The importance of building high quality links has never been greater. But you can’t fool Google…grabbing any and all links will not boost you in the search rankings. You need to prove to Google that you’ve earned the spot by seeking out the ones from more authoritative and trusting sources.
And when you research and contact these trusted sites, you need to take care with how you pitch them. Sending out a generic copy in a pasted email to a hundred people is only going to ensure your request hits the spam box or the trash. Instead, make sure you’re creating a pitch through thoughtful outreach. Include a subject line that compels people to open your email – that shows you’ve done your research and that this impacts their business directly.
Rich: Originally from Argentina, she is the Director of Operations at NeoMam Studios, a content marketing agency based in the U.K. She started her career in SEO back in 2009 and specialized in link building. Hundreds of links later, she joined NeoMam Studios as the Head of Outreach in 2014. She currently leads the agency’s Production and Promotion teams, from ideation to outreach. Gisele Navarro, welcome to The Agents of Change podcast.
Gisele: Hi Rich, thanks so much for having me.
Rich: I’m very excited. As you know, I read a couple of your articles over at Search Engine Land and was compelled to reach out to you and ask you some questions. So thank you very much for your time today.
Gisele: That’s great. I’m a new columnist at Search Engine Land and I really enjoy what I’m doing. But this was the first time that somebody reached out to me and invited me to a podcast, so I’m super excited.
Rich: Well when you are some sort of superstar, just remember the little people, ok?
Gisele: I will, don’t worry about it.
Rich: So as I mentioned in your bio, you’ve been doing SEO since 2009. Why do you focus on link building?
Gisele: That’s an interesting question. I think when I started I was an assistant to the assistant a lot of keyword research and a lot of little technical changes, but the one thing that nobody really picked up at any point and they all kept just asking me to do, was link building. I think because it was time consuming and it was hard.
And actually I think for me it was really interesting because it was the most human of all of it, if that makes sense. I think keyword research is a big human element when you’re deciding what type of keywords will people be searching and what’s the intent, and all of those things. But I think with link building you’re actually talking to people and finding out what they want and how you can collaborate and work with them.
Every person is different so even though getting links is the same action that you’re repeating over and over again, actually the way that you get around it is going to be different because every person is different. So I think that was the one thing that every time somebody would say, “We need to get some links”, it just brightened my day. And it got to a point where I just decided it’s the one thing I want to do. So I started getting more and more into it.
It was really fun, and it’s still fun, because I really like it and I talk to people who sort of hate it – and that’s most people – and they wonder why I like this because it’s so hard and horrible. And actually I think because it’s hard, I like it.
Rich: I think that a really important point is the things that are difficult are usually the things that matter. So if you can find something that other people find very difficult and you find easy, that’s probably something you should be focusing on.
So before we get into some of the tactics around getting these inbound links, can you just explain to us why inbound links are so important to our SEO strategy?
Gisele: Yes. I think there’s a lot of talk all the time about what Google is doing. And Google’s taking it as the main search engine, it’s actually every search engine, but let’s talk about Google. And all the different 200+ ranking factors and all the different possibilities of how they might be measuring the authority of a website in regards to a particular topic. And these links are probably the oldest signal in terms of what Google looks at when they decide, “When somebody searches for these words, we’re going to show these 10 sites first because they’re the most relevant.”
So links have been for a really long time – pretty much since the very beginning of indexing the web – when Google started to be a search engine. The one way that they start to understand how the relationship between websites work and how people were using sites. So even though right now there are all these other different signals in Google’s algorithm, it’s closer and closer to being something that is not like a thing that has humans behind, it’s actually lots of elements of just AI.
Links are still the way in which people just signal what they like. It’s like a normal thing, the same way that you say, “I went to this really great restaurant, let me just show you the website, let me just show you the Facebook page.” We‘re constantly doing it in how we recommend things. So it’s the same way that publishers will say, “This is a great story from these people”, and how they refer back to the original source of things.
