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Distilled Link Building Seminar 2011 Summary

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 19th March 2011

March 2011 saw the gathering of SEO professionals both black hat and white hat to experience the Distilled link building seminar in London. The conference was an advanced seminar, and this write up will cover top level tactics, so if you are new to link building I wouldn’t advise you follow any of these tips without first learning the basics. Myself and Koozai_Oliver attended the seminar, and we’ve compiled our favourite tips from the day by presentation below:

As a quick spoiler warning, there is an additional seminar taking place in New Orleans that will contain much of this material, so if you are planning on attending that conference I recommend you save yourself for the day.

Wil Reynolds – Pitfalls, Mistakes and Traps for the Unwary
Although Wil was jet lagged, he woke the entire audience up with a presentation that exuded his passion for search and the frankness in which he shared past link building mistakes.

Wil faced many of the problems we all come cross, such as ridiculously weak sites outranking him. He tried to combat this with links from major news outlets, but this caused a ranking drop. In comparison competitors used spammy ‘blogroll’ links, and improved their rankings.

This is systematic of a common problem, that can’t be resolved easily. He reassured the audience that when this happens to us, we shouldn’t then immediately copy the competitor strategy and assume what worked for them will work for us.

In the end he determined to do something different to the competition as a USP and as a result gained traction in this way. His big solution was to give the client product away. He built this up on a standalone website and remarkably even competitors linked to it. When the promotion was over the site was pointed to the main domain and he had links from lots of places.

He advised everyone in attendance to visit their client’s office and look for any spare inventory that can be given away. A unique promotional poster or a free sample can be enough to get a buzz going. In a comment that echoed my own sentiment he said that sometimes he feels more like a PR company than a link building company.

Wil also advised looking at the non spammy things that attract links and then doing them on your own site but better. This doesn’t even need to be the top competitors, a tactics on pages outside the top 100 that attracted links could still be an idea you can improve upon.

A social media element was also involved, as with all the presentations, with a recommendation to friend people in your industry before you need them. So build relationships with industry experts and bloggers before you ask them for a link.  A logical concept that can yield good results.

Jane Copland – Getting Actions From Competitor Research

Jane presented a good overview of link building that was based on analytical data. I always enjoy SEO’s showing their in house tools and am in awe of those who have found inventive ways to string together API’s to provide custom data sets. As Jane focused heavily on taking metrics from competitors it was good to see this in relation to real data.

She added a caveat that you shouldn’t copy a competitor strategy if it seems black hat which tied in with the same comment from Will. Again it was good to see this echoed by another SEO agency. She also advised that you shouldn’t believe any data until you have analysed it heavily, especially the total number of links as this can be wildly influenced by other factors.

What was really interesting was a comment about analysing competitors over time, especially to see when they go back and remove old links. You can see if your competitors know they are doing something wrong, or are being penalised by tracking this.

For great brand links she recommends you write press releases and should remember to write as a third person or it won’t get accepted.

To save time analysing a competitors links you can also try and identify the link networks (e.g. sites all linking to each other) they are in and then filter them out. A link network is likely to have the same coding, link structure, file names or affiliate links so you can rule out a ton of rubbish links by filtering in this way.

One last takeaway is that you shouldn’t just get links from one country. You don’t need UK links to rank on Google UK, and a good spread of links on many domain types is the most natural strategy.

Russ Jones – Where to Get the Old ‘Link Bait on Digg’ effect

It’s fairly safe to say that Russ scared me. Every second he was on stage felt oddly surreal, for Russ is an expert in black hat tactics which compared to the standard industry stance of white hat policies was an interesting mix.

Russ was fantastic on the stage and I think those of us who don’t engage in any black hat activities were still able to get a fascinating insight in to how the other tier do business. In some ways, what Russ does what some would call creative link building, and I certainly found ways to twist his darker tactics in to more pure tactics, which I think was the ultimate goal of his presentation.

A summary of the tactics Russ employs are; buying paid links, paying people to comment on forums, buying votes on social networks, creating fake websites to promote his content and creating content unrelated to his core site and then redirecting it to the real site.

That last item is similar to a white hat recommendation from Will, and if done right it can be a sensible option. As a man who has manipulated social media in ways we could never imagine, the insight we received from Russ was very illuminating (ironic given the dark corners it came from).

He advised you should only use social media sites that offer links or there’s no point. With a decline in visitor numbers on Digg he recommended using Reddit, and putting buttons on your site so people can post it to multiple social networks easily.

I wrote at least 10 other ideas from the presentation, but I’m letting them sit for a while whilst I decide how best to do them in a positive way. That said I certainly wouldn’t want Russ as my competition.

