This review wasn't written with a purpose of puzzling and overwhelming marketing managers. It is mainly aimed at SEO professionals who struggle finding time for link building. Despite the global webmaster panic that ensued from the 2012 Google Penguin updates, acquiring backlinks has remained on website owners’ agendas.
Although I agree (to a certain extent) with the Google insiders who keep saying that links are not the "end all and be all" of SEO, if we look at the cold hard facts and analyse first page results for some really competitive keywords, the websites that rank high will inevitably have an impressive backlink profile.
Now that we have established that link acquisition is important, how do we create a sustainable link building process. There’s plenty of advice out there and the SEO experts who are (or want to come across as) white hat, will tell you that you absolutely can’t automate your link building process and that you need to build individual relationships with bloggers and content curators.
If, however, you’ve had any actual hands-on experience with link acquisition, you will know that any link acquisition campaign involves tedious research, long hours spent sending emails – and all that for a really discouraging success rate.
In other words, you need to contact a significant number of people to get one webmaster to respond positively. This is understandable – they’re all bombarded with emails from unscrupulous link builders, and your well-researched and well-meant attempt is likely to end up in the trash bin.
Link building is about adding value
The golden rule of link building is – don’t be egotistic. Ask yourself how your content can add value to other people and you’ll find your link outreach success rate increase.
If at least some steps of your link acquisition process can’t be automated (or semi-automated) you’re setting yourself up for a failure. We see it regularly – people approach link acquisition with the best intentions but they end up giving it up after a few weeks as they come to a realisation that it has taken over their whole lives. That’s where link building outreach tools come in.
A typical link building outreach tool lets you create outreach templates where personalised details like webmaster names and their website titles are dynamically replaced with the actual data. These tools also facilitate sending outreach emails on a mass scale. Another feature that is expected of a modern outreach tool is prospecting – helping you find potential link sources without the need for an in-depth knowledge of Google advanced search queries.
To over-simplify things, traditional semi-automated link building process looks like this:
- Use advanced search queries to find websites that have a good potential of linking to your resources
- Put them into an Excel spreadsheet
- Visit the pages one by one, get rid of the irrelevant ones and collect webmaster contact details for the valid ones
- Email and follow-up with the webmasters to garner as many positive responses as possible
When I say “traditional”, there’s also a more advanced method, that involves link building tools. You import your list of websites and it will find contact details on your behalf.
Now that I’ve done a great job selling the concept of an outreach tool, I’ll put a damper on it and say that outreach tools suck. I’m still going to use them but they’re going to remain my pet peeve and they’re going to be making my life a misery for the foreseeable future.
General link building workflow
This is what a typical link tool interface look like. You’ve got a list of prospects which you’re supposed to go through one by one, sending them pre-created outreach templates.
The outreach workflow is somewhat easier on Buzzstream. The downside is that you have to click a prospect's email to send a templated email. On the surface, Ninja Outreach has a better concept for outreach workflow. Not only does it display additional information about each prospect, once you've sent an email, it will automatically load the next prospect for you.
The most annoying thing about Ninja Outreach is the delay between hitting the Send button and the progress bar kicking in. Now, I don't understand why you even need this progress bar because you can easily send emails through a background process (like Buzzstream does it). It can take up to 15 seconds for the progress bar to even show up and then there's a further delay as you stare at the progress bar praying for it to disappear.
And then on some occasions a self-appointed email validator pop-up crops up alerting me that the prospect's email is likely to be invalid. Tell you what, I've been using Ninja Outreach for the past few weeks and the email validator has got it wrong 100 times out of 100 because all my lists have been pre-validated. Trying to get rid of the uber-annoying and totally useless popup takes another 5+ seconds, and it all adds up especially if you're going through hundreds of prospects.
With this in mind, iterating through a Buzzstream list takes less time, even though I have to open/close the email window and change the prospect relationship status manually.
