In July, Stacey MacNaught came to speak at the free Optimisey SEO events.
Stacey has a wealth of SEO experience but chose to focus this talk on something many people struggle with: link building.
Going through outreach, PR, PR stunts, creative commons image licensing, news outlet calendars and a whole load more — the talk was packed with practical tips and advice to help you get more links to your website.
You can watch the video here, download the slides or read the transcript below.
And if all that leaves you hungry for more you should book your free place at the next Optimisey event.
The brilliant Anne-Marie Miller from design agency CarbonOrange was in attendance again – and she’s kindly shared her awesome sketchnotes of Stacey’s talk. Click the image to see a larger version.
Transcript & Slides
Download Stacey’s slides (5MB PDF)
So I’m Stacey, freelance SEO, content marketing type talking about links.
My first job in SEO was in 2009 with an agency in Manchester and my day looked a little bit like this: so I would send begging emails to people with nice websites please take my money and give me a link.
And when I wasn’t doing that I’d be using Unique Article Wizard.
For those of you not familiar with this ‘so bad that it was good’ thing Unique Article Wizard let you give out an article, 300 words, 5 paragraphs and then you rewrote it twice… not a good article, something like you know ‘A history of waste management’ or something crap that had your keywords in and you’d rewrite it twice, the same five paragraphs same sentence order, and you just re-word it a bit so then you had to three very similar, equally crap articles.
And then you’d upload them to Unique Article Wizard and it would spin them and turn it into hundreds of articles (getting worse every time) and then the magic would happen then it would upload them and send them off to hundreds of terrible article directories and blogs that had signed up to receive crap content from Unique Article Wizard and you’d get loads of links and everybody would be high-fiving.
And you look back and now, that’s a picture of mine, and you look back now and think ‘There’s no way in hell that crap worked’ but oh it did.
So we had number ones for IVA, debt management, accident claims, cheap holidays all through links. The clients knew that that’s what we’re doing –we’re going to buy these links, we were going to article spin and all that good stuff — because everybody else was and if they wanted to compete that was what they were going to do.
And they were all quite happy to do it and they all got years out of these rankings because Google was a little bit slow at catching up.
But part of my remit, and the reason they brought me in — I was a copywriter by background — and they wanted me to start making link building a bit more sustainable.
The two founders of the agency — that I was that’s where I started and actually ended my agency days — kind of foresaw Google getting smart enough at some stage that they could algorithmically tackle most of this stuff, so my job was to start bringing in different ways of building links that weren’t quite so spammy.
It was a bigger challenge back then it really was. In every single niche you were competing in you were going to be competing with people who were buying links and winning by buying links.
You do still get some of that these days by the way there are definitely still results pages in which the top ranking websites are still doing crap like this. Mostly now things like payday loans, gambling some of the finance areas some very competitive travel areas it does still happen.
Not to the same scale and is often accompanied with some other cleaner stuff too but generally speaking I think if you’re looking — particularly for a big brand or a site that’s actually gonna last some time — you’re going to be looking at more clean link building methods.
It is worth me saying, as may be obvious, I actually have no fundamental issue with paid link building. I think if you’re transparent with your clients, transparent with your boss, you’ve got a compelling reason for doing it and you’re mitigating the risks in whatever way you can — fine if it works for you.
It’s not something I do for my clients anymore.
If someone contacts me about it I tend to refer that kind of stuff on. I do still do it for my test sites and I think in SEO, if you’re not testing things yourself, you’re kind of reliant on third-party reports which have their limitations.
The most effective link building stunt
The single most effective link building stunt that I’ve seen over recent years wasn’t a link building stunt at all.
You probably recognise this picture. This is October 2012 and Felix Baumgartner standing at the open door of a pod in the stratosphere about to free fall back to earth in the name of a marketing stunt for Red Bull.
Every single time I watch that back I just think I don’t know whether it’s insane or genius or a bit of both and where did they find somebody crazy enough to do this?
