You’ve probably heard that replying to queries on HARO — Help a Reporter Out — is a way to build links. But if you are like me, when you’ve tried it, you got frustrated with the sense that you were talking into the void. Recently, however, I finally got over the hump and started getting results with this link building tactic.
If you are unfamiliar with HARO, the basic idea is that reporters from the media are matched with experts who can comment for a story. Over time, the active users on HARO have evolved away from traditional reporters to mostly bloggers who are looking to fill out content by getting comments from other experts.
The community norm on HARO is that if a blogger uses your response, they will quote you by name and link to your primary home. These links are why responding to HARO queries has become a popular link building tactic.
For example, if you are trying to get backlinks to your lifestyle ecommerce site, you might reply to a query about recipe ideas for spring.
Or if you are trying to get backlinks to the personal finance site you run, you might comment on a query about credit cards with the best points deals.
In my case, I’m trying to build links to my site related to freelance careers, Nation1099, so I was commenting on anything to do with careers, skills building, the gig economy, human resources, talent management, or trends in the workforce.
For a long time, these steady efforts to write HARO responses contributed very little to my link building. But in recent months I’ve started to have more success. I’m now finding many fewer queries to respond to, but I’m converting more and getting on sites with more domain authority. The rest of this comprehensive guide shows you how.
Advantages of using HARO for link building
The first advantage is that building links via HARO queries is faster than guest posting, and I have that confirmed.
For a total of six months in two different periods over the last year, I maintained a tracking sheet of how much time I spent on my HARO efforts and the results I was getting. I found I was averaging a link for every 2.8 hours of effort.
That sounds like a lot of time, but just negotiating a new guest post opportunity can take longer than that. Never mind the time it takes to write the guest post. This one, for example, will take about five hours.
I haven’t been maintaining that tracking sheet recently, but I’m confident I’m spending less time per link now and that the domain authority of the links I do get is improving.
I confess that I don’t know for sure the actual impact of the links I’m getting. Are they in fact helping my domain? I’m operating on the assumption that links from relevant sites are always a good thing.
The truth is that most of these are on sites with high domain authority but on pages with low domain authority. The individual blog articles don’t generally get a lot of traffic and shares. I would really love to hear from you in the comments if you are an SEO specialist who can shed light on this question.
But, assuming that it’s good to have links from high DA sites that are relevant to my topic, let’s carry on.
Disadvantages of using HARO for link building
One downside is that, for the most part, this will only result in links to your home page and to your social media profiles. That’s because you are being included as a quotable authority — not because there is a great resource to reference on your site.
Essentially, most links will boil down to a blog saying, “According to Jane Expert, founder of [Homepage URL], . . .”
Therefore, responding to HARO queries isn’t so effective for building links to other internal pages on your site. If you have a campaign to get a particular page to rank, you’ll have to depend on guest posting or other link building tactics.
Here are some of the best articles already on the LTP blog about other link building tactics:
- How to Create Web 2.0 Backlinks That Actually Work for SEO
- Top Link Building Strategies & How To Use Them
- Broken Link Tools: Link building may be an Oldie but Goodie
A second downside is how many queries there are on HARO to wade through to find the stuff relevant to you. But we’ll show you how to get some systems in place below to help manage that.
Third, many queries never result in a live story at all. So, even if you are the perfect expert on the topic, the planned story can die on the vine and you never hear why.
Fourth, if the story goes live but your response isn’t used, you almost never hear back about that either. That makes it harder to evaluate what’s not working. (But I have a HARO power user move that I will describe in my next post that will help compensate for this downside.)
You do occasionally get a pleasant surprise. When the blogger never responds to your comment, you naturally assume it wasn’t used. But once in awhile you discover the article by accident months later with you in it.
In fact, as I was drafting this article, I went searching for examples of my HARO related backlinks, and I found one from October 2017 that I hadn’t known about. And that was on a site with a domain authority of 70.
(Note to bloggers: Be sure to tell the people you included that the article is live. Give them a chance to share it too!)
Sometimes you get a less pleasant surprise. A blog will use your response and quote you by name but not include a link. (You’re on my naughty list Quicken Loans and MediaBistro. Do you think you’re the New York Times or something? No one is responding to queries from your bloggers just for the glory of being mentioned.)we
Examples from my HARO link building efforts
For all the domain authority (DA) figures discussed here, I’m using the Moz toolbar for apples-to-apples comparisons. Let me know in the comments if you can suggest a better way to judge if a link from a given website will be valuable.
A lot of HARO queries are designed to get content for roundup posts. For example, if I squint, I can find myself somewhere in this one.
This was a DA = 17 site when I responded, and I don’t generally bother with those. But some queries are anonymous, so you don’t know who you are responding to. In the meantime, this site has improved to DA = 25.
So . . . meh. Not really worth the effort.
Early on in my HARO activity, I was commonly getting on sites with DA in the 30s and 40s, like this one on SME Pals.
As you can see, that’s not doing any favors for my brand.
