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Show Me The Links 2.2: Live Q&A - Your Questions Answered




Julie Joyce: Hi, everybody. Welcome to the next episode of the SEMrush webinar series, Show Me The Links. I am your host, Julie Joyce from Link Fish Media. And we're on season two right now, which is an ask us anything. Today, I have two good friends as guests, Paul Madden from Kerboo and Gisele Navarro from NeoMam.

Paul, do you want to introduce yourself since Gisele is a pro on our webinars. We haven't seen you yet, even though I have asked before.

Paul Madden: Okay, my name's Paul Madden. I am the founder of, or co-founder of a tool called Kerboo, which is an intelligence platform. We let people look after their link profiles, improve them, protect them, and make them better.

My history previous to that was, and why I know Julie is that I was in the link placement game. I was in the paid link placement game for a long time, which is how you end up with a tool to clean up the mess that you made in the first place. I tended to be in a higher volume category than Julie was.

And then before that, I was in the generic spam game. I've got a bit of a checkered past, but we've cleaned it all up now and we're now looking after people rather than causing issues.

Julie Joyce: That's awesome. We have tons of questions about disavow, and bad links, and stuff like that. Appreciate you being here. And Gisele, do you want to do an introduction?

Gisele Navarro: Yes. I am Gisele. I am the operations director at an agency called NeoMam Studios. We build links with content, so that's what I'm specialized in. Yeah, I like to build links.

Is Link Building Harder Than Ever?

Julie Joyce: Well, you build some great ones from what I've seen. My first question is do you think getting good links has gotten harder in the last couple of years because there are so many people just creating tons of content, emailing you 50 times a day? Has it gotten harder in your opinion, Gisele?

Gisele Navarro: Yes. I mean, that's why it's still a ranking factor. And it was always was hard, now it's harder depending on what you're doing. You could try to make it easier. If you pay for links, you still have to be super smart about it. And it's way harder than it was five years ago paying for links.

And if you're creating content for links, it's particularly hard because you're constantly competing not only against other teams creating content for links but also the content that journalists and publishers are creating themselves.

If you're pitching something, it has to be better than whatever they've got. It has to be something that they see value in. It's not just about your competitors, their competitors, your business creating content anymore; it's about anybody else creating content and pitching to the same publications that you're pitching to.

You have PR teams, you have SEO teams, you have brand teams, a lot of competition. In that sense, it got harder, but if you're doing a good job there's a lot of noise you can cut through with good content. In that sense, maybe it's as hard as it's always been if you have really high standards.

Paul Madden: I think the definition of what a good link is has changed significantly over the last few years. I think that we used to define what a good link was by metrics by which the site or the page in question had.

I think nowadays you have got to think more about whether the link is actually going to count to start off with, and if the link is going to count, what it's going to count for and why. Actually going after those links that actually matter is a much more technical job than it has ever been.

We did some stats with our data sets late last year to try and work out what we thought was actually counting nowadays. And it was a slightly depressing thing for anybody who's been involved in links for quite a long time.

The way that we looked at it was we said, "Okay, well, how many of those links that we place on a typical profile has actually likely to pass on the value. And off the bat, 54% of links in our dataset, and our dataset is 15 billion links or something like that now... 54% of those links were either nofollow when we called them or were part of the existing site’s disavow activity.

I mean, our dataset will be slightly skewed towards those that disavowed because that's what we've done traditionally. But more than half of your links are in the “no value passing” whatsoever category. It becomes much easier for you to start to realize why links have become less reliable. Yeah, good links are hard to come by nowadays.

Julie Joyce: Now, another question I have, do you think that good links have an immediate impact on rankings? And I would ask the same question about bad links. And I'm sure you guys both know sometimes you can get crappy links and they still help.

Paul Madden: A crappy link that helps is not a crappy link, though, is it? That's a good link.

Julie Joyce: Do you think that either one of these, if you got a bunch of really good links, would they make your rankings move up quickly? How long does it take, do you know?

