The 6 Month Link Building Plan for an Established Website
Posted by jamesagate
This post was originally in YouMoz, and was promoted to the main blog because it provides great value and interest to our community. The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of SEOmoz, Inc.
You've probably seen the extremely comprehensive noob guide to online marketing by Oli Gardner, or the companion noob guide to link building from Mike King, you've also likely seen one of the many posts or presentations on SEO for startups (here, here and here) – suffice to say there is plenty of reading material for building new web properties but what about link building for an established website?
There are an abundance of link opportunities (and challenges) that are pretty unique to an established website.
I decided to compile a public Trello board which is based on some of our internal boards for clients to help you to visualise the process I am about to run through.
Please bear in mind that this is not a six-month SEO plan so we won't be covering site audits or keyword research for example (although you should read this post if you are planning to conduct an SEO audit), I will be focusing on the acquisition and optimisation of links and content for links.
This is how we approach established websites where we are given a full link building brief. I welcome any feedback and additions to this plan. In any case, this is simply the "ideal" scenario, so we don't do ALL of this with every single client because each situation is different and because realistically we might not have the budget or even the project scope to implement all this. That being said I do hope that this post will give you some avenues to explore. The idea behind the Trello board was that so anyone could copy it and then edit as they see fit, dragging and dropping the various elements and scaling up or contracting the task list as appropriate. I have divided the elements into the following four areas:
- Content Tasks
- Research Tasks
- Link Tasks
- Other Tasks
On the Trello board, I have put them into our recommended order but as I say, the reason for doing this as a public board is so that you can move elements around as you see fit.
Remember to copy the board before you can start making it your own!
Link Profile Audit
The ideal way to start any link building campaign for an established website is to take stock of the existing link profile.
At this point, we're not even drawing comparisons between competitor link profiles and our own but merely understanding what we have and how closely that aligns with A) the clients goals and B) recommended best practices. I'm not going to get into a white hat/grey hat debate here, when I say best practices, I am talking about what is generally accepted within an educated audience as 'sensible'.
A blissfully unaware client, and a website with a closet full of forum profile spam for example is something that you need to be aware of (and make the client aware of) before any further work can be carried out. You are not nit-picking at the work of the previous agency but from here on out you are likely to be responsible for the performance of that website in the search engines (and links making up a big part of that performance) and it would be pretty hard to explain to a client with any amount of credibility why their website has dropped off the face of the planet three months into your engagement if you didn't bring issues like this to their attention. It may well have been links acquired in days gone by, but the client is probably going to blame you to a certain extent.
What to look for?
- Type of link
- Anchor text
- Clusters of similar IPs
- Link position on the page
- Quality (defensibility) of the site link originates from
- Is the page where the link originates actually indexed?
- Asses internal link structure as well
Some of the above can be automated and that should help you to reduce the number of links that you need to audit by hand.
- Talk to the client – get previous reports, lists of links developed and understand what has been done up until now
- Listen to the client – to understand their goals and their current appetite for risk
- Fire up your favourite link analysis tool
Some recommended tools for the job
Market Landscape Analysis
This is far less "corporate" than the name suggests. Essentially there are two elements:
- Competitor Link Profile Analysis
- Opportunity Mapping (link opportunities and topic areas)
Competitor Link Profile Analysis
You should follow near enough the same process for analysing your key competitors' link profiles as you did for your own. Not because you want to help them identify their bad links but rather because it enables you to spot their weaknesses, steal anything they have been doing well and frankly, see who is probably swimming naked when the tide goes out.
If a competitor ranks above you but their link profile turns up something which is considered less than 'best practice' by all means take this into account but don't take it as gospel that it will work for the website you are working on.
The key to using your competitor link research to identify opportunity is to think in terms of direct and indirect opportunity. For example, if you spot a strong link that you're competitor has acquired that you could potentially also earn then this would be a direct opportunity. If, for example, you identify one or a set of links from a particular type of site or niche then this could be considered an indirect link because it might open your eyes to other potential link opportunities from corners of the web you and the client have never been before.