And to get even that much, I was sending out a ton of responses to the queries. Like I said, 2.8 hours of work for every one of these links I got.
I got discouraged and let my HARO activity slip. I got anxious about how my site was growing and so renewed the HARO effort and got discouraged some more.
I was stalled with this kind of result . . . until a few months ago when I started getting places like Credit.com (DA = 71) and Business News Daily (DA = 82).
And a few weeks ago, I landed a quote in the American Express OPEN Forum, which has a DA of 92.
Perhaps more important, stories on those sites tend to be better conceived from the jump and, therefore, are going to be more more contextually relevant for me.
By the way, each of those last three were places that I had responded to on HARO previously without getting a response. (You’ll start to recognize the bloggers who regularly post queries.) Perseverance matters.
Some basic HARO mechanics
Before I share some of the methods I’ve developed, let me explain some of the mechanics of how HARO works.
The messaging is similar to Craigslist in that your responses go through their system and the blogger’s contact info is hidden until they reach out to you directly.
You can search on HARO, after you register as a “source,” but the easiest thing is to arrange to get email digests with all the queries.
The default is three emails each day — morning, afternoon. and evening — with all the queries that bloggers have posted in the last few hours.
You can adjust settings to get the digests less frequently, but my style is to take a break occasionally to review these, so I like getting them all. Scanning the digests is something I can do when I’m low energy or distracted. Then I can flag any promising queries to write responses to first thing in the morning.
You can also fine tune the digests to have only certain categories sent to you. But I find that topics that I can comment on tend to pop up in every category.
For example, the blog I’m promoting is about freelance careers. But:
- A query about digital nomadism might be in the lifestyle category.
- A query about work/life balance might be in health.
- A query about career planning for young people will be in the education category.
- A query about software tools for managing your solo business might be in the technology category.
- And any query that belongs in a specific category might show up in the general category instead.
So I have a digest with all the categories sent to me because I want to scan all of it for queries I can reply to.
Once you spot a query, you’re in business. It will typically include the name of the blogger and the name of the website. (Some queries are anonymous.) The query usually includes a one-sentence description of the article’s concept. The blogger may include a short list of specific questions to answer or maybe a single broad question on the topic. Sometimes they will describe the kinds of experts they want to hear from.
If you think you fit the bill and have something to add to the topic, you hit reply and write a thoughtful and quotable response of a paragraph or two. If your quote gets used, you usually end up with a link.
Occasionally a blogger — or actual reporter — will ask to get on the phone with you. And sometimes they will ask if they can send you additional questions for you to write longer responses to.
In fact, on the day I’m proofing this piece, a reporter at a site with a DA = 91 had scheduled a call with me in response to my HARO comment on her query. Even better, it’s a site in one of those networks with several properties. So if I’m really lucky, the piece will get syndicated across several domains.
Simple, right? But in practice, it can be daunting to find a worthwhile query and, when you do, you are competing against dozens of other people responding to that same query.
So the rest of this article is about how to do better in less time.
Step one — Know your stuff and actually have something insightful to say
If you’ve seen my previous articles on LongTailPro, you know that I advocate for building any link building tactic around genuine thought leadership. People are much more likely to link to you or to give you guest post opportunities if you actually have the goods.
(By the way, since I wrote those posts, I’ve used that approach to get established with two more editors and to place guests posts at sites with DA of 62 and 77.)
Trying to build links without a foundation of real authority is unlikely to work on HARO and probably won’t give any visitors you do get a good experience anyway.
Nation1099 was new when I first started my HARO activity. I didn’t have much of anything original to say on the topic of freelance careers.
I was making the mistake initially with my HARO campaign of letting the tail wag the dog. I was trying to sound more authoritative than I really was, so my responses couldn’t realistically provide useful information or insightful remarks. No wonder most of my responses got ignored.
What made the difference? It all stems from this huge roundup of freelance data and other stats on gig economy and workforce trends that we built at Nation1099. There are two important things about this article that impact my HARO campaign.
First, it really is the best article on the topic. If anyone wants to know how many freelancers there are, this is the source. Ditto if they want to know how much money freelancers make, their motivations, or their demographics.
Building and maintaining this skyscraper post is a lot of work. So I have the information down cold and can answer any HARO query about employment and freelance trends with a lot of solid information. When I reply to a HARO query, the blogger or reporter isn’t getting a vague speculation about a trend. They are getting solid facts synthesized clearly, since I have a lot of practice explaining this data.
Second, in developing this resource, I also developed a few insights and strong opinions of my own. So now I am in a position to sound very quotable in my HARO responses.
With that truly authoritative foundation to work from, I am now responding to fewer HARO queries but convert more of them on sites with a higher DA.
Step two — Offer context outside the primary question
The reporters and bloggers posting on HARO get dozens of responses, and they can mark them as irrelevant, which could eventually get you banned. So definitely do not respond to queries about which you have no actual expertise or authority.
But do consider how you can pitch yourself a little bit outside the query, though courteously.