But 8 million people watched that live on YouTube. That set a record at the time. 43 million people since have watched a 90 second highlights reel and this is the Google Trends graph for Red Bull. Not for Felix Baumgartner, the guy who’s diving out of a pod at the edge of space, this is Red Bull in the month the Stratos jumper took place.
It almost certainly wasn’t an SEO campaign but as an SEO I of course like to go and have a look at the impact that has had on links. And at its peak almost 27,000 different sites were linking to Red Bull Stratos.
These days it’s more like 9,300 but if I asked you to reel off the biggest publications in the world that you could think of I’d be pretty confident that RedBullStratos.com has got a link on almost every single one that you name.
So we could probably wrap this up now and just say: if we all want massive links we just need to send a guy to the edge of space and ask him to jump back to Earth.
Job done. And all you’re gonna need is somebody crazy enough to do it and 50 million euros.
Yeah… I don’t get 50 million euro link building budgets unfortunately so let’s get a little bit more real and practical.
And I think there’s three things that still remain true about link building right now and that’s that it’s hard.
And that kind of works in your favor because if you’re doing it better then you’re probably one step ahead of your competition.
And I think we’re seeing a trend of a lot of SEO and SEO agencies kind of relying just on outreach to do link building.
I have lost count of a number of people I’ve spoken to over the last two years who, when you talk about how you’re building links these days, it’s “Ah, we’re doing outreach” which seems like a bit all your eggs in one basket for me.
There’s a ton of stuff changed of course but actually those things that I was doing in 2010 and 2011 that work better now than they did then.
So you know we were calling a guest posting I never did the massive scale network guest posting stuff but I would go to newspapers, naively more than anything, say that ‘You guys want good content right?’ so I go to newspapers and big magazines and sites like Mashable and The Huffington Post and get columns on their sites for my clients: call it ‘feature writing’.
Now PRs do it but for me it was just guest posting for a link back in 2010.
Research-based pieces: this one was mega primitive and a little bit embarrassing. January 2011, Google hadn’t yet released data about how much traffic was coming from mobile so we pooled all of our clients’ analytics data, went back two years and found this story about how in 18 months the proportion of visitors coming from mobile had gone from 0.02 percent to 8.19 or something — and that got quite a lot of coverage and links.
And then Google released their own date for a couple of years later now that looks shit.
Practical link building tips
So essentially the principles are the same but we kind of have got better over recent years.
But that’s just another cliche so let’s get practical and talk about some ways in which you can do that that don’t rely on producing a massive content asset and emailing thousands of people.
And the first one is people stories and case studies. And I think one of the things that separates SEO and PR people is mindset. And I think that, as SEOs, we start with keyword research: How do people look for our products and services? So we’re already all about the products and services in the business whereas I think PR people are generally better at coming from the angle of the people in the business.
So this works because people are full of stories and journalists essentially want nice stories. I used to say people are just made of skin, bones and stories and quite right. I think starting a company on its own is interesting enough to get coverage.
This is one of my clients in Tech Spark because she started a company. This is The Evening Standard writing about the founder of Dalston Cola because he started a company and happens to be from London.
This is a talented ladies club writing with links and an interview with — as they do quite frequently — a female founder of a company. So talk to people in your company. If you’re the company, so you know yourself whoever’s involved with you, dig out some stories.
You don’t have to have climbed Everest or saved a life — it would do no harm obviously — but things like ‘why’. Why did you start the company? What was the inspiration? What challenges have you overcome to get to where you are today? And what challenges still remain to get to the end?
And where did it all happen? Where were you brought up, educated? Where was that lightbulb moment that led to the business? Where was it founded?
It’s a simple Google search to find publications that run this kind of content and linked to people constantly but this website LocalMediaUK.org gives you a database A-Z of all the local newspapers and regionals in the UK.
