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Should you use link building techiques that are outside of Google guidelines?
Before we get too deep into this, the definition of Blackhat SEO can vary. As I mentioned in this article, I tend to think of blackhat as activity that is illegal or bordering on illegal. But for the purposes of this article, let’s say that blackhat is anything that is outside Google (or other search engine) guidelines.
Here is the summary of where I stand:
I don’t have a problem with blackhat SEOs in most circumstances
If you do blackhat SEO for someone else’s website – you must be clear about the risks to their business
If you do blackhat SEO for yourself, you need to be comfortable with the idea that Google can switch off your income overnight
I’m not comfortable building someone else’s business on blackhat SEO techniques, but that’s just me and why I don’t practice it for clients
I don’t want to come into work every day and think is this the day of the Google update that will affect my client
Few SEOs would argue that techniques such as buying links can give you a big boost in traffic as a result of higher rankings, the fact is that right now, a range of link building techniques that are outside of Google guidelines can work. Buying links is one of them. Link building can also be very hard, so it is little wonder that SEOs take the easy route and put budget into buying links in order to get results. Part of me doesn’t blame them.
But should you do it?
I’m sharing my own experience to try and explain my thinking here.
I learnt SEO via black / greyhat tactics
I first got into SEO at University when I was meant to be studying for my law degree, I was short of cash and eventually found my way to Google Adsense and a bit of CPA / affiliate marketing. I built some websites and wanted to get them to rank so I could make some money (mainly for beer) and I didn’t really care whether what I did was inside Google guidelines or not. I messed about with a bunch of techniques that, looking back, were pretty spammy and shouldn’t have worked, but they did. I didn’t make a fortune but I made enough to go for a few good nights out every month with my mates and not worry about buying a round of beers.
I was far from being a blackhat, but I wasn’t whiter than white either. Mainly because I didn’t even consider what I was doing to be that wrong, loads of other people were doing it and it worked. I knew it wasn’t illegal so where was the problem?
After a while, I started learning more, reading more and become more aware of this thing called web spam and that apparently, Google had a team of people dedicated to fighting it. So I started to look into the techniques they were fighting and low and behold, it was pretty much the kind of stuff I had been doing.
Meh. I still didn’t care. What’s the worst that was going to happen? If I got caught, I’d lose a bit of beer money. I wouldn’t be in the position of not being able to pay bills or lose my home or my car. I knew it was risky but I was fine with it, it was only me that would get “hurt” if Google caught me.
This is the key thing you need to consider when deciding the level of risk you’re willing to take.
Let me be clear:
I was taking risks with my own websites and my own income, 100% my decision.
If you are comfortable with the idea that your income could be pretty much switched off overnight, then why worry? I was comfortable with this and knew what I was doing. I know that many may not agree with this but it is your choice, if you want to get in, make some cash then get out, that is up to you.
Irish Wonder published a very timely post showing how a certain group of spammy websites were ranking for a very competitive gambling related keyword. The techniques used to rank this site (not just those pointed out in the post) are very spammy and I’m positive they will be caught by Google. However for such a competitive keyword, you only need to rank for a short amount of time before you’ve made a profit. It’s a case of get in, make enough to profit, get out. Rinse, repeat and scale.
I know some blackhat SEOs who have made a fortune through spam, they have then taken that money and invested it offline. Part of me can’t blame them for doing this, I think I actually admire them! They’ve found a way to make money, done it, then got out and done something smart with what they earned. They haven’t broken the law to earn what they have, you could argue that what they have done is unehtical, but I’m not getting into that here because it’s too subjective.
The bottom line for me, is that if you’re comfortable with the churn and burn approach, fully aware that any day, your income could be turned off, then go for it.
When this changes
I will say this though – this is NOT an acceptable approach if you’re employed to do SEO for another company or individual. This, for me, is where the line gets drawn. If you’re doing SEO for a small business that has been offline for 30 years and are just moving online, you should not be risking their online business and growth by using churn and burn tactics. That is not your decision to take.
As an SEO company, you’re paid to get results for your client, but all too often I read and hear “it works and gets results so what’s the problem?”
The problem is that the duty to get results doesn’t give you license to take risks with your client’s business. But what if the client demands results right now?
I feel like you have two choices here:
1 – Full disclosure
Full disclosure to the client of what tactics are outside Google guidelines and the consequences of getting caught using those tactics. They could do very well in the short term but you can’t guarantee that they will never get caught. Showing them something like this can probably help demonstrate what could happen if things goe wrong:
If the client is comfortable with this and happy with the risks, then you may decide to go for it. This sits better with me because the client is deciding to take the risk with their company in the full knowledge of what may happen. This is very different to the SEO company who offer the moon on a stick and don’t give a shit what tactics they use.
2 – Don’t compromise
The second option is to not compromise on your tactics because of the risks involved and walk away from the client project. If you do this, I bet that at least once in a while, they will come back 12 months later saying you were right. At which point they’ll be paying you to take links down rather than build them!
Whichever you choose, is clearly your choice and I wouldn’t judge anyone on what they do. But as stated above, there is a line that should be drawn and if you’re doing blackhat SEO for a website without being clear about the risks, then I don’t think that is right.
