December 10, 2018

Evolving Keyword Research to Match Your Buyer’s Journey

Posted by matthew_jkay

Keyword research has been around as long as the SEO industry has. Search engines built a system that revolves around users entering a term or query into a text entry field, hitting return, and receiving a list of relevant results. As the online search market expanded, one clear leader emerged — Google — and with it they brought AdWords (now Google Ads), an advertising platform that allowed organizations to appear on search results pages for keywords that organically they might not.

Within Google Ads came a tool that enabled businesses to look at how many searches there were per month for almost any query. Google Keyword Planner became the de facto tool for keyword research in the industry, and with good reason: it was Google’s data. Not only that, Google gave us the ability to gather further insights due to other metrics Keyword Planner provided: competition and suggested bid. Whilst these keywords were Google Ads-oriented metrics, they gave the SEO industry an indication of how competitive a keyword was.

The reason is obvious. If a keyword or phrase has higher competition (i.e. more advertisers bidding to appear for that term) it’s likely to be more competitive from an organic perspective. Similarly, a term that has a higher suggested bid means it’s more likely to be a competitive term. SEOs dined on this data for years, but when the industry started digging a bit more into the data, we soon realized that while useful, it was not always wholly accurate. Moz, SEMrush, and other tools all started to develop alternative volume and competitive metrics using Clickstream data to give marketers more insights.

Now industry professionals have several software tools and data outlets to conduct their keyword research. These software companies will only improve in the accuracy of their data outputs. Google’s data is unlikely to significantly change; their goal is to sell ad space, not make life easy for SEOs. In fact, they've made life harder by using volume ranges for Google Ads accounts with low activity. SEO tools have investors and customers to appease and must continually improve their products to reduce churn and grow their customer base. This makes things rosy for content-led SEO, right?

Well, not really.

The problem with historical keyword research is twofold:

1. SEOs spend too much time thinking about the decision stage of the buyer’s journey (more on that later).

2. SEOs spend too much time thinking about keywords, rather than categories or topics.

The industry, to its credit, is doing a lot to tackle issue number two. “Topics over keywords” is something that is not new as I’ll briefly come to later. Frameworks for topic-based SEO have started to appear over the last few years. This is a step in the right direction. Organizing site content into categories, adding appropriate internal linking, and understanding that one piece of content can rank for several variations of a phrase is becoming far more commonplace.

What is less well known (but starting to gain traction) is point one. But in order to understand this further, we should dive into what the buyer’s journey actually is.

What is the buyer’s journey?

The buyer’s or customer’s journey is not new. If you open marketing text books from years gone by, get a college degree in marketing, or even just go on general marketing blogs you’ll see it crop up. There are lots of variations of this journey, but they all say a similar thing. No matter what product or service is bought, everyone goes through this journey. This could be online or offline — the main difference is that depending on the product, person, or situation, the amount of time this journey takes will vary — but every buyer goes through it. But what is it, exactly? For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on three stages: awareness, consideration, & decision.

Awareness

The awareness stage of the buyer’s journey is similar to problem discovery, where a potential customer realizes that they have a problem (or an opportunity) but they may not have figured out exactly what that is yet.

Search terms at this stage are often question-based — users are researching around a particular area.

Consideration

The consideration stage is where a potential consumer has defined what their problem or opportunity is and has begun to look for potential solutions to help solve the issue they face.

Decision

The decision stage is where most organizations focus their attention. Normally consumers are ready to buy at this stage and are often doing product or vendor comparisons, looking at reviews, and searching for pricing information.

To illustrate this process, let’s take two examples: buying an ice cream and buying a holiday.

Being low-value, the former is not a particularly considered purchase, but this journey still takes place. The latter is more considered. It can often take several weeks or months for a consumer to decide on what destination they want to visit, let alone a hotel or excursions. But how does this affect keyword research, and the content which we as marketers should provide?

At each stage, a buyer will have a different thought process. It’s key to note that not every buyer of the same product will have the same thought process but you can see how we can start to formulate a process.

The Buyer’s Journey - Holiday Purchase

The above table illustrates the sort of queries or terms that consumers might use at different stages of their journey. The problem is that most organizations focus all of their efforts on the decision end of the spectrum. This is entirely the right approach to take at the start because you’re targeting consumers who are interested in your product or service then and there. However, in an increasingly competitive online space you should try and find ways to diversify and bring people into your marketing funnel (which in most cases is your website) at different stages.

I agree with the argument that creating content for people earlier in the journey will likely mean lower conversion rates from visitor to customer, but my counter to this would be that you're also potentially missing out on people who will become customers. Further possibilities to at least get these people into your funnel include offering content downloads (gated content) to capture user’s information, or remarketing activity via Facebook, Google Ads, or other retargeting platforms.

Moving from keywords to topics

I’m not going to bang this drum too loudly. I think many in of the SEO community have signed up to the approach that topics are more important than keywords. There are quite a few resources on this listed online, but what forced it home for me was Cyrus Shepard’s Moz article in 2014. Much, if not all, of that post still holds true today.

