Link Development’s Most Undervalued Role


Congrats! Your team’s Link Strategist has just served up a campaign idea that fits the brand and the budget. Management’s on board. Take a happy hour to celebrate!

The Prospector may need to cut out early though; first thing tomorrow, the team needs her insights and opportunity lists.

For this article, we define an opportunity for any writer (webmaster, blogger, journalist, subject expert, curator) who contributes to your campaign’s niche.

If the Link Strategist sees the forest, it’s up to the Opportunity Prospector to find and name each tree. This may sound intimidating, but it’s actually my favorite part of link building. And in this article, I share our strategic and tactical Opportunity Prospector checklist.

If You Appreciate One Thing About Opportunity Prospecting In This Article…

…let it be that glorious sense of discovery when you find a vein of opportunity that was unexpected.

Prospector’s high is real, folks. I’ll show you how to get there.

Who Is This Opportunity Prospector?


Photo by Matt. Used under Creative Commons license.

The Prospector should not be an intern or virtual assistant. At least not solely. Here’s why.

Prospectors — if you have the right people on the job — discover BIG ideas. They recognize content gaps. The Prospector may sometimes be the Link Strategist, or these may be separate roles, but she has a big-picture seat at the campaign operations table.

Strategic Skills Necessary To Be A Opportunity Prospector:

  1. Ability To Recognize Opportunity… While Staying Focused On The Task At Hand

The Opportunity Prospector needs to live outside of the box. No idea is too zany (that’s for the Qualifier and Strategists to determine). The Prospector lives in constant discovery mode, always finding new directions for content and outreach.

But she also needs to be focused enough to deliver usable results as directed by the strategist.

opportunity = a linkable asset concept + number of potential linkers

The Opportunity Prospector, upon recognizing potential, works to find every single opportunity associated with that piece of content. Prospectors are in-the-know about all existing and in-development assets, such as:

  • discount codes
  • scholarships
  • nonprofit programs
  • authority content
  • partnerships
  • upcoming events
  • PR developments
  • new apps
  • internal subject matter expertise

And this is another reason the Prospector shouldn’t be an intern or a lower-level team member. If she’s not in the loop about company goings-on, she’s not going to be equipped to find every relevant opportunity.

  1. Ability To Spec Content For The Writer And Communicate Linkers’ Preferences

The Prospector works with the writer to clearly define content characteristics and specific topics that earn links. This includes providing potential titles, the goals of the new asset and sample pieces of content that exhibit linkability. In part 4 of this series — on linkable content creation — I’ll share our content spec process more fully.

  1. Enough Understanding Of Prospecting To Find Opportunities In Non-Native Languages

A good Prospector understands advanced operators, citation analysis and opportunity footprints. Using this knowledge, she can, with a translator’s help, develop a system for uncovering opportunities in non-native languages.

  1. Obsessively Thorough

The Prospector can’t stop. There’s always one more query she forgot, one more URL she finds to pull backlinks from. She’s out to get ALL the potential opportunities and works relentlessly to get everything that’s as good a fit as possible (and it’s in the fuzzy corners of maybe-opps that she finds the new directions mentioned above).

  1. A Gut Sense Of When To PIVOT


Despite your thoroughness, sometimes you have to say: “This concept isn’t working AT ALL.” And that’s okay. Prospectors live and work outside the box, so they can’t be afraid to toss some ideas into the garbage recycling and/or compost bin.

Technical Skill Tool Belt For The Opportunity Prospector

So far, we’ve summed up the soft side of the Prospector, but people and strategy skills are only part of the job. Knowing how to find thousands of relevant opportunities calls for some pretty specific technical understanding, as well.

I could fill a book with technical prospecting tips. Below, I’ll give the Cliffs Notes of the Cliffs Notes on the technical know-how an Opportunity Prospector should develop (and farther down, I share a recent webinar that goes over the technical aspects of prospecting).

The Prospector’s Technical Side — A Quick Overview:

  • Advanced search operators
  • Backlink graph repositories
  1. Advanced Search Query Prospecting

I had a prospecting epiphany while reading an article by Eric Ward in 2005, long before we’d met, and even longer before we wrote a book together.

In his article, he explained how he looked for local libraries with the operator inurl:lib. He combined it with inurl:links. I remember thinking: certain organization types have common URL elements. Identify those elements, and you can isolate that type of organization and page from a search index.

