Delegating Link Development: Outsource or In-house?

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You hear all the time about the need for great links in the realm of SEO. There are tons of quality ways to get new inbound links, but most webmasters find they that don’t have the time or inclination to spend hours each day building links to their sites. In addition, many SEO firms are trying to keep up with increasing demand from clients for link development services. This all leads to many webmasters and SEO firms asking the same question; how do I outsource this work, or delegate link development services in-house?

Outsourcing Link Development

In my experience, outsourcing pure link development has rarely produced good results. Firms providing link development “a la carte” usually employ under-trained people working software programs that crawl the web and automatically send out emails to webmasters. This doesn’t usually result in quality links; often, it can see the site owner receive emails of complaint from other webmasters who have received multiple requests for link exchange from the link service representing the site.

It’s important to remember that the firm to which you outsource the link-building work will be representing your site in the online community. Their actions can and will reflect on your site.

Initial Research Questions

That said, not everyone has the ability, need or want to hire a link developer in-house. If you choose to outsource link development, there are a few things you’ll want to ask the link development firm before you make any agreements or shell out any cash.

  • How do they develop links?
  • Do they use any automated software programs?
  • What link types do they produce (one way links, reciprocals, etc.)?
  • Do they own any networks or groups of sites on which they plan to place your link?
  • How do they assess various sites’ potential to be link partners? Which factors are considered?
  • How well do their link developers read and speak English?
  • What training is provided to their link developers?
  • Will they require access to your site if they arrange reciprocal links?
  • Are they willing to sign a confidentiality agreement?
  • Can you define the anchor text you wish incoming links to display?
  • Do they limit their clientele to prevent their working for your competitors at the same time as they work for you?
  • How and when is payment due?
  • What is the average number of links their link developers generate per week?
  • What is the cost per link or per hour?
  • Can they provide you with any references from current or past clients?

The company’s answers to these questions will help you get a feel for the business’s professionalism. They’ll also help you gauge how closely the company meets your expectations of the quality and amount of inbound links you can expect to gain by outsourcing link development to them.

Finding Firms

Now that you know some of the key questions to ask, how can you find a firm to interview? One of the best ways would be to use referrals. You have a better chance of finding a firm that’s fairly reputable if a friend or colleague who uses their services is willing to recommend them to you. Networking can be a powerful tool as you try to find trustworthy companies to work on various aspects of your site.

You can also check out the sponsor lists from the industry’s major tradeshows, such as Search Engine Strategies and the Publishers Conferences. If a link development firm is repeatedly represented at these kinds of shows, there’s a good chance that they have a happy clientele. You could also perform a few searches online in your engine of choice — this also gives you the option to check out the firm’s backlinks, so you can see what types of links they’ve been able to gain for themselves.

The Problem with Outsourcing

The problem with outsourcing is that you’re depending on the knowledge (or lack thereof!) of an outside source. Link development is a delicate process. Having too many instances of the same anchor, establishing reciprocal agreements with the wrong types of sites, maintaining good communications with websites related to your industry — all these issues need to be treated with care. You may have all the knowledge to develop links, but simply no time to dedicate to the task.

Training the developers of an outside firm is usually not an option. And even if it were, would you want to provide free training to a firm serving many other customers — possibly your competitors? This is just one of the reasons that many SEO firms, one-person SEO teams, webmasters and companies choose to bring the link development process in-house.

Bringing Link Development In-house

Hiring and training a link developer takes work. But it’s usually much more productive in terms of the numbers and quality of links generated when compared to outsourcing the task to an external firm. Link developers need to have a good grasp of the Internet, and the ability to learn fast. You’ll be working closely with the link developer once he or she is hired, but these staff members will need the ability to think for themselves.

Interviewing Potential Link Developers

Obviously, a college degree and a long list of qualifications aren’t a prerequisite to being a good link developer, but I have found that asking the following questions during an interview gives me a good idea of whether or not the candidate has the ability to do the task at hand with minimal training:

  • How familiar are you with the Internet?
  • What’s your favorite search engine, and why?
  • Can you name three search engines?
  • Do you know what a blog is?
  • Do you know what a message board is?
  • Do you know what a link is?
  • What are you three favorite websites, and why?
  • Do you use instant messenger?
  • Do you know any HTML?
  • What browser do you use and why?
  • What email client do you use and why?
  • Please find me a Canon SD-200 digital camera that I can buy (I always set up the interview so that a laptop is placed in front of the candidate, with nothing but the desktop showing).

The above questions may seem trivial — they may even appear funny at times (I find candidates always try to overcomplicate their explanations of a link) — but these questions will help you to understand how familiar the person is with the Internet. For example, if the candidate uses a browser other than IE, you know the person spends a bit of time online. Asking for their three favorite websites will often produce great responses and give you an idea of who frequently they surf. By asking candidates to find me a specific brand of camera (of course, you can ask them to find any commercial item), you get a feel for their ability to search; by requiring that they find an item you can buy, you get a feel for their understanding of whether or not a website is commercial. The more familiar your potential developer is with the Internet, the easier and faster it is to train them.