So links are still quite important because they’re hard to actually get. I think in my personal opinion that they are going to continue to be a staple for a long time to come.
Rich: Ok, so just to kind of think about this. A lot of times people put their focus when it comes to SEO on understanding what keywords their customers are searching for, and then writing copy that answers that. That’s obviously very important. But what you’re saying is that another big part of the battle in terms of ranking higher is to get these inbound links. They act as referrals and Google is looking at them as referrals from other websites, and that also in another import aspect of how we’re going to rank in the search engines. Is that accurate to say?
Gisele: Yes, that’s perfect. As well as there’s something that comes with links, which is the authority of a domain. So the bigger the links, the more that big sites that have been online for a long time that have more authority themselves, than like new sites. The more that these type of sites are linking to you, the more that you’re telling Google there is something about this website that is clearly an authority on this matter. And that’s why they start deciding to bump those rankings.
Rich: So it’s not just the number of inbound links I get, it’s not like voting and the person gets one vote, it’s more like they’re looking at the authority of these websites – maybe because of how big they are or how long they’ve been around – and also from what I understand how loosely related they are to the type of business we may be in. Correct?
Gisele: Yes. I think it’s how closely related you are in terms of new sites, for example. If you’re just a small business owner and you have an HR tool – for example – a newspaper when you look at it for a site is not super related. Now a newspaper that writes about HR inside of a small business section talking about your tool, that immediately is talking from an authority point of view. It’s like we are this big media giant and we are deciding that in the small business section we’re going to talk about this one tool when we talk about HR for small business.
So sometimes it’s about the company and relevancy of the site, so other sites reviewing HR software talking about HR tools. And other times it’s going to be about the topic that is being talked about in a very authoritative website.
Rich: Ok. So basically Google is looking for these referrals – we’ve kind of gone through them – and so a good marketing tactic is to try and get these inbound links. And that’s kind of where you come in. And you kind of mentioned this before, but I’ve always shied away from purposeful link building. I mean, I love when people link to me, don’t get me wrong. Because I don’t relish the idea of sending out email after email to strangers begging for inbound links.
As a business owner, as an owner of a company that builds websites, I get dozens – maybe multiple dozens – of these emails every day looking for me to link out to them or to have them guest post on my site that I immediately delete. In fact, not 15 minutes before we jumped on the call I saw my friend Chris Brogan complaining about all these people that send out these emails.
So tell me that I’m wrong and I need to be taking this more seriously, or tell me how all these emails coming into people’s inboxes looking to put content up on websites looking for links, how do you get your emails to stand out.
Gisele: There’s a lot of parts to this really. So like you said, you get lots of emails. I will ask you why do you delete them?
Rich: Why do I delete them? Sometimes it’s because I just get so many every day, I can’t keep up with them. And another one is often even just by skimming the subject line or the first line of the email, I realize that they haven’t done their homework at all. They don’t know me and I feel like I’m one of the million people they’re sending this email to.
Gisele: Ok, so that’s the answer. So a big part of this battle that we’re fighting when trying to get people’s attention so they can us a minute of their time and maybe consider linking, is just reaching out to the right person. It really is. And it’s the hardest part of the job, it’s the one thing where there’s a thousand tools that are supposedly going to fix it for you, that are going to create these lists for you. But it’s the one bit that if you remove your brain and you just go [inaudible], you’re going to end up with sites like yours and email. And someone is going to send an email and it’s going to feel good because they sent one more email and maybe that’s one more chance to get a link. And actually the email lands in your inbox and you read the subject line, you open it, and then you realize actually these people didn’t so their homework and they don’t know why they’re reaching out to me, they didn’t read my website at all.
