The Big Guide to Outsourcing

Matt Beswick March 15, 2013 16

Since speaking at the Distilled Live event a few weeks ago I’ve been asked by a few people, the most prominent (for reasons which will become clear) being Ade Lewis to put together a blog post detailing the kinds of things that I mentioned. So, here you go. A guide to outsourcing things like research, content, design, outreach and technical work. This is the product of over 4 years experience, which has seen many successes and – importantly – plenty of failures. Hopefully I’ll help you to not make the same mistakes that I did.

Wonderful-Outsourcing

Before I start, it’s probably prudent to explain why I think outsourcing is the way forward for certain kinds of SEO tasks. In short, and as I said during my presentation, 90% of what we do is easy. This isn’t about spamming people or turning to the dark side, it’s about taking the boring processes that already exist in your business, turning them into a step by step guide, and then finding a less costly way of getting stuff done. A prime example of this is research.

Outsourcing Research

I use oDesk, a lot, and have been doing for the last 3 years. Why?

  1. It’s cheap.
  2. You can hire and fire quickly.
  3. You can easily track what people are doing.

Let’s take an example. You have a client in the pet industry and want to find sites that are related to dogs, cats or small animals. You’ve used a mixture of blog lists, advanced search queries, the Citation Labs prospector, a custom scraper that you may have made (Ade and I have come up with one that’s going to be given away during LinkLove) and any number of other sources to get a massive huge list of sites that you think are of a decent quality. But what next?

Yes, you can use scripts or something like BuzzStream to pull in contact data but – in my opinion – there’s no replacement for good old opposable thumbs. Human intelligence, for the most part, still beats machines almost every time.

To show how effective my process is, I did an experiment. Here’s how it went:

Posting the Job

o-desk-header

Hi,

We need someone to help us research contact information for a list of websites. For this job you will need to be able to use Microsoft Excel, Read English and Browse the Internet.

When applying please include the phrase “I have read the description and can start immediately”.

Looking forward to your application,

Matt

As you can see, the application process is fairly straightforward but the important bit here is the fact that your new employees need to copy and paste a phrase into their application. By doing this you’re separating the people who just apply for everything with a copy and pasted cover letter with those who actually read and understand the job description. After all, you don’t want a researcher who can’t be bothered to read things, do you?

What happened when this job was posted?

Within 7 hours I had 154 applications and out of those only 75 copy and pasted my phrase of choice. The cheapest bid was $0.54/hr and there were more than 20 applicants at less than $1/hr. Yes, that’s right, you can hire someone for a whole day at less cost than buying a beer in London.

You’ll notice there that, in theory, I had 154 applications to read through… but here’s a really handy tip. Get someone else, that you’ve hired through oDesk, to check your job applications for you. This is possible because my selection process is so simple:

  1. Order by cheapest;
  2. Check they’ve copy and pasted the phrase;
  3. Click ‘hire’.

You’re really not worried about getting the highest quality of individual for these tasks because, as you’ll see in a while, there are ways of easily checking their work. At this point it call comes back to being a numbers game – something Paul Madden talked about at SearchLove last year. He’s at the point where he’s got managers on oDesk doing pretty much everything for him, which isn’t something I’ve done, but it shows how immensely powerful this can be.

At this point I knew that I needed 8 people to check my list of sites, which I’d broken out into four separate spreadsheets (200 in each) and added included the following columns:

  • First Name of Site Owner
  • Last Name of Site Owner
  • Email Address of Site Owner (if you can find it)
  • URL of Contact Form (if there is one)
  • Is the site about dogs? (Yes / No)
  • Is the the site about cats? (Yes / No)
  • Does the site have a blog? (Yes / No)
  • How nice looking is the site? (Poor, Average, Good, Very Good, Excellent)

I also had a set of instructions that told me new members of staff what they needed to do (in a step by step guide), why they were doing it (to give context) and when it was needed by (with the empty threat of rejecting their timesheet if they were late).

