The internet was built on links, and link building is still an incredibly important aspect of a successful SEO strategy. But it’s not as easy as it once was, and there are no quick wins in improving your site’s authority. In today’s episode, Matt and Jorie go through the history of backlinks in SEO and explain how you can create content people want to link to.
Matt Howells-Barby: Hi, I'm Matt Howells-Barby, I'm Jorie Munroe, and this is Skill Up. Skill Up is a podcast sponsored by HubSpot Academy all about the changing landscape of marketing, sales and customer service. Google's algorithm is built on links. Linking to a webpage is the signal that it contains something of value. And that's ultimately how the whole web is organized. And while a lot of things have changed about the way Google works, links are still as important as ever.
You might remember the days of directories, and
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Jorie Munroe: So this seems like one of the few places that
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. I mean, Backlinks have really been the way that [00:02:30] Google have been able to be a search engine in the first place, right? If we think about the way that the web works. Webpages linking to other pages, that's the way that websites are structured through links. It's also the way that anyone can go from one experience to the next on the web. Without links, the web literally wouldn't work.
Jorie Munroe: It would break.
Matt Howells-Barby: It would break, and Google would have no other way of understanding which different pieces of content are related to one another, and more importantly discovering [00:03:00] content. Because on a fundamental level, the way that Google creates such index that is its library of all of these pages across the web, is it starts on one page looks for any links on that page, follows them to the next pages, follows those links to the next pages and next pages and next pages, and this is why we find all of
Now alongside that, it's a core part of how they determine which pages that [00:03:30] are about the same topic should rank above each other or below each other. And one of the ways that I find easiest to explain this with like academic papers, and I think we've touched on this in some of the previous episodes, right?
Jorie Munroe: Journals I think.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly. So you've got an academic journal that has citations at the bottom, linking to other academic journals. That's kind of giving it a stamp of approval to say, "We believe this is authoritative enough to be used as a citation." That's the exact same what's happening [00:04:00] with backlinks. One of the most innovative things that Google brought to the web with their search was the page rank algorithm. And this was the way that they used backlinking as a sign of authority.
And in a basic level, if every single page on the web, they have a school that is only visible to Google, right? In terms of authority and whenever [00:04:30] that page or a page links to another webpage, whether that's in its own website or outside of its website, it passes a portion of that authority through to another page. So the more authoritative a page is, the moral authority it can pass. And when I say passes authority, it doesn't give it away.
It retains a certain authority, but let's say a webpage has a score of 100, right? And there are 10 links on the page. [00:05:00] This is a super dumb version of this, right?
Jorie Munroe: I would say super simple because like, I got you. I'm following along
Matt Howells-Barby: What the page rank algorithm-
Jorie Munroe: Accessible.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yes, this is a very accessible way of explaining it.
Jorie Munroe: Thank you.
Matt Howells-Barby: But what the page rank algorithm focused on. We're saying, "Okay, two things. One, the entire amount of authority of the page is passed on to the pages that it links to, but if [00:05:30] this webpage only links to one other webpage, and that first webpage has a score of 100, right? The page that links to will gain a score of 100 as well. Now if it links to two different pages, each of those two pages will get a score of 50 each. And if we have 10 different pages, they'll each get a score of 10 each.
And you can then see how there's this dampening effect that happens where the links from the linked page then [00:06:00] only has a score of 10. Also has 10 links and now the next page has got a score of one. This is why usually the home page of a website is usually the most authoritative. Because that's the page that usually gets the most authority and then it spreads it down. And the same reason why people talk about, okay, getting links from authoritative websites, right?
Some of the biggest publications in the world. Because they are more authoritative to start with. But then there's the other piece, right where you've got ... well, actually, if you get a link [00:06:30] from maybe a slightly less authoritative page, but there's only a small number of links, there's less of a dampening effect or dilution of the authority of the spread. So there's so much that goes into link building, and there is a long history behind ways that SEOs have traditionally tried to game the system and succeeded for a long time.
This is actually where when I first ever got into SEO, I was doing a lot of things [00:07:00] that I certainly would not be doing right now. You can imagine
That's what we know traditionally as a private blog network. [00:07:30] Very simple ways that could be done back then just to game the system and get things ranking. And there was a huge business and it was very cheap to do.
Jorie Munroe: So people would essentially buy links.
Matt Howells-Barby: Oh yes, and people definitely still buy links. Now back in say, even like 2010, 2012, even like that level. Buying links, [00:08:00] that wasn't a whole lot of danger around that because Google was terrible at determining whether something was a purchase link. More importantly, determine whether it was part of, say a spammy blog network. There was huge networks in Russia in particular, called seep network. Where you could buy 10,000 links from like 10,000 different webpages for like 100 bucks. Right?
And you can imagine the quality of those websites and these [00:08:30] websites will be written in Russian and back then like this stuff used to work at scale. And there'll be automated systems where you'd be building tens of thousands of links on like a weekly basis. Now, one huge thing happened in I
Jorie Munroe: Penguin.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yes. They always have a very, approachable algorithm names that often [00:09:00] do a whole lot of craziness in the search results specially for
That was a huge day and a huge proceeding few weeks. I remember at the time working with ... Well, at the time I was working in an agency and we were focused on SEO, and I got a call from one of the biggest clothes fashion retailers in the UK and they'd
Jorie Munroe: Wow.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. That's how dramatic this was at the time. And it just like ... this goes to show the enormous gains that could be made off of stuff like these tactics, to the enormous losses that could happen.
