The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
In SEO and digital PR, there is a lot of discussion surrounding how and why brands need to close backlink gaps in order to rank high and be competitive in the SERPs.
But what about tackling competitive SEO from the opposite direction by creating link gaps?
In this post, I’ll share a framework that we use at JBH to help us create hyper-niche and relevant digital PR campaigns that will earn links on sites where our clients’ competitors aren’t found, and highlight the strategic importance of creating these gaps for SEO success.
What are link gaps, and how do we find them?
On a very basic level, a link gap is the difference between the sites linking to multiple competitors, but not to you.
It’s really easy to discover these sites by performing a link gap analysis (using a tool like Moz’s Link Intersect Tool), comparing the backlinks you have to those of your competitors. At the end of your analysis, you’re left with a list of websites you should try and earn a link from — this is called closing the link gap, and is common in most SEO strategies.
Closing link gaps makes a lot of sense. For example, if someone is linking to a site in a particular industry or vertical, it’s likely they’d be keen to link to a similar site. And if your competition is ranking well, then you’d expect those links to be contributing to that.
But if we flip that theory around and start to think about creating backlink gaps as opposed to closing them, then we become more proactive in our approach to link building, as opposed to simply reacting to the competition.
Create link gaps in competitive industries with an audience-first mindset
If you’re trying to earn or build links for brands in very competitive industries, it can be tempting to follow the competition and simply copy their link strategy to prove you’ve done everything you can. I’d like to share a different approach, and it involves thinking audience-first rather than backlink first.
The idea behind this technique is to generate links from sites that are:
For this technique to work, we still need to have a good understanding of the competitor link landscape. By using Link Intersect, we can see where our competitors are focusing their link building efforts. We’ll red flag that information in our strategy and do something completely different.
For most industries and sectors, there will be “business as usual” topics that their PR teams might use to generate coverage and links.
A personal finance brand might talk about how to get the best exchange rate on travel money
An alcoholic beverage brand might share some recipes for summer cocktails to enjoy in the garden
A car insurance brand might warn drivers not to wear flip flops when driving in a heatwave
These are all interesting and relevant subjects, but they are not going to achieve the unique links for the purposes of creating a link gap between you and your competitors.
Case Study: How we identified niche link targets for a well-established brand in a competitive vertical
For an established brand in the UK holiday industry, the objective was to earn links from entirely new referring domains, as well as create a link gap between them and their competitors.
The initial link gap analysis highlighted that there wasn’t much difference between the key players. As they were all well established brands in the vertical, all brands had earned backlinks from the usual and expected outlets, so we spotted a really great opportunity to develop a new link gap.
Identify new audiences by asking the most important questions
As mentioned above, instead of thinking “link first”, we take a step back and think “audience first”. We have to step into the shoes of our audience, and to do that, we create a checklist of questions to help frame our thinking.
For the UK holidays brand we wanted to know:
What drives them? What are the passions and interests of our intended audience?
What makes them tick and click? What actions do the audience take before and after using your product or service?
What do they care deeply about? Their close family and friends? Finances? Pets?
Problem solving? What do the audience need and what problems does your product or service solve?
Once we answer all of the audience questions, we have a solid starting point to pinpoint those niche audiences.
Using a mind mapping tool like MindNode, we can then get to work on expanding out those primary and secondary audiences:
These audiences will look different for every industry, but it’s easy to see how each of the audiences we identified might be interested in booking a holiday in the UK.
Let’s take “work from anywhere” as the primary audience to explore first. If you’re a freelancer who works primarily online, it’s likely that you’ll be able to work from anywhere with a decent internet connection. So, taking a UK holiday whilst working at the same time is an option and therefore relevant to the audience.
But who else can work from anywhere? Here, we can also identify four secondary audiences who could also be targeting our content:
The results of this audience-led approach to digital PR
Following this approach, over a third (35%) of the links that JBH secured were from completely new referring domains, and (at the time of writing) none of the brand’s competitors had links from those domains either, proving that an audience-led approach to digital PR can put space between you and your competitors.