At this point the more awake of you are probably thinking ’4 spreadsheets but 8 members of staff?’. Well spotted! Because we’re using such inexpensive resource it’s worth getting two people to check the same site, and then use some VLOOKUP magic in excel to check them against each other. If they’ve both found the same info, chances are it’s correct… if they haven’t you can just get it triple or quadruple checked, verify it against WHOIS, or use any number of other APIs – TextWise, Alchemy, etc. – to help make sure that your data is really, really accurate.

The End Result

Less than a day later I had my 800 sites double checked and it had cost me a whopping $33.14.

Long Term Resource

It’s important to note here that not everything I do on oDesk is about really cheap resource. There’s one person in particular that I’ve been working with for about 4 years and, in a way, has helped me grow my various businesses hugely. She gets fairly regular pay rises, is always happy to get involved with different kinds of tasks, and is one of my very closely guarded secrets as I would hate to see someone steal her!

Next up: Content

Written-Content

This is where it gets a little more tricky because the quality of your written content needs to be high. I’ve tried oDesk for this and, for the most part, you get fairly awful writers applying and it’s only now and again that you find someone good. Even worse, when you do, they tend to be quite expensive. The solution? TextBroker.com.

This site basically works by allowing you to upload a content request which is then put into a pool. Writers choose the jobs they want to complete, have a set time that they need to be finished in, and submit their content for review before that timer expires (otherwise the job goes back into the pool for someone else to select).

For us there’s also the added benefit of being able to create your own teams of writers, submit ‘Direct Orders’ to people that you know are good, and bulk upload requests via a CSV when required to save the time and effort of doing each one individually. Finally, and most importantly, you’re able to easily select the quality of writer depending on your budget. The screenshot below shows the interface (I’ve moved this around a bit to make it smaller but you’ll see what I mean):

Textbroker-Job

My top tips for TextBroker?

  1. Write a detailed description, with bullet points, of what you’re looking for.
  2. Wherever possible, select 4* for quality. You’ll find that the writers are good, it’s very cheap, and there’s enough competition to make sure that you get your content back quickly.
  3. Don’t be afraid to reject poor quality submissions but give constructive feedback so the writer is able to change things around and do better next time.

One important thing to mention here is that you should always be checking and editing the content that comes back. This isn’t a miracle fix that could replace a really good in-house writer – it’s a technique that lets you get decent written content done quickly and cheaply. We always edit this to make sure it fits with the tone and style that we’re looking for, add in any relevant links, and generally just tidy things up.

Design

Moving onto Design it starts to get even more difficult to outsource great quality design ‘on the cheap’ and it comes down to trial and error. I’ve had great success with:

  • 99designs.com
  • Finding design students looking to expand their portfolio
  • Hunting for design resource in places like Eastern Europe

The first of those is quick, easy, and will usually give you great results for relatively little cost. Again, for those that don’t know, 99designs works on a ‘bid’ system whereby you upload a request and then go through the process of giving feedback to designers and – at the end – selecting the one that you like the most. You also have the option of rejecting them all and receiving a refund if you’re really not happy, although – so far – that’s not something I’ve had to do.

Dog Names Infographic

When you find a good designer, make sure you realise how lucky you are. For example, the designer I use most but together the dog names infographic on Pet365 for somewhere in the region of £200. So far, has picked up over 40 linking root domains, done really well on Social Media, and will continue to provide visits and links for as long as the site is up and running. The person that designed this is always paid on time, has his emails responded to as soon as I possibly can, and I generally try to keep him as happy as I possibly can simply because I know how lucky I am to have him on board.

Outreach

This is where things start to get really juicy, especially if you’re playing the ‘numbers game’ when it comes to outreaching content and guest posting opportunities. This will probably have Wil Reynolds shouting at his screen and James Agate thinking “I’m way better at this than him” but this process is one that’s worked for me over the last few months and, so far, has saved me an absolute fortune.

