Is keyword research still relevant to SEO? Do backlinks matter anymore?
Find out the answer in today’s episode. My guest is Tim Soulo, the CMO and the Head of Product Strategy at Ahrefs. Listen in as we deep dive into the technical side of ranking higher on Google — and exactly how to approach keyword research right now.
Listen to this Episode:
- Why keyword research is still important for SEO campaigns
- The major disadvantage of using free tools for keyword research
- What “seed keywords” are and how to find them for your niche
- Why Google ranks nearly identical pages for multiple relevant queries
- The absolute best thing you can do during the keyword research phase
- When the keyword difficulty metric won’t help you rank #1 in Google
- Why unique linking websites add more value than the volume linking pages
- The truth about building backlinks in an ethical and nonaggressive manner
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarkteters.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.
In today’s episode, you’ll learn about keyword research. How to do it right, where it comes from, and where this data comes from. And hopefully, why it’s so important in your business. Why it’s not just about SEO, it’s also about reading people’s mind. So, my guest today is the CMO and the Head of Product Strategy at Ahrefs.
Which is, in my opinion, one of probably the best SEO tool in the market right now, and I am not paid to say that. I’ve tried a few, and I can tell you that this, Ahrefs is probably the best right now. Then we never know in the next few years.
But anyway, my guest with seven years of experience in SEO and digital marketing, has been sharing a lot of super interesting studies on the Ahrefs blogs. I’ve been following that for a while as well. And he also runs a very successful YouTube channel for Ahrefs, which has more than one million views at this stage, and I think more than that right now.
So, as you can see, my guest knows a thing about SEO. A thing or two about growing businesses and growing an audience, so I’m very happy to have you on board, Tim Soulo.
Tim: Thanks a lot for inviting me.
Louis: Let’s take a step back, because we can talk about SEO and technical stuff all day long and keyword research. But, let’s take a step back and understand. Why is it so important in the context of growing a business, and understanding customers?
Tim: You’re asking why SEO is important?
Louis: Keyword research in particular.
Tim: Because I think keyword research is actually where SEO actually starts. Because if you’re moving your business online, or you want to create some kind of new business online, there are two ways to reach customers.
First is get on their radar. By what Seth Godin calls — interruption marketing. It is when you display them all sorts of banners, pre-rolls when they’re watching YouTube videos, and all that stuff.
Or permission marketing. This is when they give you their permission to kind of talk to them, to communicate with them. And this is usually done when they are searching for something. People have all sorts of problems, and they usually use a search engine — mostly Google– to find solutions to their problems, concerns, issues, and whatever.
You have a chance of being the search result that they will click and that they will use to get some advice. If your business, your tool, your service, your product can help them with whatever issues they have. And if they think that they are willing to spend money, you’ve got yourself a customer.
So, keyword research is all about knowing what people search for and being able to estimate what kind of search demand there is for whatever you have. If your product is not something that you can only promote via interruption marketing, like ad’s pre-rolls and stuff.
If your product is something that people are actively searching for, if they have a certain problem and then they search for it, you might want to know what they are searching for. And create a website around the searches so that you will get all the traffic to you.
Louis: But I thought SEO was dead?
Tim: Yeah, probably. I wish more people would think so. It will be so much easier for all the others who don’t think so.
Louis: Yeah, it’s a fascinating topic. In my opinion, this is really the closest we can get to reading people’s minds. When you talk to people face to face, and ask them about their problems. We like to sugar coat stuff, we’re not going to be very honest with ourselves and with others.
While when you’re on your own in front of your computer or your mobile phone, there’s a lot of things that you admit about the concerns you have, the problems you have, the type of articles you read that you need doing like market research and all of that.
And it’s such a powerful tool, it’s just absolutely amazing. As well as a bit creepy when you think of the power that it has, right? This is why today, what we’re going to try to do is: do it the nonaggressive, non-sleazy way, and truly identify problems, concerns. And answer that in the right way for people, without being sleazy.
So, let’s take a step back. So, I’m pretty sure most of the listeners have tried Ahrefs or Moz or other SEO tools out there. At least, some try to understand okay, what type of keywords should we rank for? But I’m curious to know, from the perspective of Ahrefs, like where is this data even coming from? How are you able to know what people are searching for?
Tim: Yes. So, there are tool sources for this data. The first source, and it was the only source up until I think two years ago or something. It was Google AdWords. So, Google has this platform where you can buy ad’s for specific keywords.
So, if you want your ad to pop up whenever people are searching for, I don’t know, cute kittens. You want to see your paid ad there, you have a tool called AdWords. And within AdWords, you were able –and you are able — to do some keyword research to find the search queries that you want to pay money for to advertise whatever you have.
For a very long time, this was the only source of this data. And basically, Google was showing the actual searches that happen within their platform. That people are putting into Google. And it was letting people research them.
Maybe someone will later correct me on Twitter if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that Google ever gave API to their query data. So, that people could pull search queries via API, and not just by using the web interface of AdWords tool.