It makes sense to do this before we start to create any content, as we’ll assess:
Quantity of sites: Are there enough sites to target?
Quality of sites: Are the sites high enough quality?
Topics of interest: What conversations are trending and can we add value to them?
Targeted by the competition? Have our competitors got links on here yet?
Will they share our content? Is it likely they will take content on an editorial basis? We don’t want to target any sites who require payment for coverage
Searching manually with Google
This technique is old but gold, and it’s probably the most effective way to find new sites to pitch your content to. We search for terms relevant to the audience we’re looking to target, and make a list of the sites that pop up, noting down journalist/author names, the domain authority of the sites, any similar content, and how likely they are to take content from us.
Top tip! Drill down your settings in Google’s tools. Try changing the country or changing the “last published” date to see more sites in the search engine results.
Discovering similar sites
Download a free tool called SimilarSites from Chrome’s web store. When you find a site that looks perfect for the niche audience you’re targeting, click on the extension to be shown a list of sites that might also work. Simply add them to your outreach list to use later.
There are plenty of other prospecting techniques you can use to find link targets, but you should now have a list of relevant publications that may be interested in your content – it’s time to start thinking about the type of content you could share!
Content ideas for niche link targets
How boundaries can help
It’s worth mentioning at this point that having boundaries for brainstorms can actually make this part of the process much easier.
In 2006, a team of architects wanted to study how having a fence around a playground would impact children and how they play. They observed children playing on a playground surrounded by a fence and compared it to children playing on a playground without the physical boundary of a fence. They found a striking difference in how the children interacted with the space.
On the playground without the fence (1), the children gathered around the teacher and were reluctant to explore the space. On the playground with the fence (2), the children explored the entire playground, feeling more free.
The study concluded that the boundary (in this case a fence) made the children feel more at ease to explore and play.
We can draw parallels with this. By providing some boundaries and a specific problem to solve, we can actually improve the creative process.
“The three Rs”: A framework to develop content ideas for niche link targets
The content ideas we produce need to resonate with our niche audience, so we need to get immersed in the topics they care about. And there are some unique and perhaps unexpected ways we can do this. Before you start thinking about creative content, ensure you follow the Three R’s:
Reddit – join subreddits related to the audience you want to target – Reddit is the front page of the internet and it’s likely you’ll find your audience there
Quora – discover the questions your audience want to know the answers to
Facebook Groups – joining very audience specific groups lets you see the genuine conversations that the community are having
Buzzsumo – discover the topics that are trending and getting tons of engagement and clicks on social media
Google Alerts – Set up alerts for keywords and phrases surrounding your identified topics ie: work from anywhere
Google Trends – Check to see if any topics are experiencing a spike in searches as this can highlight the popularity of trends
#JournoRequest / Response Source / HARO – Keep an eye on the type of requests that journalists are making to see if they match the style of content you’re planning
Audience — would my client or brand’s audience be interested in this content?
Authority — is my client or brand an authority on the subject? Could they be interviewed about it?
Keywords — does it contain keywords that we want to rank for, and do we have a page on the site that makes sense to link to?
Newsworthiness — will journalists care about what we are saying? What are we adding to the conversation?
A strategic approach can give you the competitive edge, but it’s all about the set up
It is so easy to get carried away chasing the tail of your competition, but with this approach, you’ll begin to create content designed specifically for niche audiences that creates beneficial gaps between you and your competitors. Remember, there’s no better link to build than one that the competition doesn’t have yet.
This afternoon, HubSpot announced it would be making cuts in its workforce during Q1 2023. In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing it put the scale of the cuts at 7%. This would mean losing around 500 employees from its workforce of over 7,000.
The reasons cited were a downward trend in business and a “faster deceleration” than expected following positive growth during the pandemic.