What I do now
In terms of my agency life, I can’t recommend blackhat SEO to clients, even if they understand the risks. I don’t want to live a life where with each Google update I have to log into analytics and see if my client has been hit.
Having said that, I do experiment and test stuff with my own websites. I think all SEOs should test for themselves and not blindly take the word of others. This is an old post from Rishi but it is still relevant today and to this discussion.
I don’t earn money from Adsense or affiliate sites anymore, those sites were burnt a long time ago. Plus, it was a LOT easier back then. Now, you have to actually work hard to even make spam work enough to make a good income
Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of BuzzStream. I’ve written about using it for guest posting, infographic link building and broken link building before. They have just released a new feature which I’m really pleased to see. Before going into the detail of the new feature, I wanted to explain why I think it is such a great addition.
If you wanted, you could use BuzzStream to pretty much automate and scale every step of the link building process. You could do prospecting, import all the websites that you find, keep the ones where you have contact details, then send outreach emails to them all – without ever actually looking at the target websites.
For obvious reasons, I do NOT advise this.
With BuzzStream, I’d still go into each and every link target and open the website to check it manually before doing outreach to it. Whilst this isn’t a time killer, it did probably take a bit longer to do it than I’d have liked. But this is where I had to draw the line and not compromise on the quality of websites that I was contacting.
The new feature is called the BuzzBar and allows me to still manually check websites, but at a much quicker pace than before. Below I’ll go through the steps for using this feature.
Step 1 – Add a link prospecting search
From within BuzzStream, you can do link prospecting using your own advanced search queries. The advantage of using this over just searching Google is that the results are automatically pulled into BuzzStream along with various link metrics.
Click on Prospecting at the top of your screen:
Now select your options:
It will take a few minutes for BuzzStream to gather your results.
Step 2 – Open up your prospecting results
After a few minutes, your search will be done and you can view the results by clicking here:
Step 3 – Filter your results
Now you will see a screen that looks something like this:
With the old BuzzStream system, you’d accept or reject the websites by clicking on one of the options highlighted in the red box above. But to do this, you’d have to open up each website individually, then come back to BuzzStream to accept or reject the websites. This worked fine but wasn’t massively efficient.
Now, you can do this instead:
Now click on Research in the top menu, then select this:
This will open a new tab in your browser that looks something like this:
This is awesome, in this example, I can go through 34 link prospects one at a time and accept or reject instantly. My decision will then be fed directly into BuzzStream and all I’ll be left with is the link prospects that I want to reach out to.
I also have various metrics that I can take a quick glance at too but I usually scan the page first to get a feel for it before looking at metrics. If the page looks a bit spammy and not great for users, then I probably don’t worry too much about metrics and I’ll just reject it.
Generally, I’ll reject any site that has a homepage PageRank of 0 and perhaps a DA of 25 or below. It depends on the client and how wide their niche is though. If it’s a pretty small niche, then I’ll bend the rules a little.
Then I’ll click on one of the following:
The thumbs up means that it is a good site and you want to outreach to it later. The thumbs down means that it is a good site but not quite right for your current campaign, so pressing this will remove it from your project. The last option is to blacklist the domain which isbest used for very spammy results that you not only want to reject for this project, but to stop BuzzStream from suggesting them in the future. This can also be used for sites that you’re probably never going to get a link from such as Amazon or YouTube etc.
A lot of time and concerted effort is spent acquiring clients. The first couple of meetings you spend properly educating about what SEO actually is and how effectively using social media can grow their business. Once you get past that hurdle, you may spend hours writing a convincing proposal. At long last, you’ve been awarded the work, and you can breathe a sigh of relief.
Sweet. You got the job.
Now the real work begins.
But before you jump in and work all the magic that you’ve promised the client, set yourself up for success. Set aside the time to build a client partnership.
Help them understand that this is, in fact, a partnership
Even if you’re the best SEO or marketer in the world, the people on the other side of the table don’t get this stuff like you do. And, even though they’ve agreed to invest in your services, you still need to build trust. This is especially important in the beginning stages of your relationship as it paves the way for all endeavors (which obviously can result in future increase in scope and budget). From the very start, you’ve got to help your clients understand that you’re all in this together.
And you can do this very easily in one powerful meeting.
We have found many times that the C-suite is all about what we’re doing (they hired us after all), but the internal team thinks what we’ve been hired to do is not only a bunch of crap, but it’s going to manifest a whole lot more work for them.
So, before we jump in to help a new client with their SEO, social media, and content marketing, we send over a blog post for the group to read that specifically addresses the fears and concerns we have been hearing or observing (and then of course we get to leverage this on our blog). This helps the team who’s actually going to be doing the work understand that our intention isn’t to add more work to their already over-committed plate, or to be some lame thing that is now part of their job (congratulations!). We’re here to help them improve the company they work for and we need them to be a part of it so that it can be a success.
This goes without saying, but make sure the people who attend this initial meeting aren’t just the head of marketing or sales. This means anyone who is going to, in any way, be responsible for carrying the work load. Like the dude who’s handling website changes or SEO integration (if you’re not able to do those things first-hand), anyone who is going to be helping with content generation (even if they’re just reading and passing around knowledge), anyone who is going to be participating in social media, and certainly any other agency teams that they’re currently working with.
