Chapter 17

Building a link building team

Whether you’re working at an agency or in-house, the time may come when you need to scale up your link building by getting more people on board and possibly, building a dedicated team. The advantages should speak for themselves, but it isn’t that easy to find really good link builders.

This section will talk about building an effective link building team and give you an idea what you should be looking for when hiring.

Do you even need a link building team?

The idea of having a team of link builders working for you is a pretty sweet one. Link building is hard, so the idea of being able to delegate work to a specialized team is a nice thing to have. But you need to think hard about whether you actually need a team and ask yourself questions such as:

  • Do I have enough work to keep them all busy month-to-month?
  • Do I need full-time people or can I use freelancers?
  • Do I have additional resources to support them (i.e., designers and writers)? Remember that link building is far easier when you have a content asset
  • How are my existing team members coping with link building?
  • How would my existing team feel about handing over client work to someone else?

There are a number of things for you to think about, and the decision isn’t one that you should take lightly. Let’s look at them in a bit more detail to try and help you if the time comes to make a decision.

Do I have enough work to keep them all busy month-to-month?

This is probably one of the more crucial ones to answer for the health of your business and one you should be asking regardless of what role you’re hiring for. You should either be close to capacity and expecting to exceed it very soon, or already over capacity and having to turn away work before you commit to hiring more people. 

Even if you are at capacity or close, you should look at whether your current projects are long-term or could end suddenly. Ideally, you want to have a good proportion of your work to be ongoing, retained contracts, which are far more stable and reliable than one-off projects. You should also have a healthy pipeline of quality leads that mean that even if a couple of clients drop off, you have some that can replace them relatively quickly.

Do I need full-time people or can I use freelancers?

You may be at a point where you are busy but not quite busy enough to warrant hiring more full-time staff. In this case, you may want to just look for someone who is part-time or even a freelancer to help take some of the work from you and your team.

There are other advantages to hiring freelancers, too. The risk is generally lower because you aren’t committing to a salary. Also, if this is your first time hiring for link builders, you can test the water a little and start to get processes in place. So when the time comes to hire someone full-time, you already have a base to work from.

I’ll explore this in a lot more detail below in the section on outsourcing your link building.

Do I have additional resources to support them (i.e., designers and writers)?

If you’re looking to create link building assets for your team to use, then you need the resources to create those assets. Even if you’re doing something as simple as guest blogging, you still need to think about who’s going to create the content for that. Will you need to outsource it? What kind of additional costs will that bring, and can you afford it? Is it worth hiring a full-time writer, too?

The alternative is to try and hire link builders who are also writers, but this makes hiring a lot harder and good writers can be hard to come by even in the best of times.

How are my existing team members coping with link building?

If your existing team members are doing link building just fine, then do you need to create a separate team to take the work off their hands? The question here is whether your existing team members could be spending their time elsewhere rather than building links. This is a tough call to make, and you ultimately need to think of how best to utilize their time – both for your business and the business of your clients.

How would my existing team feel about handing over client work to someone else?

Building from the previous question, how would your team feel about giving responsibility to someone else? Personally, I’m very protective of my clients, particularly if I’ve been working on them for a long time and have built a good relationship. Because of this, I may not want to hand over link building to someone else 100%.

On the other hand, some team members may really want to spend their time on other stuff, so they will be more than happy to hand over some work. The point here is to speak to your team first and get feedback on what would work best for them and their clients.

Hiring link builders

Whether you’ve decided to hire full-time, part-time, or freelancers, the next few sections should all be applicable and help you find the right people.

Characteristics of good link builders

From experience, good link builders have a slightly different mindset than others who do SEO work. That isn’t to say that an all-round good SEO professional can’t be a great link builder or vice versa. But you should be aware that link building requires a few specific skills that may make a difference to whether you hire someone to do SEO or be a full-time link builder.

Here are what I believe to be the characteristics of a good link builder.

A thick skin

A link builder needs to be able to handle rejection well and not let it get them down. The very best link builders won’t get a 100 percent response rate every time. Some replies can be very negative, so it is important to be able to handle this well and, most importantly, learn from it.

Determined

A link builder needs to be determined and keep pushing forward with outreach and trying to get links even after rejection. Link building isn’t technically hard, but it can be very easy to give up if things don’t go well right away.

Sensitivity

This sounds like a strange one but bear with me. A good link builder should be able to identify link targets that are likely to say yes, this requires some sensitivity as to how that person writes and engages with other people online. It also requires sensitivity when it comes to speaking with that person via phone or email. A good link builder can sense if a particular person may be a bit closed off to link approaches and be able to find a way around it.

Organized

Link building can get a little bit hectic sometimes, particularly if you work for an agency and work across multiple clients. If you’re doing a good job, then your inbox should be full of replies from different people across different industries. So you need to be organized enough to not send the wrong reply to the wrong person! You also need to be able to keep a track of efforts and report on them.