Advanced operators enable systematic prospectors to find every single possible permutation of a specific opportunity. Local library links pages? No problem. Guest blogging about CRM? On it. Finding reporters who care about cars? Done.

Advanced operators (we rely on inurl: intitle: and site:) help to isolate the following characteristics:

  • Organization type (library? nonprofit? blog?)
  • Topic
  • Interest (events? resources? apps? expertise contributions?)
  • Page type (links page? blog? directory? advertising?)
  • Location
  • Audience

You’re promoting a summer education guide and want public libraries that have pages for kids? No problem. Just copy and paste this into your favorite search engine: inurl:lib intitle:”for kids”

Oh, so you want only kid-specific links pages from public libraries. Try this: inurl:lib intitle:”for kids” inurl:links

That query brings back some pretty good potential opportunities. Now broaden it slightly by going from “for kids” to just kids: inurl:lib intitle:kids inurl:links

And this is only the libraries hosted on the .us TLD — many more are on the .org TLD. Further, the organizational footprint (inurl:lib) could vary as well — intitle:”public library” could guide you this way, too.

The Prospector must excel at footprint discovery too (i.e., word usage patterns in a niche, at an organization type or on specific page types). This enables the development of unique footprint systems for each campaign.

Bonus skill — you’ll get really good at this fun pastime:


  1. Backlink prospecting with link graph tools

Once you have identified an authority resource related to the document or asset you’re promoting, use Majestic, Ahrefs or Open Site Explorer to see who may be interested in linking to your asset. You can find these related authority resources on any qualified links pages you uncover during your search query prospecting.

From a page that was a result in the above queries, I selected this related website:


People who shared this URL may also be interested in sharing our summer education guide.

But wait. Just because someone shares Kids Click, that doesn’t mean that they will definitely want to share a new guide. It could have been a fluke mention or a citation that does not necessarily indicate the desire to cite new or different material.

We need more signal. We need co-citations.

You can find more authority sites by looking on your target links pages. Additionally, you can try the related: advanced operator —

This led to


So if a single URL points to both of these domains, the chances go up that it is a page for sharing other kid-friendly educational URLs, and therefore a more qualified target for our outreach efforts.

Backlink graphs are useful, but they can be painfully noisy (and include garbage scraper sites, comment spam, etc.). Co-citation also helps you remove some of this noise.

Competitor backlink analysis — including competitive co-citation analysis — can provide useful targets, assuming you have the capacity to create or harness similar linkable assets at your company. It can also show you what competitors have done already. That said, your competitors may not be as creative as you are, or they may not have your skills at opportunity discovery. This is why link campaigns should not stop with competitive co-citation!

Our company offers a simple, free, no-email-required co-citation analysis tool (disclosure: this link goes to our free co-citation tool). Use this tool to execute small co-citation experiments on your own. It can work for competitive co-citation analysis too.

  1. And Then Do It All Over Again.

Using advanced operators and backlink graph repositories isn’t a “one, two, done” process; it’s a cycle in which each step feeds back into the other.

With advanced operators, a Prospector finds great sites, then he or she examines those sites’ backlinks for popular pages to find more key terms for more advanced searches. Each successive search is more refined and more likely to result in previously undiscovered opportunities.

For more awesome technical prospecting know-how, here’s that webinar I promised:

In Conclusion

Eventually, the Prospector should be so attuned to search processes that she can develop methods to find sales link opportunities, local on-brand festivals, or blog partners for outreach. Every concept from the Link Strategist should get the Prospector’s mind whirling on “How do you find that opportunity with advanced operators?”

And for her own sake, I hope the Prospector loves what she does, because as anyone with enterprise experience will tell you, management will never say, “Okay, that’s enough opportunity — no more explosive growth please.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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About The Author

Garrett French is the founder and chief link strategist of Citation Labs, a link building agency and campaign incubator. He’s also the founder of ZipSprout – Citation Labs’s sister agency focused on local marketing. He’s developed multiple link building tools, including the Link Prospector and the Broken Link Finder. He also co-wrote The Ultimate Guide to Link Building with Link Moses himself, Eric Ward. Garrett and his team lead monthly webinars on enterprise content strategy and promotion from the Citation Labs Blog.