Debra Mastaler joins me on Site Unseen to talk about link building and her toolset of choice, SEMrush.
Debra and I talk about changes in workflow for link builders and how the craft has evolved. What does link building look like in 2018 and why does she prefer to call the practice ‘link marketing?’ Additionally, we talk about the convergence of link building and other, more traditional marketing practices, such as PR and how all of these fit into an overall content development strategy in today’s competitive digital landscape. Finally, we take a dive into her favorite SEO tool, SEMrush, and explore its usefulness in the link building and link discovery process.
I hope you enjoy our chat with Debra Mastaler.
David Hitt: 00:18 Hello, and welcome to Site Unseen. Site Unseen is the digital marketing podcast which covers issues related to the digital marketing agency of today. On our podcast, we look at trending topics which lie at the intersection of digital design, development, and marketing.
David Hitt: 00:34 Today we’re chatting with Debra Mastaler, a link marketer by trade and currently a speaker and representative of SEMrush. Debra brings 20 years of experience to the craft of link marketing, and in her current role at SEMrush, speaks at events and conferences about SEMrush and where it fits within the digital marketing work flow.
David Hitt: 00:53 Before we move onto the show, though, I’d first like to give a shout out to our show sponsor, UXPin. UXPin is the full stack user experience digital design platform which allows digital professionals to design, document, and test user experience. Be sure to check out our podcast website to grab a coupon for a free 14-day membership to UXPin.
David Hitt: 01:14 And now, onto our show, and Debra. Debra, good morning.
Debra Mastaler: 01:18 Good morning. Thank you very much for having me today, David.
David Hitt: 01:21 Thank you for being our guest. I hope you’re well-caffeinated and alert.
Debra Mastaler: 01:27 I most certainly am. I have my Diet Coke right here. I’m ready to go.
David Hitt: 01:31 You’re a Diet Coke person?
Debra Mastaler: 01:32 I am not a coffee drinker, no. I wish I was; it looks like a lot of fun and coffee houses are cool, but I’m a Diet Coke [crosstalk 00:01:39]-
David Hitt: 01:39 But you are a digital marketer, which ipso facto means you’re a caffeine addict.
Debra Mastaler: 01:44 Most definitely.
David Hitt: 01:46 Okay, so Debra, you and I are going to chat about mostly changes in link building and link marketing, and your relationship and understanding of the tool SEMrush and especially how that fits into your workflow as a link marketer.
Debra Mastaler: 02:04 Sounds good.
David Hitt: 02:04 Okay.
Debra Mastaler: 02:05 Looking forward to it. Bring it on.
David Hitt: 02:07 Good, great. Well, in doing my research and preparing to speak with you, I deduced based on the chronologies given on your LinkedIn profile that you might be like me, kind of an old-timer in the world of digital marketing. I was wondering, you don’t have to cop to that, research has indicated that I’m correct, what was your first exposure to digital and how did you end up doing what you’re doing today? That’s always actually the most interesting question I ask every time.
Debra Mastaler: 02:39 Yeah. So, this is funny: I actually went to college to be a dental hygienist and halfway through, decided that that was not for me. I had worked as a dental assistant all through high school for extra money, and-
David Hitt: 02:55 Really?
Debra Mastaler: 02:56 Yeah. My dad was in the Army, and so I went to 14 different schools by the time I graduated high school, and lived on every Army base, but one of the things I could always count on was I could go to the Army hospital and get a job as a dental assistant. I started when I was a sophomore in high school and I did it all the way through. My senior year, I was in school #14. The doctor that I worked for said, “Have you ever thought about being a dental hygienist?” It was 1976, and women in those days sadly were still going to school to be teachers and nurses, so that’s what I did; I went down that path because it’s what I thought I wanted to do. Halfway through, decided that it was not for me. Switched into the business area and then switched into the School of Business into marketing. That’s what I got my degree in. I came out of there and I went to work four years as a catering director, and at the end of the four years, I was hired by Anheuser-Busch in Williamsburg to be in their marketing department, and I was there for over 15 years.
Debra Mastaler: 04:08 I left when I decided to stay at home to have my children, and I had my second daughter in 1988, and that’s when I started dabbling in the internet. I kind of figured out what it was. I had had a laptop when I worked for Anheuser-Busch and we used email and all, but not really the internet. In 1988, I self-taught myself. Do you remember what Front Page is? The design-
David Hitt: 04:34 Yes, I do remember. Front Page was a Window-based website-building application, right?
