SEOs Tell The Story of Their First Link

There’s no better feeling than seeing a pretty blue hyperlink to your website on someone else’s. It’s magical knowing that you were able to do something so wonderful, that someone else deemed it worthy of sharing with others. It’s even more magical when you’re able to convince a person to add that pretty blue hyperlink to their website.

Do you remember the first time that happened? I bet you got quite a rush, and I bet you’ll never forget. These SEOs haven’t forgotten the story of losing their link virginity. The stories range from a little gray/black hat, to directory submissions, to impossibly easy wins.

So sit back, and let these SEOs tell you a little story about the first link they built. Enjoy.

Click on one of these beautiful faces to read their story!

Alessio Madeyski  Annalisa Hilliard  Bill Sebald  Chris Gilchrist  David Cohen  Donny Rhoades

Ethan Lyon  Gaz Copeland  Hillary MacBain  Joel Klettke  John-Henry Scherck  Jon Cooper

Joshua Titsworth  Kane Jamison  Michael Kovis  Nick Eubanks  Paddy Moogan  Peter Attia

Rob Toledo  Ross Hudgens  Ryan McLaughlin  Saurav Rimal  Sean Revell  Sean Smith

Alessio Madeyski

I was SEO since like 2 weeks, and since I worked in a fashion ecommerce, I ask to a blogger something like: we’ve just opened our Italian shop and I would like you to try our shop and give me some feedback because we all know we have to improve a lot of stuff and we want to know what from our potential customers.

It was a really constructive mail exchange, and at the end they were happy not only for the experience in our shop, but because there was a human being (me) talking with another human being (blogger) and not a cold company voice asking for a sterile link.

I asked for her feedback, and that thing went on til the point that after 2 years we are still in contact and I’m giving her some SEO tips every day for her blog and we met “in the real life” too as soon as we could.

You know..many SEOs are criticizing the relationship building way of doing linkbuilding, and yes…you can create links without any relationships. No doubt on that. But for me, personally, it’s totally cool to have a nice relationship out of it, and not only the link. It’s more worth it.

Annalisa Hilliard

When I first entered the SEO/Web Marketing industry two years ago, I didn’t have much knowledge about obtaining links. Our agency had just landed a new client (a tri-state plumbing franchise). So, I initially went for the low-hanging fruit. I set up Google Places (now G+ Local) for this client, and I submitted them to DMOZ, Best of the Web and a handful of other directories.

My goal was to bring targeted traffic to my client’s page, as well as get some link value. Looking back, I wouldn’t discredit my attempts given my knowledge at the time. But, if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t submit them to the general directories. The ROI simply wasn’t there in regards to driving traffic to the site. Though, I still think there can be value in niche and local directories.

Bill Sebald

I was a link collector before I knew I was an SEO. I had a music site, and wanted as much traffic as I could possibly get. It was all reciprocal links. If someone wanted a link, I had a notice on my site that said they had to link to me first. Then I had a Perl (I think) script check to see if the link was there (I’m sure we’ve all seen this cheesy tactic – I was one of those guys!). My site also had a directory section, so I got a lot of link requests this way. I unwisely threw that domain away over a decade ago. I’m still kicking myself.

The first link I remember knowingly getting for SEO was while working at a company selling NASCAR models cars. I reached out, using my own name, to make a connection. This webmaster decided to post our whole email conversation, though not to be malicious. Still, for years that site ranked first when performing a Google search for my name. I learned a good lesson about link building backfires.

Chris Gilchrist

The first real link I built, which sent decent authority and quality traffic, was in the form of a testimonial for our hosting company at the time. This was early 2005 and for my previous company.

I can remember being really chuffed they featured us. A tiny web company listed on a large hosting company’s site with only a handful of other much bigger agencies.


The link’s still there on a DA:47 | PA:30 after all this time which is quite cool.

David Cohen

The first link I built was in April of 2001. I had a band at the time and used Livejournal to promote my crappy music. On Livejournal, I found a community of local Atlanta promoters who booked bands into clubs I wanted our band to play in, like The Masquerade. I connected with a promoter through Livejournal, we ended up meeting and quickly struck up a rapport.

