Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite link building experts, Melanie Nathan. Melanie has been involved in online marketing since 2003 and is a wonderful writer on all things link building in addition to being a well-respected link builder by her peers.
We hope you enjoy the interview!
So I see you started your career by running a successful e-commerce store, which you then sold off to a US company and then you moved into the client side of things. When did this all start and how did you decide to get into online, e-commerce stuff?
The e-commerce stuff started in 2003. My husband and I were operating a successful brick and mortar auto repair/aftermarket accessory store in Edmonton, where my husband’s dad (a skilled mechanic) would fix the vehicles and we would bling them up with cool accessories like euro tail lights and hid lighting kits. When we found out that our main manufacturer would be willing to drop ship their products directly to our North American customers, starting an online store seemed like no-brainer.
I fell in love with SEO shortly after that, mostly through experimentation with various e-commerce shopping carts and my frustration at not being able to find a decent one (at the time).
Some SEO's love the idea of running their own sites rather than working on client sites based on the difference between the ratio of profits to labor on your own sites versus client sites (relatively speaking). Some SEO's like doing both to help diversify their income streams, and some like pure client work. What lead you to decide to get into the client side of things?
I’m happy working for clients because I have a genuine interest in helping people and it’s extremely gratifying being able to impact someone’s life in such a way. On top of that, the work is constantly changing and I can pick and choose my projects therefore it never gets boring.
If there’s a downside, it’s that I don’t get many opportunities to experiment with different techniques or work on personal projects. This is why I’ve been slowly making time for the leap into the ‘other’ side of SEO (tool creation, affiliate marketing and yes, even some BHT) with some domains I own.
I figure, if I’m offering professional services, it’s best to be as experienced as possible in order to best serve my clients. If this leads to me eventually moving away from the client side of SEO though, then I might be open to the possibility.
If you’re interested in co-developing a link building tool or an affiliate site, ping me and we’ll talk ;)
You're well-known as a link building expert and you've written extensively on the subject. Can you walk us through how you approach/plan out a new client's plan (generally speaking) and talk about which tools you use and why?
Site owners mainly hire me in order to see measurable movement in the SERPs for their top keyphrases. This means, to help my clients stand out (where Google is concerned), I first need to see what they’re up against. I therefore always start with competitive research.
Among the tools I use are; SEOmoz Open Site Explorer & Competitive Link Research Tool. I’ve also been using SEOProfiler Competitive Backlink Intelligence tool lately. I also use Yahoo Site Explorer (I’ll sure miss this when it’s gone!) and, of course, Google itself.
I look for such things as; rankings of the site, number of root domains linking, quality of backlinks, backlink velocity and social media mentions. Once I chart out what each competitor’s link profile looks like, what I need to do in order to differentiate my client, becomes pretty apparent.
After that, it’s all about looking for prospects and then developing realistic ways to acquire links from them.
I read, and actually have Evernoted (is that the new word for bookmarking?) your Search Engine Journal post on "6 Super Tips For Creating a Natural Link Profile" and some of things you talk about there (back in 2010) might have helped sites weather parts of this latest Panda parade of updates.
Those tips are logical, solid, but require a good amount of work. Do you find that link building failures are a result of trying to look for shortcuts too often or just not being willing to really put a lot of natural effort into link building?
Thank you for Evernoting (love this) and mentioning that post.
In my experience, the majority of link building failures happen simply because the linkee was too busy thinking about THEIR needs rather than the needs of the linker. They also take shortcuts that often decrease their own chances, such as; sending bad email pitches and/or using generic email subject lines and/or using poor grammar etc.
Link building offers awesome rewards, but it can be an incredible amount of effort. If you’re unwilling or unable to put in that effort, I guarantee you’ll be disappointed with the results.
Of course, in some areas these kinds of natural links can be harder (sometimes much harder) between different sites. Do you think link building opportunities are existent enough in each market irrespective of the competition (big brands, strong sites, etc)?
Or, is it more of a budget issue on the client side when it comes to being unable to complete for really competitive stuff?
I’m always up for a challenge and I have yet to encounter a niche or market where links weren’t readily obtainable. Unfortunately, sometimes the techniques required to attract those links, just don’t fit within the client’s budget. In these cases, I recommend starting out small and, as the client sees more and more ROI, they’re happy to increase their budget. After all, some link building is better than no link building.
