Zero to a Hundred: an SEO backlinks case study

Last year, I created the ROI of guest blogging research.

This post was strategically built with two goals in mind:

First of all, I wanted to share original data about the value of guest posting in marketing.

The data was shared by 20 of the best global SEO experts including Rand Fishkin, Mark Preston, Alexandra Tachalova, Lukasz Zelezny, Julia McCoy, and many more.

It worked because I got data from 379 guest posts which makes it a relatively good sample, very strong in terms of results and trends discovered.

The post now ranks #1 on Google for “ROI of guest posting”.

Second, I have built that content with the purpose of attracting backlinks and social shares from those experts who participated in my survey.

And this also worked. I got 100 referring domains from 102 different IP addresses linking back to that research, and 245 referring links.

Why did I create the ROI of guest posting research?

If you work in SEO, you have probably a few guest posts under your belt. It’s common knowledge that they are one of the best ways to build backlinks.

Right?

Not really, according to the data that I have collected.

However, guest blogging is still one of SEO’s favorite methods to attract backlinks (at least according to Google).

If you don’t want to pay for acquiring backlinks, or can’t do a Digital PR campaign because they are expensive, then your best bet is to become a guest blogger. You write for other, large websites in exchange for a link back to your resources and pages.

Right?

Yes, you have got a new link. Sure. This is very well done. But the problem is this one:

How do you scale the process?

This is when original research from surveys comes to help. Original data and statistics tend to get more links than any other type of content. They are often not updated. And the participants tend to share your research.

This means that statistics and original data posts are the best candidates for attracting new links on scale.

Let’s dig into the topic.

1. Original data posts tend to receive more links

Every original data post, as long as the data reveals something interesting, gets tons of backlinks. If you check for example this post from Hubspot on the preferred story platform, backed by original data, you see 136 backlinks:

This normally happens because bloggers, guest bloggers and journalists cite statistics from these types of posts into their blog posts.

2. The survey participants tend to share your research

For example, look at this post from Moz where the Link Building Expert Alexandra Tachalova talks about referral traffic:

The guest writer cites many statistics and links to the source, one of which is my ROI of guest posting blog posts.

Having carefully chosen who answered my survey, i.e. SEO guest bloggers with an impressive record of writing for very well-known marketing publications, I knew that some of them would have linked back to my research.

Look at this same post on Moz with a link to my guest blogging ROI.

This happened because Alexandra Tachalova was one of the top SEO experts who answered my survey, so she knew the source of information and linked it.

Also, these big names in SEO tend to have large followings on social media, for example, Rand Fishkin has 400,000 Twitter followers and over 100,000 on LinkedIn.

He also shared the data of my research both on Twitter and LinkedIn after he took the time to answer my research questions.

3. Statistics and research articles are not often updated

People don’t really check their statistics pages well, they don’t update them. One of the most common errors they create is deleting old numbers from a website without replacing them with new ones.

The issue is that when numbers are deleted, citations and links are left behind.

Another issue is that in the fast-moving industry as SEO and blogging, stats become a legacy every year and nobody will link to it anymore.

When you make a survey in 2021 about “the state of…”, the survey becomes old in 2022 and there is no way you can update it because the only way to repropose new numbers is to build a new survey.

For example, Orbit Media runs a blogging survey each year and in 2020 it became the 7th time in a row that Andy Crestodina has built this survey:

That’s because data from a year prior is not interesting to anyone.

What I did

You may have a general idea of where I’m going with this. Don’t worry if this isn’t the case. I’ll walk you through the whole procedure below.

Here’s how I went about it:

  1. How I have discovered a winning subject
  2. I created the survey goals and questions
  3. How I have nailed down the chance experts would reply
  4. Turn cold numbers into an engaging story

Step 1. Discovering a winning topic

To be completely honest with you, I wanted to talk about guest posting because in the last 5 years I have been writing for many websites as a guest writer without having much success.

My research was a result of my frustration at not being able to understand the value of guest posting.

Despite working my *** off to write for the likes of SearchEngineLand.com, Smartinsights.com, SEMrush.com, SearchEnginewatch.com and Crazyegg.com, I didn’t get much referral traffic t my blog, I wasn’t offered a new job, I wasn’t invited to speak at a conference and I still struggled to understand what is the whole point of guest blogging.

So I thought, am I doing something wrong? I have messaged my friend Mark Preston on LinkedIn to ask him if he got much from his post on Moz.

Then I have messaged other SEOs to find out why they keep writing for these huge blogs and what they get out of it.

These emails exchanges gave me a bunch of new ideas and even more questions to answer:

  • What am I missing?
  • Why do these experts keep writing for free?
  • Is there more to guest blogging that I don’t know of?
  • Is it true that guest blogging doesn’t generate referral traffic?

Finally, I have decided to ask Google, of course:

Google said guest posting brings some benefits:

  • You can establish yourself as an authority
  • Connect with other leaders
  • Build relationships

The truth was that I wasn’t happy with the reply, the effort didn’t seem to bring me any immediate return, value, or result.

Finally, I have decided to speak to the guest authors themselves and find out more about their “secrets” of guest posting.

The only two challenges I had now were:

  1. how to get the data I need to make decisions on.
  2. how to make experts take the time off their busy schedule to reply with numbers.

Step 2. I created the survey questions

Before approaching any expert, I had to have very clear about what my goals were. What did I want to ask? what kind of questions did I need to ask that would help me find out the truth?

