Scaling Link Building – Whiteboard Friday
Posted by Aaron Wheeler
Link building can be the most tedious and time-consuming task of SEO. At least, that’s how a lot of people feel about it. Ever want to know how to scale link building to avoid the pitfalls of wasted time and effort? This week, Tom Critchlow from Distilled interviews Ross Hudgens, an SEO currently working at Full Beaker in Bellevue, Washington, about some strategies you can use to scale your link building and get more links with less effort. Hiring people with hustle is a big part of it, but using APIs and outsourcing development can help too (though some aspects of linkbuilding simply are not outsourceable, as Tom and Ross explain). Do you have any strategies you use to scale your linkbuilding? Let us know in the comments below!
Tom: Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. I am here today with Ross Hudgens, and we’re going to talk a little bit about scaling link building. So we talk about link building all the time in SEO. It is obviously one of the most important parts of any SEO campaign, but there is this kind of divide between an individual, maybe it’s a business owner, maybe it’s an individual in-house SEO, and he has to figure out how to scale link building. The company is growing, you’re doing a lot more stuff. How do you go from one individual to a team of people doing link building? We’re going to talk through some of the challenges. Ross Hudgens, where are you at the moment? Let’s talk a bit about your experience.
Ross: I currently work at Full Beaker in Bellevue, Washington, and basically, what I am doing is building out a multitude of websites in-house and a team to basically go from a few websites to a huge team of link builders, properties, etc. So, with that there are a lot of problems with hiring, scaling link building, making it cost efficient, etc.
Tom: Sure. I have come up against challenges with hiring link builders all the time.
Tom: It’s a very unique blend of skills, I think.
Tom: I’d love to get your take on it. But some of the things that we look for when we’re hiring link builders at Distilled is kind of this weird mix of understanding the Internet, so it’s kind of you need to understand what Twitter is, what a blog is, how social networks work, all that kind of stuff. But you don’t necessarily need to understand all that much about SEO, per se. Right?
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Tom: You can teach somebody easily what anchor text is.
Ross: Right. It’s interesting in general, like in my experience if you don’t have a huge website or brand to leverage off of, you’re almost better off saying you want to hire an internet marketing specialist rather than SEO, because no one really knows what SEO is or they’re going to fake it, maybe.
Ross: But there is also a good part, if you have a big personal brand, or like Distilled, you guys have the power of being this recognizable figure, so you can say, "We’re hiring," on Twitter and you can find those people that are inexperienced but still have a modicum of knowledge that they are probably going to be great link builders for you guys.
Tom: Absolutely. I have actually found some of the best kind of people we have hired that are good at link building are just guys that hustle. Right? So there is this concept I think you talked about on your blog. We’ve talked it before. It’s this idea that one of the most effective, actually across any SEO discipline, but particularly about link building, is just this idea of hiring people who know how to get stuff done. Right.? It is the kind of person who they send an email to somebody saying, "Hey, can you check out this content we’ve created?" They get an email back saying no, and they just don’t take that for answer. Like you see this in Justin. Justin does this all the time.
Ross: Yeah, Justin is great at that. Definitely.
Tom: Yeah. He has this attitude of kind of approaching a problem, and this would be like sales. You get a no, but at least you have replied to me.
Tom: I know you’re alive. Right?
Ross: Definitely. So what’s interesting to me about that is how do you measure that upfront? Do you just have this sixth sense when you’re hiring someone that they have that pure hustle?
Tom: Actually, what we find the easiest thing is just go ahead and ask for it. Right? Go ahead and ask.
Tom: Say when was a time when you went and did something where no one had told you to do it, it wasn’t like on your job spec, but you just figured out a problem, identified it, and then gone and done it, like taken ownership of the problem. You’ll find that these people stick out like a sore thumb. You ask this question and some people will be like, "I don’t know. I cleaned the photocopier once." And you ask some people and they’re like, "Oh, yeah, in my part-time, I organized a conference," and it’s like oh. It’s like just those people you get a sense for being able to get stuff done.
Ross: A good citation of that kind of event. Right.
Tom: Absolutely. Then so to come back to something I was saying earlier, we find it really good to hire people who are kind of popular online.
Tom: Like, if somebody has like 500 Facebook friends, that’s usually a good indication they understand the Internet quite well.
Ross: Right, that’s true.
Tom: They understand the psychologically of attention, which I think is important for link building. So it’s not necessarily kind of, like, they’re not a celebrity necessarily. It’s not like they’d have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers.
Ross: Right. But they’ve built up some kind of rapport and they know what’s going on, clearly.
Tom: Absolutely. Yeah, and they’re clearly like communicating with people. They are clearly comfortable spending a lot of time online, because at the end of the day, that’s what is going to happen.
