Chapter 18

Outsourcing your link building

Whether you’re in-house or working for an agency, outsourcing can be a viable option when it comes to link building. However it can be a bit risky to hand over control of your link building to someone outside your company, as you won’t know for sure they aren’t engaging in low-quality link building that could result in a Google manual action. 

This section will talk about a few areas of outsourcing link building, starting with what an in-house SEO should look for if looking for an agency to work with.

In-house SEO: Choosing an agency

There are a lot of good SEO agencies around the world. Many of them blog and speak at conferences. But does that mean you can trust them with your link building? Honestly, no. 

This section outlines a number of things you should look for and ask about when choosing an agency to work with.

Experience in a similar industry

This isn’t a deal breaker, but certainly an advantage. If the agency has worked in a similar industry before, they will have a few things that can help you:

  • A knowledge of the competitiveness of the industry and what it takes to get results.
  • Existing contacts who they may be able to leverage for you.
  • A knowledge of customers and what types of content they engage with.

Approach to link building

You should ask what their overall attitude and approach to link building is, and ask for a few examples of techniques that they have recently used for other clients. You ideally you want to hear them talk about techniques that will not only help get links but also promote the business well and bring targeted traffic.

Things that I would NOT want to hear from a company include:

  • Low quality directory submissions.
  • Article syndication.
  • Press releases.
  • Blog commenting.
  • Forum links.
  • Social / web 2.0 profile links.

These are all techniques that were hit pretty hard by the Penguin update in 2012 and are the ones that continue to pose big risks to websites. Some of these can still be helpful in some circumstances, but I wouldn’t want to hear an SEO company suggesting these as their key techniques.

Things that I’d like to hear instead are:

  • Turning your website into a resource that deserves links.
  • Building relationships with relevant and influential bloggers.
  • Content-based link building.
  • Earning links.
  • Using your USPs to get links.
  • Digital PR related activity (e.g., events, surveys, interviews).

These are the techniques that are going to get the types of links that Google wants to reward. They are also more effective in the long term, and come with much lower risk.

Approach to content creation

Given the role of content in link building, you should ask the potential agency how they create content and the process they use when doing it. 

It isn’t a deal breaker if they do not have internal resources for writing and design, but it can be an advantage because you can often speak to them directly and communication / briefing is generally a lot easier.

The more important thing to discover here is the process they use. Ask questions about how they decide what content to create, the format it will take, and how they plan on promoting it. This can give you good insight into how they will create content for you, and you should be able to see what processes they have in place.

References and results

It is your right to see references and results from other clients that an SEO company has worked with. This may mean you need to sign an NDA in order to proceed, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’d be very wary of any companies that are not willing to refer you to previous and current clients for reviews. It isn’t always possible for them to reveal all of their clients, but it is unusual for them not to be able to reveal any at all.

Also, there is nothing to stop you doing your own research. Many companies will list previous and current clients on their website, so you can always try to contact someone there directly and see if they’re happy to chat to you.

Approach to reporting and account management

You should get a feel for what it will be like actually working with the agency. For example, if you call with a question, will you be able to speak directly with an SEO manager or will you need to speak to an account manager? Related to this, you should find out who your main point of contact will be and to what extent they will actually be doing the work and managing the project. While account managers aren’t a bad thing, you need to make sure that they are close enough to the project to give you answers and feedback when you need it.

Also ask what a typical report looks like and what is included. To me, a good answer would include them talking about what metrics matter to you and reporting on those.

Something else I’d like to hear from an agency is that they focus on building a good relationship with you and truly understanding how your business works. This demonstrates that they care about the long term and are not just looking to make a quick buck from you.

Outsourcing to Upwork

This is applicable to most SEOs, whether you’re in-house, agency, or working for yourself. Upwork can be a great place to find great workers at a low hourly rate. At first it can be a bit daunting because you’re passing work to people whom you have never met and have no experience working with, but there are tasks that lend themselves to outsourcing with little risk.

In this section we will go through a simple process for finding people on Upwork and outsourcing various link building tasks.

What can you outsource?

It isn’t a great idea to try and outsource every part of your link building, there are certain parts that you’ll want to keep control of, particularly if you’re new to outsourcing and working with people on Upwork. Let’s take a look:

Finding link opportunities

This is pretty low risk because it is purely a research task. It is simply researching possible link opportunities based on a set of criteria, which you define. You can use scrapers and tools to do this, but you can add a human element, which tools are not able to do.

