SEO is about people, not title tags.
Zig Ziglar would have been great at SEO. I mean, he’s dead now, God rest his southern soul. Ol’ Zig could have outranked Neil Patel in a New York minute. Not because Patel isn’t great — he is, but because Ziglar was a master at sales.
You think I am being funny to get clicks. I’m not. I am serious. SEO has more in common with sales than anything else. The reason is simple: SEO is about links, and links are created by people, and to influence people you need to understand sales.
I am going to be writing more about this topic in the coming weeks, if you are interested in hearing about the SEO tips you don’t get from HubSpot or Moz or other content machines designed to sell software, then hit that Follow button up top and let’s keep going.
Most online marketers are bad at SEO because they can’t sell for shit. Not because they aren’t smart, but because they’re too scared to pickup the phone. And yet, sales is the missing link in a good SEO strategy. It’s what separates the amateurs and the wannabes from the pros.
Do you need SEO?
It pays to start at the beginning and decide if you need to worry about SEO or not. Most businesses do, but some don’t. Businesses that don’t need to worry about SEO fall into a few broad categories:
- You are a walled garden like Facebook. All of your content is behind a login/signup wall for privacy sake.
- You are an app that doesn’t generate any url artifacts.
- You are in the Alexa top 1,000 and don’t know how you got there.
Every other business should be thinking about SEO.
Making your first sale
The goal for today, is to get started. You are going to plant some seeds. With proper watering, and fertilizer (organic of course) you will have a healthy crop of links in 6 months. Yes, I said six months. If that’s too long for you, then get the hell out of my office. There are many websites and forums that will deliver quick and cheap results, but they are all junk. At best they will put you on top for a month and at worse they can cause irreversible damage to your domain and company. We are farmers, not butchers. You will plant three seeds today, are you ready? Here is what you will need:
- A piece of scrap paper
- A pencil
- A trial subscription to https://ahrefs.com
Alright, take out your pencil and your scrap piece of paper and write at the top:
SEO takes time, and those links will be mine.
Next, go to https://ahrefs.com and put your first competitor’s domain into the search box, and make sure that the
*/domain*modifier is selected, and wait for the results. What you are looking at is your competitor’s link profile. From there, click on the “Backlinks” section.
You will be taken to a page that shows you all of the people that have linked to your competition. This list can be long and full of duplicates, so I like to scope the results to “only one per domain”.
Look through this list. Click some links and explore the space. The goal is to get an intuitive sense of the content. Is it good? Is it researched or opinions? Is it subjective reviews, or hard data? Is it beautiful or cheap looking? All of these factors will weigh on how easy or hard it will be for you to convince the source (in this list), to give you a link instead of your competition.
Alright, time for a quick review.
SEO is about links, links we don’t currently have but want. To get these links, we will need to do one of two things:
- Create stellar content, share it and ask for a link, or just get one because it’s so good.
- Find someone that is already linking to a competitor, and see if we can convince them to link to us instead or as well.
Alright, let’s recap again to make sure everyone is still with me. We want to get links. Instead of writing stellar content, we are going to steal links (that’s what it’s called) from our competition. We ran their domain through Ahref’s amazing toolset and then looked at their backlinks (people who are linking to them). From there, we clicked around and found a page that we think we can outsell.
Let’s look at an example. If you are competing with Amazon, and think that you are going to steal a link by telling someone that you built a better online store, you are delusional. If however, you see e-commerce differently than Amazon, and truly know that a brand can get more value from your website, then you have an edge and you can use that edge to drive value and earn a link.
Alright so we are looking at their backlinks, trying to identify a website that we can convince to give us a link too…phew! We made it. Don’t worry, it gets a lot harder and a lot more boring from here.
On your sheet of paper, leave yourself some room and write in the heading, Leads.
Back in Ahrefs, you are looking at list of websites that link to your competitor. Remember that SEO is about links, and links are controlled by people, and to influence people you need to know sales. The goal now is to find a website where you think you will be able make contact with another human, and convince them to give you a link. A quick shortcut for this step is to look for any blog, news site, community, or association website. Luckily for me, I have three of those in the top 10.
If you explore those three pages, you will find that they are written by a reporter, and is simply talking about the company and their products. This is the perfect opportunity to get a link! Can you see why?
- Reporters need to write. That’s their job.
- Trade associations need to talk about their members
- Communities need fresh content
- The content is subjective, you don’t need to prove that you are better, just convince them that you are better or worthy of a link, a story etc.
You are selling a solution to a problem that they have. They want good content, they want to add value to their site and readers, and you are going to give it to them. Now, this is where you can really go above and beyond, or play it safe. Remember earlier, I mentioned that you can get links in two fundamental ways?
- Produce amazing content, share it with people and ask for links.
- Steal links from competition
Well, think about what we have right now. We have identified three potential leads and are assuming, given the nature of their websites, that each site will be open to our sales pitch given the fact that they always need quality content. So… what’s our pitch going to be? The easiest pitch goes something like this:
Hey Mrs. Smith,
I just finished reading your piece in Bloomberg <insert link> and have to say that I really respect the position you took. It takes guts to go against the grain and say that the market isn’t as hot as investors think. We need more articles this!
Speaking of more articles, I work <company name> and I would love to be a source for future pieces like this. Our company has been growing a lot in the past 6 months, and I think you will find our perspective is similar to yours in some respects, and different in others.
Would you be interested in interviewing myself or our CEO for an upcoming piece?
I am sure you are busy, so I wanted to send along this other piece of content I saw this week in case you missed it. Would love to see if you agree or disagree with her position, in your own time of course <link>.
Thanks for your time, and thanks for amazing articles link this. Keep up the good work.