This is the typical approach to questions development that researchers, uni students, and scientists use to take into account every angle and every detail. I like this process because it’s scientific. I have used it when I was a student during my Master’s Degree in Digital Marketing so I have used it again for this research.

To make it scientific, I firstly thought of the objective.

What do I want to achieve and what decision will I make with the result?

I decided to simply check whether some of the most popular statements about guest blogging are true or false:

  • Does guest blogging generate referral traffic?
  • Does guest blogging make you any money?
  • Is it the right strategy for achieving more backlinks?

This was my research goal.

Next, I needed to make sure the SEO experts would reply to my questions.

Step 3. I have nailed down the chance experts would reply

Despite the fact that I didn’t have a large following on social media and that I was fairly unknown in the world of SEO, I succeeded in outreaching several global experts and get them to reply for 15 minutes to my survey questions.

How did I achieve this?

How did I motivate them to not only read my cold outreach email but also to thank me for involving them in this project?

I have used one of the 6 persuasion techniques, the principle of Authority.

In every single cold outreach email to an expert, I have mentioned that I was working in partnership with Rand Fishkin because everybody knows him in the SEO world – former CEO of Moz and Founder of SparkToro, for those who don’t know.

So as a first step, I have reached out to Rand, here is the email I sent, very simple and straight to the point:

Rand was enthusiastic about the whole project:

Of course, I made sure Rand would know what I was doing and that I wasn’t using his name to only get people to reply, so I have asked if he wanted to say we work in partnership for this research.

After all, Rand is interested in the results because the topic concerns lots of his followers and it’s a great way to advance the world of digital marketing in general.

Having secured his participation, I was now in a position to outreach other experts and ask them to answer my questions that Rand would eventually amplify and share on his huge network.

This was a win-win-win situation.

A win for me because I would get the data I needed, a win for Rand Fishkin because he would have something worth sharing, and a win for other SEO experts because of course, I would mention, praise, and link back to them.

My idea worked very well, I got 20 answers from Alexandra Tachalova (former global Marketing director of SEMRush and now founder of Digital Olympus), Julia McCoy (Content Exert), Anders Hjorth, Kelsey Reaves, Mark Preston (Head of Digital at Hakin Group), Ryan Robinson (highly successful blogger), Manish Dudharejia, President and Founder of E2M Solutions and many more experts.

Step 4. Turn cold numbers into an engaging story

Having secured enough data from a diverse audience of top expert respondents, I had enough data in my hands, with the answers that I needed.

Despite this, presenting only numbers would become a cold article, not very engaging for anyone reading it. I didn’t want to simply create Excel graphs and show them to my readers.

I wanted people to follow me through my journey of how I decided to write about the guest posting ROI and what I have learned from it.

People consume numbers and statistics the same way they consume a blog post if there is a story around it.

This is what I have done:

First, I have introduced myself as the main character of this story. How I struggled to get approved, struggles to get any benefits. This made people connect.

Second, I have presented the villain of this story which is the complete absence of referral traffic, which creates a problem for every guest writer. This created a surprise and also some frustrations that people could relate to.

A simple LinkedIn post would provide me more traffic than an article on Searchengineland.com

Then, I focussed on the hero of this story, which is the value of guest posting. Experts could still see the value and that was the reason why they use this technique so much.

I also listed all the benefits experts were getting from guest posting that made me rethink the whole process.

My results

In total, out of about 49 outreach emails sent to the experts, 20 replied and 29 ignored me which makes it a 68.9% reply rate. In total, I got 100 backlinks from 102 IP addresses

As for social shares, I got 59 shares, over 5,000 views, 38 comments on LinkedIn, and 23 on Twitter.

Of course, the quantity is not bad, what about the quality?

The most influential person that made all of this happen replied (Rand Fishkin). Thanks to his participation, I could perform the authority piece that made others participate too.

Outreaching experts had also other benefits:

  1. One SEO expert also linked my article from the Moz blog, which we all know how valuable it is.
  2. This link from Moz turned into more links on other websites and experts that I didn’t contact.
  3. Another expert shared it on social media which turned other people to share it.

What about the domain authority distribution?

domain authority score

1 domain had the authority of 90+, 5 domains an authority from 81 to 90. 5 from 71 to 80, and the majority from 11 to 20.

From these metrics, I could say that the websites have high traffic, like Moz for example so all of the cumulative results are great.

Could I make these numbers better?

Despite the campaign’s success, some may argue that 20 replies to my survey aren’t particularly impressive.

That may have been true for a scientific, large-scale study, but for me, it was very difficult, and more people that never heard from my didn’t reply or asked me for money to reply.

However, there are two ways we almost certainly could have improved my reply rate.

  1. Make the sample bigger

Cold emails work well only if the person on the other side is interested in what you are offering, which is normally money or exposure. I couldn’t afford to pay people but I had the support of one of the most influential SEO experts in the world who provided exposure.

Going back and forth with hundreds of emails wasn’t really exciting because I literally spent weeks gathering the data.

But considering that I have done 0 link outreach, only data collection outreach, and still generating 100 backlinks of that quality, it’s something I am very proud of.

2. Send more follow up

Sending three follow-up emails, according to Authority Hacker’s study of over 600,000 outreach emails, at least doubled their results. We didn’t send any automated follow-ups, however, because we didn’t want to annoy people.

Most link builders will think this is crazy, but we only ran this campaign to test our strategy. Our goal wasn’t to collect as many links as we could. That’s why we only contacted people who promised to link to us but didn’t do so within two weeks.

Our data acquisition rate would have been at least 90% percent if we had followed Authority Hacker’s advice and sent three follow-ups.

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