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Hard Truths on Scalability in Link Building

by Jon Cooper
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Everyone in their right mind wants to know how to scale link building. Hell, I’m asking the same question.

For agencies who prioritize scalability, the past six months have been a hard pill to swallow. Penguin really dropped the hammer on a lot of things that scale, which is why some are hurting.

Just in the past couple months I’ve talked with 2 prominent SEOs who were talking about how their super scalable process has now morphed into an entirely different animal.

What Currently IS Scalable

From everyone I’ve talked to, and from my own experiences, the two main processes that continue to be scalable from a practical standpoint are guest posting and broken link building. Sure, I’ve seen infographics and a few others doing well, but these two are for sure.

Long term, I think guest posting will stay, but a lot of the lowest forms of it will start to go away. In terms of broken link building, don’t really see any possibility of it being “unnatural”, and detecting it from an algorithmic standpoint would be near impossible.

What’s Most Effective in Link Building Right Now

The thing that’s working and getting talked about so much in the link building, and SEO, community is content. Who hasn’t had the phrases “content is king!” and “content marketing is the best thing since sliced bread” forced down their throat.

The problem is, great content can’t be scaled. Sure, mediocre content can, but it’s virtually worthless (which a lot of agencies still don’t get…).

That’s because you can’t create a program to output new, effective content ideas, let alone to actually act on them.

What Agencies Should Be Focusing On

Everyone loves scale, and it won’t go away in link building no matter what happens. But if you’re smart, you’ll adapt.

Switch your focus from scalability to these two things: people & process.

First is people. Realize that you need actual people thinking up actual ideas and actually putting them into practice to be as successful as possible in today’s landscape.

This means that recruitment and talent should be climbing to the top of your list in the coming months if it already hasn’t. A great example of a company already doing this is SEER Interactive. When I went to email a large group of intelligent consultants in this industry, I realized at least 5-10 were from SEER alone!

Second is process. Look at the tools you’re using, the metrics you’re tracking (and the ones you aren’t), your process flow, and new things you could possibly test out (i.e. following up a 2nd or 3rd time). Always be on the lookout for new tools and how you can incorporate them into your process. Track metrics like subject line, opening line, and even video outreach success rates.

For me, even if I only optimize success rates by going from 5% to 6% for a particular campaign type, that’s a 20% increase in links. When the success margins are low, test, test, and test again.

What Small Business Should Be Focusing On

I can’t tell you how many small businesses I’ve had to empathize with as a result of scale diminishing. The “but I don’t have enough time for that!” phrase echoes in my head far too often.

Luckily though there is a HUGE upside to the current state of SEO. Because the need for great content & a great community is increasing in order to stay at the top of the SERPs, a ton of awesome side effects are being created.

You might be creating that content because an SEO like me told you to, but you’ll see higher conversions & sales if it does what it’s supposed to.

And if you’re building that community as well, you’ll see an increase in your brand’s exposure, more people willing to vouch for your brand, and overall, more benefits than just maintaining that flow of search traffic.

So understand that you’re making the right decision by investing in these things, but possibly for the wrong reason. In a way, you should be thanking Google!

So, let’s get back to scalability. As stated, no, content & communities can’t be scaled, but as a lot of us have been telling you, the investment of your time, or someone else’s that you’re paying for, is worth it if you’re willing to see it to the end & making sure that you don’t just create it, but set goals, execute, and meet them. Too many people create great content but don’t know what to do with it from there, then go back & blame content as stupid & useless.

Why Scalability Teaches You Google’s Next Move

Google goes after tactics & strategies that are used to game their results. If something is used to game, then it can be repeated over & over again. By definition, these tactics are scalable, regardless if they’re black or white hat.

A tactic might be value adding, but if it can be repeated over & over again, then you bet Matt Cutts and the Funky Bunch will be coming after it.

That’s why I can tell you guest posting is next on Google’s list of tactics to target (but again, only it’s lowest forms). If broken link building continues to grow in popularity, then you can bet it’s next.

Conclusion

We all want something scalable. We all want to produce 10 or 100 great links in the time & cost it takes to produce 1 manually. Businesses rise & fall everyday that can solve this problem, but none that constantly focus solely on scalability in this industry are long term.