Layoffs follow swift growth. Indeed, the layoffs need to be seen against the background of very rapid growth at the company. The size of the workforce at HubSpot grew over 40% between the end of 2020 and today.
In 2022 it announced a major expansion of its international presence with new operations in Spain and the Netherlands and a plan to expand its Canadian presence in 2023.
Why we care. The current cool down in the martech space, and in tech generally, does need to be seen in the context of startling leaps forward made under pandemic conditions. As the importance of digital marketing and the digital environment in general grew at an unprecedented rate, vendors saw opportunities for growth.
The world is re-adjusting. We may not be seeing a bubble burst, but we are seeing a bubble undergoing some slight but predictable deflation.
Kim Davis is the Editorial Director of MarTech. Born in London, but a New Yorker for over two decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space.
He first wrote about marketing technology as editor of Haymarket’s The Hub, a dedicated marketing tech website, which subsequently became a channel on the established direct marketing brand DMN. Kim joined DMN proper in 2016, as a senior editor, becoming Executive Editor, then Editor-in-Chief a position he held until January 2020.
Prior to working in tech journalism, Kim was Associate Editor at a New York Times hyper-local news site, The Local: East Village, and has previously worked as an editor of an academic publication, and as a music journalist. He has written hundreds of New York restaurant reviews for a personal blog, and has been an occasional guest contributor to Eater.
Happy customers love to share their experience, but sometimes they need some encouragement to do so. The cool thing is, once they do, they become even more loyal to your brand.
So, at this stage of the Customer Value Journey, ask people to share their positive experience with your brand by writing a review or sharing a social media post.
Once you get to stage seven, the Customer Value Journey is going to get a whole lot easier for you. This stage is all about learning your customer’s experience, and building up your testimonial database.
The most important part of this step is asking these four questions.
What Was Your Life Like Before Finding Our Solutions? What Challenges Were You Facing That Caused You to Consider Us?
These questions are great not only because it gives you some really good stories, but because it gives you some insight on how you can provide similar prospects with that AHA moment. Understanding the average day of your clients is important in reflecting on your Customer Value Journey, and helps you understand what really set you apart from your competitors.
What Key Features Had the Biggest and/or Fastest Impact?
Not only is this going to get you to really specific stories, you will understand the specific things you provided that gave the biggest impact. The answers to these questions will not only give you great insight and testimonials, it will provide you with ideas for new lead magnets. This part is a new Entry Point Offer goldmine!
What Has Been the Impact or Results in Your Life or Business Since Using Our Product or Service?
This is a fairly broad question, and that’s why we put it after the others. You will have already gotten all of the specifics out of the way with #1 & #2. But when you ask this question, this is where you get the most valuable stories. You can use this part as testimonials, as an order form, as a sales page, this part is testimonial gold.
If You Were Asked to Justify this Purchase to Your Boss or a Friend, What Would You Say?
This is our favorite question by far. If you had to go back in time and justify this purchase, what would you say? I promise you what we’re going to find is a lot of great ideas for the jobs that your product or service has done. You’ll get a lot of great ideas for your core message canvas. This question is about backfilling all of the assets that you may not have. Here you’re going directly to the customer who are already happy, and using their justifications to help you sell to new customers.
Hopefully you now understand just how valuable the Advocate stage could be, as well as the key questions you need to ask to get your customers talking. Here’s how it works for our example companies.
When it comes to fashion we all love to show off our outfits. So a good example for Hazel & Hems would be to have customers write reviews for a discount code or points towards their next purchase.
Better yet, follow up with the customers to ask them to share and tag themselves wearing the items in a social media post and providing them with something valuable as a reward.
For Cyrus & Clark Media, hopping on zoom meetings or a streaming service for live talks about them and their business could generate valuable awareness for them, and a live case study for the agency. They can use the questions Ryan provided during this lesson to conduct the interview.