Don’t Link Like You’re Not Impressed – Interview with Jon Cooper

26 Minute Read | Interviews

A lot of people wanted to see Jon Cooper from Point Blank SEO speak at SMX Sydney 2014 (I put the question out to Aussie punters and asked: “Who do we want to see?”). So I teed up an interview with the link building extraordinaire after it was official…

We’d initially arranged to do the interview on the eve of SMX Sydney just before a dinner organised by James Norquay at Phillip’s Foote, however, jet lag stepped in and kept Jon out of action until a little later into the dinner. This allowed me to mingle with a few other Aussie SEOs, Cyrus & Jen from moz as well as cook a steak to my own liking on the restaurant’s self-serve barbecue (if you’re ever in town, check it out!).

Woj Kwasi interviews Jon Cooper (@PointBlankSEO)Photography credit: Karthik Vijay

On the way back to the conference hotel, over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we were able to chat and re-schedule a time for the following day. Jon burst onto the scene in 2011 when he founded Point Blank SEO, and his top quality content about link building quickly earned him a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. He’s made a name for himself by being genuine, building brand ambassadors and generally doing “real company shit”. Now, get comfortable and get ready to scroll!

Woj: So, I’m here in Sydney with Jon Cooper, a.k.a. Point Blank SEO, all the way from Tampa, Florida. How was your flight?

Jon: It was okay. It was quite long, 15 hours from LA to Sydney, but I made it 🙂

Woj: Yeah. So, were now into day one of SMX Sydney, how’s the jet lag?

Jon: I feel much better. I slept through yesterday’s interview LOL, when we were supposed to do the original, so that helped. I’m doing good now.

Woj: So, Jon, you’re quite young, but quite the seasoned campaigner, you could say… and nearly 21! This means that you’re actually of legal age here in Australia. So is there anything you’re going to do to make the most of it, before you go back to the States? Any crazy plans?

Jon: I don’t have any crazy plans. There’s things I can do here, as opposed to the US, but it is nice to walk into a bar and order a drink, and not have to worry about flipping up my ID. So it’s convenient 🙂

Woj: I noticed you started in March 2011, which was a couple of months before we started. It’s been three years but it feels like a lot more. It’s like you’re a veteran in the scene, and one that I’ve followed for a while. How does that make you feel? Obviously, you encounter a lot of the actual veterans in the space. How do you feel authoritative in this space being so young?

Jon: Yeah, that’s why I started blogging in March 2011. I kind of didn’t take it too seriously until the beginning of 2012, which was when I relaunched my blog. Things kind of went from there.

But knowing that a lot of people have been doing this for a lot longer than I have, knowing that a lot people have seen the same things recur over time, you’re just a lot less questioning of things from the Older Guard, I would say.

Just trying to understand that and trying not to be too assuming, whereas I’ve seen some new SEOs try to attack some of the older folk. It’s just not productive, and a lot of times I would say the Older Guard is usually right on some things.

But I know, I feel like I’ve kind of fit in with the industry pretty well early on, and getting adjusted was probably easier than I might have thought.

Woj: Was it met with any sort of resistance from the Older Guard in the beginning at any point?

Jon: Not really, just because I wasn’t really going after anything, to where someone could tell me that I couldn’t. I mean, like for clients, they came my way. I wasn’t approaching any clients.

Because most people knew who I was up front, and they came to me looking for services. I didn’t have to battle with telling them some things that they probably found out pretty quickly. So, just because of that, and because I wasn’t really too aggressive with trying to build a huge agency, or similar, it wasn’t really a problem.

Woj: Okay, cool. I read in a post you did for Koozai that in regards to your beginnings you said, “when I caught a wave, I rode it”.  How important is it to take full advantage of the opportunities you get presented? Like in this case where you made real world connections with the eyeballs that were checking out your stuff?

Jon: Yeah, yeah, I’ve definitely had situations where I see opportunities, but I’m not too eager to go after them, just because I think they’re always going to be there. In the case of this blog, I was pretty passionate about SEO, and there were some opportunities to take advantage of certain industry trends (like Panda & Penguin popping up) to where I could have said, “All of this stuff is still going to be there in a year and people are still going to have the same problems” but a lot of times, they do go away. It is a window of opportunity, and you’ve got to make the most of it as soon as you can.

So, if you feel like there is something you really want to do, but you think that you’ve got all the time in the world to do it, the thing is, a lot of times it’s not the case because I know that in a lot of spaces that’s just not going to be there tomorrow. When, for example, a more competent competitor comes to the space, or whatever.

