Inbound Link Prospecting

Process and Method

Using Data to Acquire External Links

It is unlikely you will find a website high on the SERPs for which the person or team responsible for that placement has not done the necessary competitive research. Link prospecting does not stop at knowing the sites to target; you also need to group those sites and pages, provide some definition on their value, and then formulate your approach. Let's take a data-driven look at inbound link prospecting.

Much of the discussion on how to actually build links, however, is shallow and void of any practical value. Personally, if I hear the phrase "quality content" one more time I might literally explode. Let's mix it up by addressing real ways to target real valuable links, and how to go about actually doing it for a business' benefit.

First, we must understand what is meant by the term "link popularity". Used by all the major search engines, link popularity is a measure of the quality and quantity of links pointing to a Web page. Many variables define the link popularity of a website; including how well its incoming links from external sites are treated and trusted by the search engines, relevance and environment of those links, and yes, even anchor text.

If you need a primer on SEO, consider reviewing the feature story in the April 2011 issue of Website Magazine - SEO: The Modern Elements of Optimization.

Those responsible for an SEO campaign need to realize that the factors that influence the ranking of a website - and its pages, of course - are many and varied, and often change. Unfortunately for many, so are the processes used to acquire those links.

That changes today.

Most search engines are "black boxes" where little in the way of practical information flows. But conducting data-driven research and staying organized throughout your link building prospecting - and taking a scientific approach to it - will reveal a great deal about the link profile of those sites you are aiming to surpass on the search results pages. With this information, SEOs can then competitively position their own sites.

Determining Optimal Link Targets
There are several factors to keep in mind as one starts link prospecting.

A simple and easy way to do this is to perform a subjective analysis or use one of the many available SEO software solutions to answer the following questions.

- Does the target website use keyword-based anchor text in their outbound links?

- Are the inbound links pointing to the target site or its pages from categorically diverse sources?

- What is the quantitative link popularity of the prospective page providing the link, and the global link popularity of its root domain?

That may seem repetitive, but knowing that these are indeed the primary factors in ranking shows us what to look out for, and what to avoid. Ultimately, the most effective SEO campaigns rely first and foremost on the quality of link prospecting strategies.

Understand the Competition and the SERPs: What an SEO should ultimately be after is an understanding of the sites that are dominating the search results pages. For the keywords you are interested in ranking for, develop a spreadsheet with the websites that appear as the top search results. From there, consider using one of the many available SEO software solutions profiled at ( to dig even deeper into the link profiles of those sites identified as competitors.

Assign Value: Search engines apply very sophisticated algorithms when determining link quality. You can effectively get a handle on this by assigning and understanding some of the key metrics outlined previously. For example, how relevant is the site - are there keywords in the title, body text or H1 tags? What sort of value can this site provide - does it have high visitor traffic, established Page Rank, or does it use nofollows? These metrics and others tell us much about the "value" a site's link will provide our own. Develop your own methodology for assigning value and in the future you will be able to target those sites that are deemed most valuable to your site's SEO campaign.

Focus on the Optimal Opportunities: Digging up every possible link opportunity is downright unmanageable at best but most likely even impossible. For this reason it is important to separate raw link building lists into "opportunities" by categorizing the sites found when searching for your target keywords and phrases. Note the most relevant results, the number of total results, and identify those URLs which are "noteworthy" - those that repeatedly appear within the first page of search results. This will provide a meaningful view into the optimal opportunities for building links.

Data-Driven Outreach: To initiate a relationship in order to build links it is necessary to have the right contact information on hand. Data collected should begin with the targeted page from which you desire to obtain a link and the contact's name and email address. After contact has been made, note the date of contact, follow-up date, information on whether the link was ever placed (and if so, where), the date of the link placement, the URL to which the link arrives (on your website) and the anchor text used. When requesting links via email, note the subject line used, opening line and any offers you made to help acquire the link. This will help determine the most effective approaches.

Asset Inventory: No link was ever built without leveraging one of your assets - typically creative and content assets. For example, if your CEO is willing to do a few interviews with industry bloggers, he or she can be considered a link inventory asset - something you can leverage in the future to acquire an inbound link. The aim is to provide content in exchange for a link. Link building asset inventories include information on the type of asset (e.g. an infographic or guest blog post) and the expected difficulty of execution. For example, writing a guest blog post might be easier and more efficient than having your CEO reserve time for an interview.

The methods once used to acquire links are increasingly invalid and may even put your website at risk. Those responsible for the success of search engine optimization campaigns must rely on a scientific approach to link prospecting. Doing so ensures that the very best sites - those which will aid in your SEO efforts - will link back. In the end, only by understanding the competition, assigning value to the sites and pages you find, focusing on the optimal categories and reaching out directly to those that matter most will ensure your future search success.