For example, I sometimes see a query with direct questions that I don’t have a direct answer to because it’s outside my personal experience. But I have access to data and context that might fit well in the intro to the article that’s being developed.
So I will respond to the query saying some like, “ I can’t answer your question, but I thought you might find this data helpful.”
That led to this blogger getting back to me. (The article is still in progress and not live yet as I draft this.)
Heck yes, I’ll answer more questions! That’s going to be a DA = 81 backlink when it’s live.
Step three — Develop ways to streamline the process
The workflow below is yielding for me about one good query per day to respond to. Once I find one, I probably spend about 10 minutes writing a solid response.
As I said, I haven’t been maintaining my tracking sheet, but I estimate I’m getting about 1 good link per week this way. So it’s probably somewhere between one and two hours of effort per link at this point and with a much higher DA on average.
- Register at HARO with all relevant email addresses
HARO will only let you respond to queries via an email address you used to register. If you try responding with another address, it will bounce back to you.
And for branding purposes, you probably want your responses to show your work email, right?
So don’t do like I did and register with your personal Gmail account. I had to re-register with my Nation1099 email address. Then I was getting multiple digests, and it was a whole thing to get the settings right so I wasn’t swamped with emails.
Next, consider if you are trying to build links for more than one site. For awhile I was also using HARO to build links for my content marketing services business. I wanted that domain showing in my response, so I registered a third time on HARO with the relevant branded email address to do that.
Once you are set up, when you respond to a query, use the relevant address in the FROM line.
- Use Gmail filters to manage the HARO digests landing in your inbox.
If you are getting three digests per day, your inbox can get cluttered. If you using Gmail, you can use the filters tools to set them up to all go to a particular folder.
I have mine all marked as “read on arrival” so I’m not getting any notifications of an incoming email.
- Set up a canned response in your email program
Since many bloggers will want to check out your Twitter and LinkedIn page, as well as to your homepage, it can get tedious to keep dropping those into each response. Likewise, they will often ask for your title and your company name.
And if all of that information is in your email sig line, it tends to get overlooked. Don’t assume the blogger will read past the body to see what’s in your sig line. Put what they are looking for front and center.
Therefore, I have a canned response set up in Gmail that has the most commonly requested info in the body. I hit reply on the query, select the right FROM address, insert the canned response text, and then type my message above that.
- Have a headshot ready
Sometimes the blogger will want to use your headshot in a roundup post. But attachments tend to get lost in the HARO messaging system.
Thus, I recommend having your headshot loaded into a Google Drive folder and ready to go. Then you can drop the shareable link in an email message when it’s needed.
- Use CTRL-F to quickly search the email digests for your topics
In the beginning, you probably should read through all the subject lines in the digests to get a good feel for what’s being requested and the vocabulary that bloggers use when they post a query on your subject.
But reading all of those is tedious. So after a while when you know the subjects you are qualified to comment on, jot down the relevant keywords. Then you can just use the CTRL-F function to find those within the long email digest that HARO sends you.
My list has seven terms on topics I feel ready to comment on. It’s on a sticky note here on my desk. With that handy I can scan a digest for relevant queries in about 30 seconds.
Don’t forget the PR value
And that’s the basic program.
- Take 30 seconds to search a new HARO digest email for your target subject.
- Don’t push it. Concentrate on the queries where you really are an expert.
- Take 10 minutes to write a good response.
- Set up a system to track your results, and keep optimizing.
I’ll be really curious to know what your evaluation reveals about your HARO campaign and how you can improve on the process I’ve outlined here.
In the intro I mentioned how HARO started out as a way to get press mentions and has evolved into a place where people hunt for link building opportunities. But it’s easy to forget that public relations is still at the core of the service.
I reached out to PR consultant Michelle Garrett to ask her if this way of using HARO makes strategic sense. (Think of it is my own private HARO network.) She helpfully reminded me not to forget that the brand mention matters too.
“Because link-building is now such an important component in a brand’s digital marketing strategy,” Garrett says, “and because PR pros are so well-versed in creating content and in proactive outreach, it makes sense that SEO pros are now looking at tactics PR practitioners have been using for years. Using HARO is one example of adopting an approach commonly used by public relations practitioners.”
So don’t be a HARO spammer and don’t waste time responding to bloggers who are creating content spam. Links for their own sake will rarely pay off in the long run. We know they need to be contextually relevant, right. And they have to be on pages that people value.
In other words, keep the relationship in public relations in mind, and this tactic will have a much more meaningful impact.
That will be the focus of part 2 on this topic. Be sure to check back for that.
About the Author
Robert McGuire runs a content marketing agency and is the publisher of Nation1099, a site devoted to operations and strategy advice for freelancers and consultants.
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Great post, Robert. I’ve used HARO with limited success, but this formula will really allow me to “turn it up to 11” for building these types of links.
Thanks for the insightful article and ROI information.
This kind of information is so helpful to me. I have found some high authority sites easy this technique. As a new blogger, I will be used and utilized Long tail pro blog articles for my growth.