As far as eventually competing on a large scale, I’ll just say that most people grossly underestimate the power that high-quality links can have.
What are the key points you look for when identifying link opportunities? Do you consider pure link value to rankings and/or consider links that might be no-follow if they have the potential to bring targeted traffic to the site?
The main thing I focus on when selecting link prospects is; relevance. The link absolutely has to make sense or I won’t waste my client’s time on it.
After that, I look at the overall quality (How many links on the page? Is there any PR? Does it rank for anything?) and, to save a bit of time, I like to run it through the Raven Quality Analyzer (which tells me how many backlinks, indexed pages, age of domain etc). I do all of this in order to determine how much Google trusts the site and the likelihood of a link from the site directly affecting my client’s rankings.
As for nofollow links, let’s face it, clients don’t pay me to get them links that aren’t heavy hitting so I generally don’t pursue them (unless there’s a specific reason for doing so such as trying to help a paid link profile appear more natural). I don’t build links in humongous quantities though, so it all evens out.
If you’re building links for your own site though, I would never recommend turning down a link that makes sense…. even if it was nofollow.
As a provider of services, I see that you also offer a full suite of services. Has that evolved over the years from being mostly a link building company to now being a full service company?
Do you find this differentiates you from other providers and is that well-rounded approach one you'd recommend for someone starting a link building company today?
CanadianSEO has always offered a full line of SEO services, however over the years I’ve learned from experience that it’s the LINKS that get you where you need to be in Google hence why I’ve made link building my main focus. I now look at web design/site optimization and content creation as necessary steps in making sure your link efforts will have the desired effect.
Not sure if this sets me apart, but my clients are happy therefore I would probably recommend this approach to anyone running a SEO company. You absolutely have to be capable of attracting/acquiring/sourcing valuable links though, and this is something that apparently not every SEO is willing (or able) to do.
So let's say you are advising me on how to become a better link builder or a better manager of link building teams. What would your top 3 points be and what are maybe the top 3 myths or over-hyped points I should avoid?
Become a better link builder/manager by a) developing a system for tracking progress b) learning how to be persuasive to get what you want and c) never sacrificing quality in order to meet a deadline or fill a quota.
As far as myths, it may surprise many people to learn that both paid and reciprocal links are still effective as part of an overall link building strategy. I’m always trying to emphasize that Google doesn’t know as much about your links as you think it does. Especially when it comes to how your links are obtained. Yes, they do watch for certain obvious things (rate of links acquired, unnatural use of anchor text etc) but it’s totally ok to be creative. In fact it’s best. As long as you’re being logical, you’ll get the results you’re looking for.
Other than that, I still roll my eyes at people who say PageRank doesn’t matter when it comes to links. Hi, um, have you heard that Google still uses PR as a metric of quality? I’d like to offer those same peeps a link from a relevant PR0 or a link from a relevant PR7 and see which one they jump at.
Not that PR should be the ONLY metric you use when determining the value of a link prospect, but if you’re interested in making any impact on your rankings, it should definitely be taken into consideration.
For tracking link building efforts and for tracking the links you secure, do you use tools for that (like Raven or Buzzstream) or do you do that internally?
I still do it all internally/manually via custom Excel reports. Guess I’m still old-school in that regard.
A typical link report includes such data as; link URL, link anchor text, Google cache date, Raven Quality Score, relevancy info, link type, PR and link status. It has everything my clients need in order to see the progress of their link campaigns and its also great for keeping me organized as I’m often building links for many sites at once.
Please tell us what you think are going to be the most important aspects of link building going forward in this age of rapid algorithm changes and social signals?
Many people assume that link development is decreasing in importance, but this is far from the case. Links are still the simplest way for search engine spiders to judge the reliability of a webpage. However, the way that search engines view links is changing.
I’ve definitely seen (what I consider to be) evidence that Google is using social media mentions as a measure of quality. In an age where Facebook ‘likes’, Tweets and Google +1’s can be readily bought and sold though, one has to wonder about the longevity of such a system.
I almost feel sorry for Google in that no matter what they try to use as a measure of quality, there will always be ways to game it. I think this is precisely why they’re trying to move away from organic SERPs by diversifying them so much. It’s an imperfect system and I seriously don’t envy the position they’ve put themselves in.
As always, those that can keep up and adapt, will ultimately have the most success.
Melanie runs the show over at CanadianSEO.Com; a web marketing firm that offers web design, SEO, link building, and content creation services.
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