Today’s SEO podcast features James Reynolds, founder and CEO of SEO Sherpa and ClickJam. Our topic was mainly attracting links without using dangerous tools that could result in penalties. Transcript to follow.

My favorite takeaway from the interview was James’s suggestion:

The best way to earn links is to create content aimed at peers.

About James Reynolds

With a background in business and marketing, James first found his passion for search while working in the photography space. After dabbling in affiliate marketing and helping several local businesses, James founded an agency specializing in organic and local search engine optimization, named SEO Sherpa. Soon after, he built a sister agency specializing in paid search and media advertising, appropriately named ClickJam.

James is also available on Twitter at @followjames – send your questions there, I know I will be!


Let’s start with some history on you, tell me about your background and how you got into search, and kind of what you’re doing

Reynolds: Yeah, cool. So I got into search, I guess nearly five years ago now, my background has always been in business and in marketing, but was always offline. I actually ran a photography company for ten years, six years or so in the UK and then another sort of four years or so in Dubai where I now am. I just got obsessed with marketing and the whole discipline of it, unfortunately in the end my sort of directorship with that photography company went sour, but at that point I got so intrigued by the digital space that I knew I wanted to do something there, and after sort of playing around trying to make pennies on the dollar doing affiliate marketing, and not very successfully. I realized that I should probably put my sort of business acumen to good use and start to offer marketing services to local businesses. When I first sort of started my consultancy, we were very broad. We did everything from sort of social media management to website development and also SEO in the mix. I just got a real affinity for SEO, and I think the reason for that is it’s kind of, for me it’s a nice blend of practical systems based stuff along with this creative aspect which obviously is the content part of it, it really just sort of suited my, I guess my skill set and just what naturally I have an affinity with, we’ve just developed out of there. We were sort of doing everything for about a year and then since that point we just niched down and over the course of the past four years we’ve essentially built out two agencies here. One is called SEO Sherpa, which is an organic SEO agency, and we have a separate division now called Click Jam, which is essentially a Google Adwords management agency. We do a lot of paid search display, and occasionally a bit of social advertisement, really the two core disciplines of search. So yeah, I run a pretty large agency now, here in Dubai. We operate with, I think 60 plus customers under management right now, somewhere around 62, 63 or so, and work with businesses big and small doing this stuff day in and day out. So yeah this is my life, I guess I live and breathe it.

Wiideman: That’s awesome. Yeah and agencies, definitely, I mean I’ve been down that road before. It can be really difficult if you’re not educating your clients first about the marathon that SEO is compared to the sprint that Adwords can be. So I applaud you for being able to have 60 accounts and still be

Reynolds: Well thankfully I have a kick ass team that make my life a whole lot easier thankfully, but yeah, I understand the point about, certainly client expectations and stuff like that. There is certainly a lot of education, I think, in search, at least managing expectations on how long things take and what’s involved, and that can be the make or break of a good agency. If you get that wrong, you’re going to lose customers left, right, and center, but if you can build that trust and involve them in the process where they feel that they’re a part of it then you’ve probably got a pretty good setup.

Wiideman: Do you feel transparency is a big part of that, when you’re working under agency and sort of letting the client know that here are the things that we’re going to be working on, you don’t have to understand all of them but you need to know that they’re happening. Then maybe giving them access, I don’t know with your project management system or what have you, or how involved do you get your client involved into the actual tactics and day to day?

Reynolds: Yeah, I mean I think transparency is huge. I mean we all hear of these, unfortunately these SEO sob stories where, you know people have been sold down their garden path and everything has collapsed beneath their feet. You know sites have got de-indexed from the search listings, and this, that, and the other. I think continuums are now quite aware of that, that SEO done badly can be problematic, can almost be the end of their business. So I think it’s absolutely essential to build trust, you’re going to find it difficult to win, at least key accounts, if you haven’t got an element of transparency and you share exactly how you do things. But that said, I think it’s always good to keep a little bit back, it’s good to have a black box around your own IP, because obviously you want to keep that to yourself and make sure that’s ammunition in your armory, and it also just keeps the customer a little bit an arm’s length. Questioning can arise a lot if you give too much away, almost like you give too much away and too many questions will come back as to what’s this? How’s this done? X, Y, and zed. So I think it’s getting a fine balance of being as open as possible, but just keeping some of your core techniques sort of to yourself, and making sure they’re only internal processes.