So that whole concept of trying to take advantage of things in a moment is important, because they’re not going to last.

Woj: Yeah. You also said you focus on monetization last, and you build brand evangelists. How important is that to success?

Jon: Yes, that was more for my blog. Obviously, for most of you who might have an e-commerce site, or some type of affiliate or lead-gen site, monetization is not something you can leave until last because you don’t want to find out at the end that you can’t actually make money off it.

But for my blog, since I was doing it mostly out of passion, it ended up turning into something. I wasn’t thinking about the money up front, and that’s why it kind of opened up some opportunities.

I honestly was genuine about all my quests. It was more so to learn and to meet people then to actually launch a training course that I’m selling on my blog.

Woj: Yeah.

Jon: And also, brand ambassadors are huge. If you can manage to connect with a certain group of people who want to promote it as much as you do, you can multiply your work force, you know, beyond just one person by doing that.

Woj: So it’s like an extended sales force in some ways.

Jon: Exactly. And finding those people is not always the easiest thing to do. Finding the right people is really difficult, but if you can manage to identify the people in the space who heavily promote others, and try to target them, you find yourself being able to multiply your promotion efforts pretty quickly.

Woj: There was a Mozcon presentation that Tom Critchlow did that was just one slide. And he basically talked about tapping into someone else’s audience and writing for one person. It’s kind of one of the pillars. So I’d like to talk to you about a connection between humour and creativity. But first a couple of online marketing jokes, if I may.

Jon: Go ahead.

Woj: So how much does a hipster weigh?

Jon: How much?

Woj: An Instagram.

Jon: Aaah, that’s good.

Woj: And, where is the best place to hide a body?

Jon: Where?

Woj: Page two of Google.

Jon: LOL. I think I’ve heard that one before. That’s a classic.

Woj: I think humour and creativity are paramount. They’re a couple of our key values we have at Kwasi Studios. Tell me about some examples of how humour and creativity have helped your personal life, and also your work life.

Jon: I don’t think I really come across as very humorous in a lot of the comments that I write. Like even in my presentation, the one I’ll be doing today, I really don’t intertwine humour much with my stuff.

Which is funny, because I’d say I’m a pretty outgoing guy and someone who is usually trying to make people laugh, but it’s something I haven’t turned into my stuff too much. But I have witnessed a few brands recently that have really done that effectively.

There are a couple of really cool brands you guys should check out. The first one is Moosejaw. They’re an e-commerce site; they sell outdoor equipment, and they do a great job of combining humour and creativity.

It’s evident throughout every single touch point that you have with that business (every single email, even down to the packaging of the actual product). They just have some very humorous and very creative things that they do that really help their branding.

Moosejaw PackagingImage Credit: Oh Hey, no Way!

Woj: I love the way MailChimp does that, as well.

Jon: Yeah, MailChimp’s another good one. Woot, which was acquired by Amazon, I think they were a little better before they were acquired by Amazon. But, in general that idea of combining those two things is where I found that you can really build a voice for your brand that actually can compete with some of these juggernauts. I found it to be effective.

Woj: Yeah, cool. I notice you are a tremendous fan of Anchorman. 

Jon: Ah hah, indeed..

Woj: Did you see that Slideshare that Gary Vaynerchuk did? It was on how they smashed it with their multi-channel marketing for Anchorman 2.

Jon: And it was themed as an Anchorman?

Woj: Yeah.

Jon: Oh my gosh, no I haven’t. But I just realized, I should probably do that for my own presentations. But if Gary already did it, then, never mind, but, oh man!

Woj: Hehe – OK, on to link-building. Do you think anyone can link-build? Because I personally think there’s a set of relationship, marketing, or outreach skills one should develop before. Otherwise it’s like randomly walking up to a stranger on the street and asking to be friends. What are your thoughts?

Jon: Well, link-building is important for the majority of sites but by no means should you be building links to every site. And that comes down to a couple of things.

The first thing is, there are spaces where building links manually is not going to give you the kind of ROI that you want. For example, if you are a tech publication, building links manually would be difficult, just because of the nature of the content that you’re writing. Like trying to get, for example, links to news posts about technology, where would you start building the initial news posts?

But also, with the content itself, you can usually build links in much greater number, just by kind of taking a link-attraction approach, which is doing things that would make people want to naturally link. There are a lot of factors in that.

But I will say that most marketers have really tried the whole concept of naturally attracting links, and even “earning links”, as some like to say. They have found that it’s hard. It still doesn’t even make sense for a good portion of sites.

For example, any type of really competitive space, like petty loans, insurance, gambling, things like that. You try naturally attracting links to content that’s actually going to move the needle, like, good luck.

