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Finding the right startup partners can positively influence every aspect of your business. Here's how you can find the right ones.

Find the Best Partners for Your Growing Startup

The ability to reach a target audience online is increasingly a requirement for the success of any business.

As the number of people searching for and buying products online continues to increase, it is almost impossible to grow your business if you have a weak online presence. This is why many startups use link building to increase their online visibility, improve their presence in search results, and gather prospects they can turn into leads and customers.

However, doing link building in-house often isn’t a viable option for many firms that are still optimizing the core of their businesses, so they look to outsource link building to an agency.

And here’s where the problems start.

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There are more than 21,000 digital advertising agencies in the United States alone. How do you find the right partner to outsource something as sensitive as link building? How do you work with them to achieve success? Where do you even start?

If you stick with us until the end, in this article, we will teach you:

  • the prerequisites for running a successful link-building campaign
  • where to look for potential partners
  • how to set up the review process
  • how to work with a chosen digital agency to make the process as smooth as possible

Prerequisites for Running a Successful Link-Building Campaign

Before you start sending emails to link-building agencies asking them about their pricing options, there are a few important things you need to do to prepare.

Learn the Basics of Link Building

The reason for this is the same reason you need to know about cars if you are going to buy a used vehicle—so you do not get scammed.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Building links is hard, time-consuming work. There are many link-building agencies out there that are ready to cut corners to increase their profit margins.

To be able to recognize when some shady business is going on, here are the things you need to learn:

For more general information on link building, read these in-depth guides here and here.

You can’t make a mistake with either, and if you want to be an overachiever, you can read both. You might have to clear your schedule to do it, but the return on this time investment will be well worth it in the long run.

Create Linkable Assets

If you carefully read any of the guides mentioned above, you will realize that, in order to successfully build links and increase your organic traffic, you first need to have content worth linking to.

If you have ever wondered why almost every website nowadays has a “guides” or “resources” section—this is your answer.

Editors and content managers love linking to content that offers valuable, relevant information.

However, many businesses want to just link to their service pages instead. While that technically can be done, it is usually a much more expensive approach, as people will ask for additional fees to link to your service pages. This also gets you in the realm of buying links, which goes against Google’s guidelines and can result in a penalty.

To give you a better idea of why it is so important to have linkable assets, here is a brief outline of what an ideal link-building campaign would look like:

  1. Performing research to find keywords you can realistically rank for in search results. For some highly competitive keywords you need over 100 backlinks to one single page to get it into the top five search results, which can be a year’s worth of backlinks for a small business. You obviously want to focus on something more achievable.
  2. Creating and publishing content (guide/infographic/resource list) that is optimized around the keyword you selected in the previous step.
  3. Building links towards that content. If possible, you should also look to promote it on social media, Quora, and other channels while you are working on link building.

If everything goes as planned, your organic traffic will increase, as people will find your resources while searching for answers that are related to your business. In many cases, this will be their first touch with your business and you will have to look for various techniques like lead magnets to pull them into your sales funnel.

As you can see, for maximum results, it is always a good idea to supplement your link building strategy with a content strategy that focuses on creating high-value, relevant content.

Get Into the Right Mindset

Link building is not a sprint, it is a mountainous hike. It takes a lot of preparation, the journey is long, and it takes time before you see the first results.

And here is the most valuable piece of advice you are going to get this week: Since link building is a long-term effort, the agencies you are going to test can’t be evaluated based on the results of their work, only on their performance.

Does that freak you out a little? Let me explain.

Let’s say you have $5,000 and you decide to test five link-building agencies, giving each $1,000 to build you a few links. With that budget, you can expect two to four backlinks on decent sites from each agency.

If you are focused on results, what do you plan to measure? How you’re ranking in search results? Organic traffic? People mentioning your brand? Domain authority increase?

The answer should be none. That is because all of these metrics are influenced by numerous factors, and backlinks are just one part of the equation. It is almost impossible to evaluate and isolate the impact of two backlinks in the grand scheme of things.

If the sample is too small to measure results, what can you measure? Well, the whole purpose of this process is to find a legitimate and capable link-building agency, with an approach that matches your needs.

You do that by dissecting and evaluating an agency’s link-building process. That is the mindset you need to have and that is something we will teach you how to do later in the article.

Where to Find Potential Partners

It would be nice if you could just Google “buy 100 quality backlinks,” purchase what is offered in one of the first three results, and sit back and relax as your website traffic grows.

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Unfortunately, this is not how proper link building works. Actually, if I had to make a list of the worst ways to outsource link building, this would probably be at the top because you need someone who can build you the links, not literally sell them.

So where does one start searching for agencies that offer link-building services? Finding agencies isn’t that hard, choosing the right one is the tricky part.

