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The guide to successful link building strategy

An Interview with Stuart Pollington

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood catches up with CEO and link building expert, Stuart Pollington, Managing Director at Smart Traffic Australia and Evo Digital Australia.

Stuart shares his brilliant and exhaustive insights about link building, effective outreach strategies, and using content in SEO. He also discusses in-depth the different aspects of SEO.

You would hope that the more metrics, a site has, the better it will perform, but it’s still going to come down to relevancy.
Google is smart enough to know if you’ve got a link from a high DA, but it’s completely irrelevant, then it doesn’t matter if it’s DA 40, 100, or 10. Do you see what I mean?

Stuart Pollington, Managing Director
Smart Traffic Australia and Evo Digital Australia
Hello everyone, I hope everyone is staying at home and is in good health. Today I have with me, Stuart Pollington, an SEO and link building expert. He has been doing SEO and link building for a long time. He is the managing director at smart traffic Australia and Evo digital Australia. Hello, Stuart, how is it going?

It’s good. Thank you. How are you doing?

Okay, my name is Stuart Pollington, and I’m the managing director and owner of Smart traffic in Australia, Evo digital in Australia, and Smart Digital Group in Thailand.

Smart Traffic provides direct digital marketing services like SEO, Google Ads, and social media marketing directly to clients in Australia and New Zealand.

We also white-label some of our services to agencies in Australia and New Zealand.

Evo Digital is an agency brand where we white label and deliver a couple of thousand links a month as well as content for blog posts and articles on the site. Smart Digital Group in Thailand is also very similar to Smart Traffic.

It’s an end to end digital marketing agency that delivers SEO, Google ads, social media marketing, website building services except it goes directly to the end-user (the client).

Stuart, what’s your overall team size?

In the office we have about 22 people in our staff, and then others around the world. We have a team of around 15 content writers, and another 10 to 15 people that work with us on a daily basis, but not full time.

And do you use any software? Since we are all working with remote teams, are there any softwares that you would like to suggest? I think more agencies would soon start working remotely.

So, we used to have Salesforce maybe a decade ago. And off the back of Salesforce, we built our own CRM. And now, we actually have our own CRM.

It spreads the word out to everyone working on it, plus it decides the due dates for projects.

So we actually still manage many of our processes through our own inbuilt system.

That said we also use Skype, Dropbox and Google Docs. There are a few different things that we use, but mainly we have our in-house CRM that we’ve built over the years.

It allows us to communicate between our account managers, technical & delivery partners, and our clients.

That’s interesting. So, right now, you're just using that system for your own self? No plans of rolling it out as a SaaS product?

It’s a very bespoke kind of a tool.

Rolling it out as a SaaS product would be a totally different business itself.

At that time, we were looking for an off the shelf solution. And other tools could not really do what we wanted. That is why we invested the time and effort into building it ourselves.

We are not sure whether it would be useful to other agencies.

There are several great tools out there that are already pulling analysts into reports and allowing users to schedule everything, and it’s a whole different business concept.

I mean, ours is just tweaked and developed and works the best for how we do it, maybe not necessarily how everyone else does it.

Yeah, sure. Someday let's have a chat about it because when we started off, we also started building a system for our own use. And we realized, a lot of tools out there are not built for agencies. So let's say you have a project management tool, you'll need to have a separate project for communicating with the client and the back end as well. You can't have it all in one place. Then you may also need to have a separate CRM or a system for sales. We had developed a system for our own use, but based on the research, we are even planning to launch it as a SaaS tool. So who knows, it might be a good thought to look at.

Of course. Even we found out something about this. Whenever we speak to agencies, (because we do a lot of white-label work ourselves), some agencies are happy to work with our process while others have their own way of doing things from email, Excel, Skype, Dropbox, Google Drive.

So, based on that, it works for what we do. But we’re not sure whether we can get everybody else to follow the way we do it.

So, yeah, I’d definitely be interested in talking about it. It’s just one challenge though. Not every agency is set out the same way, and they have different ways of doing things and have different priorities.