Tom Critchlow – How to Structure a Major Link Building Project

Having just been handed the SEO contract for community site SEOMoz Tom has the unenviable task of optimising for very competitive words in a competitive marketplace. So it was nice to hear him share his ideas for the site, as he gave away their link building roadmap for 2011.

A lot of the presentation was about involving the entire company in the SEO process. An example is telling all employees new terminology you want them to use. This encourages them to use keywords in day to day conversation, and increases the likelihood those terms will become synonymous with your brand.

The next part of the presentation focused on taking existing content and updating it with new versions. If an article from 2005 ranks well, but isn’t getting clicked because of the old date stamp, then update it for 2011 and redirect the page.

Tom then moved on to including the community by using ‘ego bait’. This includes things like re-tweeting people, taking ideas from the community and turning them into content, and promoting users in the community such as by showing them as special users. You can even give them badges and stars. It’s all designed to encourage them to show their profiles to others via a link.

Even with large scale projects, it isn’t advisable to go after every link possible. You still need to strategise the most important places, at each stage of the site development. For example, try taking five places you really want links and focusing heavily on these. This can be more effective than a scattergun approach and gets you the links that are truly important.

Paddy Moogan – Myths and Case Studies of Outreach Success

Two early myths outed in the presentation were that ecommerce sites can’t get links, and that sending emails asking for links with generic subject lines don’t work. In fact all sites can get links, and although they didn’t mean to, they did find sending a general link exchange email did still return links.

Continuing other themes, Paddy stressed the importance of outreach. You need to contact people in the community to spread your content. Time needs to be planned in for this outreach, and even if you get a link with just brand anchor text that is still going to be beneficial. Set goals for each day and month, so you can track your performance on these goals.

If your goals exceed the time you can commit, then you need to outsource things to save time. So automate finding links and the measurement of data where possible. You can also outsource content, which is something Will Critchlow covered in more detail later.

A lot of outreach link building is done once, so emails are sent and you either get a link or you don’t. But Paddy encouraged following up on all link emails, with further contacts. People are busy and forget, so you shouldn’t give up after just one email. People may want to link to you, but are simply unable to do so when they get your first email. As a side note if you want a link from a site and can’t find an email address, then look for the owner on Twitter, Linkedin, or send them a letter to their physical address.

An interesting way to measure the above is to look at the link conversion rate, to see your success rate for different types of links and what percentage are accepted.

For guest blogging Paddy suggested coming up with article ideas and titles then finding people who want them. Don’t write content first as it may be something no one wants.

If I could sum up this presentation it was mainly about humanising the link request process. From the initial email to keeping in contact with people after the link has been added this was all very good advice.

Rand Fishkin – The Future of Link Building

The presentation with the most passion came from Rand Fishkin whom it seemed had finally had enough of Google not being good enough. He stated that Google will either need to fix their problems or they will die out completely. Results at the moment are dominated by rubbish content, which really shouldn’t rank based on traditional means.

He counteracted this by saying that Google will change many of the signals they use. A lot of bad sites have gained rankings by anchor text and exact match domains, this will change. Rand then took a look at the possible additional indicators Google could use, and how we can ensure links are added in these places. There were 30 different examples so here’s a summary:

  • If you get links from social media, then it won’t help if the accounts are poor with low / bad followers.
  • Google may count less link sources in the future, rather than covering every site.
  • Brand signals should help differentiate between spammers.
  • Authentic tweets matter but spam bot ones do not. Google seems to be able to differentiate.
  • Be the most interesting person in your niche.
  • Try to have many sources sending you traffic so you don’t just rely on SEO.
  • A blog alone isn’t enough. Higher quality = higher quantity. Only the people who create the great content will be the ones who stand out.
  • You need to put videos on other places and not just You Tube.
  • Find amazing designers. For a really well designed website that people will talk about and link to.
  • Build robust about us pages. Link to real profiles on other sites.
  • Earn and display testimonials and press mentions.
  • Satisfy the users search query.
  • Buy TV adverts to increase branded search.
  • File patents and get linked to from patent research sites. Fund scholarly research

Not only was it interesting to see Rand get so fired up about this topic, it was also fascinating to see someone with as much experience still be completely frustrated by Google’s algorithm and the unpredictability of it. With a lot of SEO’s pretending everything is ok, all of the time, this was a refreshingly frank talk, that although initially dark in tone, did end with fantastic tips.

