James Reynolds is the founder of Veravo, which consists of three search engine marketing agencies: SEO Sherpa, SEO Partner, and Click Jam. He is also the host of the Traffic Jam Podcast. James is fanatical about all things search, social, and content on the web, from his blog, to Twitter and LinkedIn. He is a contributor to several leading publications, including Entrepreneur Magazine, and mentors startup companies in his free time. Today, we are going to be talking about link building done right.
Dr: This topic comes at the right time for me to start talking with somebody like you to clarify some things. I’m excited to dig into all of this, and from looking into everything that you’ve accomplished, and currently do, I think you’re the right person to talk to.
JR: Let’s hope so. Let’s do it.
Dr: Before we get into examples of how to accomplish getting links built, can you just generally talk about the importance of links? Some people say they’re on board, and you have other people kind of downplay them, but we all know they’re important at the end of the day, so can you kind of dig into that a little bit?
JR: Absolutely. I think the importance is played down a little bit, but let’s not make any mistake. Links are the primary ranking factor that Google use to understand the authority and the relevance of a web page in relation to any particular topic. In effect, what Google is doing with links and how they monitor them is considering links as votes, so any third-party website linking to your own is seen by Google as a vote in their eyes, and generally speaking, the more links that you have to your web page, the higher that page will rank in Google. Now, whilst Google doesn’t actually publish this anywhere, they have mentioned it a few times sort of in passing, and then there have been a whole bunch of studies as well that have really correlated the number of links to a particular website with its ranking in the search results, and I think most recently a few of those have been a really great study by Stone Temple Consulting, and there really is pretty much a direct correlation between the number of links to a web page, and its ranking within Google.
Dr: Thanks for clearing that up, because I know there’s a lot of other ranking factors-
- How many pages people visit
- How long
- The dwell time
- How long they stay on the site
I think Google is downplaying them to kind of get rid of some of the ill-advised practices that were going on. That’s just kind of my guess; you’ve always got to try to read between the lines of why and what Google is doing. That kind of leads to my next question about some confusion about the importance of links. It is the deal with a black hat and a white hat way of accomplishing getting links, not to mention all the Google updates that are happening, seemingly every day. I know that’s a bit of an overstatement, but often they are. So, can you please talk about what used to be done that should not be practiced any longer?
JR: Literally, anything that is automated, self built, or paid for, should generally be avoided. And this all comes out of the industry that was born out of Google’s reliance on links to measure a site and a page’s authority. Of course, marketers got very smart to the fact that this was what Google was measuring as their primary ranking factor, and they found ways to build links en masse, perhaps in a fashion that Google didn’t intend the analysis of a link to be in the first place. They generally wanted to measure, if someone places an editorial link from their site to a third-party site, they are essentially endorsing that piece of content that they’re linking to, and that should be seen as a ranking factor. But of course, then, with all these people then trying to trick the system, building links that weren’t genuinely placed, using automation, using tools, etc., Google over time got pretty smart to those tactics, and really nowadays anything like that doesn’t work. You have to be able to acquire links in a genuine fashion, and that’s really going to come down to having great content that people want to link to, and then finding a way to market that content to get it in front of the eyes of those people that generally do link out to relevant content.
I think if you want to cover some of the things that really should be avoided, one would be blog networks – that was a real hot link building tactic in years gone by, and in those days when you could use blog networks, it was literally a case of creating a bit of content, uploading it to a blog network automation system, that system would then kind of spin the content into multiple formats, and it would be blasted out to thousands of sites all with links pointing back to your own domain. Obviously, Google knows that links built in that fashion are not genuine, so they really cut down on that. Other things, like mass form submissions, and definitely anything that involves any payment for links you should absolutely avoid, because all of those things are against Google’s Terms and Conditions.
Dr: I see that offer all the time, the form submission one, and six, seven years ago I might have bitten. So, those are the kinds of things that we need to tell people to stay away from. If you have a company that comes to you and mentions blasting out to thousands of forms, or blog networks, or even the companies that come and say, ‘We can improve your SEO by building your links,’ without mentioning anything about a content plan or anything, those are the key indicators for kind of a lay person that’s not super technical, that we can have them raise some eyebrows and say, ‘No, this is not the way to go.’ Is that what I’m hearing?
JR: Absolutely. And you’ve got to genuinely earn your place at the top of the SERPs (search engine results page) now. You can’t trick your way, or fool your way up the rankings if you don’t genuinely deserve to be placed there. So, you do have to take a step back a little bit, and focus on content, focus on user experience, create something that genuinely deserves to be placed number one in the SERPs for a particular keyword search that matches the content if you want to appear there. Once you’ve got that in place, then embark on link building, because that’s what will move the needle up the search results.