Debra Mastaler: 04:41 Yes it was, and I taught myself how to use it, and Dreamweaver. I built a little website for myself; it was a directory that hosted organic food and clothing sites because my husband Joe and I were green machines and granola crunchers. So, the directory took off. It was called theorganicwaymarket.com. You can still find links to it. The site is long gone, but it started ranking really well and people in the directory came to me and said, “Hey Debra, can you help me SEO my site so that it ranks well like your directory?” I was like, “Say what? I don’t know what that means.” So did some research and I discovered that there was a whole search marketing industry that was growing. It’s now the end of ’99 and I met a woman named Heather Lloyd Martin, and she had a business partner named Jill Whalen. They owned a company called, oh crap. I can’t remember what their company was called now, but anyway, Jill owned also, her company was called highrankings.com. I went to work for her for about 18 months.
Debra Mastaler: 05:55 She taught me, mentored me through SEO, explained to me what I was doing, which was link building, and basically was doing all the things that I had learned when I was at Anheuser-Busch. There’s sales and promotions, public relations, special events, all of that combined. I had a great education with Anheuser-Busch, and one of the best companies in the world for marketing, in my opinion. So-
David Hitt: 06:21 Are you saying that basically you just sort of innately performed the same set of tasks-
Debra Mastaler: 06:27 Yes, absolutely.
David Hitt: 06:27 When you were marketing your directory that you had been performing at Anheuser-Busch and you didn’t even really-
Debra Mastaler: 06:33 Nope.
David Hitt: 06:33 You didn’t seek to redefine those activities into a new career designation called “link building?”
Debra Mastaler: 06:38 I had no idea what I was doing. I was just doing what I did for all those years when I worked for Busch. At the end, [Simons 00:06:46] finally popped up and said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m marketing my site.” They were like, “No, you’re doing search engine marketing.”
David Hitt: 06:54 Right.
Debra Mastaler: 06:55 So, that’s how it started. I worked for Jill, and once I felt like I was confident in my abilities, in late 2001, maybe 2002, I’m a little fuzzy on the dates anymore, I launched my company publicly. One thing led to another, and I started-
David Hitt: 07:14 And the name of that company is?
Debra Mastaler: 07:15 Alliance-Link.
David Hitt: 07:17 Alliance-Link.
Debra Mastaler: 07:17 It’s “Alliance” hyphen “Link” dot com, and started going to SES conferences in 2002. 2003, Danny Sullivan gave me a chance on a link building panel, and it took off from there. I’m always grateful that he gave me that opportunity way back when and that both he and Jill saw something in me that I was able then to see myself, and take it and build what became a very successful agency in Alliance-Link. So, always grateful for that-
David Hitt: 07:52 It’s a long way from thinking you wanted to be a dental hygienist.
Debra Mastaler: 07:55 I know, right? So, it’s kind of funny. It’s how you start both my-
David Hitt: 08:01 One girl’s tale of empowerment.
Debra Mastaler: 08:03 I know. I told both of my children who are in college, “Focus on what you think, but embrace what can be.”
David Hitt: 08:11 Right. That’s good advice.
David Hitt: 08:15 Okay, so here you are, almost 20 years later. You’re still managing your link marketing business, and you’re also working for SEMrush. In your capacity at SEMrush, do you tend to focus on the link building components that the tool is useful for, I guess?
Debra Mastaler: 08:39 I do. 18 months ago, I guess two years ago, I just started to slow down. Like many people when they do something repeatedly over a long period of time, you burn out, and that’s kind of what happened to me. I had a little case of burnout, but I didn’t want to give it all up because I truly do love the challenge of building links, and I’m fascinated by the whole concept of marketing, but search marketing in general and the way that our society is changing and embracing technology. I didn’t want to give it up, but I didn’t want to do it full-time anymore. So, the opportunity came along with SEMrush and I said, “Oh, this is awesome,” because I used their tool as a service provider. I mean, I loved it so much that I said yes when they came to me and said, “Would you like to come to work for us?” So, the majority of the time, most of my day is spent with SEMrush as a corporate speaker and a promoter of SEMrush, but I also still do the link building-
David Hitt: 09:47 Who were founded and are still based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, correct?
Debra Mastaler: 09:51 Actually, they were founded in Europe.
David Hitt: 09:55 Oh.
Debra Mastaler: 09:55 They are a Russian, yeah-
David Hitt: 09:57 But their US is office is in-
Debra Mastaler: 09:58 We do have a US office, and it’s a beautiful office, I might add. I was just up there not too long ago. Yeah, but I do; the linking part of the tool is my main focus, and when we go out and send people to talk about SEMrush and they want specifically a link building spiel, then I pop up. I’m the one they turn to, and I go, so yeah.