Okay. So, what is more fun? Working with agencies or working with clients?

That’s a difficult question.

I enjoy working with agencies more because there we get to talk to like-minded individuals.

The moment you get on a call with them, pretty quickly, you both understand what you’re talking about.

You can learn things from agencies. They can learn things from you.

If an agency buys from us or pays us to do something, it means they believe that what we’re doing is right.

Also, this can obviously be difficult in SEO. You’d know that there are people that do it really well. And there are people that cut corners.

So having agencies on is a big tick for ourselves. It’s a sign that these agencies around the world believe in what we’re doing. So I like that aspect of it.

But at the same time, it’s always good talking to an end-user or a client or a customer directly, because you can explain everything to them.

“This is why we’re doing this. This is why this is quick. This is why this takes longer.”

All-in-all, both have their pros and cons.

Yes. How have you seen link building change over the years?

The value of a link has obviously changed.

But I always have looked at SEO as three core fundamentals.

That is your on-site, making sure that your site is issue free so that Google can crawl it. It hasn’t got errors and is optimized, and then the second part is content should be qualified.

Do you have good content?

Are you an authority?

Does Google like it?

Do the users find it engaging and exciting?

And then the third part is link building or getting other sites to link to you as a vote of confidence.

Obviously, over time, the strengths and the weaknesses of links have changed, and Google has started liking one type of links more than the other types.

And then some link building strategies have changed over time. But generally, the core fundamentals of SEO are to lead on-site content and link building.

Right. So you spoke about the core fundamentals where a lot of focus always is on the audit, which happens initially. So, how is your process? What does your SEO audit process look like?

When we start with a client, the first thing we do in the first 10 to 14 days is a full site audit.

We use software like Screaming Frog, Ahrefs, and other things.

And then, we come to our 147 point checklist that we verify the website for, looking at everything from mobile speed and PageSpeed optimization, all through to duplicate titles, length of titles, missing meta descriptions, and everything else.

So we always start with a full audit. Then we run optimization reports which we call TPO’s, or target page optimization.

We look at each individual page, and we optimize each page for content and everything else.

Within the first month, we’re also looking at GMB. We’re looking at their content strategy, social media if they have it.

So, the first one really is about setting the campaign up within and prepping and preparing for the outreach that we’re going to do, plus figuring out what sort of sites are we going to contact for this client and what sort of links do we need? What do their competitors have, and what sort of link profile works for their industry and their niche neck keywords.

So, definitely, the first month is very important. There’s no point going out there and just building links. There’s no point just creating content. There’s no point just doing an audit; it’s the three things together that make the difference.

When you do this audit, how do you plan the site structure?

It’s difficult to get one rule for everything.

We deal with clients based on their needs or inquiries.

For example, if there is an e-commerce business that is trying to sell something, the process would be different than it would be for a non e-commerce business. We also look at the URL structure.

We try to avoid making many changes, especially if it’s an aged site, and has been there for a long time, and Google already likes it.

We don’t mess around too much with the URL and redirects.

But if we need to make a change, we just make sure that it makes sense, and then we move to the domain name, and then we look at categories, subcategories, and product examples. And they have to be as descriptive as possible. But yes, without keyword stuffing obviously.

Would you also look at the top 10 URL structures ranking for that?

Yes, we would have a look at that. But it’s just one of the many things. Same with the links and the content.

If you just look at one thing, it’s not necessarily about one thing that’s making a difference. Now, if we see similar URL structures ranking on the first page, we may recommend doing something similar. But if we see different URL structures, we’re not just gonna look at one thing and say, these guys are number one, we have to copy their URL structure, because their URL structure might not be amazing.

It could be everything else that’s making them right. So we are mindful of what other people are doing, and competitors are doing, but when we look at one thing in isolation and say we have to do that, we kind of try and look at the overall picture.

Also, it comes down to how easy it will be to make these changes — considering whether they’ve got a developer, if they’ve had a bespoke website, or if they don’t have a developer.

Sometimes you don’t want to mess too much because you may fix something here, but break something there.

It can get messy sometimes.