Paul Madden: I tend to think about links having an effect at the point that they're crawled. So in line with the crawl, links will have the effect that they have. And that effect will persist for the time that a link is in existence.

And sometimes, I think that bad links can have a suppressive effect. I've seen that on multiple occasions. I think often we'll see a link that we've really been proud of winning not have the type of effect that we want it to have.

You get something that you're very proud of, you put it in the client report, and then the client says, "Well, what did it do to our rankings?" And you're like, "Well, it'll start next week."

And I think this whole matter-of-fact is why that would be because links are just part of a much more diverse mix than they've ever been. It used to be the case that you got a great link and things would move. And nowadays, it's more about the effect of things slowly over time.

Julie Joyce: Right. Gisele, is that what you're seeing?

Gisele Navarro: For me, it's different because the way we specialize in building the links and then we work with in-house SEO teams. All of our clients are the technical side of things. I don't really get access to the analytics or anything, to see traffic spikes.  

I do stalk them a lot using tools that I have, like SEMrush just to check what's going on. What I would say is the biggest impact we've seen has been on domains that are competing against other sites in niches where these big links that we build are nonexistent.

If you can spend the time that it takes to create the content that you're required to get big links from media sites and you're in a niche where nobody else is doing that, that's it. Just go try it, do it, because it is well worth it and you will see a return right away.

Now, in other cases where you're competing against 10, 15 brands who are doing the exact same thing, yeah, it's going to be slower. And probably it's not going to be just about getting that one link, it's about getting it on a regular basis and expanding that link profile. So not just getting one link a week from the same newspaper.

It depends on where you are at, but if you're in a niche where that's not common, then definitely you're going to see an improvement very quickly.

Paul Madden: I think that's true, as well, that as Gisele said, it's very niche-dependent.

What to do About Low-Quality Backlinks?

Julie Joyce: Somebody asked in the chat should you try to clean up bad links or just move straight to disavow, since that's your thing, Paul. Do you want to take that?

Paul Madden: I think trying to get them cleaned up is 2012's game, not 2019's game. The effort of trying to get them cleaned up is really not of any really efficient value. I think if you just disavow them, it has the effect of turning them off and turning them back on. And that's fine. I think people in many cases disavow too much, though.

Julie Joyce: If somebody does not have a manual action or really a link problem, would you recommend that they try to disavow?

Paul Madden: Back in 2018, or maybe 2017, Gary from Google said that in his opinion he wouldn't disavow links unless you already had a manual action. And for me, that's the same as saying I wouldn't buy a fire extinguisher unless my house is already on fire.

It's a protective thing. It's something that protects you from the problem, not necessarily saves you from the problem when the problem arrives. I think knowing what's in your link profile and understanding, one, what you need to get rid of if there signs of intent that Google may dislike. I think that is important as a protective measure.

I think also if you do the audit to understand your links, I think it's really important to understand what is actually counting and what is left.? The act of producing a disavow file has a load of positive benefits over and above just producing that text file to be produced.

Qualifying Websites for Link Outreach

Julie Joyce: Okay. All right, both of you can answer this, I'm sure. Are there specific types of sites that you would not recommend reaching out to?

Gisele Navarro: Well, to me, something very simple is sites that don't have a real person on the other side. Which in most cases belong to a network or are just low-quality scrapers.

If you spend any time on a website and you can't, for the love of you, find out who is behind it, you waste your time. You're going to waste your time trying to find contact details, as well. And eventually, you might find them, but do you really want a link?

Regardless of whether it has a domain rating of whatever or DA of whatever, I think any site that you can't pinpoint to a specific person, or a specific team, or a specific company that is behind it, that's a site you want to run away from.

I personally don't even bother with blogs that have a page about PR opportunities or things like that because in most cases they're going to ask for money in exchange of sharing our content.

I avoid any site that has an inch of a hint anywhere that they're going to have a sponsored post. I look at every site I pitch to. Aside from newspapers, and journalists, and all that, we do pitch to blogs and just general sites. But we don't do it without looking at the website.

