Hiring Help: Characteristics of a Winning Link Builder

Not everyone can be a great link builder.

Sure, you can teach people the steps to take, but you can’t teach them how to have swagger. There are innate characteristics that are extremely difficult to teach – I mean, how can you teach creativity?

It’s survival of the fittest in the link building world, so if you want to stand out or create a winning Outreach Team, you need to consider these building blocks for success.

Why This, Why Now?

We recently ran a content poll on Distilled’s twitter page asking what you wanted to see more of on our blog. The overwhelming response was for link building tips – how to build sustainable, white hat links in a world of Pandas and Penguins.

I’m here to answer that calling, but you need to walk before you can run. Thus, I’m bringing it back to the basic building blocks of a killer link building strategythe team.

Hiring in and of itself is difficult. However, hiring for a role that is much more dependent on the person than the skills is even tougher. Any role within an Outreach Team is highly dependent on the person, because the team’s successes are built on its members’ ability to influence people at scale. So while there are soft skills (which I’ll mention at the end) that can make for an exemplary candidate, there are other less obvious clues you should look for when building a team.

So what do I mean when I say “it’s about the person”? My good friend Justin wrote a post a year ago on what makes an effective link builder, and Lisa Barone wrote hiring tips for growing a link building team. I think both of these hit on a lot of really important attributes to look for when hiring, ranging from skills to personality traits.

However, when I refer to the person I am taking one step back and focusing on the more intangible characteristics, the characteristics that need to be mastered in order to rake in the wins. Here at Distilled we hire for people, not skill sets. The philosophy is that you can be taught skills, but it is a lot more difficult to build innate personality traits. Plus, a lot of these winning core competencies enable people to develop skills that will help them excel in the future.

So unless you’re ready to dive into a emotional and psychological training intervention, here are the characteristics you should hire for when creating or growing an Outreach Team. For each, I’ll describe the trait and give you examples of how to look for them in the hiring process.


Incessant Curiosity

Put another way, sleuthing needs to be a natural tendency for an epic link builder. I can’t tell you how many times I see new link builders give up on a potential link partner too quickly. These types of people will inevitably miss opportunities without even knowing it, and since no one can be constantly monitoring what their link builders are doing, how are you supposed to know about every missed opportunities?

Essentially, you need someone who constantly asks why? Someone who always wants to know what’s going on one level further and loves the thrill of the hunt. Someone who doesn’t easily take “no” for an answer, who will follow the bunny hole to figure things out (within reason – not saying someone who is easily distracted).

Let me give you an example that I come across a lot. You often see new link builders giving up easily when looking for contact information. They will go to the contact page, maybe the about page, and if they don’t see anything they will give up and move onto the next one.

Someone who has that curiosity bug will not stop there. He’ll start looking for other cues, such as bylines, footers, and even going to social media profiles or Google to do a quick site:linkedin.com DOMAIN search. While he’s doing that, he might find that the owner of this site, who he originally thought was a ho-hum blog owner running house out of his basement, is actually an editor for Wired magazine.

Zing – this prospect just went to a whole new level of awesomeness. The other link builder would have missed this, and in doing so missed the opportunity to connect with an editor of Wired.

How do you spot this? When interviewing for our new Outreach Team, Rob Ousbey and I came up with a plan to give a little ol' test.

This test had a few different steps, but one of them was asking the candidate to find a blog to outreach to. As they did, we’d ask them questions or make requests to get a better sense of how they think. One of those requests was, “Find us a contact person for this site.”

Okay candidates would quickly go to the contact page, find the info@domain.com email and call it a day. A great candidate would find you the exact person to contact and her personal email – which wasn’t even listed on the site.

I’ll never forget when during his interview, James Daugherty (now dubbed Jamazing) unluckily landed on a blog where the owner was in serious incognito. He was stumbling through the website trying to find at least a name, but this owner had gone operation Deep Throat. Then out of nowhere, between profusely sweating and mumbling, he decided to go to the blog’s twitter page and through some slick maneuvers figured out his name.

So bottom line, this person could moonlight as a personal investigator.


  •  Devise an interview test that is intended to be challenging, but not impossible. Look for how easily the candidate gives up.
  • Seek candidates that ask a lot of questions.
  • Ask an interview question that looks for a time the candidate met adversity, but overcame it. You’re looking for those examples that show they didn’t take no for an answer.
  • Note the level of enthusiasm when a candidate is describing a process. This can be a good indicator of the "thrill of the hunt” characteristic.