When I felt like the opportunity was right I asked if she could write about our band on her Livejournal, and I offered her something in exchange for helping me. Three days later she wrote a post about our band, linked to my Livejournal, and got us booked for a Saturday night show at The Masquerade. The link was nice, but having somebody help you fulfill a dream was the best part.

Don Rhoades

So back in the day, links were kinda like anything goes. They had to pass value, and your techniques had to scale. I did value-add comments, but I targeted page relevant .edu domains. A lot of times you had to have a university email address to even comment. So it was slim pickin’s out there for page relevant articles on college sites. When I say value-add, I mean giving them something in return for allowing the comment to increase the chances of not getting moderated into oblivion. I found a physiological study on a treatment for a particular medical condition. This condition was exactly what my client. This was a graduate thesis that was put online for critical analysis. I ran it up the flagpole to the medical professional on my client’s staff. He located his study that was online and provided the link to me. I commented leaving the link to the Dr’s study from a medical annals site. I asked him to please keep us updated on his findings and he was able to find an inspiration in the old doctor’s thesis and commented back to us with how it sparked an angle he hadn’t considered. He was so jazzed about it, that he published our comment with exact match anchor text and all. It was from a very prestigious medical program and the student went on to become an expert in his field. I know he would have without the interaction we had, but it is a good feeling to think we had some small part in his growth and knowledge.

Ethan Lyon

The first link I can remember acquiring was from a site about kid show tunes and other children’s music. It was a $50 sponsorship and the webmaster put our company logo in his header, linked over with “online colleges.” It was hideous looking and probably would never fly nowadays. My directive was to get exact-match anchor text for “online colleges” and I did, regardless whether it made sense. How things have changed : )

Gaz Copeland

I’ll be honest, I can’t recall me first ever link, mainly because in the beginning when I was teaching myself SEO I was doing blog comments, forums and directories. Not real spammy rubbish, on topic sites, but still mind numbingly boring and completely not memorable.

My first ever proper link was from an industry blogger in the niche I had setup an ecommerce site for, it was my first site and only a few weeks old, I had probably been reading up on SEO for about a month at this point. I stumbled across a post they had written that morning complaining about a particular product and by coincidence we had just taken delivery of our first batch of a rival brand. I did a bit of hunting around to get their postal address, dropped a card and note in with the product and sent it off the same day. About a week later we had a huge spike in our traffic, it turned out the blogger had written a product review and recommended my store as the place to purchase.

I really was just messing about at that stage, not really doing anything particularly well but having a success like that early on got me hooked.


Hillary MacBain

I got my first link just about a month after I started at SEER. It was for an infographic that was not linked back to my client, its creator. Not only was it incredibly encouraging to get a link on the very day that I began outreach for these unlinked infographics, but it was also from Harrison Ford himself! Haha. The cherry on top was his closing remark, “Worm Regards.”


Joel Klettke

My first link? Oh, it was a dirty, shameful one – likely a cheap, scuzzy directory in a category nobody would ever visit. Yes, sadly I lost my link virginity to the sweet, sweet temptress of “fast and easy”. I was young, I didn’t know better. I used to submit to these things in droves as soon as new ones popped up. Short approval times. It worked, but it was ugly.

But my first legitimate link? Now there’s a story. Was working for a government run organization that was fairly new. I began my search by analyzing competitors, only to find that an old government site had become overrun by spammers hawking crap content. I dug into the back link profile, scraped out any viable targets and sent my first outreach email with the title “serious problem!” – which maybe was an overstatement in hindsight. Just asked for them to “update” the link and point it to the new government body.

I got a reply within an hour saying the first change had gone live. As luck would have it, that site was a gateway to over 50 others, who all changed their links at the same time. I was on cloud nine and my success rate was close to 85% – the only ones who didn’t change it failed to reply.

I’ve still yet to replicate that level of short term success, but I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment.

