Now that we've seen entire link building related companies vanish due to Pandas and Penguins and other search quality improvements from Google, my hunch is we will see a surge in freelance or solo link builders who decide to go it alone.
I base this hunch on the number of emails I'm receiving from people seeking link building work. Besides those who are working solo, some link building companies are still thriving, doing things well, and looking for talent.
But the days of being a half-assed link builder are over, and you'd better know what you're doing if you're going to take over responsibility for link building for another company's website.
The tricks you could rely on are gone, and I take no satisfaction in seeing so much of what I've preached come true over the last 17 years. It's always been pretty obvious to the best link builders anyway, and I'm not pleased at all when I see a company suffer at the hands of someone who is reckless and uninformed in the wild building links. It's not fun telling a new client that their old link profile is a cesspool.
For those looking to hire a link builder, be it in-house or via an agency, I feel pretty confident that you can identify the ability and savvy of a link builder with just five questions. Here they are.
1. I have a site about [insert topic]. Give me an example of a link target site for you feel will help my search rank, one that would help my click traffic, and one that would help my company reputation.
If they can't differentiate between these three types of links, they won't be effective as a link builder for your site. This isn't to say they can't learn, but if they have spent the past five years using lowest common denominator tactics, it is extremely hard to break old habits.
A great example is when a link builder is faced with having to spend time digging through pages to identify the actual editorial decision maker for a site, or having to pick up the phone and make a call. If you're used to filling out link request forms and clicking PayPal buttons, the idea of talking to someone about a link isn't always pleasant.
2. Please explain how each of the above will accomplish their specific objective.
The ability to recognize the value of any given link is crucial to the success of the link builder.
There are links we pursue with the goal of improving search rank, yet doing so in a way that is "natural". This of course makes most of those links not natural, but that's another article for another day.
The key is in recognizing where a link could exist without asking for it, and then helping it get there by asking for it. Those who understand what I just wrote are link builders.
3. What part does my competitor's link profiles play in your linking strategy for my site?
No linking strategy can depend only on links that others already have, yet at the same time, competitor link profiles offer a treasure trove of useful competitive intelligence data, if you know it when you see it. This only comes from experience.
Hand a good linking strategist an Excel spreadsheet full of 15,000 URLs, and they should be able to read it like a map. URLs will tell you an awful lot about a site without even having to visit those URLs. Like the Horse Whisperer, a good link builder is a URL Listener who can see where a site is going by where it has been.
4. Who will be "on the keyboard" doing the actual link seeking?
Isn't it frustrating when you sign a contract for link building services with a company and they hand the project off to someone else to execute? And that someone suddenly becomes invisible?
This is part of why I've remained a one person business all these years. I am either a control freak or I'm just not willing to take a chance on turning over a link building project to someone who might not have the attention to detail that I want them to have. I'm a bit of both, really. If a mistake is going to be made, I'd rather make it than someone I gave they account to.
5. I have a budget for buying links. How would you spend it?
This question speaks to the fear that so many people have about getting caught by Google. But Google never said "don't buy links". Google said "don't sell Pagerank". There's a subtle but crucial distinction there that a good link builder can explain and describe in a way that should make sense to you.
Between those two statements is a vast sea of gray, and it's in this sea that you learn about the risk your link builder is willing to take with your site, as well as the risk you're willing to take with your site.
If you ask this question, don't mention the word PageRank. See if the link builder brings it up. Then listen carefully to how they go about justifying the buying each and every link they recommend to you.
The above five question really do have right and wrong answers, regardless of how gray the link building sea is. Those answers can even differ depending upon the site and business vertical it competes in.
Taken as a whole, these five questions are all you need to hire a link builder. Or fire one.