Let them know what the next couple weeks will look like. Dispel any misconceptions. Answer questions. Explain how they can contact you (and you will actually respond). Show them that you’re here as a partner.
Taking the time to get the entire team on board will forge an alliance. This will assist you in effectively moving forward to actualize business objectives.
Figure out how to communicate
In that same initial, powerful meeting, figure out what’s the best way to communicate with this client? Do they prefer email, phone, instant message, face-to-face? This is important to know, so actually ask them. And then use their preferred method of communication (not yours). How often will you communicate? What can they expect? These are really important things to discuss before you’re knee deep in deadlines and wondering why you can’t get a response.
As you’re working ongoing with the client, one of the best ways we’ve found to keep them engaged and responsive in the partnership is through Bi-Weekly Pushes. These informal reports tend to keep the client on track, draw attention to opportunities, and ask politely for the things we need done. If the client is dropping the ball on their end of the bargain, the Bi-Weekly Pushes help remind them that we really rely on them and need them on the team.
If we’re still not getting what we need, this documentation (in a very respectful way) is then integrated into the monthly report. That way, if we ever get the ROI question, we have proof that we’re doing everything possible to achieve success, and that their 20% contribution isn’t going to equate to 100% in ROI.
Make your intentions clear. Always.
I’ve been reading a book that Wil Reynolds recommended called Speed of Trust. The book is full of great insight about being a good leader and getting results by inspiring trust in those around you. This certainly can benefit the relationships that you have with people in your personal life, but especially with your clients.
One of the key takeaways I’ve discovered in this book is how important it is to always make your intentions clear. Even the simple ones. By being deliberate (and asking for that in return), you communicate what you need and at the same time you earn confidence. This really helps to align the team and can make the partnership successful.
Declaring intention is probably something that you do quite often without even realizing. Do you ever create a task list? Ever notice how when you make that list you also happen to accomplish those tasks? It’s because you set an intention with yourself. And because you did that, you were more inclined to actually get those things done.
Same goes for communicating your intentions to your client. It’s a matter of letting them know what you’re trying to accomplish and why. Even with simple things like collecting materials or assets:
Hey, if you can get us approval for those materials by end of day Wednesday, we can take the pressure off of your support guys by driving more traffic through your social media outlets.
If they understand your intentions ahead of time, they may be more willing to do what it takes and get you what you need so that you can get shit done.
Show your appreciation
Appreciation should always be an ongoing part of building a partnership with your client. As you may have guessed, our work involves a great deal of collaboration with the client, so everyone is (or should be) working hard all the time to get results. It’s important that the people on your team are praised. Especially your client.
When we meet to discuss monthly reports, we always start with applause. What’s going right? What has the client been doing that is making a difference? Show them your appreciation in your reports (so that it’s documented) and also give them a verbal pat on the back when you’re face-to-face (people tend to like that).
Paddy and I have also discussed the importance of going out after your organized, regular meetings for some fun. Get the entire entire team (developers, affiliates, designers, SEOs, PPCs, creatives, marketers, etc) together for a drink afterward. This can help foster a deeper bond with the people you’re working with and make a big difference in the relationship ongoing. After all, if you’re not working with people who you’d like to go have a drink with, you’re probably working with the wrong clients.
Edit from Paddy: There is a running joke within Distilled that all I do to keep clients happy is get drunk with them. Whilst I initially rejected this idea, I realised that I’d been drunk with each of my retained clients at some point or another – trust me, it works!
Give it a shot
It’s really easy to get buried in all of the stuff that you need to handle for the client and forget to work on your relationship. Building successful client partnerships is a full time job and should be a consistent effort.
As you integrate partnership building into your regular routine, I’d recommend keeping these few things in mind:
Make them a partner
You’re going to get a lot more out of the relationship if you help your client feel like they are a part of the team. That means right from the beginning you’ve got to set the stage. Share your approach. Understand theirs. Find the common ground.
Over communicate I like Craig Bradford’s suggestion that good communication is a mix of formal and informal. You’re going to have consistent, regularly scheduled meetings and reporting sessions that your client will look forward to or expect. It’s the stuff in between that really makes a difference.When you’ve finished a meeting, email a recap that details the action items that are going to be handled and who is going to handle them (and when). If you have a phone call, email a bulleted list of the conversation’s key takeaways (this documents the call and helps gets things done). Don’t assume that your client knows what’s going on in your head. Keep them in the loop and then ask how your communication style and frequency is working for them. Then customize based on their feedback.
Be a real person Even though the nature of your work is immersed in the digital space, you’re still dealing with people. You’re working with actual humans who will become part of your community. If you make the effort to communicate, earn their trust, and find common ground, you really will experience a difference in results (and hopefully greatly reduce the resistance).
As always, give it a shot and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear what you’re doing to foster and build your client partnerships.
Although I found them funny, there was a small part of me that really didn’t. I had lived those comical moments myself and, from my experience, hated them.
However, I have realised that living some of these experiences has helped me shape the way I think about my clients and what they want. I do this by thinking of my friends and family as clients when they ask me for advice. I’ll now give you a few examples of some experiences I have had and how it translates to how I work today. For this post, all references to friends and family will be “the client” or “clients”.
