetary gain.
And they either dislike being hustled, or they want that gain as well.
But that’s only part of it.
Don’t Be a Link Builder
And here is where you take it a step further: forget about links.
The prospect doesn’t care about your link.
What you should be concerned about is what’s in it for them, a.k.a., the value proposition.
We all know this, but somehow it gets lost while running campaigns.
If you spend more time on having an amazing value proposition that’s a no-brainer for your link prospects, half of the battle is won.
So here comes the other half: the outreach itself.
Good outreachers create emails that are the least annoying possible.
An email that will prevent the receivers from flagging them as spam, and will entice them to open.
Great outreachers create a value proposition that convinces prospects to link out to them.
For instance, a linkable asset that will solve a specific pain point of their audience.
Kick-ass outreachers recognize that the outreach itself is a product as well and that it needs to be better than any other outreach out there.
It doesn’t just need to be not-annoying and yes-convincing – it needs to be the happy highlight of your prospect’s day!
Make them smile, educate, or help them.
Make them want to keep talking to you.
If you go beyond great and reach for that – you’re gonna win some sick links.
So don’t be a link builder: bring joy, not spam.
Your Path to Redemption
You need to get inspired for this.
And if you’re not the creative type, hire someone that is.
Copywriters and comedians are perfect.
Take inspiration from everything around you – lyrics, movies, puns, and dad jokes.
For maximum effect, try references that you know could work well in the niche you’re targeting for links.
Try Star Wars quotes.
Try Rolex jokes.
But most importantly: read your emails out loud.
Check them for anything that sounds like a sales pitch, a lecture, or worse, like ten thousand other link builders.
Link Building Sin 4: Sloppy Execution
“How I Built 489 Links without New Content”…..click!
You’ve found an awesome step-by-step guide to your next link avalanche, and clipped it to Evernote.
A couple of days later you grab the piece again and get to work.
And then you realize… this is actually a lot of actual work.
So you end up kinda half-scanning the thing and cherry-picking those parts you can apply now, with minimal effort and brainpower.
And you win… five links.
And they’re all crappy.
After which you decide the method was total BS and oh wait – “9 EASY Link Building Strategies (That ANYONE Can Use)”
Rinse and repeat.
Let me tell you this: 90% of link building strategies you find online work.
But there’s a catch:
Any strategy is only as good as its execution.
If you really want to put someone’s blueprint to the test, you first need to follow every step, exactly.
Later on, you can tweak it here and there, and make it your own.
Or completely drop it if it isn’t the right one for you.
But don’t skip steps that first time, and don’t rush through it without quality control.
I know this is probably the most “duh” of all the sins out there – but you don’t want to know how I was able to turn a complete campaign around, just by making sure due diligence was taken on a tiny subtask.
Your Path to Redemption
Don’t. Skip. Sh!t.
Link Building Sin 5: Setting Yourself up for Rejection
This is a less tangible issue and has all to do with mindset.
But it ties in directly with how your link building progresses.
A lot of problems I see with link builders I train, come from insecurity:
- You have doubts about the quality of your product.
- You’re unsure about your content.
- You’re assuming the worst about the intentions of your prospects.
- You fear rejection.
When you have these negative prenotions, it shines through in every step you take toward winning a backlink.
For instance, you keep your outreach limited to low-quality sites because you think amazing sites won’t give you the time of day.
You don’t spend much energy on the quality of your outreach email, because you assume all sites will ask for money as soon as they see your crappy website or product.
You scale up your email to thousands a week because you predict your conversion rate will be low.
Often I see outreach emails that are riddled with expressions that result from these assumptions: fake flattery, apologies, and bribes.
A prospect senses that when they’re reading your email – and as a result, they feel pressured, spoken down to, or worse, superior.
It completely screws up the power balance in your conversation.
You should position yourself as a peer, as a friendly neighbor asking for a simple favor in a laid back, charming manner.
Not as someone who is begging or demanding something.
Your Path to Redemption
Fix the parts where you don’t feel confident enough.
Fix your content, fix your prospecting, fix your outreach.
And aim for the highest.
Because even if you don’t reach that, you will end up with better than you would have otherwise.
If you still aren’t confident, then see this as a playful experiment and tweak along the way.
In the end, it’s a numbers game and you’ll only improve those odds if you keep testing & tweaking.
Link Building Sin 6: Obsession With Scaling
SEO professionals are a funny bunch.
They like to rebel against the status quo, and they like to game any system that’s out there.
And it’s totally cool!
Work smart, and not hard and all that…
But with stuff like automation and scaling – you sometimes start to confuse goals with process.
