Almost 2.5 years ago, I started my own SEO agency with the help of Reddit, and today, we marked our first acquisition. Thank you everyone, and feel free to Ask Me Anything (AMA) about backlinks.
Hey there everyone,
I hope that all of you had a great start to the New Year!
Running my own firm was something that I knew I wanted to do ever since I started in a Big 4 Consulting firm, and the last 2.5 years have been a rollercoaster, first with an accident, then with Covid-19, and now finally with the first acquisition of my life.
Throughout, I have received an amazing array of support from some of the Redditors, a couple of whom became 2 of my largest clients. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all the help, advice, mentorship, and support that I have received from the community.
Please feel free to ask anything about backlinks, and here is my analysis based on our clients' performance after the December Core Update.
A few notes before we started: We saw a few clients who started with losses and ended up gaining traffic, and vice-versa over the course of the 2-week period. I am only going to talk about the results that we saw at the end of this period and will not consider any fluctuations. I will bifurcate the results in terms of the niches that we serve to make the observations a little easier. And finally, any client that saw a traffic increase or decrease in the range of 5% would be considered a non-factor or stable clients as that is a general trend that could be observed in any case, with or without any update.
Dental niche – Our largest niche with 27 clients, we saw 16 of them gain rankings, 7 remained stable, while 4 of them lose out on the Holiday festivities, including 1 that received a penalty and saw their traffic drop down by almost 53%. The average gain was 27% while the loss was 21% for the 4 clients. In this case, most of the clients who saw ranking gains had been updating their content regularly throughout the year and had a pretty good site architecture, while the ones who lost out on rankings were low on their Link Velocity, while some of them had a significantly high Links/Domain ratio.
Eye Care niche – Our second largest niche with 23 clients, we had 13 winners, 5 who remained stable and 5 losers with no penalties in this niche. The average gain was 31% in this niche, and the average loss of traffic was 18%. In this niche as well, we saw similar trends when it came to gains and losses as in the Dental niche.
Other Specialty Hospitals and General Hospitals (Minus Dental and Eye Care) – Among the last 19 medical clients that we have, we had 12 winners, 2 who were stable, and 5 losers, with one hospital who lost 67% of their traffic and 81% of their traffic value according to Ahrefs . This client had a Backlink/Domain ratio of 1781/1, with mostly spammy, non-TLD links filling up their backlink profile. The average traffic gained for these clients stood at 18% while the average loss was at 21%, largely thanks to our now former client.
Software As A Service niche – Software as a Service (SaaS) sites saw a very healthy update with 13 out of 16 clients seeing a rise in traffic (27%), while 2 clients saw an average dip of 11%, and the last was slightly in the red at -1.7%. Overall, Link Velocity and Core Web Vitals (CWV) played the most important role for these guys, as they were largely small businesses (average 2,500 sessions a month for the 16 clients), and their content production was close to 1-2 new content pieces a month.
Education niche – Education niche was a mixed bag with 7 out of 13 clients seeing an average rise in traffic by 22%, and 5 clients losing on an average 14%. These were the biggest content producing clients that we had, so that overall drop can be attributed to not having their E-A-T attributes in place, something which is gaining more prominence, and site architecture being shoddy (lots of produced content, but without a decent strategy in place). We spent the last month or so revamping the architecture of the smallest 2 clients with a cohesive internal linking, anchor text strategy, with an increased Link Velocity, and were able to get back to their original traffic status from December.
Finance niche – Finance was mostly positive, as much as I abhor the industry. We had 11 clients, out of which 7 reported an average gain of 31%, while 2 reported a loss of 17% which was attributed to 1 client losing out by nearly 23%. The content production was once again not that great, sans for 2 clients, one of which increased their traffic by 39% while the other saw an increase of 0.3%, and is hence being considered a neutral client, we basically saw that good CWV focus and a good architecture definitely helped the industry. The ones who lost out had a poor Links/Domain ratio of 273/1 and 219/1 respectively, and that is a correction we have started working on.
