How to Build White Hat Backlinks Like Crazy [TSI Case Study]

Introduction

A few years ago, my agency The Search Initiative (TSI) decided to remove PBNs as a part of our link building strategy and move over completely to a white hat link building model.

While PBNs only made up a small portion of our strategy, we knew this would be a fairly big undertaking. This would involve the re-design of the overall process and our approach to campaigns.

Every decision that we make at the agency is data-driven. We constantly test, experiment and analyze.

Our aim is to always put our clients first and to give them the best ROI for their campaign. We needed a sustainable and powerful link building strategy that is not only extremely safe but also moves the needle.

In this article, you’ll learn our entire outreach strategy.

We’ll discuss the role content quality plays in an effective outreach campaign, how to research and create fine pieces, how to prospect link opportunities, and how to pitch with a high success rate.

Bonus: I’ve brought in Rad Paluszak (TSI Director and Chiang Mai SEO Conference 2018 speaker) to chime in with some knowledge bombs.

Overall Goals and Strategy

During our early brainstorming sessions, we knew that to fully transition from grey to white we needed to base the entire system on high-quality content.

Why is high-quality content so important for outreach?

Bloggers, website owners and journalists wised up a long time ago to the importance of links in SEO. They fully understand how important they are to us and the value that these links hold.

Direction signage SEO strategies

Many prospects are extremely proud of their websites and extremely picky about what content is placed on their own personal soapbox.

Just look at how few guest posts I’ve allowed on my site.

Outreach link building is an exchange. You provide something that the website’s readers will love and adds true value to the website and in exchange, you attain that all-important link.

My advice: Create a systemized approach that focuses on quality.

To get the types of links that you actually want, you need a system that gives you both strength and flexibility.

Focus on:

  1. Content that is easy to understand
  2. Content that teaches
  3. Content that is easy to share
  4. Content that impresses

But how do you create a content marketing machine that can produce this kind of content?

Direction signage SEO strategies

We assembled a team who had zero SEO knowledge but were bright and creative, which were the main skills we were looking for.

You want your content and outreach team members to be right-brained, creative types.

I’m a left-brained robot, so I’m much better at stuff like link prospecting, which you’ll learn more about later.

If you chose to train the new outreach team from scratch, you avoid the shortcut mentality that many trained SEO’s have.

Sched a call-CTA

Think about it. You have your biases about how things work, and you’re likely going to carry them around with you from project-to-project and job-to-job.

Essentially, you want a team of content marketers, not SEO’s. This is easier to do when working with a blank slate.

One of the key skills we were looking for was someone who had an eye for copy.

Thus, we put out job adverts on copywriting groups looking for people who had a background in copywriting but who were interested in being trained up in online marketing.

Cult of Copy is a great facebook group to find niche-specific copywriters.

Tip for you

The group has very strict rules from the very beginning. To join the group you have to confirm that you understand the following:

  1. Only posts requesting or offering a copywriting job are allowed.
  2. Only comments accepting a copy job or giving testimonial are allowed.
  3. No public complaints or moaning – these kinds of things should go through admin.

Not adhering to the above and you’re banned!

It’s good to keep everything in order!

Do you think it impacts the group’s activity? Not at all!

Have a look at the stats:

Jobs Group Stats

 

RadRad Paluszak – Director of SEO at the Search Initiative

Content Research

There are endless tools and processes for content research available.

To cut through the bullshit, keep things as simple as possible, stick to the 80/20, and focus your efforts on a few core resources:

  • Reddit
  • Quora
  • Meta Filter
  • Google Search

The reason why these small set of tools are recommended is that communities like Reddit, Quora and Meta Filter have done a great job of keeping spam at a minimum and also encouraging active participation.

You can, without too much effort, find the industry pain points, the subjects people care about, and the themes that are recurring time and time again.

For a content marketer, this is phenomenal.

Reddit

If you are not using Reddit as part of your content research then you are seriously missing out on an awesome trick.

Reddit is a goldmine of opportunities.

The really great thing about Reddit is that spam and manipulation are very rarely tolerated. And the users are usually painfully honest, to say the least.

Search for variations of topics to find out what questions people are asking and what specific questions receive lots of upvotes and replies.

