Are you building an acquisition website while running a referral business?

Let’s start with the punchline:

Way too many marketers who work for wonderful referral-based businesses in the offline world, fail when they try to drive new customer businesses online.

What do I mean by this?

When you talk with the owners/founders/executives at many great companies, they will eagerly tell you that their best business comes from the networks that they’ve built up over the years. I’d argue that these include the majority of B2B businesses, including most financial institutions, legal firms, real estate brokerages, etc.

These people at these companies know that they live by referral business.

But for whatever reason, when they start doing online marketing, the let their marketers go into data-driven analytical mode with a laser-like focus on attracting their next client (“acquisition marketing”) instead of using their website/content/social to appeal to the people who are already inclined to work with them (“referral marketing”).

Luxury Real Estate Example

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a presentation in Miami to some of the top luxury real estate brokers in the world on how they should be using social media. The 50+ brokers who attended are regularly helping billionaires and other extremely high-worth clients buy properties in excess of $10M in places like Malibu, Beverly Hills, the Hamptons, Manhattan, Monaco and Miami.

In putting together the presentation, I took the chance to review every one of their websites and social presence and the thing that stuck out for me was how so many of the sites were focused on driving inbound leads through SEO.

Almost all of the brokers who had websites included:

  • CTAs (Call-to-actions) all over the site
  • Landing pages for every neighborhood in their service area
  • Big beautiful homes featured along site home search functionality

All best practices for real estate agents in today’s hyper competitive world, right?


Except I asked how many of the luxury brokers in the audience were happy with the leads that came through their website and almost nobody raised their hand.

Of course, almost none of the luxury brokers were happy with the results from their websites.

And why should the be. People who register for a  home search in Malibu or Miami are already always lookie loos. They’re just noise. They’re a nuisance for these brokers who want to deal exclusively with high net worth individuals.

High net worth individuals are rarely, if ever, googling “miami real estate broker” to find their agent. Instead, they’re asking friends, lawyers, business partners, etc. who they would recommend.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Those same high wealth individuals are using google. Once they have a recommendation, I’d argue that the vast majority will Google the broker’s name to see if that person really is credible.

In other words, the luxury broker’s website has an AWESOME opportunity to convert the exact kind of clients they want. Done right, their website should ooze credibility.

Essentially, their website should scream:

“I am the dominant luxury broker in this market. If you’re a high-worth clients looking to buy a luxury home, you’ll be safe working with me. Even better, I have access to exclusive information, reports, pocket listings, etc. and a top-notch team that mean you simply won’t be able to get our level of service from anyone else in the market.”

Instead, the vast majority of the luxury agent websites were:

  • Featured the same content (property listings and lots of landing pages for every neighborhood in the area) that any agent with access to the MLS could replicate
  • Often only gave lip-service to the broker since, presumably, they’ve been told that people are only interested in home search and they need to get them there quickly.

What if instead of trying to attract leads, the agents homepage was designed to give confirmation to the high net worth client that they were working with the right person?

That’s the assumption I made when putting together this presentation for that Miami event:

In summary, the great luxury real estate agents drive their business from referrals and they know it…. and yet, when they market online, they inevitably become convinced they need to adopt new customer acquisition strategies that often don’t even have a place in their business model.

Crazy… and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Air Cover for Sales

However, far from being exclusive to luxury real estate, I’ve seen this assumption from startup founders and enterprise executives who will readily admit that the majority of their business comes from referral sources, but put all their online marketing efforts into driving inbound leads.

The example I used in the presentation to illustrate this was from the financial services space by comparing the websites of Goldman Sachs and e-trade.

  • E-trade is loaded with CTAs and clearly looking for every lead they can get
  • Goldman Sachs has no lead capture form (at least none I could find)

Goldman Sachs uses their website to build credibility with people who are already inclined to work with them.

In other words, the Goldman Sachs website is being used to provide air cover for sales and this is a super important role. The people doing marketing at Goldman Sachs know someone who is thinking of doing business with them is going to look at their website… The people are going to be comparing working with them vs working with another large financial institution. They want that business, so they have ever incentive to show that they are the dominant  player in the space and the best choice for exclusive clients.

I love the example Goldman Sachs because it’s so obvious that they don’t even want online leads.

