The 8 Stages Of A Link Building Campaign (+ 40 Free Tools For Total SERP Domination)

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Synopsis – Link building is a process, with steps and stages that one needs to pass through in order to be as successful as possible. And with link building being of crucial importance in optimizing your website to rank well in the search engines, it’s extremely important that website owners assign time, effort, and resources to building links to establish authority and relevance. But link building can seem like an onerous task to undertake, full of trade secrets and treacherous mistakes waiting for the uncertain beginner that may doom their efforts to rise in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

In his article, “The 8 Stages Of A Link Building Campaign (+ 40 Free Tools For Total SERP Domination),” Garrett French makes sense out of the complexities of link building by assigning the process to eight separate stages from beginning to end to help guide online marketers on the right path. Along the way, he identifies a variety of free tools for each stage of the process, explaining how the tools he has included fit the individual stages. In total, he lists 40 free tools throughout the eight stages and ends with the answer to a challenge — if he was stranded on a desert island and could only use 5 link building tools, which would he choose?

The complete article follows …

The 8 Stages Of A Link Building Campaign (+ 40 Free Tools For Total SERP Domination)

New link builders are quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of free link building tools on the market. However, it’s rare to find how-to guides for individual tools, and toolmakers seldom discuss the stage of the process their tool helps with. This article addresses these issues in two ways. First, it provides you with a categorical link building campaign framework in eight stages, so you can understand where a free tool fits in a standard link building process. Second, it provides you with free tool recommendations for each of the stages.

This article is written from the perspective of one who builds links via linkable content, content promotion, and industry engagement— in other words, largely excluding processes and ideas related to link buying for the purposes of increasing SERP rankings. Link buying can potentially have a catastrophic impact on rankings when conducted by someone without significant experience. At this point in the game, I recommend you leave link buying to professionals with proven track records, assuming your situation requires link buys for effective competition.

Some link building campaigns are more elaborate than the following set-up, and some are far less elaborate. At the very least, you will benefit from stretching your brain to think about link building as a process with distinct steps for which there are specific tools.

Stage 1 — Competitive Backlink Analysis + Tools

Competitive backlink analysis is the process of investigating those linking to your competitors and any other high-ranking pages in the SERPs for your target phrases. Often conducted at the campaign outset, its purpose is to understand which sites link out, to what content on which sites, and for what reasons. Link prospects are commonly extracted from this information — that is, sites from among these linkers are harvested for inclusion on your outreach list.

Based on pages that receive the most links, you can discern the kind of content (research, tools, resources, videos, whitepapers, news, etc.) attracting links, and from whom. You will also see which sites have purchased links, from whom, and in what manner (sidebars and footers, pay-per-post, in-context, etc.).

The main purpose of competitor backlink analysis lies in categorizing the types of sites that link to your competitors, the audiences these sites target, and what precisely they link to or mention. Types of sites that link to your competitors can include blogs, forums, news sites, trade publications, etc. Pay attention to the audiences these sites cater to, as they are likely to represent at least part of your target market. In particular, look for any job titles mentioned or other audience descriptors. Lastly, look at which of a competitor’s pages commonly receive mention and note what the page does — is it a resource, a news item, a widget, etc. This data gives you a sense of how targeted a site is, and how much impact it will have beyond SERP impact.

Many link builders start and stop their hunt for link prospects based solely on links their competitors have earned. While I do advise that you find prospects based on the efforts of your competitors, I highly recommend that you go beyond the “competitive backlink graph” to discover prospects. We’ll dig deeply into ways to do this in Stage 3, but some tools to provide the data to perform competitive backlink analysis are:

1.  Yahoo Site Explorer at siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com — free

2.  Majestic SEO — free and paid

3.  Open Site Explorer  — membership and paid

Another component of competitive backlink analysis, anchor text analysis is the fastest way to determine who in your industry is aggressively building links with highly targeted anchor text.