If you’ve got a founder from a random town that maybe nobody’s heard of the local press in that town probably wants a good news story.
I know how PR works but I still read this stuff in a local press. I still read it constantly because I’m genuinely interested. I think we all get inspired by the people who feel like it could be us — and that’s why these stories work.
It’s not, as you might hear, because ‘local press have no news’ it’s because they’re good stories and there’s loads of business publications. I’ve listed 20 there on a spreadsheet as a starting point for you these are 20 business publications that regularly run features, profiles, interviews with business founders regardless of sector.
Look at that as a starting point.
There are hundreds of these but there’s link sources there waiting because you’ve got stories hidden in the people within the business.
Earning relevant backlinks
The second one is press features or as I would have called it ‘guest posting’ on newspaper websites a few years ago.
And it works because journalists have a job to do: they’re paid to write stuff that people are inspired by or educated by. And I think, in particular, educated by for features is a big deal.
Because journalists aren’t doctors, they’re not necessarily experts in travel, they can’t be an expert in all the things they write about so they frequently turn to experts to make sure what they’re putting together is accurate and as insightful as it can be.
Example businessadvice linking to and using some advice from a business advisor from Startup Loans.
What the Express have here pitched as ‘Exclusive: experts reveal the tips and tricks to get you an upgrade on your next flight’ it’s one expert from Destination2.
I know that because I was working on that campaign and Hannah who was heading up the PR at Tecmark, where I was at the time, was dealing with journalists like this all the time: ‘You know I think your readers will be interested in this… you guys seem to get a lot of talk about this I’ve got an expert who can pull X together for you…’ and doing that frequently to land links on those sorts of publications.
Newspapers publish this stuff every single day and the most easy way to make sure that it’s your clients or your business that they’re posting about is to have contacts and relationships. And that’s absolutely useless to say because if you haven’t got them already you get nowhere — so going back to the beginning, start by looking for features calendars and media kits.
You can just perform some Google searches like this simply “Marie Claire editorial calendar” will give you just that, or you can do some advanced Google searches where you’re using “file type PDF” “media kit in URL” “.co.uk” you will find them.
There are a few distinct differences between a features calendar and a media kit.
Features calendars and media kits for content ideas
Features calendar is basically just, in one format or another, a list of things a publication is going to write about with varying degrees of how specific they are about it and loosely when. Sometimes it’s a month sometimes it’s a quarter sometimes it’s down to a week.
A media kit is set up to sell advertising and although you don’t want to buy advertising at this point there’s some really valuable information in there which we’ll talk about.
Example: USA Today makes publicly available the loose topics that we’ll be writing about for the whole year at the start of the year. They go into more detail on further pages within the editorial calendar to certain events that they’re interested in covering on different sections of the site.
Conde Nast in their media kit give you everything they know about the people that they’re writing for down to how much these people spend on interior design over the course of a year.
Ad Age again that will give you by month — this one’s designed for print but it often reflects what’s online — exactly what they’re going to be writing about the topic that’s going to be continuous throughout that particular issue.
They are set up to sell ads but they will tell you what someone’s writing about, when and who they’re writing it for. This is yours magazine’s.
Don’t contact a media kit sales email unless you do want to buy advertising obviously.
Instead look for the features desk and look for the reporters on the features desk or simply go through the site look for similar features and find the writers of those features and start making contact.
For every editorial calendar you’ll find online there’ll be ten or fifteen that are not online. Get in touch. It’s actually my favorite way to make contact for the first time with a journalist or a publication I’ve never spoken to because it’s a much easier, less cold call.
Back when I was at Tecmark Hannah and her team used to, every six months, do a big distribution of emails to publications all over the world asking for media kits. And they had an eighty-odd percent response rate which you never get from a cold pitch, ever. And it wasn’t always ‘Yeah okay, yeah here it is.’ sometimes it was ‘We’ve not got one but here’s a spreadsheet that might help’ or ‘Oh do you know what I’m the wrong person, let me put you in touch with such-and-such a body’.