Basically, the key is personalisation and segmentation.

Outsourcing-Relationships

For this example, let’s suppose that we’ve produced the dog names infographic that I mentioned earlier and are now trying to outreach it to as many dog related sites as possible. From our research we have a big list of domains that we know are about dogs, and have a blog attached to them. We’ve also use SEO Tools for Excel or the SEOMoz API to pull in a load of metrics – Domain Authority, Page Authority and MozRank being the key ones – so have a good idea of which the most popular sites are. But how do we then outreach to them?

Some would say that you need to personalise absolutely everything, but you get to the point of diminishing returns on your time investment by doing that so let’s break things out into buckets.

  • Top Priority: Domain Authority 60+
  • Medium Priority: Domain Authority 35+
  • Low Priority: Domain Authority 35-

This is oversimplified as you may also want to take social metrics into account but you get the idea. Basically, top priority we don’t outsource anywhere. These are the site that you want to build a relationship with so start interacting on Twitter, make friends, and generally get involved, as much as you can, with the people that own those sites.

Medium priority will be a mixture of outsourced work and sites that you want to get in touch with yourself. Either way there should be a fairly hefty amount of personalisation done on any emails so you’re not going to want to use resource that’s really cheap. Again, use oDesk, but spend more time finding the right person. Send them a list of 10 sites and get them to send you an example outreach email (based on a rough) that they would send to that owner. If the first attempt is crap, don’t give up – give them feedback and try again.

Finally, low priority – for the most part – can be contacted using a template with some basic personalisation. Again, you don’t want ultra cheap resource doing this and they need to have a very good grasp of English but it’s far simpler than the medium priority technique.

The key to all this is to not SPAM, do everything manually, but use tools like BuzzStream to speed up your processes. Give your oDesk resources access, set up the templates, assign tasks and sites to different people, and track what they’re doing. At this point you’re no longer doing the legwork yourself – you’re managing a team – so make sure that people are happy, understand what they’re doing, and keep an eye on how many links each individual is building vs. how much you’re paying them. If you find someone that’s great, reward them by increasing their pay. If they don’t perform, work to help them improve… or remove them from your team and find someone better.

It sounds cut throat but that’s how oDesk resourcing works.

Coding

I’ve been outsourcing most of my development for a very long time, have tried a few different options, and always come back to the same conclusion: find someone you can work with, make sure they do high quality work, and stick with them. I’ve tried India: in my opinion the timezones and difference in culture make it very difficult. Russia? Better, but still not quite there… Ukraine is where it’s at!

My team started on a tiny project of just a few hundred dollars and since then have worked on anything up to $100,000. They work hard, are easy to explain things to, and – most importantly – can be creative when needed. Finding a team can be tricky though, so again I’d advise going to elance or oDesk with a small project and seeing how things go. If you’re happy, try a slightly larger task but to start with always get a 2nd opinion on the code that’s being created if you’re unsure.

Do your best to get a fixed price quote, make sure you have a proper tech spec, and take into account that if you change your mind the cost is going to increase… so don’t fight it – just accept that it’s your own fault, agree how much extra you owe, and get on with it. Also, make sure that you pay on time as it makes a HUGE difference to how you’re perceived and how much goodwill is carried forward from whoever you’re outsourcing to.

Also, remember that you need to manage things closely and having technical knowledge will really help with this. I hear time and time again of people who don’t know anything about coding or site builds that try to outsource and end up in all kinds of trouble. If that’s you, find someone that knows their stuff and get them to help you manage the project – it will make it easier (and save you money) in the long run.

Finally… if you feel comfortable managing a project and want an introduction to a team that will look after you feel free to contact me directly and I’ll do an intro.

That’s about it…

I know that some parts of this have more detail than others but, to a point, you need to work out what’s going to be best for your individual situation. As with anything in the SEO industry it’s all about relationships so manage your team as best you can, remember that they’re people, and – even if they’re costing you virtually nothing – look after them as best you can.