Jorie Munroe: So had they announced this change or was it something that kind of dropped overnight and like ha-ha caught you Russians, like what was [00:10:30] like kind of general vibe around penguin?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah.
Jorie Munroe: Also I love the branding versus like Apple, that's like fire tighter.
Matt Howells-Barby: We've had like penguin, we've had panda, we've had hummingbird. We've had like, yeah, all really nice ones. And what happened and up until really recently actually, Google has become a lot more transparent with Google updates. And actually now Google tend to have less of a ... There was a major update [00:11:00] coming. They almost are updating and tweaking things on a very minute level on like a daily basis. Sometimes, I think a couple of years ago, I think I read somewhere either Google made over 550, 600 updates to their algorithm in a single year.
It's more than once a day. Right. But with like the first Penguin update, same with panda, which doesn't focus on links, but they said an update is coming. And it was like, "All right." Everyone's like, "Oh God."
Jorie Munroe: It sounds very ominous.
Matt Howells-Barby: Something's happening.
Jorie Munroe: Updates are coming.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, and it was usually [00:11:30] always on a Friday. So at the end of the day, so great. Can't wait for this or over a weekend.
Jorie Munroe: Your business will tank by Monday.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly. So yeah, that really changed the game in terms of link building because there were so many things that were ... it was all about scale. It was about pure volume. You would have things like article directories. These were huge. You would basically write an article, and submit it to [00:12:00] an article directory which would publish the same article on sites that no one would read. Right? It's like they would publish it to like 10,000 different random pages all having a link back to your site.
Usually with the keyword that you're going after as like the anchor text for the link. Right? And then there would be comment boards. There are software things like GSA it's called, there's a scrape box is a bunch of tools were what you would [00:12:30] do as ... I still remember when I was in college, a huge thing that I
So you would have like, all right, let's say I said the first line of the article is myself and Jorie are going to record a podcast. Right? And it'd be like, okay, I would have spin tags so the software could change and replace [00:13:00] some of the words in that sentence to create multiple versions of it. So it'd be like Jorie, and I, me and Jorie and they'd be like Matt and Jorie, Jorie, and Matt. And then you would be able to shift them around. You'd create different syntax and then you would do for the next word.
It would be like
"Hello. Really enjoyed this blog." "Hello. Really enjoyed this article." And then run that through automated software, and it would span like 10,000 websites and what the reason for that was, whenever old blog commenting systems used to ask you to put your name [00:14:00] and your blog URL, and then your comment and your name would be linked to your blog. So you would add your keyword is your name. You would add your link to your blog and then it will auto submit and there would be things where you could break the captures and stuff like that. That would be on the site. That would all be automated, so that stuff used to work.
Jorie Munroe: I feel like you've just taken off this mask and been like, "I used to be a black hat SEO expert. And I was reason that people were being spammed. I'd [00:14:30] be like a DC villain just like walked up next to me, sat down, said, "Hello. Matt Howells-Barby." Wow.
Matt Howells-Barby: My English accent I guess does lend itself to putting us into a job we can all do.
Jorie Munroe: Traditionally evil working.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, exactly. The reality was it was incredibly difficult to compete with what you would call now let's just spam, back then. I was like, I'm incredible.
Jorie Munroe: This is everything.
Matt Howells-Barby: This is everything. I'm so awesome at doing this, and I was in the crappiest, worst stuff, but it did [00:15:00] use to work.
Jorie Munroe: Rehabilitative.
Matt Howells-Barby: Right, and this whole layers ... and it's super interesting, and I'm really glad that's how I started out in SEO because it gives you the purest of understanding I think, of how Google's algorithm works. Knowing how to gain something means you gain an insight into how you can also do it properly. And that's another big piece because there were like huge industries built out of this. There was a like a forum that still exist. I used to spend a lot of my time in college on this, it's [00:15:30] called black hat world. And it was like the-
Jorie Munroe: Literally in the name Matt.
Matt Howells-Barby: If you look at it, I don't think that site design has changed since when I was in college, and you'd be able to ... there would be whole link farms that would have tens, hundreds of thousands of websites that they would control and could add links programmatically to your site. They'd be automated platforms. There was a whole thing that was called tiered link building. And this was the idea that instead of [00:16:00] powering say 10,000 links from comments, and forums and submitting articles directly to your website, you would create, say 100 pages that you pointed towards your site.
And then you'd fire 10,000 links into those sites. So you'd create these tiers. So that if a penalty arose, you could just shut down the 100 websites versus the 1 million websites that you've linked. And people would create very [00:16:30] complex tiered link building strategies to rank individual websites. And to fast forward a little bit that ... I actually don't want to say that stuff doesn't work right now, because there
Jorie Munroe: Where there is a will, there is a way.
Matt Howells-Barby: There
Jorie Munroe: So that sounds super complicated, but how hard is it today given like all of these updates compared to like when it was a newer strategy to really drive those impactful links to your [00:17:30] website? Like when we think about link building today, and you just think about like the content creators that are just trying to use SEO for good instead of evil. Like what are we talking about? Like how hard is it today to generate this amount of links?