So, yeah. A lot of different tools were scraping AdWords to get a lot of keyword data, because AdWords is targeted at advertisers. And they are not interested to show you kind of the depth and breadth of real search queries that people are putting into Google. They try to kind of generalize stuff.
They try to group search queries together so that it would be easier for advertisers to pick the keywords that they want to go for. But for SEO, they want some granularity. They want to know the actual search queries. They want to know the variety of the search queries.
There’s also a second source of keyword data that appeared not that long ago, and it is called Clickstream. Basically, Clickstream data is data that is being collected by all sorts of publications. Mostly free, that you install on your computer. In your browser.
When you agree to the terms of service, they say that they will collect anonymized — and this is a very important word — anonymized data on what you’re doing online. And they have the right to resell it to other companies.
You don’t have to worry about these things. Because like I said, they’re anonymized. If anyone would collect kind of personalized data, someone will notice it and there will be a great scandal with this company. So, everyone is playing the safe game and making this stuff anonymized.
Basically, there are some companies that buy this data from everyone they can buy it from. To aggregate it in one single place. Because for example, if you have only a single plugin for Chrome, and this plugin is being used by one million people, that’s only like a little bit of the whole internet popularity. You cannot collect a lot of data from just one million people. You need more.
This is why those Clickstream data providers, they try to buy clicks and data through all the sources they can. And then they resell it to other companies like Ahrefs, so we’re not collecting this data ourselves. We do have our own plugin for Chrome, but we don’t collect data because we don’t have enough users.
If we had like, I don’t know, maybe ten million people using our toolbar, maybe we would start collecting data. But it just doesn’t make sense for us. We buy Clickstream data from those who aggregate it. And we use it to create a database of search queries that people are putting into Google. That all those various applications and software are kind of tracking. I hope that makes sense.
Louis: It does. I actually heard of Clickstream before but I had no clue that’s actually the way it worked. So, it’s simple anonymized data from search queries like what people are actually searching for, clicking on, that’s being resold to you guys. So, you use two main sources, right? You use this source, and the one from Google directly, right?
Tim: Yeah, but like I said, Google doesn’t give API. Basically, to collect this data you need to scrape them, which is against their Terms of Service. So, we’re not scraping them and our database of Google search queries is not updated very often. As far as I know. I may be wrong so don’t take my word for it. But as far as I know, we also buy it from third parties.
But Clickstream data. Because there’s no kind of harm in the collecting it, we’re not breaking anyone’s Terms of Service, we update it every single month. So, every month we buy a new package of a huge package from Clickstream data and we update query database with new search queries.
Whenever some trend appears, like I think it was last year, Pokemon Go. We were able to pick it up pretty much the next month when we purchased the data. And other tools were lagging behind because they don’t update their database this often.
Clickstream has a lot of advantages over trying to scrape Google AdWords. But it is also super expensive. It’s a lot of people saying “Why don’t you just use free tools, they have enough data.” I’m afraid there’s no way for free tools to work with Clickstream data because of how expensive it is.
So, with free tools, you’re getting kind of a small amount of real search queries that people input into Google. I’m not saying it is bad.
For many, many, many people free tools is a great start. So they can get a lot of value and they can start getting traffic just by using free keyword research tools. This will be enough to build some pages to understand what people are searching for. But eventually, you’re going to hit the ceiling, and then you will have to refer to paid tools, to go deeper and to find search queries that you won’t find in those free tools.
Louis: Let’s talk about a fictional business that is about helping people from Europe or the U.S. to create a business in Singapore. You guys are based in Singapore. So, let’s take this fictional example. It probably exists, but let’s take this fictional example. Let’s say we don’t have a lot of visibility online, we want to say more, we want to attract more people to do that.
How do you go about knowing this is what we need to do? To knowing the type of topics, the type of keywords that are likely going to move the needle for you?
Tim: Yeah. So, what you just said is, you provided me with the so-called seed keywords. And these are Singapore business, and maybe things like establish or create or setup. So, these are the seed keywords. And the seed keywords are used to query our database of search queries to find some relevant keywords.
Basically, you can find all search queries from our database. Which is pretty huge. I think it’s over five billion, or something. I don’t remember exactly, but it is like super huge. What you can do is you can put keywords like, business Singapore, and we’ll show you all search queries that contain both words, business Singapore in any order.
It could be established business in Singapore. What kind of business you can establish in Singapore. So, all the search queries that contain those seed keywords, business in Singapore. We’ll show them to you, along with the so-called monthly search volume. This is how many times this specific search query is being entered into Google, per month.
This is where keyword research starts. If you know your seed keywords, kind of the general way to search for something. Which is, in this case, creates business in Singapore or establish business in Singapore. You can find so many other search queries that contain these words. And this kickstarts your keyword research, you’re starting to understand what kind of things people are searching for.
