Siege Media started as a link building agency sending thousands of targeted cold emails each month and continued with that process for a decade. After a lot of deliberation and data analysis, we’ve realized that manual link building doesn’t make sense for 90%+ of the companies we help.
To understand how we came to this conclusion, it might be helpful to hear the backstory.
At the beginning of Siege Media’s development 10 years ago, our biggest focus was link generation for our clients. We created manually promoted linkbait, very often without any attachment to search volume.
Over time, we incorporated more and more search-volume-driven content into what we do. We realized this performed better because it created on-brand content and generated secondary KPIs, not just links.
After seeing this method bear fruit, we then realized this content was generating a huge number of passive links. On a long enough timeline, the numbers often far outpaced the initial manual push we gave the assets.
This started getting our brains turning on the type of posts that generated more passive links than others. We started emphasizing these for clients, often early in engagements — and got better at it over time.
All the while, Google started moving towards a brand-focused approach. It is hard, if not impossible, to rank unless you truly have quality content to offer.
The “fake” approaches of manipulating your link volumes without a quality product attached to it dried up. If you didn’t have good content, no amount of skill at generating links would make up for it.
This meant that the winners were almost always products that had product/market fit and were attracting a level of quality links by nature of what they were doing.
Outreach Compared to Non-Outreach
In Siege’s model, which we’ve repeatedly tested over time, the main difference between SEO-driven content and those that add outreach is double the time needed, even though the effective quality is relatively similar.
Why is that?
When we create content for outreach, we often add shareable design assets to keyword-driven content, such as infographics or data visualizations. These visuals specifically make it easier for outside websites to link back to a post. Then, we spend time doing outreach specifically.
This means that we essentially double the time to complete a successful outreach campaign. But if we weren’t thinking about outreach, it’s arguable that we’d still include those shareable assets in the content to solve for search intent (even though we’d still include other high-quality design elements).
So, in essence, we were cutting our content productivity in half by deciding we would promote something manually without any major increase in content quality. No bueno.
Client Splits Offering Data Confidence
During this period, we effectively took on three client types: One that needed help with outreach tied to content, one with a hybrid of non-outreach content and outreach content, and one where we created SEO-driven content without outreach.
The main reason we didn’t do any outreach for some clients is because their brands had a strong Domain Rating (DR) position. So, it was obvious from the start that a few extra manual links would do very little for them.
In this model, all of our time and attention went to content creation.
In seeing a few of these case studies, the results are pretty striking:
Of course, we understand that the highest authority sites are naturally going to see better results, so it’s not causative that less manual outreach caused these outcomes.
This said, most businesses would be ecstatic with a fraction of the above results, especially the top two. We realized we were onto something.
Enter KOB Analysis
In recent years, we’ve more heavily emphasized Keyword Opposition to Benefit Analysis.
Through this process, we are able to prioritize low-difficulty topics that could generate links and add value for our clients early in the engagement.
By leaning on this, we realized that we could generate initial traction even for middle-authority clients without doing manual outreach, not just DR leaders like the above.
Content Hub Design and Internal Links
To add to that, we started adding extra emphasis on internal linking and content hub design.
Here are some of the checklist items we made sure every client had, or eventually worked towards, for their blog design:
- The content section linked in the top navigation.
- 15+ links were present on the content hub and content hub categories.
- 3+ related links to relevant posts post-content.
- 5+ links were added from old content to every new post.
- Passive link generators prioritized in internal linking.
- A high-quality hub and blog post design.
In this situation, even if the content got “stuck” around the top of page two, we knew the client’s product/market fit would mean it’d eventually get pushed over the hump via a few more links based on the quality of their product — if all of the above checkboxes were accurately hit.
From there, if the content and content experience were truly high quality, they would start attracting passive links to accelerate growth.
Previously, we effectively made up for scalable solutions by trying to fix the problem with a hammer — manual outreach.
In seeing a larger sample size, we realized these were things that we could solve with a better strategy and dedication towards improving infrastructure issues.
Manual Outreach vs. Content-Only Approaches
When we realized the time was right to shift to this new approach, we started bringing it to clients who were on our old model of doing heavy manual outreach.
These were clients doing a lot of outreach-focused content in the middle-authority range but seeing some initial traction.
In making the pitch, we projected the difference using market expectations and the idea that in an outreach model, we’d probably see some faster results due to quicker links. However, we’d eventually lose out to a model that would allow us to create more, better content with that time.
As mentioned above, we’d be able to double production of the same quality content by not doing outreach. Or we could focus on better content, content updates, blog design, or many other things that we believe would be the better use of that time.
This is a version of that graph with adjusted X and Y axes:
The client agreed, and we put the change to the test. We only had three months or so of the previous strategy with more outreach but had done enough to see a notable difference in the impact of the two approaches.
As you can see, around January 2022, the graph accelerates upward. Again, there can be several factors contributing to this, but this was a perfect example of a middle-authority business with product/market fit and initial traction. For that reason, it made sense to lean into this new strategy.
We hope to update this post over time with more “before/after” clients that shifted from one model to the other. The above is the first (early) example of our new process in action while also comparing the old one.
