The Economics of Link Building
Life has taught me that good things should be expensive — especially when it comes to any type of digital marketing services. If you’re not an expert, you can end up getting something far from what you’ve been expecting.
Here’s an example of “the best mascot image you can get for your event” that I paid for when organizing one of our first Digital Olympus events:
Just for reference, this is how our mascot looked originally:
My point is, just like working with freelance designers, hiring SEO consultants is only safe when you know exactly what you need and can control every step of the contract. This both relates to the scope or work and the price of contract.
I get really confused when I hear that the price of an average SEO agency contract starts at $1k USD. This number was first shared by Rand Fishkin in 2012 when he asked 600 agencies about their typical rates. Later, in 2018, that same number was published by Ahrefs when they did a similar survey.
As an SEO practitioner, I’m a bit disappointed with the stability of rates, but what bothers me the most is that this rate doesn’t really include link building. I can hardly imagine a successful SEO campaign for an SMB site without acquiring links. To back up my statement with some numbers, I’d like to mention Ross Hudgens’ claim that acquiring a good link on a top-notch site should cost $1k USD. Ironically, that’s the whole budget of an average SEO contract.
But to be honest, I don’t quite agree with those rates even though I truly respect the opinion. It doesn’t seem that realistic at scale: if you want to build 10 links, it would cost you $10k, a hundred links, $100k etc. That’s just plain impossible for the majority of companies. Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to work with those rates, but I can hardly imagine a business willing to pay one hundred thousand dollars for one hundred links. And to be completely fair, in some niches even a hundred links won’t move the needle.
See for yourself. Here’s one of our clients who thought that 100 links would help them:
And here’s what’s been going on with their organic traffic coming back to their blog from the links that we built:
To give you some context for their SEO situation, this client also wanted to rank for keywords related to link building. Below you can see one of my favorite examples of how fierce the competition is in the niche where people want to rank for such a generic term as “link building”:
This screenshot is screaming a simple fact out loud: you need to have at least 2,000 referring domains to outrank the pages that are currently in the top. Remember the link building rates that I’ve just named? How much would such work be worth? Looks like you might need a new round of investments if a rate per link remains at $1k USD.
Now, look, I feel for you. Link building should be affordable for SMB sites because what’s the point in getting into it if the game’s been fixed to begin with? In this post, I’ll show you that link building shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, and even a small site can do it with enough dedication put into solving the issue. I’ll walk you through some of the most popular link building strategies and explain why some of them aren’t economically attractive. And I’ll explain the costs of certain options (or in other words, why the hell does your link builder charge you so much?) and show you what benefits they can offer your business.
Link building landscape: Email outreach strategy to rule them all
Some time ago, I had quite a long flight to Bali where I was speaking at the DMMS conference. I had a chance to watch a few movies including Tolkien, who was among my favorite authors growing up. Sadly, the movie had a weak plot that doesn’t really begin to explain how Tolkien came to invent his own language. However, it did bring up something to do with link building, believe it or not. Connections that you build throughout your life impact you a great deal. Put “your site” in place of “you” in the last sentence and voilá — here’s my point. If you follow the wrong path, you’ll surround yourself with bad connections (and, using my link building metaphor, bad links).
I’m always keen to discuss things from a philosophical point of view, but let’s get practical for a moment. How can you build high-quality links that will bring the best SEO results and will still be affordable?
Even though there are tons of link building strategies, on a general note, you can narrow them down to a few:
Links that are acquired through email outreach
First of all, let’s clear up on the terminology. I see any strategy that includes sending emails to other websites to negotiate the possibility of getting a link as email outreach. For instance, such well-known strategies as broken link building, building links through guest posting, scraping SERPs and then pitching your content to those sites, and many others. That’s all email outreach because they all involve pitching something to someone through emails. The only way in which some of those strategies are different from the others is that they require some sort of written content. For example, guest posting requires you to write a post — that’s obvious. This significantly increases the costs of work, and here we are, approaching the above-mentioned number of 1k USD. To be honest, guest posting is not my favorite strategy due to many limitations that it has (I’ll share them with you later in this post, so keep reading!)
Links from digital PR campaigns
Even though this strategy also relies on sending emails, your recipients aren’t website owners but journalists. So, this strategy is quite harder to execute. They require newsworthy content, you should have the necessary connections, be able to pitch it to the journos etc. etc. Also, digital PR campaigns always cost 10X more than any traditional email outreach campaign. That’s just because they bring links from media outlets that have not only great SEO value, but also let your brand connect with a broader audience.
I don’t like these types of links and I don’t recommend anyone to try to acquire them. But I feel that I can’t skip this point as, in reality, paid links are in high demand. Some marketers are always trying to find the shortcut and look for sites that sell links.