Louis: Now you have your seed keywords, you have a few ideas. What other core metrics do you look at? You mentioned, the so-called search volume for specific keywords. There’s also another one that is important. Which is the difficulty, or the likelihood, that you’re going to rank in the first page, right? What should you look for when you do this type of research?
Tim: Well, this is a very tricky question about metrics. Because the single best way to do keyword research is to actually look at what kind of pages rank at the top of Google — for the keyword that seems interesting to you.
If you find a certain search query that you think you want to target with a page on your website, first thing you need to do is to put it in Google and see what currently ranks there. And if your kind of intent of creating a page matches the page that’s already ranked there.
This is very important. You first need to see if the page you’re about to create is similar to the page that’s already ranked there. In terms of metrics, the two metrics that I pay attention to the most are the total search traffic to those top ranking pages.
This is number one metric. It is very interesting because like I said, for any individual keyword that you’ll be seeing in those reports that Ahrefs — or other keyword tools will give you — will show you monthly search volume for this specific keyword. But the pages that will rank for this keyword to Google, they will rank for many, many, many more other similar search queries.
Just right now, when we were discussing the search queries of establishing a business in Singapore, there are so many ways to search for the same thing. How to establish business in Singapore. How to establish business in Singapore in 2018. What are the steps to establishing business in Singapore?
Different people will use different search queries. But in essence, they’re looking for the same thing and Google is able to understand it. This is why Google will rank almost the same pages for a variety of relevant search queries.
Other than looking at the search volume of an individual keyword that seems interesting to you. That you kind of want to pursue, you need to look at the total search traffic to the top ranking pages. In Ahrefs you can do this quite easily. Because basically within our keywords explorer tool we will pull the top ten ranking results for the keyword that you’re researching. We will show you the total search traffic, as estimated by Ahrefs, to those pages.
And what’s interesting is that you might notice that sometimes keywords that don’t have particularly big monthly search volume, the pages that rank at the top for this keyword get a lot of traffic. That is because there are so many other ways to search for this same thing and they all accumulate into total traffic.
This is the first thing that I look at, and I do it all the time right now when I do keyword research for our own blog, to create content for our own company. And the second metric, like you said, is keyword difficulty. But-
Louis: So, before we go into difficulty, I’m going to cut you there-
Louis: Because you said so many interesting things that I think we need to dive into a bit more. I always thought that looking at search volume for specific keyword was the only to go about doing keyword research. Only recently, thanks to you, and of course the Blogging for Business course you did, and a few stuff I read of your blog I’m starting to use Ahrefs way more.
Did I understand that? Actually, that’s a stupid way to think about it. Because, exactly as you said, people are going to search for very different, a variety of things, that mean the same thing. Google is smart enough to know that, right?
To be clear, in 2018 the date we’re recording this episode, Google is way smarter than you think it is. And so don’t try to hack it by thinking that if you say, how to start a company in Singapore versus how to start a business in Singapore, you can create two pages with the same content. All that kind of stuff, right? This is the stupider stuff.
I’m not trying to repeat to explain it better, I’m just trying to repeat so that people remember that. Instead of looking at search keywords, you look at the top ranking pages for this keyword, and you basically reverse engineer. This page, top one, is getting X%. This one is getting X.
What is funny is, when you look at the page and what keyword it ranks for … Let’s say we talk about how to start a business Singapore, it could be literally thousands of keywords and topics it ranks for. This is truly the power of understanding the cementing behind how people think, not how to hack Google, right?
Tim: Yeah. Another, actually interesting observation, I want to study it soon. I didn’t have a chance to study it yet. But what I’ve noticed by researching many keywords is that the top ranking page for the keyword is not necessarily the page that gets the most traffic.
Sometimes the pages that rank lower, they may be getting more traffic just because they cover the topic better. That is why Google ranks them for more relevant keywords. And the top ranking page, it might be super focused on a specific topic, so it ranks high. But it doesn’t have any additional information so it doesn’t generate any additional traffic.
This is why I’m saying that the best thing you could do while doing keyword research is actually to research the pages that rank for the keyword that you want to rank for. See like what kind of content they have, see what kind of keywords they rank for, how many keywords they rank for, and how much traffic they’re getting in total.
Yeah, but I was transitioning to keyword difficulty. From my experience, I can tell that people when they first see our keyword difficulty metric, they consider it a Holy Grail of SEO. They think that this simple two digit number will now solve all their problems, and show them the keywords where they will be able to rank at position number one. Without any effort at all.
But of course, that is not true. You just mentioned yourself that Google is pretty sophisticated. There’s a lot of technology, there are billions of dollars behind Google. There’s no way for us, or anyone else, to capture the whole complexity of Google algorithm in the single two digit number. 25, yeah I can rank for those. Like, 64, no I cannot rank for this. No, this is not possible.
In our case, keyword difficulty is a very straightforward metric. It only shows you how many backlinks the top ranking pages have on average. It’s just a proxy to the link popularity of the top ranking results. If you see keyword difficulty zero, it means that all top ten pages that ranking Google for your keyword, they have little to no backlinks. Maybe one backlink or two, but most of them-
Louis: Can you define a backlink for us?