You have to start incorporating humans into your process. Continue to scale, but when it comes to the real value, let people and all the social & cognitive skills they have take over.

Thanks for reading! Make sure you follow me on Twitter & checkout the link building course.

This post was written by...

Jon Cooper – who has written 122 posts on Point Blank SEO.

Jon Cooper+ is an SEO consultant based out of Gainesville, FL who specializes in link building. For more information on him and Point Blank SEO, visit the about page. Follow him on Twitter.

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32 Comments
  1. Nice post as always Jon :)

  2. Zach Russell says:

    Jon, great post. Scalability is always an issue I have when considering positioning my firm as a “WordPress” or an “SEO” agency. I think that all of these “tricks” like broken link building are effective, it just gets to a point that they become oversaturated. Think of how many emails people with websites get a day with firms asking to do reciprocal linking; good at the beginning, then abused. Same thing with Infographics, some of them are great, but now people just put out horrid content on them, and they lose their value.

    I wholly agree that finding talented people is much more scalable than any short-term strategy. SEER has some amazing people in this realm, being in Philadelphia, it get to interact with these people, truly inspiring.

    Great post, and i’m curious to see where “scalability” moves from here.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Zach! And agreed, but don’t know if we’ll meet that over saturation point for something like broken link building, seeing that link rot is such an epidemic (something like 16% of links a year break).

  3. chris says:

    All great things to think about when trying to make the next step up. For me the challenge was adding clients being an individual consultant. The challenge was can I take on more clients while still providing value, but anyone faces this whether they want to raise the # of clients they can take on, or making the jump from consultant to agency.

  4. I don’t think that broken link building will ever be targeted as it’s a positive and moderated way to build links. It actually makes Internet better for users. While mediocre guest blogging pollutes it.

  5. Gael says:

    Story of my life. Since these updates Higher Click tripled in size, we had to revise our entire training and interview process and create things such as a “redaction team” “relationship building team” and such. But thanks to that, we’re still afloat :).

  6. This is the meat of it right here: “Realize that you need actual people thinking up actual ideas and actually putting them into practice”

    Whether dealing with an enterprise level client or a one-man shop, the most important thing is getting clients to see that the real goal is to understand their business goals (and that means the SEO AND the client) and then work to create genuinely valuable content that is targeted at meeting those goals.

    Even with all of the Penguin and Panda talk, too many SEOs and clients think there’s a list of things that can be checked off and once they’re done the site will rank higher and they’ll make more money. It takes a lot of work doing real things, but it’s worth it and is by far the best way to move a site outside the world of algorithm changes or penalties from Google.

    Google likes genuinely useful content that people want to see. Always has and always will.

    • Shawn Cohen says:

      Totally agree. The sooner that we as SEOs realize our linkbuilding responsibilities resemble PR and not automation, the better we’ll become at our craft.

  7. Good post Jon, people, process and the tools of the trade that your people are using are becoming more and more critical in this busy & information overload world we live in.

    Keep up the good blogging!

  8. cash202 says:

    I didn’t get it. What’s the punchline? And what’s hard truth?

    • Dave Fowler says:

      I think the hard truth that Jon is referring to is the fact that the days of easily-scaled link building methods are over, and that those tactics that remain – such as guest blogging – may have a limited life-span (a life-span that will surely be shortened by the behaviour of some in our community, and by Google’s resolve to find and filter them). In other words, the hard truth is that future-proof link building is increasingly going to demand greater effort, greater creativity and greater commitment to succeed. As an aside, this is a real opportunity for SEOs with the talent to create content that others love and share. Time to raise the bar, folks.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      +100 Dave! Thanks so much for swooping in and giving the near exact response I would’ve given :)

  9. Alec Nelson says:

    Hi Jon,
    Your writing is clear and concise so thumbs up. When I got to the fist line of the small business section I thought awesome I am going to get fed here but unfortunately no. What i read is to keep plugging on creating great content and over time the community will come and spread the word. Its not that I disagree in fact i strongly agree, I am creating content that is awesome. In fact I know some of our competitors are using our site for research but they just don’t pay me back with links :(
    I only ever want to do white hat stuff as the rise and fall of grey and black is unbearable but I really do get frustrated with the slow progress.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      I totally agree Alec, but here’s the deal. Google’s starting to favor brands more & more, and there’s no quick fixes (and if you do find one, it’s longevity is very limited). The hard truth is that content & community are winning, and that if you continue trying to look for an alternative or quick fix, you’re going to lose. Do yourself a favor and start today. It sucks, because I do this for small businesses and know that a lot of time and some budget is required, but again, the answer isn’t going to change. You just have to swallow that pill and move forward; search traffic isn’t a free handout anymore.

