9 Tips to Sourcing the Right Link-Building Company
A question I often get asked at conferences is how should I go about sourcing the right kind of link-building partner. Link building, especially by in-house search engine optimization teams, is often pushed down the list due to resource constraints as link building can be a fairly manual and time-consuming effort. We operate in a resource-constrained world, so it’s best served to outsource your link-building initiatives to a third-party provider.
But this is where it gets tricky. Finding the right link-building partner can be really tough. If not done right, you can end up in a situation like J.C. Penney. At the same time, it's very important that companies have someone internally who understands SEO and link building and can closely work with their link-building partner.
With that, let me share with you nine tips on sourcing the right link-building partner:
1. Trust: When it comes to link building, it's very important that you trust your link-building partner. Essentially, you're authorizing an outside agency to market on your behalf. In many instances you may not know each and every site your link is placed on. You definitely don’t want your brand to be found on the type of sites that you wouldn’t associate with. You're putting your brand on the line. What does your gut tell you? Can you trust them? If so, then go ahead.
2. Industry reputation: How's the company's reputation? Are its founders well-known and respected in the SEO community? Are they frequent speakers at industry conferences like SES, SMX and other search marketing-focused gatherings? Are they considered thought leaders who contribute to industry publications like this one? These are all important questions that build on one’s reputation. Finally, do a quick search on Google and Twitter for the company name to see what results come up (you can also try this with the company founder's name). Try searching the Better Business Bureau and other consumer sites to see what comes up as well.
3. Industry associations: It sounds cliché, but we're known by the company we keep. In this case it's the association, and the search industry doesn't have many credible associations. But a few like SEMPO are reputable and have been at the forefront of search engine marketing from the beginning. There are no barriers to entry in terms of membership, but what you should check is if your would-be agency partners have the right kind of association.
4. Who ranks them?: Frankly, there's no industrywide ranking that can vouch for any one company’s superiority over another. I've seen companies look at Forrester Wave, eMarketer or MarketingSherpa reports for guidance in terms of top companies. If a company is coming to you saying that you should give them your business based on their top ranking in the industry, be cautious. I'd rather have you go over the other points described here and not award your business solely on the basis of ranking.
5. Is the package too good to be true?: We all know we get what we pay for, right? Quality link building is about creating the right kind of strategy that makes your business stand out in search rankings. It's not a cheap endeavor. I come across ads like “Get 10 PR 7 links for only $49.99.” Trust me, they're too good to be true. I've seen all kinds of link-building packages, and this is just one extreme example. Getting quality, solid links isn't easy; don’t fall prey to these too-good-to-be-true offers.
6. Can they build a financial model around link building?: Always ask your potential link-building partner if it can quantify the value of its work in terms of rankings, traffic or revenues. Revenues could be a bit of a stretch, but your goal here isn't on getting the numbers right, but to test its willingness to quantify. This step will weed out more than half of the prospective link-building companies. Others will give you reasons like "it's tough to measure" or "we don’t know your analytics." I'm pretty sure only about 5 percent to 10 percent of the companies on your list would be willing to do this exercise for you.
7. The pricing structure: I like partners who propose a pricing structure with a “skin in the game” mind-set. This will be reflected in their pricing structure, as they'll have either a performance-based or revenue-sharing price structure. I'm not suggesting this should be the case every time, but I'd be inclined to award my business to the company who comes in with a revenue-sharing price structure as opposed to a straight monthly fee proposal.
8. What's its stance on paid links?: Honestly, after the J.C. Penney fiasco, most link builders will tell you that they won’t do that to you. They might also tell you how paid link building is bad and they're against it. Be careful. Do your own probing as to why it's bad. Play devil’s advocate. Slowly you'll find which way they're leaning towards. Paid links can be an easy acquisition, but are you looking at your business with a short-term or long-term approach? Your answer may dictate your actions here.
9. How does their client link portfolio look?: The best way to qualify a company is to look at its current and past clients. Review testimonials and references, too. Pick one of its current clients to see the work they've done with them. Use tools like majesticseo.com, opensiteexplorer.org, Bad Neighborhood or the free Yahoo Site Explorer. Look at the diversity of links, neighborhood link reports and anchor text distribution. These reports will tell you a company’s link-building approach. Picking out one of its client’s sites and visiting it will tell you if the link was free or paid and if you were provided accurate information.
Be sure to check out the May 5 issue of eM+C Weekly where I'll discuss link-building best practices.