What I will cover is an adoption of HubSpot’s Topic Cluster model. For those unaccustomed to their model, HubSpot’s approach formalizes and labels what many search marketers have been doing for a while now. The basic premise is instead of having your site fragmented with lots of content across multiple sections, all hyperlinking to each other, you create one really in-depth content piece that covers a topic area broadly (and covers shorter-tail keywords with high search volume), and then supplement this page with content targeting the long-tail, such as blog posts, FAQs, or opinion pieces. HubSpot calls this "pillar" and "cluster" content respectively.

Source: Matt Barby / HubSpot

The process then involves taking these cluster pages and linking back to the pillar page using keyword-rich anchor text. There’s nothing particularly new about this approach aside from formalizing it a bit more. Instead of having your site’s content structured in such a way that it's fragmented and interlinking between lots of different pages and topics, you keep the internal linking within its topic, or content cluster. This video explains this methodology further. While we accept this model may not fit every situation, and nor is it completely perfect, it’s a great way of understanding how search engines are now interpreting content.

At Aira, we’ve taken this approach and tried to evolve it a bit further, tying these topics into the stages of the buyer’s journey while utilizing several data points to make sure our outputs are based off as much data as we can get our hands on. Furthermore, because pillar pages tend to target shorter-tail keywords with high search volume, they're often either awareness- or consideration-stage content, and thus not applicable for decision stage. We term our key decision pages “target pages,” as this should be a primary focus of any activity we conduct.

We’ll also look at the semantic relativity of the keywords reviewed, so that we have a “parent” keyword that we’re targeting a page to rank for, and then children of that keyword or phrase that the page may also rank for, due to its similarity to the parent. Every keyword is categorized according to its stage in the buyer’s journey and whether it's appropriate for a pillar, target, or cluster page. We also add two further classifications to our keywords: track & monitor and ignore. Definitions for these five keyword types are listed below:

Pillar page

A pillar page covers all aspects of a topic on a single page, with room for more in-depth reporting in more detailed cluster blog posts that hyperlink back to the pillar page. A keyword tagged with pillar page will be the primary topic and the focus of a page on the website. Pillar pages should be awareness- or consideration-stage content.

A great pillar page example I often refer to is HubSpot’s Facebook marketing guide or Mosi-guard’s insect bites guide (disclaimer: probably don’t click through if you don’t like close-up shots of insects!).

Cluster page

A cluster topic page for the pillar focuses on providing more detail for a specific long-tail keyword related to the main topic. This type of page is normally associated with a blog article but could be another type of content, like an FAQ page.

Good examples within the Facebook marketing topic listed above are HubSpot’s posts:

For Mosi-guard, they’re not utilizing internal links within the copy of the other blogs, but the "older posts" section at the bottom of the blog is referencing this guide:

Target page

Normally a keyword or phrase linked to a product or service page, e.g. nike trainers or seo services. Target pages are decision-stage content pieces.

HubSpot’s target content is their social media software page, with one of Mosi-guard’s target pages being their natural spray product.

Track & monitor

A keyword or phrase that is not the main focus of a page, but could still rank due to its similarity to the target page keyword. A good example of this might be seo services as the target page keyword, but this page could also rank for seo agency, seo company, etc.

Ignore

A keyword or phrase that has been reviewed but is not recommended to be optimized for, possibly due to a lack of search volume, it’s too competitive, it won’t be profitable, etc.

Once the keyword research is complete, we then map our keywords to existing website pages. This gives us a list of mapped keywords and a list of unmapped keywords, which in turn creates a content gap analysis that often leads to a content plan that could last for three, six, or twelve-plus months.

Putting it into practice

I’m a firm believer in giving an example of how this would work in practice, so I’m going to walk through one with screenshots. I’ll also provide a template of our keyword research document for you to take away.

1. Harvesting keywords

The first step in the process is similar, if not identical, to every other keyword research project. You start off with a batch of keywords from the client or other stakeholders that the site wants to rank for. Most of the industry call this a seed keyword list. That keyword list is normally a minimum of 15–20 keywords, but can often be more if you’re dealing with an e-commerce website with multiple product lines.

This list is often based off nothing more than opinion: “What do we think our potential customers will search for?” It’s a good starting point, but you need the rest of the process to follow on to make sure you’re optimizing based off data, not opinion.

2. Expanding the list

Once you’ve got that keyword list, it’s time to start utilizing some of the tools you have at your disposal. There are lots, of course! We tend to use a combination of Moz Keyword Explorer, Answer the Public, Keywords Everywhere, Google Search Console, Google Analytics, Google Ads, ranking tools, and SEMrush.

The idea of this list is to start thinking about keywords that the organization may not have considered before. Your expanded list will include obvious synonyms from your list. Take the example below:

Seed Keywords

Expanded Keywords

ski chalet

ski chalet

ski chalet rental

ski chalet hire

ski chalet [location name]

etc

There are other examples that should be considered. A client I worked with in the past once gave a seed keyword of “biomass boilers.” But after keyword research was conducted, a more colloquial term for “biomass boilers” in the UK is “wood burners.” This is an important distinction and should be picked up as early in the process as possible. Keyword research tools are not infallible, so if budget and resource allows, you may wish to consult current and potential customers about which terms they might use to find the products or services being offered.