So I think there’s a big part of which is reaching out to the right person. But something that I always write about as well in my column particularly comes with, ok let’s say you did reach out and I want to link something to you Rich – a podcast idea – and I think it’s great. Then the other part of the battle is for me to make sure that you’re going to open that email first. Because as you know, you’re getting such a massive number of emails that are completely irrelevant, you’re going to just skim through it very quickly, you’re going to just click “spam” and just trash it. So my subject line is going to be really, really important in that moment to just actually make you look twice and say, “Wait, this is different, this might be something of interest.” And once you open that email I use those initial 1-3 lines to actually get your attention very quickly and explain the context of why I’m reaching out to you very quickly. So that by that point I’m pitching you and I’m saying, “That’s why I have this idea for a podcast”, or, “This page would be a great place to send your podcast listeners to because xxx.”
But I already have you onboard so already you open that email and see what it’s all about, you understand why I’m reaching out to you and not somebody else, and you see that I’ve actually done my research. And actually maybe you’re going to link. Maybe you’re going to talk about me on your podcast because there’s value there for you.
Rich: Alright, so let’s get into some tactics then. So what are some of the things that you’re doing in your subject lines to get people to open them up and at least give you that one minute of their time, that 99% of the people seem to be missing?
Gisele:I’ve tried so many things in my life pertaining to content. I think one of the best places where I found techniques that made a difference to me was just in the world of social psychology. So there’s a part of the psychology of complaints and there’s a theory that’s called The Foot in the Door Theory. And the idea of it is that as long as when you’re making a request to somebody, you’re starting with a small request, that it’s not a massive deal for that person to actually comply to. When you come with a bigger request that is aligned to that small request, you are more likely to actually get a “yes”.
So in terms of email, when I explain to the people I train how they can apply the “foot in the door” technique, we talk about subject lines, because that is actually our foot in the door. So if I get the person to open that email, they’re basically giving me a little ‘yes’. And by the time I say, “Would you link to my article?”,getting that big yes isn’t as hard. Because half the job was already done and I already had that foot in the door.
When doing this, there are five big tips that I like to apply. So because I want them to understand exactly what they’re getting into when they open that email, being very specific on the subject line is very important. There are lots of tricks that people use when they say, “I love your article”, or “This is such a great blog”, or whatever to get you to open that email. And they will get you to open that email because everybody wants to hear how much somebody loves you or whatever. And the reality is that when they hit you with a request like linking to an article or allowing a guest post, in your brain they just tricked you. They made you open that and that request has nothing to do with the initial request that was just to open this email because I want to talk about your site.
So that’s why I think being super specific in your subject line and making sure that you’re asking exactly what you need and what type of content your pitching, if you’re pitching content. Or if you want to get guest posts, being very clear in that subject line that that’s what you want. Instead of tricking people into an opening an email and then realizing that actually you are trying to get something off of them that is not what you said in your subject line. I think that works really well.
When my team is pitching new content, they’re going to constantly be pitching journalists and bloggers, one thing that is quite important is to make sure that within the subject line that I’m defining not just the type of content that they’re pitching and the value of that content, but also they’re making a point of saying this is a story idea. Because sometimes when we’re pitching content if you don’t add that information at the very beginning – say, ”This is a story idea” – it just feels like you might be selling something. So I always share this example of, let’s say we have an infographic about how to lose weight in summer. And it’s summer right now. So I’m pitching this story idea and I just use a subject line of “How to lose weight this summer”. And it just hits your inbox and it just feels like somebody wants to sell you a pill. It’s a sales game. But I receive so many of these type of emails all the time that I don’t respond to.
Whereas if you were to within that same subject line add the words “story idea: how to lose with this summer [infographic]”, or “interview with health expert/nutritionist”. Immediately they can see right away what this is a story idea and what they’re offering, and they open that email and they are 50% there. Right away they are already telling you I’m interested in the topic, I’m looking for a story, and I really like that format. So by the time you are pitching them exactly what it is, they already bought in. Does that make sense?