Since I'm currently using Ninja Outreach, I had to develop a hack to rid my mind of suicidal thoughts. I open two tabs and execute two outreach campaigns simultaneously by alternating between the tabs. Luckily the template auto-loader is not cookies-based, so I can have two separate lists and separate templates open at once.
The maddest thing about it all is that this workflow is very prone to errors. Once you've reached the end of your list and sent an email to your last prospect, it won't close automatically, it will simply reload the last prospect again and again, and if you're not extra-careful, you can end up sending this poor chap multiple emails before you realise.
There's a similar issue when you have a huge list and you pick up sending emails after a pause. Lose concentration for a split second, and you will be sending duplicate emails to the same prospects. The only indication is a tiny bit of text on the left-hand side panel: “See past (1)“ where the digit in the brackets represents the number of times you've attempted to contact this person.
I've fallen for this trap several times, making myself look extremely unprofessional and potentially losing valuable link opportunities. No such issue with Buzzstream where you're totally responsible for setting the relationship stage and clicking the next prospect on the list. I do think I have figured out a workaround for Ninja Outreach, though. Now when I pick up after a pause, I use filters to remove people whom I've already emailed. It seems to be working.
Export feature of link building outreach tools
Finally, if you’re not happy with the workflow that these outreach tools offer, you can export your data as CSV and use my wildcard method to mass-send emails. The CSVs produced by Buzzstream are really frustrating. It’s almost like they stopped working on the tool in 2012.
The export will contain columns of data that are of no significance to anybody (like Google PageRank) and it will not contain peoples’ Instagram accounts because Instagram was only a fledgling back in the day, and I’m not even sure the guys at Buzzstream have heard of it. Or perhaps they have and they simply can’t be bothered to update their export feature.
Webmaster name discovery
Buzzstream is doing a better job at figuring out webmasters’ names. If it can’t figure it out, it will leave a blank space. Ninja Outreach on the other hand, is making total mincemeat of it. If it can’t understand which part of the blog post represents the author’s name, it will either pull out a totally random name from another part of the website or (which happens most of times) split the site title dropping the last word to come up with a person's name.
So when I’m iterating through my outreach emails, I will address people with nonsense like this:
Hi A Piece Of,
Honestly! I'm not making this up. In my early Ninja Outreach days I actually sent out an email addressing a person “A piece of” because the site was called “A piece of Cake” and it assumed that Cake was this person’s surname and “A piece of” was his first name. This may sound hilarious but I can tell you it’s not.
Nevertheless, the email god was benevolent to me and this message bounced. I did learn my lesson. I now always check the name field before clicking the “send” button. It’s just adding on another few seconds per email as I have to check and delete the nonsense. So, where it should save my time, it actually creates a bunch of useless tasks to slow me down.
Contact detail discovery
If you import a list of valid urls that you've gathered elsewhere, both Buzzstream and Ninja Outreach will crawl the sites and attempt to collect contact information, social media accounts and other bits. They’re usually pretty accurate, however, there’s a big difference in how they present the collected info.
Buzzstream will collect multiple social media accounts and emails per url and then you’re supposed to go through your url list manually and select the accounts/emails that you deem valid. The interface is really poor because you have to hover over an active field, wait for a slideout and then scroll within the slideout selecting bits of data that you may find useful. In some cases, these slideouts can contain several dozen items and after you’ve validated 20 urls, you get a massive headache and give up.
With Ninja Outreach it is much simpler – it won’t give you any choice. It will gather data and make assumptions as to which bits of data have the highest likelihood of being valid.
Browser add-ons for link building
If you’re a typical SEO person, you’ll be doing a lot of browsing during a normal working day. Inevitably, you will come across sites that look like good potential link acquisition opportunities. Bookmarking them or even adding them to an Excel spreadsheet is a losing game. How often do you really check your browser bookmarks? That’s why both link building outreach tools have aids for capturing link opportunities as you browse.
