What It’s Like To Run A Link Agency

Even though we’ve seen massive shakeups in the link building world lately, links are still what a lot of clients want. Link building is our main business (so that’s lucky for us) but when we have quoted projects where link building takes a backseat, no one is interested. Due to excessive client demand, more and more SEOs (and people with zero experience who see the chance to get in there by doing something that honestly does not require excessive knowledge) are getting into links. In many cases this means that they say they build links, but in reality, they outsource that to someone like us. In some cases, it’s a lot of idle talk from people who think that it’s easy work and stop doing it after they get a proper link building job. In other cases, we’re hearing a lot of chatter from people who don’t have any real link building clients.

I am here to tell you that link building is a practice, not a theory. It’s maddeningly tedious work and I never intended to run a link agency, but hey, here I am, and I do quite love it. I just don’t like to see something so difficult and painstaking become glamorous because I don’t think that it’s an honest portrayal of the reality of working as a link builder or running an agency.

For example, there’s the issue with my own beliefs and opinions vs keeping people employed. I’ve turned down one client due to thinking that what he wanted me to promote was extremely unethical, but I also take on clients that might bother someone else but don’t happen to bother me. We are extremely lucky to have enough work to keep all of us employed but if I lost half of my revenue, would I take on a client like the one I turned down, if it meant keeping all of my people employed? He’s a bad example as what he does for a living is something that I consider to be life-threatening behavior, but let’s say I didn’t believe in the politics of a certain group (like the Republican Party.) If they offered me $10k a month and the alternative to taking that client was firing 4 link builders, I’d like to think that I would take it. It would make my dad happy at least.

Managing an agency like this is also quite different to doing the link building itself, as I’m lucky in many ways that my days are not spent chasing link targets. However, the idea of not having to bear the responsibility for all of it is quite appealing at times. I have a great office manager and some seriously kick-ass staff, but I still can’t truly turn off when I go on vacation. Clients still email me, people still have questions about their hours/need time off/want my opinion, and the buck definitely stops here. I’ve worked for people who would throw me under a bus to make themselves look blame-free but I’m not that kind of person, which means I usually stress out over just about everything. I’m the one a client will bitch to if they hate what we’ve done, and I’m the one who will lose money if they refuse to pay. I’m the one whose reputation is screwed if I really mess up.

How much to educate? How to recruit? These are tough questions. We don’t hire experienced link builders because, well, we’ve never actually interviewed anyone with link building experience. We train everyone in-house and everyone gets the exact same basic training whether they go to work for our link team or our content team. Some of them are interested in SEO, some of them don’t give a crap. As long as they perform to the standards we’ve set for each person, I truly don’t care. I LOVE it when someone expresses an interest in SEO though, and I love answering their questions and seeing them get excited about something that I feel quite passionately about, but I also understand that to some people, a job is just a job. Recruiting, when we work this way, is also a bit tricky as it’s hard for us to know what to look for until the person walks in the door and talks to us. Sadly, we aren’t a profitable enough agency where I could offer a competitive experienced SEO salary, but hey, why would anyone like that want to crank out link requests and write guest posts all day? Our hiring, even though I complain here and there, is one of the things that I am happiest with, as while I could not lay out what it is about a person that makes me want to hire him or her, I just kind of feel it.

And ah, all that extra time for me to spend researching since I have to keep 20 people plus the clients informed…yeah that is fun. Honestly, it IS fun, but it’s a lot of work. If a client calls my mobile and asks about the latest update that was just written about 30 minutes ago, I better know about it. If we do anything that gets totally devalued by an algorithmic update, I need to put the brakes on asap and regroup. I sometimes spend 75% of my day reading articles, talking to other SEOs about things, or writing (and doing my best to make sure no one else has just written the exact same thing.)

Being responsible for the brand when I am not the only one controlling it is also problematic at times. I’m very lucky that this is not a current issue but we’ve had clients who worked with other agencies for various things (including different types of link building other than what we were doing) but when rankings dropped, guess who got blamed? That’s right. We’ve been blamed, we’ve had clients leave in a huff, and we’ve had to figure out problems caused by OTHER people working on the accounts. It’s hard enough to figure out where you’ve gone wrong, but figuring out where someone else did…that’s a serious pain, and it eats up loads of time.

