A question that I get asked quite a bit is something along the lines of “what link building tools do you use?”. The honest truth is that I don’t use that many on client sites every day. I’ve certainly paid for and used quite a few over the last few years, but when I first started in SEO, I didn’t have the cash to buy tools or subscribe to them. This forced me to do things manually for quite a long time, but it helped me learn how link building really works from the ground up.
I’m still a bit of an old school SEO in some senses. I still believe that anyone learning SEO should not be allowed to use tools straight away and should learn manual processes first. Here are a few things I believe every SEO should do before being allowed anywhere near tools –
- Build a website using only Notepad and an FTP program
- Manually submit your website to paid and free directories
- Write an article which targets a specific keyword
- Write a press release in four paragraphs
- Hand write META data for an entire site based on a keyword list
I could go on…! But I’m sure you get the idea.
The point is, I believe that its vital to know the manual process so that you learn how these things really work.
In the interests of giving away some actionable tips, I’m going to focus on the link building process and explain how I believe an SEO should start the learning process.
The Tools You can Use
- An email program
- A spreadsheet
See – I’m not totally mean, you can use some tools!
Below is the step by step process for getting links using only the three tools above. If you follow this process and learn to link build manually, it will help you much more in the long term and force you not to be reliant upon SEO tools. Whilst SEO tools can help you a lot, when it comes to link building, they should only assist your efforts – not do the link building for you.
1. Use Google to Find your Link Targets
I’m not going to talk too much about this, but the key thing here is to learn how to search. Sounds simple, but its something which is often taken for granted. You should start with the basics which I talk about in this post. The key thing here is to start with basic search queries, then learn how to refine those queries to save time and weed out results which you are not interested in. You can do this using some advanced search queries. However before you go off and use those outlined in the SEOmoz guide, try to come up with your own which are tailored to the site you are trying to get links for.
After working on this for a while, you should feel pretty comfortable with finding link targets manually and quickly filtering out the ones that you are not interested in. All by using your own advanced search queries – don’t use any tools for this! Trust me, it will help you in the long run.
2. Before ANYTHING find contact details and record in your spreadsheet
Find contact details! So many people spend ages figuring out if the site is a good one and looking for a page where they may get a link from. Then can’t find contact details! Which means you’re a bit screwed – find contact details first.
At this point you will probably have had a quick look through the site and will have a feeling whether or not this site is relevant to you. If you feel it is, then add it to your spreadsheet. Do NOT use any tools to record these sites yet, there are tools out there that allow you to manage link targets in a CRM type system. However you need to learn manually what data you should be capturing about each link target. Some CRM tools allow you to capture tons of data, but do you really need it all? Maybe, maybe not. But the key is to decide for yourself what data you need in order to contact the website about getting a link.
Once you have decided what data you want to capture, put it into your spreadsheet and make it easily sortable in columns.
3. Email the link target straight away
It seems to be the norm to collect link targets into a big spreadsheet, then email them all in one go. Sure this can work, but this isn’t the best way to develop link building skills. I’d advise you to send the outreach email straight away whilst the site is fresh in your mind. This also means you have to write an email that isn’t templated and is totally personal to them – this is fine. This will help you develop a sense of how to personalise emails to give yourself as much chance as possible of getting a link.
It is very important to learn how to craft an outreach email from scratch. At this point, do not write a template. It isn’t the best way to learn. Make each and every email personal to the link target, this will teach you the value of personalising an email and exactly how you can do so.
4. Track your progress in a spreadsheet
As mentioned above, forget any fancy CRM or tracking systems, you’re still learning the ropes. Do it the basic way and use a spreadsheet. This will teach you to keep things simple and to only collect the data which is truly valuable, it will force you not to collect tons of metrics and details that you don’t really need.
As you email each target, put a note in the spreadsheet so you know whats going on and can sort by who you have already contacted.
5. The response or follow up
If you haven’t had a response after a few days, send a short, friendly follow up to them. If you still don’t get a reply, I’d leave them be. If you have a response, obviously make sure you respond promptly! If the response you get isn’t positive, still reply to them in a friendly way. Perhaps ask them if its ok to contact them in the future if there is other stuff you have which may be of interest to them.
Keep track of the responses in your spreadsheet. You can mark each response with traffic lights to make it easy to see at a glance what the responses have been like –
- Green – good response, probably going to get a link
- Amber – warm response, will need some more work
- Red – no way am I getting a link!
6. Record links secured
Make a note of the links that you have secured in your spreadsheet. Think about what metrics you should record about each one. Do you need the following?
- Anchor text
- Page being linked to
- Cache date
- Domain Authority
I’m not saying you need all of these, you should decide for yourself what is important and how you are going to measure the value of a link.
Well once you have mastered the process manually, you’ll find that there are many tools that can speed up certain parts of this process. Using these tools is fine, but be aware that I’m yet to come across the perfect link building tool that does all of this to a high level of quality without human intervention. So knowing where you can automate and where you can’t, is vitally important.
Doing this process manually will also help you choose your link building tools better as you’ll know what attributes really matter to the whole process.
That’s it for this post, I hope you found it useful and please feel free to leave any feedback in the comments.