Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interview with link building specialist Garrett French

Garrett French, the co founder of link building company Ontolo, has just released a book called “The Link Builder’s Guide to better, faster, stronger link building campaigns”. And I know it because he sent me this message on Twitter:

One question was if he could send me his book and if I would be interested in talking about it on my blog. The second question was if I could send him good link building articles that I or other people have written in my language. I replied positively for both questions. How he knew me? My Brazilian blog’s post pointed to his website and Analytics was showing it as a visits referrer.

This is a good illustration of how he builds links by interacting and developing relationship with the community. He has not only sent me a free copy of his book, which I am enjoying reading, but also has taken time to respond to my interview that you can see below. Does it work? Well, he did get me to write about his techniques and new book... and check how many links he’s gotten.

Paula: You have written a lot of articles about Link Building. Can you tell me about your experience in this field since the beginning of your career?
Garrett: Well, I started my career as the editor and lead writer for back in 2002. I covered SEO, and generated content by getting my readers' SEO questions answered by SEO experts. I repaid my experts with exposure to a large audience – which created business leads – and with links to their websites. This is where I learned about how powerful content can be for marketers, especially when it's created in direct response to an audience’s needs.

Paula: You have co-founded Ontolo, which is a link building company. Where are you based and how many people work with you? (It seems a lazy question, but I couldn’t find any address on his website)
Garrett: I'm based in Raleigh, North Carolina and my business partner, Ben Wills, is in Austin, Texas. Right now there's just the two of us. I'm the CMO – I bring in business leads and do the majority of the content creation and outreach for clients. Ben is our CEO and CTO – he lands the clients and developed the link building tools we use for our campaigns. We're working to develop out the link building tool side of our business rather than work as a consultancy, which is why we haven't scaled aggressively... though I must admit my greatest lessons come from client work!

Paula: I have the impression that most SEOs don’t like doing link building and shift to something else as soon as they can. Why have you decided to focus on developing links? Do you develop links personally or do you manage a team? What’s your routine like?
Garrett:I've decided to focus on developing links because I enjoy it – that is, I enjoy the processes and strategies that I've developed, and I enjoy discovering new tactics as I approach new markets for my clients. Every market is a little different, so I also enjoy finding tactics that tend to work across many markets. I develop all links personally at the moment. Each piece of linkable content I create for a client takes about 3 or so days to write, then two days or sometimes more for promotion.

Paula: What do you think about article marketing for link building? Can links in article directories make any difference for websites in the SERPS?
Garrett: I think articles in directories like (for English, at least) can be useful for long tail terms, and potentially for building links to pages deep within a site that normally would not get links. Especially if you have folks on staff who can churn out articles. I rarely look at article directories though these days – we try to place content on sites that will have impact in the SERPs as well as attract traffic from the market... this kind of content can take several days to write, so we don't tend to add it to article directories. My guest posts at SearchEngineLand are a perfect example of this – I could have added them to a directory but they would not have gotten the distribution or brand association that SEL brings.

Paula: I have seen some companies considering Social Bookmarking and RSS submissions as part of their link building strategy. Can these websites pass any link juice at all? Do you do it for your clients?
Garrett: We rarely do this for clients, unless it's a bookmarking or social news site that's within their niche. I've read of these sites having impact similar to that of article directories. It's not going to help on highly competitive terms, but could help with long tail terms.

Paula: Links inside social websites are either “no follow” or placed inside non indexed pages. I know it can generate traffic and indirect links to a website that contains good content. My question is if those links can directly pass any link juice on to the website. Is it a good strategy also for websites that do not have a blog or even good content?
Garrett: A better strategy for sites without a blog or good content is to create good content in my opinion ;) However I know that's not always possible, especially not for the person doing the link building whose boss is screaming for more links!

From a purely link juice perspective - a perspective I rarely try to take - you can squeeze some value out of social bookmarking sites by first only targeting those that are followed, and then working to get the linked pages indexed, usually by linking to them from other social bookmarking sites (ones that are indexed) or sites such as Squidoo and via article directory submissions. This approach has been formalized into what's called a "link wheel." We don't use this technique, or advocate it, because it doesn't add any real value to the web, or your market. Further, we've not tested it so can't speak to whether or not it works.

Our version of a link wheel happens when we link to content we've placed on site A, from content we place on site B, all while speaking directly to our market with fresh and useful ideas. Here's a recent example: From “Link Builder” to “Link Strategist”

Paula: Is it a good idea to create and develop blogs on Squidoo, Blogspot or Wordpress exclusively for link building?
Garrett:I don't think it is – at least, I've not experimented with it. Given the amount of time we spend on creating content I'd rather put it on the client's site or on a well known blog in their industry!

Paula: What are the most difficult industries to develop links for? Do you deal with many of them in your company?
Garrett: For me the toughest industries to develop links for are those with few blogs or other reputable publications that we can engage with. Also, if there aren't many known experts trying to brand themselves, this makes link building tougher in regards to the tactics I've developed.

Paula: What would your strategies be for developing links to a gambling or porno site, for example? Is it possible to build links for them without buying?
Garrett: My strategies would depend on the budget available ;) Well established gambling sites are typically well funded. My strategies would have to revolve around their specific ranking goals, and would involve as much content as possible. In all probability my work would be more to obscure the fact that they were buying links by figuring out more organic tactics...

Paula: Does links exchange work? Can exchanging links with sites in the same topic give good results?
Garrett: I think they can work – I “exchange” links all the time when I link to link building articles on other sites. Often these sites also often link to content on The results are good in that I get to share great content with my site visitors, and help out others in my space, some of whom are even competitors. This is normal in many industries... However if you're describing a system that auto-creates a directory that auto-links to other sites and uses spam emails to manage link exchanges I can't comment.... I've never tried it, and never will.