Tim: Yeah. Usually, backlink is defined by how many kind of unique pages are linking to a given page. But when I talk about backlinks in the context of keyword difficulty, what I actually mean is how many unique websites are linking to a specific page.
Because once you start digging into SEO, you quickly realize that unique linking website has more value than linking page. Because otherwise, to rank high in Google all you have to do is create a second website, create one million pages on that website, and create one million links to your website.
But this doesn’t work like that. A link from a unique website will not always, but in general, it has kind of more value than getting second, third, fourth, tenth link from the same website. It is more complicated than that. But still, when researching the top ranking pages and determining your chances of outranking them, you should look at how many links from unique websites they have.
This metric, over the years, it has proven to correlate really well with the Google position. So, keyword difficulty is basically a proxy to how many backlinks the top ranking pages have. If you see keyword difficulty zero, it means they don’t have any backlinks. Which needs that your page won’t also need any backlinks to rank there. Or like, you will be able to outrank them just by getting a few backlinks.
But if you see keyword difficulty, let’s say 40. I don’t remember exactly what it refers to, but let’s say it refers to 200 unique domains on average. We say it in our kind of hint, we explain each number. Like, how it translates into referring domains into unique linking websites.
But yeah, the higher the keyword difficulty, the more websites you have to persuade to link to your page, in order to rank in top ten.
Louis: I want to go back to the first point, not keyword difficulty because I think it’s a bit easier to understand than the first one. Recently I’ve met some research about the topic of website optimization.
Louis: I wanted to know whether we could create a page around the topic of website optimization and already had an idea in mind. So, we already had content for it. For many different pages. And we say okay, why don’t we merge them together to make it a guide about website optimization.
But by looking at the top ten ranking pages. What we understood was looking at the nature of pages that were ranking for it, they basically were answering queries from a different angle than we thought. So, website optimization — for a lot of sites — was more about SEO optimization and speed optimization.
Only one page out of the ten was actually mentioned what we wanted to say. Which was more about how to optimize your website for users, and how to understand your users. Basically, conversion rate optimization.
Louis: If we just look at the top ten, what is ranking, the type of things that people search for, and the type of pages that are ranking. I understood that the topic wasn’t necessarily the right one. What I thought was website optimization, was in fact not what people were searching for.
I’m going back to that because this is also a critical aspect of SEO. It’s not blankly just looking at keywords and thinking let’s write something about it. It’s also about trying to reverse engineer what people have in their head when they search for something, right?
Tim: Yeah. You’re touching every interesting topic, and very deep. It also goes back to how Google algorithm works and how it picks pages that should rank. Because obviously the number of links, or the number of linking websites, how many times you use a specific keyword on your page are not the only ranking factors. Otherwise, it would be like super easy to game Google.
I don’t think that any Google representative ever confirmed this. But in the SEO industry, there’s a strong suspicion that Google is using behavioral factors to determine which pages should rank higher and which pages should get lowered. Especially when the search query gets kind of enough traffic.
If there’s a popular search query — let’s say it’s getting searched like 40,000 times per month. Just one search query. Not counting all the relevant search queries that mean the same thing.
Which means that Google has enough data, it has enough traffic, to see how people behave when they click on the relevant pages for the search query. What we see today is that, for popular search queries, Google kind of pays attention to how people behave.
Like you said if people were expecting for website optimization, if they were expecting to see some SEO tutorials, and your tutorial will rank there. And they will click, they will realize that is not what they were looking for. They will bounce, click something else and stay there.
Google might see this kind of stuff, but that is mostly for popular search queries. If you’re targeting less popular search queries, let’s say less than 1,000 searches per month. In my experience, like from what I saw, Google doesn’t rely on the behavioral data that much because they don’t have enough of it. They cannot make a good assumption on what’s happening there. Different signals play a role there.
But from my experience, what I saw is that Google is actively testing. They have a lot of topic modeling algorithms like understanding what the page is about. They’re basically trying to create artificial intelligence that would read pages and basically understand what they’re about. And all that sophisticated technology.
What I see is that Google will often – when there’s a set of top ten ranking pages, and all of them have a specific intent, but there’s kind of another angle to look at this search query. What I see is that Google will often try to put the page that is not aligned with all other pages into top ten, get some kind of traffic for it. Get people to click for it. And Google will observe how people behave.
So, that is interesting. I think I saw a video, it was created by Brian Dean. If I’m correct, he said that he had an article, how to get high-quality backlinks. What he noticed is that this page, for a few days it ranked for the search query, how to get high. Because it has how to get high-quality backlinks, and so Google thought maybe this page is relevant to how to get high.
Google started showing this page to people searching for how to high but then Google realized that this is not what these people were looking for. So the page dropped and I think Brian Dean mentioned this kind of case in his video, which was quite fun.