BigSEO Reddit

The key here is to create a documented record of the topics that had the most engagement, as this is a great indicator that the content is popular.

At this early stage, you should aim to collect as much information as possible on anything and everything in our target niche that has a high level of upvotes and comments.

To do this, simply head to Reddit, and search for your market defining keywords within the search bar.

Reddit SEO

Next select ‘Communities and users’ to see which subreddits are in your niche.

Look for the subreddits with the highest number of subscribers and ensure that they are active communities.

Sort through the subreddits one by one by setting the results to, Sort > TOP, OF ALL TIME, to get the pieces of content and content themes that have had the biggest impact.

Record all the data in a spreadsheet like this one (please don’t request the edit access – you can create a copy of the spreadsheet instead).

Reddit Google Doc

Tip for you

If you’re not familiar with Google Docs and would prefer to use Microsoft Excel or Libre Office Calc, you can download a copy of the shared spreadsheet as shown below:

Google Sheets - Export to Office

It’s also very easy to create your own copy of the spreadsheet on your Google Drive – as mentioned above, please use this method instead of requesting the access to our file:

Google Sheets - Make a Copy

RadRad Paluszak – Director of SEO at the Search Initiative

Quora and Meta Filter

Quora and Meta Filter are both very highly used question and answer websites.

These allow you to search for the themes and mini topics within your niche and look for the specific questions that people are struggling with.

This is very important, as you’ll see later.

It also allows you to look for further content ideas within the answers that are provided.

Quora Link Building

Again, we are looking for questions that have received a large amount of engagement.

In the example from Quora above we can see that both of these questions have a high answer rate (133 and 99 answers).

Sched a call-CTA

We collect all the relevant questions in a spreadsheet which includes:

  • The question
  • The search used
  • How many answers the question has
  • Any relevant comments

You can find an example in this spreadsheet.

Quora Google Drive

Tip for you

If you’re only looking for a bunch of questions that people ask around your niche, my personal favorite is AnswerThePublic.com.

Let’s type ‘link building’ and allow it do its magic:

Answer the public link building search result

You can easily find a lot of common questions the users are searching for.

Answer The Public - How - Diagram

It’s a great inspiration to write useful answers and a way to potentially attack these sweet “Position 0” answer boxes:

Link Building Answer Box

RadRad Paluszak – Director of SEO at the Search Initiative

Google Search

Look at high authority sites to reverse engineer successful campaigns. This allows you to hedge your bets with outreach because you’re following in the footsteps of someone else.

People are much more likely to share your content on their site if they have a proven track record of sharing similar content in the past.

Let’s see what kind of SEO related infographics the Huffington Post is sharing.

Using a simple search string returns 88 results.

Huff PO Site Search

If we take one of those results we can see that this infographic campaign has returned links from 24 referring domains.

Huff PO Results

Huff PO ahrefs

These can simply be exported and saved ready for quality control checks and outreach.

As these infographics have been featured on a site such as The Huffington Post, it is likely that it has also been featured on other authority sites.

From this research, we can see what kind of themes and topics get featured on high authority sites.

Record everything and add it to the research spreadsheet.

Content Strategy

Our content strategy was based on a few specific content types:

  • High-quality guest posts
  • Infographics
  • Embeddable Interactive content
  • Creative content pieces

Guest Posts

Guest posts are easy to scale and are a great way to ensure that you have a baseline of high-quality links.

There’s ways to do them right and there’s way to do them wrong, so make sure you know the difference or get them from a place you can trust.

Infographics

Infographics have been done to death but they still work, especially in some of the historically more spammy niches (e.g. payday loans).

The concept of infographics is extremely simple. A visual piece of content is created containing lots of relevant data points.

This content can then be offered to website to embed on their website in exchange for a link back.

Infographic Sample

Interactive Content

Interactive content takes this concept a little further and gives you the ability to create incredibly interesting content data-driven content pieces that can really stand out from the crowd.

Our favorite is tableau.com.

You can see this simple example we did that looked at the price of coffee around the world. This content is easily embeddable and functions in the same way as an infographic for link building.

Coffe Prices

The real benefit of infographics and interactive content is that they can be used over and over again in a campaign with little to no need to create additional resources.