Matt Howells-Barby: It's
Now, Seth [00:18:30] Godin is a really good example to use here because he's someone that had a pretty decent audience in say 2008, but really like grew and grew and grew and grew. You would expect his most popular article right would go basically in a very linear fashion up, up, up, up. And what we saw is okay, that started to go up until around 2011. Then it's like drops down, and down, and down, and down, and down. His traffic [00:19:00] is still going up and his ranking still
And then what you do is you overlay that exact same chart with how many times his content was shared on social media. And it's very like dramatic growth upwards from 2008 to 2016. And what the takeaway here is when you go back to say 2008, right? You read something really interesting, and you [00:19:30] want to say it like, you want to reinforce. This is a really interesting thing. And social media just wasn't as developed anywhere near where it is even in 2011, back in those days.
And the thing that would get done is someone would add a link. There would be things that you called blog roles, and it would be a little widget on your sidebar. You'd be like my favorite blogs. And you would have pages on your site, you'd be like my favorite articles and that's where you would list links to it. And [00:20:00] this is still a big tactic nowadays, but we used to call it and still do resource page link building. When you try and get into some of these pages.
And people now, if you read something interesting, you're not going to add a link on your site, right? It's like, I'll just tweet about it or I'll share it on Facebook. Right? That's an even bigger reinforcement and people like Seth probably actually care more about that
Has changed fundamentally. That said you no longer need to generate the same kind of volume of backlinks. This is all relative. One of the reasons why much older websites rank so
The other thing that's happened is, I mentioned when we were talking a little bit about things like private blog networks and some of the more black hat type things. Now, I mentioned before you could buy 10,000 links, like 100 bucks. That is no way near as cheap nowadays. And the problem is if you straight up bought 10,000 links for [00:21:30] 100 bucks, which I'm sure you could find somewhere. You will almost immediately get a search engine penalty. I can guarantee that for you, within like a couple of months, it's going to be game over for you. Right?
Jorie Munroe: They're going to find out.
Matt Howells-Barby: Right. It's like the most easy thing now for Google to spot. That kind of link velocity is another big thing that Google looks at. So not just how many links you have and the authority of those links, but how frequently are you earning links. If all of a sudden you've went from having, say [00:22:00] 100 new links-ish come through to your website to one month 10,000 links, right? There's an enormous spike in velocity. The only way you could probably maintain this, is if you literally maintain 10,000 links every single month like they were coming from valuable sources. Even then it, Google's going to flag that immediately.
And that is where the focus on quality. And I think this really drew parallel with the rise of like inbound marketing, content marketing, [00:22:30] that certainly from my career I kind of just started to really come aboard. And, as that transition was happening, it was interesting to watch that flow through. So yeah, it has become a lot more difficult than it was even in almost even like five years ago. It's become much, much more difficult because it's become more expensive, both in time and resources and money.
Jorie Munroe: So given that the [00:23:00] game has sort of changed with backlinks, what types of content should I be creating if the goal is to actually get more backlinks?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, and this brings me to the way I try to think about link building ... link building is probably historically the thing that I have personally been asked the most about and continue to. If anyone ever asked me questions about SEO that especially when ... to be honest, even if they're just getting started or if they've [00:23:30] been doing SEO for years, people want to know like what are the best ways to build links. What are the most interesting things I've done that have helped build links? How do we do ... for any SEO agency, this is the biggest pain point from a scalability point of view.
Anyone that is running any SEO service's and anyone that's focused in-house doing SEO that says they do fundamentally do not care about links is either lying to themselves or
Jorie Munroe: A scam.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. Because [00:24:00] it is so important and the thing is tactics. There are lots and lots of tactics that you can apply. Over the years, I have used probably hundreds of different tactics. However, a tactic has an expiry date. Every single tactic that you use pretty much from the day you start using it, begins declining in its effectiveness. And this couldn't be more relevant within link building. A classic example is, I remember [00:24:30] in, I think it was around 2014, all of a sudden the word infographic started firing everywhere.
All of a sudden infographics were amazing for building links because you could create this image and you could share it with people and submit it to infographic directories. And they would always have to credit you with a link or an embed code that had a link to your site. All of a sudden you can create hundreds, thousands of links. People like Mashable, Business Insider, the BBC, like all these big websites were like, "Whoa, these things are really interesting."
And they would [00:25:00] share them, and it was just a cash cow for link building and then more people did it. And like-
Jorie Munroe: They found out the secret.
Matt Howells-Barby: Right. And like everything within SEO, and the reason why we can't have nice things in SEO is
And the way that you should, in my opinion, certainly what's worked for myself and within teams that I've worked with over the
And yeah, that is an incredibly effective tactic, but
You'll need one hit with a tactic like that and it will make up for hundreds of losses. But can you withstand the hundreds of losses [00:27:00] to get to that one hit?
Jorie Munroe: Right.
Matt Howells-Barby: And then you've got on the other side of things, tactics that require much lower resources, but in
We can go find a bunch of these pages, use automated scripts to go and find this kind of stuff. Then we reach out to the people on the websites. WE usually get a pretty good hit rate when we're like, "Hey, by the way, we noticed."
Jorie Munroe: Hey.
