A solid link-building strategy is a must for marketing and growing your business.
The practical benefits are clear: more links mean more people are seeing your website (whether that’s your home page or a specific landing page). More eyeballs on your site mean more leads, and more leads means more conversions, and more conversions means more revenue (at least that’s the plan). This is true whether you have an ecommerce website, run a service-based small business, or are a marketing VP in a mid- to enterprise-level B2B.
What is link building?
Quickly, for those not in the know, links are the connections made when someone hyperlinks from their website back to your website. This could be a citation in a newspaper or blog post; inclusion in a list of resources, and so forth. It’s a sign that someone thinks your content is good; it is, in essence, a recommendation.
Links have historically been an important way that Bing, Google and the other search engines understand what your content is about, and validate your website. “Links are the single most important ranking factor for Google,” said Scott Hendison, president of Search Commander, Inc., an internet marketing consultancy.
It used to be the more links you had, the better your search engine results. As a result, more than a few businesses (“link farms”) have sprung up over the years offering to sell hundreds and thousands of links to your site. That isn’t the case anymore, Hendison said, as Google and the other search engines have taken steps to thwart those that try to game the system.
Today, linking factors evaluated and weighed in Google’s algorithm include the number of links to your site, the quality of those links (including the authority of the site linking to you) and the anchor text used in creating those links (the highlighted text that you use to hyperlink to an internal or external webpage).
How do I build links for my business?
When asked by clients for the best way to build links, Hendison answers, “Did you cure cancer? If you cure cancer, everyone will link to you.”
Hidden in the sarcasm is the reality that great, targeted content will earn you the links you need and want.
“Definitely, the term ‘link building’ stirs up the wrong connotation with a lot of folks,” said Kevin Getch, founder and director of digital strategy for Webfor, a creative and digital marketing agency. “They should really think of it as good marketing.”
He said building links takes both time and a strategy.
Create a link-building plan
First things first. You should make sure your website or specific landing pages are optimized, and that you are offering a great user experience. The next step is to create content that folks will want to link to – or to paraphrase Hendison, go cure cancer.
I’ve said this before, but a great starting place for developing your link building (or nearly any other) strategy.strategy is to begin by looking at what’s working already for your business and see what opportunities you can leverage. Take a look at your data. Do you know where people are coming to your site from now? What pages or blog posts they read while on your site? What content are they linking to?
Knowing this helps understand what future content to create, but also helps identify what on your site could benefit from link building. You might decide to bolster the content that is already converting, or you might want to jump start underperforming pages.
Use one of the many tools out there, whether Moz’s Open Site Explorer or Act-On’s Inbound tools, to see who’s linking to your site and what type of content they are linking to. This inbound links audit is a good first step in building your tactical link building strategies.
The next step is to see what links your competitors have linking to their website.
Getch said he helped one law irm client win a high-quality link from a government agency when they saw that the content the agency was previously linking to on a competitor’s site was outdated. Getch worked with the client to create updated content, and then sent a note to the agency with a link to the fresh content. The agency accepted the tip and made the link.
Your link-audit research will also help you identify low-hanging fruit for link building. This includes making sure you have a link to your site from any industry, business, or community associations to which you belong. It includes having links to your site from vendors or suppliers. It includes potentially having links from clients, customers, and strategic partners. The research should also help you identify incoming links that are broken. The list goes on.
Additionally, you should research your industry to see which websites you would want linking to your site. Tools such as Followerwonk or Buzzstream can help identify the key influencers for your business and industry. You can set up Google Alerts or use Act-On’s prospector tools to begin building relationships with these potential linking partners.
Targeted link building
Michael Cottam, CEO of Visual Itineraries and an independent SEO consultant, said quality matters more than quality when it comes to links.
“If you are aiming to get links from a site, it should be a website you would be excited about getting the link from,” he said.
He said two of his clients, both criminal defense attorneys in different cities, rank atop the search results for their keywords based largely, he believes, from being quoted (and linked to) from their local newspaper. He said one quality link matters 100 times more than a bunch of low-quality links.
Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, talked about link building during a recent White Board Friday, his popular SEO video blog.
He said once you have a kick-ass website and killer content, the next step is going out and developing the links. He talks about three strategies: one-to-one, broadcast, and paid. You can watch the video below.
In one-to-one outreach, you reach out to the people and websites you want links from and introduce yourself, discuss why you think they would be interested in the content you are sharing, and provide a link to that content. The outreach could be via email, phone call, or tweet. Below is an example of an email asking for a link that was recently sent to the Search Engine Marketers of Portland (SEMpdx), a Portland nonprofit association.
Broadcast outreach could be sharing your content socially, through your monthly newsletter, or in a blog post.
Paid outreach includes advertising on social media and on the search engines, retargeting, display, and so forth.
Outsourcing the work
There are folks that strike link-building oil on the first try and develop some type of linkable content that virally gets links from all sorts of places. That will likely not happen in your case (or mine).
You can also hire a firm that will do the work for you from creating strategies, to finding opportunities, to reaching out and developing the links.
Getch said hiring an outside agency makes sense when your company is mature enough that you’re also hiring outside help for business services such as bookkeeping, legal counsel, and so forth. When hiring an agency, he said, you should check the agency’s references and ask them about the process and see if it matches up with what you have been told, or with what’s worked for you so far.
All three experts interviewed in this post, as well as the author, are SEMpdx board members. The nonprofit recently adopted a member code of ethics that requires members, including the board, to adhere to Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Checking in with your local Better Business Bureau or an organization like SEMpdx will help you find reputable agencies to help with your link building.
Like everything else we do in business, iteration is imperative. Track your work or that of your contractors to see what is working and what isn’t. This applies to the content you create, your list of targeted websites from which you want links, to the tactics you employ for getting those links.
Google works in mysterious ways and what’s working now for link building may not tomorrow. Tracking also will help prepare you to better respond should Google make a change that affects those hard-earned links. Speaking of which …
Links can still be bought
While developing awesome linkable content is the recommended path for building links, you can still buy links, even high quality links.
You can offer a scholarship and then get links to that page on your website from universities and colleges for a couple hundred bucks each. For some businesses, you may benefit from sponsoring an event or sponsoring the local little league team.
And for $500 to $3,000, you can get a high quality link from popular news and industry websites, sites that you likely read.
But it’s a risky strategy. The question you have to ask yourself is whether the risk of having Google and the other search engines penalize your website traffic is worth it. The time and expense of recovering from a penalty could outweigh any gains you might make.