When you plan content for an existing page or a new page, do you use some software to see how the top 10 guys are doing it? What would your strategy be for planning the content?

Yeah, very similar. We would use the software, but you can’t beat someone human with just software.

So, the first thing we start with is the keywords. We try to understand the keywords that are relevant to that business. We group them and cluster them and see what sort of topics we need to be talking about.

From those keywords, we look at Google and see which sites rank. We would look at the top 10. We might find that seven blog posts have a homepage rank and two inner pages.

So that would tell us that we want to rank for this. We’re probably more likely to focus those keywords on a blog post compared to an inner page. So, we’d follow a very similar approach to the URL structure with the content. The more content that we may produce, Google may not be really rewarding with high rankings.

Again, though, taking everything else into context, if the seven blog posts are ranking on page one, it may be because their domains are really strong, it might not necessarily mean that Google wants to rank a blog post, it just might mean that the domain authority is pushing it higher than it should be. So we try and take everything into account when we look at it.

Coming back to links, how do you see the value of low DA sites like DA 10 or DA 20? Do they have any SEO value?

Okay, so at Evo digital, we build links, and we base them on our criteria of DAs. We do that because that’s what agencies want to know, like “Okay, I’m getting a DA 20 or DA 30 or above.”

Personally, it’s all about the theme and the relevancy. The way I’ve always appropriately filled in is if you look at site A and site A links to site B, and there’s a reason that site A links to site B, that’s a good link.

You know if I’ve got a website for selling insurance, and a “stay-at-home cat mom” is blogging about cats and dogs. Then one of her articles is about “my cat got sick, but luckily, I could find good insurance here” — someone might look at that and say, Oh, it’s a link from a blog about cats and dogs. It’s not relevant. But I would look at it and say, well, that’s a genuine link.

So, definitely, I normally would focus on the relevancy, and the reason that site A links to Site B.

In the industry, we’re using DA from Moz, we’re using the Ahrefs scores, we’re using the ones from majestic as a way to rate and score the sites, which we believe is similar to how Google might look at it. But at the end of the day, if there’s a reason for site A to link to site B, then that should be a good valid link.

Now, you would hope that the more metrics, a site has, the better it will perform, but it’s still going to come down to relevancy.

I think Google is definitely smart enough to know. Okay, you’ve got a link from a high DA, but it’s completely irrelevant, then it doesn’t matter if it’s DA 40, 100, or 10. Do you see what I mean?

You know, the reason I asked this question was the same. As an agency, you may need to have DA 10 or DA 20. But at the end of the day, it is a Moz parameter. You have to look at the overall quality. So, you know, maybe it's time for us to change or add new parameters, like relevancy?

Yeah, the problem with relevancy is quite subjective.

For example, someone was just looking at the report, and the report said it’s a dog and cat or a pet blog, you’d be like, well, that’s why that is irrelevant, but it can be subjective.

It’s probably very difficult. I know majestic have related kinds of categories that they put in like, “topical relevance”. That helps a bit.

At the end of the day, if the metrics are correct, you’d want links to higher metric sites. But after everything, it will come down to what’s natural. And that’s what we try and do with our outreach.

It’s not natural for a site to only get links from DA 40 and above, it’s impossible.

Because if someone has found your site naturally, they will link to you whether they’ve got a DA one or a DA 100.

And, it’s similar with link velocity. The higher your site appears; naturally, the more links you get.

The main thing we focus on apart from relevancy is that we look at natural language.

And we do that by understanding the keywords that we want to rank for, making sure the content is relevant to those keywords you want to rank for.

But we won’t link exact match anchors; we will use a sentence or half a sentence or phrase, a word. The next two words will link to the URL. We’ll use the brand, and it’s just about thinking about how normal people would link.

If you read an article on the BBC, CNN, Sky, look at how they link internally to their other articles.

Sometimes it’s a word; sometimes it’s half a sentence, it’s just trying to create what is natural that normally people would link if you’re gonna go out and ask people to link to it.

The reality is, if you don’t do that, you’re gonna struggle to rank unless you’re a massive brand.