Matt Howells-Barby: "Hey guys."
Jorie Munroe: "Can you link us?"
Matt Howells-Barby: "Can you link to us please?" So we reach out in that tone and they say, "Yeah, sure guy, we're willing to."
Jorie Munroe: Sure Matt. Sad turtle Matt.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, exactly. Then [00:28:00] you can imagine though some of those may be great links, but that doesn't always work for big news publications. They're like, "Sorry Matt, no." Or that's the response. Nothing. And that's more often the case. So the big thing to think about here is like, all right, what are we best set up with to tackle right now? Are we going to tackle things like guest posting, link reclamation, [00:28:30] resource page link building, broken link building.
We can talk about some of these things that are lower resources, lower potential reward that we can scale. Or are we more set up to go for like news jacking, data journalism, big PR and like website acquisitions that are up in that upper right core tile. Or are we going to do like a mixture of a few different
Jorie Munroe: This is a great time for a quick break. We'll be back with more after a message from HubSpot Academy.
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Jorie Munroe: So what's your favorite tactic right now? I got to ask, put you on the spot. [00:30:00] What's Matt working on when it comes to SEO?
Matt Howells-Barby: I think some of the things that we've been doing is largely focused ... and this is at HubSpot.
Jorie Munroe: Right.
Matt Howells-Barby: So one of the things we have been spending a lot of time on is data, data backed content. Kind of what I was talking about at the start where, like we have a really strong internal team that first of all we can focus on data journalism to a certain extent. We have infrastructure in place where we can gather large [00:30:30] sets of data. We also have a huge customer base that we can tap into, to run surveys and industry reports. We've been doing industry reports for the past few years, and they've been working incredibly well.
Alongside all of this, we have a huge audience and we already have some contacts at publication, so they're big in the industry. So we have that infrastructure that we've built over the years that's required a lot of failure along the way to get there.
Jorie Munroe: Right.
Matt Howells-Barby: Where [00:31:00] we know that if we push out a new interesting industry insight report that we'll at least get a minimum level of uptake for that which gets pushed out to different publications, gets mentioned in various articles, and we have a process that we've refined and refined and refined so that we use the minimal resources possible to get that working. But at the same
Like [00:31:30] we have on the SEO team,
Jorie Munroe: Nice.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, it was actually ran by Ann Smarty, a really [00:32:00] good SEO, and she had a huge penalty placed across the whole site. And it was basically taken down and it was an incredibly controversial time because basically the website facilitated ... You would go onto My Blog Guest, and you would put a request in where you'd say, "Hey, I have an article that I want to guest post on someone's website." And it would link and if you're a website owner, you would link up with them. Sometimes they would be like payment made in exchange to [00:32:30] purchase the article.
Then they would place the article on their website and they would link back to you. And this was a huge community. I used to use it a fair amount.
Jorie Munroe: Yeah, doesn't sound so bad on the surface.
Matt Howells-Barby: And I think the argument there's a ... without getting myself involved in the debate too much, which is now long, long in history. I think the argument on Google side was this facilitated paid link building.
Jorie Munroe: Got you.
Matt Howells-Barby: Through a very finely veiled interface.
Jorie Munroe: And not Google's paid link building.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly, right.
Jorie Munroe: Okay, I understand.
Matt Howells-Barby: And [00:33:00] that's it. It technically violated where my skylines. Now when this happened, there was this huge shift in SEO where then, everyone was saying guest posting is banned. I think guest posting is not banned, and I don't think Google has ever said ... Google has said in an open statement, I think once that they would crack down on guest posting that violated their webmaster guidelines. Because one way that guest posting scaled really well was [00:33:30] author bio link.
So most guest posts would have an author bio in there and you'd be like, "Hey, I'm Matt Barby from HubSpot," Linked to HubSpot and like I still feel that actually these links can be valuable. Like not just from a link button point of view, but from a credibility building point of view from the reader. However, they are easily abused.
Jorie Munroe: This is why we can't have nice things.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly, right. And the problem like with infographics was guest posting scaled up to such a crazy level. That Google [00:34:00] kind of had to do something because it's ultimately the more people game Google's algorithm, the more difficult it becomes for Google to actually try, and deliver what users really want. So, that's one side. We still use guest posting, right? We want to be featured on big publications and industry publications. Yeah, we want backlinks, but actually we want traffic, and we want to generate brand visibility for what we're doing and get some of our content out there.
So, that's another thing that we do. [00:34:30] And similarly we do a ton of link reclamation. HubSpot gets mentioned loads. Generally if you're a public company, you're going to have loads of unlinked brand mentions. That's a super scalable playbook that you can build a simple process for, and do it once a week, once a month, whatever cadence. Skill Up's outreach and get some links in. So the big thing here is we do some big risks stuff.
We've even explored like acquiring whole websites, which we've done in the past. Purely because [00:35:00] they have so much SEO value, and folding them into our own site. I've done that outside of HubSpot a huge amount and this is all about getting the balance, spreading out the risk, and also the potential reward off the back of it as well.
