August 21, 2008
Links are a powerful influence on the Web. Linking to the right site can channel plenty of high-quality traffic your way; the right mix can ensure first-page search results for your site.
Not every link-building tactic is safe -- some could earn you a dismal search ranking. Here are 7 tips on best tactics, steps to avoid, and ways to get more powerful links to your site.
Links are crucial to your website. Without them, your site might live in obscurity. A link from an authoritative site lends you credibility. A link from a popular site sends you traffic. A link from a relevant site boosts your search results.
The search engines say you shouldn’t have to dig for links and they should evolve naturally. But we know better. Links drive traffic and boost SEO. They’re too valuable to sideline. You need to push for them.
There are many factors to consider when link-building, such as:
o Value of a link
o How a link is built and placed
o Search engine rules
o Websites to target
Here are 7 tips to help you craft strategies to build quality links to your site. And remember, as in all search-engine optimization, link-building is not a quick win. It is an ongoing process that pays off with time.
7 Tips for Building High-Quality Links
-> Tip #1: Have great content
People need a reason to link to you – and it should be great content. Content comes in many forms:
o Multimedia – videos, podcasts, music, etc.
o Any valuable resource
o Two examples: Tools as content
E-Loan, Inc. gets lots of links to its loan calculators, says Linda Harjono, Director, Search Marketing, E-Loan, which helped the site earn a #2 Google ranking for “loan.”
One of the most linked-to pages on Aaron Wall’s site, SEO Book, is the download page for his free SEO for Firefox extension. The tool is useful, costs about $2,000 to create (with more costs for later upgrades) and has more than 8,000 inbound links, according to Yahoo! Site Explorer.
“When I first launched it [in June 2006], after two days of direct sales, it actually paid for itself…So, basically after two days, the links were all free,” he says.
o Link baiting
Link bait is content designed to attract links. It’s similar to viral content because it’s supposed to encourage sharing. Any relevant and valuable resource, like research or a tool, could be considered link bait. Other examples:
o Humor –video, image, audio or text
o Controversial opinions
o Breaking news
o Free stuff
Host link bait on your site to get links. Do not make it a file to be shared like viral content.
-> Tip #2: Research your market
Valuable links come from relevant sources – the websites in your market. Compile a list of websites you want a link from. Go through the sites and see how, why and where they link. Target pages with relevant content and without a lot of other links.
o Research the competition
Yahoo! Site Explorer is a great free tool for uncovering websites that link to your competitors. Here’s how to use it:
o Type in your competitor’s URL, click “explore”
o Click “inlinks”
o Click “show inlinks: Except from this domain” to exclude internal links
o Click “to: Entire site” to see links to every page on the site
You’re then given a list of every page that links to your competitor. Dig through the list to find sites that might link to you. Ask yourself how your competitor got the high-value links and build a strategy to do the same.
-> Tip #3: Select good targets
Target websites that provide valuable links. A website’s link value is determined by:
o Content on the page
o Topic of the site
o Number of outbound and inbound links
o Amount of advertising
o Reputation with search engines
o Website age
Strive for links from respected, well-established websites with a relevant topic. The best have few outbound links, no advertising and lots of content. Here are some universally good targets:
Website directories compile and organize links to sites all over the Web, and their links are usually of good value. Almost every marketer we talked to uses directories.
NOTE: Not every directory is trustworthy. Some are prone to spam or have been created for SEO reasons. Search engines look down on these directories and do not give them much value. Three ways to tell if a directory is trustworthy:
o Rigorous editorial standards
o Submissions reviewed by humans
o Posting fee
See the hotlinks for three trusted directories.
Your partners will usually link to your site. Several marketers we talked to said they were getting good results this way.
For example, apartments.com partners with more than 150 newspapers in leading markets as their exclusive rental content provider. “We benefit from link building on the rentals sections of these highly credible and relevant websites” says Maureen Boyle, Director of Marketing, Apartments.com. That relationship helped Boyle and her team earn the #1 Google ranking for “apartment.”
Katia Adams, Assistant Manager, Interactive Marketing,
1-800-FLOWERS.com, says her team does reciprocal linking with partner florist shops to help keep their rankings high.
NOTE: If partners do not share your level of SEO expertise, send them a short document with some guidelines. Make some suggestions for the best types of pages to link from, what content should be on the page, and where the link should target. Be careful not to be too specific or demanding. Too many identical links can bring severe search engine penalties.
o Clients, industry friends and contacts
Almost anyone with a credible website and relevant content can give you a good link. Eddie Smith, VP, Marketing and Business, SocialMedia Networks, Inc, whose site is #2 in Google for “social media,” asks for a link at almost every chance.