David Hitt: 10:23 Okay. So let’s segue and talk about link building then. Define the state of link building in 2017, and explain for those of us who might be in digital marketing but aren’t necessarily doing link building on a daily basis, explain who the craft has changed over the last several years, couple decades. Yesterday when I was prepping for this, I pulled a book off my shelf written in 2008 on SEO, and it described the role of link building, which I think is pretty typical of what most of us thought as link builders as doing five years ago: it described link builders as sort of evaluating potential content linking opportunities via research and looking at competitive websites for ideas; in other words, looking at your competitors to see where they’re getting their back links from, developing outreach plans to earn links to content and executing those plans, and then supplementing link building efforts with things like directory submissions, link buys, participation on blog networks, et cetera.
David Hitt: 11:30 Tell me how things have changed, and why do you now call your craft “link marketing?”
Debra Mastaler: 11:37 When I started back at the turn of the century, I love saying that, when I started a long time ago, the usual path or methodology behind link building was to use the directories and article directories, profile linking, and so forth. Anything where a submission, a link could be dropped and point back to your site. It didn’t matter where the link sat; it just mattered that the link was hot or that it was live, it was working, and that it was pointing back to your pages. We all know that through the years, the search engines have grown and changed and morphed, and the algorithms behind them and the filters behind them have done the same to where they have a different, I guess, focus now on how they use links in their ranking algorithm. The fact that they use the link, still the same. How they use the link, that’s a little bit different.
Debra Mastaler: 12:35 What’s come into it, a lot of people think that the whole content marketing or the content aspect of link building is something new and it’s really not. I mean, they just used it differently in those days, but it’s still there. How we use it to market a link or to market a webpage, there’s more emphasis on it now than it used to be. Google has come out and changed their terms of service, their TOS, and have said, “If you’re using directory submissions, if you’re using the blog networks, paid links are a no-no. These things are all not what we want to see. We find them manipulative, and things that manipulate are not what we want. We want people to naturally and inherent like a piece of content enough that they link to it on their own volition.”
David Hitt: 13:22 Okay, so let’s get granular, and I want you to elaborate on a little bit. I always read these articles that sort of portend of the ending of certain trends in digital marketing like “building links via directory submissions is no longer a thing you should be doing,” and then there’s always a “but …” I want to talk about the “but …” For instance, in terms of the clients that I work with, I work for a lot of professional service providers, and in particular, I work for a lot of attorneys. These guys all want to have directory listings placed in certain legal directories, which are all paid directory services, services like Avvo, or there’s services owned by Thomson Reuters and big corporations basically. I read an article in The Moz, a database of posts related to link building, where they actually said that industry-specific directories that have relevance are still worthwhile linking candidates. Is that true? How do we, as the people that are actually advising our clients where they should be spending their money to obtain links from, advise them in this area?
Debra Mastaler: 14:45 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Overall, the concept of directory building, link building was kind of given the cold shoulder by Google because people were creating these directories specifically to house links. They weren’t creating them so that they were a needed or used resource. They were thrown up on those PHP link directory templates and kind of a way you went. To that, those types of directories probably never see the light of day. No one every clicks into them or uses them as a resource to find information, right? So those directories versus what you just talked about with Tom, I guess it’s Thomas …?
David Hitt: 15:29 Thomson Reuters.
Debra Mastaler: 15:31 Reuters. They are different in that regard in that they’re actually used in part of a bigger organization and part of a bigger network, if you will that is supportive by giving people the information that they can look to see if they want an attorney or a CPA or whatever. That’s the difference between those two-
David Hitt: 15:48 So it’s the whole relevance standards.
Debra Mastaler: 15:50 It truly is.
David Hitt: 15:50 So basically we can apply the relevance standard to all of these gray areas where Google says they’re opposed sort of monolithically. They’re not really opposed monolithically to the concept of directories; they’re opposed monolithically to the concept of trash directories, basically.
Debra Mastaler: 16:06 They’re opposed to the concept of manipulation.
David Hitt: 16:08 Manipulation. Sure, sure.
Debra Mastaler: 16:11 You know, I’m hard-pressed for anybody to agree that Wikipedia looks like a great platform. It’s kind of ugly, actually, but it’s the concept behind it. The purpose behind it is not, so that’s the difference for them. If it’s manipulative, then they say, “That’s a no-no” and they will penalize you if they discover that that’s what’s happening. So to answer the bottom line question there, is that if the directory or the page has purpose and it’s not done through a manipulative reason, then yeah, the directory is still good. We typically refer to them as “niche directories,” but I’ve seen some niche directories that are pretty trashy too, that don’t see the light of day and don’t get any traffic. You have to be careful where you go. You have to know who you’re partnering with just like in the offline world. You wouldn’t just partner with that shady guy on the street corner wearing a trench coat and a hat over his eyes; you’re going to want to know who you’re partnering with.
David Hitt: 17:15 Well if I want to kill my mother-in-law, I would.
Debra Mastaler: 17:17 Yeah. Not a good thing, right?