Jorie Munroe: So do you think that backlinks also vary by industry? You know, like does this generally work across different types of companies or should different types of companies in different industries [00:35:30] approach backlinks from a different strategic point of view?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. This is one of the things where it can be very confusing, especially when you're relatively new or actually not even if you're new to SEO. Even if you've been doing SEO for a few years. If you are in particular working for an SEO agency, and you have a broad spectrum of clients. You can sometimes fall into the trap where you are [00:36:00] let's say running an SEO campaign for a travel client. Now it's a lot easier and there's a lot more opportunities to build links in the travel industry, and the reason for that is there's a huge content industry there.
There's tons of travel bloggers, that you can partner with. There's tons of influencers, that's co-marketing campaigns. There's just a ton of online talk, money that goes into that and content. There's a lot more opportunity. [00:36:30] And then you bring it in a new client right? They're not in the travel industry. Maybe they're in the industrial manufacturing industry. All of a sudden there aren't a whole lot of bloggers talking about copper piping, and you realize all of a sudden-
Jorie Munroe: I don't know what kind of blogs you're reading, but I am not.
Matt Howells-Barby: There's probably a sub Reddit for them. But there probably isn't a blog or at least a lot of blogs. And that's when all of a sudden that playbook that you were using in the travel space, [00:37:00] that does not apply here. However, there are also certain advantages that come to that. In, I don't want to say less sophisticated. What I mean is less sophisticated from an SEO point of view industries. So a lot of people will be like, "I'm a more boring SEO industries," right?
Jorie Munroe: Simple is not always bad though.
Matt Howells-Barby: Right. Well, a lot of the tactics that are saturated certainly in say travel, right? Infographics you try sending your infographic to a bunch of travel bloggers now they're just [00:37:30] like, no. Like I actually still on my email inbox have a filter for the word infographic, that puts things automatically into a folder that I never read because it just gets so much of it.
Jorie Munroe: Trashed.
Matt Howells-Barby: Right? Yeah, and I guarantee that's the same in the travel. Now in industries that are less exposed to this kind of thing. The hit rate on those
And this is a tactic that I used to use so much a few years ago. And we still do this to a certain extent at HubSpot, but, in good relation to this example doesn't work as well in our industry because it's saturated. In other industries, the idea behind broken link building [00:38:30] is, you search for web pages that might link to you. And let's say you search for an article that's talking all about copper piping, right? Because you think maybe we could get a link from this to our copper piping website.
And you go on there and there's a link to a website that is actually all about copper piping. But the link to that web page no longer exists, so essentially a broken link. It was added maybe a few years ago. Maybe that page either got [00:39:00] like moved, the URL change, they've got ... tried redirect. Now it's a broken link. So when you find that link, you email the owner of the website and say, "Hey, I've just noticed a really bad experience for your website users. This is going to really affect how they're trying to find information and travel across your sites, it's really bad. They go into a 404 page.
I've got the solution. I have this page that does that exact thing. Why don't you just update the link and add this one. And in those industries a lot more of [00:39:30] the time you get a response like, "Wow, thank you so much. That was a real help for me." Now you email the same thing in the travel industry. They're like, "Go to hell." Like, I hate your 10 emails you've already sent me this month, right? And that is the trade off, right?
Like you can often get less scale, but higher hit rates and that's like what I would say for people when they say, "Oh, it's just too difficult to build links in this industry." Rubbish. You can build links in any industry if you are creative enough or you prioritize things enough or you have well defined processes that can help you navigate the nuances of that industry. Rubbish. You can build links in any [00:40:00] industry if you are creative enough, or you prioritize things enough or you have well defined processes that can help you navigate the nuances of that industry.
Jorie Munroe: We're just not getting sponsored by the travel industry. Just Matt's characteristic is it, "Go to hell right now."
Matt Howells-Barby: Trust me, if there was one industry that is saturated with link building it's travel, like that is for sure.
Jorie Munroe: So how would I figure out who has high domain authority in the industry I'm writing about? Like if I was writing about spin or snickers [00:40:30] or spinach, how would I go about figuring out
Matt Howells-Barby: I mean one of the starting points for this is ... I mean, first of all, there are a bunch of different SEO tools out there that you can use that can determine the authority of a domain or more importantly, a webpage.
Jorie Munroe: What are the top three you use?
Matt Howells-Barby: I would say the top three that are out there are Ahrefs, there [00:41:00] is Majestic and Moz. Those three are the big players when it comes to ... and actually, sorry I should say SEM Rush as well. Those, are the four that for analyzing backlinks on a relatively technical level. All of those websites or tools should I say, they all try to predict when we talked about at the start of this episode, that number, that a web page has. None [00:41:30] of them actually know, what they're trying to do is reverse engineer, what Google's doing and building their own index of the web and trying to figure out what we call the link graph-
Jorie Munroe: Piece it together.
Matt Howells-Barby: And piece it together and they create scores. So, some of you listening right now may have been familiar with Moz's domain authority number and page authority. Ahrefs have things like their domain rank score and Majestic has citation flow et cetera, et cetera. So there's a lot of things out there, but you can also just have a look at [00:42:00] like how many different websites or web pages linked to these websites. The Starting point really for me is, I will start finding some of the big publications in an industry.
That's like one of my starting points and I'll find a few big publications and honestly that's a bit more just manual research. I'll look through social media, I'll look through Reddit, see what people are getting in their news, speak to some customers, like try and just generally do what you were doing, your persona research [00:42:30] to uncover some of this stuff. And then I will actually go through who these pages, these websites, should I say these big publications?