So we’re not technically supposed to ask people to link to us. But if we’re providing value, and they agree to link with us, there’s no problem. But we want them to link to us in a way that someone would normally link to us.

I think that is one thing where a lot of people get confused because, even the internal linking matters with external linking. So, with internal linking, you can have several direct anchor texts and keywords linking to each other. But when it comes to external links, if it's natural in the content, it’ll be giving you the juice you want rather than just forcing the keywords and placing links on them probably looks like a red flag to Google. So, I think you're absolutely right. Also, what you said about a blog talking about cats. I think we call them shoulder niches. But maybe Family Law, or an HR site, may have an article related to work, injury law and somethings like that.

Exactly.

You’ve got to look at the page, not necessarily the site.

So we have got the primary nature of the site, which in this case was dogs and cats and pets. But within that, they might talk about health. And they might talk about insurance, or about financing the cost of cats and, and traveling with cats, and then it opens up these different opportunities.

So don’t just get caught up on the topic of the main site, or the homepage, think about what else they’re talking about because that is how people lead naturally.

I think that's what you actually mean by genuine manual outreach, and that's where the value lies. What do you think?

Yeah, again, it depends on what the agency is looking for.

Some will be very fixated on the metrics. I was always fixated on the niche. We do the metrics; we always make sure the niche in the relevancy is there as well.

But when we work for our individual clients, where we have more control, it’s very much the relevancy. Is there a reason for site A to link to site B? Will it add value? And if it does, what sort of value will it add? And if it adds this or that, we’re still going to go through the question of whether there’s a good reason to create this link.

What is your opinion about niche edits versus content placements?

Okay, so, again, if you have the opportunity to get it over, and then make sense, then I would go through them. I still get emails. I had one last week from a company that has a rank software. And they emailed me about a blog post we wrote a few months ago, and we mentioned a few ranking software, and they said, “we’ve read it, there are our competitors. We’ve just launched this software; it would be great if you could include us.”

That then becomes an edit, doesn’t it to our previous post?

Now, if I go in and do it, I want to link to something that’s going to add value.

And there’s two sides, you’ve got the fresh content. And then you’ve got the update to old content. It depends when Google crawls that post, how quickly it picks up the link.

Then on the flip side, you’ve got it, it’s been around for a while, you might have links to the page, which will help the authority.

On the other hand, you’ve got this new piece of content, hopefully, it gets crawled quickly and picked up, but it is still new and fresh, then how long until Google crawls it again and picks up the additional signals?

So to answer the question, I wouldn’t put more weight on one than the other. It’s about what adds more value.

What is your reply and acceptance rate to outreach emails?

I wish I could tell you. I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it’s not as high as everyone would like because you are emailing other people cold. It depends on how you do it.

If you tie in a bit of social media to try and talk about sites or talk about articles they’ve written that are good, then that can help. But generally, it is lower than most people would think.

We speak to clients, they think, “oh, you sent ten emails, you get five links, it doesn’t work that way. It is a numbers game; you can improve that.”

And once you build a relationship, you can utilize it to a later period of time, for other clients. So that’s it really, with anything in life. It’s about building relationships. And if you can get good relationships, if you can build decent relationships. You can utilize that later on.

Any other strategy you use apart from sending out emails?

Sometimes we do some social media outreach.

We might do it via LinkedIn, for example. If we can’t do an email, we might look at where they are on Twitter and things like that, and try to do it that way.

What are your thoughts on paying a fee to the bloggers? Do you have a process for that?

Okay, so, good question. Everyone asks that.

Obviously, whenever possible, we will try and avoid having to pay a blogger.

At the same time, if we are asking somebody to take out half an hour or an hour of their time to check the content that we’ve written, make sure that it fits in with their audience, we’re gonna expect them to make changes to it, if they think it’s not exactly what their audience wants, we may be asking them to take time to make sure the links are formatted, the content is formatted, and images are added. We can ask them if they can upload it, share it with their social media profiles, etc.