 A “Fix It” Mentality

This is where that “not taking no for an answer” characteristic turns into an invaluable tool. This person constantly has his eyes peeled for opportunities to make things better, not only for himself, but the team as a whole. He’ll be your resident handyman, able to spot the weaknesses in a process and develop ways to make your team more efficient.

Let me highlight an example of this. Our resident “Link King“, Rob Toledo, recognized the scaling opportunity that guest posting newsletter Blogger Link Up presented. He wanted to see more resources like that, but he wanted to be able to control the process.

Rather than just wish away, he created an email group of fellow Outreach professionals where they could all share guest posting contacts. The site owners loved this because they were getting more quality content. The Outreachers loved this because they had direct access to new guest posting opportunities, allowing them to score more wins immediately.


  • Look for examples of when the candidate took ownership of improving a process for no other reason than they thought it’d be helpful.
  • Ask interview questions that have the candidate take you through how they’d make a process better. Look for enthusiasm and a “fix it” thought pattern.


Personal CRO

This is a phrase I penned to describe a “fix it” mentality that focuses on personal development. You spot this trait in people who are extremely ambitious, who sincerely want to be better at what they do.

I also use this term when describing agility, as I think it’s essential for link builders to fail fast and learn from their mistakes. A good example of this in practice is the Outreach process. Some link builders will keep reaching out to site owners with a failed approach. The reasons for failure are infinite, ranging from a failed angle to an email tone inconsistent with what the site owner is expecting.

A link builder who embodies personal CRO will take initiative and try countless different methods, coming up with his own way to figure out the key to success. Craaaiiigg Bradford is a personal CRO pro. He’s constantly G+-ing about a new personal development book he’s read, or tweeting about a new [method | tool | resource] he either discovered or hacked. For example, he recently recommended using Übersuggest as a way to come up with article ideas in a tough niche. He wanted to be better at idea generation and so he figured out a way to do it with no direction.


  • Ask the candidate about a time he/she made something better. Chances are it will throw most people off guard, but those that this comes naturally to will excel.
  • Discover a time the candidate failed at something and what they learned from it. You’ll see if they take all failures as a learning opportunity.


Sweet Talker

This term usually has a negative connotation, but it is essential to being a great link builder. The key difference here is being exceptionally tactful, versed in persuasion but always sincere.

This is arguably a skill over a characteristic, but I’m grouping it with the latter because it is extremely difficult to make sure this candidate walks on the right side of the fine line between a BS-er and someone with a gift for influencing people. If you’re having trouble envisioning this, think of the smoothest sales person you’ve ever met – because essentially all link builders are salespeople. They are just selling an idea rather than a product or service. To put it frankly, I’ll say here what I recently told a client:

Adria Saracino thoughts on link builders

I have to give props to Lexi Mills for being a pro sweet talker. She can hold a conversation with a stone – she is just so personable and endearing. I've seen her single-handedly get coverage over 165 times for a client in only a few weeks of Outreach. While she has many wins under her belt, I'll never forget the time we were working together on promoting a creative piece that was failing. Despite being extremely busy and knowing this piece wasn't the best fit for her contacts, she bit the bullet and managed to score coverage on the front page of an extremely popular foreign newspaper.


  • Ask the candidate to sell you something. If they can sell you an idea with little information, they can probably sell more with the proper tools in hand.
  • Look for experience that plays into this strength, such as in sales, debate, PR, and/or persuasive writing.


Soft Skills to Look For

Like I said, a lot of these can be taught. However, if you are wondering what soft skills will help a link builder become awesome faster, here is a list of skills to look for when hiring. If a candidate has the characteristics above plus these, consider it a done deal.

  •  Project management experience
  • Near-obsessive organization
  • High-level editorial experience - preferably journalism
  • Basic knowledge of HTML
  • Beginner SEO knowledge (caveat: beware the need to un-train incorrect SEO habits)
  • Confidence wearing multiple hats
  • Impeccable attention to detail
  • Enthusiasm for working on a team
  • Self-learner

What has your experience hiring link builders been like? Do you have any other characteristics to add and ways to test for them? If you are a link builder yourself, how have these characteristics helped you become better?

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