Lest you think it’s all sadness and rain here, I will say that running an agency is still something that I love. At its worst, it’s still not as bad for working for someone else who’s a total jerk. I recently had dinner with a friend and former colleague at a place where we used to work, and she said that she had no idea of how bad that place was until she was free of it. It was honestly like an abusive relationship where you later wonder why you let that guy smack you around. If our kids have a school performance, we’re there. If we need to do something non-work related on a Friday, we can do it (although we usually pay for it Saturday or Sunday nights) and that is very important to me, having children and a dog and a cat and a rabbit and chickens. Something is almost always going wrong somewhere, and if we had to work a strict 9 to 5 M-F schedule, there’s no way we could survive. To me, all the hard work pays off. It’s just not easy. We’ve made massively stupid decisions, had horrible tax issues our second year (due to not knowing what we were doing the first year), had personal financial stress because we’re self-employed and even though the company does very well, we’re still SELF-EMPLOYED, which seems to kind of screw you in the eyes of some banks. (I’m not sure how that is any worse than working for a company where you have no say and can easily be fired, but whatever.) None of us have formal business training (actually one of my employees is about to get her MBA so I may hassle her a bit more) but we’ve learned as we’ve gone along, and we’re still learning.

If that’s the kind of life you want, go for it…just don’t underestimate what it takes to succeed and to stay successful.

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14 Responses to “What It’s Like To Run A Link Agency”

  1. Paul May says:

    Excellent post, Julie. One thing I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur is that there’s no way you can understand all of the stressors and challenges you face until you live them yourself. I absolutely love running a startup, but there have been a number of times over the last four years that I’ve felt pushed to my limit.

    Regarding your hiring “feel.” I think that this kind of intuition is really just pattern matching…i.e., you have a natural ability to analyze/size up people and you’ve seen enough of what works and doesn’t work to be able to identify the pattern quickly. The challenge I’ve had is when I’m hiring for a role that I haven’t hired for before and that I haven’t done myself. I’ve made a lot of bad hires in these situations. I’ve moved to a much more structured hiring approach for these hires that has helped me do a better job of screenhing…there’s a great book that outlines a methodology for this called “Who” by Geoff Smart.

  2. Julie Joyce says:

    Paul!!! Thanks for the comment…I’ll have to check that book out. Are there any explosions in it? Any Danish cops solving decades-old crimes?

  3. Paul May says:

    Yeah, and good sex scenes too…everything you could hope for in an HR book.

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  7. Jon Payne says:

    Great post here Julie! I think running any sort of agency (SEO, marketing, PR, etc.) well requires that the owner/manager is passionate about what they do, and the type of person who is really intrinsincly motivated. Sounds like you fit that to a tee!

    Question – you mentioned that you have never interviewed a link builder who had actually built links prior to joining your firm… so then what are the top 2-3 skills or qualities that you look for and that you think can paired with a little training to make a good link builder?

  8. Julie Joyce says:

    Hi Jon, and thank you! That is a fantastic question and it’s hard to give an answer that doesn’t make me sound like I am a member of a drum circle that enjoys Enya. I truly just get a feel for a person honestly. If I interview someone who has a sense of humor, who can look me in the eye (that one is VERY important to me) when we’re talking, and who just seems like a creative thinker who is also a hard worker, I’m usually very into hiring that person. I can tell you things that I don’t like, too…the aforementioned eye thing (seriously, if someone can’t look at me when he or she is talking to me, I can’t deal with that for some reason), total lack of humor (we are funny people, trust me), and a general blah attitude. Link building is amazingly hard work and if someone gives me a vibe that says “I’d rather be sleeping” then I don’t expect that person to be around long, so why risk it?

  9. I could never bend on principle. I’m a staunch conservative and if anyone in the Democratic party came to me for help, I would rather have to fire employees than work with them. I wouldn’t be able to sleep or live with myself knowing I’m helping a group that is against everything I believe in. What kind of example would I be setting for my children – that money is more important than your principles? There are just some things that are more important than work, business, money, etc. and a person’s core principles are one of them.

    Travis Van Slooten

  10. Julie Joyce says:

    Hi Travis,

    You’d seriously rather fire people than work with someone who isn’t a member of your POLITICAL party?

    Glad you’re proud of that fact.

  11. No. That’s not what I’m saying. I would rather fire people than help promote a group of people who’s values aren’t in-line with mine. I specifically said if the Democratic party came to me and needed my help marketing them I would tell them no – regardless of how much money they were willing to pay me. I have no problem working with people who are part of a political party. In fact, almost all of my clients are hard core liberals. My comment was specifically about the Democratic party and whether or not I would work with them if it meant keeping employees or firing them. You said in your post you WOULD work with the Republican party. I’m simply saying I wouldn’t.

    Travis Van Slooten

  12. Julie Joyce says:

    Well I suppose we all have our limits…

  13. Julie,

    I love your honesty. My company has had and is going through many of the same challenges. One thing about growth that I learned from the CEO of constant contact – you afford the luxury of passing on clients and firing the clients you have that are holding you back. I do my best to take on nothing but A clients. If you have a enough of these, life is great!

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