Before I accepted a link building position with Page One Power, I vilified marketing. I was the kind of person who watched The Century of the Self more than once, for fun.
Like many of my colleagues, I didn’t set out to think about the “ROI” of my words or whether my writing would lead to more “conversions” if I would have directed my opening sentence towards “you” instead of relaying my own experience.
I felt skeptical of writing words that were, in the words of Susan Sontag, destined “to become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality,” another instrument that aimed to persuade people to buy things.
Needless to say, I didn’t come to link building with a wealth of positive or practical knowledge about marketing. But I enjoyed the process of link building, and the more links I built, the more I wanted to understand marketing as a whole. I understood that the links I built served a larger marketing strategy, but I didn’t have the language or concepts to navigate that strategy.
Especially when I ran across sentences like “If search is providing traffic that converts through the funnel, or to purchases, SEO is where to invest your marketing budget.”
What on Earth is “the funnel?!” What is “traffic?” Why would someone want to hire us? Without this knowledge, I couldn’t help but feel alienated from the object of my labor (I’m sure you can guess who I’m paraphrasing here.)
Even if you dismiss Karl Marx because he’s a lazy hippy phony, you have to admit that knowing what your daily actions add up to and who they benefit can be empowering. The following is a short guide to marketing concepts that will help you as a link builder that also should help you have a more fulfilling relationship to the results of your labor.
So What Is Marketing, Exactly?
I’m going to start the array of embarrassing confessions in this article by admitting that I once conflated marketing, advertising, branding, and sales.
In my defense, they’re all related to convincing certain people to purchase something they want, need, or do not yet know they need. But they aren’t all the same thing.
I like the definition of marketing from Stephanie Hillberry’s “Marketing 101 Terms” post. She defines marketing as “the process of communicating about your business with the specific purpose of gathering leads.” What are leads? Leads are potential customers. From this, we can infer that marketing is a form of goal-oriented communication targeted towards a logical audience of people who might be interested in visiting your website and/or buying your product.
With this definition, SEO and link building’s relationship to marketing becomes clear.
The goal of link building, and SEO, is to increase the exposure of your website via organic search traffic. SEO allows you to communicate more clearly through search engines in order to generate leads.
So what is link building, then?!
According to Page One Power’s Link Building: From Beginning to Launch, the simplest definition of link building is “the process of creating a link from one website to another website.”
Link Building is a form of SEO that helps websites become more visible in the search results, and it generates leads:
Your link is counted as a signal of authority and relevance by Google, which directs a serious portion of the web’s traffic.These relevant, authoritative links aim to give rise to an increase in organic search traffic-- the people who find your site via a search engine.
These links, and SEO in general, are important because the web is like the wild west. Anyone can build a website (or try to make money online), but smart marketers know that in order to attract qualified leads to their sites, they need to harness the power of those already searching for them.
The most natural way to do this is to rank highly in Google for terms related to your site. If you want to rank highly in Google, you need relevant, authoritative links pointing to your site.
2. Directly, by people clicking on your link.
Every link that you build has the power to do more than simply serve as a “vote of confidence”to Google. Each link represents a branding opportunity by either carrying your brand name or having proximity to your brand name and values within the content or site that links to yours.
Links can also represent relationship building and promotional opportunities. The links themselves are, in fact, promoting the content that they are linked to. They represent a relationship between the host site and the site that they’re linking to, even if that relationship is only one-link deep. My point is that aside from their SEO value, links will always carry value in and of themselves.
If we look back at the sentence that initially confused me-- If search is providing traffic that converts through the funnel, or to purchases, SEO is where to invest your marketing budget-- we can now start to make a bit more sense of it. SEO becomes a worthy marketing investment if search engines provide traffic that “convert through the funnel.”
When I first heard the term “marketing funnel,” I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know what it meant, kept quiet, and looked it up.