Dr: Awesome. What should be considered here to make sure everything is setup correctly on your website before you go into your link building efforts?
JR: I think the first thing would be all the technical stuff. You certainly want to make sure that Google can actually crawl your website before you embark on link building. If they can’t crawl the site, analyze the content, and detect all of those signals, then of course link building is not going to make a difference. So, looking over the technical components, making sure there’s no crawl errors, making sure the site is actually indexed, you should certainly do all of those things in advance. Then moving on from that would be covering off the user experience. This is something that Google is super interested in. They want to make sure, of course, that if they send any traffic off to a website, that the user is going to meet a really good experience when they arrive at that site, and some of the primary things that to look at now would of course be the user experience on mobile devices, mobiles, tablets. You know the virtual device, so much of internet usage is moving that way, search habits are certainly moving that way. You want to make sure that your site is working across all devices that people would access it on, and then from there, you want to make sure that you’ve actually got genuinely good, relevant content, that’s going to give a quality answer to the queries that you actually want to rank for.
Dr: I believe you can go to just the Google Webmaster Tools, and that will help with making sure your sitemap and everything is setup correctly. Is there anywhere else you can point people to, to make sure everything you mentioned is setup correctly?
JR: There are external third party tools that are great for site analysis. Some of our favorites are
- Moz, which is a very user-friendly interface, and ideal for someone who’s not that technical. It will point off all the areas there.
- Onpage- A current favorite, if you’re a bit more of an avid SEO, is a tool called onpage.org. It’s really fantastic. It’s a bit more for the advanced user, but that will point out all of the technical issues, and then just generally for site experience, I would certainly encourage people to put their website through the Google mobile-friendly test to see if it passes Google’s mobile guidelines, and also, to do a speed test.
- Google’s Page Speed Test– Not something we mentioned just then, but actually how quickly your site loads is a very important factor that relates to user experience, and you’ll see how Google grades your site, and also offer you some fixes that you can pass on to your developer for improving site speed.
Dr: Awesome. Moving on to the value of links, I believe all links are not the same. So, can you explain how search engines assign value to links?
JR: Essentially, they use a variety of factors, both to determine how valuable a link is in terms of the authority it should pass, and also the strength of signal that it passes in relation to a particular page ranking for a certain keyword.
- So, the first thing that they would look at is the authority of the website linking to your web page, and Google will evaluate the overall authority of a site, and it’ll also evaluate the overall authority of the page linking to your website, and that’s influenced in turn by the amount of links and quality of links that that website has linking to its own site, and its own page. Now, if we use as a simple example a link from let’s say the Wall Street Journal, or bb.co.uk, very established, well-known websites, they would pass a lot more authority than a link from Mama Jones’s cookery blog, for instance. They’re much more established, trustworthy sites, that in turn can pass more of that trust, more that authority to your site when they link through to you.
- The second one is the actual relevancy of the link. So, if you have a cookery website, if you are being linked to from other cookery websites, that is going to have more value to you than if you get links from an automotive website, because it’s on topic, and it’s relevant.
Dr: That’s a great point. Logically, everybody could know nothing about this, but they could understand that if they get linked to from nytimes.com, that’s a great deal, right? But, the second thing you mentioned is something that I don’t think most people understand, and that’s relevancy. As we get going here, it sounds like a good strategy is if you are going towards link building, and you’re just getting going, and it’s to get the attention of these awesome, huge sites, go with relevancy.
JR: And if we think really about what Google is trying to determine, they want to understand the authority of a particular website within a particular industry, and if that website is being mentioned and linked to consecutively, many, many times over by other established, trustworthy websites within that space, then it sends a very strong signal to Google that, ‘Hey, this website too is an authority, they’re trustworthy, they are endorsed by other people within that industry,’ so it will send very strong signals to them. So yes, super important. There are a few other things that might affect the value of links. One is just kind of a technical thing, this idea or concept called ‘no follow’ and ‘do follow’ links, and that’s basically controlled by the linking website, and the linking website effectively can choose to pass authority and endorse the page they’re linking to, or they can choose not to endorse, and pass no authority to the page that they link to.
Also, the placement of the link on the site – again, links within editorial content are going to pass more value than let’s say a link hidden away in the footer or sidebar of a website. If it’s in with the content, Google is going to value that a bit more, and another factor they look at is actually what the text in the link says. This is known as an anchor text, and what that text says will also give greater or lesser degrees of strength in terms of the signal that’s passed.
Dr: Let’s talk about getting outside links. I know there’s probably a few best practices, probably a handful of your favorite ways of going about it. So, I’d like for you to really dig in here and just talk about some of the best ways to accomplish getting some links.