Martin Macdonald – Lessons From the Dark Side

With a slide deck title like that I was expecting another run of black hat techniques from Martin, and although the presentation was pitched that way I actually found Russ was the more black hat of the two. Martin was still able to bring some excellent tips, and again there was a lot you wouldn’t dare do on a client site, so let’s delve in:

One of his core concepts was getting short term gains for a site, that would burn out but serve a purpose at the time. He used the example of getting a ranking for Halloween costumes, that you wouldn’t mind dropping out of the rankings for on November 1st.

Before that he stated that buying links isn’t worth it any more. For a black hat to say that was revelatory, and although he put it down to a cost issue, it was good to finally see that the industry as a whole is moving away from that as a viable strategy. He also stated that automated comment submission services are pointless.

To gather links easily he suggested starting an affiliate scheme, and then changing the affiliate code so people are linking direct to your site (rather than via an affiliate link). Everyone that links to you in this way gives you a free links. He then suggested the same tactic for widgets which he could embed on other sites, and then update the anchor text and link manually in one go. A very clever solution that can be used in white hat ways too.

A darker tactic was to launch a website about your competitor that collates reviews from their customers. Use an exact match domain (e.g. www.competitor-reviews.co.uk) and then write nice things about them. When they link to the site, change it to a 301 redirect and keep the value.

All of this was strangely counter balanced with the strategy of pointing these links via other domains, and never pointing the redirects to your main Home page. This allowed Martin to undo any penalties by moving the redirects and pages if problems occurred. He was keen to state he has had a lot of pages blocked over the years, but that he feels SEO’s need to experiment to learn the algorithm.

As with Russ, a good presentation that can be worked in to safer solutions with a bit of creative thinking. Oh and Martin was the only speaker to ask for a link from the delegates. You’ve got to reward that kind of request so here it is – SEO Forum.

Will Critchlow – Scaling White Hat Link Building

In a similar way to Tom, Will Critchlow looked at scaling your link building efforts to large websites. This was an important topic to cover as a lot of the more advanced link building tactics take a long time, so you need to consider effective ways of making them work for any size project.

Using analytical data Will found 40% of the top 500 websites mainly get their links from users. This is how large websites have been able to get so successful, as they haven’t had to devote a mass of resources to getting links, customers do the work.

This is done by creating excellent content and giving people something they need, not just something they want. Using the Wired article on Demand Media, he analysed the process they use to generate the equivalent of four English language Wikipedia’s every year.

Although he didn’t suggest we create content farms, he did highlight using quality control in the writing process, and picking good quality writers. As with Tom it was recommended we automate as much of the process, as possible, but stressed that you can’t emphasise caring about the quality of the content.

There weren’t as many key take away’s in this presentation as it was mainly charts showing the number of links per article various brands have.

Summary
The Distilled Link Building seminar did a great job of highlighting the exciting topics and debates that are at the heart of the industry right now. Full credit should go to everyone involved in the planning of this excellent seminar.

Instead of just ignoring black hat tactics, they got two of the best speakers and put them on stage to expose their methods. From listening to Rand berate Google, or Wil express his frustration at things that failed, it helped to show that SEO is still ever evolving, and that alone justified the asking price.

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...

14 Comments

  • Russ Jones 19th March 2011

    Sorry if I scared you :-) funny, but everyone remembers the awesome hat section, no one talks about the white hat section of my presentation. I’m glad you were able to get some takeaways. You are completely right, though, about twisting and massaging the creativity of black hat techniques into white hat strategies that are damn effective. That is what we do on a day to day basis for our clients, but talking about the black hat stuff is way more fun!!!

    Reply to this comment

  • MOGmartin 19th March 2011

    Hi Mike,

    Great write up, and Im glad you enjoyed the conference!

    Just a quick note, in my presentation I wasn’t referring to 301′ing the content on the teaser review domains to your own homepage… If you were to do that your competitors would notice pretty quickly, however if you use a 301 cross domain canonical, its unlikely they would ever see it ;)

    I do agree however that Russ was the more blackhat in presentation content – to be honest I started out with a deck full of stuff that was positively “black”, but it didnt feel that it would be relevant to 99% of the audience – so instead I concentrated on tricks and hacks that can be used by almost any website, but that are in the category of stuff I would normally only talk about over drinks!

    Best regards

    Martin Macdonald

    Reply to this comment

  • Ross Tavendale 19th March 2011

    HI Mike,

    Great Review of the London Link Building seminar. It was a truley spectacualr show case of the best SEO talent in the industry. I really liked the fact that it covered all aspects including some bus dev stuff from Will at the end. The social impact is really interesting and I hope to see the big G getting more serious about it in future. It would be intersting to of heard some more view points on local search: ie. Google Places. But it was a very well rounded seminar.

