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?

Adria Saracino

Adria Saracino

Adria is a content strategist responsible for understanding consumer behavior and developing strategies that influence purchasing decisions. She joined Distilled in October 2011...   read more

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  1. A very insightful post Adria, and I can concur that outreach and link building can be incredibly tortuous. One of my clients is an incredibly difficult niche and I often have to do outreach to very high pr sites to move my clients link juice needle. One of the things that I did was to get the link prospects to come to me, I convinced my client to make their product (digital download so effectively no cost to the client) free to those who were prepared to link to the clients website. Their enquiries would come to me, success rate of links was very high because these guys were motivated and wanted the product in return. Just last week I scored a PR8 link from a high trust (educational establishment), being creative really does pay off.

    reply >
    • Hi Tahire, thank you for your kind words. I really like that idea and I think is a great example of a "fit it mentality" that our Outreach Coordinator Rob Toledo demonstrated.

      How did you handle the communication of getting a link when they came to you? I am always very cautious on how I present this. I'd never want someone to go back and say "so and so from Distilled is making me link to them to get this, buying links!" as we all know what bad press that can bring. I'd be interested in hearing more of that process. Really like this idea and it is an example of how providing useful content is going to bring in links, not simply asking for them.

  2. Amy Rabinovitz

    Adria - this is a GREAT post and the guidelines are very smart.

    Perhaps the one thing you skipped by too briefly is the person should always be involved in some ongoing learning (yes, tied in with curiosity and self-learner). The best people in any marketing discipline today are those who have an urge to learn new things AND are able to communicate what they are learning in a concise, applicable way to others.

    Thanks again for your thought leadership on this.

    reply >
    • Thanks for your kind words, Amy! And you're right - ongoing learning is so important. I must have thought the example of Craig demonstrated that, but I agree in could have used elaboration...maybe its own post entirely!

      What is some advice you have for actioning ongoing learning? I can think of some like workshops, reading, conferences, etc. but would love to hear your thoughts on it as well.

  3. Brandon

    Awesome post Adria! I love the contact info test, that's a great one to see how people react or how easily some might give up

    reply >
    • Thanks Brandon! Ha, yes the test was pretty interesting. It showed a lot about the candidates, sometimes being the make it or break it determining factor. Though I will say be really nice and present it casually, because people get SO nervous with unexpected tests. We were really just asking them to play around on the Internet, could imagines what it'd be like if we told them to show us how to create or solve something, geez!

  4. Maya

    And I always thought I was nosy...it turns up that I was an effective link builder.
    Any advice on us who have all the necessary qualities but lack "near-obsessive organization"

    reply >
    • Maya, being nosy is never a bad thing a as a link builder :) I've found that organization is very difficult to avoid when you are doing large scale link building. How do you currently keep your contacts and efforts organized? I talk a bit about the organization and workflow we use here at Distilled in my moz post a month or so ago, do you do anything like this with Excel sheets or a 3rd party platform?

      (scroll toward the bottom and look for the Excel embed): http://moz.com/blog/definitive-guide-to-qualifying-a-link-prospect-video

  5. Kinjal Pathak

    Wonderful post Adria! I liked the part where you mentioned about 'Incessant Curiosity'. I believe every link builder should have curiosity to learn new seo tricks. Thanks again for sharing this post.

    reply >
  6. Thanks for sharing Adria.
    If looking for a link builder in the Philippines, there are so many candidates that all sort of look the same (talent-wise of course). I will have to refer to this post to help me pick out the great from the average.
    thanks again

    reply >
    • Glad to help, would love to hear more about how you narrow it down when outsourcing overseas. Do you have a standard interview process you use? Hopefully some of those questions can help.

  7. Great article!
    It's worth mentioning that a lot of these characteristics/traits/skillsets are similar to those found in successful P.R. account managers. I've often wondered why there isn't more synergistic effort between PR firms and SEO outreach teams, as the goals often overlap. Case in point: "[Lexi] bit the bullet and managed to score coverage on the front page of an extremely popular foreign newspaper." In her case, she was seeking the inbound link, but mentions/impressions/coverage for some brands via public relations has similar levels of difficulty.

    You often meet up with PR pros in "social media marketing" circles. This is understandable, as they see those who've acquired audiences and communities as a way to get branding buzz. I've talked to many PR pros who see SEO as a technical, shadowy aspect of the web marketing business, an online-only search-centric field--maybe they'll think about "optimizing" the press release and embedding a link or two. Many of these firms have little to no insight into the PR-level efforts that outreach coordinators/link-builders undertake on a daily basis... Nor do they realize how potent an alliance this could be. I'd say successful outreachers/linkbuilders could adapt PR skills and be quite successful at a PR firm in a short time.

    I guess it's up to us to let them know, huh? :)

    reply >
    • Brian, I love that we're on the same page here! This is something that Lexi and I are constantly working on - educating clients and our followers about the overlap between PR and Outreach. We do a lot of training for PR teams to help them infuse link building into their efforts, which we find surprising isn't standard. We both are working toward the same goal, we just specialize in different audiences. Lexi is invaluable in knowing how to pitch journalists, while our Outreach team excels at connecting with bloggers. So having PR and Outreach teams that work collaboratively is essential. A lot of times you are working on such synergistic campaigns that it is SO easy to add a win for the other team's goals. If a PR team is doing event marketing, it should be leveraged for links. If an Outreach team is promoting a charitable content piece, PR should leverage the branding benefits of that and get in front of journalists. We're one in the same, so I am so happy that you are on the same page!