I discovered that many, many versions of “the funnel” exist, but they all operate under the same logic: your means of attracting new customers is the top of the funnel. The sale (or other desired conversion) lives at the bottom, skinny part of the funnel.
As our species has a penchant for linearity, you might wager a guess that the funnel is funnel-shaped because the number of potential customers thins out over the course of a marketing/sales campaign. And because we want the bottom of our funnel to be as fat as possible, the middle of the marketing funnel represents romancing the “leads” you attracted at the top. Of course, the funnel sometimes resembles this:
We can see the flaw in the logic here. While many marketers have grown skeptical of this model, it endures. And again, as a link builder, your work comes in to play at the top of the marketing funnel: lead generation.
As your links drive potential customers to your client’s site, your client’s site is supposed to woo them with content, emails, coupons, etc. It’s hard to build links for a site that sucks because your links may have the power to generate leads, but no one will want to stick around to be converted.
Considering the whole marketing funnel can be helpful in determining where to build links, too. Who would want to click on your link? Why? You get to consider all possible relevant leads. You get to think outside the box in a way that marketers don’t get to further down the funnel. When tracked, you can determine which links you’ve built have led to conversions. This gives everyone involved a better idea of which audiences to target.
A customer persona is a character designed by marketers to represent a segment of their target market. The personas are essentially the idealized aggregate of all consumers who may engage with a site, product, or brand in a similar way, as determined through qualitative and quantitative data about actual users.
According to Michael King’s brilliant “Personas: The Art and Science of Understanding the Person Behind the Visit” on The Moz Blog, “developing and using data-driven personas is critical to the future of search and marketing in general.” Why? Because Google is developing data-driven “affinity segments” themselves to better understand who uses their products and how they can better meet the personalized needs of each individual user (and how to better advertise to them, of course.)
With this, Google is becoming more about the searcher than merely the terms they search for. This complements Google’s increasing focus on searcher intent as well. As a link builder, understanding customer (and audience) personas and their pain points can help you to determine where to build links and to expand your notion of relevance.
I recommend reading King’s piece on personas for a more detailed exploration of this topic and how it relates to SEO.
KPI to the ROI
As you may remember from the first “marketing funnel” illustration, marketing involves many snappy acronyms. SEO, MQL, SQL, KPI, ROI-- and you may be SOL if you can’t remember them. Besides SEO (search engine optimization), which I would hope that you know about at this point, the two key acronyms that have helped me as a link builder in a marketing context are ROI and KPI.
ROI stands for “return on investment.” This figure is often presented as a percentage or a ratio, and the higher the return on your investment, the better. In simple terms, your ROI is calculated by comparing the revenue generated by your project to the investment put into the project. Depending on who you ask, it is either:
Determining the ROI of link building is much more difficult than that. Why? Because it’s hard to tell if links alone are ultimately contributing to your client’s reason for link building. If they’re building links to boost their rankings in Google, a site redesign could also contribute to that boost, among other factors. If they’re building links to increase traffic, are they engaging in other activities that may boost traffic? It’s hard to tell, but doable.
Julie Joyce makes some great points about measuring link building ROI here. She concludes that it’s possible to “generate a fuller picture that can show a true return on investment for all those labor hours spent building links.” Even if you’re not responsible for making a case about the ROI of link building to a client, everyone should be tracking the results of their own work to prevent that ugly alienation I refer to in the introduction.
And what can we look at that will tell us whether are links are making a difference or not? Those are our KPIs, or key performance indicators. More commonly referred to as “metrics,” these are the elements that marketers track that indicate whether a project is succeeding or not. As I referred to above, common KPIs (or metrics) for link building including traffic and search engine visibility. Matt Gratt discusses these metrics (and more) in “Measuring the Impact of Content Promotion & Link Building.”
So basically, the KPIs and the ROI show us why we build links and whether it has been worth it. They help us to better understand the object of our labor (which makes me feel less like my knowledge of Marxism is completely in vain.)
Marketers, what have I missed? What other marketing tools and concepts could make us better link builders?