Paula: If you have ten clients to develop links for and some of them are paying for two days link building per month only, what would be a good strategy for them?
Garrett:We bill on a project basis to avoid this sort of situation ;) I'd start with hitting the basics for them, making sure they're listed in the niche directories. Then I'd probably try and do a group interview with expert bloggers from their target market with the hopes that the experts would link back to my clients' sites! I think that could be done in a couple of days :)

Paula: Do you have a list of links you are proud of? Have you ever gotten a link in a really difficult website? Can you tell me how you did it?
Garrett: My proudest link thus far was from, which we earned with a group interview that included some notable industry names... We didn't even ask for the link ;)

Paula: How many links do you aim to get to a website per week?
Garrett: We base our goals on number of outreach instead of number of links. This helps us stay focused on higher quality links.

Paula: What do you think about comments on blogs and participation on forums? Is it part of your link building strategy?
Garrett: I recommend comments and forum participation, but rarely execute campaigns that include these kinds of sites. I think forums, in the US at least, are overlooked as fantastic sources of content ideas! If you work hard to establish yourself in a forum, and treat it like a community of people instead of a place to dump links, you can really develop some great relationships that can turn into content (with interviews) and links.

Paula: Are you going to any Search Marketing events this year? Are you giving a talk at any of them?
Garrett: Not this year – I spoke at SMX West earlier this year though. It was fun!

Paula: What are the main characteristics of a good link developer?
Garrett: I think a good link developer needs to have an ecologist's appreciation for the space he's working in, a journalist's appreciation for a good story, and a documentary film maker's ability to ask great questions of the market's expert publishers (and other link prospects). Also, they have to be excellent at communicating and understanding the value of links beyond SEO so they can work well with other departments in the organization! I've written some about how I hope link builders will work towards becoming link strategists, as I think this is the path towards maximizing a link builder's value to their company:

Paula: It seems that the tactics that you have developed are based on content creation. I know it can work really well if the website you are building links to has a blog as an important section of their site. However, in that way you will get people linking to the posts you've written, that you will probably place on your client's blog. Problem is that the blog in a website hardly is the page you really want to rank and normally blogs are not related to your most important keywords. I know that you can optimize the blog, make it strong and then place links there to the important pages in the website, but it's probably not the same as getting external links to the main pages. So, how do you get people to link to the pages you want to rank?
Garrett: Here are my thoughts...

1) If you're developing highly trusted, highly authoritative and highly relevant links to your blog, and your blog's on your site, then your entire site will do better overall in the SERPs. I've seen this
happen on multiple occasions.

2) If your blog content is not related to your most important keywords - that is - to what you're selling, then there's a problem... Also, your content can and SHOULD sell your services or products. We build links to our site - that also sell our services - solely with content and free tools. We've been building links this way for over a year and are only now beginning to see some movement in the SERPs for non-brand keywords. And yet we've built a strong, sustainable business... Link
building should NEVER be solely about the SERPs in my opinion.

3) Getting links to existing pages that you want to rank – without paying people to link - will require firstly some analysis. Do your competitors' similar pages have links? How did they earn them?
Secondly, who is your target market for these pages? Are there any publishers (blogs/news/other media sites) for this market? If so, how can you get these people to mention these product pages?

My experiment (I have not done this yet - if you do, let me know how it works ;) would be to do a contest for - and on - each page you want to build links to. Do them one at a time though! Make a press release. Contact your target publishers and let them know about the contest. The award is a giveaway of the product or service... Even better if you can give away the product/service for life! To enter the contest people have to blog about or tweet about why they want the product or service. The description for the contest must be published on the page that you want to build links to.

Paula: Thank you for sending me your eBook. I will read and comment it on my blog as soon as I can. Could you maybe tell me beforehand what I will find there and what makes it unique?
Garrett: I think you'll find a very different approach to link building Paula! I work to downplay SEO-centricity, and a focus just on the SERPs. I'm eager to hear your thoughts, comments and feedback, especially in regards to how this approach could scale, or any US-biases I may not see in my approach!


  1. Paula, you're doing a great work on both your blogs! Your brazillian blog is the best SEO related blog in portuguesee, for sure! Surpassing even MestreSEO.

  2. Thank you Mateus! You made my day :)

  3. Oi Paula,

    Excelente entrevista, não acredito que você conseguiu fazer ele responder tantas perguntas, rs.

    Uma sugestão de post seria os passos e sites para conseguir links em RSS e boomarks sites (para o mercado brasileiro). Sei que não traz muito link juice, mas fiquei curioso sobre o como se faz e não achei nada na Internet. Ou vc pode me mandar um e-mail básico! ;D

    Espero que esteja curtindo o (não tão) novo emprego!

  4. Oi Breno! Tudo bom?

    Tem um artigo sobre isso no Brasil SEO

    Eu nao gosto dessa tecnica como forma de link building. Acho que esses sites sociais sao bons para promover seu site, aumentar trafego, mas quando se trata de construir links, prefiro investir meu tempo em links Follow e em paginas que serao indexadas.


  5. Oi Paula,

    Tudo ótimo por cá.

    Obrigado pela dica. Concordo com o que você disse, estou apenas curioso em fazer para ver na prática! Ou seja, o objetivo é apenas o meu aprendizado.

    Ah, estive na Itália (até ontem). Em Verona e Milão. Adorei, fui a minha primeira Ópera! ;D

    Precisamos marcar algo qq dia. bjo