Show of hands: who likes working for free?
Let's be honest: no one really likes working for free.
I'm not talking about volunteering. I volunteer around my community when I have the time. I enjoy it, and believe everyone should give back. That's different though. I'm one of the 13 percent, but I wouldn't do my job without a subsequent revenue stream.
Link building is hard work. It's one of the few SEO tasks you can't have total control over – it consists of convincing other people that it's in their best interest (or their audience's best interest) to link to you. Convincing people to do you a favor is never easy.
Another reason link building is so difficult: it's never a singular marketing task done within a bubble.
We have a number of other marketing concerns within our link building campaigns that must be addressed as we're working to build links. These concerns include:
- Are we positively and accurately representing our client and their brand?
- Are we fostering positive relationships and impressions as we build our links?
- Are our methods sustainable, and adding to the betterment of the web?
- Are we excited to show our links to the client, and would we hesitate to show other link building professionals?
One link building method that doesn't produce links 100 percent of the time, but helps us ensure we're meeting other marketing concerns, is solving problems for free.
Solving problems for free is the core of what Rand Fishkin of Moz calls "investing in non-measurable serendipitous marketing."
The concept is to recognize and solve a problem for a targeted group of people within your niche. If this is done consistently, eventually there will be a serendipitous, or unexpectedly large, payoff.
Solving problems for free can result in branding opportunities, foster positive relationships, boost your authority, and even help establish your company as a thought leader within your space.
However, solving problems for free shouldn't be your only link building (or marketing) strategy, as it's unpredictable. There's no reliable input>output. Fishkin recommends 20 percent of your time/budget be allocated into serendipitous projects.
If you're interested in serendipitous marketing – and link building – here are a few ways to find a problem worth solving in your niche.
1. Research Content, Resource, Product & Tool Gaps
Research is always a fundamental component of problem solving. Before you allocate resources to solve a problem, you must first ensure there's not an existing solution already.
What does your industry need that it doesn't already have? Brainstorm potential gaps within your niche, whether that gap be content, resources, products, or tools. After you've compiled such a list, spend time searching the web to make sure your idea doesn't already exist.
HitReach, an SEO firm in Scotland, created a unique piece of content in the form of an SEO web comic strip called Digital Rockstars that depicts the everyday crises of an SEO firm.
Think "Dilbert" gone digital. Likely, they recognized this general lack of humor and created their web comic as catharsis for fellow SEO professionals.
Image Credit: HitReach
HitReach's comic fills a definite gap within the industry, and is genuinely well received.
Each comic generally hits the top of Inbound.org and receives a handful of links and social shares. HitReach also compiles these comics onto a single page.
To date this compiled comic page has received 171 backlinks from 10 domains and 285 social shares – and that's not even counting the individual links and shares to each separate page hosting a single comic strip.
These comics have humanized HitReach's brand and given them further visibility across the industry – all while creating something they likely enjoy and get a laugh from themselves.
2. Ask Your Audience a Question
What better way to find a targeted problem worth solving than posing a question to your consumer base/audience? That's precisely what Dinesh Agarwal did when, on Reddit, he asked if there were any small SEO tools people wanted to see built and have free access to.
There are an abundance of tools meant to accommodate the average SEO is her/his everyday work. And most of us in the SEO industry are always finding a need for a new tool.
Matthew Barby took Agarwal upon his offer. Within hours, Barby got precisely what he asked for: a tool that allowed him to pull URLs tweeted by a specific user and then unshorten those URLs. Essentially, you could get a list of all the links a person had tweeted.
Agarwal's altruism wasn't for naught; Barby wrote an article that sprinkled several personal thank yous to Agarwal, linked to Agarwal's business, twitter, and the tool he created, and even donated $80 to Agarwal's site, which Agarwal in turn spent on a pizza party for his staff.
Overall Agarwal received a few nice links, great visibility from a prominent member of the industry, and created a new relationship. Not bad for a day's work.
3. Create an Industry Survey
Sometimes it isn't enough to ask your audience a single question. If you really want to dig deep into industry problems, you're going to need to ask a conglomerate of questions.
Not only are surveys routinely linked to, but they offer branding opportunities and place your company as a thought leader within your industry.
Marketers love data, and Moz is at the forefront of collecting data. Every year they survey the SEO industry to pinpoint changes throughout the year, including demographics, compensation, titles, work activities, and tools used. It's very comprehensive.
2014 is no different; Moz released their annual survey.
Already the survey has received 236 backlinks from 77 domains. Furthermore, it's been shared socially more than 2,000 times.
Some of this is attributable to Moz's brand recognition. But this survey presents data useful to any industry; everyone wants to know the tactics, practices, and attitudes of their cohorts, competitors, and peers. Moz fills that role for the SEO industry, and they get a lot of links and recognition for it.
4. Talk to Industry Experts
If you're looking for a more targeted industry problem, you could try speaking to experts/influencers as well. Of course, you'd need the leverage to gain these people's attention, first.
One truth about experts, no matter the industry, is that they love sharing their opinions. This is commonly how they become recognized as experts.
If you've already found a problem, or would like to further discussion regarding an industry pertinent topic of conversation, you should poll as many influencers as possible.