Some Background in 5 Sentences
I have been brought up with computers in the house. I first used a PC when I was 13 and built it myself without any prior knowledge of how to do so. I bought myself a 33.6kb modem with money I made building computers for my clients and joined AOL with that CD everyone got in the post. Within a year, my knowledge of IT was wide – from building computers, fixing most issues Windows 95 could throw at me; and unconsciously teaching myself to code, design and do SEO. This was great, but the more clients knew about this varied knowledge, the more they began to ask questions, and favours…
The “Machine Gun Tasks”
Machine Gun tasks usually occur when the client has a deadline within the next month when, as far as you’ve been told there is no specific deadline. Before the Machine Gun you’ll receive an email with a small low priority request with no stressful tone, nor any reference to a deadline. You finish the task within reasonable time and respond to confirm completion. A week passes… and the Machine Gun fires. You will receive one email with a thank you followed by another 3 hours later with a new request. The email is limited in detail and needs a 4 day turnaround. You complete the task early in the evening.
Sorry Alex – you think you’re evening is over? The next week will involve at least 10 tasks that will total around 15 hours work – at night. The deadline is so important that when it passes and you complete everything on time you’ll never receive a thank you.
Lesson: Your client may not tell you about important dates in their company’s calendar. It may involve a deadline that you find out about at the last minute, or an announcement or press release that you found out about from an external source. You’re going to have to do a lot of work and you’re not going to like it at the time but bite the lip – it’ll pay off and, if your work is trackable, be able to prove that the hard work you did counted towards a KPI.
A tip here is to try to minimise this by either asking for access to any public calendar the business may have and subscribe to it – or at least obtain a list of important dates and deadlines. Not only does this prepare you for these dates but it also provides evidence of being given these dates with plenty of notice.
The 7 Year Gap
Client asks you to build a computer – you build it. Fast forward [more than or equal to 4] years and the client wonders why their computer died. All their files since day one may have gone, with no backup (of course). For some reason I cannot buy a coat, wear it until it develops holes, and return it years later – but I am now obligated to deal with this. I look at the computer and meet the blue screen of death – it’s beyond repair. It was a slow and painful death. However, it lived a long life and it was time for the Client to buy a new computer. I could still salvage old files but no settings. This was not good enough – they wanted the old computer back to normal and didn’t want to spend money on a new computer.
Lesson: Hardware evolves, software evolves, code evolves and algorithms evolve. A website developed 5 years ago may be hell-onsite-earth. It may run on a CMS still popular today, but if it was hard coded by a freelancer that decided to move to Spain and stop building websites then there’s not much you can work with. Use your Geek-to-English dictionary and explain that what they want is like trying to insert a cassette into a CD player – use Spotify Premium instead. You’ll have to spend more but it will bring you more ROI.
The Really Really Small Tiny GIGANTIC Request
What the Client says: I want a 5 page website for £500 (random figure). I’m not too fussed about the design so long as it looks good.
What the Client means: I want a website with 5 static pages – home, contact us etc etc. The other 10,000 pages will be populated in a file that my developer will send to you repeatedly in the wrong format 3 days after he was supposed to. It will also have to connect to our unbranded bespoke CRM system. I will also have very specific, very unusual design requests that I will change my mind on as soon as you spend 3 hours making that change. You agreed to £500, and I’ll still be somewhat unsatisfied at the end.
Lesson: Make a spec. Agree to the spec. Take a picture of you and your client holding a printout of the spec in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. Refer only to that spec. If the spec evolves, work increases and therefore the price increases.
Dealing with Dee Dee from Dexter’s Lab
If you’re not familiar with Dexter’s Laboratory, this 20 second clip covers Dee Dee’s character perfectly:
I produced a small website for the client. Without researching or having any prior knowledge into the issue, the client decides to try and fix “a design issue” themselves and does not contact me before the attempt. Drama ensues as the website goes down. This now turns into a Sherlock Holmes mystery – find the issue caused by the client and then make the edit to move one DIV container 20px to the right.
Lesson: Do not give a client more access to a live environment than they need to have – even if the client tells you how good or responsible they are.
It’s just after 7pm and I’m about to tuck into a lovely meal prepared by my wife. Three bites in and I hear a knock at the door. The client enters with a laptop and notes – notes with too many arrows and squares. The client notices a plate full of food on the table as I hold my cutlery. Conversation was short: “I’m in the middle of eating” – “That’s ok. I’ll wait”. This client was shown the door and my food was still warm.
Lesson: Don’t actually show your client the door – this was someone I felt comfortable being particularly blunt to. Firstly, save all your clients’ phone numbers in your phone so you know who it is before you answer (I used to forget to do this). If you receive a call on a Sunday evening answer it as it may be urgent, but ensure you don’t become the guy who has to take remedial calls outside of office hours.
Do not be a Yes Man
I’m sure we’ve all heard this before: “Hey, you work with computers, you’ll be able to help me with [insert random and varied IT problem]”. When I was a teenager I was happy to help – if anything I was learning from all this experience. However, this became more of a chore and didn’t want to sound rude to say no. I would solve issues from HTML and web design to hardware problems and even wiring up entertainment systems.
More recently I have been more blunt. Whenever a client asks me something where resource is usually available I tell them to simply search on Google. One request I was asked recently was how to add images to WordPress posts. My reply was short: “click here for the answer”. I realised that some clients relied on me so much that they will write an email asking a question without researching the answer themselves. The client is now in a state of arrested development as they will use me as their source of information rather than teaching themselves. This, to me, is the same as cheating in an exam.