Who are they linking out to? Then that starts me on a paper trail of, okay, these are some of the most in other influential pages on the web and this is where they're getting links to. And the other thing that happens in this process is, you get an understanding of, if you were to try, and get a backlink from a big publication in your industry, what kind [00:43:00] of ways are they already linking to other websites. Can you reverse engineer some of the things that have been done?
If you're noticing one publication, tends to actually publish a ton of data back studies that they reference. There's your inroad right. And the way that you can then determine if that is more authoritative than another site. It's usually initially using some of those just arbitrary metrics, the likes of Ahrefs, Majestic, Moz and SEMRush give, don't take them [00:43:30] as gospel, right? Like they are very much-
Jorie Munroe: It's just stating a point.
Matt Howells-Barby: Indicate, yeah. And that's ... you can always dig in a little bit deeper to the exact number of backlinks. But then you've also got to try and quantify quality. Try and simplify this
Jorie Munroe: So what about getting quotes from external or internal influencers, does that help with link building at all?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, this is when we kind of get into what I would kind [00:44:00] of
Jorie Munroe: Indirect link building, look it up.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, they're like the direct link building and it's what I bucket into actions that directly involve you acquiring a backlink as an outcome of that specific thing you've done. For example, emailing a website owner saying, "Hey, this link is broken why don't you replace it with that?" It's like direct link building. [00:44:30] Then you have this whole other arena that has opened up the most since around 2010 onwards right? That's really come off the back of content marketing, inbound marketing has been indirect link building.
And the idea of this is okay, if we create a piece of content and we get that content shared by a big influence in the space, or at least we have them contribute a piece. They may share [00:45:00] it, reach that audience that gets our content in front of other people who may then in turn through discovering it, and link to it. And this is like when one of the big things, and this is another classic example of everyone in the SEO industry ruining it for everyone.
Myself contributing to this at some point as well, was expert roundups, right? Probably similar time is in for graphics around 2014 or whatever. All of a sudden, [00:45:30] there was this great idea of if you doing an expert roundup where the 50 experts from the SEO industry share that number one link building tactic, right? And I remember back when this first start to come out, that was some like huge piece of content. People were adding tons of value and I remember reading the first few, I was like, "Wow, these are great."
What happened is every single expert that was mentioned or so called expert list were sharing those. And sometimes they would even link to the articles [00:46:00] like, "Hey, I recently was quoted in this place here." And that again, early adopters of new tactics like pioneering within link building, as far as pioneering can go, is incredibly valuable. Because like what I said before, the moment a tactic is started, it begins diminishing in value.
Nowadays, I would say my inbox is 90%, would you like to be quoted in this article and half of it is not even relevant [00:46:30] to me. It's like, "Could you tell us what your favorite travel gadget is like?" Why are you sending me this thing?
Jorie Munroe: No I will not.
Matt Howells-Barby: No I will not, but if I had to ... now like nobody reads expert roundups because
An example of that was an interesting link building play that happened real early on in career that [00:47:30] started to come out was widget link building. And what this was all about was primarily spurred off of the WordPress ecosystem in particular. A lot of people had websites and in particular they would have ... even big websites would have things like blog roles where they would list out their favorite blogs, but they would also include little widgets and little badges in their sidebar.
So, like stupid things like a weather widget because that's super interesting to have [00:48:00] today's weather on a website, right? Like you may remember like crappy old websites that had things like that, right? And you would also have things along the lines of top 25 influencer of this space. People still to a certain extent add those badges in, but what you would do is you would create say an award. This was actually a go to playbook of mine for a long time.
We are going in industry, especially those like copper piping industry. You would spend a bit of cash, create an award, do like a submission [00:48:30] process, have a judging panel, create this award, and then send out a widget that would go onto the website of all of the winners, which would usually be pretty reputable companies in the industry. They would add them to the homepage and across their entire site and the widget would have a link back to our websites.
It's like the awards in association with and then your link. Nowadays, no company is going to do that, unless you're incredibly respected, like third party review website, right?
Jorie Munroe: I can just imagine [00:49:00] websites going like, "You get an award, and you get an award, everyone gets awards." And it's like back linking strategy.
Matt Howells-Barby: That is what it was and it just wasn't seen through that lens at the time.
Jorie Munroe: Only Oprah can be Oprah.
Matt Howells-Barby: Exactly, and that's why it's become a lot more difficult now because that's been rinsed. Another favorite of mine university scholarships. this was a huge playbook as well where I've personally ran, I would say a minimum of 10 of these programs in the past where you would ... and this was [00:49:30] when I was working like a this side, you'd say, "Okay, we're going to create a scholarship for a university and we're going to give like five grand towards ... like as a grant towards one student or two students and we're going to run this scholarship across like say three or four universities."
All the universities have scholarship pages, they're incredibly powerful domains. Also, Google used to put way more of an authority waiting on like .edu websites. [00:50:00] So, all of a sudden you've got a website link from Harvard's website because you've ... and you've spent say a few grand to do it and it was well worth it. And these are the things-
Jorie Munroe: Okay, I'm not using children, their educational aspiration.
