How To Improve .EDU Link Requests Using Academic Metaphors

As a web marketer who is requesting high-quality links from the gatekeepers of academic sites, understanding the lingo and professional culture of the academic world can greatly improve your success rate. Academic environments can be a bit more formal and regulated than web or business world. When you get through to a blogger or .com webmaster and ask for a link, there’s usually a minimum of red tape: they’ll decide to link to you or they won’t.

But when you get through to an academic webmaster or university professor, you’ll oftentimes encounter someone who isn’t outright opposed to granting you a link – but it feels much safer for them to not make a decision or personally advocate for an outsider’s proposal. Some fear that giving you a link to you might be frowned upon by one of their peers or be in technical violation of some fine print (on page 397) of the school policy or employee conduct code. They shudder to think of being called to task in front of the dean or president (and possibly demoted or fired) for making an inappropriate use of a government websites or school resources.

Although the red tape and hesitation around outbound linking in the academic world can be challenging, the response and linking rates from .edu contacts can increase dramatically with some subtle tactical changes. If you dig deep, using the phone and advanced link building queries, you will encounter “virgin” webmasters and decision makers whose contact information isn’t listed anywhere near the desirable target pages. These people are infrequently spammed or contacted by email, and therefore, not yet hardened to link requests. Using academic-sounding metaphors and terminology when building relationships or pitching can really help win favor “close the sale” and get them to take initiative and risk to link to your site, rather than ignore you.

Here are three of my favorite metaphors for eliciting sympathy and closing the deal when .edu link building.

Request an academic citation. When requesting .edu links, I’ll sometimes describe myself as a researcher or independent publisher who is striving to create world-class “research guides” and “online publications” (a.k.a. blogs and web pages) on a topic. I stress how there is little to no current research on my specific niche, and I explain how my content is dire need of an academic citation in order to be read and respected by my peers.

The best way I could get an “academic citation” would be from a link in the text of page X of the university’s site. I explain Google will automatically count this and help my research be more easily found by my peers. Department heads and professors who otherwise would refuse to give a “link” to a marketer or business person sometimes will sometimes be willing to go out on a limb and provide your “research” with an “academic citation” because they can empathize with that concept.

Ask for a grant. Academic folks can be sympathetic to a wholesome story about someone is working on a noble publishing project or research—that could help all of humanity—but will never see the light of day unless it is recognized and financially compensated by a generous outside institution or committee. Writing and requesting grants is common and respectable academic activity. Reviewing and awarding grants is an elite, high-level role… so play your request to make your target feel like a noble and generous bigwig.

I like to explain that I have an amazing web site or resource that I have spent hundreds of hours on, but because it is brand new, and it can’t be found by anyone. My research project probably won’t receive the necessary traffic or funding to be sustainable unless it gets recognized by an esteemed academic institution (such as theirs) and increases its web traffic. I ask if their department or institution would be able to help me with a grant of support in the form of a link. A link from page XYZ at a prestigious university like theirs would honestly would be more valuable to the success of my seed research project (a.k.a. quality content page)—and to my own career—than $5,000 endowment. Could they possibly grant my web research efforts a just a tiny bit of help?

Check out this handy glossary of grant terms to get a feel for some of the language and formalities used by academics when making their projects sound important and asking for support. The “grant” approach can works well for government (.GOV) sites.

Apply for a scholarship. Another thing academics are sympathetic towards is recognizing a deserving “student” who shows great future potential by offering them a benefits and financial support package called a “scholarship.” For a link builder making her case, the “student” could be a promising PageRank 0 website, and the “scholarship” could be a juicy link on a heavily-linked-to, on-topic page. You can play the “starving student” card. Explain that you’re an independent blogger/researcher/webmaster without any steady paycheck or means of outside support. Describe how hard you’ve worked on this great content that is getting no visitors, and how a link from the right page at Harvard would be like a scholarship to your site and directly improve personal situation more than money.

While this may sound a little bit of a stretch, I have personally used these metaphors to help build rapport and close the deal on fresh, juicy links from some of the web’s most desirable .EDU and .GOV sites. Taking the time to learn about the personal details and projects of the academic gatekeeper—and then and phrasing your request in terms they’ll be (personally and professionally) sympathetic towards—will always get you the best response rate.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | How To: Links | Link Building: General


About The Author: is an independent web traffic developer and strategy consultant based in Colorado. He specializes online reputation management and research, link building and social media.

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  • Everett

    Brett this is a brilliant new take on a topic I thought, until now, that I’d heard too much about. We should all remember to customize our message to the audience and this is a prime example. Bravo, great article!

  • Case Ernsting

    hmm, I’m a little hesitant to jump on board with these suggestions. I’d classify some of these “Metaphors” as little more than deceptions. In the black hat – white hat spectrum, the first two suggestions fall closer to black hat.

    One of the best strategies I’ve heard of with .EDU domains is as follows:
    Write something relevant and impressive about a certain project or initiative professors or faculty are working on. They will surely link back to you and you will earn an organic link in a white-hat way.

  • Eric Ward

    As my private link building career began, I was working full time in academia as a Research Associate at a large Uuniversity and handled all the web related policy stuff.

    I set up my email to receive copies of any email sent to any of our general university email addresses, like webmaster@, info@, etc. The spam, even in 1994, was insane. It wasn’t always for links, since back then only us (forward thinking:) link builders went after edus. But here’s the challenge. The seeker of the link often has an over-inflated sense of the quality of their content, i.e., they think it’s linkworthy when in fact it’s not. Big brands are especially guilty. So what if you are, your content blows.

    So, my obvious point that I still feel compelled to make here is that while I agree that the pursuit of edu based links requires a very different and entirely unique finess, it will only work if your content is worthy to this highly educated and resource-centric target to begin with. Sometimes you just have to tell the client that pursuit of edu links is pointless for them, becasue their site aint going to earn them.