Check out the website. Is it a good website? You will know. Would you spend any time in it? If it's a blog, are there any comments or is it just a blog that publishes five, 10 articles a day and nobody's commenting on them? That's obviously their pull, is selling links. It's not even a real site.

Paul Madden: Those sites that I think are bad, like Gisele said, they tend to be sites that are drifting on the internet without necessarily anybody at the wheel. They're scrapers, they're directories, they're listings of some description. There is no person identifiable behind it.

Julie Joyce: Stacy had asked about potential prospect sites, so make sure I read this properly to you. If you don't see that the site has a blog, or a media news PR page, and also not a resource page, should you still approach them? And what would you try to do to get a link from somebody like that?

Gisele Navarro: Unless it's some local opportunity of just getting with the local business, and doing something together, I really wouldn't... If you're looking at a website and are wondering, "I wonder where they could put a link." Just move on.

I always say to my team if you find yourself 10, 15 minutes on a website and you can't, for the love of you, find a contact, or a person, or where the link would go, move on. It doesn't mean you're going to forget that site. Leave it on your sheet if you want and then you can come back with a free mind and try again. But don't spend two hours trying to figure out where you're going to put a link because then you end up with a list that is just a hopeful list.

Monitoring and Tracking Your Links

Julie Joyce: Somebody asked in this chat how do you track your links to see when they go live? For me, I'm reaching out. If they give me a link, they tell me, but when you're doing massive outreach or you're just hoping people are going to link to you, how do you figure out when they've actually put the link up

Gisele Navarro: Three times a week we just go search. We go fish. We use Majestic,      we use Buzzsumo backlinks. The best tool that I have is Google. Searching inside of Google and filtering by last week, last hour, last 24 hours, searching inside of Google News.

And then also inside of Bing because there are things that Bing crawls way faster than Google. It's a combination of tools and then different search engines. And searching inside of the web and searching inside of an image, if it's images. Also, searching in news. It's a pain. It's an absolute pain.

Julie Joyce: Yeah, there's no easy way, it seems.

Gisele Navarro: No, not really. Maybe at some point, we're going to build a tool internally for us to be able to do that. At the moment, as a team, we balance the load. We help each other. We have a spreadsheet that is called Trackers and we keep tabs for every company we have open. And we're constantly updating that.

Julie Joyce: Okay, another submitted question. What is the current thinking regarding doing good link building in general versus doing link building surrounding specific keywords?

Paul Madden: Do you mean in terms of anchor text?

Julie Joyce: Yes.

Paul Madden: Okay. I think anchor text is still a very powerful signal to tell Google what the page linking to you is.

I think anchor text is really still very important in terms of telling Google what the link is about if Google is not able to see it. Although it's very good for that, it's also a huge signal of intent.

You can see when you look at sites that have had link related problems, often you can look at the anchor text mix as being a very good indication of the intent behind how they got themselves into trouble. We've had sites before where if they've planned out their anchor text mix in a spreadsheet before they started link building, they couldn't have done it any more obvious.

And that tends to be a way of getting yourself into problems. But I think asking for anchor text where the anchor text is possible is still a hugely powerful thing, it's just something you've gotta be really careful about.

Building Links for Image Assets

Julie Joyce: Jennifer, had a question for Gisele about image link building. If you could speak a little bit more about that, what you had mentioned.

Gisele Navarro: The content we produce, it's always in a visual format. And in most cases, it's going to be static images or animated GIFs, or video. There is some interactive, but we always try to have some static image asset. Even if it's interactives, we always have additional static images. We come up with ideas that we know will be produced in a visual format and we pitch images.

Now, in addition to that, you can do other things. There are people who take photos, like stock photography for Flickr and platforms like Flickr. And they make them available in creative commons as long as the credit comes with a link back to the source.

You create the assets, you put them on your site somewhere, and then you try to get anybody who uses them to link back to you because you are the source of those images. That is a big thing you can do with images if you don't want to create this amazing content.

