Links and link building immediately spring to mind when most people hear "SEO". Do links still carry weight in current search engine ranking? And what's the proper way to go about getting them?
Our guest expert Adam Trainor discusses the role of links in today's SEO - what they are, why Google looks for them, and the dos and don'ts of effective link building.
A lot of people actually think SEO equals link building. In this SuperFastBusiness episode, you’ll discover that’s not the case. Link building does have a part to play in SEO, however. And done right, it can greatly impact your ranking. Our guest expert Adam Trainor is here to enlighten us.
The role of link building in 2021
Links, says Adam, are the number two ranking element in SEO, after content and what’s on your website. So all other things being equal, links are still the differentiating factor.
Just so things are clear, we’re talking about someone on a website linking with a hyperlink to someone else’s website. A lot of things will come into play there – what words do they link? What page are they pointing to? Where on the website is the link placed? What kind of website is it? Is it a similar category? Is it authoritative? Is it the footer link in a spam forum?
It’s very tempting, says James, when people first discover SEO, to think they can just go buy links on Fiverr, or send out emails asking people to link to them. That’s the second thing they do, he says, after the first thing, which is, what if I just put the keyword all over my page in white text on a white page?
Adam debunks the effectiveness of such tactics by stressing Google’s main goal – to ultimately serve the most relevant possible results for any given query. They want you to be able to type in a search, and with minimal clicks get the best, most relevant answer to your question.
This achieves a great user experience, which gives Google a platform to sell ads on.
Google is currently doing a lot of work on their algorithm, their AI, to be able to read everything on the internet and understand what it’s talking about, and thus serve the best results. But until that’s perfected, Google largely determines what deserves to rank – what is authoritative, what is relevant – through backlinks.
There are a lot of different ways to build links, and Google is getting much better at understanding what different types look like, where they come from, which deserve consideration and which don’t.
One of the advantages now as an SEO is that Google doesn’t currently penalize sites that have links built to them. Rather, it devalues those links. So link building, says Adam, is in some ways less risky, but it’s harder work to get the right kind of links. What Google is still really looking for is authoritative, highly relevant links, which you can’t get on Fiverr.
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. So when you think about getting a link back to your website, there’s a lot to consider. Is this from an authoritative website? Is this website trustworthy in the eyes of Google? Is this going to be a dofollow link? There’s a lot we could talk about in terms of different types of links.
A closer look at guest posting
In Adam’s line of work, they focus mostly on guest posting, for a couple of reasons.
One is that guest posting done right through natural outreach is actually how Google tells you to build links. They frown on guest posting and paid guest posts, but actual outreach and connecting with other websites and having those websites say, Yes, this is important content, I want to recognize it, is technically what they’re looking for.
The other reason is that, from the perspective of Adam’s agency OutreachMama, it’s a process that they can make scalable while still maintaining organic, white hat principles, whereas many other link building tactics are hard to execute at scale in a way that’s actually natural.
James is reminded of the unnatural offers he gets every day – people selling 10,000 Instagram followers, for instance. Cheap wins with no traction. He appreciates that Adam’s company have had to devise a means of high-quality output.
At this point, he puts in that Adam has an offer, just for this audience. If they click over to outreachmama.com and use the coupon code “James”, they get 10 percent off their entire first order of links. Best to mention it now, he says, than at the end of the show when people might have already bought.
Do it yourself versus the agency route
Inevitably, some business owners will think they’d rather do their SEO themselves. What are the pros and cons as opposed to hiring an agency like Adam’s?
It’s a great question, says Adam. Obviously if someone were to recreate their agency’s processes on their own, they could acquire a single link at less cost than OutreachMama could get for them, without the overhead.
“One link is unlikely to move the needle on anything.”
That said, one link is unlikely to move the needle on anything. Often it could be dozens, hundreds of links before you even start ranking for your target keywords. And so this is often a long-term strategy.
Doing link building tactics on your own is going to take up a good chunk of your time, and your money, meaning it’s not necessarily that much cheaper to do it yourself.
Then, it’s not necessarily that easy to acquire links. And there’s the matter of understanding how to use them. SEO is just one tactic, says Adam. There’s a lot of different ways to get traffic. So you have to ask yourself, Is this even the right tactic for me?
If you want to rank for some super competitive keyword, SEO may not be the right approach for you. You have to start by looking at the SERPs and seeing how Google’s treating that keyword.
“Think like you’re one of your customers.”
Before you do anything else, Adam recommends you think like you’re one of your customers. Start googling for search terms you’d think to use if you were trying to find you. Then see what Google ranking shows you. There’s a lot you can learn from the search results without even using any tools.
