Debra Mastaler of Alliance Link, a link building expert was kind enough to be our interviewee today. Personally, I think Debra brings an air of class, dignity and professionalism to her trade that is worthy to be commended. She also gets results- thus I wanted to pick her brain.

So without further ado,

How did you get started in link building?

In 1998 I started an organic foods directory as a hobby site, it did very well and by early 2000 companies on the Directory were asking me to help them market and SEO their sites. Since I had no idea what SEO was, I started researching the topic and met Jill Whalen as a result. She patiently explained the way I was using links was something called SEO link building. I worked for her for a period of time before launching Alliance-Link in late 2000.

If I was training to be a doctor, there would be a clear cut educational path for me to follow- go to college, major in this, go to medical school, take these courses, do this residency etc… With link building/internet marketing there is no such established path. You are a highly experienced link builder with a great reputation. If you were to set a “formalized path” for a link builder in training, what advice would you give them? What books to read? What experiences to have? What authors to follow? Any foundational posts from around the internet that standout to you?

I don’t know of any Associate or Bachelor  degree programs  but there are a number of Internet Marketing certificate programs as well as individual classes in the Business and Sociology curriculums from accredited colleges.  So while there might not be a formal path right now, I can see one coming in the near future.

In the meantime, if you’re serious about wanting to work in link marketing or SEO in general, I’d recommend finding a well established firm to intern with while going through a training program like SEOBook.   From there I’d follow the link building articles written on Search Engine Land,  Search Engine Journal and Search Engine Watch, there is no shortage of great information on any of these venues.

As for books,    I don’t read or follow a lot of so called “Internet marketing gurus”,  don’t think they’re sharing anything new and I’m easily bored by purple cows and talk of Facebook.  Instead I focus on listening to computer science/IT  investors like Jaron Lanier (his  latest book is awesome)  Ester Dyson and Jim Hendler because  these people make me think.  What they lecture on is based on the technology  and economics behind the  Internet both of which are key to understanding what happens on the Web and how to be successful in link building.

From a marketing perspective I draw on the classics for inspiration and keep copies of books by Ted Levitt, David Ogilvy and James Young on my desk (literally). I also like Robert Solomon’s “The Art Of Client Service” and Tamar Weinberg’s “The New Community Rules” for their practical viewpoints. I am of the opinion link building is more about marketing and less about HTML so I tend to focus my reading and book recommendations on marketing and computer science books.

How do you judge a successful link building campaign?

A happy client :)  The key to success is pretty simple really – you have to establish goals and meet them. Anything less is failure and anything more is gravy.

Without giving away too much, what are some of your favorite tools to use, or places to go fishing for new ideas/relationships when you take on a new link building client?

When I need to use tools, I use the SEOBook line and of those, I use the Hub Finder the most. I also use the Yahoo! Site Explorer, SoloSEO‘s utility link tool and Michael Van DeMar’s Bad Neighborhood tool.  I have about six different alerts services going at all times, for client work I stick with the private tools but for general searches I go with Google Alerts.  It’s free and a very good service.

I spend a lot of time on Topix looking for leads as well as general directories such as BOTW and the Librarian’s Index and I’m a firm believer in buying media lists. I’ve gotten away from using standard press release submission services and now focus almost exclusively on the niche wire services. The bigger the Web/Net gets the more important it is to segment.

Link building these days is less about how you link and more about where.

What’s your advice regarding using tools for SEO (the tools that automate the development of links etc), or one of the many services where you pay $50 for 50,000 links?

There are a lot of different way to build links but the way I work doesn’t require tools outside the discovery process so I have little experience with tools other than those I mentioned earlier. I do however, have a strong opinion about services promising 50000 links for $50 and recommend webmasters avoid them. I have no idea how anyone could secure a huge number of links unless they own the networks they’re on , are buying or hijacking them. That’s a big and easy trail for an engine to follow so I’d steer clear.

The other point here is even simpler – you get what you pay for. Paying $50 for 50000 links means you’re going to get a pile of crap which again – won’t work for the long term and can potentially bring unwanted attention to your pages. Who needs that?

Most valuable link in your opinion and why? (A) High PR link on some crusty old website; (B) 200 anchor text links from a website with the homepage of PR0; (C) A handful of links on topically relevant albeit obscure websites; (D) two or three links that actually bring waves of traffic to your site?

I’m going to eliminate C from the mix right off because I believe what I said about the “where ” being one of, if not the most important aspect of linking these days. Doesn’t matter the page is on topic, if a search engine ranks that page #130 it’s doing so because it doesn’t have any weight. So C is out because of the obscurity issue.

