5 Lessons From 111 Emails

Email outreach is a staple of link building that the SEO industry swears by. And while it seems pretty straightforward on the surface, there are quite a few not-so-obvious roadblocks that might prevent you from succeeding at it.

Back in 2016, I wrote an article titled “I Just Deleted Your Outreach Email Without Reading. And NO, I Don’t Feel Sorry.”

People loved it.

That post was born out of my frustration with lousy outreach templates. I felt sorry for both the people sending and receiving them. So I went ahead and offered some common-sense advice on making your outreach emails look less like SPAM and more like legit emails.

I know for a fact that my article has helped many people improve their outreach emails and get quality links to their content. But after re-reading it five years later, I have to admit that it’s missing some critical advice.

So if you’ve tried acquiring links with “perfect” outreach emails and it didn’t work, you’re about to learn why.

Link outreach experiment with a 17% success rate

Recently, I set out to acquire some editorial links to my beloved keyword research guide. To save some time, I hired an agency to find the prospects and prepare a project in Pitchbox. From there, I manually reviewed each prospect and made minor tweaks to the outreach template to personalize each email.

These were the results:

  • ~200 link prospects manually reviewed
  • 111 emails sent (with a 41% response rate)
  • 19 links acquired
  • 14 offered a “deal”
  • 3 said “no”

My outreach campaign results in Pitchbox

Based on feedback from my SEO friends, a link acquisition rate above 10% is considered a decent result (when you don’t pay for links)—let alone 17%.

And I know what you’re thinking. The only reason my results were so good is that I had the Ahrefs brand behind me.

True. But to be honest with you, I was actually hoping for a 20%+ success rate because:

  • I had a high-quality resource to pitch (it was based on data research and first-hand experience)
  • I had the Ahrefs brand and reputation helping me out
  • I had a list of carefully selected link prospects, and I manually reviewed each of them
  • I had a well-written outreach template (this one is subjective, though)
  • I added a fair bit of personalization to each email

Given all that, why would people NOT give me a link?

Well, here’s why:

Lesson 1. People won’t read your “quality content”

In a recent Office Hours hangout, John Mueller, Search Advocate at Google, suggested that a Google-friendly way to acquire links is to “[create] content that you know will attract links” and “[reach] out to other sites” to let them know about it.

Sounds straightforward enough, right?

Well, the article that I pitched is one of my best pieces of content ever. When I shared a TL;DR version on the /r/BigSEO subreddit, it got nearly 80 upvotes and a silver award (which I made sure to mention in my outreach email for the sake of social proof).

And boy, this post attracts links! In the last 30 days alone, it has picked up “followed” links from 15 legit DR50+ websites with 1,000+ monthly search traffic (no email outreach involved):

In other words, I had a decent example of “interesting content that I know will attract links” (as described by John). So how much did that help me in acquiring links to it?

The only way I can judge that is by the number of compliments I received in response to my outreach emails. And I’m afraid I barely got any.

A rare compliment about the article I was pitching

I got a strong impression that none of the people I reached out to read my article. I’m pretty sure they only skimmed through it at best before replying to my email.

And I can’t blame them. Would YOU stop whatever you were doing and read a 6000+ word article that some random person pitched to you in an email asking for a link? 

I wouldn’t.

So, if all of these people didn’t even read my article, how did I get links? 

Well, the quality of my content allowed me to create a compelling pitch and give the other person the confidence that they will be linking to a quality resource without the need to read it. Because no one wants to link to garbage, right?

So what makes your content great?

  • Wrong answers: length, details, images, etc.
  • Right answers: unique ideas, new research, experiments, the amount of work that went into it, etc.

But even with a highly compelling pitch, you will soon discover that most people don’t care about your content. Maybe they’re too busy, or the topic is no longer of interest to them, or they don’t think that a random person can produce anything worthy of their attention.

Let’s take a closer look at this last one.