Cannabis niches – Although the niche wasn't the biggest one for us with only 4 clients, in terms of the loss of traffic, we reported the biggest hit that we have seen in our agency's short span so far, with 1 former client reporting a loss of 84% traffic and 92% traffic value within a week. Even though they were producing really good content, and decent CWV scores for the main pages, not to mention, a pretty good site architecture, their Link Velocity and Links/Domain ratio were pretty shitty, with almost 71% of their links coming in from spammy domains. Even still, seeing a 5-figure monthly paycheck being wiped off was a pretty shocking thing. Among the remaining 3 clients, 2 reported a loss of 3.7% while 1 reported a paltry gain of 6.1%
Other niches – Among other niches (real estate, tech platforms, gaming sites, travel, restaurants, and a single funeral website (Shudder!)), we saw 19 of our clients gain rankings among the overall 31, while 7 lost, and 5 remained stable. The overall growth of 17% for these clients was supported by a decent content strategy followed by localized link acquisition with an increasing Link Velocity over the last 6 months, as most of these clients were on long-retainer contracts with smaller budgets. The clients who saw their rankings take a dive by an average of 11% mostly had poor CWV scores for their major product or service page, and hadn't been updating their content properly.
What did you do for client acquisition?
• Almost 15% from Reddit
• Almost 35% from connections made during previous corporate stints
• Almost 20% from Chiang Mai conference in 2018 and 2019
• Remaining from sending out cold emails with attached audits and free consultation of those audits
Do you think it would be pretty tough to get SEO clients from say, Facebook ads?
Honestly, we haven't tried it at all, because the closest I came to managing FB ads was 3 years ago for a Software as a Service (SaaS) company that were creating SEO dashboards and the Return of Investment (RoI) wasn't great. So, we have stayed away from it and have stuck to tried and tested methods.
Maybe once we are in the space of having a 50k Marketing budget on a month on month basis, hopefully by Q3 20201, we will start experimenting with FB ads.
• Almost 15% from Reddit
Advertising on Reddit or just posting and users reaching out to you?
3. Almost 20% from Chiang Mai conference in 2018 and 2019
How did you get clients from an industry conference? Aren't the vast majority of attendees other SEO users?
• Just from normal posts and people reaching out to me.
• Nope. There are quite a few agencies that are providing complementary services (we started only with link building in 2018) while some were full-stack marketing agencies that wanted to strengthen their SEO services and decided to start with us and we became their white-label partners.
Is your agency located in Bangkok?
Nope. But my first Outreach lead was based out of Bangkok and she asked me to come over to the CMSEO conference. Since I was primarily based out of Munich, Germany during my formative SEO years, I hadn't heard of it but was pleasantly surprised by the speakers in both years.
I am based out of Frankfurt and have another company I build for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in Karachi. The Karachi firm was setup 7 months before corona so that's a huge overhead at the moment. I plan to open one more in Bangkok but due to pandemic that will be a dream for the next years to come.
Yeah, I can understand. The first couple of months were pretty bad for us as well with most of our small businesses retracting their contracts or their budgets slashed down to nothing. Thankfully, we got a couple of agencies who had medical clients who wanted to spend big bucks and we were able to ride it out.
All the best man. I hope you are able to push through.
How do you manage the link building and Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness (EAT) for medical niches.
Link building for medical niche was easily our toughest job to date, and we relied on 2 things: looking at links for the largest hospitals in the respective country of the client and simply reaching out to the domains they have acquired links from, and targeting the list of sites corresponding to the content that was already in place. We wanted to ensure that we weren't acquiring links for our clients from the same sites otherwise that would have sent a negative signal to Google, and therefore we looked at creating a large pool of sites for every niche which we kept on increasing as the clients and the number of links being acquired per month grew.
Maintaining E-A-T was the easier part. We asked the hospitals/clinics to give us the credentials of their most recognized Doctors/workers whose information was readily available in the public domain, and we rotated those people as the content producers on a rotating basis. We also asked them to get the reviews from as many patients as possible, and if they had any existing awards, we made sure that those testimonial and award pages were linked as frequently as possible. Lastly, we insisted that every content piece being published had at least 2-3 medical journals or peer reviewed papers that were linked to create trustworthiness around the content pieces that were being created.
Great work. Can I ask where you found contractors/partners to fulfil the Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Thank you in advance!
Hey there, thanks a lot!
If I am not wrong, are you asking me who does most of our SEO work? If that's the question, 80% is in-house with only citation building being farmed out to the Local SEO firm whom I used previously in one of my corporate stints. Also, up until now, we were also loaning out web development to an agency, and our first acquisition comes in the form of acquiring one such agency so that we can include Web Dev as one of our services, and also help in revamping our entire website, while helping us launch our other initiative in March.
If you need a media buying solution I'd love to chat! I'm building out custom adtech to differentiate myself from the classic "we have great service" agencies after doing a stint at a large agency.
