Finding the Needle in a Haystack: 5 Steps to Link Prospecting Triumph

By Amanda Record

For my contribution to Link Building month, I’ll be focusing on link prospecting, since I spend the majority of my time in that area. This sounds very exciting, right? Right!

Link prospecting is the act of finding websites to establish relationships with in order to get new inbound links, and thus boost your website’s link profile. When prospecting comes into play, us SEOers have already defined the target personas and the content that we’re creating for these personas, as well as outlined the internal goals for our content’s campaign.

Some link prospecting happens naturally in the content development phase because you need to make sure there’s an audience for what you’re creating. This is when I like to develop a sense of the different niches (AKA ‘website types’) that I’m going to pursue.

To help illustrate my prospecting process, I’ll give some example’s from an ‘Urban Agriculture’ infographic campaign throughout this post.

Step 1: Defining Link Targets According to Their Website Type

After creating your linkable asset’s personas, you can move forward to grouping your link targets by website type. For this Urban Agriculture infographic, I chose the following website types to focus on:

  • Urban Farming or Agriculture Business Websites
  • Gardening Blogs
  • Food Blogs
  • Infographic Specific Websites
  • Cited Sources (listed in our Infographic’s footer)

These are the types of sites our personas are mingling on, which we know from the insights we’ve gathered during persona research. As we continue with the outreach process, we’ll focus on the website types with the best response rate.

Step 2: Digging Deeper Within the SERPs

Now the real time consuming part of prospecting begins, as you’ll need to utilize appropriate toolsets to find sites that have enough link equity to benefit your site. In many ways, prospecting is like searching for a needle in a haystack, but as you get more familiar with each niche, this process will become easier and faster.

Basic Google Search

This is the most basic method, but it’s important to start out here in order to get a ‘footprint’. A footprint (termed by Garrett French) is when you find a site that fits the bill of what you’re looking for, quality-wise, and then proceed to scanning the site for keywords that you can use to find similar websites. An example of this would be style blogs who frequently use ‘lifestyle’ in their title tags.

Note: While conducting initial research for an infographic campaign (i.e. not using advanced search operators), I always make sure to do a search for the title of the client’s infographic (e.g. Urban Agriculture Infographic), and then queue the sites included in the results that would potentially be interested in my content. Since they’ve already expressed an interest in the topic, there’s a higher likelihood that they will post my infographic.

Advanced Search Operators

Advanced search operators are special strings of queries involving keywords and symbols that Google has created as a more refined way of searching. Operators are a great way to utilize the research that you’ve already done to define who you want to find online. In addition to using the search operators shown below, you can also combine queries using ‘AND’ or ‘OR’ statements or get creative with vertical bars to get better results and save yourself time.

  • Intitle: Keywords entered are found in title tags (e.g. urban farming, food) of a webpage.
  • sustainable Intitle: urban farming Intitle: food
  • Inurl: Keyword entered must appear in the url of a page.
  • sustainable Inurl: growing
  • Intext: The keywords (e.g. urban agriculture) entered are on any given page of the website included in the returned results.
  • Washington dc Intext: urban agriculture
  • Site: For searches on a particular domain
  • urban agriculture farming site:
  • Related: return sites that are similar to a certain site’s url.
  • Note: I’m using an example outside the ‘urban agriculture’ topic here, since plugging in this query shows a plethora of results. The urban farming movement is not as glamorous as style blogging, so not as much is returned for a ‘related’ query. The lesson being that this type of operator (in my opinion) works better in saturated niches.

Backlink Analysis

There are several different tools that you can use to identify who is linking to the blogger or website that you want to add to your outreach queue. I use Open Site Explorer to see what websites or blogs are linking to my starting prospect (e.g. without necessarily receiving a link on the starting prospect’s blogroll or resource links page. When links aren’t reciprocated (as they often are not), I find that backlink analysis is a great way of finding sites that support (via linking to) your starting prospect’s site. Other backlink analysis options include Majestic SEO and Ahrefs.

Open Site Explorer Settings

  1. Show ‘followed + 301’
  2. Links from ‘only external’
  3. Pages to ‘pages on this root domain’
  4. And ‘group by domain’
  5. Press Filter

Open Site Explorer - Blogger Backlink Analysis

Step 3: Looking Within Your Prospect’s Community


Yes, digging into each website’s space (and all the website’s that fit within this group) takes a great amount of time, but once you come across a website or blog that fits the bill of what you are looking for, a lot can be gleaned from their blogroll. Odds are that the people that are listed on the blogroll or commenting on their posts have similar blogs. Also, getting one member of the blogger’s network to commit can be used as leverage when reaching out to other members of the group.

Social Media Search Engines

This is a newly developing area in my prospecting process, but it’s definitely worth a mention. Twitter is a great resource for listening in real-time to members of your different website types. Let’s say that you have an idea of different phrases that people are going to use to refer to ‘urban agriculture’ online. You can use Twitter to search for your keyword to see if people really are using these terms when talking about relatable topics online.