Questions? Ask below or fire me an email.

16 Comments »

  1. claire stokoe March 19, 2013 at 10:35 am - Reply

    I love 99designs.com, the guys on there are awesome..

    • Matt Beswick March 19, 2013 at 11:33 am - Reply

      Claire – agreed! Any good tips for making sure you get the most from them? (My ‘trial and error’ advice never feels that actionable)…

      • claire stokoe March 19, 2013 at 11:43 am - Reply

        give TONS of feedback .. to each and every designer and then when you find a good one.. contact them off site and work closely with them. I always feel sorry for them as not all of them get the gig and they are all brilliant.. but you have to get your harsh head on and choose one. BUT always keep in touch with the others for later designs

  2. Ramesh Nair March 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Good one, Matt!

    I have been running a digital agency in India for over a decade and I agree that cultural differences do a play a role in business relations at times. The timezone difference however is typically taken as a advantage for clients from the west.

    • Matt Beswick March 20, 2013 at 9:28 am - Reply

      Hi Ramesh,

      The timezone thing is an interesting one. For me, it depends on the resource that you’re working with… if it’s something that can be briefed and completed without much interaction that’s fine, but I spend a -lot- of time speaking to people on Skype so prefer not do be doing so at 3am ;)

      Matt

  3. A.J. Ghergich March 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Great read..I am always very interested in seeing how others automate/outsource redundant tasks. I am very interested in the scraping tool you created.

    Is it online or an actual application you download?

    • Matt Beswick March 20, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

      A.J – At the moment it’s hidden away but I’m working on a post that will both show people how to create it and, more importantly, give some source code away. Hoping to get it done early next week but will hit you up a little earlier (as soon as I’ve tidied my horrendous code up) :)

  4. Aymeric March 20, 2013 at 5:22 am - Reply

    I wrote a guest blog that seems to complete yours: 47hats.com/2011/07/outsourcing-101-for-startup-founders/

  5. Mike April 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    Nice article, Matt. I agree the key to working with outsourcers is managing them. Do you ever find yourself losing an SEO client who wants to try outsourcing themselves?

  6. Mark Holmes May 9, 2013 at 3:46 am - Reply

    I am stunned reading this article.Only 75 of 154 people copy pasted your phrase. How lazy the people are! Its only three sentences and they can’t read even that

  7. Steve May 18, 2013 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Great post Matt! Restored my faith in giving it a try following getting bitten badly lately with a project and a complete idiot in the UK market who offered 100% white label and then made a royal pigs ear of it it all. Thanks for the detail and the confidence to try it again.

  8. Miguel Salcido June 18, 2013 at 12:31 am - Reply

    Matt, this is gold! One of my favorite posts of the year. I love the actionable advice here. Outsourcing on places like oDesk can be intimidating. I think there are more outsourcing horror stories out there than success ones, so most people are afraid of it. Opportunities for us!

    I’m interested in the scraper too. I won’t make LinkLove but will make SearchLove in San Diego.

    • Matt Beswick June 18, 2013 at 10:54 am - Reply

      Thanks Miguel. Sadly I’m not going to make it out to San Diego (went to SearchLove Boston a few weeks ago so can’t quite justify the costs for another big trip at the moment). Looks amazing though and I know that Lynsey and Lauren are more than a little pleased with themselves at how good the venue is so I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

  9. grant harrison February 24, 2014 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    Hi matt i love what you wrote in all those articles ,its very interesting and informative,i am wondering if you can help me I am desperately looking for a very good seo and google adword freelancer to work full time for me ,and you really seem to know your stuff,could you please give me a call when you free ,kind regards grant harrison

  10. Tina March 26, 2014 at 5:58 am - Reply

    Matt, Is outsourcing really a good way to grow my business?

  11. saleh April 6, 2014 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Just stumbled on this at the right time. I’m about to outsource content for my authority review site at textbroker.
    Awesome article. It makes everything so much easier for me.

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