Wiideman: That’s awesome, and then you of course have to break out all those different roles and shares, you don’t have one guy that handles the SEO, you have one guy who handles technology, another person that’s in charge of content strategy, another person who is perhaps in the mix with social media folks, got one person sort of server level who’s handling your HTTPS upgrade. So there’s a lot of different roles, I think, that are involved in that process and having too much transparency may give the clients the idea that they can connect directly to those different roles, and it’s probably better just to keep them with one central sort of point of contact, I can imagine.

Reynolds: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s how we operate. We have sort of localized support, telephone in person support at sort of account executive level, but the actual implementation team, the team that are doing all the work are never exposed to the client. If you’re building up a sizable business, you certainly don’t want, really anyone to have access to those people that you invest a lot of time and energy in training. I think it’s very important to sort of keep those working behind the scenes, and typically you find those sorts of people anywhere aren’t very much sort of people orientated. They like to do their stuff behind the scene and that’s a good, exactly, yeah.

Wiideman: Especially tech, I grew up in tech too, so I know exactly what you mean. Just turn the light down a little bit, my headset on, and me just work, just leave me alone. Pay per click, same thing, to really get in the zone in pay per click, you have to sit down, put your headset on, and turn off Skype, turn off email, and just sit down and just do it. You get your Adwords editor open, you get your spreadsheets going, and then you just rockstar it. So I remember those days, I miss them a lot, because it’s a lot of fun getting to play with ad groups and extensions and, anyway. Well great, tell me more about, I think one of the big challenges that business have today, with search, I mean the foundational SEO work, if they’ve got the right web developer, all of those sort of things kind of come out of the box, your site’s responsive now, or your design company lives in the 80s, right? Or you’ve got your standard robot’s txt file, let the search engines where to go, where not to go, you’ve got these XML feeds that you submit to the new search console, formally webmaster tools. You’ve got all of those sort of foundational things built out of the box in most cases, or design companies eventually learn their lesson by getting slapped by an SEO agency or consultancy, but after that preliminary design is done, you’ve got usability and you’ve got a great converting landing page, and it loads great on any speed, in any browser, on any device. The ongoing nurturing of SEO, the search signal of growth that search engines look at over time, really involves a recalibrating of content based on what you’ve learned, and of course the new signals from how other websites are talking about yours. What would you say business can do, whether through your agency or proactively to try to work on that growth with regards to relationship building and influence, or marketing. What are some, sort of, like five, or maybe even three top things that businesses can do to really start attracting links back to their website, without getting in trouble with Google Penguin and that sort of thing.

Reynolds: Yeah, well I think, probably the first point to make is that link building has gotten a whole lot harder, we all know that in the past we could.

Wiideman: Try not to use that word either, link building.

Reynolds: Yeah, well I don’t, I mean I think it has this sort of feeling dirty nature to it, but it shouldn’t. I mean ultimately what we are still doing is building links from website to your own, and that, low and behold is still the primary influencing factor that Google have at least to determine a search engine’s authority. So I think, yeah, I mean a lot of sort of muck and dirt surrounds it, but I don’t think we need to be sort of too scared of it, that really is the practice of what we’re doing. It really has, yeah, it has gotten a lot harder now, it’s very difficult now to just acquire links. You can’t do article marketing, you can’t do

Reynolds: Exactly, yeah. I mean you shouldn’t be ever getting near paid links, so they really have to be earned now, and earning links is difficult because it actually means that you have to produce good stuff. If someone is going to actually go and put a link on their site, say hey, I endorse this website, I think my readers should go and check it out. The content that they link out to has got to be good in the first place. Now good doesn’t necessarily mean you just feel it’s good, it really needs to be built in a way that squarely appealed to the types of people in your market that generally link out to other content. I think one of the big mistakes that people make is firstly, creating content that is aimed at their customers. Most website owners actually will not really be in a market where their customers will generally link out, and they would be maybe a bricks and mortar business. The people that are checking out their content, at least at customer level, don’t typically write blog posts and link out to content that maybe is for another business in their market. So you need to actually appeal.

Wiideman: Nobody links to a selling page, that’s what we tell people.