Rich: Yeah, absolutely. So basically you’re saying don’t trick people. It might get somebody to open up the email, but as soon as they feel like they’ve been had, they’re going to delete you anyway. So be up front, tell them what the purpose is because people are busy, and this way the people who are more interested or more willing to actually link to you or post your content, they’re going to be the ones opening that email.
Gisele: Yes, exactly. One of the big mistakes that people make as well is that they try to impress in the subject line and they go overboard sometimes. If they want to share an infographic on how to lose weight they would say, “This is the ultimate guide of how to lose weight forever! [infographic]”. And then I open it and it’s actually 10 tips or something, and they oversold it completely. So I got them to open this email, they went through it and clicked it, and they just feel deflated. It’s really not what they were expecting.
So the more specific you can be, the better you set those expectations. Because that’s what you’re doing with the subject line. That’s why lying is not a good thing because you’re setting the expectations for one thing and then you’re sending another.
Rich: And the little I know about PR and press releases is the fact that you really don’t try and hype something too much, you just basically frame it as a new story. It’s sounds like a lot of these are in alignment with that.
Gisele: Yes, exactly. I think that the reason why it’s getting more and more aligned to that is what I talk about is it’s one type of link building technique, which is when you are building content your pitching switch is the way in which most people are building links right now. Whether that’s a guest post, or an infographic, or an interview with somebody. It’s getting closer and closer to PR, which is the reason why it’s no line of digital PR because that’s what we’re doing. So we’re pitching stories to bloggers, journalists, instead of just talking to a webmaster to try to add a link somewhere in a blog.
Those days are kind of over. There are people still doing that, but that’s not how you get those big authoritative sites to link to you. In most cases you do it through content whereas from a PR point of view you that’s like putting a person forward to be interviewed for a survey or whatever, or from a point of creating a visual for you, or a video, or a GIF, or an automated guide. That’s why I think they’re aligning so well lately, the idea of PR and link building, and they mesh to form this digital PR world where that’s the type of stuff we’re doing.
Rich: So as I mentioned before, I’ve had so many emails come in and I don’t always even look at them. People are busy and they just sometimes can’t or don’t respond. What tips do you have for following up with people who don’t respond to your first email?
Gisele: Well first of all something that you have to do before if possible is to track your emails, so that you know whether people have opened them. That’s quite good. Because if you actually do that then you start to identify the people that are not responding, but they are opening, sometimes multiple times. And you can follow up with them faster and sooner because in most cases when you see somebody opening your email many times, there’s something happening there. There’s information that they’re missing, maybe it’s a big office and they’re forwarding this story across editors, maybe they’re trying to identify something.
So following up with somebody that’s opening your email multiple times as quickly as you notice that’s happening. And with a tool that tracks open rates, you can see that very easy because there’s a pop-up that says, “Rich opened your email”, and then I’m just following up and saying, “Hey Rich, by the way, if you have any questions about this survey, or how we collected this data, or if you want to make any edits to it, or if you have any ideas how to make it better, you can reach out right away.” In those cases, it works really well, because clearly there’s something hot about your email. So the more that you can actually inject yourself in a conversation that’s already happening behind closed doors within that blog or that newspaper or whatever, the better.
Rich: So I would say please don’t tell them that you’ve noticed that they’ve opened up that email, because that just comes across as a little invasive and creepy.
Gisele: It’s a little creepy, yes. So let’s say you’re not doing that, and you’re not tracking your emails, and you have no idea if people have opened it or not. In those cases – and this is a particular thing that I do – I don’t like following up more than once with people because I don’t like annoying people. I’ve been followed up 4-5 times – because I also get pitched lots of stuff – and it’s one of those things I really recommend not to do, It becomes a constant every three days, “Have you seen my email?’”
My biggest tip with follow-ups is you have nothing to lose. So instead of just sending it forward and replying, “Have you seen my email that I sent you?”, try again and write a complete new pitch. A complete new subject line, a complete new angle. So if I’m pitching you a story about losing weight for summer, and I’m just giving you stats about how many people have bought [inaudible] to lose weight and other stats about how much weight can be lost by cutting calories.