Is your link building done by a software, manually or are you going out and asking companies for backlinks to your site? I've always been confused about the best way to get backlinks for local companies
Manual Outreach. The campaigns need to be pretty much tailored towards specific geography, and of course, for a specific industry for local business owners, and for that, targeting outreach is the only thing that works.
Thank you! do you usually pay the companies for manual outreach and how is a price determied? also what do you think about companies that backlink to irrelevant domains?
Aah no. We are the ones who design and carry out the manual outreach. And the pricing is usually determine on 2 basis, and differs for 2 different kinds of companies:
• Clients with larger budgets usually want only content based link acquisition, and there the focus is primarily on High Quality (HQ) content with reporters being targeted.
• Smaller clients with budget under $5000 per month, who would need a guaranteed number of backlinks. There we pay the websites directly, but the content and guidelines for link placement are provided by us
Is skyscraper shotgun linkbulding a meme? Should I be paying for (quality) links in 2021?
Is skyscraper shotgun linkbulding a meme? Not really. The probability of getting a link via Sniper is more than double compared to the Shotgun method (my personal data stands at 17% vs 6% for India and 22% vs 9% for the USA). However, for that to happen, the quality of the content needs to be at least 3x or 4x to that of the original content piece that you are trying to beat, which can get extremely hard, unless you have a fantastic content team.
Should I be paying for (quality) links in 2021? I am running an SEO agency with a focus on Link Building man. What do you expect for me to respond to this question? But honestly, with the way Link Velocity is becoming a factor in 2020 and moving forward, if you don't have the time or the patience to build links, purchase them. Just make sure that the team getting those links for you know what they are doing, because identification of link purchase or spammy links is much more easier for Google than it used to be 2-3 years ago.
I appreciate the honest answers, thank you and lmao @ the last point. Take care bro, much luck moving forward.
Thanks a lot man. Wishing you the same.
More power to you and your team. Could you please share your company size and structure? Example: who manage what work?
I currently oversee the client relation and I step in the acquisition part, and the remainder goes into Ops/Finance. Then I have 4 leads; Content, Audit and Research, Link Building/Outreach, and Client Acquisition, who have 6, 2, 3, 3, full-time members under them, and a total of 16-17 contractual employees performing various tasks.
How do people in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) know when an update is happening?
There are tons of accounts that you can follow on Twitter who'll let you know. Also, Google usually sends out a message from time to time regarding these updates. The next large update would be the Core Web Vitals update in May 2021.
Thank you internet friend! Umm.. would it be real cheeky of me to ask where I can subscribe to the Google updates and the account on twitter that announces it?
I'm kinda very green to SEO, but I find it fascinating how it all works.
On top of that if you are monitoring search results you will see changes happening as they roll out. The update is usually mostly rolled out by the time they admit it.
It's always a good idea to build in defense against anything Google complains about to stay ahead of new core updates.
Edit: congrats man.
I feel like I need to stop being complacent after reading your post. Been at this for 12 years and my business comes almost entirely from people finding me in a Google search and the rest by referral.
Thanks a lot. We have also started to rank a bit and get referrals. Hopefully, we will be able to scale it in year …
You have done amazingly well in that short of time. I have never even tried to get clients the way you have. Its impressive.
Have you ever used a Public Relations (PR) company to outsource content promotion for Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? If not, do you recommend any other service (or automation) besides manual outreach? Thanks!
We personally haven't, but for 4 of our clients, we have worked in conjunction with PR agencies.
The idea for brand building in 2021 is two-folds. Google expects you to not only build links but also expects that you will get unlinked mentions. That latter can be acquired with the help of these PR agencies, thereby making your link building look more natural. However, from an SEO perspective, or unless your clients follow digital publication, it won't impact your traffic much. However, from a brand-building perspective, it definitely helps. The only issue is Return of Investment (RoI) measurement or the lack of it.
I'm interested in setting up an SEO agency myself, but I guess my concern is that it's difficult to know what 'qualifications' will be sufficient. I've a degree in Marketing and I own a clothing business which is allowing me to experiment on SEO myself. I also have 7x years of sales (selling Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising campaigns to national accounts)
Anything you would recommend to someone in my position starting out? Any courses etc?
I'll likely hire people to do the SEO work and focus on sales, but I still want to get as close to being an expert as I can.
Look, as far as SEO is concerned, hands-on experience matters more than any certificate against your name. If you want, pick up SEMrush, and get all the certificates their platform has, but it won't matter if you can't audit and figure out why a client's site tanked, or why he isn't ranking.