When I’ve been doing this over the past few months I’m finding, despite the fact that journalists inboxes are more full of spam than ever, response rates are still really good and actually I’m getting emails back, from people I’ve never spoken to, saying: ‘You know what I haven’t got an editorial calendar to hand but I’m working on this thing right now can you help?’ and those are the best kind of emails.
When you know what they’re writing and when and who they’re writing it for pitching a feature idea is a whole load easier.
If you’re in the inbox at the right time with the right content you’re much likely to get a ‘yes’ than if you go in and saying: ‘I’ve got this survey about dogs…’ when they’re doing research for a river cruising piece.
Using images for link building
Third one: creative commons image distribution. Probably my favourite single tactic if I had to choose something.
And it works because writers need imagery. Not every writer can go and either buy licensing for their own photographs or can go off and take their own photographs and that’s why millions of people will perform a Creative Commons search looking for images that are licensed Creative Commons.
In other words they can be used in exchange for an attribution.
In this case we’re looking for a link. They’ll go to the Creative Commons search engine or Google — and you can actually filter by license in Google or Flickr itself — and look for Creative Commons images.
If someone’s writing about something that relates to your business and they’re using images that you can give them then that’s the way for you to get in there with an asset that they need and therefore get these links.
For example: I produced a bank of images — I say I produced it the work experience person produced it but I wrote the how-to — and it was banks basically around Manchester.
This is The Canary linking to moneybright which, at the time… I should give you some context.
There’s an old test site that we had agency side at the time. It was a PPI lead gen site and building links to PPI was really hard work because it was just so spammy but The Canary, Business Reporter and hundreds of other sites actually took these images and linked to them.
Again VICE used an image of Edinburgh Playhouse from a theatres collection we distributed and linked to a dance wear a retail client.
European Cooperation in Science and Technology using an image in a press release they distributed worldwide actually linking to my client. The image is very simple it’s actually me holding a phone. Not overly complex at all.
I’m going to go through a brief ‘how-to’ on this and I’ve included a link for a more detailed one but first it’s just about identifying the images that people need and want with relevance at the core.
So as an example we were working with a firm of criminal lawyers and they were like ‘Okay we actually have a lot of images of Mauritius do you want them?’. Well the only time someone’s going to use an image of Mauritius is if they’re writing about Mauritius which is bog all all to do with criminal law so no we don’t want them.
And that’s the kind of relevance that you could easily fall into the trap of missing.
You sort of think ‘I’ve got these images already. They look great. Let’s distribute them’.
We went off and Googled what images people were using when they were writing about criminal law, criminal trials, crime statistics, criminal rehabilitation and we found actually commonly people were using images of court houses, probation service buildings and things like that.
And in certain cities we identified that this image we didn’t exist under Creative Commons. There was very few of it Creative Commons license, very few images and people were either using crap ones because it was all that was there or they were using paid for ones. And it looked like they weren’t necessarily paying.
So we knew that we had an angle.
We reverse image search some of the Creative Commons images that were out there and found that they were being used a lot so we’re like: ‘Okay yes we can make a better bank’ and that worked quite well.
Similarly making the decision to do a bank of images of banks we just looked up what images exist of Lloyds Bank already and that was four of the ones that existed. There a enough there there reverse image search too few of them and people are actually using them even though they are enough so that told me first of all yes people do want these images but secondly and most importantly we can do better.
And then go off and create them.
If you’re a photographer it’s a little bit easier for you. If you’re not a photographer you can do it we just have a go and it’s going to be hit and miss. I’ll just go and work with a photographer, professional hobbyist, student you might know a photographer already or an illustrator or a graphic designer if you’re going to do illustration rather than photography but I would say create them or at least use some that you’ve never ever used before or distributed even on social or in a brochure.