David Hitt: 17:21 Not a good thing.
Debra Mastaler: 17:22 No. Definitely you need to know who you’re dealing with, and that’s where you want to stay.
David Hitt: 17:31 I’m not sure that we should go there, but you mentioned Wikipedia.
Debra Mastaler: 17:37 Sure.
David Hitt: 17:38 Have you … So, I had a client once ask us to attempt to secure a Wikipedia entry for him. I did a bunch of research, and it’s interesting because if you read, this was a couple years ago, but the standards according to which one was supposed to confirm in order to obtain a Wikipedia entry that would pass the editorial purview was such that the entry can’t be self-promotional in nature, that basically a business can’t just decide that it wants a Wikipedia entry or the entrepreneur that founded that business can’t just get a Wikipedia entry just for the purpose of, well what their purpose always really is, which is to just get a Wikipedia entry.
Debra Mastaler: 18:28 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David Hitt: 18:30 So, I advised him based on everything that I’d written that what he was seeking to do really violated the editorial guidelines of Wikipedia. In that period, this particular client’s a real estate developer, and in that period, two of his competitors now have Wikipedia pages and they’re smaller and less influential than he is. I feel like I didn’t advise him correctly, or did I just really follow the rules and everybody else broke them and got away with it? Talk about Wikipedia.
Debra Mastaler: 19:08 Yeah. I am not a Wikipedia editor, nor have I ever been a Wikipedia editor, but I do understand their criteria and use Wikipedia pretty much daily in my link building when I’m working on client sites because of its authority in the industry, but I can tell you that I’m always somewhat amazed at, and I say this factually. This is not a personal criticism or anything; I’m just saying this factually: years ago, we had something called the set of encyclopedia. Britannica put them out and they were updated every year, and they were factual references, and that’s pretty much what Wikipedia is online. It’s a factual reference. Nowhere in the Encyclopedia Britannica would there have been an entry for Joe Real Estate Developer. It just doesn’t happen, unless he was an ax murder that was involved in a story someplace and he dug up a bunch of bodies, or put them in the walls of a home, and that was part of some bigger national story. Then it might get a reference, but otherwise not so much, right?
Debra Mastaler: 20:19 So, I don’t understand people, if you weren’t in Encyclopedia Britannica, which is basically what Wikipedia has become online, except it’s a living, breathing entity, not print, I don’t understand where the difference is now. There are companies out there, no judgment here, that advertise that they can get you a Wikipedia listing. Does it stay up for long? I don’t know. Have I ever seen a promotional or a real estate or a commercial, I should say, not real estate, a commercial listing for a business in Wikipedia? Outside of Amazon and people like that, no, because they have historical significance. So, I just don’t see it.
David Hitt: 21:03 Okay.
Debra Mastaler: 21:05 Now, people always say, “How can I get on Wikipedia?” If you have content that is on your page that’s historical in nature, supportive in nature, educational in nature, then a lot of times, you’ll find that you will get linked to in the bottom section. You know how if you scroll down Wikipedia and the bottom, it says that-
David Hitt: 21:26 Bibliographies, basically.
Debra Mastaler: 21:28 No, not the bibliographies. References I think, or external links. That’s it. References and external links are what the two sections are where they will link out to independent sites, and frequently they do link out to non-educational, they do link out to commercial sites as support-
David Hitt: 21:45 Sure, but that’s something that they’ve done at their discretion.
Debra Mastaler: 21:49 Well, the editors behind that page have done that. A lot of times, people will join Wikipedia and try to put those links in there. Sometimes they stay, and most of the time they get bounced, and then what happens is they determine who you are that put them in there and they bounce you out [crosstalk 00:22:04].
David Hitt: 22:04 Right, they blacklist you.
Debra Mastaler: 22:06 They’re pretty strict about that, but you know, people do get through. People get through everything, for that matter. Look at all the people that cheat on their taxes and get away with it. It is what it is, but that’s not their purpose. But, would I try for a link on Wikipedia? All day long. I don’t care that they only use no-follow links; the traffic, the exposure, and the prominence that a page gets from that site, from being associated with Wikipedia is pretty crucial and pretty good-
David Hitt: 22:41 More than worth the investment.
Debra Mastaler: 22:42 Oh, absolutely. So, yeah.
David Hitt: 22:47 Okay. So, I wanted to talk about tool sets at SEMrush. Moz, Screaming Frog. We rely on a lot of software tools in this industry. I’d like you to talk about how, as a link builder, what components of the tool you use routinely, and how, specifically with regards to link building, the tool has evolved in a manner that sort of reflects the changes that have taken place within link building over the last few years.