You can get as general or as specific as you want with this task. It can range from something as simple as finding generic blogs, up to finding ones that already accept guest posts or run interviews with people. But remember that the more complicated you make a process, the clearer you need to be with your worker selection and your brief.

Finding contact details

Again, this is pretty low risk. At worst the worker may find the wrong contact details and you email the wrong person, but that isn’t exactly the end of the world. With this task you can give the worker a list of websites that you’ve already filtered and approved for their quality and relevance. Sometimes it can take a while to find the contact details, particularly when you’re working through lots and lots of websites. So outsourcing this task to someone else can certainly save you quite a bit of time.

Word of warning here from my own experience: manually sense check the work that has been done before making payment or giving a rating. I outsourced a task like this once and found that many of the email addresses were simply input as info@domain.com. While this can be normal, there were a higher proportion of these than I’d have expected. I only realized this when I started sending emails and got way too many bounces. Upon further inspection, I noticed that pretty much all the bounces were from the info@ email addresses. However, by this time I’d already paid and rated the worker! Suffice it to say, I didn’t work with them again.

Contacting bloggers

This one is a lot more risky – if you want to do it properly. There are two approaches you can use here which offer different levels of risk, but the lower you want the risk to be, the lower your response rate is likely to be:

  1. Setup a free email account for the worker such as a Gmail address and in their outreach email, do not mention the name of the client or who they are representing

With this approach, your client is somewhat protected if something goes wrong. For example, the worker messes up the template or you email someone who clearly doesn’t want to be emailed regarding SEO and links. However there is a downside here, in that the email address and the email itself are liable to look a bit spammy. This can decrease your response rate, particularly from higher-level bloggers who want to know who they are dealing with before engaging in conversation. It also doesn’t feel great if you’re trying to promote a legitimate brand and it can look a bit strange to the people you’re contacting.

  1. The second approach is to setup a genuine email address using the client name or the name of your company, thus making it perfectly clear who you are representing. 

This can improve the chances of someone replying to you because the email naturally looks more legitimate. However, there is one obvious downside here – if the worker makes a mistake, then you’re open to damage to your reputation.

Whichever approach you choose comes with some element of risk, much in the same way that you run a risk when choosing an SEO agency. But with Upwork that risk is a lot higher because you have a much more limited idea of a workers reputation and competence. Plus, they are likely to be in another country where you can’t meet them face to face, and many workers on Upwork do not list English as their first language which may not be a big problem, but could make communication a touch more difficult. .

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend using Upwork for sending outreach emails, I’d just recommend it for research-driven tasks.

Define the process – step by step

The next step is to define the exact process of the task that you’re outsourcing. This is where you need to spend a decent amount of time, but it should be worth it because you’ll get much better results.

Look at the task you’re outsourcing, and write down exactly how you would go about doing this task step by step. Go over it several times to make sure that you do not forget anything. You should also include free tools that you’d use as well, which the worker can download and use themselves, but you should try to limit these if you can so that you don’t complicate things too much.

As you write the process, do it yourself and take screenshots as you go, or even record a short screencast. This will take time, but it will be worth it and you only need to do it once for each task. You won’t need to do it each time you hire more people for the same task.

I prefer using Google Docs for this because it is very easy to share, and I can also see when someone has opened and viewed the document. So if a worker starts on a task without having opened the document, I can contact them and double check that they know what they’re doing. 

Once you’ve got the process written down, try to get someone else to review it for you and make sure you haven’t missed anything obvious.

Post a job description

Now the fun really starts. It is time to post a job description to Upwork and start getting applicants. This is another step that you should not rush through. A good job description will increase your chances of getting good applicants. You can also use the job description itself to filter out bad applicants too, with a little trick that I like to use.

Upwork also allows you to set minimum requirements that the applicant must have before they apply, this is where you can request things like excellent feedback scores and certain qualifications if necessary.

Rather than talk about theory, I’m going to share a job description that I posted so that you can see what I mean.

Here is the advert:

Title: Website / blogger researcher required

Description: We're currently hiring for a web researcher. Initially on an hourly contract which could lead to a long-term contract for the best applicants.

The role would include the following tasks:

- Finding blogs and websites within certain industries (for example, travel, finance, sports) that meet a certain criteria

- From the blogs and websites that meet the criteria, gathering various pieces of information about them such as contact email and name of the owner

We're looking for applicants with the following skills:

- Excellent English language skills, both verbal and written

- Excellent attention to detail and ability to follow instructions

- Trustworthy and reliable

- Motivated by targets

We're willing to add bonuses for exceptional work and results.