What I’m trying to say is that, even if the top ranking pages are not aligned with the angle that you have in mind. Sometimes it still makes sense for you to create a page around this angle because some people may be actually looking for your angle.
Once Google will put you there among the top ranking pages, people will click and people will stay, your page can stay in the top ten ranking results. But, you never know what the majority of people want when they search for something.
Louis: This is a very interesting topic because I’m trying to go back to the same points. That it’s all about understanding your people, understanding your users, and give them the best answer you can. Google is getting smarter and knows that now, and know that for a while.
Let’s say you want to hack like get into the first page by just displaying your page — that is a bunch of nonsense — because you know the volume is not that high. Therefore, Google is not going to have a lot of behavioral data for it. And you’re just trying to rank for it because you can just rank for it.
It’s a shitty thing to do anyway, because you’re not going to answer people’s request, right?
Louis: If you’re not about your topic. If you don’t have a lot of data, and interviewing people. Talking to them directly, understanding what do you understand about website optimization? Maybe reverse engineering. That would probably help you way more than trying to hack anything out off Google.
Because as we’ve mentioned, many times now, it’s not a stupid company. They are extremely sophisticated. They are working on stuff you wouldn’t even imagine at this level. So, let’s not try to hack it. Let’s try to just understand people a bit better.
So, difficulty. We were starting to talk about that — the topic of difficulty. Which in the Ahrefs world, in your world, is really tied to backlinks. This is a super interesting topic because I also thought that backlinking and getting links from others was dead as well, right? I mean, that’s kind of a shitty subject that you read a lot online, so is it dead?
Tim: No, of course it is not. Let’s say you’re Google and let’s say you have 100 pages about exactly the same thing. All of these pages are kind of equally cool. Let’s say it’s not some kind of sophisticated topic like rocket science, where like some people know it better and other people don’t know it so well.
But let’s say it’s the topic of productivity. Like, almost anyone can write an article about productivity. You can write like your productivity of deep throatings, I can write my productivity routines.
So, let’s say you’re Google and you have 100 pages about productivity. How do you kind of adequately know which of them are better and which of them are worse? You need some signals, right? And especially, when you don’t have this behavioral data.
To get a behavioral data even to 100 pages, this means that you should at some point in time, you should send traffic to all of these 100 pages to rank them in your top ten. So, that people will find them and go to them.
And some of these pages might be shitty. As a search engine, you’re doing people a disservice by showing them shitty pages. Even before you get this behavioral data, you already need to know that the page is worth ranking into ten, and is worth receiving traffic. Otherwise, your search results will be shitty. All the time you’ll be testing if page deserves to rank there based on behavioral factor.
So, the best signal you have is links from other websites. If other website owners found this article, they found that it’s cool, it’s great, it deserves mentioning, they would link to it. Basically, this concept comes from the very beginnings of Google. Where the two founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, I think there were studying at Harvard.
They were creating the search engine and they took this principle for counting backlinks from research papers. So, what happens in research papers. When you do some kind of research, you kind of build it on top or research that other people did.
You have those like different concepts in physics that were started by someone else. What they noticed is that certain research studies get mentioned by other research studies more often. Which means, these research studies are kind of more fundamental. If there’s more work done on top of these research studies then these research studies have more input.
Similar to looking at how many times a certain research study gets quoted in others research studies, to grade its importance. They started grading the importance of pages based on which other pages are linking to them. This realization, this concept, it is so simple. But it basically extends behind Google as a multi-billion company that it is today.
They took this concept and they built a search engine on top of it that provided much, much better results than any of the search engines that existed at the time. That were trying to read pages, look at how many time keywords are mentioned, look at the other synonyms and stuff, and this principal is still at the foundation of Google.
All the time Google representatives get asked the question like name your biggest ranking factor. Or can you still confirm that links play a role in rankings? They always say yes. Because there’s just no better way to rank pages. Of course, there are many more factors that they use other than links, but this is so fundamental.
Louis: Exactly as you said, this is fundamental. This is the closest Google found to the actual nature of relationships between humans. I mean, if you are someone that people look up to, Tim, you are likely to have a lot of people who follow you or subscribe to the newsletter. Who want to talk to your conferences, invite you to conferences.
So, you would attract a lot of links in a sense. A lot of people like following you and stuff, and citing you when they speak at conferences. It’s just relationship building 101. This is how influence works, which is one of the core principles of persuasion. This is how people are considering the importance of someone versus someone else.
This makes total sense that Google tried to do the same online. Anyone thinking that this is dead — that link building and backlinks don’t count anymore — are really insane. Because they need to remember the basic fundaments of relationship building. I’m glad you said that. I actually didn’t know this story. That’s quite interesting.
There’s something I want to touch on. We haven’t really talked about that before getting into this interview but you’re an expert in this topic as well. And that connects to backlinks So, there is a …
You have a fundamental belief about, yes you can write a super interesting article. Yes, you can really optimize them for SEO, making sure that they are good, making sure that people who would find them would really like them.