3. Filtering out irrelevant keywords

Once you’ve expanded the seed keyword list, it’s time to start filtering out irrelevant keywords. This is pretty labor-intensive and involves sorting through rows of data. We tend to use Moz’s Keyword Explorer, filter by relevancy, and work our way down. As we go, we’ll add keywords to lists within the platform and start to try and sort things by topic. Topics are fairly subjective, and often you’ll get overlap between them. We’ll group similar keywords and phrases together in a topic based off the semantic relativity of those phrases. For example:

Topic

Keywords

ski chalet

ski chalet

ski chalet rental

ski chalet hire

ski chalet [location name]

catered chalet

catered chalet

luxury catered chalet

catered chalet rental

catered chalet hire

catered chalet [location name]

ski accommodation

ski accommodation

cheap ski accommodation

budget ski accommodation

ski accomodation [location name]

Many of the above keywords are decision-based keywords — particularly those with rental or hire in them. They're showing buying intent. We’ll then try to put ourselves in the mind of the buyer and come up with keywords towards the start of the buyer’s journey.

Topic

Keywords

Buyer’s stage

ski resorts

ski resorts

best ski resorts

ski resorts europe

ski resorts usa

ski resorts canada

top ski resorts

cheap ski resorts

luxury ski resorts

Consideration

skiing

skiing

skiing guide

skiing beginner’s guide

Consideration

family holidays

family holidays

family winter holidays

family trips

Awareness

This helps us cater to customers that might not be in the frame of mind to purchase just yet — they're just doing research. It means we cast the net wider. Conversion rates for these keywords are unlikely to be high (at least, for purchases or enquiries) but if utilized as part of a wider marketing strategy, we should look to capture some form of information, primarily an email address, so we can send people relevant information via email or remarketing ads later down the line.

4. Pulling in data

Once you’ve expanded the seed keywords out, Keyword Explorer’s handy list function enables your to break things down into separate topics. You can then export that data into a CSV and start combining it with other data sources. If you have SEMrush API access, Dave Sottimano’s API Library is a great time saver; otherwise, you may want to consider uploading the keywords into the Keywords Everywhere Chrome extension and manually exporting the data and combining everything together. You should then have a spreadsheet that looks something like this:

You could then add in additional data sources. There’s no reason you couldn’t combine the above with volumes and competition metrics from other SEO tools. Consider including existing keyword ranking information or Google Ads data in this process. Keywords that convert well on PPC should do the same organically and should therefore be considered. Wil Reynolds talks about this particular tactic a lot.

5. Aligning phrases to the buyer’s journey

The next stage of the process is to start categorizing the keywords into the stage of the buyer’s journey. Something we’ve found at Aira is that keywords don’t always fit into a predefined stage. Someone looking for “marketing services” could be doing research about what marketing services are, but they could also be looking for a provider. You may get keywords that could be either awareness/consideration or consideration/decision. Use your judgement, and remember this is subjective. Once complete, you should end up with some data that looks similar to this:

This categorization is important, as it starts to frame what type of content is most appropriate for that keyword or phrase.

The next stage of this process is to start noticing patterns in keyphrases and where they get mapped to in the buyer’s journey. Often you’ll see keywords like “price” or ”cost” at the decision stage and phrases like “how to” at the awareness stage. Once you start identifying these patterns, possibly using a variation of Tom Casano’s keyword clustering approach, you can then try to find a way to automate so that when these terms appear in your keyword column, the intent automatically gets updated.

Once completed, we can then start to define each of our keywords and give them a type:

  • Pillar page
  • Cluster page
  • Target page
  • Track & monitor
  • Ignore

We use this document to start thinking about what type of content is most effective for that piece given the search volume available, how competitive that term is, how profitable the keyword could be, and what stage the buyer might be at. We’re trying to find that sweet spot between having enough search volume, ensuring we can actually rank for that keyphrase (there’s no point in a small e-commerce startup trying to rank for “buy nike trainers”), and how important/profitable that phrase could be for the business. The below Venn diagram illustrates this nicely:

We also reorder the keywords so keywords that are semantically similar are bucketed together into parent and child keywords. This helps to inform our on-page recommendations:

From the example above, you can see "digital marketing agency" as the main keyword, but “digital marketing services” & “digital marketing agency uk” sit underneath.

We also use conditional formatting to help identify keyword page types:

And then sheets to separate topics out:

Once this is complete, we have a data-rich spreadsheet of keywords that we then work with clients on to make sure we’ve not missed anything. The document can get pretty big, particularly when you’re dealing with e-commerce websites that have thousands of products.