Debra Mastaler: 23:27 Yeah. Since my involvement with SEMrush is limited to the last four to five months, I can’t speak to all of their changes that have happened prior to that-
David Hitt: 23:38 Sure, fair enough.
Debra Mastaler: 23:39 I can tell you, though, that coming down the pipe, they have quite a few changes that are coming along that I think would be extremely beneficial to anyone in SEO or PPC for that matter. In SEMrush’s case, there are a number of tools in their tool set that I use and have used as a private agency owner every day. There’s four or five of them that I just love and I use all the time. The link prospecting tool is pretty much what you think it says: you throw your keywords and it brings back, based on some of the proprietary criteria that they list in SEMrush, it brings back sites that they feel would be good candidates or good partners for your keywords-
David Hitt: 24:30 Link building.
Debra Mastaler: 24:30 And for your linking. The back link audit just looks at a particular site and says, “Okay, this one has this percentage of do-follow or no-follow links, and this one has this many referring domains.” It gives you the nuts and bolts behind a webpage. I like that position tracking. If I’m looking to cut my time down, I will throw in all my terms there and it will tell me which pages are ranking in what first, second third, fifth, twenty-fifth spots so that I’m not going to the search results and having to put that information in every single time and look it all up independently. It’s a very good capsule/snapshot for you to look and see where something ranks for a particular term because frankly, if something’s not ranking, I guess, in the first however many spots depending on how competitive your industry is, for me it’s usually the first 40 spots or so, then I’m not 100% sure I want to pursue it as a link partner.
Debra Mastaler: 25:36 Traffic analysis too, same difference, that part of the tool will tell you the amount of traffic that particular page is getting. Very helpful. If something’s kind of sitting out there in the wind, you don’t want to do anything. Probably my favorite part of the tool, though, it’s called the “back link gap.” In plain terms, it’s a co-occurrence tool. If you put up several domains, it will compare them and then it will tell you “A, B, and C domain, all of them are linking to this particular URL. A and B are linking to it, but C is not.” It pretty much gives you an idea of the sites that are ranking well, where they’re getting their links from and how many times each one of them is getting the link from that particular domain, and if you’re not, if you don’t have a link from that domain, it’s probably a partner site that you want to partner with. They call it a gap tool. Its functionality is known as a co-occurrence tool. That’s basically what it is.
Debra Mastaler: 26:45 Those are the five that I use all the time when I’m doing link building campaigns and most of the time what people want to hear about when I talk to them about SEMrush and about what the back-linking portion of their tool can do. I know that I’m biased, but I keep in mind and I say this honestly, “This is the tool that I used before I came onboard with them.” I liked it that much that that’s what I used, and as a link builder and as an author on Search Engine Land for many years, I reviewed tools all the time. Most of what is out there is good. Some of them-
David Hitt: 27:25 I agree with you actually.
Debra Mastaler: 27:26 You know, some of them you’re just more comfortable with. For me, SEMrush just always seemed to know what I wanted.
David Hitt: 27:33 I think the thing that’s slightly annoying, as somebody that pays for all of these tools, is a lot of the tools have significant areas of overlap, but there’s always one thing that a specific tool that another tool does not do that justifies the monthly spend to keep it on board.
David Hitt: 27:56 You know, I-
Debra Mastaler: 27:58 Actually, that’s an interesting comment because whenever I’m on a panel someplace or I’m at a show speaking or in a private training, the one thing I always say is, “Do yourself a favor and use more than one tool.” I mean, I would never just take Google Analytics and what they have in it; I would look at using SEMrush or using another tool of your choice, to make sure that you’re getting all of the information that you need.”
David Hitt: 28:26 Right. Yeah, I would agree with that comment wholeheartedly. You know, the reality is the tools, while not inexpensive or not that costly either in terms of their overall impact on the overhead of a small studio or medium-sized agency. I have used SEMrush but I’ve tended to stick with very specific uses of the tool, and I explored the comprehensiveness of the tool set a little bit more again in preparation to speak with you. I’m really impressed at the effort they’re placing on management tools within the tool set. I mean, from the standpoint of creating reports and planning and project execution tools, they seem to be producing things that are useful for agencies to both facilitate direct report-based communications with our clients, and also they’re producing a tool that essentially is a project management tool. I mean, I think it lends this sort of umbrella scope to the tool that I think is probably a pretty smart idea actually, because we need those tools in our office.
Debra Mastaler: 29:53 Well, if you look at that from the agency side versus the tool provider side, I think it’s smart because agencies managing people, it’s easier to use a tool and manage everything within the tool so that you can talk about that and share information versus having five or six different tools.
David Hitt: 30:12 Absolutely.