But let's say you are a coffee shop and you grind your own coffee, and you have a nice camera. Just do a few little photoshoots around coffee, and around beans, and around grinding, and around coffee mugs, and coffee art, and things like that. And then you make them available on your site.

See what sites are sharing those type of images, create an account there, upload those images, and be very specific about how do you want them to credit back to you.

That's a low-cost way of trying to build links with images. You wouldn't be pitching them necessarily. You could if you do something about coffee and then you run into blogs that are about coffee. You can just let them know, "Hey, we made a set of images available."  You could do that as a way of building links with images that is not the hardcore stuff that we do.

Link Building and Content Collaboration

Julie Joyce: Okay, a question from Travis. Now, this is a complex question. What does the practice of creating newsworthy or link worthy content look like in the context of agency and client collaboration? Do most clients require some direction in creating the content or what?

Gisele Navarro: Yeah. We have transitioned from a place where I think many agencies are, where the client comes and says, "I want a piece of content about this," and they want to get links with it, and I want to, if possible, add this little sales thing in it.

And we worked like that for some time, but now we are at the point where we just do everything and we are very clear with our clients that we have to come up with the idea and we need the freedom to do that. We are going to come up with ideas that are relevant to their business, and we're going to run them past them, and all that, but we are not a design agency or something like that, where they come and say, "Make me this and also get me some links with it."

The way that we work best is like that. It’s just having very good conversations with our clients to understand the SEO strategy, and understand their business, spend a lot of time on their site to try to identify the opportunities that there are within the publishing sectors online to place links.

And what we will try to do is we'll try for the piece of content to be aligned with our client to the point where if we are pitching to a journalist, the journalist will not be wondering is this piece of content connected to this company.

But as a team, trying to get to that point where you are not brainstorming with your client. Because what happens when you brainstorm with your client is you might have somebody from the marketing team trying to push something, and somebody from the social media team saying, "You could also make a social media competition out of it." And then you have the SEO team saying, "But we have these keywords," and the CEO comes over and says, "I like interactives."

I would say do your research first, and understanding what's important to your client, and then working on your own to come up with the best idea that you can, that is aligned to their site and to their objectives, but also will get links.

Google Link Penalties

Julie Joyce: Somebody says when they reach out to bloggers, they're constantly told that the bloggers won't give them a followed link because they might get a Google penalty. And that's funny to me because I've had people say that. It's illegal for me to give you a link, or Google's going to get me if I link out. I can't link out to anybody. Have you ever seen any instances where a site actually got penalized for no following links?

Paul Madden: I was in a meeting with some guys who were doing advertorials. It was their main business on the day when Google slapped everybody for advertorials. So yeah, their business dissolved during the meeting.

I think it's true that Google can slap you for linking out excessively or incorrectly. It tends to be very rare for them to do so. They tend to try and do more of that through fear and education.

There have been times when I've been in the link building game and Google have gone to a particular niche and given a message to somebody. And that niche is gone wild in the Facebook groups or something else, to say, "We can't do this anymore and everything's now going to be no-followed."

Yeah, it tends to be a fear thing in most cases, whether Google actually acts against it tends to be very rare, if at all.

Julie Joyce: That leads into a question Ariel had submitted, can Google detect when you've paid for a link?

Paul Madden: Most paid links are what I would call algorithmically difficult to detect. Where a link has been paid for, the main signal that a link has been paid for is they have a page on their site saying you can buy a link from us.

If they put a page on their site that says, "Here are the prices of the links," that tends to be a fairly good signal that they take paid links. And that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get in trouble. But yeah, I think it is very difficult for Google to spot whether a link has been paid for specifically.

They tend to be very good at understanding whether there is intent to manipulate their search results in that link. And that might be because it's paid, it might be because it's targeted anchor text in the commercial term. It might be because of where it is and why it is there. And intent is a really easy thing for them to spot.

Julie Joyce: What is the process to identify problematic links and can you just go by numbers?

Paul Madden: You can't just go by numbers because it's extremely contextual. The way that we try and work is we train our staff to look at the Google link schemes page to understand the intent behind the link. If there is intent behind a link, then we would consider it potentially problematic.

