Link Building for Speed, Efficiency and Quality
By: Ben Wills |

In the summer of 2008, before writing the first line of code, before even talking with Garrett, I sat down to spec out the purpose of the Ontolo and the Link Building Toolset. Having been responsible for designing and implementing thousands of campaigns, managing teams of dozens of account managers, search marketers and copywriters, and also for executing and fine-tuning multi-national SEO campaigns that spanned more than 30 countries, I had been acquainted with SEO and link building problems at large scale.

There’s a very specific kind of challenge, though, with scaling link building: acquisition performance remarkably increases when the human element is present at every step along the way. In other words, it takes a person knowledgeable about your market, your customers, and your industry to determine what is a truly relevant link prospect. In addition, link acquisition percentages increase dramatically when you are writing a personalized, hand-written, custom link request tailored to your recipient and their audience’s needs.

So how do you make the process of personalization more efficient? How do you make the human element faster? And how do you accomplish these things without compromising quality? Better yet, can you actually increase quality while also increasing efficiency?

We believe that you can. Before writing those first lines of code in Boston in July of 2008, and later when I showed a prototype to Garrett and he decided to come on board, we made it our mission to increase both the quality and efficiency of the link building process for both in-house SEOs as well as agency teams.

Here are some of the conclusions we decided upon, tested, and have built into both our internal processes as well as the Ontolo Link Building Toolset’s technology. If you take these ideas and implement them into your link building and SEO processes today, like we did, you might see significant increases in not only the total number of links acquired to your website, but also in the quality and relevance, thereby having the greatest impact possible on your search engine rankings.

This article is, by no means, the final word on efficiency, scale, speed, etc, but these are the most valuable ideas we have found to date.

1. Link Prospecting: Systematize, Automate and Scale Every Piece that Does Not *Require* the Human Element

I really, really, really, really, really dislike doing the same thing twice. And I find that that mindset drives systematization. Perform a task or process once, really well, then figure out how to never do it again by designing something to do it for you. Sometimes, this will require outsourcing to another human being, sometimes this will be best served with some sort of programming or automation.

Years ago, to get PageRank scores quickly, I would go to sites where you could input up to 100 URLs and it would gather all the PageRank scores for each URL. I would then take the results and paste them into my working link prospect spreadsheet. If it didn’t have a PageRank of X, it was removed from the list. Since that process would usually take a few minutes, I would run that in a separate tab while reviewing other link prospects from my previous batch of 100.

Now, with so many tools like Open Site Explorer and MajesticSEO, you can get huge lists of backlinks with all sorts of metrics to determine if it’s going to be a useful link prospect for you. That’s one way of leveraging systematization by outsourcing “value" scoring to things like mozRank and ACRank.

Even better? Use our SERP Dominator tool to find your top SERP competitors, then give that list to someone else to pull the Open Site Explorer and MajesticSEO reports, combine them all, de-duplicate the results and get back a list of the most valuable link prospects. That’s combining systematization (having a process) with automation (the SERP Dominator report).

Better yet? Just put your keywords into the Ontolo Link Building Toolset, define if you’re looking for guest posts, directory links, etc, and we’ll systematize, automate and scale the rest by discovering, analyzing, organizing and making searchable hundreds of link prospects for you every day.

    Examples of systematizing, automating and scaling Link Prospecting:
  • Search for “bulk pagerank checker" on Google
  • Use the SEOBook Toolbar to collect lots of data on search results. Turn your results set to 100 and export results to CSVs.
  • Use Open Site Explorer or MajesticSEO to collect and score backlink data.
  • Use the SERP Dominator tool to discover what websites are consistently ranking for your top keywords.
  • Use the Ontolo Link Building Toolset to discover, score, crawl, index and make searchable thousands of link prospects every month.

2. Link Qualification: Prospect Classification, Defining Minimum Prospect Requirements and Batch Processing

Link Qualification automation is much, much more difficult. The reason for this is because it requires intimate knowledge of your market, your product, and the landscape of content in your industry. What works in one industry like hospitality simply doesn’t work in another like electronics. On an even more micro level, you wouldn’t qualify a prospect for an iPod news website the same way you would for a Zune news website, even though they’re both MP3 players.

So how do you scale link qualification? We’ve found three critical components to scaling link qualification:

  1. Defining and classifying a relevant link prospect.
  2. Defining a minimum prospect requirements in terms of value scores.
  3. Batch processing the human-review element.

So what does this look like? Let’s take it a piece at a time.

