Here at BuzzStream, we talk to a lot of different groups about the structure of their link development organizations and how this structure supports their work.  With all of Google’s recent changes, we’re seeing companies change their link building playbooks and restructure their link building organizations.

I’ve been putting a great deal of thought into this lately and I’ve created a model about how organizations approach link development.  I see organizations do different activities with different teams, measure them differently, and receive fundamentally different results.  I think having a model is helpful because it helps link builders understand where their organization stands, and ultimately, where it can go with link development activities.

(I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts about this – is this in line with what you’re seeing in the world of SEO and link building ?  Feel free to leave a comment, tweet me (@MattGratt), or drop me an email (matt @ buzzstream) and let me know what you think.)

I’ve put together this model of how organizations approach link development:

link building maturity model

The Four Stages of Link Building Maturity
(Feel free to use this chart in PowerPoint presentations or on your website,
but please include an attribution link to this page.)

I separate the maturity of an organization’s link development efforts into four stages:

Stage 1: Automated Link Building

These companies use automated link development techniques – link wheels, public (and occasionally private) blog networks, and mass commenting.

At Stage 1, companies are most focused on the raw number of links obtained. Because all links aren’t created equal, often they’re led astray into viewing sheer number of links as a success metric.

Risks

- Google and other search engines are actively depreciating these links through updates like Penguin.  

- Once these links are placed, it is often very difficult to remove them.  (This has become a major problem for many publishers after the Penguin update.)

- Major brand damage can occur from commenting (see this recent post in Talking Points Memo or this post on PopeHat.)

Benefits

- This sort of link building is unequivocally cheap and easy.

- It can be effective, even after Panda and Penguin, if used as part of a mix with higher quality links, and the SEOs involved are exceedingly careful about anchor text ratios. (It’s worth noting that the value of these techniques is likely to continue to depreciate in the future.)

- Automated links can be very useful during reputation management campaigns.

 

Stage 2: Brute Force Link Building

Harkening back to the earliest days of link-based search engines, this link development is brute-force based, and consists of a large number of unpersonalized (or slightly personalized) emails. Typically they involve offers of reciprocal link exchanges or ask for a listing in a directory. (This type of link building produces the “Dear Webmaster” email.)

PageRank is the goal, and higher PageRank is better. People practicing this sort of SEO ignore factors like link placement, and often purchase footer links, sidebar links, etc. 

While these efforts can work (especially if the company has a great site), it is resource-intensive, it can be expensive, and hit-rates are low. There is also the risk of brand damage with these outreach tactics – recent incidents involving high-profile link building agencies purchasing links should serve as an example.

Moreover, as SEO becomes more competitive, these companies risk finding themselves outranked in the SERPs by companies implementing strategies based on content and differentiated value rather than their ability to send a large number of emails.

Risks

- The biggest risk with this style of work is lack of effectiveness – often companies doing this work contact a large number of link partners and their emails never get opened.

- Links that are easy to get this way are often from free directories and similar sites, and are vulnerable to filtering and depreciation.

Benefits

- Easy to Outsource

- Does not necessarily create the same ‘Penguin’-type risks of large numbers of unremovable links with completely unnatural anchor text, as humans are placing the links.

Stage 3: Personalized Content-Based Outreach

Stage 3 practices modern, personalized outreach, often publicizing linkable assets. Often these link development teams consist of content creators – usually writers – and outreach specialists, who look more like PR people than traditional SEOs.

More advanced practitioners build relationships with their link partners, and think long term. Less advanced link builders view each campaign as a ‘one-off’ and re-invent the wheel every time.

These teams use slightly more advanced metrics like Page Authority, Domain Authority, # of outbound links, cache date, etc. and looks at link placement as well. (More advanced Stage 3 organizations know about the Reasonable Surfer Patent.) They have advanced concepts of link diversity and use a variety of techniques (resource outreach, broken link building, infographics, guest posts, and more) to develop links.