  • Marjory

    I don’t know who you were talking to at any serious academic institution who would be prepared to give you a link under those circumstances. While some academics that I know would probably not realize the importance of a link, they have a keen understanding of the importance of a citation, a grant or a scholarship and are unlikely to give you one for some random website.

  • BrettBorders


    I’m not suggest trying to be deceptive or lie about your content or your situation. It’s just about very subtly phrasing and pitching your request in a way that sounds legitimate within their professional world – rather than being “some commercial marketing guy who wants a link.” I might send a e-mail headline of “Academic Citation Request” and then sincerely explain who I am and why I am troubling them for a link. Or might notice that their department received a research grant, congratulate them, and ask about their

    I agree that only extremely well-targeted and appealing content is going to have much success. I only use this approach after creating custom content that is genuinely worth of an “academic citation” from the people I’m asking or else its a waste of time. Most people’s default content isn’t going to cut it.


    I’m not suggesting to be crass or communicate with highly-intelligent academic people in a deceptive way… these are just some powerful metaphors I help use to explain my need for a link and why I need it urgently (not next semester, etc.)

    People at Harvard, M.I.T., Stanford, Caltech – and various high-level government research labs – have give me links using this approach me because of how I approached them and asked. I don’t suggest trying to play M.I.T.’s electrical engineering professor for a fool and asking him for “link scholarship” right away. I build rapport with them first before asking for anything. I truthfully explain how Google works and say that I need outside support for my project – and if they could grant me a simple link as a recommendation of quality of the content – it would honestly be more helpful to me as an independent webmaster, than a financial scholarship is for a student. That is 101% true and smart academic people sometimes “get” link building if you explain it in a way they can sympathize with.

  • Stupidscript

    Brett, while I and most other marketers can appreciate the distinction you are attempting to make between being dishonest and being on the edge of being honest, honestly, your tips do seem to go over the line.

    First, you recommend describing yourself as ‘a researcher or independent publisher who is striving to create world-class “research guides” and “online publications”’ and figure this is an acceptable “metaphor” for yourself and your website.

    Second, you piggyback further on the somewhat misleading “research project” metaphor and suggest that it is cool to get links be inflating the egos of those with whom you are dealing.

    Third, you suggest playing ‘the “starving student” card’, but you don’t qualify that by insisting that it be true, which is, again, misleading, at best.

    Any all of these are targeted at people within academia who you describe, correctly, as “someone who isn’t outright opposed to granting you a link – but it feels much safer for them to not make a decision or personally advocate for an outsider’s proposal” … indicating that you are attempting to get around the REAL authority for what you want to do.

    Not only that, but if the techniques you suggest are successful, the person you just schmoozed into compliance really has no reason or the ability to discern whether your website really does have quality content that they can trust will only bring glory to their institution, because they aren’t the person who has the experience and judgment to make such decisions in the correct context.

    “Metaphor” is not an innocent word. How would you like if you were conned into buying property by some guy who sold you a “nice beachfront property” with “low taxes” and “year-round babes”, only to discover when you visited your new property that you had invested in a dumpster on the beach across from a women’s spa? The only way you would recognize your error would be to use the evaluation tools you have available to you … by visiting the area and using the knowledge you had to recognize the problem … which you are suggesting should be trampled on when it comes to seeking links from academics … most of whom wouldn’t know “quality” web content if it smacked them upside the head.

    I’m sorry, but you are recommending fooling people who should not be making these decisions into making them based on false pretenses, and using the same techniques as those used by snake-oil salesmen through the ages. Tricking the respondent into believing you are someone who you are not, working on a project you are not, and for some intangible (to them) benefit that clearly favors your site at their expense.

  • BrettBorders


    I think you took this article more literally than it was intended.

    I’m not suggesting anyone lie… but just to make their own honest situation fit within a metaphor that the target audience can understand.

    If I were trying to build links from agricultural sites, I would say I have some really nice seed pages that need a bit of fertilizer to help them bloom in Google. Can you spare any?

    By playing the “starving student card” that doesn’t mean lying about being a student if you aren’t… it just means to elicit sympathy by telling them what a tough time you’re having trying to make ends meet as a webmaster trying to get traffic in a crowded niche full of obsolete junk in the SERPs, when your guide – that you truly spent about 130+ hours on – is the only non-affiliate information center on solar panels on the Web that isn’t 5 years obsolete. By using a “grant” – it’s not like I am literally asking them for a grant – it’s just a metaphor for someone helping out because they believe the work you’re doing has merit.

    As a freelance link builder and self-employed webmaster I am perpetually STARVING for green pixels and Page + Trust Rank – constantly getting rejected and ignored – biting my nails and knowing if I don’t manage to work magic and defy the odds each month – and pull in a bucket of juicy links – I get fired or go broke.

    If an academic is entitled to write a truthful but fluffy grant proposal or tenure application.. or a flowery letter of recommendation for a student.. I can and will write a link request that has a chance of not being deleted in 0.2 seconds because I use the wrong words my target can’t connect with.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Brett-

    Well, I am a career academic and I also think you crossed the line. I understand that you are giving sound advice on “using the users’ language.” And that appears to be one of your points.

    Nevertheless, when you use a phrase such as “truthful but fluffy grant proposal or tenure application,” it demonstrates a lack of respect toward the very people (academics) you want to provide you with links.

    I understand that you and other website owners want links to your respective websites. I understand the importance of quality. Stretching the truth and lying about being a student or whatever song-and-dance you’re stating is just crossing the line for me.

    That is my personal point of view. I am aware other link builders would just go for it, regardless.

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