Reynolds: Yeah, I mean that’s, that really is it. So you really want to be creating content actually for your peers, for other people that are within your space, like you do a credit search strategy Steve, you’re creating content that is aimed at other search professionals. So I think that’s really important to firstly just sort of put out there. Think about creating content that appeals to the types of people that genuinely would link out to other content and if you can do that, you’re off to a good start. Now a few ways that you could perhaps sort of find out what types of content other people in your market link out to would be, first of all going into Google’s own search results, put in the keywords, the primary keywords in your market and see what types of content are typically appearing in the top 10 to top 20 results, that will give you the indication on the types of content topics that those people, the linkerati, if you like, in your market would typically actually sort of post on their site and have a link to. You can also go to things like or other sites like that to get a feel for those types of content topics. Once you’ve got that content, the next thing is to actually perform outreach and what a lot of people make the mistake of, is actually just posting good content and then hoping people are going to miraculously come to their site and think it’s great and then start linking to it. You really, unless you have a very large audience already, need to engage in some form of outreach activity to let other people know that may be interested in the content, that it exists, and maybe that they want to feature it or link out to it from their own website. There’s quite a few different ways that you can do that, and I don’t know if the time allows Steve, we could probably cover a few of those different topics now.

Wiideman: Sure, I want to go back a step too, and say I think it might be a good idea to even get some of those important people involved in the content creation process. So that they feel like they’re, to some degree they feel like wow, I really put some time, energy, and thought into what I gave in this content. I’m more willing to share that because I helped write it, or helped create it, right?

Reynolds: Yep, definitely. I mean one strategy that works very well is kind of like a round up blog post where you gather together, sort of industry experts if you like, and have them contribute. If we’re talking about SEO, we might go out to other SEO professionals and say what’s your top, on page SEO tip, and create a post that’s like 21 on page SEO tips from the experts. Everyone of course loves tooting their own horn, so once they’ve contributed a bit of content to your post, it’s pretty likely that they’re going to go ahead and share it afterwards. Even if you haven’t.

Wiideman: You know the ego base seems to be too, I get a lot of this, is when you hit the top 50 lists, top 50 SEOs, top 10 SEO experts who specialize in Word Press, and then they put a little caricature of you or something. They take the time to have an artist design the little image of you and then they give you a little background and so forth, and then they reach out to you and say hey, congrats on making this top list, and you’re looking at it like oh cool. That sort of ego baiting has happened to me, I think more than once, and I fall for it every time, I’m like look at it, I’m important.

Reynolds: Yeah, that one’s often referred to awards bait, and you can do that in your industry. You can just make up an award if you like, devise top SEO experts and we could then contact people and do it, make a little badge that they can put on their site and stuff like that, yeah I mean it totally appeals to the

Wiideman: Well tell me about those outreach tools that you’re about to go into. So you’re talking about the outreach approach, you’ve got this great content, what do you do?

Reynolds: Well it depends what initial piece of content that you’ve got in play. I think, we just mentioned really designing something that appeals to those people in your market, one of the easiest things that you can do straight away, is if you find another piece of content similar in your market, which hopefully you’ve improved upon with better design or more in depth information. You can then go to perhaps a tool like AH Refs, plug the URL of that preexisting piece of content into AH Refs and find all of the other websites that will link to it, then all you do is you go to those individual websites and say hey, I saw you linked to this great piece of content, here’s the link, as it happens I just published a piece of content very similar to that, do you want to check it out? Just a very, kind of soft intro, not even pushing your content out there at that state, just letting them know that you’ve got something that they could be interested in, and then if they reply to that you can send it to them and just subtly say, if you think this might make a good addition to your website, go ahead and add it. Just a really sort of soft intro can work really, really well. This is a little bit different to how a lot of people do outreach, they just pitch right up front, they send their piece of content and they say hey, check this out, link to it. When really there’s no relationship at that stage and the likelihood of someone actually saying yes, I’m going to add it to my site is very, very minimal. But if you position hey, I’ve got something you might be interested in, do you want to check it out? That tends to work a lot, lot better.