There are rare cases where it does work. But overall, you’re going to find that some spaces, for some specific types of clients, for different types of budgets, and whatnot, are going to take a different approach to “How much should I be building links versus how much should I be focusing on hopefully attracting links?”

Woj: Yeah. That’s something that I’m going to question further down the track. A lot of commercial websites don’t have useful content, therefore rendering them un-link-worthy, or non-link-worthy. But I guess you need to have some sort of resource to link to. So what are some fundamental steps a business can take to make their site link-worthy?

Jon: Link attraction is made up of a number of things. First of all: visibility. If you’re quick-selling then great. Nobody sees it, there is no way you can actually have any types of results on it, because if no one is looking at it, there is no way they can actually link to it.

There are just some other factors, including the type of audience you have. If you’re writing a blog post that is targeted at webmasters who have the ability to link, versus targeting content towards plumbers, who very rarely have access to a website. And if they do, they very rarely work it themselves. It just differs for them.

But making your site link-worthy is interesting, because if you really analyse naturally-occurring links, there are a lot of different reasons why somebody might link. You know, in your example of having commercially-driven sites that don’t have any useful content, that doesn’t actually mean they can’t attract links.

For example, bigger brands like Nordstrom have the kind of trust that people will naturally link to their category pages, just because. It doesn’t have to mean that their category pages are super helpful. But they’re going to link to it because it’s a trusted brand.

Whereas in other cases, you might need to create a category page that’s inherently useful, that includes a lot more content-driven initiatives to make it linkable, not from a trust perspective, but just from a value perspective. Just understanding all different angles that people link and why they link will help you realise what’s going to be the angle that you go after.

Woj: Yeah, right. You recently wrote a post revealing your scaled link-building campaign process from start to finish. Like many of your resources, it must have been a tough thing to put together; especially considering it’s an internal process. What made you decide to finally publish?

Jon: I actually spent three days on that post. The day it was published, I posted it at 9 a.m., my time, and I actually ended up going to sleep at 11 a.m., after that, because I’d pulled an all-nighter.

Part of the reason why I wanted to release it at that point was because I realised a couple of things. The first thing is, if you give away something for free, it’s a lot less likely that people are going to actually put it to use. The main drawback I had was I didn’t want to give away something that was too helpful, because that is my secret sauce. That is how I make money, and I don’t want to give away stuff that has taken me quite a while to learn.

But I realized that if I give away this stuff for free, people are going to be less inclined to use it. There are studies that have shown that if you give away information, and people pay for it, they are a lot more likely to actually put it to use because they want to see a return on what they just bought. With free content, people don’t do it. It’s just a psychological thing.

I realised that less people would actually make use of it. Buzzstream just released this really cool feature that really expedited a truly-scaled process that I found. Once that was released, I really wanted to tell some people.

Woj: Was that the Chrome extension?

Jon: Yeah, it (BuzzStream Buzzmarker) allows you to do stuff in the browser itself. So between those two things and that there hadn’t been a post on my blog for a little bit it just felt like good timing.

Woj: So how long did it take you to put together the complete link-building strategies guide?

Jon: Initially, that took me 20 to 25 hours, which I think was actually kind of small, considering. But I’ve made numerous updates to it over time. I’m on version 3.0 at this point. I’ve added some new tactics and took some away. So over time, it’s probably amounted to, I’d probably say, close to 100 hours at this point.

Woj: Oh, wow. And what about the course?

Jon: The course, similar time. It was initially created about a year and a half, almost two years ago, now. And I’ve made some gradual updates. I’m actually going to push some new content to it pretty soon. But that’s taken less time, just because the course is really nested in a lot of fundamentals of link-building, a lot of things that are really going to stand the test of time.

With specific tactics, you know, some things might come and go, so I’m having to make updates. But with this course, I was able to kind of add a lot of things that will stand the test of time. But I’ve made some small tweaks over time, and I continue to make small tweaks. But it serves as a starting point, instead of really getting nitty gritty on like which tactics are going to work in X industry, which is why I can post it.

Woj: Well thanks for putting all those resources together. We’ve found them really useful, and it’s a good reference point, as well, for anyone in the link-building process. It doesn’t matter what knowledge level, even new staff members coming on board, people who aren’t familiar with the whole concept of link-building. I think it’s a really simple guide.

Jon: Yeah, thanks.

Woj: I’ll definitely drop some links on the post.

Jon: Yes, links. I like links.

Woj: That’s your middle name, isn’t it?

