Building Content for Building Links
I was recently asked by a local client to make some link building recommendations. As things progressed, I found myself renaming section headings, deleting paragraphs, and generally second-guessing my entire approach.
If I was writing about link building, then why was my entire document all about content? Because traditional link building methods don’t really cut it anymore. A few years ago, I might have included recommendations like this:
- Use backlink analysis tools to find links your competitors all have in common, and then go get those links for your own site.
- Research high-quality, industry-specific websites... and then have fun sending out painstakingly written, personalized inquiry emails trying to establish an authentic relationship, which maybe 10% of people will respond to (including hate mail).
- Look at your 404 error report, and update links going to broken pages.
- "High quality, authoritative" directories (blah, blah, blah).
- Stuff like that.
These tactics are still ethical, but I’m generally not a big fan. Why? Because they involve massive amounts of blood, sweat, and tears, with little guaranteed reward at the end of the day. There's little creativity involved either.
Of course, I’d always include the recommendation to Build Something Excellent that people link to naturally, or create some ingenious piece of LinkBait. But that meant someone would have to work on the website, instead of just the SEO doing the heavy lifting.
With SEOs left holding the ball, many in the industry turned to grey-hat or spam tactics. That’s how we ended up with Penguin.
Fast forward to 2014. Do a search for “link building”, and you’ll find that most of the reputable websites returned focus far more on content, and far less on old-school, manual link prospecting. Many of these content-focused articles will offer stand-alone recommendations like:
- Build a blog!
- Give something away for free!
- Host a contest!
- Create a crazy piece of linkbait!
- White Papers!
- Slide shares!
This is great advice (advice that I'll reiterate later on in this post), but it can sometimes cause webmasters to focus on content that exists in a weird “link building” silo. Content that’s alienated and separated from your digital ecosystem at large.
This is where Content Marketing, Content Strategy, and Link Building all start to intersect. To better understand the distinction between these disciplines, I turned to this wonderfully wise article written by Kelly Harbaugh on the Relationship Between Content Strategy and Marketing.
(Ohh lookey here, see how that amazing content garnered an incoming link from FINE?)
Link building: Any strategy that gets links to your website, both active (outreach) and passive (content-based) methods.
Link Bait (related): Ridiculously viral content with the primary goal of getting links.
Content Marketing: Creating and distributing (what you hope is amazing) in-depth website content, with the goal to not only get links, but to attract and convert website visitors.
Content Strategy: The operative word here is “strategy”, meaning that we’re focusing on far more than mere marketing. This is the disciplined practice of content creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content that encompasses a wide range of purposes, from customer service to sales and more.
Back to link building. Apparently, now it’s a “dirty word”, and everyone is rebranding it as Content Marketing. To quote the always-astute Rae Hoffman,
“Let’s just be honest here for a minute. 94% of the website owners rushing to grab a seat on the content marketing bandwagon are doing so with one primary objective – to get links. The methods may have evolved, but the core concepts are the same. Because as long as links are the number one factor in search engine rankings and as long as search engines are the number one way to drive a website traffic online – that’s the end game. No matter what we decide to call it.”
Instead of continuing with the semantic debate, let me instead offer this: A completely opinionated and subjective article on how to build amazing content that builds traffic, attracts high-quality links, engages users, and complements your overall content strategy.
1. AUDIT YOUR EXISTING CONTENT
Use Screaming Frog or another tool to spider your website. Make a sitemap that notes in detail all sections of your website, down to the page level. Take good stock of what you talk about - and what you don’t. Also consider tying research into Google Analytics – add a column for which content gets the most traffic and pageviews.
For an idea of what this content outline could look like, try out this brilliant Page Table Template designed by Relly Annett-Baker.
2. KNOW YOUR COMPANY
You’d be surprised how differently marketers may think of a company than the CEO, the CFO, or the sales guy. Oh, and don’t forget the customer.
You will want to talk to them all. Become maddeningly familiar with everything your company specializes in and offers, asking the following questions and WRITING IT ALL DOWN:
- What are our core services or products?
- What are our specialty services or products? (This is where you could potentially get into pages and pages and pages of detail.)
- What differentiates us from our competitors?
- What problems do our customers have that we help them solve – or what products to we offer that our customers need?
- Similar: What problems are our customers looking to solve?
- Existing Collateral: Do you have existing collateral that you only give to customers or sales prospects? What key concepts or questions does it address? What’s stopping you from repurposing critical insights and making them available to the web at large?
- And below: What related terms are our customers searching on?
3. EVALUATE YOUR PEOPLE & RESOURCES
What is actually possible when it comes to generating new content? Take stock of your current capabilities. Figure out what you can handle in-house versus outsource.
- Champions: Think outside the box of your marketing team. Champions could be anyone from the CFO to a member of your sales team to an in-field asset. It may not be in their primary job description to worry about content strategy – but maybe these are just the people whom you want to interview and ask for feedback and ideas from, because they are passionate about and true champions of your company.
- Copywriters: Who can help draft, write, and edit? Can different people at the company handle different types of content? For example: the company blog can easily host guest commentary from a wide variety of employees, even if they just contribute once per year.
- Designers & Information Architects: Creative collateral is more than just words: it’s presentation and integration. Whether it’s a white paper or just a blog post, visual design and IA can make the difference between copy resonating with users or repelling them.