Ross: Right. Yeah, because it’s the healthy balance, because you’re probably going to be hiring someone at the beginning stages when you are building out these teams. So it takes these little tiny bits about them to make sure they can be that Justin Briggs or that other great link builder for Distilled or any team. Right?
Tom: Absolutely. These people with personal social networks are often great assets, because you say, "Oh, I need to get some links for this gardening shed website." They’ll be like, "Oh wait, I’ve got a buddy who is crazy about garden sheds." Just let me send him a Facebook message. Then the next thing you know, you’ve got a guest post or link or whatever. So it’s kind of interesting this mix of skills that you need.
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Tom: But I think, if I could sum it up, I think hustle is super important, and I think kind of just getting the ins and outs, even if it is not SEO, just getting like how stuff works online is really important. So let’s move on, because we’ve got other stuff to cover.
Tom: Let’s imagine that we’ve hired a few link builders into our team.
Tom: How do you go about training link builders? This is an interesting question.
Ross: Right. So one of my problems has been at first I would go and try and drop all my knowledge like a waterfall on the link builder, and that never works out. I will say look at this, this, this. The better thing to do is give them a few things to look at, and then constantly have them go out, find links, say we should target this website, we should target that website, and then give them feedback on a case by case basis and keep that going for a long time until it becomes this evolution where clearly they are progressing in their knowledge. They know how to value a link appropriately. Then you can let them go to be able to pick links and do that link building themselves, without your guidance basically.
Tom: Okay. That sounds like it takes a lot of time.
Tom: Talk me through kind of how much time you reckon that takes to kind of train somebody up. Do you micromanage? I’m curious like if the . . .
Ross: No, not at all. It’s more of just, yeah, at the beginning stages, hopefully, that’s why I definitely look for someone that’s a 1A when I am hiring a team,
Ross: It’s never I want to hire just an intern up front. Like, sometimes there is going to be that bigger cost of that first SEO. Ideally, a lot of SEO teams are built on interns and stuff like that, because it’s low cost for efficiency. But if you bring in a 1A that you can trust, and definitely, yes, it is time intensive at first, but I find you want them to have all the skills, and it is worth it upfront to sometimes . . . .
Tom: You mentioned this kind of concept of valuing a link.
Tom: So that’s some kind of a test they have to pass. It’s like, can this guy value a link properly or not? Talk me through how you might evaluate that.
Ross: One way, good way to do things is like we’ll get a giant link list of emails or just of URLs. We’ll say, just sent general link begging emails to these people. You can tell just based on who they email and etc. whether they can tell . . . one part is the weight of the link, how much power is it going to pass. Another part is are they going to link to us? So that’s an important dichotomy that they have to interrelate.
Ross: So going through that process, looking through all those websites, it gives you a gauge of do they have the knowledge to determine what’s a good link, what’s spammy, what’s super strong, will never link to us. Through that process of looking at tons of websites and they’ll send you links, or you can just see their email gathering list, and you’ll say, this is bad, this is bad, this is bad, XY why that is, etc.
Tom: Yeah. Well, that’s really interesting. I think more generally like I’ve done a lot of SEO training. Kind of all kinds. I think the one thing that is universal across any kind of training is that feedback loop that you mentioned. Even if it is just for a very small subset of the kind of work they’ve been doing. So let’s say they’ve done like ten campaigns or ten reports or whatever, just focus down on one or two and just go through them in real detail. I think giving that feedback on every report, so this is okay, but you could have done it like this. . . .
Tom: Or why did you do it this way? Couldn’t you have done it a better way this way?
Ross: Yeah, exactly.
Tom: Or wouldn’t it have been quicker to do it this way? I find that just that small bit of feedback, that’s how people learn. When people say that you learn by doing, it’s true to a certain extent. But it’s almost like self-teaching, learning by doing, because you have to learn your own mistakes and do it the hard way. But if you have somebody else to go over the stuff with you, that’s much more effective.
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Tom: So, I think that’s really important.
Ross: One good management tactic I have used in the past is when you’re explaining something to someone, you say at the end, "What do you think?" Like, "Does that make sense?"
Ross: So you want that positive feedback. Let them reiterate what you just said back to them, because sometimes there can be this curse of knowledge that you think they know everything you know, they are going to great it easily. That’s not the case. So you have them quickly reiterate at the end of every little explanation. What do you think? It’s a good way to make sure that they actually have takeaways from these kinds of things.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I have actually found something very similar, which is if somebody comes to you with a problem, don’t necessarily solve it straightaway. Even if you know the answer, I find it useful sometimes to say, "Well, what do you think might be the right answer?" I get them to think it through a little bit, and then it’s like you kind of lead them in the right direction. But that makes them understand it a lot better. It’s almost the difference between reading a page of notes or writing your own page of notes. It’s like if you write, if you physically go through all the steps, you’re going to remember it and take it in much better.
