Posted by kelseyreaves
Editor’s note: This post first appeared in December of 2015, but
because SEO (and Google) changes so quickly, we figured it was time
for a refresh!
The link building world is in a constant state of evolution. New
tools are continually introduced to the market, with SEOs ready to
discover what works best.
In 2015, I
wrote an article for Moz about how our team switched over to a
new email automation tool that drastically improved our overall
outreach system — we increased our email reply rates
by 187 percent in just one month. Which meant
that our number of attainable backlinks also drastically
I wanted to see what’s changed since I last wrote this post.
Because in 2019, you need a lot more than new tools to excel in
Looking back, it was pretty ingenious: Our link building program
had automated almost every step in the outreach process. We were
emailing hundreds of people a week, guest posting on numerous
websites, and raking in 20–30 links per week. If anyone has been
in the game long enough, you’ll know that’s an insane amount of
With its success at my first company, I took the concept and
applied it to several freelance link building projects I was
working on. It proved to work for those sites, too. Later on, I
built out a similar system for the second startup I worked for. And
again, it proved to be just as successful. Every link building
project I took on, my thinking was: How can I scale this thing to
get me 10x the number of links? How can I email 5x the number of
people? How can I automate this as much as possible so I can create
a link building machine that’s completely hands off?
Well…at least for a period of time.
While I had the best of intentions, this thinking is what
ultimately got me in trouble and lead to the inevitable: I
was hit with a manual action for participating in link
I remember opening up Search Console and reading that message.
At that moment, I felt like a kid caught with their hand in the
cookie jar. My stomach was in knots. I had heard of people getting
manual actions before but didn’t think it was something that
would happen to me.
In hindsight, this was probably one of the most important
moments of my SEO/growth career. It sobered me up and pushed me
into thinking about outreach in a whole different light, and taught
me the most important lesson to date: building links
isn’t about using automation to create processes that scale.
It’s about building relationships — and value — that
What outreach looked like in 2015
I’m not surprised I got away with what I was doing for so
long. From 2015 to 2017, it seemed like everyone and their Mom was
guest posting. During that time, this is what I noticed:
1. It was a numbers game
Most of the SEOs I talked to from 2015 to 2017 were using a
similar strategy. It was all about finding tools that could help
scale your guest posting program and contact as many people as
possible. Most companies had some arbitrary link quota for their
outreach teams to hit every month, mine included.
2. It promoted somewhat decent content that was templatized
In our outreach program, we were pitching the same three to four
topics over and over again and while the content we wrote was
always original, there was nothing novel about the articles we were
putting out there. They were cute, engaging — but none of it was
on the cutting edge or had a solid opinion. It’s what our friend
John Collins from Intercom calls Happy Meal content:
“It looks good from a distance, but you’re left
feeling hungry not long after you consume it.”
3. It idolized automation and processes
At the time, most outreach programs were about leveraging tools
to automate processes and scale every step of the way. We were
using several tools to scrape websites and hired virtual assistants
off of Upwork to find email addresses of just about anyone
associated with a company, whether they were actually the ideal
person to contact or not.
This process had worked in 2015. But in 2019, there’s no way
What outreach looks like in 2019
Since joining the team at OG Marketing this last fall,
I’ve vastly altered the way I approach outreach and link
building. Our strategy now focuses on three main concepts.
1. Helping editors cite good sources
The link building relationships I’ve built this year are
almost entirely centered around editors and content managers of
notable sites who only want to link to high-quality, relevant
And luckily for us, we work with some of the best content
creators in the B2B SaaS-verse. We don’t have to go out and beg
for links to mediocre (at best) content: We’re building authority
to pages that truly deserve it. More importantly, we’re actually
fulfilling a need by providing great sources of information for
other quality content.
2. Understanding backlinks are only one piece to the puzzle
Link building is only one lever and shouldn’t be your whole
SEO strategy. Depending on the site you’re working on, building
links may be a good use of your time — or not at all.