Jon “Links” Cooper: Yeah. LOL

Woj: Okay, so I guess, it’s all about making sites customer-centric these days. That’s the main concept behind inbound marketing, also the idea behind our tagline, which is “websites for robots and humans”; to make sites for both search engines and people. How much conversion-rate optimization do you do?

Jon: I don’t do a whole lot, just because the majority of the work I do is strictly link-building, and for the sites that I’ve been building lately, in the last year, year and a half, well they’re not large enough to do conversion-oriented work.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t read up on it. I mean, it’s something that is more like one of my personal hobbies. It’s something that I see a tonne of opportunity in for some sites to really improve conversions and take full advantage.

Woj: Okay, and now we have a couple of questions from the staff. Question 1: For a client with a smaller budget, would you say it’s best to work on a whole bunch of small link-building ideas? Or clump the hours together for one large tactical approach?

Jon: I guess it depends, based on what that large project could be. It’s something you’d want to quantify up front. 

One guy in recent memory, just by doing some manual outreach to resource-type pages, was able to net a couple hundred linking root domains. That’s good considering the average conversion rate for email outreach is 5 to 10%, at best. So he just saw a tonne of prospects to where he knew that if he created a guide on a topic of interest, it would be pretty obvious he could get quite a lot of links to it.

Other times, you might find that there isn’t really one type of content project that you could create, that you know for a fact could net those kind of numbers. And therefore, some of those smaller ideas might work better.

Also, just smaller ideas, in general, help you diversify things. Whereas, if you’re trying to focus on a big content project, it’s got to be solid. Having all your link-building initiative go towards one page, no matter how great that page is, it’s just not as diverse. I think you can get more value out of less links, but to a wider range of pages.

Woj: So, say you have a client on small amount of hours per month, all spent on outreach and you get zero links as a result. It’s tough to show the value that you’re actually getting from that outreach. So yeah, I guess the nature of our question is, “Do you focus on the smaller tasks? Try to go as far as you can, or do you focus on a big project over a span of three months?

Jon: Yeah, again, it might just depend. If you’re not having much success in the first month or two doing some smaller things, then you might find that there’s not much to be had here anyway, so we might as well take a shot. Do your best to quantify the opportunities up front. I’m actually going to be talking on that for the presentation today.

Jon: Honestly, for smaller clients, I think you’re going to find enough opportunities to do stuff, just by looking at your competitors, and some indirect competitors, and just trying to pick out the same links that they have (especially in those kinds of low hours).
Because sometimes that process up front might be 40 or 50 hours in the first month, for a regular-sized client. But you can kind of spread that out over four or five months for one of the smaller clients.

Hopefully, at the end of those four or five months, they’re doing a little better. They’re going to have a little more budget, and then you do some things where you can actually test out a big-content project. It’s just that different situations call for different actions.

Woj: Okay, question two: There’s talk about Google potentially not considering links as one of their ranking factors. Should we still be building links?

Jon: LOL No, everybody should stop building links. Essentially stop, let me. I’ll just take one for the team and build the links… LOL There are so many people who desperately want links to go away!

A couple of weeks ago there was a Webmaster video and somebody asked him (Matt Cutts), “If Google isn’t factoring our links, will links go away?” They were basically prodding him to say “yes”, so that everybody can blog about it and say, links are going away.

He started off that question that was leading him to say, “Yes, they are going away” by saying, “I still think they have many, many years left in them.” If Matt Cutts is saying “they’ve got many, many years left in them”, as much as he hates links himself, and link-spam, which he is actively fighting, that means something.

It means it’s still the basis of their algorithm. Sure, signals are added and so everything is kind of diluted, and it’s affecting us, and while links will slowly trend down over time, they are still the basis of the algorithm. As much as some people might want them to go away, it’s still how Google crawls the Web.

That’s the best way to actually do it, from Google’s perspective, because that is like an environment that they call their own. They kind of look at Twitter and Facebook as more of a social platform because they don’t own it. That is not their domain. That’s why they wanted to invent Google+ and try and make it successful, whereas the Web in itself, they control it all and they basically treat it as their own.

Woj: Yeah, which is rough and it makes it hard for everyone else, especially Bing and some of the others, like DuckDuckGo and the other search engines out there. So why AHREFS, as opposed to Majestic or Open Site Explorer? Why is that one your preference?

Jon: I prefer, personally, AHREFS. I think the other two definitely had a time and purpose. I think Majestic is right there with AHREFS. I don’t really see AHREFS as too significantly better. I do see it as evidently bigger than Open Site Explorer (just because the size index is pretty poor compared to the other two & I find that to be the biggest need I have for a link research tool).