There aren’t too many options out there when it comes to link building. Let me show you how some of the listed options aren’t economically right or simply won’t bring any solid SEO boost.
What are the pros and cons of each strategy?
Below you’ll find a quick sum-up of the most significant pros and cons of each strategy. It’s important to mention that here, at my agency, we only build links through email outreach as I believe it is by far the most cost-effective strategy. As of links built through digital PR, I used to do that, but in my experience, the results were not quite worth their significant costs.
Let’s start with the tricky option — paid links. Here I’m talking about the links that you can purchase through sponsored content and that won’t be labeled with a special tag. I’m not going to talk about the ethical side of this strategy, as that would require a separate post. I just want to state that I know tons of sites that do it.
- It’s very fast. You can build as many links as you’d like. The only limitation is your budget.
- Sites that sell links do it at scale. At some point, they will be penalized by Google.
- Consequently, if those links are risky, you’ll have to disavow them some time later.
- Most likely there will be a tiny number of sites with exceptionally high domain ratings.
Digital PR link building
A few years ago, I was one of the biggest digital PR fans around, but time passed, and now I clearly see what kind of limitations this approach bears. Digital PR is an essential part of the promotion strategy for businesses that have recently established their brand and want to build trust with their audience. Plus, links from media outlets will automatically give Google’s a signal that your site is a trustworthy business. The only downside is that the majority of businesses don’t have a big fat budget for a proper digital PR campaign. Here’s a good post from Gisele Navarro that shares some extra angles on why brands do and don’t need digital PR.
- Getting links from media outlets will eventually grow your domain authority and give Google enough reasons to believe that your brand is trustworthy.
- They make your brand more visible to a broader audience.
- Showing to your potential clients that your brand was featured in The New York Times or on BBC is cool. Like, really cool.
- It’s very, very expensive. The costs for an average digital PR campaign start from $30k–$40k USD.
- This strategy requires specific content which is why it gets so pricey.
- It takes a few months to build such links — to ideate and execute the campaign, gather attention, get coverage, etc.
- The price per link is very high. Normally it revolves around $1k USD.
Email outreach link building
I believe this to be the best link building strategy that fits nearly every business’ needs, especially if your goal is to start getting traffic to already existing pages. And to top it off, its cost per link is affordable even for small and medium-sized businesses.
- You can build links to nearly any page (including your commercial pages).
- The price per link doesn’t go through the roof (it varies from $100 to $500 USD depending on the referring site’s domain quality)
- A lot of link building agencies even allow you to buy one link (however, we aren’t within that tier as we prefer quality over quantity).
- It allows you to build relationships with your industry peers.
- It makes your brand more visible to your target audience.
- It helps you get links from top-notch industry sites.
- Requires some special skills and knowledge (an average email has only an 8.5% open rate which makes it quite a hard practice).
- Such links can’t be built overnight. However, the time they take is less than the PR-based links.
- Such links have some hidden reputational risks (if you do it the wrong way, sending tons of outreach emails = being potentially seen as a spammer).
To sum it up, there are many reasons to believe that link building through email outreach is your to-go strategy if your main goal is to get more organic traffic from Google. The next big question is how many links you need and what it’s going to cost you.
How to estimate the number of links you need
A few weeks ago, I was lucky to listen to Robbie Richards’ speech at the DMSS conference where he confirmed my link building formula. If you’re competing with a site with similar on-site characteristics (both sites are https, mobile-friendly, fast, Google considers them both a brand plus a few other factors) then, in order to outrank it in search, you need to keep in mind only two factors*:
- Your domain’s authority should be circa the same number as of the pages that you want to outrank;
- You should have the same or a bit more referring domains compared to the pages that currently outrank you.
*In particular cases, internal linking plays a huge role. Not that long ago, my good friend Joe Williams published a great post where he goes into more detail on the topic.
This formula might vary based on your estimated domain authority (DA) or on your domain rating (DR). If you have a higher domain score than the pages that you want to outrank, then you’ll just need fewer links. But if your DR is lower, you’ll need significantly more links, and that’s something you need to account for.
Here’s some context: let’s take a look at my own site. Digital Olympus is not doing very well in the SERPs because of its DR. On average, all sites that are ranking for search queries related to email outreach have a domain rating of 70–80, while our own site is only 56. So, this means that we need at least two times more links referring to our pages in comparison to the sites that are above us in search. For instance, to get this page to the top of search results for “email outreach,” we need to build around 200 links. As you can see from a screenshot below, the rest of the URLs have 100+ links, so we need to double that number to stand a chance:
Another approach to this situation would require us to calculate how many links we need to get the overall domain rating of 70. That’s around 250 links from sites with DR higher than 30 (I don’t consider sites that have smaller DR of good quality).