Sometimes though, analysing a competitor's link profile brings up next to nothing useful that's fine, just demonstrates that you have the opportunity to stand out in the market long term by doing things the right way.
Work 'outwards' from core customer groups to try to identify key opportunities and niches to target both with the content that you are going to be producing as well as the outreach and promotion you have planned. Communication with the client is key at this stage because it can help you to really understand their various customer segments and branch out from there.
You are aiming to:
- Find link opportunities/identify the niches
- Discover topic areas
My favourite tool for this is Mindmeister which is a nice, easy-to-use, web-based mind-mapping software. The reason we prefer mind-mapping to say a spreadsheet is because it allows us to visualise the client and then explore different branches, connect niches and even help them to identify new market segments.
- Understand who your competitors really are (not necessarily the businesses your client thinks they compete against).
- Analyse competitor link profiles – using the methodology described in the previous exercise
- Benchmark your link profile versus competitors – does your profile stand out in comparison to average figures based on competitors?
- Identify key opportunities based on competitor link profiles (direct and indirect)
This is where you turn the MLA into something actionable. Set the course of the rest of the campaign with a clear and focused link building strategy which takes into account your identified weaknesses (i.e. closing the natural search gap) and exploits the obvious opportunities both internal and external. I'm not one (in fact we're not a company for…) 500 page strategy documents.
A concise set of actions and time-frames that fit onto one A4 sheet of paper is generally how we work.
Never base your strategy entirely on competitor actions; 1) It just isn't good business sense to be clinging to the tailcoat of the competition because usually that's where you'll remain and 2) Just because it worked for them, does not mean it is going to be effective for you.
That's it for month 1 – it might seem like an awful lot of planning and not much doing but remember that PPPPPP so it will be time well invested. If you have additional time and budget of course you could always bring some activities, scheduled for month 2, forward.
Link Removals & Updates
There are two schools of thought here; some say that although certain links might be harming your website you can outweigh the negative impact by focusing on developing good quality ones.
The other school of thought says that you should focus on getting rid of your bad links before you even contemplate acquiring new ones.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on comes down to your opinions and experiences but I personally feel that in a number of situations, a round of link removals and profile pruning is a wise way to spend your time because there is little doubt that some links and in particular those really artificial and spammy links may well be holding a website back – with no amount of good karma going to shift those misdemeanours of the past.
If you are going to embark on a spot of profile pruning and/or link un-building then luckily there are quite a few tools out there to help you. What kinds of things are you going to want to change or update? The anchor text is a common one but consider also URL destination (is there a more natural page that this could link to?). If however you feel the link just doesn't align with your strategy moving forward then a removal may be a more suitable option.
Tools for the job
- Link Management Tool from The Link Auditors – free software, makes it really easy to manage your progress, automatically checks the status of links so no need to send a chaser email to see if a link has been removed. All round fantastic tool and my favourite.
- SEOgadget – Data Gathering Tool
- Remove'em – self-service link removal
- rmoov – the backlink removal tool
Content Asset Identification
New websites require new content but the beauty of established websites is that very often they have a catalogue of content assets at your disposal. With a bit of tweaking, repurposing or even just using as they are, the existing content assets can be put to work attracting links naturally (and almost passively) over time and as a reason for proactively contacting webmasters, bloggers and journalists. What kinds of things are you looking for?
- Long-form blog posts
- Mobile Apps & tools
- Free resources & downloads
Think about the customer groups and refer back to your opportunity map. If it is a very large website it can sometimes be worth using Google to perform a site search in order to find an asset which perhaps even the client themselves has forgotten they produced (we've done this a few times and turned up something which the client would then say "Oh yeah that old thing…").
