Link Outreach: Building Your Prospect List

Just about everything beyond the low hanging fruit is going to involve outreach in some way. You will have to get in contact with bloggers or journalists that are relevant to your site and promote your site, or more specifically, the awesome content on your site.

This is the hard part of SEO. It’s very manual and time consuming (and for good reason — as we’ve seen everything you can successfully automate gets penalized eventually). This is what professional link building companies do, and if you truly want to succeed in organic search, it’s what you need to do as well.

Finding Your Linkerati

The very first step here is to build a contact list of your prospects. In any given industry, there are a collection of sites and blogs that make up the vast majority of links that any site in the industry gets. We call these the linkerati.

You need to go on a search for bloggers who blog about a topic relevant to your site. This doesn’t have to be a 100% perfect fit, but it does have to be pretty close. For example, when I was starting my site I didn’t go looking for sites that blogged about dice — there weren’t any of those other than competitors. Instead I looked for sites that blogged about tabletop gaming and Dungeons and Dragons. These are the sites that all my dice customers were going to read, so those are the sites that would be relevant.

Determining what your linkerati is going to be can be difficult, especially for B2B type businesses. In some cases, there is literally no blog community of any size around an industry (this is pretty rare, but common in the industrial industries). In that case you might need to think about what kind of content you can create that can cross over into another community.

For example, I once worked with a CNC machine shop. The owner did a lot of work on off-road 4×4 trucks, and was involved in the community. So we leveraged that connection and suggested he produce content about modding trucks for these races. The content was relevant because it was all services that his machine shop offered, but it crossed over into a linkerati community completely unrelated to machining.

I had another client that actually manufactured CNC machines. I leveraged my geeky background & connections and suggested they create a time-lapse video of a CNC machine machining a stainless steel block into a Darth Vader helmet. That’s a video that I know would have mass appeal to the geek crowd and get shared all over, and again is relevant to their products. (I left the agency before the video was made, so I don’t know if they followed through).

The point here is that you can usually find a way to access a blog community for just about any site. Consider what products or services or information the site offers and who would use that information and what they would use it for. Both of those questions can lead to relevant blog communities.

Finding Sites

Once you know the kind of sites that you’re after, you then need to start finding the sites. There are some paid tools that help with this, but you can get pretty far along just using Google. My preferred paid tool for this is GroupHigh, which saves you a lot of time, but will also cost you nearly $1,000 per month. You can get nearly all of the info manually, spending more time instead of more money. There are three main ways to track down prospects:

  1. Use a Google search, or a Google Blog Search (which should only return blog results, and can be found at Search for your topic and comb through the results looking for good sites. You can use advanced search operators to narrow things. For example, if you’re looking for knitting blogs you might search for “blog intitle:knitting” — that searches for the word “blog” and only returns results where the word “knitting” is in the title of the page. You can also look for the word knitting in the actual URL with “inurl: knitting” Expect to go through hundreds of results at this stage. You want to build a comprehensive contact list here. The best results are small to medium blogs — giant sites are much harder to contact and get exposure from, but you should certainly include them on your list as well.
  2. When you find those small and medium blogs in your Google search, look for blogrolls — the list of recommended sites that often lives on the sidebar of blogs. This will generally include links to many other closely related sites (and some not related ones). Add all those related sites to your list as well.
  3. Use a backlink discovery tool like Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO (we talk about these in Tools & Analysis on page xxx) to find the sites that link to the small and medium blogs you’ve found (this usually isn’t very useful for very large sites). The sites linking to these blogs are very often also related sites that are a part of the linkerati for that industry. Be aware there will be plenty of junk links in there too – remember you’re only looking for quality blogs and sites, not directories or press release/article spinning sites.

As you look at the sites, first evaluate it: is the site spammy? Does it look like it was written by a computer program or is it filled with ads or just look untrustworthy? You don’t want to pursue links from obviously spammy sites. Also check out the date of the most recent post, at the top of the homepage — if the blog hasn’t been updated in months, chances are that the blogger has stopped updating the site and this isn’t a good prospect. Some people evaluate blogs based on the PageRank of the home page, or the Domain Authority as measured by various companies. I do not recommend this: you want to get links from every site that isn’t spammy, regardless of the PageRank.

A site is a good prospect if it is relevant to the topic, seems like it’s decent quality (not spammy) and has been updated within the past month.

Finding Contact Info

With each good site that you find, record in your spreadsheet the name of the site, the URL of the site, the name of the site author if you can find it, and the contact info for the site. For smaller blogs contact info can sometimes be hard to find.

After going through this process for a lot of sites, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s not worth going to extreme measures to find contact info (like looking up the whois) — if a site owner makes it really hard to find their email address, odds are they aren’t going to respond to you contacting them anyway.

Here are the simple steps I go through to find the contact info:

  • Look in the main navigation for a link to a Contact page or an About page. Look through those pages for a contact email or a contact form
  • Hit Control-F and do a search for the words “contact,” “about,” and “email” on the home page and the about page. Be aware that “email” often gets lots of false positives from sites that advertise signing up for email subscriptions, or sharing posts via email
  • Search for “Profile” — this is a common area to find contact info for blogs hosted by blogspot.
  • Failing those, look for social media links. If a blogger gives their Twitter account, you can always contact her that way

In a perfect world you really want an email address, but any kind of contact method works, even social media.

There are some tools out there to help you find contact info for a site: I’ve never used any of them, mostly because I generally haven’t had much luck pitching sites who make their contact info hard to find in the first place.

Learn While Building Your List

While you’re going through this process, you can also be learning about your potential audience. Keep an eye out for recurring themes that you see discussed on the blogs: you may be able to make use of that in future content you create.

Also keep an eye out for very authoritative blogs: blogs that get very large numbers of comments on all their posts, and those sites that it seems like everyone is linking to, that are on every blogroll. These are major influencers, and if you’re going to be marketing within this community, these are the guys that you want to know about. Bookmark those sites and make a point to read their blogs regularly. Follow them on social media. Try to interact with them in comments and in social media — these are guys who can give you great insight into the community in which you’ll be marketing, and who you want to be able to leverage to get great exposure. They can provide not only links, but high quality traffic and brand awareness. So start building that relationship now, so when you want something it will be more than a random email out of the blue.

The process of building a prospect list like this is long, slow, and painful. This is the biggest grind of SEO research, but it’s also absolutely vital. You don’t want to skip steps or take shortcuts here, because you’ll be leveraging this list over and over during your authority building.

If you have a new site or are entering a new community, you probably don’t want to offload this work to someone else (tempting though it is). The process of finding all these sites also gives you a pretty good overview of the blog community you’re going to be leveraging. If you are not already very well versed in the community, the discovery process will help you understand how to produce content that is capable of attracting links.

I like to break this process down into small bite-sized chunks. I will do research for one hour a day, every day, until I’ve exhausted my options. I just find that I cannot sit down for eight hours at a stretch building a prospect list.

Do whatever works for you to build the most comprehensive list possible of every active blog in your target community. These are your linkerati, the sites whose links you need to be able to rank at the top of Google.

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