One of the first questions you can ask yourself is, does Google think that I’m looking for a product or a service? Adam has seen some large companies that compete on very high volume keywords that they’re not going to rank for because they’re selling a service, and Google thinks people are looking for a product. So it doesn’t matter how authoritative your website is.
Sometimes links aren’t even the answer. If you don’t understand that kind of basic foundation, you could be wasting time and money and not even know it. Consider, what is Google looking to provide? Are there a ton of ads?
Suppose you look at a search result, and there’s a row of shopping ads, a row of search ads, maybe a map pack, maybe another row at the bottom. If there’s only four or five actual organic results there, and it’s a very competitive keyword, how hard is it going to be to rank for those? Does it even make sense for you to use your budget that way? How long is it going to take you to accomplish that?
You also have to take into account anchor text. Google uses anchor text as a way to determine what search results the page that you’re linking to is relevant for. Gone are the days when you could own a keyword by sending dozens of links with the exact match text to your target page.
Now, says Adam, you have to really understand how to use anchor text. You have to understand how to analyze what anchor text is currently working, and look at what the competition is doing. And if you’re talking hundreds or thousands of links, then we talk about anchor text ratios, and what percentage of anchor texts should match your keyword. How many synonyms should they have? How many kind of naked or brand anchors?
And getting super geeky, what matters most right now is relevance, topical relevance. And so what they focus really highly on is making sure that the website that they’re reaching out to is very relevant to either your industry or the topic you’re trying to rank for.
Even more granularly than that, does the article you’re writing make sense? Is it relevant to the page you’re linking to? Do the h1 tags, h2 tags you’re using make sense? Does the language around the anchor text you’re using make sense?
It’s your choice, as a solopreneur, Adam says. Do you want to invest the time and resources in becoming an expert in this domain, which can have huge dividends? Is it worth taking on a second career on top of whatever it is you’re trying to do every day? Oftentimes, the answer is no.
How hands on – or hands off – do you want it?
When it comes to figuring out what type of link or where to get them or how many and where to allocate budget, does Adam’s team help with that, or do they just fulfill?
It can be as hands off, or as hands on as you want it to be, says Adam.
For instance, someone like James probably has a great idea of exactly what he needs to do to rank with his product. So he could tell Adam what his website is, and Adam can provide a menu of sites with which they’ve worked previously, that they think are relevant to James’s niche, and let him choose from that preexisting menu.
Or they could conduct a custom outreach campaign, where they will prospect an enormous list of sites that are hyper relevant to whatever website they’re trying to rank, and then they’ll conduct manual outreach campaigns.
And because they have really good systems, they know what their close rates are and can guarantee a very narrow range of monthly links at a given budget. And so in James’s case, he just gives them the website and tells them the target page and the anchors he want them to use, and they do the rest.
If it was someone who wanted to rank their business but didn’t know where to start, often the first step would be a strategy call with Adam, where he would break down their website for them and help them decide whether SEO is the best approach, if it makes sense. And if so, where do they start? They would map out the entire strategy for them, and it would be completely hands off for the client. So it’s really whatever you’re looking for.
How running a team differs from going solo
Adam has experienced both working alone and having a team. The difference? As a solopreneur, you’re running the whole business. And even with a small team, oftentimes, he would have complete control over what happens when it happens, how it happens, which is both a blessing and a curse.
“Usually the reason you’re a solopreneur is because your constraints are money.”
Usually the reason you’re a solopreneur is money constraints. And so you’re putting in a lot of sweat equity, because you have time. What you really need to prioritize then is, what is the 80:20 of the things that are really going to move the needle? Because there’s a lot of things that you can be distracted by, and you’d like to spend time on, that aren’t actually moving the bottom line.
When you get to the point where you’re managing a small team, or even where you’re managing a large team (though it’s a much bigger jump to a team of 10, 15 people than just have a couple of VAs), the job really becomes a lot more about management. The biggest part of it is learning how to communicate, how to set expectations.
As an executive, says Adam, your job really is to come up with a strategic vision for the organization, and then really be able to articulate that vision clearly, and then get buy-in from your team to execute it.
It’s how do you find the right people, ideally people better than you, at the things you need done, that you can put into positions, tell them what you want them to accomplish, and then empower them to succeed. It’s a completely different framework, a completely different mindset.
That puts James in mind of a recent episode with SEOLeverage‘s Gert Mellak, talking about the perfect dream team for an SEO crew – the kind of roles you’d want if you were trying to do it in house. They still recommended getting help with the link building.
Common issues and their fixes
What are Adam’s favorite problems to fix?
Something that always strikes him is even very successful businesses are often leaving money on the table. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit that are hard to see if you’re too much in the weeds of what’s going on.