This is a largely manual process but we've found Social Crawlytics to be quite useful at identifying content assets which perhaps got 'a bit of love' but not really the amount the content deserved. These would be prime examples of assets in need of a facelift or just an update because they are outdated. In essence you are looking for content assets to use 'as they are', as well as assets that just need a bit of improvement to get them up to scratch. Identifying content assets rather than just creating new ones obviously saves you some time and the client some budget (since you are optimising what they have) which means other activities can be carried out.
- Talk to the client to understand any content production they have done in the past
- Dig through the archives of the site (use site: search in Google)
- Look for pages on the site which have a fair number of links (and ask if it could perform better after a bit of TLC?)
- Try Social Crawlytics to uncover hidden assets
Gap Analysis of Content Assets
This is one of the simplest analysis methods at your disposal (read how to perform a Gap Analysis) but it is also very effective in forcing you to consider where the asset currently is, what you want to achieve and the specific way you are going to get it there.
For example, you may have uncovered a guide to 'growing an email newsletter database' for your email marketing software client. The guide is about 1000 words long and includes some fairly generic tips. They created it because their previous agency told them they needed "great content" on their website, the problem is that "great" means much more than just spelled correctly.
Anyway, the bigger issue is that it doesn't align with the client's brand of being a market leader in the space and a competitor has produced a far more comprehensive guide, not amazing but still leading the way currently. Your content asset needs a reason for existence; if you're not aiming to make the content asset the category killer then you may as well not bother. Go big or go home I'm afraid.
So we now have "the future state" and "the current state" – how do we fill in the gap? We identify all the ways we could lead the market with the asset e.g. enhancing our guide to make it more detailed, paginated for better user experience, add videos, action steps, screenshots and templates that clients can use.
You're not aiming to match your competitor's content assets, you need to surpass them. I'm not so naive to believe that you can create this "awesome content" and then Google will rank it where you'd like but having a solid reason to rank is definitely a required starting point. It will also help you answer the question "why would someone link to this?" – it's pretty hard to answer that when you have the second or third best resource in the market…
Internal Link Optimisation
Arguably this would come under the remit of whoever is performing the site audit but more often than not we will discover opportunities to optimise internal links simply by performing a link profile audit. It could be that every page has a link to itself within the body copy using the keywords the page is trying to target.
From our experience, the SEO benefit of including a keyword link from the page right back at the page is almost non-existent and in most cases it can harm the user experience as a visitor lands on that page looking for something around that keyword phrase, they will likely click on a highlighted link containing the keywords only to find themselves confused when the same page reloads.
In fact you could even argue that stuffing keywords into internal links is going to harm your search engine performance.
Update old guest posts
Only applicable if your client has previously embarked on guest blogging. Identify any guest posts that currently drive referral traffic then look at whether these could do with updating or enhancing.
Remember that if a guest post worked well for the client the first time it was published, there is a strong chance it will be well-received by the audience a second time, particularly if the post is quite old or outdated. It is a good idea to include old guest posts in your plan because updating these can help to preserve your brand reputation should a prospective customer find your website via this post – you don't want them to think your ideas and expertise are outdated (even if there is a date on the blog post!).
Pro tip – look at ways to promote old guest posts that perform well. See here for more on second tier link building.
The theory here is that over the years as domains change, staff come and go, site structure evolves, there are very often hundreds if not thousands of pages that get left behind without a redirect.
Many of these have links pointing at them which now that your page 404s are likely to be doing very little for your website. Link reclamation involves you taking back that link equity, no real extra effort required, you are just making the most of what you already (in theory) have. Still don't believe me that established websites offer incredible link opportunities?
Garrett French covers this process spectacularly in his 7 ways to find your long lost links.
As Eric Ward rightly points out, the bigger and older the site, the more opportunities for link reclamation there are likely to be.
At the half-way point in the plan, now it's time to get on to the really fun stuff. It is going to be a busy four weeks…
Take control of social
This may not be a possibility with some larger clients as many will have either a dedicated agency or in-house department that looks after social but link building and social media are becoming more and more intertwined so the need to have access to a usable social media account is essential.