Matt Howells-Barby: Just purely giving back and it wasn't about the links. It was honestly about benefiting society. Like every link building endeavor, but that goes to show like that and again, Google got to a point where they said, "Hey, please stop giving out scholarships for link building. [00:50:30] We know what you're doing." I'm sure this still works to a certain extent, but another example of where link building tactics can be used and it stems into ... this is where influence sort of came into this.
Because we're now at a stage, I think we're in a middle level stage of extracting link, building value directly with influences. But the things that are largely a bit more timeless are the indirect link building activities because they involve cultivating [00:51:00] an audience. Something that doesn't die with the tactic. You send an email to someone asking if they'll update a broken link. If that doesn't work, start again. It's like what we call churn and burn, right? You live in this perpetual churn and burn till the next thing.
What happens when you work with an influencer who you get quoted on one of your pieces of content? You get that shared to that audience and you build a strong lasting relationship with them. It doesn't [00:51:30] result in any links. You're not churning and burning. You're not back to zero, you have now built a relationship that you might be able to tap into next time and you start to build a accumulation of an audience, that's a by-product of the link building work that you're doing.
That is honestly like the key to long term link building success in amongst ... okay still some of the churn and burn stuff can work, as long as the resources required to do that are viable enough to deliver a reward to you.
Jorie Munroe: So [00:52:00] what about like checking out direct competitors and following their playbooks? Because I know we've talked a lot about how once everyone starts doing it, it's no longer effective. But do you think like in certain industries it's helpful for companies to look at what their competitors are doing and maybe iterate off their strategies?
Matt Howells-Barby: Yes. I would actually say that is the first thing anybody in any industry focused on link building should always do. We talked about this in one of the episodes [00:52:30] where we were talking about creating the things like featured snippets and getting them ranking and I said, "Do not reinvent the wheel." Look at what's working in the search results page right now. Craft your content in the same way because that's what google wants.
A lot of the time, the same applies with link building and this is what I was almost referencing with the fact where I was saying, "You don't need to obsess over creating the next new innovative link building tactic." Actually, [00:53:00] go and have a look at where your competitors are getting back links. One really good tool that I actually do love, which we've already mentioned, is Ahrefs and what Ahrefs have is a ... I think they call it like a competitive intersect tool or some kind of competitive comparison.
So what you can do is take say four of your competitors, add each of them in to their tool and you can search through all the backlinks of those four competitors that the page get and you can find commonalities. [00:53:30] So, all of a sudden you may notice that the same website actually links after three of your different competitors. That's dramatically increasing the likelihood that you will also be able to get a link from that website.
A really good way, I used to do this manually and Moz used to have a tool that did this that they called the ... they actually called the competitive link intersect. That's where I was getting that from although they later got rid of. But this kind of analysis that you can do what you kind of call like following the [00:54:00] trail of links is starting with a competitor, looking where they get their links, going through to those pages, what is it that they're doing? Are they creating a scholarship?
This is how I'd say 90% of the ways that I learned about link building or just scouring through websites. Sometimes people have created an incredibly innovative link building tactic and they didn't even know they did it. Like someone creates a widget like way back, like 10 years ago, and they didn't even do it for link building [00:54:30] reasons or someone just generally was a good person and create a scholarship for a bunch of students and as a proxy, all of a sudden you realize from following that trail, "Whoa, that results in links."
We should do that. This is where you get the large majority of your ideas that you can tweak, modify, combined with other ideas you find, beg, borrow, and steal from competitors that will get you to a minim. That level and then everything after that. Like if you're not doing something that just works, your competitors, why? How do you justify [00:55:00] not doing that thing? If it's working for them and the resources are there for you to do it, why would you not do that?
There's no inherent value in just doing something differently. Do the simplest thing to get the best result. You don't need to do something that's sexy and glamorous, not that there is a whole lot of that and like building anyway, but do the thing that gets the result you want to have.
Jorie Munroe: So, on a slightly different vein, do you have any recommendations on how to email or reach out and ask [00:55:30] for links from those blog editors are journalists that could help generate that traffic?
Matt Howells-Barby: Bare your soul and beg for mercy. I think first of all-
Jorie Munroe: Hello, can we have a mention, we'll need to look at our side.
Matt Howells-Barby: I really hope that wasn't supposed to be my accent.
Jorie Munroe: That was you. That was just you.
Matt Howells-Barby: Very, very good. It was like hearing myself, so what I would [00:56:00] say here is when you are reaching out to say blog editors or journalists, two very different approaches for those two to be honest, On average, a journalist at say somewhere like the New York Times, right? They will receive anywhere between 200 to 1000 pictures via email every single day. Every day, they will receive that money. And some of the lead editors will receive more, sometimes double.
[00:56:30] What makes you think that they are going to answer your email? One of the things that often happens is sometimes people shoot too high when they're nowhere near that level. That's not to say that you cannot reach those people. But a lot of the time to reach someone that's getting that many emails, email is probably not going to be the way to do it. You need to build relationships, build a platform that gets you to get an introduction to another person that eventually gets an introduction to another person.
Nearly all of the relationships that I've personally built in my career with higher [00:57:00] tier journalists, have been over the phone because email is just an absolute nightmare. The only way that I have built relationships with journalists, and high end editors of like large publications, has been through signing up for press request services like HARO or response source. Where you can sign up to basically be an expert on a topic or have your company or a spokesperson or a client of yours to be a spokesperson [00:57:30] on topic.
