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Link Building Q&A with Ben Wills, CEO and Co-Founder of Ontolo



ontoloI’ve been lucky enough to make some good industry friends over the years. Ben Wills is certainly high on that list and I’ve worked with him at two previous companies–including making him my VP of Operations at my last search marketing company.

Ben’s search engine optimization experience is second-to-none and he’s always had an (you could say “unhealthy”) interest in link building–being the guy that insisted we include link-building in our services, back when link-building wasn’t popular. Today, Ben’s the founder of his own company, Ontolo, and provides link-building services with a high-degree of scientific analysis.

I wanted to introduce you to Ben’s company, but didn’t want to just serve-up a recommendation on a plate. Instead, I made Ben spill the beans on his tactics for link building. Here’s the Q&A:

Your company name, Ontolo, what does that mean? How do you pronounce that?

My last name, “Wills,” has been mispronounced most of my life (as “Willis,” as in “what-chu talkin’ bout“, so we chose a company name prone to mispronunciation as well ;)

We (Garrett French and I) decided on “Ontolo”, pronounced ON-tuh-low, which is short for “Ontology.” An Ontology is a philosophical way of organizing things, ideas, and information based on their properties and relationships for the purpose of creating meaningful interpretations.

Why did you create Ontolo?

The idea to start Ontolo came from our work at some very successful SEO agencies. We consistently found the same thing out of reach: the ability to make a consistent promise for link building performance. Through several years of conception and discussion, followed by a solid, dedicated year of development and testing, we created a web crawler that looks at hundreds of thousands of web pages related to your industry and keywords. We then present a report detailing immediately-actionable opportunities for acquiring relevant and valuable links.

We have been using this technology in many ways including research for content-based link building strategies, large-scale link reclamation and good old-fashioned link building.

What, according to Ontolo, are the fundamental steps for developing a link building campaign?

After spending the last year diving fully into link building with dozens of projects – making many mistakes and also having many successes – we have designed a fundamental process that we work with in order to more effectively discuss link building. The process is:

  • Define your market using your targeted keywords
  • Discover competitors and allies
  • Prospect for links
    • Competitor and Ally backlinks
    • Link-finding search queries
  • Qualify link prospects by Relevance, Value and Potentiality (Automated and Manual)
  • Segment link prospects based on site type, topic, content type, etc.
  • Link Acquisition

Having this process has allowed us to design more effective campaigns and to better work through specific link building strategies.

What advice would you give businesses newly interested in link building?

The first thing here is to be reasonable and clear about your goals. A goal for a new site to have a PageRank of 5 in three months isn’t exactly reasonable. If you’re new, “being reasonable” might require talking with other webmasters to see what they find to be a reasonable objective and timeline for your business. Being clear about your goals isn’t always about quantity or even quality here; it’s about being effective. Are you looking for rankings or referrals? Are you looking for reputation or traffic? Garrett wrote a great informative piece on SearchEngineLand about how to define link building goals beyond just “getting more links.”

Next, anyone can search for link opportunities on Google. To be competitive, the ability to work on a larger scale becomes a competitive advantage.

Use Aaron Wall’s SEO for FireFox Plugin to start with. Export as much data as you think you might need, and then really dig in. Look for the patterns as to what is influencing rankings for your keywords. Is it domain age? Is it Diggs? Is it Yahoo! backlinks? EDU backlinks? Depending on what it is, go get those links if possible. Scale is key here – collect a ton of data, then analyze it for patterns.

And here’s a tip: If you’re short on domain age (or not), look for high-ranking websites that are “young,” too. Use LinkScape and MajesticSEO to go after those same backlinks.

Once you have all of your data collected, really dig in and qualify the data. Perform multiple sorts by PageRank, backlinks, Delicious bookmarks, etc, to see what works for you and your business. You will eventually see patterns emerge. Some industries need to focus heavily on quantity, others need to focus on quality. If you have the resources (and the same level of OCD as us), also consider looking at link prospects from the perspective or Relevance, Value and Potentiality. We’ve created a link qualification worksheet that helps to calculate these values for you, thereby prioritizing and qualifying your link acquisition.

