Over the years I have often referred to our link building work as "campaigns", which is not wrong, but it is also not quite right. I think that as an industry we need to change our mindset to focus on what link building should be: an ongoing, integrated business-as-usual activity.
Link building processes that work for brands now and will work in the future must be closer to the rest of the business. This means closer integration with other disciplines or at least the realization that link building is not an isolated activity or dark art as it used to be.
In this post, I would like to suggest how we should think about link building and share some ways to make it more sustainable, efficient and effective.
The problem with campaigns
I want to start by saying something very clearly, and I do not apologize for repeating this in this post: link building campaigns are not a bad thing. My key point is that they should be considered part of the puzzle – not something we should focus all of our time and attention on.
"Campaign" in the context of link building or digital PR implies several things:
- It has a start and an end point
- It is a one time activity
- It's about a certain "thing", be it a topic, a product or a content
There is nothing wrong with this, but link building should not only be considered in this way. If link building is viewed as a series of one-off activities or as a specific thing with a start and end point, it will never be integrated into a company as it should be. It will always be on the margins of marketing activities and will not bring as much profit as it could.
Even if you read this thought that you're okay with a lot of campaigns coming up – maybe one per week, one per month or one per quarter – the core issues still persist, but at a reduced level.
As digital marketers, we want link building:
- Taken seriously as a tactic that supports SEO in a company
- Integrated into other areas to enable efficiency and broader benefits
- Fit into a company's overall digital strategy
- Have measurable, consistent results
Let me demonstrate the last point using the following graph, which shows an Aira customer's monthly performance in a 6 to 8 week campaign plan:
At first glance, it looks pretty good. We built over 200 links in 12 months and were ahead of the game in terms of campaign goals.
This diagram shows the reality of running link building campaigns. We have been honest and open with customers about the results, and these peaks and dips are perfectly normal.
But it could (and should) be much better.
Let's take a short step back.
An uncomfortable truth
The uncomfortable truth for many link builders is that a company doesn't really have to worry about link building as an intentional, proactive activity. Instead, links should be a natural consequence of a fantastic product or service that is well marketed and branded.
However, companies in this position are the exception rather than the rule, which means that we as link builders still have a job!
I would argue that there are only a relatively small number of companies that really don't have to worry about link building. Think of established and popular brands like Apple, McDonalds, Amazon and Coca-Cola. These companies are really the exception rather than the rule.
Trying to be an exception and achieving nirvana, never actively worrying about link building, should be your goal. Efforts in areas such as product development, customer service, content strategy and brand building will pay off when building links. But they all take time and you need to generate organic traffic sooner rather than later to grow the business.
Link building as part of your larger, integrated and robust digital strategy can get you there faster. I am concerned that companies often leave money on the table waiting for nirvana. You may get there, but could you have got there earlier?
Then the question arises, how do they move faster towards this ideal state and how the link structure looks like in the meantime. Running campaigns can certainly help, but you're not building up as fast as you could.
This is at the heart of my concern and my problem of running link building campaigns and allowing our strategies to rely too heavily on them:
When the campaigns are ended, the links are also ended.
I know, I know – Aira is constantly starting campaigns.
Yes, we have launched many, many link building campaigns at Aira over the years and have been nominated for campaign-specific awards for some of them. I've even written about it many times. Campaign-driven link building plays a very valuable role in the world of link building, but we need to redefine our thinking and move away from campaigns as the primary way to generate links to a company.
Driving the right behavior
It's not just about results. It's also about promoting correct behavior in companies.
If you put link building in the corner of a one-off project or campaign-driven activity, habitual link building will not be encouraged. It will encourage behaviors and thinking that you don't really want, such as:
- Link building is a line item that can be turned on and off
- Internal processes have to bend or break to enable the link to be established
- There is little desire or motivation for wider team members to learn what link builders are doing
- Link building is an isolated activity without integration
- Link building results are not consistent (you get these huge spikes and drops in performance that can challenge the marketing spend you get).
Working under this pressure will neither make your life easier, nor will you do the best possible job.
I am concerned that as an industry, we are too focused on starting campaign by campaign and too far from making changes within organizations through our work.
As digital marketers, we try to influence behavior. Ultimately, it's about customer behavior, but before that point, it's about influencing stakeholders – whether you're an agency or an internal SEO, our first job is to get things done. For this purpose, link building must be viewed as a business-as-usual activity (BAU). Campaigns have a place, but are part of a much, much larger picture. The link structure must come to a point where creating links to a content element is no longer "special". If we can get there, not only will we accelerate the companies we work with towards nirvana link building, but we'll add much, much more value to them in the meantime.
Link building as a BAU activity
I firmly believe that link building needs to be understood much better than it is now in order to mature as an industry and especially as an activity. It still suffers from the problems that plagued SEO for many years in the early days when it was really dark art and we found out over time.
Don't get me wrong, we've come a long way, especially since April 2012 (can you really believe it was over eight years ago ?!) when the link building, thanks in part to the penguin, has become a content-oriented practice.
But we have to go further.
We have to get out of the "starting a campaign" corner and train our bosses and customers to ask questions like, "How can link building help here?" and "Is there a way to build a link in this activity?"
A case study
The best way to explain this rethink is to give you a real example of how we did it at Aira. I can't give you the exact customer, but I can give you an overview of the journey we've taken with them and support an SEO team who is tirelessly committed to getting things done – the perfect partner for one Initiative.
I should also point out that this has never been easy. We are on this trip with a number of our customers and some of them are barely enthusiastic. The examples here show what happens if you do it right – but it takes time and the reality is that for some companies it may never happen.