Are you aware of other companies that use their website to build credibility with potential referral partners instead of trying to drive leads? 

Optimize for inbound links or on-site SEO?

I’ve started many new domains over the years (,,, and come to mind, although I’m sure there are probably another dozen that didn’t last long to even come to mind). However, it’s been a few years and the last one I remember creating, which was… and that was only creating a subdomain on a high ranking site, so it’s definitely not a typical new site.

I say all this because I was a bit surprised when I noticed that this site started ranking in Google only days after adding the first two pages:

It seems obvious that the Google Sandbox is long gone!

And yet, I’m stuck in my ways and thought I’d start this new blog with a post on some SEO best practices that haven’t changed at all over the years.

And maybe my favorite example of this is from a blog post I write in Dec 2005

I remember at the time of writing this post, I would have these long conversations with people about the importance of driving inbound links and people would look at me like I had two heads. The people creating business websites back then, especially real estate websites, were so focused on creating “wonderful” user experiences, they that forgot to create content people would share (probably one of the reason the post hit a nerve and generated 137 comments!).

You’d think that over a decade later, everyone would agree that a blog should be used to drive inbound links… and yet… I’m pained to say that we went the other way. Way too many blog posts became “optimized” for google bots with unreadable and generic content that nobody would ever share.


I think most people did this with the  best of intentions. Creating content people want to share is hard while optimizing a blog post for keywords is easy.

However, the result is that I feel like I could write the same Linkation, Linkation, Linkation post in 2018 that I wrote in 2005.

So, what generated this little rant about the importance of driving inbound links? Earlier today, I tweeted that I was pleasantly surprised how quickly google let this site out of their sandbox, and a most wonderful Realtor named Laura Fangman asks a simple question: “Any tips?”

And so I shared with her my thoughts on the importance of creating structured content.

In a nutshell, at D&B, we knew we wanted to rank for business credit related terms, so we created a Business Credit Guide and then loaded it up with tons of content in a very structured way so that google would easily be able to understand how to prioritize the content.

Things near the base of the directory, like , were super relevant, while things that were much deeper, like our Veteran Supplier Diversity page: , were long-tail terms. The beauty is that the site structure was able to quickly teach google the most important content on the site.

Thanks to the fact that we were consolidating hundreds of pages and multiple sites, we were quickly able to build out a very robust guide and google has rewarded the site with highly targeted and free traffic for years.

However, the logical structure and comprehensive content were only one part of why the site ranked so well. We also made sure to have tons of content on the subdomain that was optimized for inbound links, including blog posts, podcast episodes, expert profiles, webinars, etc.

If I had to summarize some of the things I’ve learned over the years, it would be that a well-functioning business website should have:

  • A community section that’s optimized for driving inbound links. It could be a blog section, a message board, a podcast, etc. What’s most important is that that section is designed to drive inbound links from other blogs and social sites.
  • A section (I’ll call the “guide”) that’s optimized for driving onsite SEO value so that Google will send it’s most wonderful free traffic

As a bonus, when the guide is set up right, just about EVERY post that goes up in the community section should have a reason to link into the guide (internal linking at it’s best!)

(In addition to a community section and a guide, there’s a key third element that’s should be part of every business website… I’ll call the credibility-building section, but leave that for a different blog post!)

In this way, the community section is optimizing for SEO when it’s optimized to drive inbound links. I would happily argue that anything that distracts from driving inbound links is hurting SEO for this section.

  • Is there a pop-up on your blog posts that’s stops people from wanting to share your posts? Get rid of it!
  • Is the title so optimized for SEO that it looks spammy? Use a “real” title instead.
  • Is it loaded with CTAs so that nobody would ever tweet your blog post? Get rid of them!

Seriously, think of your blog as something optimized to get people to share the link. Anything that causes someone to hesitate to share the link should be removed.

In terms of the guide, this authoritative section of your site is where you should make sure to optimize your site for onsite SEO. This is where you really do want to make sure that the Google bots can easily understand the structure of your site. The content on every page here is important as it has potential to pay the bills for years to come.

Especially as this is the first blog post on a brand new blog, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Do you agree it makes the most sense to have a section of your site purely designed to drive inbound links? 
  • Do you have an interesting example of anyone else who’s created this kind of deep and structured content? (would love some more examples to point to!)