Where Manual Outreach Makes Sense
Although we realized using the above analysis that high-volume manual outreach doesn’t make sense for 90% of situations, how do you know you’re not in the remaining 10%?
The following are a few ways we still see it making sense:
Brand New Websites
If you’re a brand new website or startup that knows SEO is going to be a primary distribution channel, accelerating your path to returns through manual outreach can make sense.
This said, we suggest you only pursue SEO at product/market fit (very often Series A), as an early strategy may often need to pivot due to changes in positioning. Also, you often don’t have the luxury of waiting 12–24 months to rank if you have limited runway.
With that said, it’s possible product/market fit is a lot less flexible in some situations (for example, a finance product review site or someone selling solar panels).
Here, it could make sense to start your SEO strategy with a push using outreach to accelerate your timeline, depending on if the adequate resources are available.
High Link Value With PR Benefits
In some verticals, the value per link is astronomical. This is often because there is less search volume in the content marketing area, and the nature of the business means people rarely link out.
As an example, in our post breaking this down, CardRatings has a $44,000+ value per link:
Here, there is clearly a strong ROI argument to do quality manual outreach — most often via Digital PR — even if you can be successful without it.
However, we’d still recommend these approaches be tied to brand awareness plays that actually have incremental value. Any activity that purely has links as a KPI has a probability of being stamped out by Google in the future, if it hasn’t been already.
As a general threshold, it may be worth considering above $10,000 lifetime value per link.
Targeted, High-Leverage Outreach
Outreach still has huge value. It’s just when you try to stretch out the returns it has relative to other activities you could spend that time on where its value gets called into question.
If you can keep outreach high leverage, it is still worth doing. What are some examples?
- Brand link reclamation – You can often generate links <$200 CPL in an effective timeframe if your brand is getting mentioned a lot without being linked to. Due to the low cost against potential return, these links make sense to keep pursuing.
- Ego bait or influencer inclusions – If you include influencers in your content, the distribution leverage they can offer against the time spent is often quite high. This relationship-building still makes sense and will continue to in the future.
- High-impact digital PR – As mentioned above, if your company is building a big report, launching news, or anything else, the return on your individual press pitches are going to be high. That said, there’s a difference between pitching your Series D launch once a year and a crappy piece of linkbait that is just one of many in any given month. It’s understanding this line that will allow you to maximize returns.
- Nudging high link intent topics for low authority sites – If you see a topic that can generate 1,000+ links on a long enough timeline, it often warrants the manual push to get it ranking faster and more reliably. Even if the topic could rank without your nudge, getting it ranking faster could generate links you wouldn’t have generated otherwise, and it also should solidify your ability to do that.
Philosophy Changes Mindset
The returns on paper clearly make sense to us for 90% of our clients.
There are also “soft benefits” we expect to see from this due to a philosophy change.
- Undoubtedly, links from this method are future-proof and what Google wants to reward as compared to those generated from manual outreach.
- A mindset shift from our teams away from individual link outcome goals to overall qualified traffic lifts and content quality.
- A focus on on-site strategy and site conversions compared to a link building (or off-page SEO) strategy should help teams focus on the things that matter.
- The belief that less outreach also means more fulfilled content marketers. This should drive retention and better client understanding through the duration of the account and net volume of content creation and research done over time.
Although we’ll stop tracking individual links, we believe a continued focus on link velocity does make sense.
We’ve recently started adopting an “average link per blog visit” metric that looks at how many visits per link is normal for each industry we work in. In extrapolating that out to how many visits we expect to grow our clients, we can set macro link goals using Ahrefs’ link velocity numbers.
A major reason we love this approach is not because we believe less in links, it’s that we can generate even more of them. We have legit case studies generating 200+ links/month for clients, and that’s only possible with this methodology.
A Strategic Recap
To sum things up, by doing the following, we believe we can generate great content marketing results for 90%+ of the SEO-driven websites that are out there without outreach:
- Validate that the website has product/market fit and is naturally acquiring some links and is showing initial search traction.
- Improve the content hub and content post template to be best in class in the industry.
- Optimize internal linking for the content hub section to an A+ standard.
- Remove low performing content with no traffic, links or conversions.
- Start engagements with low difficulty, high passive link volume content.
- Continue to build best-in-class content using SEO best practices, copy, design and development.
- Prioritize passive link earners in the site architecture.
- Ladder up to high difficulty topics over time using KOB Analysis.
- Continue to measure and improve macro link velocity over time.
- Continue to focus on creating assets that can drive passive links.
- Use the time we spent on outreach to instead focus on things like macro content hub improvements, content updates, and improved content quality.
How We Got Here
It was a scary decision to almost completely eliminate doing something we had done for a decade.
Though everyone may not agree, and I understand in some ways, this may put into question the entire business model of some SEO companies. That may be controversial.
As we’ve evolved at Siege over the past ten years, we’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve. This has meant making difficult decisions to continue to drive the best results for our clients.
This is one of our biggest changes yet, but by every indication and data point we’re looking at, it’s also one of the clearest.
We’re excited about this next phase of Siege Media and what it means for better spending our time on building a better web, not just a few more links. I hope doing so may help a few more of you do the same.