Organizing Link Development – Raven Tools Review

At every conference I’ve ever done a link development panel at, an attendee always asks during the Q and A, “What tools do you use for link development?” and my answer has always been the same, “I don’t use tools.”

I hate change and resist “new technology” as ironic as that may seem given what I do for a living…

That’s right. I’ve always been a spreadsheet girl doing things by hand. And after all, Raven is an agency tool, right? It produces all sorts of pretty reports that you can use to explain search engine optimization and ranking progress to clients.

I’m an affiliate marketer at the core. And the only person who needs to know the progress of the MFE sites is me – and analytics and revenue keeps me aware of that progress.

But MFE has gotten bigger. Our listing of sites has expanded over the years and we have a ton of “cooks” in the kitchen when it comes to link development. It’s easy to send an email to one of my employees saying “hey, request these five links I found” and that email getting lost in the shuffle – with no one remembering to request those links or check to see if they’ve been obtained (or subsequently lost).

In short, I realized I had to cave. We needed a way to manage links that everyone in the office can access so that we can all keep up to speed with what is – and isn’t – being done in regards to link development for the sites. In the age of Google, links are money and any weakness in the organization of our link development campaigns ultimately means we’re losing money.

I signed MFE up for a Raven Tools account (and subsequently have bugged Dawn at least ten million times to ask questions about how to use said account.) [waves to Dawn]

I don’t claim to have made use of even 40% of what Raven has to offer. My goal was link development organization, so this review will be limited to that aspect of their tool set.

However, what I can say is that I want to smack myself for taking this long to cave after seeing how much more organized this has made link development efforts and how many additional links – links we previously might have had slip through the cracks – are actually being developed as a result. That said, there are a few improvements I’d like to see made.

Review of the features in the “Links” drop down

Links Manager

The Links Manager, for me, is the most useful section of the “Links” drop down area. In it, you can add links you either want to request, have requested, are active (meaning the page is linking to you) or have been declined. You can find an entire webinar about this section below:

The Links Manager allows anyone in the company to search for new backlinks through either traditional methods or using Raven Tools (see the sections on “Site Finder” and “Backlink Explorer” below) and enter them into the Links Manager for all to see.

For me, this means I can find new links, add them to the Links Manager as “Queued” and my employees know this means they’ve yet to be contacted and can make an effort to do so. They can then change the status to “Requested” so the rest of us know not to do it again. Everyone is on the same page, can add links even if they don’t have time to request them at the moment and we can keep track of the links we have and have requested without asking each other through a string of emails.

It will even tell you which user in the account added or last edited the link so you know who to congratulate (or tell to get their butt in gear).

And it allows you to constantly monitor the links you have if you choose to do so.

You can also import links so that you can populate your Links Manager fairly easily when you create the website profile. You can upload links from a CSV or by finding links through Yahoo’s backlink search function.

The organization this section allows us to have is awesome, but the intuitiveness of it could use a tiny bit of work.

For instance, when we add a link through the Backlink Explorer, it automatically tags it as being “Queued.” But sometimes, the link is actually already there, and even with the “link monitoring” turned on, the system will not seem to update a “Queued” link to “Active” or show the anchor text of a link marked “Queued.” AKA, it seems not to monitor links in Que (or at least tell us what they’re finding).

Once I turn a Queued link (with the link already on the page) to Active, it finally updates the anchor text within a half hour. It should be monitoring all link statuses, except for Declined or Ignored in my opinion. Especially, if me asking them to monitor those links counts against the links I can monitor in my account.

Additionally, I’ve been unable to find a way to condense a Yahoo backlink import to only one link per unique domain (the way you can with the Backlink Explorer tool – see below). So when a site links to us from their blogroll, every single page with the link Yahoo finds gets imported. It makes quite a mess to clean up when you import hundreds or thousands of links. A “Group Domains” function within the import tool would make a lot of sense.

Hopefully someone at Raven ends up reading this post.

Contacts

We currently use a combination of private Delicious bookmarks and spreadsheets to keep contacts used for link development and marketing purposes organized. And while I’d hoped Raven might be able to fully replace that, it doesn’t appear that will be the case.

When you open up the “add contact” screen, you’ll find the ability to input a website address (or multiple website addresses) for the contact. Then the typical name, title, company, addresses, emails and phone information. You can also add their usernames on a variety of social networks, which is also kind of cool. After adding them, you can also see the number of links to your site they are associated with (but you’ll need to associate the contact with each of those links first from what I can see).

Now, while I can have a contact available across all the sites I have listed in a profile (which is good, because we sometimes have sites in the same wide verticals) what I can’t seem to do is remove a contact from only one site within a set of sites listed under the same profile.

This is annoying because… say we have Site A, B, C, D and E that are all part of the same extremely wide vertical… the same contact may be relevant to A, C, D and E, but not B while another contact may be relevant to site A, B, D, E but not C. So I either give them all separate profiles (and since I don’t see a CSV export option for contacts, that means entering the same contact into every single profile I need it for manually) or I am stuck with some contact clutter in certain sites because they are within a certain profile.

It also made me nervous that I couldn’t seem to download my contact list as a CSV. I don’t trust entering all my contacts into one place (Raven) and not being able to download that information regularly so I have a copy (or several) on my end (the entire Raven company could be kidnapped by a UFO for all I know). If I have to make my own spreadsheet copy anyway, why bother to enter the information into Raven and do the work twice?

Well, luckily, Raven listened when I requested that feature today through a DM on Twitter and now has a way for you to download your contacts into CSV form as of today (certainly speaks volumes of customer support as far as I’m concerned).