JR: There are a ton of options. I think probably the best place to start would be a link building strategy that’s often referred to as ‘link reclamation‘, and that’s literally finding opportunities where third party websites are already mentioning your brand, or referring to your content, but haven’t linked to your website, and then going out and contacting them, and then asking them to add a link back to your web property. And that’s a super easy win, there’s a bunch of tools that will allow you to identify those places, and then it’s just a matter of using some good old fashioned email outreach to contact those website owners, and then get them to actually link through to your site.
Dr: What are those tools?
JR: Probably the best ones would be Moz – we mentioned them already. They’ve actually got a tool that’s built for this, so it will go out and look for mentions of your brand name that haven’t included a link, and then they’ll give you a list of those. Ahrefs is another good tool for this. They have a nice alert system where you can put in your brand name, or other keywords that you want to get notified about, and any time a piece of content is posted, they will let you know, and you can go then and check whether any links have been placed. The third one is Mention, it’s a tool that I quite like. It monitors social shares as well as links, and will again notify you any time that someone mentions your brand.
JR: The next ones would fall in a kind of a loose topic that I would refer to as self-managed link building. These types of links perhaps don’t pass as much value as genuine editorial links that appear without you having to actually go out and find them, but they are more easily built. So, in terms of how self-managed link building is done, that’s essentially where you typically create the link, or were involved in creating it. One classic example of this would be guest blogging. If you can identify really good, high authority websites in your market that would accept guest post contributions, you can then produce a piece of content for that site, and you will typically have the payoff of either being able to link through to your own property, maybe once or so within the content based on editorial guidelines, or at least you’ll get a link from your author bio that might appear below the post itself.
You have almost entire control over the links that are placed, and where they’re placed, you can even control the anchor text that’s being used in those posts.
Dr: Let’s dig into this more. Blogger outreach is something I believe has the most opportunity for people. I would love to talk about some best practices, some best tools to use, and how to find them.
JR: So, I guess some ideas on guest blogging, especially if you’re starting out with it, would be to start at a level if you like, of a site that you can relatively easily access. Sure, the biggest opportunities might be on forbes.com, but it’s unlikely that if you’re new to this, and you’ve not done a lot of writing in the past, that you would get your content accepted there. So, it’s good to get a bit of a ramp up on this. If you’re a local business, it would be great to start with even more localized websites. Perhaps there are industry specific sites, or locally specific websites that accept guest contributions, and you can reach out to those by contacting the editor, and get your content in front of them. Now, it might sound a bit daunting, but it’s actually easier than you might think, because typically most editors or content producers are lacking most in content, and they’re really looking out for good stuff to post to their website. So, if you can come in and be the industry expert on whatever it is that you do really well, and provide great content on that specialized topic, and it’s relevant to the website, then you will find that as long as your content’s pretty good, there is a strong chance that content will get accepted.
Another thing I would look at, which would be especially relevant for local businesses, would be directory submissions. I’m talking about localized business directories, not the sort of mass directories, the low quality, spammy directories that might get you in trouble for link building. Now, these types of links are probably not going to pass a huge amount of value, but they increase the strength or the reliability of the information that surrounds your business.
Dr: Any other ideas for link building outreach?
JR: I’ll touch briefly on content-driven link building. There’s a bunch of different types of content that you can produce, whether it be really good quality, in-depth, feature rich blog content, or infographic content, video content, whatever it is- if you are in the position to go out and create the very best content in your market, that’s when you’d get the best value. This is like the high yield link building strategies, but they are the high effort ones as well, because you have to put a lot of time into creating really good content, researching it first, and then putting that content out in front of influencers who would then want to maybe feature it on their site, or at least link out to in future posts that they produce.
Dr: Circling back to Google, we’ve got to go where Google goes, right? And where Google has gone, and continues to go, and will continue to go, is rewarding people who are doing it the right way. Sometimes we look at these big platforms, and automatically think that they’re just all in it for the money, and of course they’re in it for the money, anybody who runs a business, part of the reason is in it for the money, but what Google really wants, where they make their hay is a good user experience, and if they didn’t do that, then the Yahoos and the Bings, if they were providing it, would take over.
I only can imagine that they’re going to have completely cracked down on any sort of ill-advised practices. It takes time to kind of get rid of all of it, but I think it’s the current and the future, so it might be hard, but it’s the way to go if you’re going to want to get in line with where Google is moving. Do you see the future going that way with the search engines, and Google in particular?
JR: Absolutely. The engines are getting more and more intelligent, and day by day, week by week, they’re able to identify true signals versus fake signals. So, it really is looping back to what we said at the start.
Dr: Yes, and unless you’re a huge company with a ton of followers, it’s not a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of thing. You’ve got to have your outreach. You’ve got to have your content distribution plan in place.