The tipping-point that ended my 5-year stint with Buzzstream was the state of their browser add-on. Well, technically it's not an add-on. It's a bookmarklet. Yes, bookmarklets were all the rage back in 1997, luckily 20 years on most developers have heard about add-ons and about the little thing called user experience.
This kind of unscrupulous attitude towards code development irks me a lot. Look at their blogroll prospecting tool, for an example. The main issue with this tool is that... erm... it's not working. All it does is repelling potential users. Free tools may be a proven method of attracting paid customers; the only caveat is that they’re supposed to be working.
Back to discussing the bookmarklet – although it’s supposed to assist you with adding link opportunities to the database, it works on an assumption that you’re adding a link that you’ve already received. Yes, don’t ask me why. When you try to delete the part that automatically assumes you already have the link, the bookmarklet crashes or loses some data that it had previously gathered.
Ninja Outreach have developed a really good browser extension, the main downside is that it is only available for Chrome. This is a bit lazy. The fact that I had to switch to Chrome in order to be able to use this extension annoys me a lot and I’ve noticed my colleagues are beginning to avoid me because I’m just getting grumpy.
Some of the best link building opportunities are on social media
Where Ninja Outreach blows Buzzstream out of water completely - is social media prospecting. This is particularly important for me as I'm trying to break into the mysterious world of Instagram - the social network notorious for the difficulty of building a following.
Ninja Outreach lets me search through Instagram and Twitter profiles based on keywords, follower counts and type of account (personal, company, blogger etc). I can easily collate a laser-targeted list of 1000+ social media influencers in just a couple of hours.
So, to recap, despite some really cool features, link building outreach tools suck, they are badly built, they are a lot of work, and they are very prone to embarrassing mistakes. Considering you won’t be able to stay on the basic monthly plan for long (as you’re only allowed a list of 1000 – 1500 prospects) you’ll soon find yourself spending a lot of money on them.
Link building outreach tool alternatives
Have I put you off using link building outreach tools? Good, because there's an alternative which in some circumstances can even be cheaper than what you'll pay for these outreach tools.
Having said that, both Buzzstream and Ninja Outreach offer a 14-day no-obligation trial. So by all means try them out and pick your winner.
My wildcard goes to Thunderbird and its Mail Merge add-on. Why Thunderbird particularly and not any of the dozens of free and paid email clients available? Because Thunderbird makes it extremely easy to send semi-automated messages, which should come as great news for all the poor souls who’ve been subjected to decades of suffering from Mail Merge functionality of various Microsoft products.
Also, Thunderbird’s got a small handy feature that I haven’t seen on Gmail, Outlook or any other online or desktop email clients – you can right-click on any existing message within any of your mail folders and select “Edit as new” and it will open a pre-populated edit window. It’s much faster than copy-paste – I use it for manual outreach and it saves a lot of time.
I won’t go into details because the Mail Merge add-on has a good online tutorial, but you can create a CSV file with dynamic fields containing peoples’ names and email addresses and instruct Thunderbird to auto-send an outreach template and replace the names and emails on the go.
The expensive part of this approach is that you are fully responsible for gathering and validating contact details. You can outsource this task on Upwork or other freelancer marketplaces, or if you’ve got too much time on your hands, you can do it yourself.
Remember that successful semi-automated link building outreach campaigns come from an unselfish perspective and concentrate on adding value for the recipient. And one last thing that many SEOs forget – semi-automated campaigns are sometimes bordering on spam. So, make sure you stay safe and legal, especially if you’re sending lots of emails to personal bloggers. Unsolicited B2C emailing is a sensitive territory, which is probably worth a separate blog post.
We’d love to hear about your experience with link building, no matter which part of the outreach chain you represent. Are you an SEO with a good success story? Or have you received an outrageous link begging request? Get in touch!
Disclaimer: neither Buzzstream nor Ninja Outreach are aware of this review being written. I'm not related to/sponsored by either of the companies. I've been using Buzzstream on and off for the last 5 years and I've recently switched over to Ninja Outreach.