Start with a fresh bank for distribution. The easiest way to do — it I’ve tried multiple different ways — is Flickr.
Flickr is free and easy. Basically when you’re uploading photos to Flickr make sure you set your license to Creative Commons, which is available in the settings, but then treat this page like you would any page on your website from an SEO point of view.
The title of the photo will become the page title on the page that hosts the photo on Flickr. The description that you put in will become the meta description — use keywords, make it read well, make it unique and at the end of your description include an attribution instruction: how do you want people to credit when they actually use this photo.
In this case: please credit such-and-such website, please link to such-and-such a website. Go to all that effort, put in the attribution instruction in and then everybody will ignore you anyway which is nice.
It’s not malice. Sometimes they just — you can see how many actually link to Flickr — they just haven’t read the description. So people are a bit crap at that.
Don’t look at this as passive therefore. For link building you probably will build links even if you just upload and let it go but you’re much better tracking people using them, checking the attribution and chasing for the nice ‘thanks for using that would you mind updating the attribution as per this on Flickr’.
You can manually reverse image search all your images if you have way more time than you know what to do with or you can just use Pixsy which is free for tracking.
Actually their business model monetizes people who are chasing financial compensation when they’ve had fully copyrighted images stolen.
Pixsy upload all your images and you’ll be notified every time someone uses one of your images. A great little tool.
These come and go I’ve used a few if this is my favorite at the moment but you know I’m fickle might change your mind next week.
There is the full process that I’m using for that. I’ll make sure the deck’s distributed later anyway (download Stacey’s slides here) but that’s got a bit more detail than I can go through at the moment.
Statistics and research to build links
And the fourth thing is statistics related queries ranking.
For status queries works because everybody needs sources if you write in a story you have to have a credible source — unless you’re the Daily Mail.
In 2014 I did a survey, again with Tecmark, survey 2,000 smartphone owners about how they use their phone. Quite a lot of coverage as a promotion starts here, promotion probably started a month before when I was emailing journalists and saying ‘I’m thinking of doing this anything you want me to ask for you?’ or ‘What do you think of the idea…?’ but the post launch promotion started their right about March — from November 2014 to March 2015.
And at the end of it we had links from just shy of 60 domains. They were good ones so we’d hit our target. Quite happy. One year and zero more work later and that was 181 referring domains.
And these are equally as good these are really high authority sites. And actually over time you can see the number of linking domains up until about a year ago so we’ve got a good three years out of this just kept creeping up and up and up.
January this year statistics about the survey based around stress causes treatments what you do when you’re feeling stressed for a client who does biomarker tracking around cortisol. Active promotion, again Hannah was involved here, and she landed some really good links — only just a handful of really solid placements and now actually it’s probably twice what it was on this screenshot actually.
The links just keep going up on their own with no more input and it’s because they rank — so if you search “stress statistics” forthwithlife is number one. “Stress statistics UK”, “stress statistics 2018” and hundreds of people make that search every month and they’re looking for a source.
This even works though if you haven’t done your own data sourcing. So these are not things I’ve been involved with I just quite like the fact that they get links.
This is The Priory‘s website and this piece of content is mediocre at best. It’s a paragraph of text and then bullet points containing other people’s statistics that they’ve just quoted. At the end it’s got links from 20 referring domains and they’re not bad domains either, they’re pretty good. There’s some pretty notable news sites in there when you look into the links. It’s just people citing them as a source when they’re writing about eating disorders themselves.
This one’s better: petsecure.com.au Australian pet insurance provider.
They went off and collated data from all around the world about pet ownership statistics. They didn’t survey people, they didn’t buy data they just collated publicly available data and turned it into quite nice, easily readable graphics.
66 referring domains so far.
It’s going up all the time and it’s just because they ranked. They’re in the top three in the UK and US for “pet ownership statistics” and they’re in position one in Australia. Ranking in other countries as well.