    My only criticism of the event was the bad background research Distilled done on the audience demographic………..they should of know that link builders are strictly red bull a pizza for lunch and not beetroot salad lol

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 19th March 2011

    Hi Russ and Martin,

    Thanks to both of you guys for leaving futher comments and your black hat exposure on the day. You’re right Russ I had completely forgotten the white hat section, but with a name like ‘awesome hat’ can you blame me? That’s naturally the bit that sticks in the mind :) It’s a shame you had to leave after the presentation, as I’m sure you had a lot more excellent ‘give it up’ style secrets. Still you’ve got to leave the audience wanting more right?

    Martin, that’s a lot clearer on the 301 now. It was quite interesting to hear Rand promote the canonical tag as a means of 301ing given that it was technically cloaking the content in his particular example. Glad the audience picked up on it, and it was certainly a good debate on that particular tactic. Will definately have to grab a drink with you next time, to see the tips you now give away after a few pints. Also your slide deck was awesome, I’m glad you noted the software used to make it at the end, as I’ll certainly be looking it up.

    Ross, you didn’t just have the beetroot salad did you? There was bangers and mash, chinese and risotto followed by ice cream. I think I had six bowls in total. Good brain food for link building and networking. Thanks for commenting.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mark 20th March 2011

    Great round-up Mike. One of my favourite tips on the day was from Wil Reynolds…

    Go to page 5 or 10 of the SERPs for your target keywords – That’s where you will find some sites who have given up.
    Do a Top Pages query on their site.
    Find their top content/link-bait.
    If they’ve got the sources of the data they’ve used, you can recreate it with up-to-date data.
    Then contact the people who are linking to it – say ‘hey I noticed you’re linking to this. But that information’s old now. I’ve updated it for everyone over here…’

    Nice!

    Reply to this comment

  • Paul Baguley 20th March 2011

    Excellent write-up Mike. There was so much to take in that I’m still digesting everything – as well as trying to interpret my notes – my handwriting really is terrible these days.

    I found all the speakers very useful, helpful, open and above all engaging. Paddy Moogan’s slot particularly was very useful, especially when considered alongside Distilled’s regular commentary about ‘getting shit done!’.

    Best wishes

    Paul

    Reply to this comment

  • Caroline Bell 21st March 2011

    Good write up Mike!

    Martin….. remind me to buy you a drink next time ;)

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 21st March 2011

    I agree Mark, Wil was very good at suggesting alternate tactics, and ways to re purpose some of that black hat paid link money. Buying content and refreshing it was a master stroke.

    Paul – Paddy also had a couple of head slap moments of “Oh yeah!” which were so obvious I wish I’d thought of them. Even something as simple as contacting link prospects multiple times and twitter following them was so simple but effective.

    Thanks Caroline, I bet Martin was a lot more black hat secrets for a drunken night, I’d imagine the end of the after party had a few interesting tips.

    Reply to this comment

  • Paddy Moogan 21st March 2011

    Thanks for the writeup and the nice comments Mike!

    I was amazed that I picked up tips from every session, most conferences I go to now, I’d be happy picking up a one or two great tips from the whole thing.

    Paul – thanks for the comment :) glad you found my talk useful.

    One of my big takeaways was from Wil Reynolds talk and the point of him hiring a mummy blogger. This is a great idea and also ties in with Rand’s message about short term and long term gains. The long term benefit of Wil’s idea could be huge despite not seeming like offering a great return in the short term.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 21st March 2011

    Hi Paddy, thanks for taking the time to read the post. It’s interesting that there are two more speakers for New Orleans so there’s more tips to come. Shame they’ll miss out on your spreadsheets. We’re going to be looking a lot more at mastering APIs and Excel as there’s so much untapped potential there. As Will said it’s all about the mashups.

    Reply to this comment

  • Adrian 21st March 2011

    Some great points made there. Particularly like the idea of creating a review site and then 301′ing it back to your site. However does link juice pass along a 301 these days? Has there been any recent studies on this? Thanks for sharing.

    Reply to this comment

  • Dave 22nd March 2011

    Hi Mike, great write-up for those of us who were unable to make it!

    Regarding Martin’s idea about setting up competitor review sites, surely this would be very short-lived as soon as the competitor cottoned on that it was being redirected?

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 22nd March 2011

    Hi Dave, personally I wouldn’t use the competitor site tactic as it’s a bit too black hat for me. However he suggested redirecting three to six months later, and most places that give out links rarely run a broken link checker so would be oblivious.

    Reply to this comment

  • Blue Fire 22nd March 2011

    Excellent analysis of the seminar. I wish I could make it to the one in New Orleans but I just found out about it today.

    I really like Martin’s ideas of the review sites.

    Reply to this comment

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