Link Building Case Study – InLinks Dixon Jones served as Marketing Director for Majestic from 2009 – 2018 before his retirement and transition into Global Brand Ambassador for Majestic. As a lifelong entrepreneur, it surprised very few in the industry when he became CEO of InLinks, a platform which aims to turbo charge your onsite SEO with the power of entities, enhancing the navigability of content to humans and search engines alike. In this post, Dixon uses Majestic data to illustrate his story of “Alliance Linking”. Read on to discover how he capitalised on real world connections to enhance the visibility of InLinks, and get a behind the scenes look at the legwork even an experienced and influential marketer goes to in the launch of a new product.
This is a Link Building Case study of a new bootstrapped startup entering a competitive marketplace. All the old approaches were unlikely to cut the mustard. I think the strategy can be summed up by a Black business leader and educator that advised presidents before the first world war:
“Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”
When I pulled back as marketing director of Majestic in 2018, I had visions of becoming a non-executive director on a few boards and taking life easy.
But this is not the lot of an entrepreneur. In August 2020, I became the CEO of a new venture. Like Majestic, it started in front rooms and with more passion than capital. A new SEO tool? In 2020? That was going to be hard to get traction. It is hard to get links in a world where all the usual suspects know what link building means and when everyone who probably could be bought already has been.
Luckily, the tools that Majestic built have held me in good stead as I build out my new business.
Instead of talking about general concepts, this case study deep dives into the top 10 links as demonstrated by the InLinks “Context” chart, and I will discuss some of the work that went into each link. The insights should explain why quality over quantity works. You will also see what the “quality” of relationships look like.
Has Link Building Worked?
I decided the way forward was to leverage alliances. I’m calling this “Alliance Linking”, as every good case study needs a name. For well over a decade, Majestic has been saying that links are not about quantity but quality. 8 years ago, Majestic launched Topical Trust Flow, which started to help link builders narrow link context even further, helping link builders focus not only on quality but context. In 2019, Majestic launched “Link Context” – the ability to see where links were on a page, the text around it and the neighbourhood the links keep. By 2021, when Majestic unveiled their fantastic ability to catch up to 5 tiers of connections, the bad networks became visible for all to see. Clearly, Google could see what Majestic could see. The game had to change.
The impact of the business on organic Rankings
Whatever I have been doing, the improvements seem to have been helpful, although clearly, the business has not relied on link building alone as a route to market.
What is Alliance Linking?
Instead of focussing on links directly, Alliance linking is a strategy of building deep alliances with customers, suppliers, knowledge leaders and influencers in your industry. Use these alliances to help position your business within that field, based on the company you keep. Sometimes these alliances will result in good old-fashioned links, but whether they do or not, the connections created are real. As a result, each association has the potential to sprout off into a link campaign all of its own accord. Moreover, the alliances themselves strengthen the company’s standing in the vertical, however you measure success. If Google’s objective is to meet their searchers’ needs, my entire business had to be seen to be taking the thought leadership of the vertical to the next level.
“Your competitive advantage is not that you’re smarter or that you work harder. It’s the relationships that you have – since that’s the only thing people can’t copy.” -Dennis Yu.
Why is quantity-based link building pointless?
When starting a business in a market that has already been around for years, the incumbents have a marked advantage when it comes to link quantity, as we can see from Majestic’s comparison tool:
After 18 months, I have generated just 769 links compared to my next competitor on 4,262 links! To be honest, I have ambitions of competing with the top 3 sites, which (if you judged them by link quantity) would show one website with 6 figures and another with seven figures. Clearly, just getting links should not be the overriding ambition of a startup. I AM getting links, and I am gaining organic traction, but if your link building is genuinely “white hat”, then you should be able to show how you got them so plainly, that even John Mueller is unlikely to complain.
If your link building is genuinely “white hat”, then you should be able to show how you got them so plainly, that even John Mueller is unlikely to complain.
So that’s what this case study will do — one link at a time.
Choosing My “Best Links” For this case study
Deciding what your BEST links are is very subjective. If I were to make my own choices on that score for a case study, I would quite rightly be accused of selective bias. It would be pretty impossible for me to be fair in my own selection. I have therefore used Majestic’s default order on its link context tool on 22/2/2020. This orders links based on the sum of the Trust Flow and Citation Flow of the source page and limits links to one per referring domain. I think this list works well, Although I was slightly surprised at my “top” result, it was certainly one I actively reached out to get, and it demonstrates that not all links are hard to get!