These are just a few different examples. Look at those as your primary keywords. This is the the main area when it comes to optimising the page and then look at variants: for everyone searching “statistics” some people are going to say “how many are average” or “how common is” let’s look up those as well. Unless you’re working with a powerhouse of a website you probably won’t rank on launch.
This is the Search Console position data for that stress piece — and when we first launched on average were ranking around position 25 for all these queries.
When we started landing a couple of links the rankings went up and as the rankings went up more people found us and then they linked as well because they use our statistics so the rankings went up again until we were in position one for everything and now it’s being used all the time.
So most of these projects for me tend to start as big outreach projects anyway but if you are just collating third party data that maybe isn’t newsworthy, isn’t something you want to outreach then you probably won’t build links that way.
Use PPC if you know that when someone searches “stress statistics” or “pet ownership statistics” or “personal data statistics” if you know they’re looking for a source to link to as we can be pretty confident of and you’re not there organically show them your site through AdWords.
The clicks are much lower cost than commercial clicks.
I know actually a lot of my clients on their PPC campaigns have negative match on “statistics” — they don’t want to rank for statistics queries because no one’s buying anything and that makes the costs lower.
Unlike images this one actually is a bit more passive. Well over ninety percent of people in my experience link the first time but it is worth tracking mentions and just chasing links where someone doesn’t.
If you want to get your own proprietary data, surveys onepoll and 3gem tend to be my go-to guys for big surveys but you’re looking at about £1,500 plus to buy data.
Google Surveys, Toluna Quick Surveys you can do things at about £100 — plus there there’s tons of free data sources. You just need to Google that and you’ll find loads Freedom of Information data, Really great.
If you haven’t used the Freedom of Information Act much before take a look. Just Google it you’ll find the government website. You can manage the process yourself.
If there’s something you want to know you can just email the right body with the right things to say but WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a free website that manages the whole process for you and end-to-end.
AsktheEU.org is one that does the same for the EU institutions… for now. Don’t get me started on bastard Brexit.
Case studies & Testimonials for links
And finally, before I go on a political rant, offer your suppliers case studies and testimonial.
It works because b2b companies need them to build trust. Your testimonial, your store of your case studies is an asset that they require.
Any good b2b site is using testimonials in one way or another even if it’s just a paragraph on their homepage or an entire dedicated section.
That’s accountants, supply chain software, IT support, waste management they’re all using them. It’s put together with a few suppliers.
Whether it’s your cleaner, your recruitment agency, your training provider, the person who delivers your desks whoever it is whatever you’ve used them for put together a list of them and shortlist your suppliers. The ones that you’re happiest with are the ones you want to focus on.
A sentence or two just for your own knowledge before you contact them about the positive impact that working with them has had on your business.
Don’t wait to be asked get in touch with them and tell them why you want to share your experiences. You want all the links. No don’t tell them that, that comes later, start with why you actually think that it’s a story worth sharing what positive impact have they had on your business?
I can’t remember a single time actually that someone has said ‘No. No we don’t want your testimonial actually. No we don’t.’ and actually once they’ve agreed to take your testimonial no one wants to be the guy who says ‘Yeah we’ll take your testimonial but I’m not linking’.
Not only have you offered them a testimonial you’re a paying customer so it’s generally a win-win situation and I would argue it’s editorially relevant if you’re saying that their services had a positive impact on your business. I think it’s fair that people should be able to see more about your business.
Please don’t be that person who gives a testimonial or a case study to a terrible supplier because they’ve got a really good website and you want a link on it. People will make buying decisions based on your testimonials so try and refrain from doing that regardless of the link possibility.
All of these things do that same thing it’s just different ways of finding things that people want need or care about. But make sure you diversify.
If Creative Commons licensing was outlawed tomorrow and all the images disappeared I would lose some links I’m really quite happy with and I’d be a bit miffed but I won’t lose all my links. I’d probably lose about 15%.
So do diversify and don’t rely on one single thing all the time.