5. Keyword mapping and content gap analysis

We then map these keywords to existing content to ensure that the site hasn’t already written about the subject in the past. We often use Google Search Console data to do this so we understand how any existing content is being interpreted by the search engines. By doing this we’re creating our own content gap analysis. An example output can be seen below:

The above process takes our keyword research and then applies the usual on-page concepts (such as optimizing meta titles, URLs, descriptions, headings, etc) to existing pages. We’re also ensuring that we’re mapping our user intent and type of page (pillar, cluster, target, etc), which helps us decide what sort of content the piece should be (such as a blog post, webinar, e-book, etc). This process helps us understand what keywords and phrases the site is not already being found for, or is not targeted to.

Free template

I promised a template Google Sheet earlier in this blog post and you can find that here.

Do you have any questions on this process? Ways to improve it? Feel free to post in the comments below or ping me over on Twitter!


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December 10, 2018

Next Level Digital Expertise – Recap of the 1st Searchmetrics Digital Expert Week

Continuous learning, iterating and testing, as well as the ambition to keep up with the ever-changing world of digital marketing is what defines a ...

The post Next Level Digital Expertise – Recap of the 1st Searchmetrics Digital Expert Week appeared first on Searchmetrics SEO Blog.

December 7, 2018

Content Comprehensiveness – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by KameronJenkinsWhen Google says they prefer comprehensive, complete content, what does that really mean? In this week's episode of Whiteboard Friday, Kameron Jenkins explores actionable ways to translate the demands of the search engines into ...
December 5, 2018

The Guide to Building Linked Unstructured Citations for Local SEO

Posted by MiriamEllis

This article was written jointly in partnership with Kameron Jenkins. You can enjoy her previous articles here.


When you’ve accomplished step one in your local search marketing, how do you take step two?

You already know that any local business you market has to have the table stakes of accurate structured citations on major platforms like Facebook, Yelp, Infogroup, Acxiom, and YP.

But what can local SEO practitioners do once they’ve got these formal listings created and a system in place for managing them? Our customers often come to us once they’ve gotten well underway with Moz Local and ask, “What’s next? What can I do to move the needle?” This blog post will give you the actionable strategy and a complete step-by-step tutorial to answer this important question.

A quick refresher on citations

Listings on formal directories are called “structured citations.” When other types of platforms (like online news, blogs, best-of lists, etc.) reference a local business’ complete or partial contact information, that’s called an “unstructured citation.” And the best unstructured citations of all include links, of course!

For example, the San Francisco branch of a natural foods grocery store gets a linked unstructured citation from a major medical center in their city via a blog post about stocking a pantry with the right ingredients for healthier eating. Google and consumers encounter this reference and understand that trust and authority are being conveyed and earned.

The more often websites that are relevant to your location or industry link to you within their own content, the better your chances of ranking well in Google’s organic and local search engine results.

Why linked unstructured citations are growing in importance right now

Link building is as old as organic SEO. Structured citation building is as old as local SEO. Both practices have long sought to influence Google rankings. But a close read of the local search marketing community these days points up an increasing emphasis on the value of unstructured citations. In fact, local links were one of the top three takeaways from the 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors survey. Why is this?

  1. Google has become the dominant force in local consumer experiences, keeping as many actions as possible within their own interface instead of sending searchers to company websites. Because links influence rank within that interface, most local businesses enterprises will need to move beyond traditional structured citations to impress Google with mentions on a diverse variety of relevant websites. While structured citations are rightly referred to as “table stakes” for all local businesses, it’s the unstructured ones that can be competitive difference-makers in tough markets.
  2. Meanwhile, Google is increasingly monetizing local search results. A prime example of this is their Local Service Ads (LSA) program which acts as lead gen between Google and service area businesses like plumbing and housekeeping companies. Savvy local brands (including brick-and-mortar models) will see the way the wind is blowing with this and work to form non-Google-dependent sources of traffic and lead generation. A good linked unstructured citation on a highly relevant publication can drive business without having to pay Google a dime.

Your goal with linked unstructured citations is to build your community footprint and your authority simultaneously. All you need is the right tools for the research phase!

Fishing for opportunities with Link Intersect

For the sake of this tutorial, let’s choose at random a small B&B in Albuquerque — Bottger.com — as our hypothetical client. Let’s say that the innkeeper wants to know how the big Tribal resort casinos are earning publicity and links, in the hopes of finding opportunities for a smaller hospitality business, too. *Note that these aren’t absolutely direct competitors, but they share a city and an overall industry.

We’re going to use Moz’s Link Intersect tool to do this research for Bottger Mansion. This tool could help Bottger uncover all kinds of links and unstructured linked citation opportunities, depending on how it’s used. For example, the tool could surface:

  • Links that direct or near-direct competitors have, but that Bottger doesn’t
  • Locally relevant links from domains/pages about Bottger’s locale
  • Industry-relevant links from domains/pages about the hospitality industry

Step 1: Find the "big fish"

A client may already know who the “big fish” in their community are, or you can cast a net by identifying popular local events and seeing which businesses sponsor them. Sponsorships can be pricey, depending on the event, so if a local company sponsors a big event, it’s an indication that they're a larger enterprise with the budget to pursue a wide array of creative PR ideas. Larger enterprises can serve as models for small business emulation, at scale.