Dr: What about bad links? Is there such a thing as links that actually hurt you?
JR: Unfortunately, yes. If you do anything like what we described at the start, paying for links, using automation, doing any of these practices that are against Google’s Terms and conditions, you could find yourself in trouble. So, of course it goes without saying that you shouldn’t engage in those practices yourself, but also, there is the possibility that if someone really dislikes you, that they could try and get your site in trouble by implementing a negative SEO strategy. That would include building bad links to your site, as opposed to trying to build good links to their own. And it does happen from time to time – thankfully there’s not too many shady people out there – but I’d certainly advise whether it’s inadvertently that you’ve acquired some dodgy links yourself, or if someone else has built them to your site, you should be in the practice of just keeping an eye on the types of sites that do link to you.
Dr: How can somebody quickly notice which of these are bad links, and get rid of them?
JR: You have to just identify all of the links that are pointing to your site, and use some good sort of general thought to identify the bad ones, and those would be basically any links with the criteria we just described there. You know, mass forum links, low quality places like in forum comments, or in the footer of websites, or sidebars. Probably the best tools to do that would be a couple of those that we mentioned already, Moz has a good backlink analysis tool called Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs is fantastic for identifying all of the linking sites, and also Majestic SEO is very good. In fact, Majestic SEO is quite nice, because it will also categorize the topic of website that is linking to you.
Dr: What about realistic expectations? Somebody’s getting into this, they do it for a month, and think nothing is happening. What kind of a timeframe can somebody expect if they’re starting from scratch, and they’re looking to have this strategy take effect?
JR: This is the classic SEO question, especially if you’re in the agency: “Well, how long is it going to be before I rank number one?” I mean it’s a super tough one to answer, because there are many, many factors at play. I would say if you’ve got a brand-new site, or a very young site, it’s likely that these types of efforts are going to take a little bit longer. Google certainly places more trust in sites that have been online, and established for a longer period of time, and have just gained some natural authority. So, if you’ve got an already established website, and then you implement effective link building, then you’ll probably garner results much more quickly. If your site’s newer, then it’s probably going to take more time. What I would say though specifically around link building, is that there’s been some really good studies on this. The average length of time it takes from when a link is placed, to when ranking changes typically take effect as a result of that link being placed, can be anything between seven to ten weeks on average.
Dr: I didn’t realize that!
JR: It can actually be rather long period. Now, it’s not always the case, because like anything in SEO, no one signal can be viewed in isolation. There’s lots of other factors that then play on an individual signal, but typically it’s going to take that amount of time.
Dr: Well James, I really appreciate you sharing your wisdom, and all of this great information, the tools, the strategy, and everything we’ve talked about. Do you have any parting thoughts before we move on to how people can continue to learn from you?
JR: Go out and do some keyword research, and identify the opportunities that you can get those quicker wins with. It’s all about finding the opportunities that are going to get you the best return for time invested, and that is going to be a gauge of how competitive those keywords are that you’re trying to rank for, how much traffic you can expect to acquire once you do start ranking, and also based on the level of authority your site has now, versus the strength of sites that are ranking. You’ll also get a gauge of how quickly it will be until you can start to appear. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Go after the topics that your market is really interested in, and then use proven formulas that have worked in the past, and just try and improve on those so that you can garner stronger results.
Dr: That’s a great point. You can have original thoughts on a topic that’s not original. I’m glad you touched on that. You are obviously someone that people need to continue to learn from, James. There is a lot to this, and I think it’s a deep, deep topic. How can people continue to learn from you?
JR: The primary place I post content to is our main SEO agency site, which is seosherpa.com. We produce some pretty in-depth content over there. For a general kind of look at everything that we do, we have a new site that will easily navigate people to those places- veravo.com. As a business, we do SEO services for other agencies wholesale. We do SEO direct to end customers, and we also do AdWords management. So, if people need some help on any of those topics, veravo.com would be the place to go.
I started my career as the first full-time employee of a small start-up photography business. Over the next 10 years as General Manager I spearheaded the growth of that business from a five figure, 3 person outfit into a multi-million dollar earning company, with over 50 staff.
My passion is for marketing and in 2010 I started an online marketing agency (websites, social media, email marketing etc) which later evolved into a pure traffic agency (the stuff I really love) with over 50 clients under management.
I have spoken at conferences in the United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain and UAE to name just a few and have appeared alongside notable speakers such as Michael Gerber (E-Myth), Larry Winget, Chris Brogan and Scott Stratten in the successful Guinness World Record attempt for the longest-ever online seminar.
In 2014, I was named Chairman of the Middle East’s first and only search engine marketing conference The Search Exchange.