But getting backlinks if you don’t have a lot of paid budget, is actually and not a big community, is actually really tough. I mean, it’s like praying for rain to come when you start dancing and the sun is shining, right?
How do you go about trying to get some backlinks in an ethical, nonaggressive manner?
Tim: The way Google wants you to get backlinks is by acquiring them naturally. Where some people would read your content, would visit your page, and they would decide that they want to link to this page from their website. The link will just appear by itself.
But this is kind of chicken and egg problem because if you don’t have backlinks, you don’t rank in Google. If you don’t rank in Google, you don’t really get any traffic. Because there are not so many other traffic sources that are capable of sending you as much traffic as Google. If you don’t get traffic, how would people link to you?
So, this is kind of chicken and egg problem. The best way to get backlinks while you don’t have traffic, while you don’t have community of people who read your content, is to reach out. Is to reach out to people in your industry who have websites, because you don’t want to reach out to people who don’t have websites because they won’t be able to link to you.
Whatever industry you’re in, there are probably other websites that are related to the industry and, probably they are even mentioning your competitors already. So, you could reach out to them and show them what you have. You can show them your content. You can show them even your website and how like easy and user friendly it is. Whatever.
If you don’t have traffic or if you don’t have budget to promote your content. To put it in front of a lot of people with a chance that some of these people will later mention it somewhere. Be it on forums or on their own website. The best thing you can do is just reach out to people in your industry with websites. Show them whatever you have there and see if you will be able to persuade them to put the link to you.
Louis: I know there are many ways to go about finding the right people. Perhaps, together what you can do is pick maybe a favorite one. The very specific way to identify the right people, and how you would like to reach out. So, there’s many ways you explain in your course. And a few ways you also explained on the Ahref blog but perhaps yes, you can pick your favorite one and we can go in depth about it.
Tim: Probably the most effective way would be — I’m sorry I have to plug Ahrefs because I don’t really know any other tool that would do that. We have this tool, it’s called Content Explorer. Basically, we crawl the entire web to collect that base of pages with content. I think we just recently surpassed one billion pages.
What you can do is, you can kind of query this database and request to receive a list of pages that mention a specific keyword. Let’s go back to the example of building a business in Singapore. In this case, I want to know all pages from all around the web that mention business in Singapore or Singapore business. Or any other variations.
If a page mentions business in Singapore, or Singapore business, it means that this page is somehow connected to my topic, to my website, to what I’m trying to build and promote. And probably the entire website — not just this page — is somehow related to this. Which means that it makes sense for me to reach out to the owner of this website.
First of all, I need to actually open the page, read the article, and see what kind of context business in Singapore was mentioned in because there are like a ton of angles of how this can be used in a sentence. But still, using Ahrefs you can quickly export thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of pages that come from unique websites. That mention business in Singapore or whatever keyword related to your industry people might use when they publish pages online.
And from there, you just research, like find contact information of these websites. Try to understand in which context they were mentioning you keyword, and if it makes sense to you to reach out to them and introduce yourself.
This is the very best way that I know because basically, you find pages and you find websites that are already mentioning your industry. They are already mentioning whatever you do. All you need to do is connect with them, introduce yourself, show them what you have. Then it depends on the thing that you have.
If you want to promote your service or your product, your product should be good. Otherwise, they won’t care. If you’re trying to build links to a piece of content, that piece of content should be amazing. Otherwise, they won’t care. If you do this and it won’t work, don’t say that Tim lied to me. This doesn’t work.
First, look at your content and look at your product. If it is superior to any other alternatives it should work like a charm. If it lacks behind whatever is there already, this strategy won’t work.
Louis: I’m glad you mentioned that because I receive, surprisingly enough, a lot of link requests. Most of the time it goes as this, “Hi Louis. I just stumbled upon this amazing article.” Which is basically linked to one of my interviews. So, first of all you know that they haven’t read it. “You mentioned Moz in there, I was wondering if you could also link to Ahrefs?” That’s the type of stuff, right?
Tim: Yeah. Laughs.
But like I didn’t mention it. My guest mentioned it, right? I’m not going to fucking replace what you said, and replace it with something else because you said it. Anyway, it just proves that nobody reads Reddit. So, I’m going to steal a bit of tips from your knowledge, we’ve used this tactic a few times already.
If you have an angle that is unique, so let’s say talking about website optimization again, or the business in Singapore. Let’s say you have a way to create a business in Singapore, or a structure, a process that is different from all of the other pages out there. Like the top ten. Then this is a very good way for an outreach to say, “Hey, I’ve read your article, you mentioned that. But actually, what if I told you there is an actual new way, or different way, that you haven’t mentioned and here it is.”
That works really well. From experience, don’t try to outrank … Or try to contact with someone with just, as you said, a shitty piece of content that doesn’t offer any different value. From your experience, apart from this is a new angle, this is something new –what else works really well to introduce a concept to someone else?
Tim: First of all, I enjoy how you said people haven’t read your article, just but referring to it by article while it was an interview. So, this should be very insightful to people who are listening to us right now.
