If you were to ask an SEO what the hardest part of their job is - most would reply: link building. It’s one of those tasks that, whilst being super-important in order to get good rankings on Google, it involves a whole range of skills that don’t quite align with many of the more technical skills most SEO’s will have.
Whilst I've been working as an independent SEO consultant for nearly 10 years, link building is one of those tasks I really love, but almost requires me to activate another part of my brain. It requires creativity, research, optimism, enthusiasm, anticipation, and a whole range of other emotions, patience being a massive part of the process too.
And as most decent SEO's out there will tell you links are extremely important if you want your website to be found on Google, it's probably a surprise that there aren't more SEO's offering link building as part of their own remit.
To add to this, lots of businesses fall into the trap of thinking that you can outsource link building without any further thought, and that it’s just another task to tick off the marketing to-do list.
In this article we want to explain the dangers of doing this, and the ways in which you can at least consider outsourcing your backlink building without it coming back to bite you on your backside.
Why outsource link building in the first place?
In simple terms it's no different to hiring a specialist to do a job for you - if you can find a genuine agency or consultant that specialises in building links, generating brand exposure, improving your digital PR, or however else you want to define it, it seems like a win-win situation. You get the expertise and skills of the service provider, who in turn will help you to get those links you need to boost your organic rankings and traffic, whilst the service provider gets paid handsomely for their role in the process.
If you own a small business that doesn't have access to SEO specialists that offer link building services then it's natural you might start to look for businesses that do offer link building services. It might be that an SEO consultant has advised you following a link audit that you need better coverage online to boost your organic rankings, so you end up beginning that search for those elusive link builders.
In typical SEO consultant style, whilst they might be very happy to tell you about your link problem, not many SEO’s are actually willing to get down into the nitty-gritty and help you to solve that link problem (cough, apart from myself, cough).
How to find genuine, good link builders online
If you do start looking around online for people or agencies that offer link building then you need to be super careful about who you pick to work with. So much money gets wasted on this area of SEO and you wouldn't want the same to happen to you. Here are a few things you should look for when finding good quality link builders online:
1 - Do they have any good references?
This is a common one but if you're beginning your search from scratch then perhaps you have no references available. Double check by asking around in your network to see if someone can recommend a good link builder or agency that specialises in helping to build brands online. Try to find someone that has worked with a connection of yours and has had good results. Don't blindly believe any unsolicited recommendations or (even-worse!) fall for any of those spam emails that everyone seems to get on a nearly daily basis offering link building/selling links (or is it just me that gets those?).
2 - What results have they achieved for other businesses?
Don't allow yourself to be blinded by the promise of a link placed on the likes of the BBC.com or TheGuardian.com. Whilst those might be huge publications which carry a lot of authority, ultimately you want to find a service provider that will put your link in front of your intended target audience - not going after broad coverage just for the sake of it. Whilst sometimes that might still be classed as a great link, many times it’s best to go more specific. It's usually better to get a link from a site that might result in actual sales or enquiries for your business vs a link that only generates "impressions" or page views, unless that is the actual goal of the business that has hired you.
Ideally you want to get links that bring referral traffic - where people are actually clicking it to visit your page as it's of real interest to them. No links just for the sake of them.
Any agency or link builder worth their salt will understand this and should be communicating it clearly on their website, with regard to the results they've achieved for past clients. That might include metrics like:
- Links placed (total count)
- Links placed by website type
- Links placed by website category
- Traffic generated by links obtained
- Transactions completed from links obtained
3 - What does their onboarding process look like?
This might be an odd question to ask before you've started to work with them but it's a good one to get a nice feel for how the relationship may progress, and whether or not it will be a valuable experience or not. For me, before even thinking of helping a client to acquire links, I need to sit down with them and go through a bit of a “business-data-download”. I need to understand how their business works, the types of clients they target, how clients sign up with them. In general, anything that might help me to understand them better at the initial stage of the relationship. This is especially true if it's a business that operates in an industry I've not worked in before. Ultimately with this data I can probably begin to pick up ideas as to the types of coverage that might be worthwhile for them.