Anchor text analysis can also aid those who intend to walk on the riskier side of link building — link buys. One common technique is to analyze a natural backlink profile in your market for a site you know does not buy links and then try to mimic their mix of keyword-rich and natural anchors via paid links. Further, link buyers can use these kinds of tools for determining what “too optimized” might look like in their space. For anchor text analysis, try:

4.  Anchor Text Analysis Tool — bestrank.com/tools/anchor-text-analysis — free

5.  Anchor Text API Query Tool — seogadget.co.uk/anchor-text-tool/index.php — free

6.  Backlink Anchor Text Analyzer — tools.seobook.com/backlink-analyzer/ — free and .exe.

Blogroll co-citation analysis is one more form of specialized backlink analysis you should be aware of. Here, the link builder chooses the top 5-10 or so of the most respected blogs in an industry. Many such blogs have blogrolls, and if you look for blogs frequently mentioned in blogrolls from similar sites, you can build out a great list of potential outreach prospects. Fortunately, there is a simple, free tool for pulling the blogroll links and counting them.

7.  The Blogroll Co-Citation Tool — http://tools.buzzstream.com/blogroll-list-builder

Stage 2 — Linkable Content Analysis and Design + Tools

Linkable content is content designed to appeal to your target audience of potential linkers. “Content” can be anything — articles, videos, web apps, PDFs, infographics, and more. The best linkable content also serves to generate leads. PDFs for example, written to target buyers with key information at a known point of the buy cycle, can also attract interest from niche industry blogs, news sites, and social media users. It doesn’t always have to sell, either — for example, group interviews with industry experts can serve quite well as linkable content. Some link builders specialize in humorous or controversial writing to attract links.

Many questions arise instantly for marketers designing informative content for maximum linkability — namely, what kinds of content attracts links, from whom, and what problems does it address?

Let’s start with analyzing what kinds of content attracts links. The first thing is to analyze the backlink profiles of sites ranking most prominently across your target SEO keywords. Several so-called “SERP dominator” tools allow you to do just this.

8.  Most Ranked Domains Tool — http://whoicompete.com/

9.  Identify Your Top Search Competitors Tool — http://andrewgriffithsonline.com/marketing-tools/identify-seo-competitors-tool/

10.  Ontolo SERP Dominator Tool — http://ontolo.com/link-building-tools/SERPDominator

Once you know which sites rank most consistently across the SERPs for your target keywords, you have a great list of sites to start analyzing for linkable content with the competitive backlink analysis tools from Stage 1.

SERP dominator tools are also useful for searching out blogs in your target vertical. Instead of adding in SEO keywords, input prospect-targeting phrases such as [your market blog], [your market news], [your market trade publication], and see what ranks most consistently. This is a quick and simple way to discover the top publishers in your space. Then add these publishers to the SERP dominator tools to see which content pages on their sites attract the most links and from whom. Since we’re all publishers these days, it’s very important to understand who your linking audience is, why they link, and what they link to amongst the “pro” publishers.

You can also think about linkable content as shareable content and do some research to see what topics, relevant to your market, are shared frequently at social media sites. Search the following sites with high-level keywords relating to your market or the name of your industry:

11.  Twitter

12.  Reddit

13.  Delicious

14.  Digg

Stage 3 — Link Prospecting + Tools

Link prospecting is the process of discovering sites or pages that are potential link targets. There are two core methods of discovering these pages — through backlink analysis (discussed above) and through carefully designed Google queries, using “footprints” to help you isolate relevant link opportunities. Some excellent free tools can help.

15.  Link Building Query Generator —http://tools.buzzstream.com/

16.  Link Suggest Tool — http://tools.seobook.com/general/link-suggest/

17.  Link Building Query Tool — http://ontolo.com/link-building-tools/LinkBuildingQueryGeneratorV2

18.  Link Building Query Tool (in French) — http://www.seofrogs.com/accueil?lang=fr

If you’re building business citations — in essence, links for local search — use the Local Citation Finder. Simply add the region you’re searching along with the keyword you’d like to rank for, and it shows where your competitors have been mentioned or cited in ways that impact their local rankings.