My best tip is to actually go and study the page. Make sure you will write a relevant personalized email because this will increase your chances of acquiring a backlink like tenfold. Because you will find the way to pitch your backlink based on what you’ve just read.
I also like how you mentioned — and basically I mentioned it too — that whatever you’re offering, it should be relevant to the person that you’re reaching out. Like you mentioned, it doesn’t necessarily need to be better, but it should be kind of different. The bottom line is that whether different or whether better, it should be interesting to the person that you’re reaching out to. So, it should be relevant to the person that you’re reaching out to.
Again, let’s be honest, people life gets in the way. Even if what you have is like super amazing, it’s better than everything else, it has a unique angle and blah, blah, blah. It is super relevant, you read the page, and you wrote like super personalized email. You sent this email and no one is replying to you.
Like, don’t get upset about it, the person might be in the hospital or whatever. They might be having their own problems, and your email is what they care about like least from any other things in the world.
So, you should prepare yourself that the success rate, would be quite low. Even if you try super hard, and it is okay. But that doesn’t mean that you should give up, like after sending ten requests and not receiving any reply, or not receiving any backlinks.
And in terms of how our own content marketing team here at Ahrefs does outreach, we don’t even request links. So, our goal, the goal of the outreach emails that we write is to generally make a person on the kind of other side of the screen interested in what we have.
If the person will click our link and will at least skim through our article? We consider it a success. That person might not link to us right away, and of course, this person is highly unlikely to go and update their page and put our link there to that specific page.
But if they got interested in what we did. If they kind of consumed even a little bit of that article, they might mention it going forward. And what we see is that people are linking to us in three months after we reached out to them, in six months after they reached out to them.
Because by reaching out to them and by showing them something interesting, we put ourselves on their radar. And they might not even link to that thing that you showed them, they might start following you or they might see another thing from you on Twitter.
They might recognize that you reached out to them before, so you have a track record of publishing awesome stuff. Which makes you worth a mention on their website.
It’s all about being natural. It’s all about being genuine. It’s all about investing your time into making it personalized and studying the person that you’re reaching out to. And making your outreach request interesting for them.
Because a lot of people, all they care about is themselves. And they start your email with like, can I get a backlink from you? Of course not, make it interesting for the person who is receiving your email. That’s the trick.
Louis: Another thing I want to share because you haven’t mentioned that in the course, but I think you’re doing that as well during your outreaches. Instead of going for the kills right away is, exactly the same as all the stuff we mentioned before. It’s building a relationship. For example, I didn’t reach out to you and say directly can you book a time that suits you in my calendar for the interview.
I first sent you a quick email about what it was about, asked you if you were interested, and then when I sent you the invite. Very same I think for outreach. Let’s say you identify someone who talked about how to start a business in Singapore. And you’ve identified an angle, something else that would add value to this topic.
I would probably try, if I’ve never contacted this person, to just say, “Hey, very well done on this article. There is another thing that I think you would be interested, can I send it to you?”
Sometimes just a little reply like the yes that they say, gives you the right then, to ask for something a bit more saying, “Okay, here’s the article. If you find it impressing maybe it will be nice if you can link to it in the future.”
I found that this is something that works well, which is they kind of foot in the door principle. So, starting with something very small, you just ask them to reply to this email, and then you can create relationship.
Now, it takes more time but that’s what it is, right? That’s what it takes.
Tim: To be honest, I’ve heard about that strategy and it was being popularized and mentioned by many, many people. Just as any new strategy, like every kind of influencer and every person who needs to impress their audience with new hacks, is always on the lookout of what kind of new tactics, new strategies. This was the next best thing in outreach. And to be honest, I don’t really buy it.
Sometimes I get emails with this kind of trick. Like I have this thing, can I send it to you? I just like, click delete on this email because I don’t care. I might offer a variation of this foot in the door principle because there is foot in the door principle, I think it comes from probably Robert Cialdini’s book, where you like ask for a small commitment before asking for a bigger commitment.
What I would do if you don’t want to send the link. Because I think the goal of, “can I send it to you?” question is so that you won’t include the link in your email. Because, as far as I know, emails with links have a better chance of going to the spam folder of the person who elicits the email.
This is why you want to send plain text emails and avoid links. Because the possibility of a person receiving it in their inbox — and not spam folder — increases.
What I would offer instead is don’t send the link to your article. Give them a quick recap of like what you wanted to say. If we are discussing business in Singapore and you stumble upon an article with steps on registering a business, and you know a company that does this for peanuts, for just like a few dollars, you can reach out to this person and say, “Hey. Did you know this company does it for this kind of money and you can actually register the business while being in another country? Blah, blah, blah.”
Don’t include any links. Just give this person the information, something interesting, and see if they will be interested. If they will reply. Even if they will reply “Thanks. I didn’t know that.” Or “Thanks. I did know that, but I didn’t include it in the article because this and this.”