So that editors or journalists or blog editors for that matter will send out requests to say I'm writing an article, I need a quote from someone who knows something about this. You respond to that and you can build a relationship. That's a really good way of when you don't have the way of getting an introduction. Someone to start there. The next piece though is like when you aren't just going to, let's say a blogger editor that you think probably gets a few emails each day, but if it's interesting enough do it, [00:58:00] get straight to the point.
Get straight to the point and just realize that sometimes you're not as clever as you think you are. For example, in the travel industry, like what I was talking about, people know why you're emailing them. Don't try, and glamorize it as something else or hide it from them and try, and shape it that you're ... one of the number one phrases that I hear in email outreach that just immediately makes me just go, "Shut up." Is when they're like, "We just want to add value to [00:58:30] your readers and that's it." Just level with me.
Jorie Munroe: No. Wrong.
Matt Howells-Barby: No, you don't. You don't, and that's why I won't give you my travel gadget.
Jorie Munroe: I'm not going to assume positive intent with you.
Matt Howells-Barby: But in certain industries you can do that, right? The copper pipe example versus ... it's knowing your audience in the same way that you would create messaging on social. And messaging within your content approach the exact same way as a relationship. I would honestly with a link building say things is assume the worst, get straight to the point. Realize people don't have a whole [00:59:00] lot of time. Try, and just get across the immediate value that you can give with this, and what you want and how you can help them.
It's like the foundation of having a relationship with someone. That if this is kind of in a churn and burn tactic, right? Like reaching out for a branded mention that hasn't been linked to doing that. You can just get straight to the point and be like, "Hey like, this is this. Here's a link to our website. Would you be able to update the link? It'd be great. Thank you." You don't need [00:59:30] to kind of like virtually wine and dine them. Right?
It's like with a journalist, you don't just straightaway like jump into bed on the first date. Right? This is about over a long period of time building relationship where actually the first thing you are doing you should be adding value. That's why I really like things like the press requests service because the relationship starts with you doing something for them.
Jorie Munroe: With you adding value.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah. And that's where having an introduction from someone else, where you have added value to them, [01:00:00] you'll find the community of journalists is quite a close knit community. And when you have an inroad with a few people, you've built up enough goodwill. Like a lot of the time,
Jorie Munroe: If it happens.
Matt Howells-Barby: Well, what you can think about is like what I would love is an introduction to these three people and here's what I can do for you. We will go run [01:00:30] a bunch of data so you can write a story about stuff. We will do all the legwork for you. We'll add immediate value. I've done thiS quite a lot in the past. It's like I will just take the hit to create a relationship with this person. You've built enough goodwill. Probably end up, you'll get something out of that, but go in with it as if you're not going to.
Try, and add immediate value. Then what you're going to be able to do is use that circle of influence to not only gain you introductions, but also learn the dynamic of what journalists want. This is another thing where people go wrong. Journalists, bloggers, [01:01:00] they think that ... if you think you're going to just send a written article to an editor at the New York times, the guardian, the New York Post and they're going to publish that, you are sorely mistaken.
What they want from you is either something that can basically ascertain a statement that they are making in this story is true. And they will use your point as maybe an expert at something to validate that. If they are going to link to you, [01:01:30] it will usually have to be an unbiased non opinion piece that's backing up a stat that they want to make. Or they'll use some data to curve an angle out for an interesting story. Or you have an interesting story that you can like help them use to turn into a story that they would use that tone to create.
Understanding some of those dynamics and when you get a relationship with a journalist, just getting into the head, getting that call and be like, "Look, what is the kind of thing that you [01:02:00] would actually want from me?" Like, and letting them tell you rather than assuming that, that's when you're going to get the best results moving forward.
Jorie Munroe: So definitely being relationship driven so you can then know your audience better.
Matt Howells-Barby: Yeah, it's PR, right? Link building has moved into largely being a game that's a much more akin to PR. When back when I first started in SEO, it was like the type of person that goes into a link building role is really good right now. Usually comes from a PR background. When I first [01:02:30] started in SEO, the type of person that went into a link building background that was really good back then, was like a hacker/developer. And they knew how to exploit things and scale things at mass.
Now, like I'd say the most valuable people have attributes of both of those things, which are incredibly difficult to find and build. But usually it's more towards the PR type person, that gets the most leverage in link building nowadays.
Jorie Munroe: Definitely [01:03:00] interesting. Relationships to build backlinks. This has been really informative. I feel like I've learned so much about backlinks that I didn't know before, so this was really helpful. Thanks so much, Matt.
Matt Howells-Barby: You're more than welcome and thanks to everyone for listening. On that note, if you are enjoying Skill Up, you can leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. While you're at it, you may want to tell your friends, coworkers, people on the street, strangers on your commute into work. If you're on a bus, probably don't have a [01:03:30] stranger in the car with you, hopefully. And your Twitter followers, all about us.
Jorie Munroe: And speaking of Twitter, you can find us on Twitter @HubSpotAcademy. Feel free to send us some nice notes or just any questions you might have about SEO. I'm Jorie Munroe.
Matt Howells-Barby: And I'm Matt Howells-Barby.
Jorie Munroe: And this has been
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