When we first start working with a new client, regardless of whether we've worked with that same industry before, we generally have a period of about a week where we're simply digging in and trying to understand the site. It's fantastic when the client is involved in this stage, but that doesn't always happen, as since we're a link agency, we sometimes just get link projects thrown at us and we're told to make them work. This stage is where our team discusses what the client does, what makes them different from their competitors, what they want to see from our work, and what types of sites would be relevant linking partners. There have been times when we have been on crazy deadlines and haven't had the luxury of doing proper research and I can tell you that those projects have not gotten off to a great start for the most part. Even if you can take just a day or so to really do some research before you start trying to do whatever it is that you'll be doing to generate links, it's incredibly beneficial.
So what types of research do we usually do, how do we do them, how long do we spend on each stage, and why?
As much as I hate to admit this, we have had link builders who built some links that made very little sense because they had no idea of what a certain service was. Even now I have to remind my team (and myself) to "go look at the site" when they ask me questions about what they should do to find linking partners for a specific product or service. It's easy to fall on our tendencies to Google everything when we're confused, but getting that info straight from the source is the best way to figure it out. Naturally, I'll have a good look at a site before we even start to talk about doing work for a potential client, but I prefer to have feedback from my entire team because chances are, they'll note something that I will have overlooked. This is the stage when I usually identify site issues that could impact our work. Maybe there's a better page to link to than the one the client has given us? Maybe there's some great content that we can use but the client didn't notify us? Now's the time when we dig in and speak up.
What's in the link profile? What bad things have they done? Seriously, almost all of them have done something bad whether it was intentional or not, so finding that and getting it fixed will help ensure that your efforts don't go wasted. Nine times out of 10, if you ask a client if he or she has done anything naughty, you'll get a hearty no, so go dig around. If you happen to be dealing with a site that has 200 links, all of which seem to be total spam, you may need to clean that up first. If a client wants you to build links to an exact match anchor, then go see what their percentage of that anchor actually is before doing it. A quick overview takes only an hour or so, but for big brands, I like to spend a few days really digging into the profile. For this I use Majestic, Link Research Tools, and Link Risk.
Gone are the days where we'd simply figure out which keywords showed the most search volume and those would be our exact match anchors. I'm not saying that we ignore keyword data of course, but we don't use it without logically thinking it through. Many times the client has done this for us, or maybe their SEO team has done it, but we don't always need to do it. What I like to do is figure out which keywords are the popular ones for the industry, compare them to what's actually being said in the site's content, and then use natural variations as anchors. We have some clients who give us the exact anchors that they want, but we're far more successful with the clients who give us general ideas of what they want but leave it up to use and the webmasters we work with to determine the actual anchors used. Generally speaking, when we do the keyword research, we spend about a day on it. We also do it again if the client has any drastically different new content. My current favorite tool for this is Spyfu, but you can use any tool that you like.
What does the general industry space look like? Sometimes we get clients with niches that are unfamiliar to everyone in our office. Those are the really fun accounts, but learning how to link for them is tricky so we'll read everything we can about them and what they do. It's hard to come up with discovery and content ideas if you have no clue what a client actually does. Usually this takes a day or so for a small site, but it can take up to a week for a very large brand if you have the time to spend. When I do this I set up a lot of Talkwalker and Google alerts for general industry terms so I can see what's happening that's noteworthy.
What content are the competitors creating? We use this as a guideline for what the industry responds to and we try and figure out how to do something that's distinctive. We don't do too much in the way of competitive backlink analysis (other than whatever we find in our link research stage) because we don't mine competitors' links, but we do like to see what they're blogging about, what other services they have, and what makes our client different. I always set up alerts for the competition just to keep an eye on what they're doing. This is usually ongoing for us but initially, we probably spend about half a day on it.
This is my favorite part of the initial cycle, and it's something that we do often for all clients. Even a quick 15-minute brainstorming session is incredibly beneficial for getting everyone fired up and ready to try something new, so I highly recommend it even if you're comfortable with what you're doing. Our brainstorming comes in different forms: sometimes we do it in person when everyone's in the office and has a free moment, but sometimes I might just generate a big list of ideas and send it out to everyone, or two link builders may have a chat where each is working on a different client and they figure out ideas for their partner. We brainstorm ideas for discovery and we brainstorm ideas for content creation during this stage. Overall we usually spend about a full day at the start of each project on this, but throughout the campaign I'd say that we end up spending another 20 hours a month doing this.
Site Partner Research:
What types of sites would link to the client? What types won't? This is different for every niche. For example, a competitor is probably not the best person to approach for a link unless you happen to have something amazing and different, but generally speaking, we don't ever do that. It's important to think about why someone would link to you and consider what you have to offer. Most sites don't want to link to a resource that they have on their own page. Some industries also seem to offend certain people. I doubt you'd want to contact a mommy blogger and try to get a link to your overseas sex travel site. This can actually be the most time-consuming part for us because we have to examine every idea so closely. I might think that X site won't link to Y site because they are doing the same thing, but one of my team members might point out that X site has a deficiency and might actually link to something very specific on Y's site. It also isn't intuitive for some people to immediately see the problems with approaching certain sites for links simply because our brains don't work the same way, so talking about it out loud is the best idea in most cases.
You should ideally be familiar with all of this before you start to build links no matter how you're building them, as without this kind of knowledge, you're leaving a lot of opportunities on the table and you'll probably end up with less relevant links than you would otherwise. It's critical to recognize that many clients have no idea of what content would do well so they could be sitting on top of some amazing resources. It's your job to find them and point them out and they'll definitely appreciate the extra leg work. After all, you both want the same thing: awesome benefits from your marketing efforts.