The best thing is to start a focused blog in a niche, and grow the traffic to the point that you consistently rank against the top players in your niche. Once you have done that, you'll be able to extrapolate your learnings to different industries. Obviously, experience and an insatiable knack for learning helps if you are traversing across industries.
Great advice, thank you!
Don't mention it, and all the best.
I am just starting out and wanted to test the waters with my first client. It is a small repair company, so I'm focusing on Local SEO. On-site optimization, Keyword research, building citations, Google My Biz (GMB) Optimization (i.e. posting, getting more reviews), and photography. Content creation and link building was not part of our contract. I'm not seeing much results so far, what would you recommend for growth in local SEO? Is link building a must? We also subscribed to Brightlocal, but found it not too useful. Their goal is to gain more visibility, traffic, and ultimately more customer conversions. Thanks!
I'm not OP, but "content creation was not part of our contract" is a huge red flag to me. Content is the most important aspect of SEO. If you're not optimizing content, you're not doing SEO.
You mentioned you did keyword research, what did you do the research for? Did you simply update the title tags and call it a day?
Since their budget was limited, we couldn't make content work for their package. Instead we will be working with their team/staff to write up some resource pages on repair related information for their website. We will help them on which keywords to write about. We did put keywords into the tags, URLs and descriptions on their business listings. We are just starting off small with a local SEO client, so that's why we ask on what direction would be best to focus on.
Great read. I tried launching a medical based SEO agency a few months ago but realized I didn't have enough time. How'd you handle scaling so effectively?
Also, you state "with one hospital who lost 67% of their traffic and 81% of their traffic value according to Ahrefs .". Why not use Google Search Console / Google Analytics to get accurate data instead of relying on Ahrefs ?
The traffic comes from Search Console. Only the traffic value part came in from Ahrefs .
And we simply focused on link building to begin with for the first 14 months of our operations. It was only in the last year or so that we decided to launch new services, once we realised that we had a decent amount of revenue coming in which would allow us to expand.
Can you talk a bit about the acquisition you made, terms of the deal (as much as you can) the factors in making the decision and how you are feeling about things at this point. Thanks for all the info you shared above, very helpful!
Well, lots of our clients are small business owners or agencies who have smaller clients whose website isn't that great. Since one of the core ranking factors is Site architecture and design, they wanted someone who can help them out. So, we thought that bringing in a web developer might help. But we realised that we had a significant number of leads, and decided to get ourselves a team. So, we had 2 teams test out websites for clients, and then made an offer to the one we liked better.
We went ahead with an all-cash deal, and the owner will stay here for the transition till end of March. His entire team of 7 will hopefully stay.
Honestly, I want to ensure that we want to grow into a full-stack SEO team by the end of the year, with the rest of our services having the same level of excellence as our Link Building. Once we are there, I think we can start to diversify into other Marketing channels.
Excellent response. Great approach. Where (roughly) are you located?
Thank you for this great AMA! What are the most important factors for a site to rank well – besides getting external links? .. and would you tell us your company name? Would love to check it out.
In the order of focus:
• Semantic saturation
• Core Web Vitals
• Mobile Optimization
• User behavior
Crack these, and you are mostly golden.
Congrats on your success! Do you use any other form of link building outside of acquiring links through outreach to domains linking to competitors – such as web 2.0s, profile links, Private Blog Networks (PBN)s, etc.? If not, what are your thoughts on these forms of link building; are they bound to lead to an eventual penalty? It seems like a rising number of people are starting to believe that any link that isn't earned 100% 'naturally' is bound to lead to a penalty. I don't necessarily believe this, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on this and what your limits are on the types of link building strategies you feel are safe, if you have any such limits. Thanks!
Absolutely not. I am in the category of getting links via content and outreach only. My mentor was a Google evaluator who was a team-member who imposed a penalty on Mozilla among other brands, and we had Outreach and Content embedded into our skills.
And sure, these other methods give you a momentary boost, especially if you have a new site. But they don't have a defined life, as in, they can get you penalized without a set number of days. Some may get penalised early, while some may get off with years before they are penalized, leading to people thinking that these links work.
But apart from the initial boost spurt, these links do no good except for spamming your backlink profile, and should be avoided.
Thanks for doing this! What's your take on the december update? I have seen sites, especially affiliate ones being absolutely tanked in it. Eg petlifetoday.com or rktpublishing's sites (just have a look at Ahrefs ) a similar pattern is present on many different sites and there doesen't seem to be a pattern as for content or link quality. Some other sites with worse content and links remained stable.