So, when you think about that, sometimes you understand why bloggers would ask for some compensation to do it. I wouldn’t take that decision myself, that would be a decision I would make with a partner or a client as to whether it was valuable. And sometimes we may ask for a nofollow. We ask for a nofollow because we don’t want to have a problem with Google.

But we still believe that there’s value in the link for traffic and visibility and brand awareness.

So it’s, again, not really a black and white question.

If you say, No, I never pay or Yes, I always pay, it all comes down to the circumstances like what you want out of that link. And sometimes, what you want from the link is not all about Google ranking. Sometimes it is brand awareness, the traffic.

What is the biggest challenge you wish could be automated or could be less time-consuming in your outreach process?

Well, the biggest challenge is probably the part that can’t be automated.

We’ve got software that will scrape Google, will find blogs, it will find contact details. We’ve already got that software where you can automate the sending of email and stuff like that exists.

What you don’t have is someone looking manually deciding where site A links to site B and the relevancy.

So, unfortunately, the time-consuming part of real outreach is its evaluation. And sometimes, you can do that evaluation later on in the process.

Or you could use the tools to automate the metrics and the topical relevance from majestic and, and the social stuff and other things.

You can send emails out, and when you get the first response, at that point, you can do the manual review. That can save you a bit of time.

But you still need the manual review. That’s the bit you can’t reveal to me. You can outsource obviously, but then you must make sure that they’re trained, they know exactly what they’re doing.

Talking about links and content, what metrics should be used to measure the success of content marketing efforts? How do you measure whether your content marketing is going in the right direction?

It will depend on what your initial goals were. Is your initial goal to win a number of shares? Or is your initial goal to rank keywords? And then, depending on what the initial goals are, that will determine how we rate it.

Right. So what are the best practices to create an editorial calendar for content marketing?

I think going back to what we talked about, the site audit, and the URL structure. So, URL structuring content earlier and looking at what competitors are doing will be similar to the content calendar.

We want to have a look at what our competitors are doing.

Maybe look at the top 10 or top five, see how frequently they’re publishing?

Are they getting the likes and the shares on social?

Are they getting the visibility on Google?

How many times do they post what they post about?

Once you understand that, you can try to gauge the rough frequency that they might be posting up. Then you create your calendar around that. You wouldn’t necessarily come up with the title of an article immediately.

But you might say, “look, every Monday, we’re going to post news about the industry.”

“Every Wednesday, we’re gonna post a tip or a guide.”

“Every Friday, we might talk about the service that we provide.”

So again, I think it comes down to individual businesses and individual agencies and how they do it. But if you do look at what other people are doing, and what you believe is working, you can kind of tailor it around them.

And then we would just use it for ourselves like we’ve come up with the ideas and planned it all.

You know, four to eight weeks in advance with the type of posts and then looking to generate the titles a couple of weeks before we want to post. This gives us five-six days to create the content, edit it, tidy it up, and get it published.

How do you choose the best content type for a particular page? So, for example, how do you decide a particular page has to be an infographic?

Probably back to the earlier question, where we had a look at keywords, and we saw what’s ranking. So if we find the first keyword that we want to rank or a client wants to rank for is mainly infographics, then we’re going to create an infographic. If it is mainly blog posts, we’re gonna have to create a blog post. If it is a guide or an ebook, we’re gonna have to create a guide or an ebook.

So what is your lead gen strategy as a link building agency?

Our own lead gen strategy is probably just like most agencies. Reasonably not as good as it should be for a digital marketing agency.

I think I speak to a lot of agency owners, and everyone puts our hands up and says, you know what? We do so much for the clients that we kind of neglect what we do.

We have a big focus on organic rankings; we look at lead magnets through how-to guides or ebooks.

We offer a free site audit, which is automated to get people’s details.

We don’t do much on Google Ads at the moment, because the cost per click is quite high. And it’s quite competitive in our industry. But we do utilize Facebook Ads and target people based on interests instead, to drive the traffic to our landing page or a lead magnet. And obviously, all we want from the lead magnet is to give someone enough value, so they’re willing to give us their email address. That email address will go into an email marketing series to nurture them and be closer to approaching us and talk to us about what we do.