But again, you have to be careful about where you draw that line because a lot of sites only have links with intent. You can end up giving yourself the penalty, effectively, by removing all the links in that audit process. But where there's intent we tend to try and negate those in some way or at least be aware of them. Where the site is unlikely to pass any value whatsoever because it is such poor quality.

We tend to negate those, as well. That tends to leave you in our stats with about 15% of the links left, typically. And that's really where people need to concentrate their time, in making sure that they grow and protect the rest of the stuff, the legacy links that are in the 86% or the 85% that you've looked at and decided are probably not great. And you need to just take the view that they aren't necessarily going to be doing you any good anyway and move on from there.

Julie Joyce: How long is the recovery process from disavowing links? I mean, are you ever involved with people and you know when things have gotten better?

Paul Madden: If you're doing stuff that is just irrelevant and is actually from sites that have a valid reason for existing, tends to be fairly short. You tend to see most impact within 10 to 14 days, really. In 10 to 14, days, you'll see most things happen.

Julie Joyce: That's cool. Are people still getting any manual link penalties?

Paul Madden: People are still getting manual actions, yeah. They're not as prevalent as they used to be, by any means. Most of the people that we talk to and train nowadays, our conversations are more about understanding your link profile and understanding what is left after Google had gone through your disavow file, but also gone through and ignored anything that they think is problematic.

Understanding what you've got left is really the game nowadays. And getting a disavow file to protect you against manual action's just a subset of that task, really.

Spammy Links and Disavowing Links

Julie Joyce: Right. Well, along those lines, Gisele, I wondered this before about when you do content. And do you ever get any really spammy sites that pick it up? I've seen the great links you've built, obviously, but do you ever get any really poor quality sites that somehow pick it up and link to you?

Gisele Navarro: Yeah, there's lots of scrapers. Most cases, they are domains that will end up being parked, or there are scrapers. They're just trying to build up some domain and authority to set aside, or things like that. They are links that disappear probably within a year, if not way less. Sometimes within a month.

We do keep track of them and within a month of being launched in a campaign many of those are going to not exist anymore and their pages are 404ing. We do share everything with our clients so if they want to disavow, for example, their teams can do that.

We do that because it's the internet, right? If you get a campaign or piece of content out there and it goes really, really big, you're going to get lots of really great links that you love.

And then you're going to get lots of great links that maybe are in different countries, and you never thought about them. But they are relevant to the content, so they are probably relevant to you if you thought of a good idea that's relevant to your business.

You're also going to get lots of our things, forums, people in forums sharing things, a lot of social media activity. And in the middle of all that, there will also be, scrapers or whatever.

I think the problem is when every piece of content you produce that's the only thing you get. They probably are doing something weird or somebody's scraping your blog. We have even that with some of our clients. They're big, big old signs and they have lots of scrapers that are constantly just scraping their sites.

I'm guessing that in that case, probably they disavow things. But I wouldn't know, because again, we are paid to build them. If the clients want to take them down, or whatever, they can just do that themselves.

Julie Joyce: Okay. Well, we need to wrap it up, I will actually turn it over to you, Paul, and ask would you recommend in cases like that where you get scrapers picking up some content. What do you think about disavowing those?

Paul Madden: I think if they are pure scrapers, they're good to know. There's no harm in disavowing them, but I don't necessarily think that they are going to cause you a significant problem. Where it is forum chatter, I think Google has a problem in understanding forum chatter as being whether there's intent behind it or not.

I tend to advise people to be very careful about what they're disavowing in forum discussion. And to be a bit more strict with forums than perhaps we would want to be.

But I think a lot of the time, it's important to know what's appearing as a result of any activity that you're doing, good and bad. And then making good decisions about taking a safe route as a result of seeing stuff appear. As long as you take the safe route, you're always going to be okay.

Julie Joyce: Good answer. Well, we will end and I'd like to thank you all for joining us. Thanks, everybody for the submitted questions.

Gisele Navarro: Thank you.

Paul Madden: Thank you.

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