Lesson: Early on in a client relationship you may agree to a lot of things that you shouldn’t – or at least leave your availability open to more than you should. Think about it before you do. Setting expectations from the outset is paramount for a healthy ongoing relationship rather than delivering promises or guarantees you know you can’t deliver on without it affecting your time. Someone with a tight budget should expect less than someone willing to invest more substantial sums to Search. Someone just entering a highly competitive SERP space with £500pcm is not going to win against your competitor’s dedicated in-house team of 15. This is an extreme example, but the client has to be told that they either can’t rank for that short tail term they dream of, but helping them achieve more realistic goals will secure their confidence for a longer relationship.
Experience isn’t just about how to do your job, it’s also about how to deal with Clients. If you start out you may be inclined to deliver more for your Client than the average company might. That’s fine, but remember that you may be sometimes put into a Catch 22 situation when it comes to resource vs spend, especially when your spend is small and the client’s budget is small. There are different solutions to different service levels and that needs to be controlled.
SEO has always been one of those industries where we have all had to learn to adapt to an ever-changing landscape. But with 2012 we experienced one of the most active years in search; with so many visible and nameable updates many of us were reduced to tears (I thought it was fun & loved the chaos and confusion it created).
2013 is now well underway and we don’t see Google slowing down, instead we should expect to see an acceleration in their activity to improve overall search quality – I’m just waiting on the T-Rex update, following Matt Cutts pretending to be a dinosaur:
So before I go off talking about algorithm changes and end up writing an entirely different post than originally planned, let’s get on with my top 5 SEO tips for the rest of 2013.
1. Keep link profiles clean and natural
Everyone has been talking about the importance of having a clean backlink profile since the Penguin update was rolled out last year, but in 2013 things could get worse for those of us who take risks when obtaining links.
When looking for suitable websites to link back to you it is important to look for those that are not only relevant but also meet your demographic as you no longer want links for pure SEO purposes but those that will drive both traffic and conversions as well.
If you are scared that some of the links pointing to your website could be holding you back or have received a warning in Google webmaster tools then it’s important that you carry out a link profile audit and remove the links you feel are dangerous (LRT have a good tool for highlighting these).
Users know what they want and if they can’t get it they will most likely leave and go elsewhere – if they even visit your website. The key to getting them to visit in the first place is to ensure that your title tags are as descriptive as they can be whilst keeping your head keywords firmly in place.
For example, I’m working on a digital campaign for a financial client that offers loans and currently has the title tag:
Which I don’t think is aimed towards a user so instead I’m getting it changed to something like:
“Apply for an [Phrase] online with [Brand]”
This not only reads better to a user but also contains my target keywords – hopefully this coupled with the same techniques used within the description tag will help my client increase traffic from its current positions.
So your title / description or brand have got the user into the website the next thing the user wants is information about the product or service you are offering, if they can’t find this then there are good odds on the user going back to the search engine to look for the answers to the questions they have – by providing clear product / service information along with FAQ’s and reviews there is a higher chance the user will stay and convert.
With every Google update making it harder to manipulate rankings using external techniques more focus needs to be placed on gaining more traffic from the positions you have currently got. User experience is a subject that has been gaining more and more exposure over the last year or two and I expect this to be one of the larger talking points of the year.
3. Place focus on content marketing
During 2012 content marketing became one of the most talked about areas within SEO but not everyone realises that it existed long before the internet, propaganda posters during World War 2 are a great example of this. But even technical SEO’s start talking of content marketing as more than simply link bait the world may truly be changing (not pointing any fingers).
A large focus has been placed on using alternative media for content marketing i.e infographic’s, video, mini websites etc… it may seem out of reach for those on tight budgets but don’t forget that a content marketing strategy can be based around a simple blogging strategy.
One company with a good strategy would be Plus hostels (not a client) – they invited a blogger they considered to be part of their core demographic (Jane Meighan) to have her own section on their website for her to blog tips about the destinations they have hostels in. Not only do they get her writing skills but they gain access to her social contacts (their target demographic) every time she publishes content.
If you are looking for a low cost content marketing solution I would definitely recommend following in the footsteps of Plus instead of worrying about trying to find a way to produce other types of media on a small budget.
4. Track your progress
In every blog post I write containing tips tracking progress always appears – why? Because in order to justify SEO to clients we need to present information, not data, highlighting improvements; talking traffic and positions is easy, talking geeky is even easier. Communication with a client on the metrics important to their business is often far trickier.
We work in an industry that is ever changing, where the goal posts change every few months and without any real regulation – due to this some so called SEO’s are giving clients some bad advice (as Judith Lewis discusses on the Huffington Post) without having too much knowledge within SEO.
As most SEO’s know we never perform strategies that work within today’s environment but those which will work within future environments so that we can reduce the ever increasing risks of Google penalties occurring from their improvements to the natural search algorithm. Those who do SEO with only todays rule book in mind will very quickly be weeded out but at the potential expense of their client going bust, while those SEO’s who collaborate and discuss with others on where Google will be going over the next few years will reap the rewards and gain a greater understanding of the future of their industry.