Ross: Yeah. It’s like looking at all the answers in the back of the book, basically. Right?
Tom: Exactly, yeah.
Ross: No one ever learns anything from that really. No.
Tom: No. I mean, you pass the test.
Ross: Right. You should get more points for just working on it, rather than looking at the odd answers. Right? So yeah.
Tom: Absolutely. So let’s move on because we’re short on time. But efficiency and cost control. So I think this is a really interesting problem to kind of solve. We talk in SEO a lot about raw SEO, but we never talk about the business side of it. If you have a team of link builders, somebody is paying for those people. Somebody is paying their salaries. At the end of the day that’s measured against some kind of cost, some kind of revenues coming in. What are the kind of things that we can do to improve efficiency and cost control?
Ross: One thing I think is building the value of your business. I know for Distilled you guys do a great job of this. You’re a big brand name. So you can bring in people and based on the recognition of working with you or another big brand if it’s in eBay, Amazon, etc., they can command a lower salary. They can build out a bigger team based on people want to work for that company whether or not they’re paid a lot and because it gives them a lot of benefit. It’s not like you’re ripping them off or anything. It is because you have a lot of value to offer them, and it is going to save you money as well. So that building up your personal brand, your business’ brand, is a great way to save money in the long run, rather than being under the radar because it is hard to get good people.
Ross: It is hard to get cost efficient people.
Tom: There are some really cheap perks that you can offer as well. It’s like we run conferences. So sending our staff to conferences is very cheap for us.
Tom: But it has big value to the employees.
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Tom: I hope there are no Distilled employees listening, You didn’t hear that. We love you guys.
Ross: So there are other things like some people like outsourcing stuff to India, etc., using Mechanical Turk, those kinds of things.
Tom: Does that work for you? Have you tried that?
Ross: For gathering emails, it’s okay.
Ross: I have actually heard people have used developing. I haven’t actually done that myself yet. But it is something that is interesting having developers actually work for you in India or abroad. I don’t’ know. Have you tried that before?
Tom: Not outsourcing development per se. We do outsource a lot of content creation at Distilled, so we have a kind of a network of very trusted freelance writers. So it is not like we are outsourcing it to India or anything. We typically have met them. We typically have actually worked directly with them in the past. But those people are almost employees, I guess, but on a contract basis. That allows our consultants to not spend time actually writing content too much.
Ross: Right. It’s definitely time intensive.
Tom: Absolutely. Writers are good at it. That’s their job.
Ross: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Tom: You can’t necessarily expect SEOs to know how to create content just because they know SEO.
Ross: Right. Yeah, exactly. Everyone has their dynamic skill set.
Tom: Absolutely. So those are two of the ways that we have approached efficiency is outsourcing the bits that you can outsource. Content creation is something that we found can work okay, as long as it’s to good people. We haven’t found outsourcing outreach.
Tom: I think that never works. Like, outreach is just such a creative . . .
Ross: Yeah, it’s too creative. Right.
Tom: You need to keep tight control on it. You look at someone like Justin doing outreach. You can’t outsource that.
Ross: Yeah, exactly. You can’t put hustle and get someone on Mechanical Turk to hustle for you.
Tom: Exactly, yeah. There is a great phrase we use within Distilled, where we say, "You can’t outsource giving a shit."
Ross: Yeah, that’s true.
Tom: Which is true. When you are in-house or in an agency, it’s like you really want to succeed. You want to build up. But when you try to outsource it, it is a paycheck.
Ross: Exactly. You’re connected to that brand, that job, that business. It’s part of you. It’s a paycheck they’re trying to make.
Tom: So that’s one of the ways that we’ve done efficiency and cost control. The other way is kind of processes. So trying to build internal tools that save time. So, for example, we built a tool internally that does a whole bunch, like a bulk lookup on the SEOmoz API. So if you’ve got a list of 200 URLs, you can plug them into the spreadsheet and get all the metrics back straightaway. So it’s like that kind of thing can just incrementally save all your guys time.
Tom: It’s like you think about how many times you have to query, go into Open Site Explorer and stuff.
Ross: Oh, it’s huge.
Tom: You can just save time doing that.
Ross: Yeah, for sure.
Tom: So little things like that, and then there’s a whole bunch of other tools, like keyword research and all that kind of stuff.
Ross: Right. Building that proprietary. I mean, keeping your ear to the floor too. There are a lot of people doing great things in the tool world. Obviously SEOmoz, Raven, all these people put out great things that dramatically cut time for people, and if you’re not taking advantage of them, you’re wasting money and time and scalability.