Debra Mastaler: 30:13 That’s kind of where society is going right? I mean, if you look at Amazon, we have Amazon syndrome. Walmart’s trying to be the same. People need to pay attention to Home Depot these days because Home Depot has added so many different products and categories. They’re not just lawn and garden anymore; they’re into furniture and design. There is a propensity in society to become these hubs-
David Hitt: 30:37 Sure. People want one-stop shopping.
Debra Mastaler: 30:40 Absolutely-
David Hitt: 30:40 As an agency, I don’t want to have to figure out how to run white label reports out of three different reporting tools.
Debra Mastaler: 30:45 Nor should you have to.
David Hitt: 30:46 Right, exactly.
Debra Mastaler: 30:47 You shouldn’t, and so that’s why for SEMrush, we have a partnership with Majestic where you can pull your Majestic into SEMrush for reporting. It just makes sense, and-
David Hitt: 30:59 Smart, yeah.
Debra Mastaler: 31:00 Yeah. Content calendars they have now. They have outreach templates where you can keep track of all the email that you’re sending and the templates, and like I said, there’s more to come down the pipe that they’re putting into place. So, yeah.
David Hitt: 31:18 What other tools do you use routinely? Just a list. We don’t have a lot of time, but …
Debra Mastaler: 31:22 I routinely use a lot of what I call “trackers” because my job as a link builder is to find sources. I’m looking for people to host my content and to host my links. For me, link building today is less about what you do and more about where, right? I’m always looking for sources, and to that, I use things like Talkwalker and Social Mention. I use a little bit of Google Alerts. It’s okay, but any one of those tools that go out and look for me for sources or that look for content, that look for sites, URLs based on my keyword usage, or sometimes even my geographic usage. Those are the kinds of, I use those religious.
David Hitt: 32:08 Right. I’m just curious: do you use BuzzSumo?
Debra Mastaler: 32:11 I have used BuzzSumo in the past. I have. I think it does a really good job showing you influential, maybe not people so much but more URLs. Being able to see on one screen that these particular pages and what their social shares are is very helpful. It’s very helpful, so I have used it-
David Hitt: 32:40 We interviewed them. I interviewed them maybe four weeks ago, and I used the tool for a few days. I think it fills a unique niche within the research phase of finding out who’s sharing and influencing content.
Debra Mastaler: 32:57 Right.
David Hitt: 33:00 So, many years ago when we started doing some digital marketing in-house, and we came from a more traditional digital design and development foundation, when we started reading and doing things like link building for our clients, it struck me even then that link building has a natural sort of dovetailing with more traditional marketing related professions like PR. I was reading about the services that you provide. One of your services is called Media Outreach, and when I was reading what you do, it sounds a lot like public relations, so I was wondering if you could comment on that and comment A, you can elaborate on what those services are, but also tell me if you see, industry-wide, a convergence between the roles of public relations professionals and digital professionals that specialize in link marketing.
Debra Mastaler: 34:08 So for my background, for many years working at Busch, one of the things that I was responsible for was the development and execution of special events and media events that happened. When you’re working on a national level, you learn very quickly how to understand markets that you’re in, because we would be sometimes all over the United States in different areas, so we were always having to reach out to the local media. That experience really helped me focus when I became a link builder on understanding how to tap into journalists and reporters and what they look for and what they want simply because I had that background from a previous job. If I’m looking at that, what I’m really looking for initially is our publications. I’m looking for publications that have reported on whatever it is that the client is in and that industry is in, and then I have to learn a little bit about the reporter.
Debra Mastaler: 35:19 I will tell you that one of the things that I find sometimes that are repeated over and over in SEO that I don’t find actually to be the case is when people say, “Well go on Twitter and follow your journalist. Get in his face or her face and get them to know you” and this and that. Actually, journalists don’t like that very much. What they really want, they want people that give them good research content that they can use in a story, create a story from, use the support material for a story, or fill the news on a Saturday and Sunday when the stock market and the world basically goes to sleep..
David Hitt: 35:56 Slows down, right.
Debra Mastaler: 35:56 So, those kinds of things, that’s how I approach the media, and I think public relations generally are events and issues that relate to the general public. Media relations is going straight into the journalists and into the reporters, if you will, and the editors. To that, it’s really understanding more about how the media in your niche treats your keywords. If you have a client, let’s say, in accounting software, just as an example, there are people out there that report on accounting software. There’s all kinds of things that report just more on the launch of accounting software. It could be the hacking of accounting software. It could be the development of accounting software. It could be the boards and the people behind them. There’s just a lot of different angles that you could go at other than just “So-and-So launched new accounting software” because, snooze. Really? Who wants to know about accounting software? I say that with love because my husband is a CPA. You have to understand how they use your keywords. You have to understand how they use your content, your topic.
