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:
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.
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.