If the aim is to land strong links at scale, most link builders focus on the scaling part.
They create processes where zillions of emails are sent out, which can cause problems for email deliverability.
But it can also bring your link conversion rate down.
So instead of always trying to scale things at the cost of quality and conversion rate, you could try and improve your conversion rate first.
Your Path to Redemption
Sniper-segment your prospect list, and tailor your outreach accordingly.
For instance, when you are reaching out to music bloggers, create a separate list for each genre.
Then customize your template with the lingo that only fans of that genre use.
Use anything that is completely unique to that micro-niche.
It will take a little bit more of a deep-dive in a subject, but your conversion rate will improve considerably.
You can even take it a step further: send out bespoke emails for each prospect.
Something that clearly could have only been written for them.
Yes, this is harder to scale.
But if your link conversion rate is more than 60%, who cares?
If you don’t want to do it yourself, hire a copywriter and train them up for niche research and outreach.
Link Building Sin 7: Lame Content Ideation
Yep, it’s such an obvious one, I know.
Then how come so many of you are getting this wrong?
Whether it’s creating linkable assets for your own company website or pitching guest posts, many SEO professionals seem to aim for the bare minimum.
I get it – you’re busy.
You don’t have the headspace for it and your hamster ate your homework.
Finding good writers and graphic designers is hard, or you dread telling a marketing team their content babies suck.
There’s more to this though: online tutorials on content marketing saying it’s gotta be mind-blowing.
No Need to Blow Minds
A lot of content about content talks about “epic content”. Everything needs to be “epic skyscraper” or “epic infographic” or “epicly epicness.”
Aiming for epic harbors the risk of an epic fail.
Which can hold you back from even trying.
But your content doesn’t need to be epic, necessarily.
Of course, “epic-y” has its place, but if you’re not in the position to create it, this should be comforting:
The only thing content needs to be is up-to-date and useful, and add just that little bit more to the mix than others.
For instance, a simple table where you can look some numbers up can be just the thing folks needed.
Or a compilation of various research data in a scannable overview.
Stop Being So Obvious
Link builders can be way too much “on the nose” when they create content ideas for linkable assets and guest posts.
They try to make every piece very much about their product or service, while instead, it should be about the pain points of the link prospects audience.
And that makes life for link builders really, really hard:
This results in link prospects having no interest in your pitch as it’s not relevant to their audience, or asking for money because your business gain is so blatantly obvious.
Your Path to Redemption
Stop thinking like a link builder, and start thinking like a writer.
Set an hour apart for you and/or a copywriter to come up with valuable angles.
Because no one cares about your link.
Quality prospects only care about quality content.
And stop thinking about your product, kinda.
Think about the goals of your link prospects first.
Will your idea help them sell more, educate their audience, or grow their authority?
Then think of your gain, second.
Your piece should of course be (indirectly) relevant to your core business, but you can bridge that relevancy between you and the link prospects’ aim.
For instance: you want to build links to a page on neck massagers.
Now don’t go pitching stuff that’s all about neck massages when you’re reaching out to physical therapists.
Bridge that relevancy by pitching topics around working from home safely.
In that piece, there can be a highly relevant paragraph that talks about posture and neck pain, and link out to your page.
How to Come up With Content Ideas That Editors Like
There are several ways to research great topics, but I’ll share one of my go-to ways below (mainly for pitching guest posts).
If you’re targeting a certain niche with your link building, follow these steps:
- Google that niche + trends
- A list of topics will come up.
- Pick one of those topics.
- Set the search results to last month.
- Search for that topic.
- Have a look at the headlines that come up.
- Pick a headline you like.
- Search for that headline, set to last month.
- Create your own based on what you see.
This way, you end up with ideas that are deep-niche, in-demand, and current.
When you’re pitching several headlines, make sure you vary them in:
- Format (listicles, 1-2 punch, how-to, etc.).
- Style (neutral, funny, dramatic).
- Knowledge level (101, expert).
Now you’re offering a nice niche-buffet with something on it for everyone’s taste.
Link building is all about making connections.
(I mean, you know, a link is a connection, duh!)
I know most of you roll your eyes when you hear about building relationships.
But in fact, you don’t need to forge a lifelong friendship with editors (it helps, though!).
The only thing you need is to create a connection between what they value (whether that’s their interests, their audience, or their goals) and what you want them to link to.
If you can’t make that connection, you’re a link sinner and redemption is just around the corner.
Now go forth, make mama Bibi proud, and build some links!
All screenshots taken by author, October 2020