John-Henry Scherck

The first link I ever built that mattered was for a real estate site. They had an in house video production specialist and they shot all these great informational videos about the area and the community. The didn’t have a huge social following, but they were making awesome content all the time. I noticed that when I searched for the name of their main listing neighborhood, this interesting informational resource was outranking the Wikipedia listing. I reached out to the site owner and showed him the video my client put together of his neighborhood. The site owner loved it so much that he placed a link to the video in the dead center of his homepage (and probably not on purpose) as the main call to action for the site.


To date, it’s sent 13,195 visitors to the site. It hasn’t resulted in any conversions, but it’s one I’m especially proud of.

Jon Cooper

The first link I got that wasn’t from something like submitting to web directories or posting an article on an article directory; it was from my first real outreach campaign. Because it was only about 3 years ago, I used broken link building (props to Melanie for initially pointing it out!), and I distinctly remember the webmaster saying how clever it was that I did this to get a link (it was a fairly new idea), so he happily rewarded me.

Joshua Titsworth

The first link I ever built was when I worked for a non-profit. I had done some press releases here and there, but those were more for promotion than doing “mindset link building”. Our CEO had a contact at KU Med Center and I shot their webmaster an email asking if we could get a link from their midwifery page to our birth center page. The webmaster recognized our CEO and added the link. Later I found out they scrapped the page and turned into a resource page, but we were the first and only for a while. Now she has a new company and is getting ready to swap that link out for her new one.

Kane Jamison

I earned a link back in 2005 to a concert review I had posted on my music blog. Ended up doing some writing for the other site (long before guest blogging earned its reputation) and I’m still friends with the site owner today. Somewhere along the way I lost track of the fact that it was easier to “create cool content” and earn links than it was to build them. I’ve since found a happy place in between the two.

Michael Kovis

Building links (notice how I wrote building links and not link earning or relationship building) today is nothing like it was back in the mid to late 90’s. The majority of site owners and webmasters clearly didn’t understand the how valuable their website’s real estate was. Direct email addresses were much more prevalent and easy to find on the website making it much easier to reach out to other site owners to request a link.

Some of the very first links I built were for a NASCAR gaming community I helped create and manage back around 1995 or so. I remember sending out simple emails from an AOL email address to other site owners with similar websites requesting a link or offering a link exchange. I’m sure the email was quite lame to the standards we have today and read something like,

Hey there,
Your website is really cool. I have a NASCAR site similar to yours. Would you mind linking to mine?

Receiving link requests as a site owner was the coolest thing since sliced bread back then. Webmasters would quickly respond with a “Yes. What is your URL?” or “Sure, but would you link to my site too?” Link exchanges were all the rage and quite common without having an afterthought of being penalized by a search engine. It was nothing for me to build 20 links in a week or see several emails from other site owners requesting us to link to them.

Nick Eubanks

My first link came pretty much by accident. My first ever job in marketing was working for a company called Business Intelligence International, who developed accounting control software to assist with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance for sections 302 and 404. Extremely. Boring. Back then (2006) there was no notion of domain authority (but we had PageRank) or number of LRD’s, or any of that stuff. The name of the game for me was just trying to build links that would send qualified traffic. And I believe the very first link I ever successfully ‘built’ is this one right here which links to, which then became, which then became the now, present-day

Paddy Moogan

I started out in SEO in the darker side when I was trying to make money from affiliate marketing / adsense, so my first link was probably part of a big batch of spammy links if I’m honest! I remember the first batch of links that I built was actually using a piece of software that allowed me to auto-generate Blogspot blogs with pre-defined templates. These templates contained links back to my own websites. On average I’d create a new blogspot blog every 10 seconds or so and just fire away at it for a while. The thing is, this used to work amazingly well! I’d often “own” the first page of Google for a niche keyword using this technique. Clearly I don’t do this anymore and I doubt it would work anyway : )

Peter Attia

My first link was when I was 17. I ran a small online store selling vintage stuff. It was mostly clothing, but I also had old typewriters and some world war II stuff. I was living in WV at the time and it was easy to find antiques at flee markets and such for just a few dollars. No one seemed to realize the value, so I started selling it online for extra money during college.

