One of the most discouraging things about being a link builder is that the internet seems to offer an endless amount of websites, yet when it comes to building links for your clients, it’s not difficult to find the end of the internet.
Link builder’s block sets in when you’ve made it through all the “quick wins”-- the 404 reclamations, the fresh mentions. Gone are all your crafty keyword combinations and innovative content topics. What’s a link builder to do?
Enter Janusian thinking.
Named after a (literally) two-faced Roman god named Janus, the concept of Janusian thinking emerged in the 1970s after Dr. Albert Rothenberg’s research into the creative process revealed that “the best ideas come from linking things that previously did not seem linkable.” These ideas emerge from an ability to hold contradictory or opposing concepts, images, and ideas in our minds all at once.
The ability to link “things that previously did not seem linkable” is the best antidote to, well, not being able to figure out how to link things. In order to combat link builder’s block, link builders would benefit from understanding practices and processes associated with Janusian thinking.
As the language might suggest, creative link builders are likely already practicing Janusian thinking to some degree. These link builders cultivate practices that allow them to witness the collision of unlike elements, such as thinking in opposites, taking lots of notes, linking away from the desk, crowdsourcing, and interrogating their personal interest in the topic. They use their imaginations to, in the words of designer Paul Rand, “discover new connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection.”
When you experience link builder’s block, all possible connections between your site and a potential target site are “escaping detection.” This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. By implementing these five strategies, you will be able to dust off the connections that are eluding you, and in the mean time pave more inroads for your client across the endless internet.
Think in Opposites
The opening of this article says it all: link builder’s block is a paradox in and of itself. It is the cyber water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. But what about if we were to consider this paradox a blessing, and examine it at its core?
The internet is both small and infinite.
Let’s place this paradox into a thought experiment from the Creativity Post, which defines six steps to using Janusian thinking to solve problems. Follow these steps, and you’ll be in good company: according to this article, this process was used by geniuses such as Louis Pasteur, Mozart, Einstein, and Picasso on their way to creating their breakthrough work.
1. Identify the Paradox
Here, we could look at link builder’s block itself: the paradox of link builder’s block is that though there are a seemingly infinite number of websites on the internet, there’s nothing left that is relevant to your client’s site.
We could also look at a paradox that led to link building innovation: in this article on the Moz Blog, Matthew Barby outlines why he starts with high-quality authors instead of high-quality websites when he builds links. The paradox at the heart of this? There are lots of link opportunities on high-profile sites, but only high-profile individuals have easy access to them.
2. Summarize your Paradox into a Book Title
Placing your paradox into a book title can make it easier to comprehend. In our case, it can be Internet: The End of the Endless or Internet Small and Infinite.
Matthew Barby might have called his paradox You Need to be High-Profile to Become High-Profile.
3. Find an Analogue
In what other situations do we encounter the end to the seemingly endless, or something that seems at once small, yet infinite?
A developer for a chain retailer may find herself wanting to build a new store in order to reach a new market in a town without any vacant retail space or commercially-zoned lots. There’s a lot of undeveloped space in the world, its just that our chain retailer can’t find any that meets her needs.
Or you could think about the night sky. Like the internet, the universe is seemingly endless, yet we can only see so many stars. If you’ve studied enough, you can name all of the constellations twinkling above you.
Matthew Barby’s example brings me to a variation on a cliche: you need to have money to make money. Money begets more money. You may play golf, but it’s not until you have money, power, and social capital that you can golf with those worth golfing with. You get my drift.
4. Identify a Unique Element of the Analogue
This is where we have to identify any unique properties of our “analogue” for our situation.
If we turn back to our hypothetical developer, we can note that a key difference between physical space and cyberspace is that one has been illustrated through a history of decipherable maps, and the other has only been indexed by an algorithm that is difficult to visualize. Our developer can look at a map to determine what towns are nearby that have spaces that could support her store. Her company likely has enough influence to encourage the improvement of roads from the target market to the nearby space.
A unique element of outerspace is that it can be seen more clearly with a telescope.
A unique element of golfing with privileged elites is that they aren’t defined by their privilege alone. They also like to golf. You can befriend them on those terms, and eventually golf where it’s more desirable to golf.
5. Find the Equivalent in Your Situation
The equivalent of a map might be using Pinterest to look at what websites/topics are “near” your own. If you’re building links for a maternity retailer, you can use the source URL on Pinterest to determine what kinds of boards your client’s site lands on, and look to see what other sites are pinned on these boards. Voila! Locations “near” your client’s location!
As for our real life example, the equivalent to befriending privileged elites who golf for reasons besides the fact that they’re privileged elites is befriending writers who already contribute content to high-quality sites because you’re both interested in similar topics. Relationship building. (You can see where this is headed!)
6. Formulate your New Idea
New idea: when faced with link builder’s block, use Pinterest to see what topics are located near your topic. By building links, you are building or improving roads between these topics. Whatever your pinners are interested in, you can be interested in, too.
For Matthew Barby, the new idea was starting with influential authors instead of websites. These authors can write quality content and have access to the sites that you want your links to be on.
Take Notes. All the time. Lots of them.
I’m going to make a broad generalization: creative people are collectors and, to some extent, hoarders. We keep boxes of journals and have Evernote and Pocket and Pinterest. We’re always thinking about the future project. We assume that anything could be useful someday.
Like when we’re stuck with a nasty case of link builder’s block.
If you’re always browsing with your client’s site in the back of your mind, it’s not too difficult to collect future inspiration.I talked briefly about using Pinterest as a map in the previous section, but you can also use it for its intended function-- as an online “vision board.”
