Hiring a Link Building Agency? Here’s How to Vet Them
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In my recent blog post on the Best Apps for Brand Building, Partnership Sourcing and Link Acquisition, I discussed the ways that working with a link building agency can benefit your overall search strategy and give your organic search performance a real boost.
But for this strategy to work, you need to build high quality and well-deserving backlinks. This is no small task. Establishing quality partnerships with influencers who will link back to your site takes some major investment via research and relationship-building. Unless you have the resources for an in-house business development team, the best way to do this is to work with a link building agency.
If you decide to go this route, you want to be careful. There are a lot of shady agencies that will take your money and then use Black Hat practices. These practices may boost your SEO in the short term, but they could also cause Google to flag you and end up hurting your rankings, permanently. To avoid this, I recommend that you vet a link building agency before you sign on with them.
Here are my tips on how to evaluate whether a link building agency is good or bad:
Step 1 – Understand the ethics of it
Link building is a gray area. Google doesn’t really want companies paying for links. But there are ways to do it that will keep you in Google's good graces. You absolutely want to make sure you are working with agencies who know where the line is and won't cross it. Issues will come up if you hire a cheap agency that spams your link to non-relevant sites. That's where you can get in trouble.
If this happens, the worst case scenario is that you'll end up spending ten times what those links cost you to have them removed.
You could get penalized by Google if they find out you are doing shady shit. For example, in 2011 JC Penney disappeared from search engines for a while because The New York Times uncovered they were doing shady link building. If Google finds out about shady practices, you then have to go back and remove those links, which takes more time and more money. And if you originally signed on with a shady link building agency, they may may try to extort you, and say "Pay us $500 each to remove those links." Trust me, you don't want to go down that road.
Step 2 – Do your research
Start with a Google search! If you plug in “top ten SEO link-building agencies” you will get a series of articles that have reviewed different agencies for you. And yes, Google has evaluated those articles so you should be getting the best, most relevant information in the first ten links. I thought The 10 Best Link Building Services & Backlink Building Packages 2019 was a great read. And if you are too lazy to do your own Google search, you could just start with that article. Be sure to read through the descriptions of each company, and look at reviews. From there, I recommend picking five agencies you want to talk to.
Step 3 – Check prices
Once you have your list of five agencies you want to talk to, start reaching out to them to set up meetings. While you wait for them to get back to you, look at their pricing. Is it too expensive, or too cheap? If you go on the cheaper side you could end up in trouble – the shadier agencies are more likely to try and lure you in with low prices. On average, most agencies charge about $250-300 US per link. On the high side it can go up to $3,000-5,000 US per link for white glove or concierge-type services. Agencies in that higher category often have agreements with journalists and editors at well-known publications with a very wide reach, so those high prices do get you a lot more.
Step 4 – Ask the right questions
Before you go full steam ahead on link building, commit to talking to every agency on your list. Ask them about how they approach link building. There are generally two methods for link building: blogger outreach and private blog networks. Outreach will be very valuable to your company, so you will likely want to work with an agency that offers that service. Private blog networks are a bit trickier, there are good ones and bad ones. The bad ones may have 50 sites that are all hosted in the same server has the same IP address, which looks suspicious to Google. Having a link to your site from a blog that has no specialty is also a red flag. On the other hand, private blog networks work well when they contain contextually relevant sites with real categories (travel, food, fashion, etc.) and spread across different IP addresses.
If a company gives you a 100% guarantee be very careful. When it comes to partnerships and relationship-building, nothing is a guarantee. But if they are using a bad private blog network, they will feel very confident giving you that 100% guarantee. You will definitely want them to do customized outreach, so be sure to ask about that. Ask about trial periods. Some agencies will do trial periods for up to three to six months. It's a good sign if they give you a good trial period, or don't require a contract. It means they are confident in their abilities to deliver quality results.
Step 5 – Understand domain authority
When you are interviewing agencies, you will want to ask them about the domain authority of the sites they are linking from. Domain authority (DA) is a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how well a website will rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). Generally speaking, sites with a very large number of high-quality external links (such as Wikipedia or Google.com) are at the top end of the Domain Authority scale, whereas small businesses and websites with fewer inbound links may have a much lower DA score. DA is best used as a comparative metric (rather than an absolute, concrete score) when doing research in the search results and determining which sites may have more powerful/important link profiles than others.
You want links from sites that have a high DA, real traffic, and real engagement. People on that site may not click on your link, but just having your link there gives you more credibility from search engines. Link building on sites with a high DA means you are less likely to be caught and penalized. When the agency gives you numbers, look for sites with a DA of at least 30. For reference, sites like Forbes and Huffington Post are usually 70-80 or higher. And yes, you can expect to pay more for links on sites with high DA. Once you talk to an agency, you can use Moz Link Explorer to check the DA and quality of the sites they use.
There you have it, those are my tips for finding a good link building agency. The important thing is understanding what to look out for. I hope the information I've outlined here will give you the tools you need to find an excellent agency that can help you meet your goals.
Have you worked with a link building agency before? Was it a good experience or bad experience? Let me know in the comments!
If you want to discuss a partnership and link building strategy, or SEO in general, please send me a message.