Link Story 1: Specialist Directories can still work
This first link was found using Clique Hunter. Almost all my competition was listed on this page, so you have to ask – if everyone you consider a peer is doing it, should you? The answer is not entirely clear. The yellow bars in the graphic above suggests that this page is little more than a list of 914 outbound links! On the other hand, it does look like the curator, an SEO in Melbourne, has taken time to understand the tools and has differentiated clearly between paid and unpaid links. The services are well organised by their job (and some tools get listed more than once). There are also helpful popups for the reader about each tool.
As you can see in the image above, this has resulted in the link having a contextually relevant sentence. (The anchor text is the one with the bold green text.) It is a genuinely helpful resource! This has been confirmed in my site’s logfiles. In 2020 I had a visitor every couple of days from the page.
From an SEO perspective, while the page itself ranks in Google, with 914 outgoing links, the PageRank algorithm itself is unlikely to be overly influenced. Still, if Google discounts the paid links, that may suggest more emphasis on the unpaid ones. More importantly, though, the association “makes sense”. It talks to a highly targeted audience with surprisingly informative content for a list. The combined Trust Flow and Citation Flow of the page are a credit to the curator.
Link Story 2: Your Legacy Sticks
Stephan Spencer has written “Google Power Search”, “Social E-commerce”, and co-writes the “Art of SEO” with Rand Fishkin and Eric Enge. He also has an excellent knowledge panel when you search for his name. Now that’s the definition of a targeted Micro influencer! A person highly respected in a narrow vertical. I have known Stephan and been on stage with him on several occasions. He is gentle and unassuming. He also appreciated me from my time at Majestic, and indeed I spent some time sharing Majestic with him in a past life, so he could write about it in his books. This past relationship is an excellent example of why you should tread with care where you can. When I reached out on LinkedIn to ask if he would like to test drive the new tool, not only did I get a demo, but I was also interviewed on his own show. But this link came as a result of a podcast on Webmaster Radio by Ross Dunn and John Carcutt, and John said, “I love that tool, by the way”. I had no direct connection to the link itself, but this is an excellent example of link osmosis. All three people on the call like the product, and of course, as they come around to the topic of a competing product, it turned out to be natural to talk a little about InLinks by way of balance. The interview on Stephan’s podcast has also now gone live (just days after taking this screenshot), and I think the content will give plenty of SEOs food for thought.
Link Story 3: Leverage your own customers
Cardinal Marketing loves the product, so how can we use this to create a mutually valuable exchange? Well – I certainly didn’t ask for this link, but I am thrilled to see that our good customers are happy enough to talk about us in public. There is a learning curve for most good marketing tools. This means there is generally a skillset needed between the business owner and the website optimisation. Of course, a person can learn SEO, but not all business owners want to do so. This is where agencies add value. So I have created a directory of our own customers that want to promote themselves to people who like our knowledge leadership pieces but do not wish to get too close to the coalface to do the work themselves. We also adopted a strategy in a much more sophisticated format at Majestic with their business pages.
Link Story 4: Who says Social isn’t link building?
This is an excellent example of why genuine relationships help build links. I do not know Boylanpoint, but they put out a Tweet one day asking for feedback on their “best SEO Tools of 2020” list. Well – rag to a bull, I imagine, for many tools, but someone had to be online to answer. The founder’s business is based in California, so I was unlikely to be awake at the time of the Tweet. Looking back, I see him as a level 2 connection on LinkedIn, but with only one contact in common. In my world, that’s a remote connection! (If you are reading this and more than 2 links away from my LinkedIn profile, then SEO is likely not your cup of tea, or you need to work on your LinkedIn profile.) Fortunately, when you really engage personally with your customers, they’ll jump on the bandwagon for you! In this case, thank you to John McAlpin.
Link Story 5: The Flyover State
I don’t think many people can be in my world and not know Barry Schwartz. He is an editor on Search Engine Land and a prolific journalist or blogger focussing on SEO and online marketing. If you do not know him, he does a daily news roundup email from SE Round Table, which is a very efficient way to keep up with this fast-moving industry. This link is from one of those daily pieces. So how does Barry choose to link to my article on “How to Create a Content Curation Plan” and not someone else’s? Well, it comes largely down to credibility, trust and even friendship. The last time I met Barry was before lockdown one. He invited me to do a face to face interview with him. Unfortunately, he lives in New Jersey, and I live in the UK. So, on returning from a conference (The “State of Search” in Dallas) I think), I rerouted my return flight. I landed at JFK early in the morning, took an hour-long Uber to Barry’s offices, did the interview and then an Uber back to JFK for my flight home the same day.