However, these organizations silo SEO – making SEO its own set of activities rather than integrating it into broader marketing functions. While both Stage 3 and a Stage 4 organizations guest post, the Stage 3 link builder goes for the link, while the stage 4 link builder goes for the brand value, the referral traffic, the social shares, and the link.

This stage has the biggest level of diversity. At one end of the spectrum, Stage 3 link builders send email blasts to bloggers about guest posts, while more advanced stage 3 link builders have networks of relevant contacts they tap for higher quality placements. Simple Stage 3 organizations use low-quality infographics to “just go build links”, while more advanced companies invest heavily in content that’s highly relevant to their customers.

Most advanced SEO agencies operate at this level, as do many enterprise SEO organizations.

Risks

- If done poorly, links can have little relevance and risk future depreciation.

- These methods have a high level of execution risk – many of these methods simply don’t work when done poorly, and don’t work consistently.

- Organizations outsourcing this work to agencies or consultants must be deeply involved with its execution. Some agencies and client organizations have trouble managing this collaboration, leading to poor results.

Benefits

- Sustainable links that will continue to pass value and improve search rankings.

- If done effectively, these methods should lead to an increase in direct traffic, referral traffic, and social mentions in addition to SEO results.

Stage 4: Integrated Strategic Link Development

In these organizations, SEO is critical to the business (often carrying a P&L), and link development is a priority. These organizations have link development groups that divide work into different stages and function like a well-oiled machine.

The biggest difference between a Stage 3 and a Stage 4 organization is strategy. Stage 3 organizations go out and guest post, do broken link outreach, and generally acquire links, but the content, SEO, and outreach groups are not tightly integrated. Often stage 3 organizations act according to the directive “Well, we need some links, so go build some links,” while stage 4 organizations take strategic actions based on data and business goals.

In Stage 4 organizations, link development begins with SEO analysis. SEO managers or analysts conduct opportunity gap analysis and discover where critical links to earn rankings can be obtained. They then strategize with a creative team and a content team to understand what content and which relationships will lead to those links. The content team begins creating, while the outreach team begins building relationships. When the content is pushed live, outreach begins, and results are carefully measured.

Much of this work has value far beyond SEO – this kind of integrated content marketing/influencer engagement also has branding, referral traffic, and social benefits.

Stage 4 organizations typically use multi-touch attribution to understand the entire customer path and how it often begins with search. They use link monitoring tools to understand their link profile and get ahead of search engine algorithm updates. They may also use an enterprise SEO platform to measure and monitor their progress.

Another mark of Stage 4 organizations is the compartmentalization of the outreach process – often stage 4 organizations automate prospecting, and use crowdsourced labor pools like Mechanical Turk to discover contact information. Then the outreach itself is assigned to a more sophisticated specialist on the team.

Organizations with this level of sophistication are rare. This sort of sophistication is typically found in search-based lead generation companies or the most advanced web companies.

Risks

- At this level, the largest risk is investment into taking aggressive position in SERPs that are later pushed below the fold by Google’s own products. (For example, the launch of Google Advisor into the credit cards space.) This shrinks the total share of clicks available in the organic results, and decreases the ROI from even the most advanced content marketing and search engine marketing techniques.

- Getting Social, SEO, PR, and Content organizations to speak each other’s language and work together is really difficult. It requires forward-thinking executives and a great deal of expertise in project management, organizational design, and communication.

- Teams at this level of sophistication are difficult to recruit and retain.  They are also expensive.

Benefits

- SEO/Social/Content marketing becomes a significant competitive advantage to the organization as they do things that are very difficult to copy and acquire links other organizations simply can’t.

- Companies working at this level can see a brand lift as well as meaningful increases in direct traffic, referral traffic, social audience, and media coverage from their content marketing successes.

mattgratt

Matt works on customer acquisition at BuzzStream. Before BuzzStream, he worked as an SEO Strategist at Portent and a Marketing Manager at AppCentral (acquired by Good Technology). You can follow Matt on Twitter or Google Plus.

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