Due to the rise in digital marketing over the last few years, more and more people are getting into SEO, this will lead to some newbies getting thrown into the deep end on client accounts without much experience – if this is you then don’t be scared to ask for advice from the wider community as most SEO’s will be more than happy to answer your questions.
What do you think will be the most important thing in SEO during 2013?
A really quick and easy link building tip for Gmail users today. I’ve mentioned before that I always get more outreach responses when I follow up with prospects. Chances are that you won’t catch everyone at just the right time first time around, so following up is always a good idea.
However this requires you to be reasonably organised so that you not only remember, but don’t make the mistake of following up with the wrong people. You can use BuzzStream to keep yourself organised but if you’re looking for something a bit more basic, this tip may be for you.
You will need: Gmail + Boomerang + Canned Responses
Step 1 – Install Boomerang
Head over to Boomerang and install the plugin. Once it is installed, you’ll see this added to your compose email screen:
Step 2 – Install Canned Responses
Canned Responses is a Gmail Labs feature so you’ll need to enable that first. Once you’ve done this, go to Settings, then Labs where you’ll see this screen:
Step 3 – Write your responses and save them
Now you need to write your follow up emails. You’ll probably write a range of these depending on the link building campaigns that you’re running. You can save them all within canned responses:
Step 4 – Remember to Boomerang outreach emails as you send them
The feature of Boomerang that we’re going to use is the one that will send the email back to us if we haven’t had a response in a certain period of time. When you send an email, select the following:
I tend to select either 4 days or 1 week, depending on the campaign.
If you get a reply, Boomerang will not remind you to follow up. If you get a reply then Boomerang will send the email back to you, at which point you can hit reply and insert your pre-made canned response. I recommend personalizing if you can with at least their name:
Click send and you’re done! You’ll make sure that you follow up on every outreach email you send and better still, it hardly takes you any time!
I enjoy reading books that are not about SEO but still influence my work in some way. I think that SEO is still a relatively young industry and we have lots to learn from elsewhere. There are lots of things we can learn from other fields if we open up to it a bit.
I randomly thought it would be interesting to find out what books my peers recommended so I emailed them and asked. I thought it would be nice to share it publicly so I’ve created the list below to share with everyone. You will notice a few books are repeated, this is deliberate as I wanted to show the popularity of them.
On a related note, my link building book is starting to take shape so if you’d like to hear about it when it’s released, sign up using that link.
Non-SEO post today, although it can relate to SEOs along with pretty much any other job role, management or not. This post was actually inspired a little from what I started to say over on my State of Search blog post. I wanted to expand a bit more on what I’ve learnt about management in my time working at Distilled.
I’m talking in the past tense in this post because I’m currently here and not managing my team anymore
I’m fully aware that the team I managed – Craig, Dave and Tom could read this and find out the ways I’ve manipulated managed them. But meh, they can tell me whether this stuff worked or not!
In this post I wanted to share my approach to management, I’m not writing this because I think I’m 100% right – I’m not. I don’t think I’m a great manager either, I know there are tons of things I could do better. Having said that, I also think there are some learnings in this post for some people.
I’d actually love to hear what you guys think of my approaches and what works for you.
1. I had ONE job as a manager – keep my team happy
If I could sum up my role as a manager at Distilled up in a few words, this is how I’d describe it – keep my team happy. That’s it.
When I first started my role, I had loads and loads of ideas of how to do it. I started making plans for team meetings, action plans, project management, support systems for training, everything I could think of. I was a bit overwhelmed at just how much I felt I had to do. It was really hard to figure it all out. I spent probably a few months like this, but then it hit me – if my team is happy, everything else will be fine.
I think it hit me when I was having problems with one of my own projects, things just weren’t going well. It was hard to get stuff done, I was struggling to adapt to the client’s culture, results weren’t good. This affected ALL of my other projects, not just this one. This was when I realised how important happiness was. A single point of unhappiness can have a bigger impact than we realise.
What about “SEO stuff” – isn’t that my job as a manager?
Kind of yes, but it shouldn’t have been my focus.
My team were smart, I didn’t need to teach them how to do SEO. I didn’t need to teach them how to speak to clients. I didn’t need to tell them how to do link building. They were smart enough to figure all of this stuff out on their own or from each other. Of course I’m there if they need me and I’m happy to help, but this shouldn’t be my focus.
If they are happy with their job, their team, their manager, their clients and their company, EVERYTHING else falls into place. So I started focusing on making sure my team were happy and giving them the support they wanted, not what I felt they needed.
I wasn’t always successful because problems happen, life happens and people become unhappy. But this single point of focus allowed me to become a better manager, I think! It allowed me to spot problems early because I didn’t need to worry about details.
2. Your team are smarter than you – get over it
This was tough for me to get over. A couple of the guys joined as SEO noobs with little or no experience. I’d like to think that I taught them some good SEO and helped them develop into what they are now.
It hit me one day that both of them were now better at SEO than me, they were smarter than me. I felt threatened and immediately told myself that I needed to do some more SEO reading, learning and testing to show that I’m still the better SEO.
This is wrong.
I don’t need to be smarter than my team, in fact something weird happens here – they make you look good. The skills and smartness of my team made me look good (and people assume I know what my team know!). I end up learning from them! This is something that I first really picked up from my first proper manager, Steve who owns Pin Digital. We were chatting once and he told me that he built his company by surrounding people who are smarter than him. He can chime in and shake things up every so often, but he can remove himself and things would still run smoothly.