In some situations we are able to utilise the main social media account of the client, and where this isn't possible, we'll establish a sub-account usually based around an individual within the business who we are working closely with – they're going to become the public face of the business for the campaign.
It is important to have access to some form of social presence (ideally Twitter) because it enables authentic communication with the higher-value link prospects that might need warming up before the email outreach. It also gives a further avenue to push out blog content and promote guest posts so that as time goes by you have an extra carrot to dangle in front of link prospects in the form of social traffic to their website.
Taking control of social is never easy, we have had situations where we couldn't tweet a guest post because it was on a site that wasn't owned by the client!
Improve the content assets
Back in month 2 we conducted a gap analysis to identify any content assets in need of some attention and more specifically what it is that we needed to do to bring them up to scratch.
Here we are in month 3 and it is time to get to work. When it comes to improving the content, consider whether what you are doing is going to benefit your prospective customers, or whether you are just padding out an already mediocre piece of content.
I am a big fan of creating content that helps to attract links and simultaneously helps to support the sales process in some way either through attracting attention and bringing targeted visitors into the top of your funnel, or helping a user in a buying state of mind choose between which printer they need.
Don't add bulk to your assets just for the sake of it. Align closely with your Gap analysis to ensure your asset is going to be the indisputable top dog in the space.
This element can be broken down into three areas:
The overall aim is that we are trying to get the links that are 'rightfully' yours because someone is either 'borrowing' your content, using images without attribution or mentioning your website or brand without linking to you (potential missed opportunity).
Using Google's Similar Image Search or the seriously cool TinEye you can quickly find other places around the web that use your images. These may be corporate photography that you paid to be produced or it could be charts and graphs. Basically another website publisher is using your image (knowingly or not) and you rightfully deserve an attributing link. You can work your way through the image collection on the website (ignoring stock photography that you don't own the rights to…obviously) and building a list of webmasters that you need to be contacting. TinEye also offer a number of products and services for doing this on a larger scale.
We have experienced a fair response rate to our emails simply by being friendly and explaining that we're glad they've chosen to use our image but that it would be really great if they could just include a link back to our website so that people know where it came from. Nothing heavy or involving legal action…most seem amazed that they have either been caught out or that this kind of thing is even monitored and in their state of shock are more than willing to include an attribution link (hint: don't go for keyword rich anchor text).
You can also employ a similar tactic with all the words on the website, by using Copyscape you can quickly identify text from your website that has been "borrowed" by others. A big, established website with oodles of content perhaps as a knowledgebase or a series of blog posts will find that a lot of content has been pinched by others without attribution.
Let me be perfectly clear here, many websites who pinch content are just doing it to essentially steal your work for their own purposes. A polite email is unlikely to score an attributing link from them but there are a small sub-set of content copy and pasters who overlooked copyright issues and were simply referencing your work to support something they have written. These are the ones that will likely result in a link.
To try and prevent this in future consider deploying Tynt which allows you to automatically add attribution to any chunk of text that is copied from your site and pasted elsewhere.
If you are working on the website of a large established brand then there are likely to be an abundance of opportunities on almost a daily basis to seek a link when nothing more than the brand name or URL is mentioned – bloggers and journalists do this all the time.
It's not a guaranteed link of course because some purposefully haven't included a link and don't forget to be polite because the mere fact they have mentioned the brand or website is worthy of a thank you Getting a link in this way can help improve user experience because if the reader wants to find out more then they would have to Google it or manually type in the URL – you get the link, the reader gets a better experience.
To try and prevent this in the future consider setting up Google Alerts for key brand mentions so that you can strike the prospect whilst they are warmed up and ask for that link.