In our strategy, we account for the fact that sometimes links
aren’t always necessary. They will definitely help, but it’s
possible to excel without them.
For example, Hotjar
recently published an article on 5 ways to use scroll
maps. Looking at the backlink profile for the top three results
for “scroll map,” CrazyEgg has more referring domains than
Hotjar, but is currently in position three. Omniconvert has zero
backlinks and still ranks above CrazyEgg in position three. With
only three referring domains, Hotjar has earned the 1st position
and a coveted featured snippet.
2015 me would’ve had a knee jerk reaction to kick off an
outreach campaign as soon as we hit publish on the new article. But
considering the fact that you may not even need a ton of links to
rank well, you can actually spend your time more efficiently
3. Creating quality content that earns links naturally
There’s definitely a tipping point when it comes to generating
backlinks naturally. When your article appears on page one for the
query you’re targeting, your chances of having that article cited
by other publications with zero effort on your part just naturally
Why? Because people looking to add credible citations to their
article will turn to Google to find that content.
This prompts our team to always ensure that each piece of
content we create for our clients satisfies searcher intent. To do
this, we start off by researching if the intent behind the keyword
we want to rank for has purchase, consideration or informational
For example, the keyword “best video conferencing camera”
has consideration-based intent. We can determine this by looking at
the SERPs. In the screenshot below, you can see Google understands
users are trying to compare different types of cameras.
By seeing this, we know that our best bet for creating content
that will rank well is by writing a listicle-style post comparing
the best video cameras on the market. If we had instead created an
informational article targeting the same keyword about why you
should invest in a video conferencing camera without a list of
product comparisons, the article probably wouldn’t perform well
Therefore, if we start off on the right foot by creating the
right type of content from the very beginning, we make it easier
for ourselves down the road. In other words, we won’t have to
build a million links just to get a piece of content to rank that
wasn’t the right format, to begin with.
What we’ve found with our outreach strategy
Centering our strategy around creating the right content and
then determining whether or not that content needs links, has
helped us prioritize what articles actually need to be a part of an
Once this is determined, we then call on our friends — or our
content partners — to help us drive link equity quickly,
efficiently, and in a way, that enhances the source content and
makes sense for end users (readers).
A few months into building out our homie program, there are
several things we noticed.
1. Response rates increased
Probably because it’s not as templatized and, generally, I
care more deeply about the email I’m sending and the person I’m
reaching out to. On average, I get about a 65–70 percent response
2. Opt-in rates increased
Once I get a response, build the relationship, then ask if they
want to become a content partner (“friend”), we typically see a
75 percent opt-in rate.
3. You get the same amount of links, using half the amount of work,
in half the amount of time
I’m gonna repeat that: we generate the same, if not more,
backlinks month over month with less effort, time and manpower than
with the process I built out in 2015.
And the more partners we add, the more links we acquire, with
less effort. Visually, it looks like this:
I (somewhat) paid attention during economics class in college,
and I remember a chart with this trajectory being a really good
thing. So, I think we’re on to something…
How our outreach process works (and how you can create your own)
Our current link building program still leverages some of the
tools mentioned in my post from 2015, but we’ve simplified the
process. Essentially, it works like this:
1. Identify your friends
Do you have friends or acquaintances that work at sites which
touch on topics in your space? Start there!
I got connected to the CEO of Proof, who connected me with their
Content Director, Ben. We saw that there was synergy between our
content and each needed sources about what the other wrote about.
He was able to connect me with other writers and content managers
in the space, and now we’re all best of friends.
2. Find new friends
Typically we look for similar sites in the B2B SaaS space that
we want to partner with and are relevant to our client sites. Then,
we use several tools like Clearbit, Hunter.io, and Viola Norbert to identify the
person we want to reach out to (usually SEO Managers, Marketing
Directors or Content Managers) and find their email.
This step has been crucial in our process. In the past, we left
this to the virtual assistants. But since bringing this in house,
we’ve been able to better identify the right person to reach out
to, which has increased response rates.