  10. I have to fully agree that guest posting is one the foremost authoritative resources when building links.

    Something new I have been trying that seems to make a great impact is focusing more and more on co citations as Rand Fishkin posted on his blog recently.

    In other words the anchor text itself is more info here etc. but just before the anchor text it will read “need the latest red apple specials” more info here.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Agree that this plays a role, but still don’t see it being too huge. I think you should still focus more on the content of the entire page, and not just the few words around it.

      Either way, still agree that this will have more & more of an impact in the future. Thanks Dewaldt for the comment! :)

  11. Mohul says:

    I suppose, content is the most scalable entity as of now.. as it directly related with people and tools. Google was (is) able to scale like crazy because it is always preaching great content. And content is linked with creativity and imagination, which both are virtually infinitely scalable. Just to give a small example.. say a small business owner sells shoes and socks. How can content be used as a scalable entity? Create niche content for niche audience: shoes foe kids, shoes for adult, shoes for girls, shoes for runners, shoes for employees.. and then running shoes, formal shoes, informal shoes etc etc.. the laws of permutation and combination perfectly applies over here.. x*y = xy!

  12. rambabu says:

    thanks jon for bringing this useful ideas and tips on scalability, yes i have been seeing a lot changes with websites who form excellent content for their audiences, and that changes bring them in the area where they really want to reach. It works only mostly through their content they create, not any trick we might think it was happened with.

  13. Interesting and well put as always, thanks!

    Just a side note:
    I’m offered both the option to:
    – Notify me of follow-up comments by email
    – Notify me of followup comments via e-mail

    Seems rather odd?

  14. Couldnt agree with you more Jon! The fact is that any thing that is scalable will sooner or later get used and abused and this G will look to slap it or come up with another black & white animal to take it down. I like guest posts but having to label them as such puts them out there as paid or simply a real guest post. How is Google to know that for sure especially if it is remarkable content? Scaling is very hard to do and if we look at the past everything for the most part that was scalable got spammed to death.

  15. If you’re an agency, scalability is surely important. The quality stuff though is not easy to scale. And great talent don’t come cheap. So in the end, it’s still the ones with the bigger budgets (and know how to use them correctly) will win.

  16. Laust Kehlet says:

    Great post. There are still possibilities for scalability imo – what has become absolete are the standard obscene bulk techniques… But I agree on Arvins comment it comes with a cost… And the techniques that must be used today are way more elitarian… But well that’s I guess the direction Google wants to move in!

  17. Adam Henige says:

    I still struggle to see how or why broken link building would get banned. First of all, it creates a better internet experience for everyone when broken links get cleaned up. Secondly, it motivates people to update old content. Two things, which to me, are only positives. Of course the spam potential is there, but if you keep your site cleaned up I’d wager it’s a relatively small problem (note to self…time to run Xenu on my own site).

  18. Ash says:

    Even though guest posting and infographics have the “potential” to scale, it’s still awfully hard to create a process that can work.

    I’ve been working the past few months on scaling guest posting and have got to a point where it seems to be working – but, there are still new problems that are solved everyday and I’m nowhere close to saying that the process that’s in place is infinitely scalable.

    Infographics on the other hand is a completely different animal – the production process of an infographic is very hard to scale and not every company can use an infographic for link acquisition.

  19. Reading this post is one of the best way to end 2012. Looking forward for more exciting tips from you Jon. Happy new year, wishing you all the best this 2013.

  20. People freaks because they are afraid of failing, afraid of testing, SEO is Always the same only Google gets Smarter

  21. Taran says:

    Totally agree. The sooner that we as SEOs realize our linkbuilding responsibilities resemble PR and not automation, the better we’ll become at our craft.

  22. Mark Gavalda says:

    Great post Jon! I had a chuckle when I read the following in this order:
    “sliced bread forced down their throat” :)

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