Here are a few ways to make an initial list of agencies:

  1. Perform a Google search. You can search for phrases like “link building agency,” “link building services,” “outsource link building,” “blogger outreach services,” “guest posting services,” and similar.
  2. Ask for recommendations. You often have business partners and acquaintances in the industry that are not your direct competitors. Everybody needs link building these days, so you can ask them if they know an agency they can recommend.
  3. Look for digital agency directories. Keep in mind though that most of the listed agencies here will be full-service marketing agencies, so there is a possibility that some of them don’t offer link-building services in isolation. The screenshot below is from one such directory, called Digital Agency Network.

When you start your search, you might be confused by the variety of link-building services that are available and by the type of businesses that offer them. Here is a quick overview of those types:

1. Agencies offering exclusively blogger outreach/guest posting services

These are agencies that generally only offer a single type of link building called guest posting (also known as guest blogging and blogger outreach). This is not surprising as guest posting seems to be the most dominant link-building strategy for a few years now.

2. Link-building agencies

These agencies usually offer a wide variety of link-building strategies like resource page link building, infographic republishing, and broken link building. That being said, from our experience as a link-building agency, the vast majority of our clients want to focus on guest posting. As content creation is part of link building, a lot of these agencies can also create content for your blog if you’re lacking in that regard.

3. Web design agencies that also offer SEO services

We’ve never had a chance to collaborate with this type of agency, but you will probably want to go with someone who has link building as a core service. A web design agency might be a preferred choice if the agency that designed your website can also do SEO and build links for you.

4. Full-service digital market agencies/content marketing agencies

Full-service digital agencies can cover all of your marketing needs. They often work on a monthly retainer that covers the whole marketing strategy. That includes content strategy, on-page and off-page SEO, paid advertising, social media management—basically everything that goes under the umbrella of marketing. As we mentioned earlier, some of them don’t take clients that only need link building, so be sure to check that right away.

Now that you know where to look and what is on the market, let’s see how to set up an efficient review process.

How to Set Up the Review Process

It is unlikely that the first agency you try out will be a perfect match. And with so many digital agencies around, you need to have a standard process for deciding if you should swipe left or right.

Set Up a Review Team

Every project manager will tell you that a task that doesn’t have a due date and isn’t assigned to any particular person is a task that is waiting to be indefinitely postponed.

We’ll leave the scheduling up to you. And if you are one-person team, there isn’t much to discuss here. However, if you are leading a small team and you have someone in charge of marketing, you and your marketing manager should both be on the review team.

You can, of course, include other team members, but make sure that everyone on the team has a basic understanding of SEO and knows what you are looking for.

Make a List of Things to Review

Preparing a list of questions you need answers to will accelerate your review process because it will ensure you have a standard workflow you and your review team can use to compare offers from different agencies and eliminate the ones that do not satisfy basic requirements.

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There are a lot of things you can and should review, so we are going to discuss this in detail in one of the following chapters on how to make a shortlist.

Discuss and Define Your Budget (at Least Roughly)

When you go shopping for a new car, what is the first thing you use to narrow down your options? I bet it is the price.

The principle is the same here. By roughly defining how much you are willing to spend on link building, you can immediately eliminate services that are too expensive for you (or seem so cheap that you are pretty sure they offer subpar services).

Most agencies use pricing based on Domain Authority (DA). That means that you don’t pay a fixed price per link, but that the price for a single link changes in regards to the “strength” of the website that is linking to your domain.

As an agency that uses a similar pricing structure, here are the reasons we do this:

  1. It takes more time and effort to get published on higher authority sites. Sites with higher DA usually have more rigorous content guidelines and review processes, which means you have to put maximum effort into the quality of your content, be ready to do revisions if necessary, and spend a decent amount of time on back and forth communication. In some cases, you also need to submit a lengthy contributor application. All of this takes time, and time = money.
  2. Links from high DA sites bring more value. A few links from DA70+ sites can give a stronger SEO boost than five links from sites with DA ~30. On top of that, higher DA sites have much higher traffic, which means you often get more referral traffic and your brand gets bigger exposure.
  3. The pool of high DA sites is smaller. As you go up in authority, the number of available sites that could link to you shrinks significantly. When you exhaust the obvious choices, finding high authority, relevant sites that publish contributed content takes quite a bit of research, and that is partially reflected in the link-building pricing structures.

Besides deciding how much you are ready to pay for a single link, you should also decide on your available monthly budget. This is important because this will be one of the first questions an agency is going to ask you, as well as because some agencies won’t work with you if your monthly budget is under a certain price point (the cutoff point often being at $1,000).

Lastly, having a monthly budget in mind will be an important part of the negotiations if you need other services alongside link building, like creating content (read linkable assets) for your blog.

How to Narrow the Pool

Let’s discuss a few things you should ask the agencies you are in contact with, so you can properly shortlist the ones with the most potential.