Wiideman: That’s true, yeah, I’ve seen the reactions these days to, even me, many cases we’ll get an email that says hey, will you link to something? I don’t mean to be mean, but it is fun sometimes to put it on social media and say wow, these people are really living in the 90’s. Without even knowing me, expecting me to, anytime the word link is used in an email outreach like that it seems that a lot of people, right away identify that as spam and delete without even reading into it to see that you are somebody who’s of some value of or some importance in your industry. So there’s a lot of relationship communication happening there, how do you manage all that? When you’ve got all these great opportunities, are you using proprietary tools in house? Are you leveraging some third party tools like Buzz Stream and other CRM, or how do you manage that whole process?

Reynolds: No we go old school. We have a Google spreadsheet and a list of email ids that we gather. We use a really nice simple framework as well just to identify what are the good link opportunities. We actually, more than sort of finding potential properties, we also sort of grade them very, very quickly as to high likely they are to link to us. Like is it an opportunity that’s likely to yield something? Does the site have good domain authority, and is the site completely squared at the content that we’re trying to position in front of them, and we kind of grade them, we make a little score out of 12. Then we rank those in order and we start at the top of the list and then work down, but no it’s very much old school. We use a Google Apps account, email accounts, we also use, I forget the name, I’ve got it here now, in my own email accounts. What do we call, Yesware is the tool I was trying to think of, which is a Gmail plugin, and that’s really nice. It basically allows you to create canned messages and store them. So you’ll, typically for outreach you’ll have a general framework of the email message that you’ll want to send people, and then you’ll probably customize it a little bit to make it a bit more personal and friendly. So Yesware allows you to sort of load that up and put that into your email message, but it then.

Reynolds: Yeah, but then it also tells you when people open the message as well, so you get an idea, you know who’s actually reading the message, and then it will also give you reporting afterwards as to the response rate, like the reply rate on the messages. So you can, over time, as you’re doing more and more outreach, you can see what messages are working and you can tweak that, a little bit like conversion optimization over time to get a better and better response. That’s a tool that we really like, but other than that, that’s it. We pretty much use AH Refs for identifying opportunities, we also like using a tool called Buzz Sumo which is a.

Wiideman: I’ve heard of that, the influencer finder, right?

Reynolds: Yeah, it’s very much what it is. It actually has, basically a function which sort of ranks content based on the amount of social shares that it’s received. So you can plug in there, let’s say your keywords, let’s say we’re trying to find sort of SEO outreach opportunities, we can plug in the SEO and we’ll see all of the people that have shared content on that topic and we’ll see the most shared content. So again, if you’re putting out, let’s say an infograpic on on page SEO techniques, you could put on page SEO into Buzz Sumo and it’ll show you all of the people that have shared content on that topic recently, and then again you can go to their sites, find their email details and say hey I saw you shared a bit of content on X, or I noticed you’re interested in this topic, hey I’ve just published X, Y, and Zed, do you want to check it out? And you put it in front of them like that.

Wiideman: Awesome. Do you feel like tools like Ontolo and Inky Bee, and the Citation Labs Link Prospector are sort of dead because of the whole idea of procuring links versus attracting them? Or do you think there’s still value in trying to find opportunities with those type of tools?

Reynolds: I honestly haven’t ever used any of those tools that you’ve mentioned.

Wiideman: Well that makes me feel better already.

Reynolds: So I couldn’t actually comment. There’s very few link opportunities available now without having a really good pillar piece of content that you can put in front of people, because all of the other outreach tactics like broken link building and resource page link building, people have known about for quite some time, so all of the high authority websites in a normal market, an established market, would have probably been approached using these techniques over and over.

Wiideman: So they’re [UNKNOWN] to it.

Reynolds: Exactly, they’ve got their blinkers up. But if, genuinely you can put in put in front of someone who is passionately interested around a particular topic, if you can put in front of them a piece of content which you know that they really would be interested in because they’re avid, they’re passionate about that topic, as long as you make the approach good, and you’re genuinely coming from a position of helping them, then there’s a good chance that they’ll actually say yeah, I’ll be interested in checking that out. If your content’s good, and they are a proven link creator, IE they’re linking out to other content regularly, then you’ve got a good strong chance that actually you will be able to generate links