I started hanging out in relevant forums whenever I needed to figure out how much something was worth. Any chance I got, I would link back to my site, but pretend as if I didn’t own it. My train of thought, was maybe I could get people hanging out in the forums to visit my site and possibly purchase.

This was long before I started doing any SEO and I had no idea that links even effected search results. I was merely linking to my site to try and get some bleed through traffic. I’m honestly not sure I ever even got any value out of them :)

Rob Toledo

Ahh, I remember my first link like it was yesterday… It was from a UK blog, and being here along the West Coast of the US, I had just gotten to the office during my first week doing outreach at Distilled. The lady I had emailed the day before offered me a direct login to her WordPress blog; I just about jumped out of my chair with excitement. I remember meticulously re-reading the article a dozen times before hitting the publish button. It’s a great feeling to see content I’ve worked to create published around the web. It’s almost been two years in Outreach, and that feeling hasn’t decreased one bit.

Ross Hudgens

The first link I got was a terrible one. I did an unpaid internship I never listed on my resume because it was so short, but we basically learned how to do link wheels, register on forums, and then point them back at the company’s client and their web 2.0 ages. It was painful, the forum links were bad, but I learned what a link wheel was. More importantly, after 2 weeks on that job, I was able to use it on my resume to get a part time position and never build a forum link like that again.

Ryan McLaughlin

I was in high school and running a community website. My goal was to get users as quickly as possible to take advantage of my brand new Adsense ad placements. The site was in the college football space and that type of traffic is sticky once you get the users, but it’s extremely hard to sway them from the sites they are already loyal to.

My strategy, in its simplest explanation, was to get the site’s name everywhere. Every site this community frequented — I wanted to be in their face all the time. Eventually I figured they would get curious about the new site and check it out.

This was 2005 and I needed links from niche websites. So naturally, I went after the blogrolls. I remember the first outreach email I sent was long and desperate. I can laugh at it now, but it actually worked. I was battin’ 1.000 and feeling good about my prospects, only to learn my success rate would be much short of half that even in my professional career. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Saurav Rimal

My first link was in 2006, for a Nepali restaurant. I got my first link from the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Back in the day, anything but comment placement was a big link. I was not an SEO but link is a link. It was worth 50 pounds to get in the members directory which now have increased to who knows what!

Along with directories I was able to rank the website for not just keyword Nepali restaurant but also Nepal and Nepali food.

Sean Revell

The first link I ever built. Wow. What great memories. A golden era, a time when doing SEO was a pure & beautiful spam race. I remember sitting at my desk for the first time and receiving a 10 minute overview on SEO that covered keywords, links, anchor text, duplicate content, relevance and popularity. Oh and that black hat SEO was bad but that it didn’t matter because we definitely didn’t do it and no-one really knew what it was.

Obviously after this intensive chat I totally knew what I was doing and why.

I was asked whether I could write. I obviously said not really. They said good. I was told to work on behalf of an advertising agency client and that my quest was to find a couple of interesting advertising based stories online. Once these were found I was told to copy and paste them into a word doc and rewrite them.

“O.k. that’s cool, but why am I doing this?”
“Because you’re going to add it to an article directory and they don’t allow duplicate content”
“Oh, I see. So why are we adding it to an article directory?”
“For a link and potential click through. Didn’t you make notes on this earlier?”
“Uh, yeah I did. I just don’t really get the point. Will anyone read this?”
“No but don’t worry about that. Just rewrite the post and grab me when you’re done. We’ll then add it to an article directory”

I rewrote the post, moved words around and changed others to related synonyms where possible. I sent it to my manager who briefly scanned the content or deleted it straight away before showing me how to add it to an article directory. I created an account, added the post, a line or two about the brand and some keyword related links pointing to the client. Clicked on submit and there it was. My first article. I was now an SEO. Over the coming weeks and months I probably rewrote over 100 articles across a large variety of subjects but you never forget your first, right?