In our case study, we know that Bottger is located in Albuquerque, so we decided to locate sponsors of the famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Right away, we spotted two lavish Albuquerque resort-casinos — Isleta and Sandia. These are the “big fish” we want our smaller client to look to for inspiration.

Step 2: Input domains in Link Intersect

We’re going to compare Bottger’s domain to Isleta and Sandia’s domains. In Moz Pro, navigate to “Link Explorer” and then select “Link Intersect” from the left navigation. Input your domain in the top and the domains you want to mine link ideas from in the fields beneath, as depicted below.

Open Link Explorer in a new tab

Next to Bottger’s domain, we've selected “root domain” as that will show us all competitor links who haven’t linked to us at all. We’re also going to select “root domain” on the resort domains, so we can see all of their backlinks, rather than just links to particular pages on their sites.

Moz’s Link Intersect tool will let you compare your site with up to 5 competitors. It’s totally up to you how many sites you want to evaluate at once. If you’re just getting started with link building, you may want to start with just one domain, as this should yield plenty of link opportunities to start with. If you’ve already been doing some link building, you have more time to dedicate to link building, or you’d just generally rather have more options to work with, go ahead and put in multiple domains to compare.

Step 3: Find link opportunities

Once you’ve input your domain and your competitor(s) domains, click “Find Opportunities.” That will yield a list of sites that link to your competitors, but do not link to you.

In this example, we’re comparing our client’s domain against two other domains: A (Isleta) and B (Sandia). In the “Sites that intersect” column, you will see whether Site A has the link, Site B has it, or if they both have it.

Step 4: The link selection process

Now that we have a list of link ideas from Isleta and Sandia’s backlink profiles, it’s time to decide which ones might yield good opportunities for our B&B. That’s right — just because something is in a competitor’s link profile doesn’t necessarily mean you want it!

View the referring pages

The first step is to drill down and get more detail about links the big resorts have. Select the arrow to expand this section and view the exact page the link is coming from.

In this example, both Sandia and Isleta have links from the root domain marriott.com. By using the “expand” feature, we can see the exact pages those links are located on.

Identify follow or no-follow

You can use the MozBar Chrome plugin to view whether your competitor’s link is no-followed or followed. Since only followed links pass authority, you may want to prioritize those, but no-followed links can also have value in the form of generating traffic to your site and could get picked up by others who do eventually link to your site with a follow link.

Select the MozBar icon from your browser and click the pencil icon. If you want to see Followed links, select “Followed” and the MozBar will highlight these links on the page in green. To find No-Followed links, click “No-Followed” and MozBar will highlight these links on the page in pink.

Common types of links you’ll see in the profiles of local business websites

If this is your first foray into link building for local businesses, you may be unfamiliar with the types of sites you’ll see in Link Intersect. While no two link profiles are exactly the same, many local businesses use similar methods for building links, so there are some common categories to be aware of. Knowing these will help you decipher the results Link Intersect will show you.

Types of links and what you can do with them:

Press releases

Press release sites like PRweb.com and PRnewsire.com are fairly common among local businesses that want to spread the word about their initiatives. Whether someone at the business won an award or they started a new community outreach program, local businesses often pay companies like PRweb.com to distribute this news on their platform and to their partners. These are no-followed links (don’t pass link authority aka “SEO value”) but they can offer valuable traffic and could even get picked up by sites that do link with a follow link.

If your competitor is utilizing press releases, you may want to consider distributing your newsworthy information this way!

Structured citations / directories

One of the primary types of domains you’ll see in a local business’ backlink profile is directories — structured citation websites like yellowpages.com that list a business’ name, address, and phone number (NAP) with a link back to the business’ website. Because they’re self-created and not editorially given, like Press Releases, they are often no-followed. However, having consistent and accurate citations across major directory websites is a key foundational step in local search performance.

If you see these types of sites in Link Intersect, it may indicate your need for a listings management solution like Moz Local that can ensure your NAP is accurate and available across major directories. Typically, you’ll want to have these table stakes before focusing on unstructured linked citations.

News coverage

Another favorite among local businesses is local media coverage (or just media coverage in general — it’s not always local). HARO (Help a Reporter Out) is a popular service for connecting journalists to subject matter experts who may be valuable sources for their articles. The journalists will typically link your quote back to your website. Aside from services like HARO, local businesses would do well to make media contacts, such as forming relationships with local news correspondents. As news surfaces, they’ll start reaching out to you for comment!

If you see news coverage in your competitor’s backlink profile, you can get ideas of what types of publications want content and information that you can provide.

Local / industry coverage

Blogs, hobby sites, DIY sites, and other platforms can feature content that depicts city life or interest in a topic. For example, a chef might author a popular blog covering their dining experiences in San Francisco. For a local restaurant, being cited by this publication could be valuable.

If you see popular local or industry sites in your competitor’s backlink profile, it’s a good signal of opportunity for your business to build a relationship with the authors in hopes of gaining links.

Trade organizations

Most local businesses are affiliated with some type of governing/regulating body, trade organization, award organization, etc. Many of these organizations have websites themselves, and they often list the businesses they’re affiliated with.

