Paul May is the CEO and co-founder of BuzzStream, a provider of link building management software . Paul has spent most of the last fifteen years either starting or working on early-stage startups. BuzzStream also offers a variety of free link building tools  for small businesses, SEOs and Internet marketers. Follow and connect with Paul on Twitter: @PaulMay .
BuzzStream is often thought of as a link building tool, but you actually have products for PR and social media as well. How much overlap are you finding between the three disciplines?
It’s funny, because Rae Hoffman-Dolan wrote a post a few years ago where she talked about the skills to look for when hiring a link builder , and I remember thinking when I read it that she might as well have been writing a job spec for a junior PR specialist. I’m paraphrasing here, but her basic premise was that we’re long past the days of hiring directory submission monkeys and you now need to find people who can be groomed into great marketing people. For all of these roles, you need people who are creative, skilled at social media, good communicators, have “rat-like cunning,” and are willing to use all available means to market a website.
So overlap between the groups is nothing new, and the landscape is shifting in ways that are only going to increase this. PR and social media marketers are having to think about scale and they’re being forced by their clients to deliver much more measurable results (which is something SEOs have always been good at). On the link building side, all of Google’s major updates over the last few years (including Panda) have forced a focus on more of the quality links, and this has led to a huge increase in the percentage of our customers who are focused on content-based efforts that look a lot more like traditional PR than old-school link building. On top of that, the in-house guys are pairing their link building campaigns with focused efforts on influencer engagement and community engagement.
In the last few years it seems like there’s a lot more talk about content marketing and relationship building than there was prior to that – both in general and when it comes to link building. How does this impact the products you’re building for link builders, PR professionals, and content marketers?
Well, the first implication is that the two products are merging. We’ve already taken the first step towards this and we’ll continue throughout the year.
More specifically, it means the product will have more capabilities in the areas of what I think of as “engagement coordination” and “engagement intelligence.” If you have a team of people who are tweeting, emailing, commenting, sharing, conducting campaigns … how do you keep track of all these efforts and leverage them for links and mentions? Given the speed of social media, the number of people involved in promotion efforts, and the breadth of channels you’re working across, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of your team’s activities to know what you should be doing at any given point in time. Right now, the reality is that most of the engagement activities that people are involved in just scatters to the wind as soon as they’re finished. Here’s an example … I’m tweeting, sharing, liking, and commenting on content every day, but if someone in my organization is running a campaign, they have no easy way of identifying and leveraging this engagement activity.
Obviously you may be a little biased, but how much of effective content marketing do you think is content quality versus effective outreach and relationship building?
Actually, I think they’re all important and if you suck at any of them, you’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage. You have to do them all well and you have to integrate the efforts.
That said, here’s how I’d rank their value. If you’re just getting started, there’s no better investment that you can make than a good writer . If you’ve already invested in good content, targeted campaigns are very effective. If you’re looking for long-term, sustainable advantage, I don’t think that there’s anything more effective than relationship building . I think it’s telling that there are so many tools available that are designed to help you analyze the competition to determine their content and link building strategy . There’s an entire industry premised on copying your competition. You can’t do that with relationships … build the right relationships with the right people and nurture them over time and you’ll always have a leg up on the competition.
Tell us a little bit about how keywords and search queries impact and are leveraged in link prospecting and link building in general.
Keywords are a really vital part of link prospecting, and link prospecting is a necessary part of deliberate, consistent link building. The basic approach to using keywords in link prospecting is different than traditional keyword research  in that you’re targeting a different audience. When you optimize a page for search you’re trying to find the right balance of relevance to your business, competition, and query volume. When you start to prospect for links you really aren’t as concerned with whether a phrase has a direct sales correlation to your product or service, and you don’t really care if people are searching for it: you’re looking for terms that publishers and writers are using, not searchers.
This means your target keyword list might not be a one-to-one match with your link prospecting keyword list. Things like industry jargon are actually more effective here, because you’re more interested in what the people who write about a topic and publish resource guides on a subject will use to write about it, not what prospects will use to search for it. Rather than thinking about demand fulfillment you’re thinking about document identification – how can I find the documents I want using the terms they might talk about instead of what are my prospects searching for?
Do you think social signals are a ranking factor?
I don’t think there’s any question. Matt Cutts verified that they use retweets and author quality as signals and it’s pretty clear that Google+ data will become a significant signal. From everything I’ve seen, getting high-quality links is still the most important thing to focus on, but it seems pretty clear that social is going to become more important over time.
Which social platforms are most important for SMBs to be active in? Has this changed at all over the past few years?
I think you choose the platform by figuring out your goals and determining where your customers and their influencers participate. If your customers and their influencers are on Twitter, then it makes sense to become active there, but if they live and breathe on some private community site, that’s where you should be. There are a lot of verticals where you’re not going to learn much by looking at Twitter or Facebook. In these niches, if you want to figure out what people are concerned about and who you should pay attention to, you’re going to find them on a specialized community site or a forum.
What tools (free or paid) do you personally use to make your job easier?
I use a lot of different tools, but here are some of the ones I’ve been using a lot lately.
For building lists from Twitter lists, I like formulists  and export.ly  a lot. I use formulists to clone other people’s lists and to look for tweeps that overlap in a lot of people’s Twitter lists. I love that I can enter a Twitter ID and it’ll show me people that are most frequently included in Twitter lists that the person I entered is in. It’s a great way to find influencers in a niche. Export.ly lets me export lists, so that I can run pivot tables in them in Excel (to find “co-mentions” of people between different people’s lists).
I use Google Reader, in conjunction with PostRank , to find people who are writing about my topics and to determine how influential they are. I can create a set of searches, put them in a folder in Google Reader and PostRank shows me which results are getting the highest level of engagement. This makes it easy to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.
I’m just starting to play around with trunk.ly  and I see a lot of potential there. I’m able to connect it to my social profile and it automatically finds the links I’m sharing. The app is pretty new, so it still has some rough edges, but it’s one of those rare apps that got me excited almost immediately.
I use balsamiq  almost every day. It makes it really easy for me to quickly flesh out a product idea and get feedback from customers.