Where it started
A campaign. That was it. A shot to get links and show the customer what we can do.
We have failed.
This was in 2016. We were lucky that the customer trusted the process and understood why something went wrong on this occasion. So they gave us another chance and this time they did a great job.
From then on, the project grew and grew to the point where we started scaled campaigns like clockwork and consistently got links. Everything was good.
Then someone in the customer's team asked me a question:
"How is the development of our link structure?"
Although link building is never far from me, I didn't have a mental model to answer that with conviction immediately – especially given what I knew about this customer and his industry. It took me some time to think about it and consolidate a number of observations and opinions that I have had for years but have never really substantiated.
Side note: It is often difficult to take a step back from everyday life and think about the overall picture or the future. It is even more difficult when you start a business and generally do a good job. It can be difficult to justify “rocking the boat” when things are going well, but I've learned that you need to find time to do this. At that point, a direct question from my client was required to force me to think this way.
I confirmed that our existing link building model would likely continue to work and add value for them, but it shouldn't be our only focus in the coming years.
Then I explained what I've been talking about in this post.
I told them that our work was not good enough, even though they are one of our happiest and longest standing customers. We got hundreds of links a month, but we could do better.
Running campaigns one by one and getting links to each one would not be good enough in the future. Sure it works now, but what will it look like in two years? Five?? Probably only partially.
We knew we had to close the gap between different types of content:
- Content for links (also known as campaigns)
- Traffic content (information and transaction pages)
- Content to build expertise and trust
We only focused on the first one, quite isolated. We have developed some relevant topic ideas, expanded them and received links. Job done.
This would not be good enough in a few years, since the link building would take place in a small pocket of a very large organization with limited integration.
It's been over a year since this conversation and you know what? Our campaigns are still working great, but we're evolving to do a lot more.
If you have not looked at what else your company is doing and where link building can offer added value, this is the first step towards better integration and thus better link building. By the time the conversation above took place, we had already recognized the need to integrate with other teams within the customer organization, so we had a head start.
With the help of the client’s SEO team, we started to discover other activities within the company that we could upgrade or use for bigger profits:
- The traditional marketing team has been running campaigns on various industry topics for years. Some of them intersected with the topics for which we created content.
- The internal PR team was very active and had often seen our coverage appear on their trackers. As it turned out, they were just as interested in meeting us and understanding more about our processes.
- The branding team began reviewing all on-site assets to ensure brand brand compliance. Working with them would be important for consistency.
- With our help, the customer created more information about his products, and we helped inform his internal copywriters.
All of these possibilities laid the foundation for a new focus on the development of link building and made us respond faster to a few things, including:
- Conduct joint projects with the internal PR team in which we work together on ideas and contacts that do not only focus on data visualization
- Conducting brainstorming sessions on topics given to us by the SEO team that the traditional marketing team also focuses on
- Building relationships with multiple subject matter experts within the organization we are now working with and online advertising (more on this below)
- Testing the informative product content for link building after it was determined that some parts naturally attract links
- Work with the PR team to build a brand recovery link
Where we are now
Only a year after this open and honest conversation, we were able to show our value beyond starting campaign by campaign and at the same time building links to the customer's content. This will be of value in the coming years and will lead to less dependency on campaigns over time.
We are making good progress in reducing our dependency on campaigns and making them part of our strategy – not all. Yes, campaigns still control most of the links, but our strategy now includes some important changes:
- All campaigns (with one exception or another) are evergreen in nature, can always be reached and can even attract links.
- We publish elongated, report-style content elements that demonstrate the authority and expertise of the customer in their industry, and then build links to them. (They're a lot slower when it comes to getting links, but they're fine.)
- We raise the profile of the company's key speakers by connecting them with writers and journalists who can contact them directly in the future to receive offers and comments.
- We search and look for information content to give them an impetus in the rankings that will lead to more links in the future (which we didn't have to ask for).
Link building is not yet a BAU activity for this customer, but it is not far from becoming one. Practice is not only taken seriously within the SEO team, but also within the broader marketing team. There is more awareness than ever.
Framework for the content strategy
I want to share the framework we used to support and visualize campaign abandonment as our only link building strategy.
We have been aware for some time that we have to make sure that all link building work we do is up to date. By default, we focused on content that was campaign-driven and focused on links, as opposed to content that could serve other purposes.
Link builders need to be deeply involved in the issues that our customers and companies are supposed to be famous for, that they can speak about credibly, and that appeal to their audiences. Once you have these topics, you can start planning your content execution. Then you will see where the link structure fits.
Compare this to the "We need links, let's develop some relevant ideas for content to achieve this." This can work but is not as effective.
To help clients change their strategies, we've put together the following framework. Here's how it works:
Let's imagine that we sell products that help customers sleep better. We can come up with the following topics and themes:
Note that "campaigns" is just a format. We also recognize that topics and topics can not only lead to other forms of content (and links), but that our KPIs may not always be links.
If we put together a detailed content guide to the science of sleep, it may not appear on the front page of the New York Times, but there may be a slow, steady stream of links and organic search traffic. This traffic could involve potential customers for a sleep product.
Once you have a specific topic in mind, you can delve deeper into that subject and think about what content you can create to really demonstrate expertise and authority. This varies depending on the customer and topic, but could look something like this:
In this case, the blue circles indicate a topic + format that may be worth a link. While the orange ones indicate a valuable execution that is not classified as link-worthy, we may still want to create this content for the long-term generation of links and data traffic.
Link building campaigns still have tremendous value. But if that's all you do for customers, leave opportunities behind. Think beyond campaigns and see what else can be done to bring you and your business closer to the nirvana of link building.