Then my second email can be about pitching you and saying, “Hey Rich, when was the last time you decided maybe you need to lose weight and what did you do about it?” It’s just changing the angle completely so that you’re not trying to just show up and say ask if they’ve seen it, I’m just giving you one more reason that perhaps you want to share it. So that’s a big tip for me in the follow-up, try a completely new approach, but acknowledge that you’ve corresponded with them before.
So I always start my follow-up with, “Hey, it’s Gisele again from NeoMam”, and then I go into my pitch because I don’t want them to feel like it’s going to be every week with a new angle. So I think following up once and acknowledging that you have contacted them before. But instead of just going with a lazy offer in my email, try a new pitch, a complete new subject line and a complete new angle on the reason why they should care about what you’re sharing. That works really well.
Rich: Now this may be a technical question but, what email program are you using so that you know that they have opened your email even if they haven’t responded?
Gisele: I use Yesware, which is actually a sales tool. There are tools for outreach that allow you to send the emails within those tools and do other things with it, but I use my Gmail to send my pitches and Yesware sits on top of it so it’s quiet. It’s simple and all it gives you is information about whether somebody opened the email, whether they replied to the email, or they clicked on something. So it’s very simple and I like that.
Rich: Now I was going to ask you this question but I think in some ways you may have already answered it. I noticed as I was looking through your stuff, first obviously you get them to open the email. In the first email you never show them the cards, you never give them the content. You ask them if they’re interested or if they want to see that. What’s the logic behind that?
Gisele: Actually, I do share it. But I don’t attach anything. So what I do is I share the link to where they can find it. So let’s say I’m pitching that we made something for you. I’m going to say, “Hey, we made this thing and I think you might like it. Here it is.” And I would put just the URL where they will find whatever it is I’m pitching, so they can go and see for themselves. And then what I say is, “If you’d like to share this, let me know and I can send you the images or the video or whatever I’m pitching”.
And I do that for two reasons. One, I don’t want to attach anything to an email that I’m sending to somebody that may be receiving an email for the first time from me, because spam filters are quite likely to just immediately move it into spam. So it’s an unknown sender with five images attached that goes to spam, quite likely. So that’s one reason why I don’t send everything right away.
And also the reason I like to put that URL, I don’t mask it in anyway, I don’t hyperlink a word or anything, I just put a clean URL because the transparency of seeing them exactly where they’re going and what this is. I have tried in the past doing the opposite, sending everything or not sending anything and just saying, “I have this really cool thing, let me know if you want to see it”. That’s me just extending the process a lot more.
If I’m really confident that this person is the right person, I don’t have any problems saying, “Hey, you can see it here. Have a look”. Instead of me saying, “Hey this is great, I think you’re going to love it. Just let me know if you want to see it and I’ll send it to you.” That’s making it harder for them and that’s why I wouldn’t go as far as not sending anything. But definitely I don’t attach anything until they got back to me and said, “Yeah”. Because I want to make sure that their email spam filter doesn’t catch my emails.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. In fact, this whole conversation has been filled with a lot of great tips. And I know that you can go even deeper because I’ve read some of your other stuff on what to put in these emails and there’s a lot more great information. So Gisele, for people who want to learn more about you, where should we send them?
Gisele: I would say the best place would be Search Engine Land, I have my column going there once a month on the last Thursday of the month. And I share lots of stuff there like step by step guides, so I think that would be the best place.
Rich: Awesome. We’ll link to that in the show notes. Gisele, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your expertise today.
Gisele: Thank you so much for having me and I hope that your listeners find this useful.
Gisele Navarro has perfected the art of link building with her thoughtful approach to relationship building and outreach. Don’t miss her helpful, educational and expert take on this – and other subjects – related to small businesses in her monthly column.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to prove that, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out, and he has added “author” to his resume with his book!