3. Reach out in an authentic way
In our outreach message, we cut to the chase. If you’ve
identified the right person in the previous step, then they should
know exactly what you’re trying to do and why it’s important.
If the person you outreached to doesn’t get the big picture and
you have to explain yourself, then you’re talking to the wrong
person. Plain and simple.
Compared to 2015, our lists are much smaller (we’re definitely
not using the spray and pray method) and we determine on a case by
case basis what the best method for outreach is. Whether that be
email, Linkedin, or at times, Instagram.
Here’s an example of a simple, straightforward message I send
Once someone expresses interest, I’ll find a place on their
website using a site search where they can reference one of our
client’s content priorities for the month. In return, I’ll ask
them what content they’re trying to get more eyes on and see if
it aligns with our other client sites or the other partners we work
If I think their content is the perfect source for another
article, I’ll cite it. If not, I’ll share it with another
partner to see if it could be a good resource for them.
5. See if they want to be a “friend”
Once we have that first link nailed down, I’ll explain how we
can work together by using each other’s awesome content to
enhance new blog articles or article contributions on other
If they’re down to be content friends, I’ll share their
priorities for the month with our other partners who will then
share it with their wider network of websites and influencers who
are contributing articles to reputable sites and are in need of
content resources to cite. From there, the writers can quickly scan
a list of URLs and cite articles when it makes sense to help beef
up new content or improve existing content with further resources.
It’s a win-win.
If the site is interested in being friends, I’ll send over a
spreadsheet where we can track placements and our priorities for
the link to a partner template you can download.
Unlike the guest posting programs I was doing over the last few
years, with this process, we’re not leaving a digital footprint
for Google to follow.
In other words, we don’t have our author bios mentioning our
website plastered all over the internet, essential saying “Hey,
Google! We guest posted here and inserted these links with rich
anchor text to try and help our page rank. Oh, and we did the same
thing here, and here, and here.”
With this process, we’re just offering a list of resources to
well-known writers and other websites creating badass content.
Ultimately, it’s their choice if they want to link to it or not.
I’ll definitely make suggestions but in the end, it’s their
6. Grow the friend list
Now, if I’m looking to drive link equity to a certain page, I
don’t have to build a new list, queue up a campaign, and kick off
a whole automation sequence to an ungodly amount of people like I
did in the past.
I just hit up one of our partners on our friend’s list and
voila! — quality citation in 0.45 seconds.
And on a personal note, waking up to emails in my inbox of new
citations added with zero effort on my part feels like the Link
Gods have blessed me time and time again.
With our friend network, the numbers speak for themselves. This
last month, we were able to generate 74 links. In 2015, I was
hitting similar monthly numbers, but link building was my full-time
Now, link building is something I do on the side (I’d estimate
a few hours every week), giving me time to manage my client
accounts and focus on everything else I need to do — like drive
forward technical SEO improvements, conduct keyword research,
optimize older pages, and use SEO as an overall means to drive a
company’s entire marketing strategy forward.
Building out a friend network has also opened up the door to
many other opportunities for our clients that I had never dreamed
of when I viewed my link building relationships as one and done.
With the help of our friends, we’ve had our clients featured on
podcasts (shout out to Proof’s Scale or Die
podcast!), round-ups, case studies, video content, and many,
As an instant-gratification junkie, it pains me to share the
honest truth about building a friend network: it’s going to take
But think of the tradeoffs — everything I mentioned above and
that in a way, you’re acting as a sort of matchmaker between
high-quality content and sites who are open to referencing it.
I also believe that this type of outreach campaign makes us
better marketers. Spamming people gets old. And if we can work
together to find a way to promote each other’s high-quality
content, then I’m all for it. Because in the end, it’s about
making a better user experience for readers and promoting content
that deserves to be promoted.
How has your link building program evolved over the years? Have
you been able to create a network of friends for your space? Leave
a comment below!
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