If a link builder says there's no such onboarding process, and that all they need is your website address and the funds to get started, then to me there would be loud alarm bells ringing. It sounds like they're just going to be winging it and not actively putting in the extra effort I feel is required to get good lasting results in the current market.
4 - What kind of campaigns have they run previously?
This relates to point #2 above but in this case we'd specifically be asking to see examples of the campaigns that had been run for past clients. That might involve sharing the pages in which links were obtained for the client, so you can see the manner in which the link was placed and to better understand the context. A popular form of link building is that of data based research, which later gets pitched to relevant journalists and industry publications. This is a good practice, as it might help you to pick up on whether the link builder in question will be doing what I'd call long-term link building vs shortcut link building.
An example of a shortcut link might be someone simply spamming the comments section of a blog with links to your site (a terrible idea and something you shouldn't ever be paying for!), or they might be paying a blog to insert an article that talks about your business and includes a link back to your site. That's likely another terrible idea as the site in question is selling links, something that is officially against Google's webmaster guidelines and could result in your site getting penalised in the search results. When you find a site that sells links in this way they're likely doing it at quite some scale and will inevitably get caught out by Google at some point down the line.
With this question you're looking to see the effort that has gone into running these campaigns. Lots of effort = good, it's probably a safe, evergreen link method with little or no risk to your business. Low effort = bad, it might be something that either has no benefit to your website or could result in some kind of penalty from Google (aka not worth the risk).
5 - Have they worked with clients in your industry before - and do they currently?
There can be a conflict of interest if you begin to work with an agency or link builder that is already working with a rival company of yours. If they are happy to accept you whilst working with that client then it might not be the sign of a very ethical agency or one with your best interests at heart.
Asking to hear how they've worked with a client in your industry in the past can be a great way to learn about the results they've obtained and to hear about those publications where they might have landed previous coverage. You'd probably know first-hand whether those publications are the kinds that your target customer or demographic reads, which really is going to be key to a successful link building campaign.
6 - How do they decide upon the keywords to be tracking during the campaign?
This is where there might be some overlap with the SEO consultant or agency that you’re working with currently. You’d want to be in agreement as to the keywords you feel are important for your business, those you’ve decided that you should be ranking higher for on Google.
Some businesses might know these weak spots and want to improve them, but many will want the opinion of an SEO expert who can, after careful keyword research, determine those that are relevant to your business and which have a healthy search volume associated with them.
Once you have decided upon those keywords you’d need to ensure someone is tracking the rankings for them - which is where a rank tracker like Nozzle comes into play. It’s important to ask the link builder about how (or if) they plan on making use of these keywords in their efforts, and as to whether they’d be tracking these ranking improvements on their side or not.
Most decent link building providers will include reports that will highlight any ranking improvements since their campaigns were launched. Otherwise ultimately you might find yourself asking what the point of building links is, if not to improve your organic rankings.
In summary - should my business outsource its link building?
I personally dislike the idea of outsourcing anything. It gives the idea of selling something short, just getting it off your plate for the sake of it. If I heard a business I worked with was outsourcing their link building efforts, I’d be worried what the impact would be.
Whilst it’s true that Google claim that they’re able to ignore the majority of “bad links” that get placed on the web (which if you think about it, would make negative SEO such a huge problem if it wasn’t true), you do still see and hear of stories where link building has clearly gone wrong.
I do think there is a place for hiring a good digital PR consultant, or a great link builder specialist. I think there are some brilliant people - and agencies - out there for those looking to get some great links placed (if you had to put me on the spot I’d tell you that NeoMam are one of the leaders in terms of building great, linkable content as well as doing things the right way) but for the most part you do have to be extremely careful when it comes to outsourcing your link building efforts completely.
What about you - are there other factors that should be taken into consideration when outsourcing link building? Maybe you’ve outsourced your own and have some stories to share? Feel free to drop a comment below!
Matt Tutt is an SEO and PPC consultant based in Spain that is focused on helping ethical, green, or somehow "good" businesses. I love helping to ensure businesses that are doing good; either to people, to the planet (or both!), are able to get found online.