What do you make of the change? Any theories of what they are weighing differently now?
The reason why I mentioned specific niches in my post is because we were able to see clear patterns across the clients present for this niche, while for the rest, we didn't either had the numbers to make a correct assessment, or we had results that we here and there.
In any case, I think the Core updates moving forward will focus on all the factors across certain niches, unless Google explicitly mentions certain niche/geography/factor. For example, the May update is supposedly going to focus on the Core Web Vitals, so you should definitely work on them in the meantime.
That being said, as far as the December update goes, I think Link Velocity and making sure that the content publishing is being maintained were 2 crucial factors, with site structure helping out the content publishing side of it. Google is assuming that people are started to get better at link building, and therefore the focus has now shifted to can you scale your link building efforts as your company and website grows older. If yes, you gain better rankings.
In the affiliate markets, spammy links pose the biggest threat, and and that will always be a concern. Case in point:
Petlifetoday have 82.7% links coming in from potentially spammy sources and 15.1% of all links were User Generated Content (UGC).
At this rate, really can't expect them to not be hit.
As far as others are concerned, maybe they are up next.
What do you typically charge?
It honestly depends on the client. I never impose myself on a client from a budget perspective, even more so with Covid.
That being said, our client budget can be anywhere between $750 to $25,000 depending on their business and marketing spend and Key Performance Indicators (KPI)s.
What is your analysis of e-commerce websites?? I am working on an e-commerce website and it's getting really hard for me to get backlinks. I have a lot of data (websites) for guest posting but my guest post isn't approving. I am doing cold emails with attached files but it's not working, Suggest me how can I improve my approach for guest posting or link building?
Also my second question: Is blog comments and web2.0 link building is useful?
Thank you in Advance.
E-commerce sites are now present dime a dozen. Anybody with a product to sell creates a few pages with flashy sites that may attract visitors and starts to run campaigns.
How is site different? Especially do you have a good structure with clean landing pages and a fantastic Core Web Vital would define how well you are going to rank, especially since most of e-commerce traffic is from mobile.
As far as links are concerned, unless your posts have something unique attached to them, be ready to pay. It's either content that isn't present anywhere else or money that gets you link in 2021.
Also, no. Please don't go with comments, Web 2.0, and other submission based link building unless you want your rankings tanked.
Firstly, congrats on your success! Thankfully, the December core update worked out positively for me, unlike the previous one wherein I lost over 80% traffic. Do you have any tips for the forthcoming update. I heard Core Web Vitals play a major role. What's your take on this? And, how to fix poor URLs. I'm a bit anxious and would be glad to hear from you.
Hey, thanks for your thread! I'm pretty new to SEO, but from this thread I see there's a lot of emphasis on backlinks. Are backlinks the most important thing for Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? What are the most important things?
In the order of focus:
Core Web Vitals
Thanks for the excellent AMA.
I work in the Cannabis niche and we saw the similar results as you did. Non-spammy Cannabis websites with solid backlink profiles got slammed from the Dec update. More specifically several sites saw about a 60-70% drop in organic traffic. It seems slowly but surely they're coming back and are now around 50% drop when compared to pre-Dec levels.
I'm curious if you can elaborate on anything you're doing to combat this drop? For us we're trying to work on author bios and other small Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness (EAT) strategies but outside of that we're a little unsure on what else to do.
Great post and kudos to all the hard work that had gone in! Definitely loads of work in such a short span of time!
Out of curiosity, can you quote the absolute rank gains for a few of your clients? Want to understand from a perspective which says for example, Client 1 in Software as a Service (SaaS) niche gained 7% traffic while growing from rank 29 to 23.
Although this cannot be directly attributed, it is definitely a nice-to-see view point.
What advice would you give to someone taking on an SEO role for the first time?
I have solid knowledge of on-site SEO and I am working towards more complicated things like Schema markup and off-site SEO. I'm looking at using plugins for the schema and continuing to utilize outside resources for off-site since my bandwidth cant be stretched to link building (only person on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) at our company).
Tl;Dr If you could give some insight/advice to yourself 2.5 years ago, what would you say so that they don't make the same mistakes?
Congrats with your SEO agency! I was planning to go to Chiang Mai SEO conference as well last year but obviously was canceled.
Care to explain a bit more about the audits you attach for clients. Would you send them on the 1st email or only make them after they show some interest. Love to see an example as well if that's something you can share.