Use your data with purpose. This is one way that Garrett and I continue to push back and forth on each other. It’s easy to simply collect a lot of data. It’s an entirely different problem to make it useful. Take the time to really think about what it means that an interior URL has a lot of backlinks, Diggs, Reddit votes or delicious bookmarks. There’s a good chance that’s really solid content there. There’s also a good chance that it has been marketed well. Study those pieces. Look at what’s working and what isn’t. If it’s been tried and it doesn’t work, let it go. If it’s been tried and works, repeat it over and over and over in all kinds of creative variations.

Finally, study what the experts are doing. Study Eric Ward, Debra Mastaler, Ann Smarty and Julie Joyce. Read exactly what they’re writing and also read between the lines in each of their articles every week. They’ve been doing this for decades and are a great group of helpful link builders. If they launch a service that does blogger outreach, do you think you should consider doing the same for your website?

On our end, we have made a fully documented set of service deliverables publicly available as a sample project for REI.com (who is not a client, nor have we ever spoken with them in that capacity), with over 100,000 URLs available for searching and with full reporting. (Click here to see REI’s Backlink Prospecting Report) Study these reports and reports from other link building companies to help design a campaign that works to meet your goals. We want you to have them. Link building has all but seemed like magic for too long. We want to really open that up for people.

How could our readers setup a great acquisition campaign?

The first thing that I’m going to say is that link builders are coming on a very exciting time. Soon, you won’t need huge spreadsheets with flashy colors that mean 87 different things for managing your link acquisition and outreach. Two very exciting applications are currently in beta. Both applications are web-based but integrate with your browser. Simply add a bookmarklet, then note them through the bookmarklet. It sends the data back to the management tool and prepares it for outreach. It really doesn’t get any simpler than that.

The first is from Disa Johnson’s SearchReturn and is called Squid. I haven’t used it, but I have seen the video tutorials for it. It looks like a fantastic way to get your feet wet with using a link management application like this.

The second is a full-blown Social Media/PR/Outreach CRM application called BuzzStream. I’ve seen a lot of applications come and go. I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go. I’ve spoken with the owners once, I receive no compensation from them, and if I were going to go with a link acquisition management tool, it would be BuzzStream’s application. It’s top-notch, they’re fully committed to making the best application possible, and they have the track record to support that goal. I don’t usually give recommendations like this, but I’m amazingly choosy about the applications I use. (I’ve used over three dozen project management applications and still can’t find one that works for my needs.) When I find something incredibly useful, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Finally, a bit of advice that I’ve never heard anyone speak about: How to make compounded use of your link request offers.

In the acquisition stage, all requests result in one of the following responses: Accepting your link request, Declining your link request, or Countering your link request. Use declines and counters to open conversations to improve your website content. Ask the site owner: “What content would you like to see me create before you would link to my website? What other websites have you linked to and why?” This lets your declines stay as link prospects in the future. Also, by getting someone to tell you what they would want to see – should you build that into your website – you can then go back to them and get that home page or deep link.

Another key here – and I learned this from sales – is to ask for a referral when you actually get a “yes.” Let them put the link up and when it’s been verified, respond with genuine gratitude. In the same email, you have an opening to request if they know of anyone else (partners, similar websites, etc) who might have website visitors who would also benefit from a link to your website. I caution here, though, that this is a highly delicate request and should be approached very carefully and with a high level of tact. I could write an entire article about crafting the wording of this single sentence that makes the request, not to mention how it should be followed up. I’ll let you do that research and will give you the hint to look at sales training, not link building.

How do you see the world of link building evolving in the next three to five years?

We’ve hedged our own bets on using technology, large amounts of data, and highly-targeted analysis. There have always been low-level successes here (link building software), but I expect this area to evolve more significantly.

One way the industry is seeing technology and large amounts of data is through services such as Majestic SEO and LinkScape. I can say that I’ve used both and they both have different strengths. In the end, they both aggregate huge amounts of link data on the internet. At the same time, they tell you almost nothing about relevance. This is the problem we solve, by crawling all of those backlink prospects (often, millions of them) in an industry, analyzing them, and prioritizing them based on your goals. So, while we think they’re fantastic applications (I couldn’t dream of building them) and are suited incredibly well to specific needs such as working on a large scale, they are only half of the solution for a link prospecting campaign.