Then you can follow up, “I actually have like a whole resource about starting a business in Singapore, and here are my most interesting articles.”
So, you have this foot in the door by saying something interesting to them, but by making them reply. And they reply not because you ask like, “Do you want to see my page?” And they should say “Yes.” Imagine you’re like reaching out to Gary Vaynerchuk, and you’re saying him “Gary, do you want to see my page?”
He doesn’t care about your page. He couldn’t care less about your page. But if you say like, “Gary, so I watched an interview with Tony Robinson. He said that you’re the most awful person in the world.” This maybe Gary would read and reply like, “You can tell Tony to go …” Let’s not swear on your podcast.
I would suggest people to just reach out and write an interesting email that would prompt a person to reply, and from there you can establish a relationship with them. And show them your product, your website, your pages, your content, or whatever you wanted to show them.
Louis: Tim, thanks so much for going through this long, step by step process with me. I think listeners would learn a lot from that. I know I did. I thought I knew a few bits about keyword research but I clearly didn’t.
I’m pretty sure a lot of people will reach out to you and ask you for more details about how they can contact you if they have any questions. But before that, I have always three questions that I ask at the end of each interview. The first one being, what do you think marketer should learn today that will help them in the next ten year, 20 years, or 50 years?
Tim: They should learn to figure out how to solve problems. Whatever you need to do, whatever problem you have, you just have to figure it out. You need to Google, you need to talk to people, you need to try things and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
This is the most important skill because technology changes, tactics change, the perception of audiences change. And as a marketer, at least my day-to-day job is figuring stuff out. Figuring out how this works, figuring out how that works. I think this is the most important skill, to be able to figure out things that you didn’t know anything about before.
Louis: What other top three resources do you recommend our listeners? Could be anything like a podcast, a book, a course, a software?
Tim: There is an app called — I believe it’s called Blinkist — and what they do is recaps. Short recaps of books. It is a paid app but it is pretty cool because you can read these recaps. They have text version or they have audio version. Basically, you can quite quickly go through a lot of interesting books in just a little time. This is a great resource to learn from books.
In terms of podcasts or anything else, I actually don’t know what to suggest because it would be like super specific to every individual. Like where are they at with their business, with their marketing, with their product.
I would refrain from recommending any specific resources because I’m afraid they won’t be relevant. Just follow a few specific people that are at the stage where you want to be with your business, or with your personal brand, or in life, or whatever. And see what these people are sharing with their audience. I think this is the best way to get some nice resources.
Louis: I’m going to add two resources to that because you’re too nice to not mention yours but I vouch for Blogging for Business. The course you did and I’m not paid to do that. Once again, I’m not getting any money from you for saying this, I genuinely really enjoyed it and learned a lot. It’s very practical. So, I’d recommend listeners to go through it and-
Tim: Okay, wait. Can I stop you right here?
Louis: Of course.
Tim: Because the course is paid and it cost quite a lot of money. What I suggest is that I can give out ten free copies. What people need to do is they need to tweet some take away from today’s conversation. When the podcast will be aired?
Louis: In a few weeks. We need to decide the date but when they listen to this episode right now, what do they need to do then?
Tim: They need to tweet any take away that they enjoyed from our conversation, and they need to include myself and yourself in a Tweet. So that people see that Tweet actually. And then I will pick ten people, almost at random.
If I like their Tweet or not. I mean, I’m saying almost at random because I don’t want them to think prices to me or whatever. Even they will say that I am totally wrong on something, I still can pick their Tweet because it’s interesting.
Louis: So, what’s your Twitter handle?
Tim: @TimSoulo. I think you will just include it in maybe the show notes, or whatever.
Louis: Yeah, but they might just listen on the phone, and they might not check the show notes. So, @TimSoulo is yours and mine is @LouieSlices. Which is a bit odd but probably people know that. Or @everyonehatesmarketers, you can find it.
That’s a nice offer of you, I’m pretty sure more than ten people will do that. I mean, they do because it’s worth what? How much is it? How much is the course?
Tim: Almost $800.
Louis: Yeah but it’s worth the money, and I agree. A lot of listeners might not be able to afford it because they might not work for a business that can pay for that. I think it’s a very nice offer to gave $800, very practical course, for free. So, all you have to do is tweet at us, and Tim will get it sorted.
So, once again Tim, thanks so much for your time. Apart from Twitter, is there any other way you want people to reach out, or are you happy with Twitter?
There’s a page at ahrefs.com dedicated to me, and it is a-h-re-f-s.com/Tim. T-I-M, which is my name. There I have a listing of my best articles. I have all my social profiles there and I also put links to all interviews that I do. So, the link to your show will also appear there. You’re getting yourself a link from Ahrefs by interviewing me.
If anyone wants to learn more from me, to read best of my content, or wants to follow me on any of the social channels and see what I tweet or share on Facebook, you can find all information about me at ahrefs.com/Tim.
Louis: Perfect Tim, thanks so much.
Tim: Thank you.
I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).
I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.
I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.