Guest posts are great for scaling but a new piece of content needs to be crafted especially for that site.

How to Develop Creative Content

The content development stage is where you need to get creative with your process.

This is a vital stage as it combines with the research into what questions people are asking and the research into the successful campaigns.

If you can pick content themes that people are already sharing on their websites and match them to the topics that people are asking, you should, in theory, be able to create a piece of content that has a very high chance of becoming a successful campaign.

When trying to stimulate your creativity it is often a good idea to step away from your computer and change your normal working routines.

Take a pen and paper and brainstorm potential ideas. Try to create a list as long as possible.

Sched a call-CTA

It is very rare that the first idea is the best one, usually, it is the most conservative and the least risky.

By jotting down every single idea that comes into your head, you are able to quickly remove the ideas that won’t gain traction.

In this stage, we often look at the existing content from a successful campaign and look at how we can use the same format but change the topic or expand the content to make it better.

Example

A great starting point for this is to look for outdated content.

If you do a simple Google search looking for sites that hosted infographic content for SEO tips in 2016 we can see that people are receptive to this content type and format.

All you need to do it recreate this content for the modern day and reach out to them.

top seo tips 2016

Something like this infographic I built would be great for this.

Once you have a list in place it is time to go back to the computer and search for your list of potential content ideas in Google.

This works by seeing if the ideas have already been used – have they been successful?

Is there anything that could have been done differently to make them better?

Are there any additional ideas that are generated by looking through these pieces of content?

Tip for you

Creative linkable assets can really work a charm!

One of my personal favorites is not an infographic, but an “infowebsite” (??): http://www.distancetomars.com/

Distance To Mars

Looking at the links – I’d say not bad!

Distance To Mars - Ahrefs Data

The data is available everywhere:

You can go as creative as you want!

RadRad Paluszak – Director of SEO at the Search Initiative

Prospecting

In reality, if you are performing white hat outreach the mistake that most people make is not investing too much time in prospecting.

What is prospecting?

It’s the process of finding potential target domains that will accept your proposal for a link.

A correctly ran campaign needs to have about 80% of the time finding targets and 20% pitching to those targets.

By using the research collected in the content stage, you know the broad topic areas that are going to be interested in your piece of content.

You can use this as part of the initial prospecting.

The aim at this stage is to remove the standard approach of focusing on “what websites do I want links from?” and instead think about “what niches would be interested in the content.”

The overall effect is much higher this way.

After jotting down every possible niche that might like your content, create a master blueprint of the niches that you are going to target.

Now we get nerdy.

From here we are looking for sites in these niches that fit the following requirements:

  • Meets our link building criteria
    • Has not been hit with a penalty or devaluation
    • Has a high level of traffic
    • Has a high number of ranking keywords
    • Has the ability to provide referral traffic
  • Has covered the topic of your content
  • Does not openly advertise that they’re selling links

Let’s say you are looking to promote an infographic within the online marketing niche.

Look for queries in the past year as this shows that the sites you are looking for have recently posted content that is similar to your niche if they are linking out to external websites then they are receptive having content placed on the sites.

So search queries such as:

“Online marketing intitle:infographic”

online marketing infographic

The first result from social media today contains an infographic within the niche we are targeting, released within the past year and links out to the contents creator – an external website.

Finding Contact Information

The most important aspect when trying to pitch content is contacting the right person.

There are loads of places where email addresses can be found such as:

  • Their profile page
  • Their Twitter bio
  • Their LinkedIn page
  • Clipping portfolio
  • Check on Twitter if they have been asked for it before by using Twitter’s advanced search

However, the best two tools to use are the browser plugins https://hunter.io/ and https://rocketreach.co/

If you use the infographic example above, you ideally want to target the author of that piece for outreach.

hunter email finder

Personas

An outreach persona is basically just the email account that is sending the outreach request.

Do you want your persona to come from someone within the company you’re trying to build links for, or a 3rd party entirely?

One of the main issues that we identified at an early stage of designing this process was how were we going to approach the outreach personas.

Here at TSI, we have an extremely diverse portfolio of clients ranging from huge established enterprise-level brands to affiliate sites in a large range of niches.