You simply HAVE to put the effort in if you want your article to just “get picked up” and listed the next day. Over the years, I have met Barry in New York, Las Vegas, London, San Jose and even Jerusalem, where I was a speaker at his own conference there. I try to ONLY send Barry information about content we put out when I think it will pass muster. He doesn’t talk about everything I send, but I know it will get scrutiny and a fair shot at the newsletter.
Link Story 6: Great content really can create good links
I initially had no idea how I got this link, except to say that the article it links to: “The Evolution of Semantic Search”, which I worked hard on, but got virtually no other links. So – for the sake of the case study, I tracked down Stephen E. Arnold. He was not someone I had met or knew before this. I wish I had known him. According to LinkedIn, his last job was Vice President of Ziff Communications – a company that turned over $499 Million in 2019, according to Wikipedia! Even though his personal website seems to have Google adverts laid out from the mid “noughties”, this was not your “average blogger”. I connected to him on LinkedIn and asked him directly how the link to my content came about. I got an honest and surprising reply. Turns out that Stephen is 77 and retired. These days he does training (pro-Bono) for people at two of America’s largest tech companies. He hires a team of people to keep track of all the exciting developments in his world, and they use Stephen’s blog to curate the content for him so that he doesn’t need to surf the web every day and weed out the wheat from the chaff! The curated content then becomes the basis for his lectures! So now my content was good enough for a researcher to send to someone that has asked to help train people at Intel. At this point, I really do not care what Google thinks about the link. Would you?
Link Story 7: Rope in the whole team
InLinks is in English and French (and recently in Spanish). This particular post is another “Best SEO Tools” list, but the relationship is most likely due to our CTO, Fred, who is based in Nice, France. As a business grows, it isn’t just the “Marketing person” that must act as the company’s spokesperson, but every one of note. As a company grows in stature, I know that this becomes more and more of a minefield for businesses. What if an employee says something that isn’t true? Or betrays a company secret? Or defames a competitor? Sure – these things CAN happen, but then you apologise, manage it and move on. The only thing worse than someone saying something wrong about you is when nobody says anything at all. Further – to stifle your team from talking about their work can be very demotivating. Be proud and shout loud.
This is a case in point. InLinks is a Franco-British partnership, with the CTO being in France. This immediately opens up a second market for the business and one we could exploit here. The link looks well placed on the page and in a friendly, contextually clear sentence.
Link Story 7: Connectivity is multi-layered
This is a fascinating link to see. As far as I knew, InLinks did not (yet) have a link from Search Engine Journal. In actual fact, on using Majestic to check, one did exist after a podcast with Ryan Jones. Ryan and I have met at several Pubcons and shared more than a few drinks by hotel swimming pools. This link, from Hopin.com, came as a result of me talking in a “sidetrack” of SEJ’s online summit on mental health. Naturally, Search Engine Journal had to link heavily to hopin.com, the software they used to host the conference, and Hopin linked to our site. I absolutely love Majestic’s new multi-tier visualisations – which can let you see links several hops away. Look at this relationship between SEJ and Hopin showing up in their InLinks links graph:
What I find interesting, though, is the many layers involved in the “Link Context” screenshot for this link. Not only did SEJ Link via a podcast from a long time SEO and (I like to think) friend, but I think it is worth pointing out the real-life relationships within the screenshot:
- Duane Forrester, from Yext, is an old friend. I once drove him back from Brighton SEO to Gatwick. On the day of the conference, there was some confusion about the minor tracks (like mine and Duane’s). So we were on Instant Messenger that day trying to sort it all out.
- Nice of them to put my name on the page. I am pleased with the company I am keeping here.
- Tim Meyer is best known (to SEOs) for being instrumental at Yahoo back in the day for starting Site Explorer, the first real backlink tool and a predecessor to Majestic. His most famous line was on stage with Matt Cutts: “Never bring a knife to a gunfight”. OK, maybe he borrowed the quote, but it stuck in my mind all these years.
- Keith Goode from IBM is not ONLY an excellent person to be seen in the company of, and he also talked about InLinks and shared screenshots at this very conference!
I started this case study with Booker T. Washington’s quote: “Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” I don’t think there can be a better example of this than everything I see in this link. I did not know “Hopin” as a platform before this conference, but there is a vast amount more depth to the link than one might initially expect without understanding the relationships. The connectivity is really multi-layered, and even if Ryan Jones had not linked directly from Search Engine Journal, the association is there for all to see.