If your competitor is involved with an organization, that means your business is likely suited to be involved as well! Use these links to get ideas of which organizations to join.

Community organizations

Community organizations are a great local validator for search engines, and many local businesses have taken notice. You’ll likely find these types of organizations’ websites in your competitor’s backlink profile, such as Chamber of Commerce websites or the local YMCA.

As a local business, your competitors are in the same locale as you, so take note of these community organizations and consider joining them. You’ll not only get the benefit of better community involvement, but you can get a link out of it too!

Sponsorships / event participation

Local businesses can sponsor, donate to, host or participate in community events, teams, and other cherished local resources, which can lead to both online and offline publicity.

Local businesses can earn great links from online press surrounding these groups and happening. If an event/team page highlights you, but doesn’t actually link to benefactors/participants, don’t be shy about politely requesting a link.

Scholarships / .edu sites

A popular strategy used by many local businesses and non-local businesses alike is scholarship link building. Businesses figured out that if they offered a scholarship, they could get a link back to their site on education websites, such as .edu domains. Everyone seemed to catch on — so much so that many schools stopped featuring these scholarships on their site. It’s also important to note that .edu domains don’t inherently have more value than domains on any other TLD.

If your business wants to offer a scholarship, that is a great thing! We encourage you to pursue this for the benefit it could offer students, rather than primarily for the purpose of gaining links. Scholarship link building has become very saturated, and could be a strategy with diminishing returns, so don’t put all your eggs in this basket, and do it first and foremost for students instead of links.

Other businesses

Businesses may sometimes partner with each other for mutually beneficial link opportunities. Co-marketing opportunities that are a byproduct of genuine relationships can present valuable link opportunities, but link exchanges are against Google’s quality guidelines.

Stay away from “you link to me, I’ll link to you” opportunities as Google can see it as an attempt to manipulate your site’s ranking in search, but don’t be afraid to pursue genuine connections with other businesses that can turn into linking opportunities.

Spam

Just because your competitor has that link doesn’t mean you want it too! In Link Intersect, pay attention to the domain’s Spam Score and DA. A high spam score and/or low DA can indicate that the link wouldn’t be valuable for your site, and may even harm it.

Also watch out for links generated from comments. If your competitor has links in their backlink profile coming from comments, you can safely ignore these as they do not present real opportunities for earning links that will move the needle in the right direction.

Now that you’re familiar with popular types of local backlinks and what you can do with them, let’s actually dig into Isleta and Sandia’s backlinks to see which might be good prospects for us.

Step 5: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Both the Albuquerque Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn link to Isleta and Sandia on their “Local Things to Do” pages. This could be a great prospect for Bottger! In many cases, “things to do” pages will include lists of local restaurants, historic sites, attractions, shops, and more. Note how their addresses are included on the following pages, making them powerful linked unstructured citations. Bottger hosts fancy tea parties in a lovely setting, which could be a fun thing for tourists to do.

Isleta and Sandia also have links from a wedding website. If Bottger uses their property as a wedding venue, offers special wedding or engagement packages, or something similar, this could be a great prospect as well.

Link Intersect also yielded links to various travel guide websites. There are plenty of links on websites like these to local attractions. In the following example, you can see an Albuquerque travel guide that's broken up by category, “hotels” being one of them:

Isleta and Sandia also have been featured in the Albuquerque Journal. In this example, a local reporter covered news that Isleta was opening expanded bingo and poker rooms. This seems to be a journalist who covers local businesses, so she could be a great connection to make!

Many other links in Isleta and Sandia’s backlink profiles came from sources like events websites, since these resorts are large enough to serve as the venue for major events like concerts and MMA matches. Although Bottger isn’t large enough to host an event of that magnitude, it could spark good ideas for link building opportunities in the future. Maybe Bottger could host a small community tea tasting event featuring locally sourced herbal teas and get in touch with a local reporter to promote it. Even competitor links that you can’t directly pursue can spark your creativity for related link building opportunities.

And let’s not forget how we found out about Isleta and Sandia in the first place: the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta! Event sponsors are featured on an “official sponsors” page with links to their websites. This is a classic, locally relevant opportunity for any Albuquerque business.

Step 6: Compile your link prospects in Link Tracking Lists

If you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work. How am I ever going to keep track of all this?” — we’ve got you covered!

Moz Pro’s “Link Tracking Lists” was built for just this purpose.

In Link Intersect, you’ll see little check boxes next to all your competitors’ links. When you find one you want to target, check the box. When you’re done going through all the links and have checked the boxes next to the domains you want to pursue, click “Add to Link Tracking List” at the top right.

Since we’ve never done link building for Bottger before, we’re going to select “Create New List” from the dropdown, and label it something descriptive.

Make sure to put your client’s domain in the “target URL” field. For Step 3, since we’ve just selected the links we want to track from Link Intersect, those will already be populated in this field, so no further action is needed other than to click “Save.”

We’ll come back to Link Tracking Lists when we talk about outreach, but for now, all you need to know is that you can add the desirable competitor links (in our case, links from Isleta and Sandia) to Link Tracking lists straight from Link Intersect, making it easy to manage your data.