Wiideman: Great, yeah it’s, one of the things that really resonates with me is the fact that you said create content aimed at peers, and I wrote that one down. I thought that was a really important takeaway. I know Google and some other people we’ve talked to in the past have always tried to say help others who need it and they’ll reciprocate in one way or another, whether it’s by becoming a brand loyalist at the very minimum, link to, sharing, bookmarking, something that you did. You never know when that little person who’s just growing up in the industry might become a big deal and later go back and say well it was because I learned from this guy, who shared all this great content, I’m always talking about Bruce Clay, and Aaron Wall. When I grew up in search it was SEO book and Bruce Clay’s tech tips and other things that I followed that really helped me design how I want to handle search. I didn’t use everything that they published, but it was because they published something that I was able to sort of put my own thoughts together and create my own information products in the same field. I think that’s a really important point. If you think about approaching peers, you’re not only providing something useful to peers that’s linkable, but you’re proving to your customers that you know what the heck you’re talking about, because you’re teaching it, you’re not just saying hire me. You’re saying here’s six ways to do what I do and the client looks at that like woah, I would rather just hire you because you obviously

Reynolds: Yeah, definitely. I mean I think there’s certainly a place for creating content for prospects, but it has a different purpose, I mean honestly, we’re both in the SEO space. If we were to publish a piece of content about, I don’t know, how Google works, that might be useful to our prospects but it’s certainly not going to garner many links because everyone in our space that’s interested in this topic knows the answer to that, right? So we’ve got to really raise the bar and actually go very high level, quite advanced, typically with content and extremely in depth, I mean it really has to be the number one resource on that little sub niche within your space. If it is, then there’s a strong likelihood that people refer to that if ever they’re talking about that particular topic. But if you go very general and very basic, there’s not, once it’ll have a purpose, certainly for, sort of convincing or nurturing your customers, it certainly won’t be very effective in terms of actually garnering links.

Wiideman: Right, yeah I’m the same way. I always link to and share content that I think is useful. Recently my big thing is trying to understand knowledge graphing quick answers and how to get content into the quick answers box, how to get your social media profiles to populate in the knowledge panel on the right. Those are the type of things that excite our consulting accounts, they, the little things that signal authority in one way or another, but also require a little bit of structured mark up, require a little bit of curation instead of link building. But those are the things that as a peer, it’s something I would likely share or link to, because my clients want to see that, and I have to publish somewhere that I did some research, and then I use those sources and those sources get of course attribution. Well awesome. Well, so, you’re at 60 accounts, can you take more? We get a lot of calls from people who are looking for SEO services and we haven’t been in the services industry for a good three years now, so we, we definitely love to refer some people your way, but for anyone listening, if they want to learn more about you and, you know about the, Click Jam or the SEO Sherpa, where can they go?

Reynolds: Yeah, so we have a central blog where we tend to talk about a lot of these types of topics, whether it be podcasts or infographics, etcetera, and that website’s called Verabo, Verabo, so Then yeah, you got it right for the agencies, is our organic SEO agency. That’s where we help companies out with doing all this sort of stuff. Then is the site for our performance media and Google Adwords, so they’re all good places. Then yeah, I’m not so active on social media, but of all the places, I guess Twitter is the one, so you can probably find me there as well.

Wiideman: Fantastic, then what’s your Twitter handle?

Wiideman: That’s a great one, I like it. I look at my Twitter handles now, there’s this whole SEO Steve nickname that I created over the years, and I’m like why did I do that? Why didn’t I just use my name? Why was I so obsessed about SEO? But it is what it is now, but anyway, it’s funny.

Reynolds: You will be forever the SEO guy.

Wiideman: Well awesome, I know we’re kind of hitting our time over here, was there anything else you wanted to throw out there? We went through sort of some best practice, setting expectations, trying to have some transparency when you’re working with clients, but still sort of keeping the client at arm’s length. Talking about earning links as opposed to building links, avoiding tools that might get you in trouble, and focusing more on trying to find those relationships, perhaps with services like Buzz Sumo. Then you gave some places that users can go to really learn more about you and how you might be able to help them, anything else you wanted to throw out?

Reynolds: No, I say we leave it there, because there’s a million ways that we could take this conversation which will probably get two geeks like us talking for another two and a half hours. But no, I mean I guess this will get posted somewhere, so if whomever is listening to this wants to post a question or hit me up in any of those places, I’d love to continue the conversation there.

Wiideman: Fantastic, well I’m going to stop the recorder over here, and then you and I can chat.

Reynolds: Awesome, thanks Steve.

Wiideman: Thank you, appreciate it.