19.  Local Citation Finder — http://www.whitespark.ca/local-citation-finder/

Broken links are another highly valued type of prospect. SEOs pursuing “broken link building” start with links/resource pages and check these pages for broken links. They then contact the webmaster, let them know about the broken links, and recommend their own link at the same time. The link builder can also take the broken URL, see which sites link to it via one of the backlink analysis tools mentioned above, and then look for ways to contact all of those sites as well. Some broken link checkers are:

20.  Broken Link Checker — http://www.iwebtool.com/broken_link_checker

21.  Xenu’s Link Sleuth — http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html

22.  Screaming Frog SEO Spider — http://www.screamingfrog.co.uk/seo-spider/

23.  Broken Links Checker — http://www.orchidbox.com/tools/Broken_Links_Checker.php

If you want to pursue this type of link building, do some research by googling “broken link building” to discover resources on this method that outline processes and best courses of action. These methods are typically for building domain authority and trust, rather than anchor text manipulation, and may require high-quality, even academic-grade, content.

Stage 4 — Link/URL Extraction + Tools

In link prospecting, you will quickly discover that it’s best to deal with multiple prospect URLs for analysis in the qualification stage. The URLs need to be pulled from the SERPs or resource pages so we can investigate them in bulk.

If you use link building queries to find prospects, SEO for Firefox is the best tool to rapidly pull prospects out of the SERPs. Download and install the tool, search Google, and then extract the URLs that are returned.

24.  SEO for Firefox (for SERP Scraping) — http://tools.seobook.com/firefox/seo-for-firefox.html

If you want to extract URLs directly from the HTML of a page, or just one section of HTML on a page, Buzzstream has a nifty tool I use for pulling URLs out of resource and links pages, which can then be checked through a broken link checking tool.

25.  Extract href from HTML — http://tools.buzzstream.com/link-building-extract-urls

Stage 5 — Link Qualification + Tools

With a list of URLs considered to be good potentials for link building, you still need to remove nonqualified ones, such as competitors, as well as irrelevant sites, AdSense sites, and scraper sites.

Before going through your prospect list one-by-one, prep your data just a bit with three nifty tools from Ontolo, which help you identify the most-mentioned URLs, remove duplicate domains, and quickly open up lots of URLs for review.

The first tool allows you to input a list of URLs gathered from multiple sources, reporting back the number of times each domain appears, as well as each URL. Those domains and URLs appearing most frequently are more likely to be prospects (especially if you’ve pulled your prospects using queries).

26.  URL and Hostname Counter — http://ontolo.com/link-building-tools/URLAndHostnameCounter

Depending on where you’ve sourced your prospects, you may have multiple domains listed, and it doesn’t always make your job faster to count their occurrences. Sometimes you just need the duplicates removed. This nifty little tool does just that — input a list of prospect URLs and it removes any duplicates, helping reduce that déjà-vu problem that’s so common when qualifying link prospects.

27.  Remove Duplicate Hostnames — http://ontolo.com/link-building-tools/RemoveDuplicateHostnames

As the final step, you will need to review URLs by hand. The URL Reviewer tool — which opens a list of URLs in new tabs — makes this tedious task a bit less mind-numbing. Review each, one by one, and determine which are likely targets.

28.  URL Reviewer — http://ontolo.com/link-building-tools/URLReviewer

Hang in there … you’re almost to the outreach stage, which is where you actually swing into action and build links with all of your work thus far!

Stage 6 — Link Outreach + Tools

Once you’ve qualified your prospects, it’s finally time to start reaching out to them. It is best to start out by engaging with them in some way before making a direct request for a link. You can begin with some value-adding comments on their blog that do not include link drops. Retweets are nice, and links are even better. Show your prospects a little love, show them that you have some shared goals or beliefs, and it will be much easier to get them to work with you.