Defining and classifying a relevant link prospect. We’ve found that relevance is best described in terms of two main components: Topical relevance and Campaign relevance. An example of Topical Relevance is finding a website about iPhone app reviews when you’re selling an iPhone app. An Android app review site wouldn’t have Topical Relevance. For Campaign Relevance, assess what kind of link prospects fit best with your campaign. If you’re in a blogger outreach stage of a campaign, then finding directory links probably wouldn’t hold any Campaign Relevance.

Defining a minimum prospect requirement in terms of value scores. Here is where you begin setting your minimum requirements for a link prospect in terms of hard-numbered scores like PageRank, mozRank, mozTrust, ACRank, backlink counts, etc. For example, you might set a minimum home page PageRank of 4 and a minimum URL PageRank of 1 so that you know you’re acquiring links from established websites on pages that are indexed and have a baseline level of value.

Batch processing the human-review element. So you’ve got your final list of link prospects to qualify, they meet your relevance requirements and also your minimum prospect requirements…now what? Well, I used to take each URL, copy it from my spreadsheet, paste it into a web browser, wait for it to load, check it out, then move on to the next URL. Remember that part about disliking doing the same thing twice? It was like nails on a chalkboard for the automation lobe of my brain. So we developed a quick, free tool to make it easy to review dozens of link prospects quickly. It’s the URL Reviewer tool which opens a list of URLs in separate tabs in your web browser. Read and watch this to see how we regularly review more than 250 URLs, by hand, in a single hour.

Examples of classification and minimum prospect requirements:

  • Link prospect classifications: guest post, link directory, forum, blog comment, in-content, blogroll, links page, reciprocal link, editorial link, paid link, sponsored review, top X list, etc.
  • Minimum prospect requirements: PageRank, backlinks, mozRank, mozTrust, SEOmoz Authority, ACRank, etc.

3. Link Acquisition: Blending Personalization with Templating and Speaking to the Concerns of the Editor’s Audience

If you read through the mass of blog posts and opinions on automating link request emails, you’ll find one thing for certain: people don’t hesitate to speak up about senders of obviously-automated link requests being the scum of the earth. A few times a week, I see someone ranting on Twitter about them.

Here’s our advice: Don’t send automated link request emails. 1, You’ll piss people off. 2, It’s incredibly ineffective.

So how do you scale?

Here’s the secret: You templatize a small portion of your email, and personalize the rest.

What we’ve found is that the first 1/2-2/3 should be personalized. Address the email to a specific individual, use their name, create at least an opening paragraph that addresses specifics of their website and audience, etc. Perhaps the second paragraph is about your site and how it relates to their visitors, so maybe part of this is templated. Then the last paragraph and closing might have something templated and standard with regards to the specific request.

There’s no need to customize every single word of every single email, especially when there is a fundamental overlap in the nature of the request. We’ve tried it and the return is simply not near worth the investment. In fact, when you’re trying to change a couple words here and there in the last paragraph, you might find yourself actually making an even more awkward request, simply for the sake of non-repetition. Find a balance that works for you and go from there.

Final Words

We really believe that 2011 is going to be an incredibly exciting year for link building technology.

Between the major feature additions coming up in the Link Building Toolset for even just the next 2-3 months, along with recent developments at SEOmoz, MajesticSEO, Raven Tools and BuzzStream, there has never been a better time to begin looking at what tools are going to help most you with your link building campaigns to increase the speed, efficiency and quality of backlinks you are acquiring.

And, for those who haven’t decided to do so yet, this is the best time to begin jumping in. Until now, link building has been a huge black box, daunting and overwhelming. Getting started now will help ensure your company’s leadership in search rankings for a long time to come.


  1. Automating Outreach

    Hi Ben,

    Great piece, thanks for sharing! The one thing we've found that works really well is if you use Gmail (or Google Apps Premium) as your email client is to utilize Canned Responses to help automate some parts of the process.

    You just save the parts of the message that are the same every time (blurb about the company, explanation of the linkable asset you're promoting, etc.) and whenever you need/want to insert it in your message, it's just a click away. I'm a huge fan of it because it helps me make sure that the email still reads naturally in context.

    Thanks again!


  1. another ontolo post that's filled with awesome

    Great post, Ben (and thanks for mentioning BuzzStream). The challenge is that, for certain markets, you have to scale your link building in order to compete, but spammy approaches don't perform. You've done a great job of outlining how you can scale your link building without sacrificing personalization.

  1. Great info, thanks for sharing

    I am new to the SEO/Link Building world and have found the information at Ontolo very helpful. I've come to realize the importance of building my foundation from professionals in the field who are building quality links the right way. I appreciate your contribution and input on how to save some valuable time without cutting corners. Thanks for this post! Also, the "Ontolo Link Building How-Tos Day" videos are such a great resource, and very creative!

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