- Developers: This is the talent that handles the back-end, nitty-gritty stuff, whether it’s programming the form for a questionnaire or implementing that brand-new page of the website.
- Specialists: The guru who can set up the Facebook contest; the art director who can direct the photo shoot; the videographer who finesses your presentation; the PR maven specialists who are essential for handling specific types of promotions.
- Budget: Whether you’re outsourcing or handling in-house, budget is also an obvious factor.
- Digital Assets: Don’t spend hundreds of hours or thousands of dollars on a content piece if it’s going to eventually languish under your blog pagination. Your content also needs to belong somewhere in your digital ecosystem – ideally, someplace prominent. Think ahead so killer content is consistently accessible.
4. THE CREATIVE BRAINSTORM
Now comes the hard part. The creative part. The good news? You don’t have to know all the answers right now: instead, you just need to get started. The key is to embrace a variety of strategies, and get feedback from a variety of people, because that’s what brainstorming is all about. As the famous above video from Steven Johnson demonstrates, good ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.
A. Use Keyword Research Tools & Google Trends
Research what people are searching for around your industry or services. If your website doesn’t talk about these things, you have a problem. Figure out where you need to add new content that provides answers to the questions and topics people are searching on.
Remember – it’s not just attracting links or traffic; it’s about becoming familiar with pain points and answers to questions that people are looking for. If your website doesn’t help provide these answers, users will go somewhere else.
B. Consider Specific Tactics or Types of Content
- Leverage Visual Asset & Infographics: - Caveat: The oh-so-jaded digital marketing world has od'd lately on infographics (touting "visual assets" instead), and Matt Cutts has indicated that, when deployed a certain way (that sneakily embeds links), these could have reduced linking value. The key take away here is that if you're going to invest in any sort of infographics strategy, it needs to be pretty dang unique to stand out amongst the clutter. But if you CAN make a shareable visual element that's highly useful and evocative - go for it.
- Rock your blog: This is not meant to be a a "no duh" recommendation. Sometimes, this simple approach is all you need: especially if it's a part of a larger strategy for publishing ongoing content. Once you have the subject, you can also get creative with different styles and approaches to each post.
- Sneaky competitor research: Find content that has already done well, and make it better.
- Be a Resource: If you provide truly well-answered questions, painstakingly in-depth how-tos, and/or the comprehensive tutorial and guide to something that everyone is looking for, people will share and link to your site. Even a series of questions and answers can reap tremendous results.
- Be a Thought Leader: Marty Weintraub wrote one of my favorite articles on how to become a true thought leader, exhorting companies to share proprietary thinking and processes, noting how confident bloggers link to their competition (this post certainly does), and how your website should be viewed as a publication (not a brochure).
- Share Valuable Research: Similar to thought leadership. Does your company have access to proprietary research, or offer critical analyses that only you specialize in? Unless it's something that you charge customers extra for, making the most of this data is another important way you can differentiate.
- Offer Candid Interviews: From staff members to clients to industry thought leaders, interviews offer social proof and a "human" element that can be extra interesting to readers. You can take this a step further with Ego Bait, where users may be likely to link to your site if you profile or mention them. Similarly, name dropping or interviewing someone famous/well-known can also attract lots of attention.
- Create a video or slideshare presentation. I could write a brand-new article about content strategy and video, but this Moz post already nailed it.
- Host an Irresistible Promotion: Whether you're giving an award, or holding a contest, unique promotions can be like catnip for users. You can even try giving stuff away.
C. That Je Ne Sais Quais
You never know what that special something may be that will cause your content to resonate. For additional inspiration, here's a (short) list of additional articles and resources.
- Content Shock: by Mark Schaefer. Outlining why content marketing is not a "sustainable long-term strategy", this controversial article claims that as online users become inundated with more and more information, eventually they will gravitate towards resources of the very only highest quality. Meaning marketers have their work cut out for them.
- Must Read: Content Marketing ALERT! Paid-Organic Social Distribution Is The Future by Marty Weintraub of AimClear. This article explains why it's not enough to just generate good content: you need to invest in smart, paid promotions to help it reach its full potential. Because "If you’re not doing paid-organic social content distribution, no matter how strong the organic distribution (non paid), the content is wasted compared to the exposure it could receive for relatively small money."
- Google’s Matt Cutts: Link Building Is Sweat Plus Creativity by Jon Ball. Oh how I love this article, filled with insightful gems like "There are no more shortcuts. No more outsourcing, no more link wheels, no more link stuffing. No more thin content, no more links just for robots. Only sweat, hard work, creativity, experience, and human caring. That’s the real secret to building links: be willing to invest."
- How To Build a Content Marketing Strategy by Stephanie Cheng of Moz.com. A nice, comprehensive resource with plenty of examples and ideas. Also see Moz's How to Get Your Boss to Care About Content Marketing.
- No Words Wasted: A Guide to Creating Focused Content - by Kyra Kuik/ Harriet Cummings of Distilled. Another genius summary of strategies.
- Make Your Content Make a Difference by Colleen Jones of Smashing Magazine. Solution-focused article that's full of helpful, actionable ideas and links to other resources.
- Practical Content Strategy Part 2: Tools by Matt Herron. A nice list of tools to help with content strategy and planning.
- 4 Tools (And 1 E-Book) I’m Loving For Content Creation And Link Development by Julie Joyce. More fabulously useful tools!