Training a Link Developer

Before you bring the link developer in, you need to create a training process. Remember to focus more on teaching them to identify good links and bad links, than to spend time explaining the reasons why they are good links or bad links. Your link developer doesn’t need to know about SEO in depth in order to succeed. He or she just needs to be able to tell a good link from a bad one, a list of ways to find links and an understanding of how he or she should attempt to get those links.

The bad news is that it takes time and SEO knowledge to write up training documents that contain this info. The good news is that you only have to do it once and update it when needed. I find that the following information gets new link development staff up to speed fairly quickly:

  • A listing of the different types of links they will/may be obtaining (one-way links, reciprocal links, article submissions, posting on message boards — whatever you plan on having them do as a part of their routine)
  • A glossary of terms or acronyms that they may come across frequently in communications from you, on other websites or during research
  • Details of how to find those links, including all the search engine commands they’ll need (if applicable)
  • Information on how to track the backlinks of competitors and related sites
  • Guidelines for reciprocal linking, including a list of conditions that a site must meet before you’ll link back to them (i.e. looking for nofollow tags, checking that the page on which your link would appear is indexed, etc.)
  • Links to several articles, message board posts or blog posts that reflect your beliefs on link development (Make these required reading before the new staff member begins to develop links.)
  • A list of what you see as common linking myths that they may read about in the research they may do on their own
  • A spreadsheet template that they will use to keep track of their link development efforts tailored to the information of which you want them to keep track
  • A template that they can alter or personalize to use when contacting sites for reciprocal links and one-way link requests
  • A document template that allows them to add up their monthly (or weekly, whatever timeframe you want the information in) link counts based on type, so that you can see the progress overall numbers, as well as in segmented areas
  • A clear listing of your expectations as far as their job duties are concerned

By providing your new staff member with the above information, you ensure that they have enough information to understand the assignments they’re given, and will have a solid foundation to be able to perform well.

Tasking a Link Developer

Once you have hired and trained your new link developer, it’s time to get that person to work. Note that they will likely need a bit of hand-holding in the first few days. However, I’ve never had a good link developer take longer than a week to get to a point at which they can work without help 90% of the time. Now you have to tackle the issue of how to task them.

Some business owners see value in making sure that their link developers have the ability to choose anchor text on their own, understand how to buy links, and master other in-depth aspects of the job. Others like to give their link developers detailed assignments with specific anchor text. The choice is up to you.

I tend to look at link developers as teenage drivers. I’m more likely to let them take the station wagon out for a spin than the Porsche. Older, established and well-ranked sites come with detailed and specific task lists. Once I feel that they have a handle on the link development process, I may let them have a little more freedom and self-reliance as they build links for a new site. But, in most cases, I’ll task them in detail.

If you’re working on multiple sites, you may find it useful to group your sites and assign each link developer a specific group to work on for general links; you might then assign specific tasks for individual sites as needed. An example monthly assignment may include tasks that apply to the site group, such as:

  • A number of reciprocal links required within the group of sites for the month
  • A number of one-way link requests that the person must send out for sites in their group for the month

Then, you can detail out more specific tasks for certain types of sites such as:

  • Submit three articles (provided by a writer) for a specific site using the following bio lines (include bio lines with appropriate anchor text and links).
  • Post 10 valuable, relevant posts to a message board using the following signature line (include signature line with anchor text and links).

You get the idea. By providing the staff member with a detailed list, you allow less room for error and get to keep a firm rein on your link development efforts without having to do the actual development yourself.

Measuring a Link Developer’s Performance

Once your link developers have had some time to settle in and learn the ropes, you’ll want to start tracking their performance and seeing where they may need improvement, praise or, in extreme cases, termination. You should create a template that will allow your link developers to log their progress throughout the month, as well as a template for an end-of-month report in report card-style format.

There are several elements you should consider when evaluating a link developer’s performance:

  1. The number of links they actually build
  2. The number of links they request (i.e. the number of requests they have sent out for the month)
  3. The types of links they’re obtaining (reciprocals vs. article submissions vs. pure one-way links)
  4. The quality of the links they’re obtaining (the linked page’s pagerank, the number of links on the inbound links page, the anchor text being used, the value of the domain from which the link originates)
  5. The retention of acquired links (you can measure the rate of growth of your backlinks as a whole from month to month; if you have more than one developer working on the same site, you might spot-check their links to get an idea of their individual retention rates)

Also, be sure to look at the most important thing of all: your movement in the search engine result pages of the three major engines (be sure to account for any ageing processes that may be in place). And remember that quantity does not always equal quality. Developer “A” may obtain 300 links per month, and your site may move from position 10 to position 8, but this may not be as productive as Developer “B”, who obtains 100 links, moving your site from position 10 to position 6.

The Bottom Line

Whether you choose to outsource link development, or hire in-house link development staff will depend on a variety of factors, including you expectations of quality, your ability to house employees, and whether or not you have the expertise to train, task and manage link developers. But with some work, some training and the right people, taking the process of link development off your shoulders and placing it into the hands of a competent individual will give you more time to focus on improving your site. It will also make the job of link development an easier and more successful process.

Rae HoffmanRae Hoffman
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Rae Hoffman is the Principal of Sugarrae Internet Consulting, which provides consulting on search engine optimization, link development strategies and on-site training. Rae is a regular speaker at the Publishers Conferences and is a recognized voice in the affiliate marketing and link development arenas.

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