Empathetic

Somewhat related to sensitivity, a little empathy goes a long way. It can really help you to put yourself in the position of the person you’re trying to get a link from. Understanding their concerns, challenges, and opinions can help you craft your message better. This is why many successful link builders that I know also have their own side projects and blogs, which means they understand what a site owner wants and how they are often approached.

Sales experience

This characteristic isn’t essential, but is a big advantage. Salespeople make great link builders because they have a lot of the characteristics above, naturally. They know how to talk to people, know how to pitch something, and know how to get what they want.

Additional resources:

Interview questions

With the characteristics of a good link builder in mind, we now need to think about what questions we can ask at an interview, which allow us to find them.

There are loads of questions you can ask, but here are a few that I like to ask and ones that I’ve found from various bits of research. I’ve tried to keep these focused on hiring link builders rather than SEO pros in general.

If you could get any tool built to help with link building, what would it be?

With this question you’re looking to learn about the person’s understanding of what you can automate and what you can’t. Also what you should and shouldn’t automate. For example, if the answer you get is “a tool that automatically emails all my link targets” then I’d be a bit worried. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d really want to automate, plus tools like this already exist!

You can also dig a bit further ask them to explain the process what exactly the tool would go through. If you have a whiteboard, get them to sketch out the process on it. This allows you to see how they take apart a problem and create a process to automate solving it. 

We have a client in the xyz sector, find some websites who you may want to get links from and explain why.

This is a good exercise to give them and actually watch the process they go through. I’d use a real client example here if you can, ideally one that you’re actually link building for because it will give you a good frame of reference for what a good answer is.

An ideal answer would be them finding a good quality, relevant website that you stand a chance of getting a link from. But for me, it is more important for them to show a good process for finding that website. Being blunt, they may just get lucky and find a good website, but the process itself is harder to get right, so this is what I’d be concentrating on.

Find contact details for example.com.

There are two levels to which this can be answered. An average answer would be the candidate finding a contact form or a catchall email address such as contact@example.com. A good answer would be the candidate finding a person’s name and personal email address.

You can set this up quite well by giving them a website where the contact details aren’t too easy to find, but can be found somehow through a bit of digging around. 

Imagine you send an outreach email but get a negative reply, what would you do?

A good answer will include trying to build a relationship even after the initial rejection. They should also make reference to trying to find out why they said no and what you can learn from it. You don’t really want to hear them say that they’d just ignore it and move on.

If I gave you a list of 10,000 possible link targets, how would you start sorting them out?

If their answer doesn’t include the words Excel or Google Sheets or a tool of some kind, then that is probably grounds to not hire them!

Here you are looking for them to demonstrate how they would start slicing big sets of data. In particular, you want to listen for what metrics they’d use to start filtering the link targets and how they’d go about gathering those metrics. These metrics should allow them to prioritize the link targets effectively.

Keeping the team motivated

As we’ve discussed, link building can be tough. Keeping a link building team happy and motivated is very important if you want them to thrive, get results, and grow. 

A lot of the things I talk about in this section are not just applicable to link builders, though, and the principles can be used to keep pretty much any group of workers happy. This even includes when you outsource your link building. It is just as important to keep workers happy, even if they are not in your office every day.

Give people ownership and responsibility

This is one from my own experience and is often overlooked. Good workers will want responsibility and will want to be given ownership of their own projects. As soon as you spot potential in someone, start giving them responsibility and encourage them to take ownership of things that interest them. This, in itself, can help keep someone motivated because they have their own responsibilities and projects to work on and improve.

Incentives

Cash related or not, the right incentives at the right time can make a difference to someone’s performance and keep them motivated. However I’d encourage staying away from focusing a link builder on links alone, I’d try to incorporate targets that are a bit bigger which they influence. For example, referring traffic via links they’ve built or increase in rankings for pages they’ve built links to. Yes, a link builder’s job is to get links, but never forget (or let her forget) the big picture.

Non-cash related incentives can work well, and things like gift vouchers, nights out at a nice restaurant, or a few bottles of beer.

Training

Never stop investing in training your staff. Ask them what skills they want to improve and try to arrange training sessions to cover them. This can include sending them to SEO conferences, of which there are many around the world. This can also build their confidence, as it will give them opportunities to network with other SEO professionals and share experiences.

Recognition

Bonuses are great, but just recognizing the good work that someone has done can go a long way toward keeping them happy and motivated. In particular, if the recognition comes from someone in a senior position and it is genuine. Make sure you’re regularly telling your staff when they do a good job. Also, give them public praise so that the rest of the team is aware.

Ask for feedback

It’s a good idea to get feedback from your employees on a regular basis. Ask them how happy they are in their role, how it could be improved, if they feel supported, and how you could support them more. Doing this every few months can give you a really good idea of how happy everyone really is, then take steps to improve things. 

This may be hard to do sometimes because it may mean you hearing some hard truths, but over time you will be in a much better position to keep a happy and motivated team. One tool that can help with this is called TINYpulse, which can send out automated surveys to your team which asks about morale and general happiness. Another one is 15Five, which is similar but slightly more flexible around customizing questions to people in different roles.