A Linking Campaign Primer

Original: March 2001. Updated: 2005, 2007, 2009, 2015
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The attitude surrounding link building has changed remarkably since Google rolled out the Penguin and Panda updates. Linkophobia is rampant. Google went so far as to clarify statements about link seeking, telling marketers that yes, it is OK to pursue links.

Is Google now saying you can’t even ask for links without risk of a penalty? No, the search engine has clarified, after a post on its Portuguese webmaster blog suggested that. -Barry Schwartz

While it’s still possible to secure high-quality inbound links to your site at no cost, the process of overseeing an inbound link seeking campaign is far more complex and challenging than it once was.

Believe it or not, the start-to-finish process of an inbound-linking campaign is much more administrative than you might think. For the sake of example, let’s say you run an online archery supply site, and you have identified 50 other sites you hope will link to your archery site. Some of your link seeking targets will be obvious, like this directory of archery equipment manufacturers published by an archery industry trade group, or this topical guide. Some may be more specific to certain regions, like this target site, and some may be industry specific or BtoB. There are also numerous smaller sites devoted at archery enthusiasts that look very plain, but are highly credible. Here’s one example.

Why are these types of smaller niche sites credible? They are credible because they aren’t about search engine manipulation. In fact, these sites would exist even if there were no search engines at all. These sites exist because they are about a topic and people who are passionate about that topic. They are, in a word, real. And if you know how to search Google the right way, Google would be more than happy to tell you what is real. Staying with our archery example, here’s a search query that couples two specific advanced search operators, and the result of this search is a very large collection of viable link targets. The query is: archery club site:.org inurl:links


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So, let’s say you’ve come up with a nice mix of target sites. You’ve vetted them, checked them for questionable backlinks, made sure they aren’t run by Dr. Evil.  Now comes the hard part: You need to actually begin asking these sites for links back to your site.

Starting off on the Right Foot: Managing the Link Building Process

I have my own set of link building process management tools, which are a mashup of Google docs and Excel.  The Google docs make it easy to share what needs to be shared with the client.  The excel docs keep sensitive data private. There are also several very good process management tools you can pay for, such as BuzzStream or Raven.

As you approach target sites to request links, here’s a list of the most basic data you’ll need to manage. Depending on your specific site, you may have many others.

1. The name of the target site
2. The site’s URL, as well as the specific URL of the page on their site where you are hoping to get a link
3. The contact method (email, online form, phone, FedEx, personal visit)
4. Name and email address of decision maker for the target site (hint: usually NOT the webmaster)
5. The date you contact that person
6. The date he or she responds
7. A copy of the sent link request
8. The response. Some will say yes, some will say no, others will not reply at all, others will want a link back from you, some may want money for links, some will be out of town and take weeks to reply.)
9. The status of the process
10. Verifying that the link is in place
11. Checking the site periodically for the link. They can vanish, usually by accident.

So, at any given time during your inbound-link campaign, you have many things keep track of.  And while there is a definite art to link building, there is a process that must be managed, and linking campaigns never really end; you should constantly be looking for opportunities.

Choosing the Best Expert: You
While I like helping clients with their link building, I am a long time advocate of the “teach the client to fish” approach. My goal is to put myself out of business by teaching clients what they need to know. I’m kidding but only a little. Fortunately there are thousands of sites that need help, and Google keeps them confused. So I offer training and workshops because I do not believe you should outsource all link building activities. Why? Because there are simply too many areas where mistakes can happen, and because nobody will care more for your site than you.  You need to take ownership of link building.

If you opt to pay based on numbers of links generated, set some quality-control standards right up front. And reserve the right of approval for any links

One problem is judging performance. If you pay someone only for the links he or she generates for you, then he or she will be more inclined to look for the sites that are most likely to grant a link, regardless of the site’s quality. There are a million free-for-all-links pages out there; but I wouldn’t pay a cent to be on any of them, because their quality is, well, lacking…

So, if you opt to pay based on numbers of links generated, set some quality-control standards right up front. And reserve the right of approval for any link deals.

The Truth About Outsourcing 
The other challenge with having someone else handle your inbound-linking campaign is that since each site contacted will have different demands, your third party will have to be given the right to negotiate on your behalf. Are you willing to give this person that authority over your site?

If this person contacts someone who says you’ll be given a link in exchange for a link back to your site, do you want someone other than you making that kind of decision? And what if a site says that it will give you a link for $100 a month? Do you want your money spent this way?

Know Your Options
One option (the one I prefer) is to reserve the right to say yes or no to any linking agreement someone negotiates for you. However, if you do this, it slows the process down so much that it makes it nearly impossible for your third party to make any money. Other problems include verifying that the link is up and working right and reviewing the site from time to time to make sure it hasn’t dropped the link (yes, that can happen) or done something else unexpected.

All this before you even know if that link on their page will generate one single click and deliver someone to your page. The bottom line is that it will take weeks, possibly months, to coordinate and possibly negotiate with each site you’ve located. Without a tracking tool or spreadsheet, it’s impossible to do an efficient job.

All this brings me back to the key point: You must take control of your inbound-linking efforts on your own, because nobody cares about your site as much as you do.

Get expert help along the way
I know from 20 years of experience what it takes to plan and execute a link building campaign. The tactics and approach need to vary based on the client’s site. There’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach you can implement for an archery site and again for an arthritis site. Link building training is, in my  opinion, the best way to help clients prepare for a future where link building must be part of an ongoing strategy.

For those who are already accomplished link builders, another viable approach is to use a third party to help with target-site discovery. It can take a long time to locate legitimate target sites. I’m getting more and more requests for Link Building Blueprints and Plans, where I do the research and discovery and provide my client with a vetted set of high value, high trust sites that make strategic sense for link seeking. The client then manages the link building process in-house.

The client saves time and money, we each use our individual strengths to full advantage.

Link and share wisely,

Eric Ward


About the Author
Eric Ward founded the Web’s first service for announcing, linking, and publicizing Web sites back in 1994. Ward is best known as the person behind the linking campaigns for Amazon.com Books, Weather.com, and the AMA. In 2009 Eric was one of 25 people profiled in the book Online Marketing Heroes. In 2013 Eric wrote The Ultimate Guide To Link Building – How to Build Backlinks, Authority and Credibility for Your Website, now in its 3rd printing. Eric has spoken at over 150 industry conferences and now publishes LinkMoses Private, a subscription based link opportunity and linking strategy newsletter. Eric has written linking strategy and advice columns for SearchEngineLand, MarketingProfs, ClickZ, Search Marketing Standard, SearchEngineGuide, Web Marketing Today, and Ad Age magazine. Eric, his wife and three children live in the shadow of the Smokies in Knoxville, Tennessee.