The first, he says, is that you would be shocked how many businesses don’t have really good tracking in place. They don’t really understand where their leads are coming from, which channels are working, and at what rates they’re converting.
Until you understand where customers are coming in, which are your successful avenues in acquiring them, and at what rates they convert, it’s really hard to understand, what leverage to pull, and what traffic channels make no sense to go after. So that’s a big one, says Adam.
It doesn’t shock James. People trying to run ads on Facebook, without any tracking in place, blows his mind.
That’s what he actually liked about search engine marketing in the beginning. It’s an easy recognition machine. If you’re ranking, you can see it there, in black and white. Google says, job well done. And then you see if you can keep doing that with more and more pages or more and more websites. Without tracking, you’re basically wasting your time.
And your money, says Adam.
Another one, he says, is if you’re in a situation where you don’t have a team or don’t have the position you need, you can ask a lot of people, get out and network. Find people who have skill sets that are different than you, and ask them for their advice. Not necessarily asking someone to do something for free. It can just very often be that someone with a fresh set of eyes looking at the same problem is able to articulate solutions that you couldn’t even imagine.
That’s one of the advantages of having a team with diverse viewpoints and different capabilities. But build your personal network. The biggest thing Adam’s seen about people who are really successful and are able to level up effectively is they build really large, effective personal networks. They have friends that they can tap and get input, feedback, advice anytime they need it. Adam thinks that makes a real difference.
That describes SuperFastBusiness, says James. It’s easy to look at someone else’s stuff and find the errors; when we’re in it, it’s almost impossible. And the community they have at SuperFastBusiness membership is very much a collective from all around the world of people with different strengths and skill sets. And that’s step one for network.
Why face-to-face is still a powerful tool
James will say this, and he’s interested in Adam’s point of view: when you have an online business, a digital world is very tempting to dwell in. He feels he got his absolute biggest leverage by going offline, by traveling and going to conferences, exposing himself to new environments and perspectives. And it’s going to be more difficult at the moment, but when it is possible, he thinks the face-to-face connections are going to be even more powerful.
Has Adam used some of that in-person interaction himself versus just virtual?
Absolutely. Adam thinks both are valuable. He thinks the first thing is, anything works if you do it.
Get out; meet people online. Adam has never actually met his current boss in person. They’ve been friends for 10 years, but it’s a completely virtual friendship. Other businesses he’s worked for, all the success came from exactly what James is saying, going to conferences, speaking, engaging with people. So everything works. It’s context-dependent.
How to get a website to publish someone’s links
James is curious: what motivates a website to publish content with a link to someone else’s site?
“The best thing to do is to give value before you ask.”
It depends on the website, says Adam. What they’ve found, though – and it sounds very cliche, but – really the best thing to do is to give before you ask.
The way that they stand out in people’s inbox is, because they’re acquiring so many links all the time, they are often able to offer a link. And so they’ll reach out and perhaps offer a link, another property that they’ve got a link from, in exchange for just building relationship. It’s just something to say, Hey, we really like what you’re doing, we want to support you, and build a relationship before asking for anything.
Outreach is like dating, says Adam. You’d never walk up to someone on the street and say, like, Hey, let’s get married, right? You’d be insane. You wouldn’t even do that on the first date, or the second date. You’d take some time to get to know them, chat them up, take some time to get them to know, like and trust you. It’s just like any other relationship. So the long version of that answer is they build real relationships with people. And that makes them more than happy to help them.
What surprises Adam most about his field
To finish up, what is the thing that has changed Adam’s perspective on his industry, or link building?
Adam has two answers. One is related to the industry, which is that there is a lot of garbage out there. OutreachMama is not the only good vendor out there, but there’s a lot of crap, he says. Buyer beware. And for that reason, he became very cynical about the SEO industry.
“There are exceptions to every single rule.”
In terms of Google, what surprised him is that, every day, he encounters real life examples that make him think everything he knows is wrong. So what’s really important to understand about everything he’s said, anything every SEO ever tells you, is that there are no rules. There are exceptions to every single rule. And at best, what they’re giving are guidelines.
It’s what they think Google is looking for, based on years of experience and a lot of trial and error. But there are exceptions to everything. And every day, Adam sees websites that shouldn’t be ranking that are, and websites that aren’t ranking that should. So take everything with a grain of salt, and don’t be afraid to test and experiment.
Such great advice, says James. He can speak to both of those points from his own experience owning an SEO business.
If you want help from Adam, look him up at outreachmama.com.
Access world-class business expertise inside SuperFastBusiness membership
Liked the episode? Leave us a review on iTunes