Email is one of the most common methods for outreach. If you can’t find a site’s contact page or email addresses, the Email Research Helper tool will help you build out some Google searches to uncover them. Input some basic information and the tool creates queries for you to use to find contact info.

29.  Email Research Helper — http://tools.buzzstream.com/link-building-email-research

In conducting your outreach, there’s nothing like a killer spreadsheet to keep you focused on results. Many link builders find that, over time, a completed link outreach spreadsheet becomes one of their most valuable assets, as it reminds you who has agreed to link to you in the past. These are folks you can go to again with new link offers, and people you should take special care of through retweets and mentions from your site if at all possible or relevant. This link outreach management worksheet is one we drew up at Ontolo some time ago, and it should serve as a good starting point for this work.

30.  Link Outreach Management Worksheet — http://ontolo.com/_public_worksheets/downloads/LinkBuildingOutreachWorksheet.xls

Stage 7 — Progress Tracking + Tools

What works? What doesn’t work as well? Without answers to these questions, you’re not really link building. You need to establish baselines before you start your work and set some specific goals for your campaign. Here are some tools for doing just that.

Most link building campaigns focus on impacting rankings for specific terms in the search engines. I call this SERP (search engine result page) impact. There are many, many strong contenders in the free rank tracking tool space. Here are a couple of standouts.

31.  Search Engine Reports — http://searchenginereports.net/

32.  Rank Checking Tool for Firefox — http://tools.seobook.com/firefox/rank-checker/

Another metric to keep in mind is the amount of sharing your site receives on Twitter and Facebook. Here are two fantastic tools for keeping tabs on these numbers.

33.  Backtweets — http://backtweets.com

34.  Facebook Insights — http://www.facebook.com/insights/

Outside of shifts in ranking for specific keywords and social sharing, you should keep an eye on increases in direct referral and search traffic — remember, not all increases in keyword ranking will result in more traffic.

Even better, have some specific conversion in mind, as what’s the point of all this traffic if you have no real business-driving conversions? Almost all of you already know this particular tool, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of watching what really happens on your site.

35.  Google Analytics — http://www.google.com/analytics/

Stage 8 — Repeat What Works ; Innovate From What Works

If you’re properly tracking and monitoring your efforts, you will know what’s driving you toward your goals. Do these things again, and look for ways to streamline your processes. Set aside time for this, or find people who can specialize in specific aspects of the work. Get better, faster, and more efficient at these things that work. But don’t rest solely on your go-to approaches. Grow from what works.

If possible, combine two working ideas and see what happens. Keep reading more about link building — see what you can tweak from what you read, and add to what’s working. If a tactic is working for others, it might just work for you too.

Here are some further link building blogs that every link builder should keep in his toolbox:

36.  Debra Mastaler’s Link Building Blog — http://www.linkspiel.com/

37.  Wiep’s Link Building Blog — http://wiep.net/

38.  Ross Hudgens — http://rosshudgens.com/

39.  Link Week at Search Engine Land — http://searchengineland.com/library/link-week/

40.  Ontolo Link Building Blog — http://ontolo.com/blog

Top 5 Desert Island Link Building Tools

Search Marketing Standard’s Associate Editor Frances presented me with a nefarious scenario. She put me on a desert island and told me that to escape, I needed to build links, and could only bring 5 free tools with me (none of which could be ones I helped develop). Curses! What 5 free, non-Ontolo tools would I use to get off the island? Here goes …

Open Site Explorer – http://opensiteexplorer.org

Google – http://Google.com

SEO for Firefox – http://tools.seobook.com/firefox/seo-for-firefox.html

Link Building Query Generator – http://tools.buzzstream.com/link-building-query-generator

Google Analytics – http://www.google.com/analytics/

There you go Frances! I’ll be off the island in no time  :)

About the Author

Garrett French educates SEO and PR teams on content and engagement-based link building strategies that drive targeted referral traffic and deliver SERP domination. Learn more about him and his services at CitationLabs.com.

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