Once you know the necessary number of links to build, you should decide whether you’re capable of doing it on your own. I’m not trying to convince you to hire an agency, but if you’ve never done link building, it’s going to take around a year to set up the process and start building from 10–20 links a month, realistically speaking.
I don’t want to demotivate you, but such tasks are truly skill-demanding. A few years ago, I could barely build several links per month. So, if you have a budget and need links right away, it makes sense to hire someone to help you. The main reason why our clients hire us is that we’ve built relationships in the industry. We’re known, which allows us to build links fast.
What’s the right price for an email outreach link building campaign?
Different agencies have different rates when it comes to link building through email outreach. As a time-consuming strategy, it very much relies on the agency’s approach which is always unique even if it relies on the common practices. Some charge per campaign, some per link, and some would prefer to ask you to pay not less than a certain amount on a monthly basis.
For example, the people at LinksHero charge from $3k USD and promise to build around 5–15 links per month:
In case you want to pay as you go and don’t want to be bound by any monthly commitments, then DFYlinks.com is your best choice. Their link building services are highly recommended by such well-known experts as Cyrus Shepard, Ryan Stewart, and many others. DFYlinks sell guest post links and their cheapest option will cost you only $160 USD:
Another link building agency trusted by such industry experts as Ryan Stewart and Steven Kang is Authority Builders. Even though they don’t have a pricing page, I had a chat with their founder, Matt Diggity, and he said that their basic rate is $170–$180 USD.
If you’re wondering where my agency stands, we’re from a bunch that charge per number of acquired links, post-factum. I think it’s the best option for small and mid-size businesses, as it gives you more freedom and allows you to build links at your own pace.
Our rate is somewhere in the middle, even though the quality of our links is above average, as we’re getting our links from corporate and top-notch blogs. Plus, we don’t send mass emails so you won’t face any associated reputation risks. We’ve spent the last couple of years building relationships with people, so right now we’re simply reaching out to them instead of doing mass email blasts. For our services, we charge from $300 USD per link, so you can easily calculate your overall budget to build, say, a hundred links. However, we work only in the B2B niche — specializations are important to consider before you choose an agency.
So that’s the rundown on how much it costs to build links. Hopefully you should now be able to estimate your budget in order to build the desired number of links to your site. And let me just say this: for businesses that have already built some trust and visibility, getting even sixty new, quality referring domains can make all the difference and help them achieve sustainable organic traffic growth:
That’s a lot to take in, I know. But there’s more to talk about. For example, there are tons of hidden benefits to email outreach delivered the right way. Just stay with me, we’re getting there.
How to get more from every link that you earn
I love handmade email outreach link building as it allows you to do more than build links. You’re also building relationships that can help you move the needle far beyond link building alone.
People who are your link building partners today can organize a conference tomorrow and invite you to speak, which can allow you to become more visible within your niche. That’s not as rare as it may seem! And if you’re curious, yes, I’m referring to our own experience: besides doing link building, we also run our own digital marketing conference Digital Olympus (which, by the way, will be next held in Krakow on April 5th 2020).
Another benefit worth mentioning is that the companies that you connect with during your email outreach link building campaign also invest in growing their businesses. As a result, the site that has a domain score of 50 might get it up to 70 in a few months. In other words, today you’re paying for something that might get much more valuable in the future, and that’s what makes email outreach link building epic!
Here’s a list of sites from which we built links for one of our clients. You can see how their domain scores have grown since May 2019:
Start working on a link building profile that will rule them all!
Your next step is up to you, but in my experience, it’s important to start working on links as early as possible. Otherwise, there’ll be a huge gap between your site and your competitors who have been working on link building for a while.
Also, I know that the majority of businesses would like to run their link building campaigns in-house. Starting early gives you a leg-up to build your processes and test things. If you decide that it’s your way, please don’t follow the “best practices,” as 99% of them are infinitely outdated. Most of those strategies have been discontinued years ago in the link building community, and only rookies still fall for them.
The list of no-BS resources
If you’re looking for more information about doing DIY link building, here are a few useful posts that won’t turn you into a spammer who’s asking for a link because “they’ve been following another person’s blog for ages” (that’s a link builders private joke):
I’m not sure what else is there for me to say to convince you that email outreach is the way to do link building. And so I won’t try to convince you anymore — I’ll just sum up what I’ve told you already.
First of all, assess your situation and decide what’s more important for you at the moment: building links fast or building your own process of acquiring links in-house. If you decide in favor of the first option, calculate the number of links you need to build, estimate your budget, and find a reputable agency to help you out. And if you settle for the latter, get ready to spend some time on building relationships, mastering your outreach email copy, and streamlining creating valuable content.
But don’t worry — in the end, it’s all going to be worth it.