And it doesn’t mean you can’t use all of them. There are tools where you can combine all of them into one report. But if you’re doing quick things, and you want to analyse things on a really rapid basis, you’re trying to view a bunch of prospects, get some metrics, look at a lot of competitors all at once, AHREFS has a lot of features in their dashboard, their web-based dashboard, that I feel are much better than their competition.

Like it will let you view new links, and also sort that down to just one link per domain, and be able to see the context of when the link was placed. Like you can see the words around that link in their dashboard, so you can see the conversation that was leading up to that link.

There are a lot of really small features. Another thing you can do is look at pages on the domain that are 404ing. So you can plug in some big university domain and easily sort those top pages. Sort the top-linked to pages by status codes (by 404s) with Screaming Frog, or something like that.

Woj: I haven’t done a single interview yet where Screaming Frog doesn’t get a mention – so yeah, Dan.. you make a killer product!

Jon: Yeah, crazy.

Woj: What are three Twitter accounts that you follow religiously?

Jon: Myself, first of all LOL. I’ve started to follow quite a lot of people, and it’s kind of hard to get through the clutter. One guy I’ve found who has always been a really solid guy is Ross Hudgens.

He’s probably one of the first people I looked up in the industry, as someone super-smart who knows exactly what he’s doing. And he’s still tweeting some great stuff on a regular basis.

Woj: He was good at mozcon last year 🙂

Jon: Yeah. And another guy who is pretty smart is Ryan McLaughlin. He runs an SEO shop out of, I think Austin, Texas. I believe it’s Austin, Texas. I’m sorry if it’s not. He’s one of the guys I feel has really come on in the last couple of years. He’s adding a lot of value to all these conversations. He tweets some pretty helpful stuff.

A third: Wil Reynolds. He’s another guy in the industry a lot of people know about. I see him tweeting out some good stuff, but a lot less frequently. Sometimes the people who tweet less frequently are trying to narrow it down to stuff that matters.

I’m trying to think about other people, I haven’t thought of anybody who really caught my eye. But I would say that Ross, Ryan, and Will are very solid.

Woj: Yeah, cool. In the interview with Paddy Moogan I did last year, he mentioned you on his Ultimate Link-Building Squad. So who do you think are some of the top link-builders in the industry? And you don’t have to say Paddy; he’s probably not listening.

Jon: Yeah, Paddy sucks, LOL! No, no, he’s great; he’s great. He mentioned me; he’s awesome. Great link-builders in the industry? Guys to follow? Jason Acidre.

Woj: Kaiser the Sage?

Jon: Yeah, yeah, he’s really smart; he really gets it. Garrett French, another guy, really on top of his game. Eric Ward, one of the first guys to do this stuff.

Woj: Yeah, I like their “Ultimate Guide to Link Building” book.

Jon: Yeah, I contributed a chapter to that.

Woj: Oh, did you?

Jon: Yeah.

Woj: Oh, I haven’t come to that chapter yet. Have to read it now. Right after we do the interview.

Ultimate Guide to Link Building - Jon Cooper Chapter

Jon: It’s my “strategies” post.

Woj: Oh, really?

Jon: That was it basically. I rewrote it and re-formatted it for that book.

Woj: Oh, cool.

Jon: I was going through a bookstore the other day, and it was there in the bookstore. And I was just like, “I’ve finally made it.” LOL No. But, Eric, Garrett, Jason… Brian Dean has really come on of late. He runs Backlinko.com. He’s sharing some great stuff on a regular basis.

Some of these guys, including me, just kind of don’t share a lot of stuff on a real regular basis anymore. But Brian has definitely picked up where a lot of others left off. So he’s another guy you should really pay attention to.

Woj: Cool. Now finally, I ask this question to everybody I interview… How many links could a link-builder build, if a link-builder could build links?

Jon: As many as he wanted.

Woj: Nice.

Jon: Take that.

Woj: I think Mike King said “All of them”.

Jon: That’s good.

Woj: Well, thanks for your time, Jon. I really appreciate it. I look forward to your talk this afternoon.

Jon: Yeah. I’m glad I didn’t sleep through this one, as well.

Woj: LOL. Yeah, thanks, Jon.

I gained a lot of insights from hanging out with Jon during his time in Australia (I think he learnt that if he sits in the front row at a conference he’ll get called out a lot :)), and strongly recommend you do the same if you get the opportunity. He’s very knowledgeable about all things SEO and link building, and his content is a fantastic source of reference to us. If you still have energy, please leave your thoughts and feedback below!

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