Sean Smith

My first link goes a little something like this. It was a cool summer day, the wind was blowing in the palms and the seagulls were chirping over the water. Romance was in the air. I laid out the sheet on the warm sand and poured a glass of wine. I leaned over slowly and grabbed my iPad, whipped together a gnarly outreach email towards a marine insurance blogger, got tons of links and boom ranked #1 in the engines.

Okay so it didn’t really happen like that but I couldn’t resist playing. I had just gotten hired on to my first agency-side job and was tasked with link building for a very large marine insurance agency. I wanted to target some bloggers within the niche to get potential guest-blogging opportunities. I did some thorough research of blogs and news networks within the space and sorted them by popularity, social sharing of their most popular posts and quality score based on MOZrank. I decided to be ambitious and before testing how effective my outreach was on the lower authority prospects I went ahead and crafted an in-depth outreach letter to the #1 blog on my prospect list. Within an hour they got back to me which I was not expecting by any means. They allowed us a guest blogging chance and today there are still multiple guest blogging posts live on that network pointing towards my client’s site.

We got a noticeable jump in rankings and referral traffic from those posts and I was pretty chuffed to say the least over my first link, especially since it was on the highest authority site on my list. T’was a good day.

Emma Still

The first link that I ever built was at my first SEO job. I was being trained on link building. We started searching for personal information about the client and found that he was listed as a professor on his college’s website. We emailed the webmaster with a quick “Hey, could you add this link to his profile?”. Within 10 minutes, we had a response like “Hey, sure, I added it.” The person that I was training with assured me that this RARELY happens. If only all links were that easy to come by.

Do you remember the first link you built? Was it similar to any of these stories? Share in the comments below!

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34 Responses to SEOs Tell The Story of Their First Link

  1. Rank Watch says:

    I completely agree with you Alessio. Being building a nice relationship which also gives you some backlinks is the nicest and most positive way a blogger and a site owner can do. Businesses thrive on relationships and links (humanly) and not just sole web-links in competitive times as of today’s.

  2. Chris says:

    Ahhhh the good old days, I’m *proud* to say my first link was probably a lot like Mr Sebald’s adventures in reciprocal link building techniques.

    2006 – good times… good times…

  3. Brian Dean says:

    Great list. I started off like Paddy: building shady MFA sites. So I definitely didn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling from my first link. I’d estimate that my first 1000 links came from link packages and article directories. But I DO remember when I got my first natural link. It felt pretty damn cool.
    : – )

  4. Alessio says:

    Nice stories in here, really. And I totally see how building links in the past was somehow different from how you build link nowadays (me, for example, I’m new on this).

    Thanks for collecting all these stories Emma!

  5. Sean says:

    I honestly didn’t expect you to put in the first paragraph of my response haha! I like the post though, good stuff. Humble beginnings to the web-information organizing present SEOs. Thanks for the inclusion :]

  6. Emma Still says:

    Thanks to everyone who participated! It was great to read all your stories and I hope everyone else gets a kick out of them too :)

  7. Troy Fawkes says:

    I really like the feel to this post. It’s nice to know that a lot of people made all of the same mistakes I first did and improved in entirely different ways.

  8. Nick LeRoy says:

    I’m not 100% sure but I feel confident saying that my first link every acquired came from directories. I spent HOURS submitting to lists of directories.

    • Emma Still says:

      I have a feeling that’s how a lot of us got started. Heck, it still happens in the beginning of a lot of clients’ link building campaigns to get a few easy wins. I think it’s changed now though, where instead of submitting to every directory under the sun, we’ve become much more selective by submitting to niche directories that are relevant to the client’s business.

  9. Back in 2005, november…, 1 month after I got acquinted with SEO and Affiliate Marketing, I built my first link. Truth is I built a piece of software that built my first link(s). Actually it was slightly over 100.000 of them. But all had relevant text (nicely {deep {spinned}} anchor and context) and were ‘editorially’ placed in hidden DIVs on publicly editable Wikis (which were a lot back in the day before me and other like me brought a definitive swift contribution to login only Wikis).