An intelligent way to leverage this for links, social shares, and online visibility is to turn this into an opinion roundup post.
Jon Cooper of PointBlankSEO has a few well-known examples of these, such as this round up regarding links versus social media.
No one knows Google's search algorithm for sure, except for a privileged few at Google Headquarters. As such, SEO professionals are forever discussing different theories regarding the algo.
Cooper furthered that conversation by asking some pointed questions about social versus links. The post he made from talking to industry experts went on to gain 118 links from 25 domains.
This expert opinion roundup is one of the most popular posts on Cooper's blog, and helped establish him as an authority within the link building niche.
5. Create a List of Persona Pain Points
Creating a list of persona pain points is a common marketing strategy to address the needs of your audience.
A persona pain point is an issue your target audience needs solved. Make a list of these issues, and find a way to accommodate them.
In SEO, one of the greatest pain points we've faced recently is the issue of "(not provided)" keywords. In August of last year, Google Analytics stopped showing webmasters which keywords were guiding traffic to their sites. This wasn't completely out of the blue; during the five months prior to the fateful announcement, Google was blocking between 35 to 45 percent of that data.
The move to secure search by Google has taken key organic keyword data away.
Avinash Kaushik of Google wrote an article on his own site that provided thorough tips on how to best navigate through the upcoming murky waters. The article got an overwhelmingly response and directly engaged the SEO community.
The article has received thousands of backlinks from more than 200 different domains. Furthermore, the article has 206 comments and over 1,000 social shares.
The article is still being linked to, as evidenced by a link published in September on this very site.
6. Engage in Social Media
You're missing out on valuable opportunities if you aren't participating in the social media stratosphere. Brands can't get away with just observing.
The Internet has brought all corners of the world closer together and consequently fostered an era of connectivity. Interacting via social media is essential if you want to thrive during this era.
People often use social media to discuss or even rant about problems they face. Social media can be an absolute gold mine for finding problems worth solving within your industry.
Guest posting has been the epicenter of an SEO controversy in the last few weeks (although it really shouldn't be). This is due to a post on Matt Cutts' blog that sent shockwaves through the SEO industry. Take a look toward the bottom of that post. 426 comments. Here's one in particular:
Note the last chunk of that. It was tweeted by another influential SEO:
Rae, the commenter on Cutts' blog, is Rae Hoffman, an SEO consultant and webmaster of http://sugarrae.com/. Hoffman follows Wall (and 200+ others) on Twitter. Because of Wall's tweet, Hoffman tweeted back at him:
The article is a fantastic, epic piece of content, and SEO people swarmed to it. Because she saw her comment resonate across social media, Hoffman knew many felt her same discontent.
Being the thought leader that she is, Hoffman offered her opinion and made an effort to clear the air. The result? 635 backlinks from 73 domains, and nearly 2,000 social shares.
7. Watch Industry Forums
It's the internet age; there are forums for everything. Forums are the clubs of the World Wide Web; a collection of individuals who all share a common passion (or severe distaste) for something.
If you aren't observing forums where your customers are most likely to gather and interact, you're making a mistake. Participation isn't a necessity, but you should at least be keeping an eye on the grumblings on relevant forums. If you're looking to pinpoint problems to alleviate, forums can be a hot bed.
Just about anyone that is an avid guest blogger is familiar with My Blog Guest. The webmaster and founder of the site is Ann Smarty, a widely reputed figure in the SEO community. Prior to 2009, not only did Smarty participate in online forums, she ran one. It was a forum for guest bloggers seeking publishers and vice versa.
While moderating the forum, Smarty kept her proverbial ear to the ground and found that forum participants wanted a service that would provide the functions currently being provided and more. You can probably predict what happened next: My Blog Guest was born.
By monitoring (her own) forums, Smarty created a free service that has built substantial authority of its own and has led a lot of users to Internet Marketing Ninjas, the firm she works for.
8. Watch Competitors
"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." – Sun Tzu
Enemies may be an inflammatory term to use for your competitors, but the point remains the same. Mirroring strategies and opportunities from your competitor is an age-old marketing trick.
Sorry to cite Moz again, but it wasFishkin who coined the term "non-measureable serendipitous marketing."
Back in 2008, Moz announced it had created a tool called Linkscape, a tool that could pull backlink reports. This was the first incarnation of the tool now known as Open Site Explorer. While it was great that Moz offered such a tool, many complained about the monthly updates to the index, the limited amount of domains indexed, and the fact that you can only pull up to three reports per day.
In 2011, Majestic SEO launched their equivalent: Majestic Site Explorer. Unlike Open Site, it updates daily. The amount of domains indexed is about quadruple that of Open Site. And as of June 2013, the tool is free of charge (Open Site requires a paid account with Moz).
Will non-measurable serendipitous marketing always work out in your favor? No. It's a risk. That's why I concur with Fishkin's 80/20 philosophy. For every $1,000 in your budget, spend $800 of it on proven tactics that are trackable, with proven results. Spend the other $200 on the serendipitous stuff. It will force you to be creative, and it's no marketing campaign has ever succeeded without a few morsels of innovation.
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