So basically, you are promoting value content rather than a direct sales pitch on Google AdWords.

Yes, yeah. So we’re looking at Facebook in order to drive people to a value proposition where they say we have a problem, and it looks like you have the solution.

We’ll give you our details if you give us the solution, and then that gets them into our marketing series where we try to nurture them into a warm lead.

You know, since voice is picking up so fast, how do you optimize your content for voice search?

Oh, very good question. Very similar to how we deal with Q&A on Google.

So, you know, we put some keywords into Google, we put some questions into Google, and then you may then look that within Google people also ask the questions people are asking.

We also look at Moz.

Its keyword tool has several questions relating to different keyphrases. We group those questions into the latest topic.

If the client likes, we create content and blog posts around these keywords. In H1 and H2 we mention those questions. And then, in the paragraphs we answer them. This way we are able to rank for the Q&A categories as well.

Apart from this, we also try to match in with what people are asking naturally on their phones.

So if I was making a textual search on Google, I might type something like “a dentist near me” or “a dentist” on my phone, and the locality will help me. However, if I was doing a voice search, I would probably say “Hey Siri, is there a dentist near me?” or “Where’s the nearest dentist?”

Even though I can say the dentist near me on a voice search, the experience becomes more conversational when you ask a question.

And generally, voice search is majorly question-based.

So we just work off the Q&A, the knowledge graph, and just try to create the questions that might surface up on what people ask for natural language.

Stuart, here's my last question — are there any major trends to look out as far as link building is concerned?

Since Penguin, the world of link-building has seen a big shift.

Before that people were like,

How many links can I get?

I want this keyword only. Can you build me 10, 20, 100, or 1,000 links? I don’t care where they’re from. I just want links.

Penguin shifted a lot of people’s mentality to what we’ve been talking about — which is the relevancy, frequency, and other things.

Since then, I haven’t seen a major shift.

There are different tactics that people use for links, but the overall strategy is the same.

It’s just trying to get links that Google will like. Links that will be natural and add value and are relevant.

So, you know, there are tactics. People post case studies like, “I tried this outreach strategy, and I got a 10% uplift in conversions.” Great. That’s a tactic. It’s not the overall strategy, the overall strategy is still the same. And some of them work, and then they get bled to death.

Obviously, I own three agencies that deal with SEO. And I probably get 10-20-30 emails a day, from people pitching me link building and asking for a link. So it’s quite flooded. You do have to think sometimes a bit creatively about your content.

How can you reach out on social media or LinkedIn instead? But nothing like a big shift in change, if that makes sense?

Yeah, I think the main thing to look out is for quality content. Even if you're creating a power page on your own website, if you actually invest time for better quality, Google will appreciate it, because then you can get multiple links back.

So investing in good quality content that hopefully is evergreen is very topical now. Evergreen content that can last for a while will allow you to be more cost-effective for your link buildings.

You’re not creating new content all the time. If you’re reaching out to good sites, you can’t get away with bad content or poor content anyway.

So, you’re going to have to have decent content as well. Back again, Penguin/pre-Penguin, people would use software to spin content, get links done, and that’s a big no for present times.

Maybe you’ll get a benefit for a short period of time. But the way “Penguin” works now, we must just ignore them completely. Or if you do it too much, you’re going to get a manual penalty.

Investing right from your first outreach email is important. People are getting hundreds of emails every day. So, the email, your subject line, they have to stand out. So, yes, it's time for clients to understand that quality links cost money because they cost time. A lot of time and money is invested in hiring a quality resource than hiring a robot personality for data entry and automated outreach.

Unfortunately, as an industry, it’s tricky as clients are getting to hear a lot of buzz about how they can build hundreds and thousands of links, paying a small price.

We may need an education process at the moment. Google is trying to help us. It has videos and content about SEO and how to choose an SEO company — which is good as it’s coming from Google.

Well, Stuart, thank you for your time. I know, we don't have much time today, we'll hopefully get you again. Maybe to discuss link-building.

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