3. You get praised in different and less public ways
To a certain extent, you will get less public praise for your work when you are a manager. It becomes normal for you to do what used to be considered awesome. The bar is set far higher now. More is expected of you and even when you do great work, it isn’t deserving of a huge amount of praise because it was you that did it. If a new team member did the same, of course they’d get public praise for it. The same goes for your team, they come to expect good things from you and often take it for granted.
From now on you WILL be recognised for doing a good job, but chances are that it won’t be public praise. It will be your CEO pulling you to one side and saying well done before walking off into a meeting. No one else will hear it, no one else will offer their praise too. There is another reason for this though. Quite often as a manager you will have to deal with awkward situations. For example a project not going well and you have to rescue it, or a member of your team having a personal problem and you help them deal with it. This is the type of work that isn’t very appropriate for public praise so naturally it will happen privately.
As a manager, you need to become comfortable with this. If you want to be in the limelight and have everyone singing your praises, then you may be a bit disappointed.
4. Everyone hears what you say (and takes notice)
Obviously we all talk to each other in the office and we pass our opinions around, this is fine. When you’re a manager, your team not only hear what you say, but they can also take it to heart. Saying stuff flippantly isn’t a good idea if you have people around you who are looking up to you and learning from you.
This is actually particularly relevant for SEOs where there can often be multiple opinions on a topic. If I come out with the statement:
“client x is an idiot, they just don’t get it do they”
People around me will hear it and the less experienced will think that this is a good way of speaking about clients. In reality, I know this too. But everyone needs to let off steam sometimes, as a manager, you need to choose your location carefully and think twice before opening your mouth about something negative.
Otherwise, flippant statements like this can become embedded in your culture and it becomes normal (and acceptable) to talk this way – because you’re saying it.
5. Free up the headspace of your team
I tried to keep as much “management stuff” away from my team as possible. They didn’t need to know about everything I do, not because it’s a secret or anything, but because they should be concentrating on their job – keeping their clients happy.
As a manager, I had various metrics I cared about. I was measured on these, my team weren’t. Yes they had a part to play in helping hit them and helping Distilled overall, but they don’t need to know it all if they don’t want to. Headspace is precious, fill it with what matters. If the client pipeline is looking ridiculously rammed and like everyone is going to be overworked for the next 3 months, that isn’t something that my team need to worry about. I need to worry about how to handle this so that my team do not become unhappy.
6. Know what triggers your team to do stuff
Given that they may be reading this, I won’t go into loads of details on what triggers Dave, Craig and Tom to do stuff
What I did learn here though is that I found out more about what these guys cared about, what they were passionate about and what made them tick by getting drunk going for one pint after work with them. In this more relaxed environment, it is much easier to work out what they truly care about and what stops them from doing stuff.
This isn’t to say they were resistant to what I asked them to do. But sometimes when someone is feeling a bit busy (even if they’re not) then you need to know how to trigger them to open up to what you’re saying and realise you’re right.
This also means managing each person differently, conventional wisdom days that you should treat everyone the same. I don’t agree. Everyone is different and should be treated as such. This article on Inc sums my feelings up pretty well.
7. Don’t get in the way
Don’t get in the way of your team becoming awesome. One way of doing this is by getting over the fact that your team will become smarter than you and most likely, better at the job than you. Otherwise, you will hold them back because subconsciously, you want to always be smarter and better than them.
At Distilled, we hire staff who we feel are smart and get stuff done. If they prove this through their work, my job is to support them however I they want me to and to keep them happy.
What do you think?
This is a topic I’m genuinely passionate about and I loved managing my team at Distilled (I actually kinda miss them*) and I’d really love to hear other people’s approaches to management or indeed being managed. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
*That comment will test whether they have actually read this article and got this far!
Update: Given the various comments this piece has generated, I just wanted to reiterate that the point of this article isn’t to criticise travel bloggers or SEOs. If you own a blog, it is your choice to charge for links if you want. If you’re an SEO, you can buy links if you want. The type of outreach conducted in this experiment is not what I’d normally do and is not what I’d recommend other SEOs do, but it was necessary in this case. I accept it may have altered the outcome of the experiment slightly but not significantly.
One of the common problems I come across when doing outreach is bloggers replying but asking to be paid for the link. It seems to be a common problem for others too judging by the number of times that other SEOs have asked me how to overcome this problem. The fact is, it is a hard problem to overcome, only once can I recall turning a paid link into a free one from my own experience. To be honest, most of the time I’ll just make a note of the domain selling links and move on.
I decided to run an experiment and get some hard numbers on this. This is by no means definitive or a full representation of the travel industry, I’m one person doing this test, hence the relatively low numbers, but since very few people publish this kind of stuff, I still wanted to share.
The numbers are probably not as bad as I expected, but are things only going to get worse?
Also let me say this (I wish I didn’t have to make it this clear): I am NOT outing anyone here. I am not publishing the list of who I contacted, who replied and who were prepared to sell links. If you happen to work in this industry and are in the business of buying / selling links, that is your choice. I very much doubt this post will change anything for you.