Step 7: Find out how to connect with your link prospects

Now it’s time to connect the dots: how do you go from knowing about your competitor’s links to getting those types of links for yourself?

There are three main ways you can get unstructured linked citations to your local business’ website, and those categories are what’s going to dictate the strategy you need to take to secure that opportunity for yourself.

  1. Self-created: Self-created links are like voting for yourself, so sites that accept these types of submissions, like Yelp.com, will NoFollow the link to your business' website. Visitors are still referred to your website through that link, but the link doesn't pass authority from Yelp.com to your domain. You should only get authority from a website if they link to you on their own (what Google calls "editorially placed" links). Neither NoFollow nor Follow links are inherently good or bad on their own. They are just intended for different purposes, and it's the misuse of followed links that can get you in trouble with Google. We'll talk more about that in a later section titled “Avoiding the bad fish: Risks of ignoring Google’s link scheme guidelines”
  2. Prompted by outreach: In many cases, people won’t know about your content until you tell them. These links are editorially placed by the site owner (not self-created), but the site owner was only made aware of your content because you reached out to them.
  3. Organically earned: Sometimes, you get links even without asking for them. If you have a popular piece of content on your site that receives lots of traffic, for example, people may link to that on their own because they find it valuable.

Since this tutorial is about proactively pursuing link opportunities, we’re going to focus on unstructured linked citations types one and two.

Articles

If your competitor has been featured in an article from say a local journalist or blogger, then your outreach will be focused on making a connection with that writer or publication for future link opportunities, rather than getting the exact link your competitor has. That’s because the article has already been written, so it’s unlikely that the writer will go back and edit their story just to add your link.

The one exception to this rule would be if the article links to your competitor, but your competitor’s link is now broken. In this scenario, you could reach out to the writer and say something like, “Hey! I notice in your article [article title] you link to [competitor’s link], but that link doesn’t seem to be working. I have similar content on my website [your URL]. If you find it valuable, please feel free to use it as a replacement for that broken link!”

Sometimes the contact information of the writer will be right next to the article, itself. For example:

If there’s no email address or contact form in the writer’s bio, you can usually find a link to one of their social media accounts, like Twitter, and you can connect with them there via a public or direct message. If you live in a small, tight-knit community, you may even be able to meet with the author in person.

Press releases

If you notice your competitors are issuing a lot of press releases and you want to try that out for yourself, you’ll likely need to sign up for an account, as these are a primarily self-serve platform. Most quality press release sites charge per release, and the price can differ depending on length.

Citations / directories

You’ll either want to sign up for a citation service like Moz Local that distributes your data to these types of listings programmatically, or if you do it manually, you’ll want to find the link to create your listings. Please note that your business may already be on the directory even if you haven’t set up a profile. Before creating a new listing, search for your business name and its variants, your phone number, and current and former addresses to see if there are existing listings you can claim and update.

Business websites

Most businesses will make it easy to contact them. If you’re trying to contact another business for the purpose of proposing teaming up for a co-marketing opportunity, look in their footer (the very bottom of the website). If there’s no contact information there, search for a “Contact Us” or “About” page. You may not find an email address, but you may be able to find a contact form or phone number. Below is an example from Albuquerque Little Theater, where they have contact information on the right and advertising information in the top navigation for businesses that are interested in taking out ads in their printed show programs. Not an unstructured linked citation, but a great way to get your business known to the community!

Organizations

Most organizations will make it easy for those who want to join, unless they are more exclusive or invitation-only. In the event that you do wish to get involved in an invitation-only organization that has no public-facing contact information, try viewing a member list and seeing if there’s anyone you know. Or maybe you know someone who can introduce you to one of the members. Genuine connections are key for this type of organization.

Step 8: Writing a good outreach email (for unstructured linked citations requiring outreach)

Outreach emails are necessary when the link opportunity you’re pursuing isn’t a link you could create yourself, or if the link source is one where you can’t make face-to-face contact with decision-makers. One of the most important questions you should be asking yourself for these opportunities is, “Why would this website link to me?”

Here’s how Bottger might go about sending an outreach email:

Greeting that matches the nature of the outreach target

“Hey Jill!” might be fine when outreaching to the author of a blog, while “Hello Ms. Smith” might be better for more professional outreach.

Introduction

Give a brief summary of who you are, what you do, and your interest in contacting them. For example: “I work with Bottger Mansion, a historic Bed & Breakfast in Old Town Albuquerque. I found your page about Albuquerque activities — you’ve really captured a lot of what Albuquerque has to offer!”

The ask, and the value add

This is where you’ll actually ask for the link. It’s a good idea here to add value. Don’t just ask for something; offer to give something back!

To continue the same example: “As long-time residents of Old Town, we’d love to provide you with a comprehensive list of activities in the city’s historic district! We feel an Old Town Activities list would be a great addition to your page. Bottger Mansion regularly hosts high tea, for example, which we’d love to let more people know about with a spot on your list!”