Debra Mastaler: 37:17 Then, you can step back and say, “Okay. Now I understand that these publications, these outlets talk about it this way.” Who are the people doing the talking? Then you go after them because then you have a clear understanding of what they’re saying. So many times, people just want to go and hand somebody a story or a press release and say, “Run this.” They just kind of laugh. Again, because of my background, I’m so fortunate. I just crossed myself, you can’t see it, in the air, that I’ve made great contacts over the years and have kept people in these news outlets. What’s so cool about it is everybody like me back in the day, we were young, and now they’re older in higher positions too, so-
David Hitt: 38:05 Sure. You have access.
Debra Mastaler: 38:05 Oh yeah.
David Hitt: 38:05 Right.
Debra Mastaler: 38:08 That’s a nice way to say it. That helps when you’re trying to get your foot in the door in different publications. To that, know the news industry first before you can do anything else. Before you can make finding Joe the reporter, you’ve got to know the industry first and know where they’re publishing because sometimes, they’re publishing more on private things like association newsletters, association magazines, trade journals, that kind of thing than they are in the basic news. Some of these guys and gals that operate in manufacturing and different types of software and all those kinds of things never see the light of day in The Wall Street Journal or Washington Post or The New York Times. They just don’t, but they are seen all the time in the private journals. Most people don’t tap into those, and-
David Hitt: 39:10 Right, but they represent opportunities.
Debra Mastaler: 39:12 Oh yes they do, and they are hungry for content. Everyone is hungry for content. This whole “content, content, content” sung to the tune of “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha,” thing that we have out there in SEO tries to focus more on, from my experience anyway, gust blogging and social networks when most of the world is serious business and has trade journals and publications [inaudible 00:39:42]. That’s really what they’re reading.
David Hitt: 39:44 So-
Debra Mastaler: 39:45 Whole different topic where they’re reading all of that stuff now that mobile has come out, but that’s where you want to put your content.
David Hitt: 39:55 So, this is sort of a granular question: suppose you’re working for a client. You’ve identified an influencer, you’ve identified a journal. You then try to, I assume … induce them to write content that talks about your client’s product or service. You still need a link. How do you get that link?
Debra Mastaler: 40:20 A lot of publications will not link, but what they do is they have to cite their sources and/or they have to cite their writer. For a lot of times, if you look at the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or any private industry journal, most of the time, there are no links. There’s no hyperlinks. They might cite a source within their archives somewhere, but the writer itself generally gets a link. Sometimes that’s what you have to be happy with. You have to be happy with bio links, but I still maintain that if you even only get a bio link in a trade journal that’s being read by a lot of influential people in your niche, that that’s better than either having no link or just having half of the amount or half of the influence [crosstalk 00:41:11] article on a blog.
David Hitt: 41:12 So the idea is, I’m sorry. I want to make sure I understand this. These are the sorts of things that I read about and I don’t completely understand when I’m reading an explanation, and I feel really stupid but I can’t believe I’m the only really stupid person in the world. This is for all the other really stupid people out there in the world. When you say a “bio link,” you’re presuming then, I guess, that the author of this content is someone on your client’s staff as opposed to a writer in the trade journal?
Debra Mastaler: 41:39 You know, it can go either way. I-
David Hitt: 41:39 Right. So what if it’s the writer of a trade journal? Then you have to settle for no links at all and just publicity?
Debra Mastaler: 41:44 Then you settle for no links at all, and that does happen sometimes too. What you settle, then, is for the exposure.
David Hitt: 41:50 Sure.
Debra Mastaler: 41:50 You also, if you’re going to put a lot of time and money into those things, you need to research that beforehand. You have to know beforehand what’s going on.
David Hitt: 41:59 You need to know.
Debra Mastaler: 41:59 A lot of times, yes, definitely. You don’t see that at all. That’s less the case than it is more. As a link builder, I go into those kinds of situations and say, “This is a lovely article and this is a lovely journal, but there’s no linking opportunity for me. How many people are going to actually see this? Yeah, okay; I’ll take the hit on this one. Let’s put the content in there,” but then I’ve got to make up for it someplace else by getting links. Does that happen a lot? Not usually because those things are online. Even links with the newsletters, email newsletters have external links to them, but you have to make that decision when you’re out there and you’re looking for your sources.
David Hitt: 42:41 Right. So we’re talking about content and I wanted to segue to basically my last point of discussion because we’re running out of time here, but … there’s been a lot of changes in the way digital marketing agencies, formerly we might have referred to them as SEO agencies, attempt to solve our client’s digital marketing challenges. The rise of social media channels and the emphasis on content has typically produced marketing plants, which sort of advocate a mix of creation and promotion through various channels. I’m wondering within the context of an overall content strategy produced for a client, how integral and where, precisely, does this link building fit in? I assume you’ve worked with agencies that are putting together content marketing strategies and they’re hiring you to do link marketing for them. Talk about that. Talk about how link marketing fits within this broader, more diversified content marketing strategy, which is a phenomena of the last five years.