I still think anchor text is the most influential component of link popularity but I love- love-love links which drive a ton of traffic because we adapt the PPC model of landing pages and turn that traffic into link partners. So… I’ll also eliminate A since you’ve written it as a single link and say it’s a tie between B and D.

But! I will say this about B. Dropping 200 anchor text links is waaaaay too many for a single link campaign. It’s way too many for a multiple link campaign so it’s best to forget about securing large numbers of preset anchors when you link. I’ve always been less concerned about how many links I’m getting as I am about what they say. If I implement a lot of campaigns at the same time in different areas ( publicity, promotions, and sales) and stagger my anchors, link acquisition looks normal because I’ve balanced the elements which affect link popularity. Here’s a very basic example:

You have a new product and want to use it to build links. Before going public, you do a soft launch to your customers with an invitation to link and incentive (sales.) You then run a national contest (promotions) and announce it via press release (publicity). You also send a release announcing the winner.

While the first part s is going on, you instruct your copywriters to create a humorous piece of link bait which is launched on Digg and a handful of other social media sites (promotions). The linkbait has a tie-in to the contest. (promotions) A blogger outreach program begins and offers free samples of the new product and an invite to review or send rate cards with advertising opportunities (promotions). Once the reviews come in, bundle them, and send release showcasing the successful launch. (publicity).

Based on the success of the launch, have sales and copywriting staff write a case study/white paper referencing the process, reviews and customer feedback. Offer white paper to key journalists before going public, (publicity) and then add the paper to any content source that will take it (promotions).

And so on. By the time this link cycle is complete, you will have touched on almost every facet of marketing without having to purchase a single link or having any one of the tactics stand out. Balance is key.

Debra, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom! Blessings on your company!

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I am still on the interview kick, so today I have a local marketing expert, Eric Covino to answer some questions about local business marketing.

Eric, you recently wrote about how Search for Local Businesses is going to be large in 2010. How would a small business know if SEO/PPC/Social Media Marketing would be successful for their niche without dumping a lot of time and money into it?

Thanks for having me today Zach. It is difficult to make broad statements about local marketing and small businesses. Location matters, size of the market matters, whether it’s B2C or B2B matters, etc.

There are a few things local businesses can do to check out the landscape of their marketplace. For example, a local car dealership in my area has a survey at the end of every sale which asks what radio stations the buyer listens to, what newspapers they read, do they use Google, Microsoft or Yahoo to search, do they use Twitter/Facebook/Myspace. This is a great thing to do with new (and past/current customers) because each local area of the country can be so different.

So they can attack on a couple fronts. For SEO and PPC what they’d want to do is set up a PPC campaign (well 2 of them) to target non-geo specific keywords like “used cars” while targeting that to their market radius (20 miles around whatever town/city) and a second campaign with no radius targeting but using local keywords like “town/city used cars”. This way they can tell if there is any broad based search volume or if the market uses location specific keyword modifiers, which can make a huge difference in PPC pricing. Local search volume is usually much less than broadly searched terms so establishing an SEO campaign early on, without the PPC data is pretty fruitless outside of making sure you show up for branded queries. Also, don’t forget to bid on your local competitors names because lots of local companies do not have a web presence of their own so why not take their business too :) .

Google’s local business center also gives impression data for how many times the map listing showed up so that is another good data point to consider before starting an SEO campaign.

A second front is the social media area. Twitter has not worked out well in local markets in my experience. This can differ by location though, perhaps operating in a larger city market would produce more users of Twitter thus making it more worthwhile to utilize. I tend to see more success with Facebook. Facebook has the ability to spread much faster amongst a user base than MySpace and it is much easier to interact + create custom stuff (hello Facebook only coupons!) on Facebook than MySpace. Again, surveying customers is a great way to nail down which one is the better choice or if both are. Although some local business owners do not have the time or resources to be heavily involved in both.

Most local clicks are cheap so maybe budget $500 for a local campaign to determine search volume, searcher intent, etc. It’s free to survey new customers and probably pretty cheap to reach out to past or existing customers so I don’t think they have to break the bank to determine if any of these measures are right for them.

You have a good reputation for driving leads to local businesses through marketing on the internet, without giving too much away, can you talk a bit about your approach…

It really isn’t that complex. It just requires a competent marketer and a client willing to listen and be patient.

We have all sorts of different packages for small businesses encompassing design, custom development, SEO, PPC, social media etc. The lead generation stuff usually starts off with the PPC side of the house. Giving the SEO campaign time to gain traction as well as the social media rollout. We also do stuff with offline marketing. The key is tracking. You can set up cheap numbers for different campaigns through places like phone.com or create custom url’s and track them through your analytics program(s).