Now that Twitter has been around for a while, social media search engines have sprouted up to help you qualify the keyword search results that you get from different influencing metrics. Three of our favorite social media search engines include Follower Wonk, HooSaid and Social Mention.

I) Follower Wonk

This tool allows you to search Twitter bios for different keywords, and then prioritize by each Twitter profile’s metrics (influence, total tweets, number of followers, etc.). As mentioned above, I like to test out my campaign keywords to see if this is really how people in the space are referring to the topic.

Using my urban ag example, I started out by testing three keyword phrases: urban agriculture, urban farming and sustainable agriculture. The first two phrases had comparable results, but the third phrase, sustainable farming, had more than double the amount of profiles returned. This makes sense because ‘sustainable’ is much broader than ‘urban’. Even though sustainable is a broader term, this doesn’t have a negative impact on the results returned, and I would consider adding ‘sustainable agriculture’ to some of the advanced search operators that I set up for the campaign.

I would also add any qualifying prospects from the list below to a Twitter List, possibly named ‘Urban Agriculture’ or “Urban Farming Supporters’ in the client’s Twitter account. In the outreach phase, Twitter serves as another medium for contact (alongside email, blog commenting and ToutApp). You can use your Twitter list as a way of priming your prospecting for outreach by engaging (via RT’s, @mentions or @replies) with their Twitter accounts before launch or during the life of your campaign.

Follower Wonk: urban farming

Follower Wonk: sustainable agriculture

II) HooSaid 

With HooSaid, you can drill into Twitter profiles by searching by category, keyword, hashtag (e.g. #WhyAmINotAtCoachella) or stumble. The benefit of this site over traditional Twitter search is that profiles do not have to specifically mention your keywords in order to show up in returned results. Instead, HooSaid has developed it’s own algorithm to determine what keywords are relevant to each Twitter profile, and they’ve coined it ‘PageRank for People’.

HooSaid: sustainable agriculture
Note: HooSaid’s search results are not in real-time, whereas SocialMention results are.

III) Social Mention 

Simply put: Use Social Mention for real-time search across an aggregated amount of social media sites (including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Digg, etc.). A plus is that they let you narrow search results by the medium where the keyword is found.

Below, I’ve done a hashtag search for #urbanfarming, which is only going to return Twitter results. Now ‘4% strength’ isn’t insanely high, but based on the Twitter profiles that are using this hashtag and the content of the tweets themselves, I’ll add #urbanfarming to my list of appropriate hashtags to use in tweets for this infographic campaign.

Social Mention: #urbanfarming

SocialMention - urban farming hashtag

Step 4: Automating Your Link Building Prospecting Tasks

As pointed out by Bencken, there are certain parts of link prospecting that could be done by a robot link builder, like finding site backlinks, scanning pages for contact information or searching for websites based on keyword queries. Below are a few query generators that take a keyword and run automated link searches to find opportunities for different link types (resource lists, content exchange, blogroll, link exchange, etc.). All of these tools are highly recommended in the industry, but in my mind, Ontolo is synonymous with query generators.

BuzzStream Link Building Query Tool

Step 5: Prioritizing Your Prospects for Outreach

As I search within each website type category, I’m using Raven Tools Firefox Toolbar to view page metrics (like MozRank and Domain Authority), and then I queue each qualifying prospect. Below is what the settings looks like for a new contact within Raven Tools.

Raven Tools Firefox Tool

Now I love, love Raven Tools, but a co-worker of mine (named Gary) recently brought up a valid point: In the Link Manager portion of the tool, there’s no way to prioritize links based on various site metrics (like mR and DA). Instead, queued sites are shown in the order (recent to oldest) that you added them to Raven Tools.

This hasn’t been too big of an issue for me, because when I’m prospecting, it’s within one ‘website type’ category at a time, and since those links are added at the same time, they are grouped together within the Link Manager. So, in some ways, my work-around to prioritizing by page metrics is to assign each queued contact to one of my pre-defined website types for the campaign, as each website type has a unique priority level.

If you want to organize priority further within each website category (based on something like mR), then it will have to be done in a Google Doc or Spreadsheet outside of RavenTools.

Up Next: Outreach and Scalable Relationship Building

The five steps of my prospecting attack method might sound like a lot of work, and honestly, it is! These link prospecting processes are time consuming by nature, and while some of your tasks can be scaled, sometimes the best links are found the old fashioned way.

I have found that if you ask the average link builder where they spend the bulk of their time, the answer will either be: link prospecting or manual outreach. The mix of manual search with automated tasks, as well as “dialing in” to what is happening in each niche (via Social Media) in this approach is designed to find the people your content was created for. Thus the extra time that you spend learning and qualifying websites in link prospecting phase will pay off in the form of reduced efforts and more success in the outreach portion of your campaign.

That being said, this is what is works for me. A link builder’s toolset is always expanding, and I would love to hear from others about tools (like Scrapers or Ontolo’s wide toolset) that you are using, or different ways you’ve achieved link prospecting triumph!

Share with Your Colleagues: