Interview with Debra Mastaler – Link Building Expert

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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