Lesson 2. Your brand and reputation are a MASSIVE help

While I barely got any compliments for the article that I pitched, quite a few people complimented me on the work that we do at Ahrefs and the quality of the content that we publish:

And that is how we got the majority of our links—from our fans.

I didn’t even need to work on a “compelling pitch” to persuade these people that my article was awesome and deserving of a link. They’d seen our content before and loved it. So they immediately trusted that the article I pitched was just as good. 

In other words, our strong brand and reputation seemed to have more influence on peoples’ decisions to place a link to my article than the quality of the article itself.

But what is a “strong brand” if not a consistent output of high-quality work that people enjoy? Ahrefs’ content team has been publishing top-notch content for quite a few years on our blog and YouTube channel. Slowly but surely, we were able to reach tens of millions of people and instill the idea that “Ahrefs’ content = quality content”—which now clearly works to our advantage.

So if you create a truly outstanding piece of content and people ignore your outreach emails, keep creating more awesome stuff and promoting it to more people. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”

But no matter how big and reputable your brand gets, there will always be people who haven’t heard of you or who just don’t care.

Here’s how to deal with them.

Lesson 3. People need a good incentive to take action

So I had a high-quality piece of content and a solid brand behind me. But for quite a few people, that wasn’t nearly enough to give me a link. 

And I totally get where these people are coming from. I’m sending them a cold email and asking them to edit their article as if it is somehow incomplete without a link to my post. As that’s rarely the case, this can sometimes come across as mildly insulting. 

The truth is, my link outreach email is nothing but a request for a favor—no matter how hard I try to hide it behind my carefully selected arguments. And when was the last time you did a favor for a total stranger whose email landed in your inbox? Let me guess. Never?

I think it’s perfectly reasonable that you have to give something before you get something. Just one problem: giving pretty much anything in return for a link is considered a link scheme by Google—which can get you in trouble.

So what do you do with such replies?

Well, I don’t think there’s a way to win these people over and get a free editorial link. They’ve clearly decided that they want something in exchange, like money or a reciprocal link.

Paying for links is never a good idea. If someone readily agrees to exchange money for a link, they would probably link to almost anything as long as they’re getting paid. This kind of behavior creates a detectable footprint, which will sooner or later get picked up by Google and lead to a “link selling” penalty.

From there, all websites that the website has linked to will get red flags as suspects for buying links. Get enough of these red flags, and your website will get penalized for buying links.

So if you’ve purchased a few links and your positions in Google went up, don’t celebrate just yet. It might take a few months (or a fresh link spam update) for Google to penalize you for it.

As for “link exchanges,” they aren’t that bad, actually. We studied the frequency of reciprocal links a few years ago, and 73.6% of domains (in our sample size of 140,592) had reciprocal links.

Furthermore, 27.4% of the sites had at least a 15% overlap between the sites they link to and the sites that link to them.

In other words, it’s pretty common for websites to link to each other. So a legitimate link exchange between two valuable resources is unlikely to be flagged by Google as suspicious. 

What really gets you in trouble is promiscuous link exchanges with random low-quality sites, resulting in ugly shoehorned links which bring zero value to your visitors.

All in all, it’s always better to stay on the safe side and ignore people who want to strike a deal with you. But if someone pitches you a high-quality resource that perfectly fits your content, exchanging links with them shouldn’t hurt your website.

Lesson 4. To get more high-quality links, you’ll need more high-quality link prospects

There are two main methods SEOs use to find link prospects:

  1. Look up pages that have linked to similar content by competitors
  2. Look up pages that have mentioned relevant keywords

The former is usually a bit more challenging than the latter. 

If someone is already linking to a competitor’s page, your chances of persuading them to swap that link to yours are pretty low. What often works better is trying to convince them to mention your content alongside your competitor’s content (especially if yours offers a new perspective)—but this is still quite hard to pull off. 

A far more effective strategy is to look for pages that mention something covered extensively on your page. 

I have an awesome page about X, which you’ve talked about in your post.

…is a much better reason for reaching out than…

I have a better page about X than the one you’re linking to in your post.