Each client needs a different approach to persona building as the clients are way too diverse. We settled on using a tandem of techniques depending on the strategy and the client.

The Company Persona

By using this strategy, you ask the client to set up a company-branded email address to use as the outreach persona. If this is not available we use a branded Gmail address.

E.g. [email protected] / [email protected]

By using this technique you are able to leverage the authority of the company to instantly build trust.

This allows you a ‘foot in the door’, however, the brand does need to be strong enough to grab the blogger or journalist’s attention and peak their interest.

Sched a call-CTA

The blogger persona

We created a wide variety of persona bloggers, each with their own blog and persona backstory.

Every blogger is then distant from the client and operates as a separate entity and acts as a professional blogger within their set industry.

The trust is built from the third party blogger, who has a history and track record of good content. However, this approach does also require the client to have great content on their site.

Using this approach, you would link to valuable blog content, and the link needs to absolutely compliment the post that it is placed within.

This approach is primarily used for guest posting.

wordpress-profile-page

The PR pitch

This email comes from our own agency email address ([email protected]) and is used for bigger content pieces.

We absolutely state that we are working with the client as an outside agency and use this tactic alongside higher value content assets such as interactive content.

Tip for you

With Google August 1st AKA “Medic” update, it’s vital to make your expert personas trustworthy and authoritative.

Especially if you’re using them for different blogs.

Building up your persona’s E-A-T should help your site also gain trust signals and, essentially, rank better.

Please avoid silly mistakes and footprints:

  • Don’t call your persona a famous name (e.g. Jimmy Hendrix) – it’s too easy to spot.
  • Use trustworthy image and persona’s details.
  • Do not use someone else’s name or brand – if you can’t control it, there’s a chance it will go south.
  • Make sure you’re not using the same persona for many, random niches – it should be niche relevant in terms of the content it’s covering and related to your website.
  • Ideally, use your own name and build your own online presence to display your own expertise helping your business.

Google’s pretty good at it, but it’s not perfect. Making just a little bit more effort in creating and building your online persona will make it harder for the search engine to identify a fake one. Additionally, it will also help you get better outreach results and.

RadRad Paluszak – Director of SEO at the Search Initiative

Pitching Websites

There are a few golden rules of pitching to a website or journalist.

  • Make sure you have the right email for the right person
  • Never pitch to generic email addresses
  • Pitch to someone who has written for the site within the past year. This will increase your chances of pitching to an active contributor and not a dead account. Use the Google Search Results Tools function to adjust the search results to only give you content released in the past month or year.
  • The subject line needs to grab the reader’s attention
  • Think about how many emails these inboxes get a day. A successful pitch needs to grab the reader’s attention in the first few lines. Why should they care?
  • Here is an example of an outreach email I received.

This basically goes against every good practice for outreach. It is short, sharp and to the point but where is the value to me? It doesn’t even refer to me by name.

bad outreach

Remember with outreach, you need the recipient to stop what they are doing and be interested in responding to you

With just a bit more care and thought, we can craft a much better email that is more personal, discusses what they will get in return, and thus has a much higher chance of success.

Hey Matt,

I know you must be crazy busy after the Chiang Mai SEO Conference (it looked crazy btw!) so I will cut to the chase.

I’m a big time and fan and longtime reader. I have been contributing to some sites for a while now, you can see them here:

–  [Link to an amazing piece of content]
–  [Link to an amazing piece of content]
–  [Link to an amazing piece of content]

I would love to look at putting something together for DiggityMarketing.com.

Maybe something along the lines of [Amazing topic that has not been covered].

Let me know your thoughts, have a great day.

Keep up those #rankboners.

[Please don’t start spamming me with this template :)]

Conclusion

Perfecting outreach is not rocket science, but it does require a carefully thought-out approach.

Quality content needs to form the foundation of everything. The temptations for shortcuts need to be resisted.

By providing value at all stages of the process, the relationships with journalists and bloggers can be created.
You only get one chance to make an impact with a prospect. One poor email or a bad pitch could damage a potential link opportunity and, in the worst case scenario, your brand’s reputation.

The relationships will form the foundation of your most important tool for outreach – the database of successes and failures.

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