1. Ask for Samples of Previous Work

Every agency should be able to show you some examples of their previous link-building campaigns. Even if they are fairly new, they must have been building links for their own site.

Check the following:

  • quality of the sites given in the samples (domain authority, organic traffic)
  • relevancy of those sites (do the topics seem like a match for the sites they are published on)
  • quality of the published content (many agencies use cheap copywriters to reduce their content creation expenses)

If an agency can provide samples of different links they have built for other businesses in your industry, that is a big plus. Speaking from personal experience, when you lead a link-building campaign in a new niche, it takes some time to see what works and what doesn’t.

2. Look at Their Reviews

If you are going to buy a new phone, you’re probably going to read a few reviews first. There is no reason why you shouldn’t do the same when researching someone you plan to outsource link building to.

You can look at the testimonials featured on their website, as well as reviews on consumer review sites like Trustpilot.

Keep in mind that some agencies will probably ask for reviews only from the clients they have good relationships with, which could mean their scores are somewhat inflated.

That being said, if someone was really dissatisfied with their service, they will probably go out of their way to leave a negative review. This means that even a few negative reviews can be a cause for concern.

3. Learn About Their Workflow and Link-Building Process

Just being qualified isn’t enough. Finding someone you can efficiently collaborate with is a requirement for a long-lasting partnership.

It’s like being on a date with a person that ticks all of your boxes, but you have no chemistry. Such a person can be a good friend, but will never be a perfect partner.

So how can you recognize if you are a good match?

Learn about their workflow and their link building process:

  • Ask them to describe their link-building process – how they find good websites, how they come up with interesting topics, who writes the content…
  • Ask how involved you’re allowed to be – if you can pre-approve things like sites they reach out to, topics they plan to pitch, content they plan to publish…
  • Ask how you can track the progress of the campaign – do they have a project management tool or something else you can use to track the progress of the campaign, do they offer detailed reports so you know exactly what your budget is being spent on…)
  • Discuss any special requirements you might have

Getting answers to all of those questions should give you a good idea if the agency you’re talking to is worth testing out.

4. Discuss Their Pricing

Last but not least, we have to talk about money.

We already discussed this to some extent in a previous section, so this will be quick.

One thing to watch out for when discussing pricing is long-term contracts. Some agencies will look to tie you down with six-month or one-year contracts. That may be fine if you’ve had the chance to properly test them first. Otherwise, stick to agencies that work on a month-to-month basis and don’t ask you to sign any kind of retainers.

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At the end of the day, most start-ups have fairly limited budgets for marketing purposes. If you can’t afford someone’s services, you obviously aren’t a good match. If you have found someone you really like but they are just too expensive, keep their contact info and reach out when your budget grows.

Watch Out for Red Flags

There are a lot of shady link-building agencies that advertise themselves as doing everything by the book. In reality, many of them use private blog networks or have pre-developed relationships (know someone who regularly writes for the blogs they need links from) they leverage to build links for your site and just hope you don’t understand that they are delivering poor service.

Here are some red flags you should watch out for during the review process:

  • They do not want to jump on a call. If you are running a legitimate business, you have to be ready to jump on a voice chat and explain the details of your workflow.
  • They offer insanely low pricing. When content creation itself costs between $30 and $150, anyone that offers links for less $100 has to cut corners somewhere. Quality has its price.
  • They lack testimonials and case studies. Nine out of 10 marketers say that customer testimonials and case studies are the most effective content for influencing purchases. So if they have some, they would definitely display them.
  • Their delivery time is crazy fast. Most reputable link-building agencies will tell you that your order will be fulfilled in one month. Target audience research, topic creation, finding relevant sites, pitching, creating content and waiting for the editor to find a place for it in his editorial calendar—it all takes time and some of it is out of your control. If the agency says it is doing manual outreach, it is impossible they can do all of this in just a few days.
  • They offer you a list of sites you can get links from. If you are doing manual outreach, as many agencies swear they do, how can you be sure that the content will be accepted and published? The answer is you can’t. That only happens if you have a preexisting relationship, which often means you are not following Google’s guidelines.
  • They say yes to every one of your demands. A good way to test an agency is to ask them if they can build you links on high-authority sites using keyword-rich anchors that lead to your money pages. If they say yes to this and every other demand without any reservations, this should be a cause for concern, because out there in the real world, editors have the final say on what gets linked.

Don’t Settle Until You Find the Right Outsourced Link-Building Partner

Don’t be hesitant to test multiple agencies. Quite the contrary, doing a round of testing will give you a better idea of what you can expect to get for different pricing.

As we mentioned above, link building is a long-term strategy. That is why it is important that you don’t settle until you find a qualified partner you’re comfortable with and can grow your business for years to come.

Did you have a chance to work with an agency you want to recommend? Maybe you want to share some bad experiences you had while testing different link-building agencies?

Find The Best Partners for Your Growing Startup was originally published on Foundr.