Link Story 8: Do not fear Affiliates
Affiliate marketing gets quite a bad name at times. I think that a carefully managed program can provide a mutually beneficial exchange for both parties. This article from Chris Gain was a roundup of views about whether links from online directories are used for SEO. I added my tuppence, and he linked to us the article. The link actually is an affiliate link, although I am sure he would have still connected without a program, as he is a customer and is even listed in our own directory of clients. I offer every customer a 30 minute 1 to 1 demo of our tool, as it really helps to cement the relationship. Chris ended up doing two demos, as he was so keen to get a complete handle on the system. My reward, it seems, was to be included in one of his articles. I like the link because it is not adjacent to others and the surrounding text is clearly contextually relevant to our area of expertise. I have no explicit knowledge as to whether the link will have an SEO effect. But it certainly helps to build a relationship with my customer.
Link Story 9: How to use Facebook to get a link
On Facebook, there is a small group of old school SEOs called “SEO Dojo”. Bill Slawski hangs out there, as do other good friends like Ammon Johns, Doc Sheldon, David Harry and Terry Van-Horne, who runs SEOPros.org. They are not a young crowd! Terry is the sort of guy that still builds websites using Notepad. He is obsessive (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that) and highly geeky. So attracting Terry’s attention was extraordinary! I got to talking about our NLP (natural language processing) algorithm in the group. This led to me giving Terry a demo on Zoom and then me joining Bill Slawski and Terry for over an hour on their show, where I was given more than a fair crack of the whip talking about InLinks to a small but committed and highly adept group of SEOs. The link was simply the icing on the cake of a nicely developing relationship, although Terry emails me when he sees InLinks creating error messages in his logfiles!
We fixed that error now, Terry.
My point is that relationships do not HAVE to be in real life. Although I think Terry and I must have met a couple of times in real life during my forays to the USA, I have really built up the relationship through the SEO Dojo Geeks group, both during my Majestic time and mow at InLinks. In fact – the group has 329 members, and I am friends with 139 of them! I wonder, now I type, about who the others are, but I am confident they are a credit to our industry.
So while a link from a Facebook group will not get picked up by Google, Facebook’s relationships or connections can most certainly lead to good links.
Link Story 10: Why you should never win at the expense of a worthy competitor
I think the story behind this link goes back further than any other link in this list. In fact, it precedes Google… but it does not precede SEO! Before Google came, there was Yahoo and many predecessors. The notion of link building was relevant to many research papers behind Inktomi (the engine powering Yahoo at the time). So I was link building then! At the very first Pubcon, at the Cittie of York Pub, I met Mark Garwell for the first time, along with a fellow conspirator in this story, Barry Lloyd. They were “Webplacing” and “MakeMeTop” on WebMasterWorld, which remains a force in the SEO world to this day. It was 2002, I believe (Not 2000 as reported on Search Engine Land). Google had 2 employees in the UK at the time, who both showed up, but Yahoo and GoTo.com (later Overture) were the big names of the day. I had a small, fledgling agency at the time—me in my bedroom. (What’s changed in 2021!? At least I have a home office now.)
So as we talked about this crazy wild west industry growing around us, we each knew we had more leads than we could handle. We also saw a shark-infested sector emerging with charlatans and sometimes outright crooks trying to make money off of anyone looking for SEO. We decided to recommend each other on our web pages and link to each other. Of course, we knew what we were doing – we had read about “PageRank” and even Inktomi (Yahoo’s engine at the time) had stated that links were significant, although they were less explicit as to how.
Although we went our separate ways over the years, Mark and I always kept an eye on what each other was doing. He was less extrovert than me… not one for jumping up on stages. I was not at all surprised, many years later, when he rang me from his role at PI Datametrics, saying that Jon Earnshaw (the CEO) was interested in leveraging Majestic’s link data. The key aspects of a subsequent Agreement were finalised at a Brighton SEO event, of all places, introducing Jon to my network. Many years later, this relationship led to me being invited onto Jon’s “SEO in the Shed” webinar to talk about Majestic and my new business together with my ideas around Topics and entities.
The main takeaways from this reflection on the best links for my startup are these:
- It is increasingly hard to be “anonymous” and get links because the best links are based on genuine relationships between people
- Clearly, the longer a person spends in an industry, the more people they meet and the more trust can develop. This trust is imperative if links are to be generated organically. Age, here, can be a real advantage.
- Organisations should have “Rainmakers” who actively push the company’s agenda online and offline. The effect goes far beyond the immediate conversations these people have.
- Don’t burn your bridges! Ever!
Finally, I think that these stories highlight that the best links do not come from a single, formulaic approach to link building. Each one has its own story. Whilst the overarching theme is trusted relationships – alliances – every link has a real story.