This is a link building plan right?! What's blogging got to do with building links? We see blogging as central to a link building strategy because from the blog so many opportunities can come:
- Directly earn links with solid content
- Establishes credibility to help with outreach
- Gives you a platform to get the attention of link prospects
When it comes to this particular link building plan, it is a good idea to co-ordinate your content calendar with your guest blogging targets for the month ahead. This allows you to include links to any websites that you might be targeting and also gives you a highly-relevant post that you can showcase to link prospects if they are unsure of the calibre of your work. I have produced a fairly comprehensive and regularly updated guide to blogging for your business and I would encourage you to have a read of this for more detailed thoughts and advice on corporate blogging.
Acquire direct competitor link opportunities
Back in month 1 you researched and analysed the link profiles of competitors and now it is time to put into action some of that research. Any opportunities that were labelled "direct" e.g. worthy of you also acquiring should be acquired at this point in the campaign. There are all sorts of justifiable business reasons to go after links that your competitors have, not just because it is a case of "they have it, we want it" but rather because you don't want to be missing out on referral and even sales opportunities when your competitors are clearly taking advantage of them.
Use your best judgement when it comes to acquiring competitor links because replicating their link profile is unlikely to be a good idea and more importantly you want to make sure that any links you are developing are going to align with your current strategy and help to support the achievement of your goals rather than hold back the site.
As we pass the halfway point for this plan, month 4 involves fewer activities but they are often more involved and require more resources.
In month 3 the blog published content that was tailored towards a specific niche (tied back to our opportunity map in month 1) ideally linking to a few prospects. Now we are looking to push out some guest posts to bring in some fresh links and boost referral traffic. I have published quite a few posts and guides around the topic of guest blogging and so I won't go into too much detail here but essentially you can break the process down as follows:
- Identifying link opportunities (use your opportunity map)
- Sifting and evaluating opportunities
- Researching prospects
- Contacting prospects
- Writing content
- Facilitating publication
Reading to consider
- Guest blogging as a future-proof link building strategy
- Are you missing out on these guest blogging opportunities?
- 20 resources for prospecting, organising and researching link opportunities
Yes, these were all written by me (hence why I said "reading to consider" rather than "recommending reading" – I don't have that big an ego) and whilst there is other content out there on the topic, most describe "how to do guest blogging" in a different way and I prefer to only talk about what I know. Guest blogging makes up quite a large part of the plan for Month 4 so ideally you will pick your largest and most opportune topic area from your opportunity map.
Very simply this is a reminder to keep your blog on the map. Tailor this month's content calendar to the guest blogging campaign a month ahead. This will give you the same advantages as before when it comes to targeting a new topic area in month 5.
Blogger outreach to content asset 1
In month 3 we improved a content asset and with the best will in the world this takes time so it is only really likely at the start of month 4 that you will be able to start putting the asset to work in the form of promotion. We typically separate outreach and promotion to bloggers (and journalists where applicable) and webmasters. We target the former first as many prefer to talk about fresh topics whereas a webmaster including a link to your guide will still likely do so as the guide becomes more established.
Telling a blogger that you launched something three months ago is unlikely to evoke a feeling that they are important to you. Reaching out to a blogger to promote a content asset is different to the pitch you make to secure a guest post spot and in many ways it can be more challenging. We recommend a two-pronged approach to blogger outreach
- Social outreach – taking control of the client's social account suddenly seems like a good move
- Sending emails
It need not be any more complicated than that. The devil is in the detail though because it is how you do these things which affect the results that you see.
I think Mike Essex's contribution to this post (see the section on 'push content') is a really solid example of a good outreach email for this kind of thing. Your social efforts should follow suit in the sense that it needs to be specific and targeted towards what the individual is likely to be interested in and how it helps them. I would add to this that the success comes in selecting your prospects and developing a relationship over time.
Perhaps connecting the practices of guest blogging and blogger outreach to make the most of your connections and be specific in all communication, call to actions are essential if you want to get things done. Don't leave them wondering why you emailed or what they need to do.
Additionally, the campaign is made or broken by the targeting, if you have for example 3 clear niches to approach it encourages the systematic acquisition of all available links, thinking that your content appeals to "everyone" is going to result in you poorly targeting everybody.