We like to try a flurry of things at once to get lots of exposure and to generate buzz online and offline. Again, it is really just about tracking, creating specific phone numbers, landing pages, and/or url’s to track the leads.

Agreeing on the lead price differs across different markets and generally we do something like a per lead cost in additional to managing the marketing campaign(s).

PPC encompasses all the paid search options with the search engines as well as Facebook and MySpace ads when appropriate. It’s really just a case of setting up your tracking system (this is crucial) and your analytics program on the web side plus buying ads in places where your potential customers might be (within reason of course). Most local businesses, in my experience, tend to have better success with the paid options in Bing, AdWords, Facebook, and in buying cheap space on other relevant local sites.

Twitter and Facebook are all the rage as the “new” places to market. What is your feedback for local businesses who want to try out these marketing avenues?

Make sure you have the resources to keep it current. No one likes a stale Twitter or Facebook page. I find Facebook to be far superior to local businesses because you have lots of options with custom apps and your page can spread pretty quickly. Driving traffic there is pretty easy too (from your homepage or from your actual office) with things like “Facebook Friend Only Coupons” and things of that nature.

I would say try to post at least once every couple of days, even if it is just a brief summary of a new product, new hours, a new employee, a blog post, etc. Much like everything else you have to give people a reason to stick around. Coupons and special deals are *huge*.

If you can’t allocate resources to both then go with Facebook. It offers so much more in terms of engagement, which is really what you are shooting for at the beginning.

I know that you used to be in insurance, and have worked with a lot of realtors as well. If you were an insurance salesman, or a realtor today where would internet marketing play into your repertoire today? If you were an insurance guy or a realtor who was trying to market themselves on the internet today, what would you do?

It would be right at the top of my list with community involvement and local business partnerships. Many local businesses, specifically insurance and real estate agents, are seriously lacking in a strong web presence. Home/Services/Hours/Contact Us just doesn’t cut it anymore.

You have to find ways to engage customers and find new ones. Insurance agents can use email marketing to cross sell and keep in touch with current clients, to survey new clients, and to send out special offers to clients throughout the year (refer a friend programs and things like that). They can use videos to briefly discuss specific coverage options. Most of them can use an iframe on their site and offer live quotes through whatever quoting engine their office uses. They can use PayPal or link directly to insurance company pages for bill paying purposes. They can partner with a developer to tie in their site with their CRM to offer client basic login privileges. GEICO just released an iPhone app to help with reporting a claim (capturing info and pictures).

Real estate agents can use the same types of things for different reasons. Email marketing to stay in front of past customers, custom video tours instead of those ugly powerpoint slideshows with elevator music, tie in with the MLS system to allow for searching on their site, etc.

Both can use PPC traffic to gain additional lead sources and create social media sites to further engage their audience.

By nature, most small businesses are run hands-on by the owners so doing all this may be a bit difficult which is why they need to hire a company to do it for them. It shouldn’t be cost prohibitive as competition for PPC and SEO is usually pretty weak in local markets.

Looking a couple years down the road, how much do you see the growth of Google local, Yelp, mobile internet and avenues like Facebook influencing the way people find information about local businesses.

I am shifting a big part of my overall strategy to local stuff. I think local is where a lot of the opportunity is going to be going forward. Having your business show up across the board on local searches (google, bing, yelp, yellowpages, mobile stuff, facebook, etc) is going to be really important as the mobile generation continues to age and become mainstream consumers. As the web becomes more segmented with more socially integrated applications and sites it is going to be very important for local businesses to make sure they have the ability to be found by consumers across a broad, broad range of search methods.

For businesses that do it now, they will be at significant competitive advantage over their competitors who will be trying to play catch up 1-3 years from now.

Google has been showing local ads for non-local searches for awhile now. To me, that hints to the point that they have received feedback or have data showing search is trending more towards local stuff.

As an example, a local insurance agent can’t compete with GEICO or Progressive in broad paid search but they can win in the organic results with good SEO and they should be listed in Google/Bing local as well. Most are not, but the ones that are usually do pretty well. One would think that a local listing might hold a bit more weight on a keyword which is using local modifiers.

4 books/blogs/sites etc that you think are on point as far as learning about marketing trends/seo and whatnot…

SeoBook.Com

Any Guerilla Marketing Book (the more recent ones like Guerilla Marketing on the Internet)

The Art of Pricing by Rafi Mohammed

Seth Godin.Typepad.Com (and all his books)

Thanks Eric for your time today! If anyone is looking for a local marketing expert in the New England region, Eric is your man. He is currently rebranding his site, so in the mean time, feel free to contact him at covinoeric AT mac.com

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