Ross: Yeah, that is cool.
Tom: I’ll link to it in the blog post. Cool. So we have kind of gone through this idea. You’ve hired some link builders, you’re trained them up. We’ve looked at cost control and making them efficient. But hiring, like scaling people isn’t the only way of scaling link building.
Tom: What are some of the other ways we can scale link building?
Ross: One thing is you’re going to start as a link builder. You’re going to have likely no network at all. Over time, you’re going to develop a long list of people who have linked to you. One thing I like to do – I call it the black book for SEOs – is just put in all the contacts, what the vertical was, who you emailed it from, etc., and you have this laundry list of people that you developed relationships with, what vertical it is, what asset you used to get that link. You can reflect back on that and that can develop to be a massive list over time, and that can save you a lot of time for sure.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. At heart, link building is about relationships. So, don’t just start a list of links, start a list of relationships. We do exactly the same thing at Distilled.
Ross: Yeah, it’s huge definitely.
Tom: Then some of the other ways I think you can scale this are by trying to actually develop partnerships with people. So it’s like, for example, we’ve written some guest blogs for media publications and online magazines and online newspapers, those kinds of things. They’re time intensive. They’re hard to get. They give you a great link at the end of it. But then you can actually scale it up and take them out for lunch or take them out for coffee and be like, "Hey, we have a whole bunch of content we can create. We can save you a whole bunch of time. Why don’t we write a guest column? Or why don’t we get featured weekly in some kind of feature or something?" Trying to kind of entrench that relationship. Kind of go from that kind of one-off relationship of one piece of content to we’re sending something every week or we’ll help you out any time you need some data or whatever it might be.
Tom: You can scale that up, not in a way of scaling more people that you know, but scaling the benefit you get from that one relationship is a great way of doing it.
Ross: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. I think in general and expounding upon the relationship thing is the problem with that general link list is that they’re in a lot of niches that can only help you with one website. Maybe you will never get back to it for five year. But if you find those super high quality, maybe general newspaper type contacts, etc., in the media, those can be diversified, use them in a lot of different websites in a different way if you are creative and use that relationship intelligently. So that sounds like exactly what you guys are doing.
Tom: Absolutely, yeah. There are a whole bunch of other ways you can do it as well. We’re kind of developing these partnerships, almost link building at a kind of business-to-business level almost. It can be really valuable. We’ve worked with some companies where you develop a widget, and then you give that widget to a partner website and suddenly it is on every page of their site. Not always necessarily a good thing.
Tom: But you start to scale up the kind of benefit you are getting from that stuff.
Ross: Right, definitely.
Tom: That can really help. Some of the stuff you can do in return is sometimes pretty easy for you. Like SEOmoz, for example, I know we’ve developed a few partnerships where they get benefit back, whether it is driving conversions or whether it is driving links, and in return give away like either cheap or free access to their API. That doesn’t cost them anything too much. It costs them in their back-end resources.
But that kind of thing is a great way of using the assets you have as a company rather than as an individual to leverage that kind of business-to-business relationship.
Ross: Right. Yeah. You could do it from the personal side as well. Your SEO skills are so valuable, rarely does a contact you are going to make have that SEO skill and everyone, SEO is growing, there is more and more investment in it. So people are looking for that and definitely if you have high level SEO skill and a lot of people are going to charge into the five digits for a side audit, maybe more sometimes, when you can just give free advice, they’ll love you for that and favors will come back in droves basically.
Tom: I am a huge fan of that kind of karma.
Tom: Do something nice for somebody when you’re not asking for anything in return, but that will come back to you in time. You see Rand. Right? Rand is like the most giving person you have ever met.
Ross: Right. Yeah.
Tom: Anyone can email him. Sorry, Rand, you’re going to get all kinds of email now.
Ross: A lot of apologies here.
Tom: People grab him at conferences. People grab him in the SEOmoz comments. Randall always takes time to help people, be kind to people. Then you see that come back. It’s like Rand can pick up the phone and be like, oh hey, whether it is an entrepreneur or a business owner or a VC or somebody from the SEOmoz community. It’s like, "Oh hey, I was wondering if I could do this, or if you could do me a favor."
Tom: That stuff just comes around.
Ross: It’s easy. Right. Yeah.
Tom: It’s a nice thing to do as well.
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Tom: For a nice person.
Ross: Yeah, exactly. I agree with you totally.
Tom: Hopefully that was some interesting tips on how to scale link building. It is a difficult challenge. I’d love to know what you guys think in the comments. Let us know any tips you have for scaling teams or anything we missed. So thank you very much, Ross, for coming on.
Ross: Thank you, Tom.
Tom: Talk to you soon.