The tactic above is your typical inbound relationship building email, it must be genuine and true. People’s bullshit meters are well calibrated. If you lie, you will get caught. Be honest, and genuine. Add value to them, and they will add value to you, but you need to add value first.
The advantage with the above outreach email is that you don’t need anything of value, other than you and your company. You plant a seed, stroke their ego, and honestly ask for their opinion on something that is important to your business. At the very least, you might get a new perspective, at best, you will get perspective and a contact at Bloomberg, and a link from Bloomberg two weeks later when she writes a piece and quotes your CEO as an expert.
If I had to generalize a success rate for this approach, it would be 10%. You can easily move to 15–20% if you apply personalization but that requires more time than we have today. Remember to follow me above if you are interested in my thoughts on those topics too. So how do you increase your chance of getting that link?
Think about it. Sales is all about adding value. In the case above, you are making an observation and giving the lead some value in the form of, “call me next time”. This is valuable, but what if you ask them a question instead?
Before I go, I need to be honest. I would love to get smart people like you to write more about companies like Hubba. What kind of content is most valuable to you? Any specific formats, video, infographic, blog? What would a dream headline look like for you? Are there any problems I can solve for you?
Let me know!’
Are they going to reply? Maybe, maybe not. But you’ve gone beyond a sales call, you are now adding value and letting them know that you want to add value. This is a relationship. If you water it accordingly and treat it with love and respect, it will grow.
As luck would have it, I successfully did this yesterday.
It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
Find the intersection of websites that link to your competition, and where you can compete. Make a list of names. Contact each of them with a value add proposition and leave the door open to add even more value later.
What separates good SEOs from the pros? Good SEOs try and get link. Pros turn links into leads, and leads into links.
Links -> Leads -> Links
That’s the alchemy of SEO.
There are plenty of tools that can turn leads into links:
- Phone call
- Email Matcher
- Carrier pigeon
Seeing a trend? The name of the game is communication. How you do it is up to you, but one way or another you need to contact these people and sell! Sell value, sell your story, and ultimately sell yourself.
Sounds boring right? It is.
Sounds simple right? It is.
The hard part of SEO isn’t doing the work, it’s sitting down to do the work. It’s what Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance in The War of Art. When you go to Ahrefs, build your first list of leads, open up your spreadsheet and start at number one, a thing will happen. A terrible predictable thing. You will suddenly be filled with a feeling telling you to do anything else but work your way down the list. Maybe you take out the garbage. Maybe you should get a cup of coffee. Maybe you check the weather to see if the storm is coming. Maybe you call your Mom. Maybe you organize your record collection in auto-biographical order… that feeling is called The Resistance.
Resistance gets triggered just as you are about to embark on something important or meaningful. Resistance knows that sending emails will lead to the SEO promise land, that’s why it doesn’t want you to do it. What will happen to the Resistance if you actually do the thing and succeed?
Instead of doing the work, the boring tedious work of making lists, taking names, reading, empathizing, crafting a good outreach email, sending it, following up, handling objections, negotiating, and then finally emerging triumphant, you read a blog post about
<title> optimization or keyword density. The sales person reading this is laughing right now. They have been dealing with these shit feelings since their first afternoon on the phones. That is why sales is such an important job, and why everyone should do it at some point in their career, ideally when you are young. It will help you hire, get hired, raise money, debate, and get a deal on your next coffee at Starbucks and build links!
Do the work. You have a list of people that have already shown that they will link to content in your space, read the content they linked to, figure out where you can add more value than your competition and craft an outreach email and hit send. Yes, this is where magnetic headlines can have an effect, but it’s like asking Stephen King how he names his characters. It matters, but what matters more is that he sits down and creates a compelling world for those characters to live in. The words you use matter, but the fact that you are reaching out to someone asking for a link is what really matters. Most people don’t do this. Not because it’s difficult, but because it’s hard. Conquering Resistance is hard. They see what they need to do, they see the finish line, only to be intercepted by the fires of Resistance. Instead of doing the work, they read HubSpot, or Moz, or this blog post (yes, I see the irony). How do you beat Resistance? Simple, you go pro.
Going pro means you show up on a schedule. You think Yo Yo Ma got good at the cello by playing only when he felt like it? You work when you don’t really feel like it. You send one more email before you hit that new sushi place down the street. You build a system. You build a process. You do the work. You feel the hot breath of Resistance at the back of your neck, turn around, and slay the son-of-a-bitch each and every day with the sword of consistency. You can do it, I know you can.
How far did you get? Did you plant three seeds today? You’ve got your leads, your job is to sow those seeds, water them and watch the links grow. If you commit to this practice every day, you will harvest in 6 months and people will look at you and wonder how you did it. There are no shortcuts, just hard work. If you are up for that, then you should know what to do next. Just in case, I will spell it out for you one more time.
- Create something of value
- Find people who have talked about something similar to what you have created
- Email them and ask that they consider yours. Or shower them with value that you become impossible to ignore.
- Repeat 100 times
- Go back to step 1.
If you have enjoyed this article, please, send it to a digital marketer that you love and watch them freak the hell out after reading it. That’s Resistance baby, and it’s crawling over most of us.
Go sharpen the sword.
Thank you Johnathan Nightingale for editing a draft of this article and giving me what amounted to a crash course in gerunds, and the active voice.
Thank you Seth Godin for introducing me to Zig Ziglar and The War of Art.
Thank you Steven Pressfield for writing the War of Art.
I recommend listening to these books as their words take on new meaning when you hear Zig say them. Zig is from a different generation and was born and raised in the South. You will not agree with all of his views, but you will learn essentials skills and perspectives when it comes to selling, empathizing, and closing. Give them a listen.
Disclaimer, I don’t know Neil Patel personally but should give credit where credit is due, he’s a fantastic SEO practitioner and teacher. If you haven’t checked out his new podcast, Marketing School, I highly recommend it.