      What do you find to be the biggest roadblock with working collaboratively between the two teams?

  8. Thanks Adria, this was very helpful for me, in Colombia SEO industry is not web developed yet, so I had to teach so many things to the people in the team. But, I notice something that it doesn't matter how much techniques I teach them, there are skills that people need in your personality. As I say often, SEO is more marketing, people in link building need more sales skills that any other one.

    Best regards from Colombia.


    reply >
    • Glad this was helpful, Jhon! And I apologize you had to go through the process of realizing skills can be taught, do you agree with the traits I outlined or do you have more that you noticed helps a link builder excel?

  9. Great article. I used to work for an SEO firm that was primarily link builders. None of them had the qualities or attributes specified in this article. Creativity? No way. The most creative strategy they had was to outsource link building once they exhausted their weak list of low quality directories. Oh well!

    reply >
  10. Hi Adria,

    Great post. I guess i have been working in SEO from last 5 years and now i have quite potential to find out which links are best for you and i consider myself as a good link builder. i know there are still many thing which i have to learn but only practice can make a man perfect and the more you do SEO, More you will learn.



    reply >
  11. Our websites are quickly becoming too much work for only me and my partner to handle but the prospect of outsourcing seems so daunting to me. Thank you for a great article. You have given us much food for thought.

    reply >
  12. Maya

    Well, for what it's worth I always took pride in my abilities...but to find a job that requires the qualities I have...I must be on to something. I can't wait to see where I'll be in 10 years :)
    Anyway, I do oganize, mostly by google docs (spreadsheets etc.), but it's not impeccable and the example of your spreadsheet really helped. Mine had also SCHEDULED and LIVE columns (sometimes page rank), it has also tabs organized by niche and by clients. But I'll implement your advice as well.
    I always thought that being organized and creativity don't go together?
    Wanna publish my article on your fashion blog? :))))

    reply >
  13. Great insight in hiring new staff Adria, how about a follow up article or comment on best practices / real world examples on link building and how it can be used with PR.

    For example if you are running a local windows and doors company serving a regional area in the UK, how can you get quality links, as it's not the most engaging of subject areas, and usually gets a bad reputation.

    reply >
  14. thanks adria for suggesting me about this useful stuff on how to run effective link building campaign. I really impressed with your "Soft Skills to Look For" is one the important aspect marketers should care to hire the one they look for for their link building process!

    reply >
  15. Very insightful! I love posts like this. Not only is it highly informative, but it is also directly actionable. I definitely plan to add these into our interviewing process.
    Thanks for giving up the goods!

    One question: with personal CRO and fix it mentality, how do you ask them about a process they improved and something they made better without the two questions overlapping? Or can those be asked as one?

    reply >
    • Thanks Spencer! Glad to help, I find the interviewing process to be difficult to assess an individual if you don't ask unique questions with specific goals. The two questions about personal CRO and the fit it mentality do overlap, so we usually go with one or the other. Or we might keep one to ask later if the person's answer to the other one wasn't satisfactory :) Out interviews are typically very organic and flow through some questions and not others depending on the answers. Hope this helps!

  16. Hey Adria,

    I've tried a range of link builders from local seo guys to full on seo agencies. In the end, I realized they are going to say a lot! But, it's the results that matter. So I just usually give someone a try and then go from there :-)

    Thanks for the helpful post!

    reply >
  17. Ed

    It's interesting to see the traits and degrees of talent that you consider when hiring at Distilled. Your interview tips and hiring advice certainly veer towards the fresh, buzzy and ambitious elite who present themselves as the latest up and coming marketers.

    It begs the question ~ what value can you place on any one individual linkbuilder (or inbound marketer)? Whilst there's no 'I' in team (afterall, holistically - agencyside the team gets the stuff done as a collective - sometimes in packanimal fashion) it surprises me that the article above left out what could be considered quite a crucial aspect. A persons 'contacts' and their relations with these. Is this often a large part of the hiring process? - Good quality connections and relationships gets the job done seamlessly - to quote MogMartin at the Distilled Linkbuilding Seminar in 2011 - "Get yourself an army!"

    At what point does a linkbuilder cease to become a linkbuilder? When or how can they mature to evolve into a community manager or key influencer? Can a linkbuilder reach the stage where they can literally name their price?

    (Slight tangent: I'm not sure if there has been a post published regarding the directions, steps or levels one can achieve whilst soley pursuing a progressive career in linkbuilding? Maybe Eric Ward would be one to interview about that? )

    My conclusion is that, like link prospecting, hiring outreach personnel is a subjective process - the skills and demands are all dependent on what the client have - what they don't have - and what they need.

    Needs can often be met, so I agree - it's also important to find agile and flexible people who can adapt to the fast changing climate of the SEO industry. Those dynamic enough to see where the scene is going and act in advance.

    BTW - @Maya That's a cool attitude to take ~ I wonder who's still around in 10 yrs?
    Did you get your cheeky post? lols

    reply >
    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think having relationships to bring into a role is a bonus, but not mandatory for hiring. Especially if you're hiring green, discriminating against people who may have a natural knack but not had the opportunity to do anything like this before seems unfair. I agree with the whole "at what point does a linkbuilder cease to be a linkbuilder" because I think outreach in general is more than just link building - like you mentioned it could be a key influencer, community manager, business developer even. For example, could a person who is just a mere "link builder" score guest contributions on some of the most elite publications? Most likely not, they need to either have their own or borrow influence (say from a client) to even be considered, barring they don't know anyone.

      Like the discussion you added here, thanks again!

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