Webmaster promotion to content asset 1
In month 4 we promoted the content asset to bloggers (and potentially journalists), now we are going to be pushing the asset to other webmasters with the view to securing permanent links on resource pages and the like to really cement the asset as an authority resource and ensure the long-term visibility of it (in the search results) after the initial buzz and social traffic subsides.
How to find opportunities
- Link Prospector from Citation Labs
- Analysis of links earned by other content assets
Link prospector from Citation Labs
One of our favourite internal tools for identifying link prospects for further qualification. This tool has a "links pages" report type which allows you to discover authentic resource pages within your market.
Your asset may well be the market leader now but before it came to existence there was a competitor earning all those links. Using your favourite link research tool, you need to track down all the links and look for direct opportunities as well as the indirect opportunities such as "this type of website linked to the resource, let's look for more of this type of website". A key reason we divide outreach rather than do it all in one sprint is because it allows us to tailor our approach based on what is working rather than exhaust our prospects right off the bat.
As before, but targeting a new segment from your opportunity map.
As before, but focusing on the area you intend to target for month 6 with your guest blogging.
Add a new content asset
There are several approaches you can take when it comes to creating a new content asset and the reason I wanted to include within this link building plan was because in reality even established websites won't necessarily have usable content assets at your disposal when you walk in the door. There are multiple ways to approach this and here are a few of our preferred methods:
- Publish content they already have – large established websites usually have established businesses behind them and frequently established businesses have mountains of content that they aren't really putting to good use. In your quest to create linkable assets, you might decide to repurpose something that they already have – (think optimising what they already have).
- Look for opportunities in your market centred around customer questions – if you really are working from scratch then it is advisable to return to your opportunity map from month 1 and explore each of the market segments in detail to help build a picture of the type and theme of your content. (Read HubSpot's excellent guide to creating content centred around buyer personas).
- Find content assets of competitors that you could really do better – identify opportunities in your market by looking through the content your competitors have created, chances are they haven't done it as well as it could be done then do it better.
- Look for pages in your competitor's site that 404s but has link equity (from external links) - this is a long shot and to tell you the truth we have only managed to do this once. Essentially you perform link reclamation on your competitor's website but rather than help them with their redirects, you create your own amazing version of the page that 404s on their site and reach out to all the webmasters that link to it. It isn't that this can't work, it is that the opportunities are rare but I felt it still merited a mention.
- Outsource something – a content asset could be more of a linkable asset for example a mobile app, a bit of free software or a handy tool, if these things fall outside of your expertise then you may consider hiring someone to take care of it.
You made it, six months of link acquisition and link optimisation. By now you should be really seeing the fruits of your labour paying off. Just one more month of activity then time to benchmark performance…
Influencer outreach for new content asset
Based on all your activities in the market over the previous half a year, you should have developed some relationships with influencers such as bloggers, curators, editors and maybe even journalists. Both they and the market as a whole should now have a feel for what you or your client is about and have some sense of goodwill towards you.
This activity is about enhancing this goodwill but also leveraging it because you will be seeking the help of the influencers you are now acquainted with to help you launch the shit out of this new content asset.
There's no template outreach email for this one…subtly interweave some egobait into the asset and just ask for people's help. Most (because they now know you) will probably help spread the word with links, tweets, +1s etc.
- Webmaster Promotion to the new content asset
- Guest Blogging (to the new content asset) – target a portion of your guest blogging efforts towards building links and raising awareness for your new content asset. You can even rework some of the content and tailor to specific blogs to save time when it comes to writing the guest posts.
- Guest Blogging – as before, this time targeting a new niche from your opportunities map.
- Blogging – once again think ahead in terms of the content you produce, align with any plans you have on the horizon.
What do you think to the plan? Obviously one-size-does-not-fit-all when it comes to link building but this is just designed to be a loose template to give you an idea of how we work and also some food for thought. How would you improve it?
James Agate is the founder of Skyrocket SEO – a trusted link building & content marketing company.
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