Close

Wish them well, thank them for their time, and sign off. Make sure that it’s easy for them to find information about you by including your full name, title, organization, and website/social links in your email signature.

Don’t be afraid to get on the phone, either! Hearing your voice can add a human element to the outreach attempt and offer a better conversion rate than a more impersonal email (we all get so many of those a day that ones from people we don’t know are easy to ignore).

And remember that local businesses have a particular advantage in accruing unstructured linked citations. Lively participation in the life of your community can continuously introduce you to decision-makers at popular local publications, paving the way towards neighborly outreach on your part. Learn to see the opportunities and think of ways your business can add value to the content that is being written about your town or city.

Step 9: Tracking your wins

Next-to-last, we’re going to jump back to Link Tracking Lists for a second, because that’s going to come in extremely handy here. Remember when we created the list with Sandia and Isleta’s links that we were interested in pursuing? Those will now show up when we go to Moz Pro > Link Explorer > Link Tracking Lists.

Every time Bottger successfully secures a link that they’ve added to their Link Tracking List, the red X in “Links to target URL?” column will turn blue, indicating that the site links to Bottger’s root domain. If we were pursuing links to individual pages, and a link prospect linked to our target page, the red X would turn green.

Another handy feature is the “Notes” dropdown. This allows you to keep track of your outreach attempts, which can be one of the trickiest parts about link building!

Avoiding the bad fish: Some words of caution before you get started

Before starting this process for yourself, familiarize yourself with these four risks so that your fishing trip doesn’t result in a basket of bad catches that could waste your resources or get your website penalized.

1. Risks of a “copy only” strategy

Link Intersect can be amazingly helpful for discovering new, relevant link opportunities for your local business, but link builders beware. If all you ever do is copy your competitors, the most you’ll ever achieve is becoming the second-best version of them. Use this method to keep tabs on strategies your competition is using, and even use it to spark your own creativity, but avoid copying everything your competitors do, and nothing else. Why be the second-best version of your competition when you can be the best version of yourself?

2. Risks of a “blindly follow” strategy

Comparing your site’s backlink profile with your direct competitors’ backlink profiles will return a list of links that they have and you don’t, but don’t use Link Intersect results as an exact checklist of links to pursue. Your competitors might have bad backlinks in their profile. For example, avoid pursuing opportunities from domains with a high Spam Score or low Domain or Page Authority (DA/PA). Learn more about how to evaluate sites by their Spam Score or DA/PA.

They might also have great backlinks that aren’t the right opportunity for your business, and those should be avoided too! Do you remember Isleta and Sandia’s links for events like MMA matches? If Bottger were to blindly take those resorts’ link profiles as directives, they might think they have to host a fight at their B&B, too!

Take what you find with a grain of salt. Evaluate every link opportunity on its own merit, rather than deeming it a good opportunity simply because your competitor has it.

3. Risks of an “apples to oranges” strategy

Choose the domains and pages you want to compare yourself against wisely. As a small local B&B, Bottger wouldn’t want to compare their backlink profile to that of Wikipedia or The New York Times, for example. Those sites are popular, but not relevant in any way to the types of unstructured linked citations Bottger would want to pursue, such as links that are locally relevant or industry-relevant.

In other words, just because a site is popular doesn’t mean it will yield relevant unstructured linked citation opportunities for you. Here in this tutorial, we’ve outlined one potential use-case for Link Intersect: finding unstructured linked citations your local business competitors have. However, this is not the only use for Link Intersect. Instead of comparing your site against competitors or near-competitors, you could compare it against:

If you know what types of links you’re trying to find, choosing sites to evaluate against your own should be a lot easier, and yield more relevant opportunities.

4. Risks of ignoring Google’s “link schemes” guidelines

If you’ve never embarked on link building before, we encourage you to read through Google’s quality guidelines for webmasters, specifically its section on “Link schemes.” If you were to distill those link guidelines down into a single principle, it would be: don’t create links for the purpose of manipulating your site’s ranking in Google search. That’s right. Google doesn’t want anyone embarking on any marketing initiatives solely for the purpose of improving their ranking. Google wants links to be the natural byproduct of the quality work you’re doing for your audience. Google can penalize sites that participate in activities such as:

  • Buying links that pass PageRank (“followed” links)
  • Excessive “you link to me and I’ll link to you” exchanges
  • Self-created followed links that weren’t editorially placed by the site owner

This underscores that the activities that are just good business, like being involved in the local community, are also the ones that can produce the links that Google likes. Sites owners might need a little nudge, which is why we’ve included a section on outreach, but that doesn’t mean the links are unnatural. Unstructured linked citations should be a byproduct of the good work local businesses are doing in their communities.

In conclusion

At Moz, we’re strong believers in authenticity, and there is no better pond for building meaningful marketing relationships than the local one. Focusing on unstructured linked citations can be viewed as a prompt to grow your community relationships — with journalists, bloggers, event hosts, business associations, and customers. It’s a chance for a real-world fishing trip that can reel in a basket of publicity for your local brand beyond what money can buy. Your genuine desire to serve and build community will stand you in good stead for the long haul.


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