And there’s no better way to find these pages than with Ahrefs’ Content Explorer.

For example, there are over 180 THOUSAND pages in its database that mention the phrase “mechanical keyboard:”

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the internet, 80%+ of these pages are junk and come from sites that aren’t worth pitching. That’s why you need to apply some filters to narrow down your list of prospects to the very best ones.

Here are the settings you can start from:

  • Domain Rating: 30–90
  • Website traffic: 500+
  • Words: 500+
  • Language: English
  • One page per domain — Checked
  • Exclude homepages — Checked
  • Exclude subdomains — Checked
  • Live & Broken — Only live
  • Filter explicit results — On

These filters take our prospect list from 180K+ pages to just 2,268 of the very best ones. That’s still a lot if you’re sending outreach emails manually rather than automating the process, but you can always play with the filters until you arrive at the number of prospects that’s right for you.

Applying these filters to my target keyword—“keyword research” —resulted in 9,482 pages. And even if I limit the publish date to the last 12 months, I still get nearly 5K link prospects.

But I previously said that I only had 200 link prospects collected by the agency. How come?

The number was so low because their primary method of sourcing link prospects was to search Google and scrape the top 100 results. But shortly after learning about the functionality of Content Explorer, the agency folks told me that this tool is now part of their standard link prospecting workflow.

But that’s not all. You can also set up email alerts for when Ahrefs finds a new piece of content mentioning your target keyword. 

There aren’t as many filtering options here as you have in Content Explorer (for now), but this alert is still incredibly useful for discovering fresh link prospects on autopilot.

Lesson 5. Your outreach template is only as good as your content

While sending those 111 emails and repeatedly re-reading my outreach template, I kept trying to think of some irresistible reasoning or primal-reptilian-brain triggers that I could use to make my emails more persuasive.

I didn’t conceive of any. 

It might be that I’m not smart enough, or it might be that such things do not exist.

Either way, I have a theory that most of your link prospects already exist in one of the following three states before you even reach out to them:

  • State 1: They’re happy to review your pitch and consider linking to you
  • State 2: They want a “deal” no matter what
  • State 3: They will ignore you (bad timing, generally unresponsive, etc.)

And no matter what you say in your email, you’re probably not going to change your prospect’s original state.

Yes, in some rare cases, a witty personalized email might indeed melt a person’s heart and make them link to you for free—even though they usually prefer to strike a deal. But that kind of personalization takes a ton of effort and doesn’t scale well.

So there’s no need to agonize over perfecting the copy of your outreach template. Those subtle edits that seemingly make it better don’t make that much of a difference. Just keep it brief and to the point, and you’ll be good.

On the other hand, a poorly written outreach template can easily change a person’s state from being open for a chat to completely ignoring you. I’m talking about those pesky outreach templates that follow the same old beaten framework:

These kinds of generic outreach emails go straight to the SPAM folder. So the further you deviate from that format, the better. To stand the best chance of outreach success, you should aim to answer one simple question in your template: 

What makes your piece of content unique and link-worthy?”

And there’s no way to give a compelling answer to this question without compelling content in the first place.

So, in the end, your outreach template is only as good as the piece of content that you’re trying to pitch.

Link outreach is hard

Let’s briefly recap what I shared in this post:

  1. People rarely care about the quality of your content unless you have a solid brand to back it up.
  2. Even with a strong brand and a killer piece of content, many people will ask for a “deal.”
  3. There are hundreds of thousands of potential link prospects at your fingertips, but the vast majority of them are just SPAM (which will waste lots of your time if you don’t filter it out).
  4. There’s no magic template that will turn your outreach campaign around. Your email pitch is only as good as your content.

Let’s face it, acquiring free links with email outreach is incredibly hard. But it doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up in frustration and refuse to do it. 

You should strive to create more noteworthy content, promote it in every way you can, build your reputation, and network with interesting people from your industry. The more you do that, the easier email outreach will get for you.