Additionally, I don’t have the ability to tag contacts to make searching for the right ones at the right times for the right things easier. For instance, we use a tag in delicious called “likes-tips” so that we know which sites are more than willing to accept news/story tips. When we do promotion, we log into delicious, pick the “person” (aka website) the tips need to go out about and then further refine that by choosing to see only those tagged with “likes-tips” within that “person.” This saves a lot of time.

Until Raven comes up with a tagging feature much like the one offered by delicious for their contacts section, I don’t have much use for their “Contacts” tab.

Site Finder

Click the site finder tab, pop in your favorite keyword and click “run” and then you’ll need to wait a few minutes for the report to generate. Once it has, you click “View” next to the report you’ve just run and a (probably long) list of domains that link to the websites ranked top ten for that keyword phrase in Google will pop up sorted by (what Raven deems) quality metrics:

We use a combination of ranking factors to determine how valuable a link from one of the returned domains would be to your site, including MajesticSEO’s ACRank and SEOmoz’s mozRank and Domain Authority.

It’s a pretty cool tool for showing you backlinks that several of your competitors may have been able to obtain that you’ve missed. Raven has a video that shows you how it works:

Just decide which sites are worth targeting for a link and click “add” to add them to the Links Manager. If there was a way to add one site to *multiple* sites within the same profile, that would be awesome. But as of yet, you can only use the “handy dandy add button” to add it to the links manager for the site you are viewing the report within.

The Site Finder tool is a decent way to find backlinks in your niche on a very broad scale. But I prefer the “Backlinks Explorer” tool to do it on a site by site (or even page by page) basis. Keep reading…

Backlinks Explorer

While the Site Finder can help you identify general sites linking to sites ranking within your industry, you know who your “real competitors” are.

For instance, say you own a site where Wikipedia ranks within the top ten for your core search phrase. That means a helluva lot of domains you have no shot in hell of getting links from are going to show up in the Site Finder tool. But, you know who your real commercial competitors are.

So do I.

And I prefer to know who is linking to those sites (or pages ranking from larger sites) specifically. And that’s where Backlinks Explorer comes in.

Now, I’m a recent subscriber to Majestic SEO, which is an awesome link research service. And at Majestic, I can simply type in the single URL of the About.com page and get a full listing of folks linking to that page – and only that page. But, Majestic leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to usability and user interface [if you guys end up reading this, I have some suggestions].

But when you couple Majestic’s link information (Raven uses Majestic’s info for the Backlinks Explorer tool) with the interface and functionality at Raven Tools, you get one awesome link research tool.

I have a site that counts a single page on About.com as one of its competitors. Not even a full sub-domain – merely a page. But, being on a website as strong as About.com makes them a pretty fierce competitor. Luckily for us, our site offers more information than the About.com page does and makes it easy for us to convince folks linking to that About.com page to also link to our site (or in lieu of About.com’s when we’re lucky).

By using the Backlinks Explorer tool, I can pull the link information that Majestic offers on sites linking into that page and “file” them accordingly within my Raven Links Manager.

This morning I was able to run a report on that About.com page. It found five thousand links, which I was able to condense to about five hundred by using the “Group Domains” check box so that it only showed one link per domain that was linking to the About.com page.

Next I looked for .infos and people obviously doing scraper spam (easy to tell as the title of the page is the anchor text over and over) to narrow down the list (by clicking hide on all the undesireables) to sixty URLs that passed the “first glance” test. (Note, you cal also see “nofollowed” links at a glance and choose to remove those too if you’d like… me? I like traffic, regardless of the SEO value, so I leave them in unless they’re from a crappy site filtered out by the first items I filtered for.)

Once I had those sixty, I started to click the link in Raven to visit each site and see what/who/when/where and how our competitor’s link was. When it was a crap page or a link I felt we couldn’t replicate, I clicked “Hide”. When it was a link I felt we could get, I clicked “Add” to add it to the Links Manager (which auto adds the link with the status “Queued”). I was able to add about fourteen good links to the Links Manager Que.

My employees know to check into the Links Manager and to figure out an angle to contact any links in Que to attempt to get a link for our own site. They then set them to requested and we monitor the links to see if and when they are “active.”

All that work for fourteen *potential* links? Yep. When we talk about “pound the pavement” link building, this is it. And Raven’s interface – combined with the data from Majestic SEO – makes the process about as organized as it can be.

If you’d like to see a recent webinar that Raven did explaining the Backlink Explorer more in depth, you can do so below:

Website Directory

The Website Directory is just that. A listing of all the websites you have added into Raven via one method or another. Competitors (if you’ve listed them under the “Ranking” tab), sites added to the Links Manager, etc. You can see the number of links they have pointed to you, their green pixel fairy dust Pagerank and you can search through them via keyword.

Sounds so much less sexy after hearing about the Backlink Explorer, I know… but it is what it is.

My conclusions:

Bottom line, the next time someone asks me at a conference what tools I use, I’m going to end up giving Raven a shout out. I’m on the $99 dollar per month “Pro” plan (for MFE), but they have plans starting at as little as $19 dollars a month (the “Basic” plan) and I can easily see myself upgrading to the “Agency” plan at the cost of $249 per month soon.

For me, any money I spend in business usually comes not as a result of me asking “how much will this cost me?” but more as a result of me asking myself “how much is it going to cost me to go without this tool?”

For me – even without needing all of the fancy reporting tools they offer for agencies or half the other stuff they include in the subscription price – the answer was that not using the tool was going to “cost” more than it would cost to use it in employee time, my time and lost opportunities.

Don’t know if it’s worth the spend?

You can try Raven yourself for thirty days – FREE.

That’s what I did. And within three hours I was promptly signed up for a paid account.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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Genesis Framework

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