I also think that we will see link building as a whole become less nebulous and more clear. Right now, people don’t know how to talk about it, or how to talk about specific strategies or tactics in a campaign – there is very little cohesive language around link building. It’s all the same, relatively incomplete advice: create linkbait (what’s linkbait?), get social media links (ok..then what?), or buy blog links (and what happens after that?). The ones that are succeeding with link building aren’t talking publicly. I don’t think they’ll be talking more, but enough will be opening up that people will have a clearer idea of all of the ways they can do link building and how to implement those strategies. Look for link building to become more tangible all around.

Can you tell us about some of the upcoming services you plan to offer?

One thing I can say is that we have been – publicly – very focused on automating the link prospecting and qualification process.

Behind the scenes we’ve been working on some content-based link building analysis and reports that we’ll be rolling out soon. Our content-based link building methods are different from link bait, though related so far as their effects. They utilize our internal link prospecting and analysis tool set. In our content-based link building services we’re creating methods to support Eric Ward’s popular vision of link building as PR.

We may also be working on some other things, particularly using large scales of data combined with more precise analysis…but you’ll probably be the first to know, Andy. ;)

How does your background in SEO and otherwise help you in running a link building company?

I have been writing code for over ten years and have run a dedicated Linux server with a 10mbit connection since 2002 when the absolute cheapest servers were $500 a month. In SEO, you and I have worked together at our past two companies. You and I have helped SEO companies grow from 30 employees to 180 and doing millions of dollars in pure SEO business. We’ve done the startup to profit on a cash basis with 23 employees in nine months. We’ve worked with everything from business who (probably unsuccessfully) sold bear repellent, to Fortune 500s and companies every reader has seen and heard of. We’ve seen thousands of SEO problems over the years. At one point, we were managing over 1,400 clients.

After a while, we noticed some patterns. The value of those patterns and that knowledge are what are built into our link building services.

About Ben Wills:
Beginning in 2001 Ben was integrally involved with the growth of the largest search marketing company in the world and in 2005 became the Vice President of Operations in a search marketing startup that had profits on a cash basis of 25% with 23 employees after 9 months. In 2006 he began consulting full time on SEO, social media marketing strategy and link building.

In 2008 Ben Wills co-founded Ontolo, a link building service that identifies and prioritizes a website’s inbound link opportunities. Ben conceived, architected, built and continues to optimize Ontolo’s link prospect gathering and qualification tools.

  • http://www.linkfishmedia.com Julie Joyce

    I think that this was absolutely dead-on brilliant…

    “Ask the site owner: “What content would you like to see me create before you would link to my website? What other websites have you linked to and why?””

    I think it’s quite important to actually view site owners as educators that can help us understand more about how to do our own jobs better.

    Excellent interview!!

  • http://www.socialseo.com Brian Gilley

    Great in-depth and informative interview Ben and Andy!

    One of the most important pieces of your comments to me was under the “Use your data with purpose” section. In my opinion, it comes down to this when starting and working through the acquisition phase. We’ve had to reposition our link acquisition methods several times and tighten link building when some of the more important metrics as you pointed out are overlooked.

    It’s easy to lose focus but large scale link mining like you guys are offering really helps to improve the whole process and time frame to acquire links.

    Brian Gilley’s last blog post..Getting Crafty – Advanced Search Operators to Find the Best Backlinks

  • http://sayreonline.com Brennan

    Great Q&A, he is great at what he does so there is a lot to be learned from studying his movements and others.

    ps. @ Andy, finally purchased “Radically Transparent” off of Amazon yesterday.

  • http://www.triangledirectmedia.com Scott Gardner

    Fantastic information and advice! As a beta user of Ontolo, I can attest that Ontolo’s tech uncovers reams of quality link opportunities for marketers. Link building has always been a challenge for SEOs and tools like this help bring accuracy & sophistication to this often “noisy” process. Congrats on making the concept a reality Ben and great interview Andy! Look forward to leveraging your tools more in the future.

  • http://www.benwills.com Ben Wills

    @Julie and @Brian Thanks! That’s something that Garrett has pushed hard; opening communication to understand what site owners in your market really want to see from you.

    @Brennan Garrett’s the brilliant one in the bunch. ;)

    @Scott Thanks! Looking forward together on some other projects, too!

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Andy Beal

    @Brennan – thanks, I hope you enjoy it!

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