Link Building

What link builders really want you to know

Wondering why link building seems to be so much work? Columnist Julie Joyce gives us a glimpse into issues link builders face with clients and webmasters.

Our job is rough. I have done many things in SEO, and none have even come close to being as mind-numbing and frustrating as link building. It’s been even rougher than usual lately, and that notion is one shared by many of my link-building peers. After doing this for so many years, I can tell you that the summer months can be really, really difficult. Everyone’s on holiday, response rate goes way down, and then if you actually do negotiate a link, you can wait weeks for it to go live (because, again, everyone’s on holiday)!

Unless you’re a magician (or a charlatan), you cannot look at a site and make a concrete determination about how many links are required to obtain the desired rankings and traffic numbers. You can’t look at a target site and accurately gauge how getting a link on it will impact your site. You can look at two comparable sites, one performing well (Site A) and one not so well (Site B), and see that Site A has roughly 5,000 links while Site B has 300. From there, you can recommend that Site B build some more links, because that is obviously an issue. However, that’s kind of where it ends, and that’s what we want everyone to understand.

We know that quality matters more than quantity when it comes to link building, yet we’ve all seen sites ranking well when they shouldn’t. Sometimes sites with tons of spammy backlinks are outranking those that have played by the rules, and this is a major point of frustration for many business owners.

And you know what? It frustrates us, too. The fact of the matter is that link building just isn’t as simple as “build X links and you’ll outrank the competition.” There are a lot of factors that make link building a complex and difficult process, and below are just a few things we link builders wish everyone understood better.

The numbers

We calculate a lot of annual numbers, and one that stands out is the average number of hours it takes us to secure one link. That’s taking everyone on the team into account. That number used to remain steady at around four hours per link, but it went up after Penguin — way, way up. Currently, it’s hovering right around eight hours per link, and while that may not sound bad, remember that this is an average. So it might take 30 minutes to get one link and 40 hours to get the next one. I stopped really caring about this hourly number once I realized how wild the fluctuations really were.

Some links happen almost instantaneously when you’re intentionally going after them. I’ve had some great links go live within 15 minutes. I’ve also had links go live after months of back-and-forth negotiating with webmasters who go on holiday and forget you, then only respond to your emails once every few weeks. I’ve had many links go live, and they are not even remotely what I wanted or hoped for.

Just finding good sites to contact is definitely the hardest part of our job. I can go through 100 pages of search results and find two sites worthy of a contact. I can spend a whole day finding three good sites for a client. I can also luck out and get on a great roll finding amazing sites, but again, this whole process fluctuates like you can’t even imagine.

When you’re the client

If you’re the client or business owner, here’s what I hope you can realize: we can’t perform miracles. Your site might not be nearly as amazing as you think it is. Your products may not be that great, either. You may have a less than stellar reputation.

However, even if you are 100 percent amazing, it’s still tough to build good links! It can also be mind-numbing and tedious, and maybe our creative juices aren’t flowing eight hours a day. We can’t force a link out of anyone. It’s not because we don’t care about our jobs or you, it’s because sometimes we just can’t make it happen, and that’s not your fault or ours.

We also can’t control what people do after our negotiation takes place. We may be promised a link as soon as the webmaster can get to it. We may see it live and say thank you and then the next day it’s down. We may go look at it again in four months, only to find that a competitor has come along and had the webmaster swap it out. The article where the link was placed may have been pristine when we placed it, and now, a year later, it is full of obviously paid and spammy links.

Sometimes we can fix these issues. Many times, there’s nothing we can do — and that’s really no one’s fault but the webmaster’s.

When you’re the webmaster

If you’re the webmaster, yes, we realize you are possibly annoyed by unsolicited emails. However, there really is the potential that the link we’re proposing you add to your site may be seen as beneficial by your readers. I’m not saying that’s always true, of course, but providing links to good resources does make for happy readers.

We realize you may get really, really annoyed if you make a mistake and the link doesn’t actually work, or you’ve sent it to a page that we hadn’t asked you for as a target, or you decide to code the anchor text in gigantic light blue font because you are a Carolina Tarheels fan. We want our clients to be happy, but we also just really want the link to be correct for you and your audience, too. Our clients have very little to gain if no one wants to click on the links we place, and if no one wants to click on your site’s links, they may not keep returning because they won’t trust you.

When you’re the web developer

If you’re the web developer, then I have one main request. It’s critically important, so I’ll keep it short and simple: Don’t let pages 404 when we’re building links to them, please.

I really had no idea how complex link building was until I did it. When we started our agency, I didn’t build links as I oversaw the work and dealt with clients. I thought some of the reasons my employees gave me for poor performance were just excuses for laziness until I jumped in and did the work myself. You don’t get to fix a technical problem and walk away. You don’t get to rewrite all your titles and move on to something more fun. You don’t get to have seasonal consistency when you can’t get links if everyone’s preoccupied with holidays or vacations.

With link building, it’s a never-ending process that can be frustrating but gratifying, especially when your efforts are appreciated and your issues understood.