    … haven’t looked back ever since :)

  10. Kane Jamison says:

    Well done Emma, good concept for a post, it’s rare that I read everyone’s submissions. Lots of nostalgia hiding in here…

    • Emma Still says:

      Thanks Kane! I really liked collecting everyone’s stories and was pretty surprised there weren’t more directory stories haha I can imagine that a lot of us had those as our first, but they didn’t really stick out in our memory.

      Thanks for sharing yours!

  11. My first was probably some quick-and-easy directory submission that I later had to disavow… but my first REAL link came about through a long series of emails and interactions with a local business journal. I worked with the reporter to get links added to a series of informational pieces about a client, and that relationship with a local news source has led to more links ever since!

  12. matthew hunt says:

    Fun post!

    Your first link built. I doubt I built… I am sure it was some stupid spammy service I outsourced it too.

    Great hearing of everyone’s 1st’s

  13. Sean Lade says:

    Hey, I love this post. My first “built” link was not so long ago for the company I’m working for at the moment. I pushed a major UK brand that we sell to list us along side the likes of amazon and other major UK retailers. Hard work, but a great link. On to the next

  14. Don Rhoades says:

    Double M, Double L,

    Confession: All of my first links were directory submissions. Or what Peter Griffin would say of Meg (practice links). The one I mentioned here was just the first one I had to think about to get. All others before that were taken rather than “built”, imo. 😛

    Thanks for asking me to participate! It was fun looking back like Stevie Wonder.

  15. My first links would probably be to my Affiliate sites when I first started out in like 2000 ish doing SEO, I am guessing it was something easy like a profile link or signature link on some forums I was active on with exact match term. Other then that web 2.0 properties were pretty easy link targets back in the day.

  16. Jack says:

    Uninteresting article,sorry.

    • Nice List. I started off like Paddy: building shady Master of Fine Arts sites. therefore I positively didn’t get a heat fuzzy feeling from my 1st link. I’d estimate that my 1st one thousand links came from link packages and article directories. however I DO keep in mind after I got my 1st natural link. It felt pretty damn cool.
      : – )

  17. Great post. Brings back lots of memories. I’m pretty sure my first was a Squidoo page and like Sean mentions above I remember asking why. Being an SEO seemed like a strange job and it only got stranger.

  18. Michael J. Kovis says:

    Emma, thank you again for including me in this. It has been an interesting post to read through. A lot of people had so many similar experiences.

    I’m actually wondering if #Sebald and I exchanged links back in the day. Now that would be a story, wouldn’t it? :)

  19. Siegfried says:

    Hello Emma!
    great post, really enjoyed it!
    I wonder how you gathered all these little stories 😉
    best regards

    • Emma Still says:

      A few of these discussions started over Easter dinner with some SEER folks, and then I emailed the others to get their stories too!

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  21. Justin Sous says:

    My first “real” link was a little on the ambitious side. One of my small business clients is really passionate about a few things, one of which is teachers and education. To make a long story short, I ended up getting a link from the Teach For America site next to big companies like Apple and Best Buy :)

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  23. Alex says:

    Apart from a band’s forum I posted in I think my first link was on DMOZ – years before I knew SEO even existed. In 2000 I set up a fansite for a band and the site ended up in the relevant DMOZ category. Years later I found out a DMOZ link was apparently a big deal, and further years later that it wasn’t anymore.

    Recently I moved the website to an archive URL and submitted the updated link to the DMOZ category – to my surprise it was updated the same week! So yeah, maybe that’s a clue to getting a link on DMOZ these days, or maybe it was just a fluke…

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  25. Asher Elran says:

    “My first link? Oh, it was a dirty, shameful one – likely a cheap, scuzzy directory in a category nobody would ever visit”. This was my first link as well. Close to a thousand of them to be exact. The site I build them to ranked pretty well for many years. I abandoned the domain a while ago (after all algorithm changes it did not perform very well). Now I build my links choosing the sources very carefully.

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