Vision boards can be much more than a magazine collage of your ideal dream future. They can be a helpful tool for visualizing topics, desires, and yes, even paradoxes of all shapes and sizes. As a link builder, I like to create a private Pinterest board for each of my clients and pin everything that catches my interest while link prospecting.
Say you’re link prospecting for a site that sells maternity clothing. You see an article on umbilical cord burning rituals, which seems weird because you’ve never heard of it before. You want to know more. Pin it. Later, while building links for another client, you encounter Stan Brakhage’s "Window Water Baby Moving," his experimental film that documents his wife Jane giving birth. Because it is related to birth and also kind of weird and kooky, you pin this, too.
Stumped? Return to this board. Seeing all the related-yet-dissimilar content next to each other can spur ideas about what could be relevant to your website that you didn’t consider. It can also serve as inspiration for resources or other linkable assets on your site, and of course, content creation. You could see the umbilical cord burning next to the clip of the experimental film, and start to think about rituals surrounding birth. What other rituals are there? What kinds of websites are related to these rituals?
If this weren’t hypothetical, I would probably come up with something even more ingenious because I would have the benefit of visualizing a variety of possibilities. Pinterest is an amazing tool for this, but it’s not the only one. Evernote Web Clipper allows you to do what Pinterest’s private boards do, but encourages you to go into more detail. It’s great for taking old-fashioned notes on websites while allowing you to “clip” excerpts of the text.
If you find yourself stuck, you can return back to your notes. Again, just observe them and see what connections arise organically. How can you link the dissimilar items in front of you? This is how relevance is born.
Link Away from Your Desk
Say you’re pushing yourself to find ten potential link prospects in the next hour. You try some pretty new queries, even an updated competitor backlink report. You’ve seen all the results before. Yuck. You keep searching and find maybe three quality sites. Frustrated, you go to lunch, and on your walk you think of THE search query that would have yielded at least ten new target sites. You write this down.
You spend your entire lunch working.
I am totally against working through your breaks. You need them to recharge. But when you hit a wall while link building, sitting there and looking at the wall which is your computer monitor isn’t going to help you find your new strategy.
Get up. Look at something else. Go outside, pick up a leaf, and describe it to yourself in detail. Switching your brain away from the task at hand will help to inspire solutions. Research shows that walking helps, too. This is yet another habit favored by some of the same male geniuses I referred to at the beginning of this piece.
You never know what will make its way into the creative process. In fact, when my therapist gave me the “look at a leaf” exercise, I didn’t immediately think that I would use it in a piece on link building. This article itself came about as a result of taking a walk after reading about Janusian thinking on BrainPickings and creative rituals on 99u.
I was feeling smug because I wanted to write about creativity, not link building. The homophones in the Janusian creativity piece were neat. How can I connect building “links” to building “hyperlinks?” Where are all the ducks?
A piece is born.
Asking your therapist for advice can be helpful, too, especially if your thoughts look like mine. But that leads me to my next point.
By “crowdsourcing,” I don’t mean begging your loved ones and acquaintances for money via Kickstarter so you can buy links. I mean using the crowd-- or your co-workers-- as a source for ideas.
There’s no shame in asking for help. This piece on 99u points out that “modern creatives” always feel on display, which introduces shame to the incubation stage of the creative process. David Burkus recommends involving yourself in a “Creatives Anonymous” sort of allegiance, where you can safely share work at any stage.
Link builders would benefit from a similar strategy. “Link Builders Anonymous,” if you will.
Identify a few link builders that you trust. Ask them: when would they use my client’s site? What angle would they take if you were assigned this client? Run your “bad” ideas by them. A conversation could easily turn into a content topic.
Just like talking with your therapist about your problems can lead you to clarity and solutions by placing your faulty explanations next to other possibilities, talking to another link builder can help you break out of your block.
Make it a habit not to work on an island. You can link with others away from your desk-- go on a brainstorming walk. You both could look at the same leaf and describe it in different ways. A cheap metaphor, I know, but it’s telling. And it helps with our final strategy.
How do I feel?
When link building, it’s easy to consider our mythical, idealized “target audience” above all else. We investigate their wants and needs via Pinterest or backlink reports or following the rabbit hole of links in a blog post. We feel pretty confident about what they’ll like.
Forget them for a second. They don’t exist. You do.
If you’re stuck, consider what would make you interested in your client’s site. In what context would you consider it a valuable resource?
Let’s consider maternity clothes again. You may not have any plans to be pregnant soon, but as a feminist, you are interested in laws pertaining to maternity leave and the rights of pregnant women. You’re interested in feminist motherhood and the commodification of pregnant women’s bodies.
Your interest in related topics just provided you with an array of target site ideas. These women need maternity clothes, too.
If your client is something less flashy, like payday loans, consider when you might be tempted to use one. Has a payday loan seriously saved someone’s life? When? What questions do you have about your client?
I know artists who have budgeting techniques that I would describe as shady, but functional. Artists could be an interesting potential audience for a payday loan link-- you just need a linkable asset that corresponds with this. Locate a list of financial resources for artists. Get a link for your relevant resource.
Momentarily forgetting your target audience may seem counterintuitive, but remember that’s what we’re aiming for here-- embracing paradox in order to yield creative solutions to our link builder’s block.
If you do this along with forming your local chapter of Link Builder’s Anonymous, taking walks, taking notes, and embracing the Creativity Post’s thought experiment, you may never look at link builder’s block the same again.