Debra Mastaler: 43:53 I think it depends on your goal more than anything. For most people who have an online business, their number one goal is to rank well because to rank well means that you have click-throughs, and click-throughs produce conversions. From that respect, a lot of times when we talk about link building, we don’t talk about end result conversions. That’s a shame because that is definitely part of the overall matrix when one sets out to do link building. For most of the time, most of the clients that I work with, that’s their number one goal, is to rank well. In other cases, it could be to do a promotion on something that is new or something that they want to launch. Several years ago, I was big into doing movie releases and show releases, like musical Broadway show releases-
David Hitt: 44:48 Mm-hmm (affirmative). That sounds like a fun gig.
Debra Mastaler: 44:50 It was fun, but it was very, very time-consuming and was very, very stressful because those things launch in a very small window and you have to have everything covered and everything in place for the launch, so there’s a lot of last-minute link building. It’s just a lot of “hurry up and go” kind of work. To that, it’s a timing issue, and so you’re really looking at doing more outreach media-wise and entertainment-wise and social networking-wise on the platforms [inaudible 00:45:23] social media sites because they’re all instant. It lends itself to that kind of link building. Then there are people who just want to maintain, who just want to keep their rankings, who just want to stay up there, whatever, so that’s a different type of link building. All three of those things are even more segmented based on the industry that they’re in. Not one size fits all to doing that kind of link work.
Debra Mastaler: 45:55 So, really it’s what your goal is. What do you want to do? Is timing an issue, because that’s a whole different story.
David Hitt: 46:03 I mean, I understand it’s industry specific and my experience is limited, but in our experience, it seems as though when we’ve been spectators to, this is not when we the client was ours, per se, but typically when we’ve designed a website and they’ve retained a digital marketing agency, we’ve witnessed this phenomena where a lot of emphasis is placed on content creation and maybe technical and on-page SEO, and then they flip right to promotion via social media. I wanted you to comment on the relative importance for overall success of a content marketing plan in those situations because it seems to me, like all we see is temporary spikes in traffic and we don’t see any long-term rise in the SERPs from those sorts of efforts typically. I guess what I’m saying is, in the absence of intentional link building, we often find that social media promotion in and of itself doesn’t earn that many links.
Debra Mastaler: 47:09 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I guess if you make a cake with three ingredients, you’re only going to get so much of a cake, right? It’s kind of the same difference there. Old content or content that’s been launched, one of the, I guess, best uses of old content or content in general is the reuse of content, the repurposing of content. It can be brought back around and relaunched in a number of different ways. How you approach that and why you approach that in [inaudible 00:47:43] “it’s like an update” or “this can be added,” whatever, is a great way of reusing that content so that it always stays the same. Most of the time, WordPress platforms, as you know as a designer, once you put something on there, and if you’re doing a lot of content, it goes out of sight and it goes into the archive and it just doesn’t see the light of day again. Once it’s crawled and it’s up in the index, it’s indexed in case somebody wants to see it, but unless you send fresh links into it or traffic, it doesn’t come back up around.
Debra Mastaler: 48:17 So, how you promote what you’ve already used, especially if it’s evergreen content, that should be part of your content development program-
David Hitt: 48:29 Strategy, right.
Debra Mastaler: 48:30 We refer to it as “repurposing content”. At the end of every six months, you just take a look at your stats. Which piece of content did the best? Second best? Third best? Fourth best?
David Hitt: 48:40 That’s what I feel like I’m doing with my 53 year old body every day when I wake up in the morning too.
Debra Mastaler: 48:44 Exactly.
David Hitt: 48:44 I’m repurposing content.
Debra Mastaler: 48:46 You’re repurposing it, but that’s kind of what you have to do to keep it fresh and keep it going.
David Hitt: 48:51 Right.
David Hitt: 48:52 Okay, Debra. We have spent a lovely 45 minutes chatting, and I think that’s probably enough for both of us and our listeners.
Debra Mastaler: 49:03 Okay.
David Hitt: 49:04 It has been a pleasure, though.
Debra Mastaler: 49:05 It has been my pleasure as well.
David Hitt: 49:08 We look forward to running into you at conferences in events, and good luck with your continued relationship with SEMrush, and thanks so much for sharing insights and answering questions that I’ve had about the craft of link building for a long time now and updating us on the current state of link marketing.
Debra Mastaler: 49:26 Absolutely. I’m happy to do it. I appreciate you very much asking me to be here today.
David Hitt: 49:30 All right, thank you.
Debra Mastaler: 49:31 Yeah.