In your application, please summarize what you believe the tasks to be. This is to show that you've read the full ad and completely understand the tasks you'll be working on.

Note the final few lines – this is a test for the applicant and makes the job of filtering them a lot easier. When going through the applications, I immediately decline ones who have not done this simple task. It doesn’t matter if they match all my other requirements, if they haven’t done this, then they haven’t read the job ad properly, which isn’t a good sign.

For ones that have read it, it gives me a chance to grasp their written English skills because they need to rewrite the task in their own words. Again if they do not do a very good job of this, I decline their application on the basis of their English isn’t very good or they do not understand what the task is.

I then set the rest of the requirements that can vary, but are generally:

  • Feedback score of at least 4.50
  • Fluent English, written and verbal
  • Hourly rate of $1.00 - $4.00 per hour
  • At least 100 hours logged on Upwork

Note that workers can apply without all of these, but Upwork will highlight this in this application and tell you how many they have.

You will also need to decide whether you want the work to be billed by the hour or if you want to pay a one-off cost for the work. I prefer to pay by the hour for these kinds of tasks, but will limit it at first. So, when I first hire someone, I’ll give him or her a 10-hour limit and then review when the task is completed. If the work is good, I’ll keep working with them. If it isn’t good, I’ll end the contract and give them feedback.

Filter applicants and hire

It isn’t unusual to get a few hundred applicants for a role like the one that I posted above. This particular ad received 76 applicants in about 12 hours, at which point I closed the ad and started filtering the applicants.

This isn’t the best job to do, but it has to be done and you need to pay attention to it. The people you choose will be your team and you need to do your best to make sure they’re the right people for the job.

As mentioned in the previous section, my first step is to decline applicants who have not followed the instructions in the advert. I then decline other applicants using the following rules that I test against their application:

  • Written in broken or bad English (depending on the importance of this to the task)
  • Seems too generic and looks like it has been copied and pasted
  • Doesn’t talk about any similar experience for the role
  • Doesn’t even mention the role itself
  • Their feedback score is below 4.50 (highest score is 5)
  • They do not have much feedback or Upwork history – I usually look for more than 100 hours of time logged

I do not tend to interview people. I will hire based on their application and give them the job on a trial basis with a limited number of hours. Most of the time, I will hire two people for the same role and then choose the best one to continue working for me.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned hourly rates when filtering. On the whole, I’m happy to meet what they ask for as long as it is within the budget I’ve defined. It only becomes a factor for me if someone is offering to work for stupidly low rates like 10 cents an hour. I’d decline their offer if they offered to work for this, something just doesn’t feel right, or sit well with me.

Send over the brief

The work you get back will only be as good as the brief that you give. The brief needs to be clear and understood before they start working.

Here is an example brief for this kind of task:

Task summary: Your task will be to find interior design / home improvement blogs (for example blogs that talk about decorating your home, home improvement, home furnishings) that meet a certain set of criteria which is outlined below. The blogs that you find that meet this criteria should be added to the Google Doc spreadsheet that is linked below and the various pieces of information need to be filled in.

All blogs you add to the approved spreadsheet must meet the following criteria:

  • Must be interior design / home improvement themed
  • Has been updated with a new blog post within the last 3 weeks
  • Has a contact form or an email address (include in the approved spreadsheet)

For each blog that you find that meets the above criteria, please gather the following details and enter them into the spreadsheet:

  • Name of the blog
  • URL of the blog
  • Twitter Account if they have one
  • Their email address or the URL of their contact form
  • The title of a recent blog post they wrote

I actually used this brief recently, and it worked very well. For a cost of about $30, I managed to get a list of about 200 blogs and all the details above. 

Review the work

Another reason I like using Google Docs is that I can review work very easily by just opening the relevant spreadsheet. I can see what data they have gathered so far, do a few spot checks and generally make sure they are on the right track. It is worth doing this as soon as you can after they start working. On one occasion I noticed that the worker was inputting email addresses as name (at) example (dot) com because they were copying and pasting. So I asked them to write it correctly which would save me time later. It is better for you to catch stuff like this earlier than wait until they have done hundreds of them!

Upwork also has a neat little feature that allows you to see snapshots of the workers screen when they are working on your task. So you can browse through and check this out if you want. This is a good idea for first time applicants, particularly. 

I then do another review when their hours are complete and spot check the work. If I’m happy with it, I’ll keep them working and may increase the number of hours I give them, too. If I don’t need them for the time being, I’ll end the task but make it clear that I’d like to work with them again and give them first option on new jobs that I have.