Bottom line outcomes:
Of 122 emails sent, I got 53 replies
Of those 53 replies 26 would only link to me if I paid for it
Of the 53 replies, 10 immediately said yes to a guest post
The remainder, 17 wanted more information, neither saying yes or asking for money
9 people quoted prices in their reply, the average cost of a link was $285
The experiment itself:
To keep things fair, the same email was sent to each website but was personalised to that website in several ways
I was offering a guest post but didn’t mention which company I was representing
I didn’t mention that I wanted a link in return
I didn’t offer money
I only contacted travel websites
I used a persona, not my own name for obvious reasons
A few thoughts occurred when I looked at these numbers:
Have SEOs brought this upon ourselves?
What would Googles opinion be on this? What’s the advice for SEOs?
Is the problem only going to get worse?
Is this normal and the same across other industries?
I’m not drawing conclusions based on this rather small experiment, but here are some of my own thoughts.
Is this our fault?
Judging by the wording used in the replies (see the section on advertising below) it is clear than these bloggers are quite savvy when it comes to SEO and they know the value of a link. Is this a result of constant outreach emails from SEOs? Have we sent so many that they have realised that they can make money from this? To be honest, I don’t blame them! Blogs can be a nice source of income and as they are a hobby for most people, who wouldn’t want an extra few dollars a month?
It’s supply and demand. These bloggers have seen a demand for something and decided to charge for what they have.
It is tempting
I can see why SEOs would say yes when offered the chance of an easy link, it can sometimes be hard to just get a reply from a blogger so when they do reply, it can be tempting to just accept it and pay up. It is still clearly against Google guidelines and as mentioned previously, I just make a note of these and move on if I’m outreaching for a client, many wouldn’t though.
They didn’t want to sell me advertising
Advertising online has always been normal, you pay for exposure on another website and get traffic to your own. But it was clear from the replies I got that I was not being quoted advertising rates, many mentioned “links” “SEO” “backlinks” “anchor text” which is not what I’d expect if the blogger was just trying to sell me a banner ad. They knew what I wanted and the value of it.
How hard is it for Google to do this?
I’m one person doing this test and I can easily repeat it, scale and gather data for 1000s of travel blogs. What could Google do?
I know that Google have always verged on the side of caution and have always wanted to build scalable, algorithmic solutions to web spam and paid links rather than manual work. But this has changed in the last year, Google are getting aggressive and have shown they will take manual action when needed (or pushed).
I wonder what would happen to the link graph if Google did this for say 100,000 blogs and turned off the PageRank for all websites that sold links.
How much is a link worth?
The average quoted price was $285. The highest quoted price was $700! Is this worth it? I can certainly think of better ways to spend $700 on a client’s SEO campaign that would probably get them more links without buying them.
One of the tips I gave away at MozCon was to use a Google custom search engine (CSE) to dig through your competitors links and find easy wins. I wouldn’t advise this as your only link building tactic because ultimately you want to get the links that your competitors can’t get as these will make the difference. But a few easy win quality links is always welcome and can give you some diversity.
Since MozCon, I’ve had a few people ask me more about this tactic so I thought I’d write a blog post and go into a bit more detail.
What a Google CSE is
You can get an idea of the basics from this page too but I’ll go into some of them here and provide some SEO context.
A custom search engine allows you to use Google search technology to search pages and domains that you specify. So rather than doing a standard search on Google.com and having to filter down to the level you want, you can define exactly what you want to search which can cut down the number of results to a more manageable and reasonable size.
You specify the domains and pages you want to search by copying and pasting into your CSE – nice and simple by copying and pasting your list. At this point you can tell Google whether you want to search an entire domain or just the pages.
How this helps you if you’re an SEO
There are a number of uses but the one I talked about at MozCon was using a CSE to dig through your competitors backlinks to find easy win links. So let’s go through the process for this.
How to create a Google CSE to mine your competitors backlinks
Step 1 – Go to your link analysis tool of choice, in this example we’ll use Open Site Explorer and enter your competitors URL:
Tip – exclude links from your own domain so you have a cleaner of results.
Now export the report to a CSV from the right hand side:
You’ll have to wait a few minutes for the CSV, then you can download it.
Step 2 – Create a Google Custom Search Engine, start by going to this URL whilst logged into your Google Account. Then click on the big blue button on the right hand side:
Now you just need to fill in the fields which are easy:
Now you need to copy and paste your list of links from your CSV into this bit:
Agree to the terms and conditions, then click next.
If you want, you can define the colour scheme of your engine, I usually leave it at default but you can change it if you want:
Now we need to give the engine a quick test before finalising it, just type a word into the search box:
You’ll get a feel for the results very quickly and see how good they are. Remember, depending on your competitors strategies, you may not find a certain type of link such as guest post if they haven’t done them. So try a few and see what you can find. If all is well, click on next.
Step 3- Paste onto your chosen page using the code that Google gives you:
I tend to put this code up on a hidden page somewhere on one of my sites. So the URL is accessible to anyone that needs it but it can’t be crawled or found easily.
That’s it! Once you’ve done it once, it will take you a few minutes to do again.
I am currently taking on some freelance SEO work, so if you'd like some help with your website, please get in touch and we can talk about how I may be able to help.
You can see the range of SEO services I offer here.