“Our inbound links are not coming from one specific source, but from blogs, industry trade group postings, articles that are written up about us, our own releases that the newswires pick up, and so on,” he says. Other places you can request links:
- Web page that mentions your site
- Website of a conference where you’re speaking
- Journalists interviewing you
o Social media sites
Getting on Digg’s or Reddit’s homepage can pack a big punch. Traffic to your page will surge and links will pour in. Targeting these pages is similar to link baiting and requires skillfully crafted content to meet the tastes of an eclectic audience. (Find out how to get onto Digg from a Sherpa special report, hotlinked below.)
o University, non-profit and government websites
These non-commerce sites usually have deep content and no advertising. Their links provide good value, but getting onto one can be difficult -- especially government sites. You must be a valuable resource for their audiences.
Linking is ingrained in the blogosphere. Almost every blog post links to another website. High-profile blogs provide the highest value links, but their authors are often inundated with requests, making it difficult to break through.
Most high-profile bloggers will scoff at a direct link request. It’s better to approach them casually with personal email (no templates) and forward a great piece of content you think would interest their audience. Relevancy and honesty are keys to reaching bloggers. Participating in the blog’s forums will also build rapport.
Search engines tend to pick up blog links quickly, Adams says. “If you need a quicker than usual boost in ranking, blogs are very useful,” she says.
-> Tip #4: Get well-built links
Links are more valuable when they’re well-made.
o Get links that work
Certain links, such as display ads, are marked to not provide search engine benefits. They will send traffic to your website, but they will not help your search rankings. Two ways links are rendered useless in this way:
1. Marked rel="nofollow" in their HTML
2. Redirected to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file
Make sure you’re getting links that help your search rankings.
o Write good anchor text
The words used in your links’ anchor text (the text users click) will affect your search rankings. The more links you have with the anchor text, the more likely you will have good search results. You want your target search keywords in your link’s anchor text.
Getting the anchor text you want is not always easy. You often don’t have control and a webmaster or blogger will use your company’s name. That said, using your target keywords in your company’s title and domain name will help build better links.
o Warning: Vary your anchor text
Do not ask every person linking to your site to use the same anchor text. Search engines penalize sites that have too many inbound links with the same text; it skews their results. They argue that “naturally” created links would have more variance.
David Airey, Graphic and Logo Designer, whose site is #3 in Google for “creative design,” ran a link-building campaign offering $4,000 in prizes for his blog’s one-year anniversary.
“That attracted a lot of links, but Google penalized me for what they deemed ‘black hat SEO,’ for asking for specific anchor text in the links. I then emailed all the participants, asking them to remove the links to my site. I don’t think all of them did, but my efforts were enough to reverse the penalty,” he says.
o Link to deeper pages
Getting links to your homepage is great, but there is more real estate in your website. Have websites link into your deeper content to help boost those pages’ rankings, too.
1-800FLOWERS.com’s homepage is ranking so well that Adams and her team are targeting the site’s deeper content. “It’s more beneficial to get people to the collection page, the product page, if that’s what they’re searching for,” she says.
o Have a wide age range
Have a mix of old, fresh and new links coming in. Search engines are likely to give better rankings to pages that attract links over time, rather than only recently or in the past. This is another reason why link building needs to be ongoing.
-> Tip #5: Write lots of press releases
Press releases describe your business; they are relevant content. Always include links to your site in releases. Several marketers we talked to for this article said press releases are great for link-building.
Any coverage generated by a release opens link opportunities. And the releases themselves, when they’re disseminated through wire services, become Web pages linking to your site.
The better your releases are written, the more coverage and Web traffic they’ll attract. Web developers and content writers on Harjono’s team receive special training on writing optimized press releases to capture the attention of journalists and search engines, she says.
->Tip #6: Organize, develop a strategy
o Track targets on spreadsheet
After conducting some research and making a list of targets, create a spreadsheet to track:
- Who you’ve contacted and how you contacted them
- Who provided a link and who did not
- Placement, target and anchor text of granted links
- Links providing the most traffic and SEO benefits
Monitoring your efforts will help refine your contact strategy. You’ll start realizing how best to contact a non-profit versus a blogger. You’ll notice which sources are pushovers and which are difficult. You’ll know which links provide the most value and who to target later.
o Integrate tactics
Link building is not a marketing tactic unto itself. It ties into:
-Keyword research -- put keywords in your anchor text
-Content creation -- create content that attracts links
-Website design -- organize your resources to making linking easier
-Media solicitation -- put links in every press release; ask for links in write-ups
-Partnerships -- reciprocal linking
Link building needs to permeate your online strategy. One-time efforts, such as a link bait video, are helpful, but a long-term integrated effort will have better results.
->Tip #7: Follow the rules
The consequences for breaking the search engines’ linking rules can be disastrous. Rankings are the lifeblood of many marketers. To be penalized to a low-ranked position could kill revenue. There are plenty of ‘black hat’ (against the rules) and ‘gray hat' (probably against the rules) tactics that can send your website into obscurity.
Black-hat SEO is too dangerous to toy with. You can find great success and remain undetected for months and years, but being discovered (or reported by a competitor) could cost you your job or your business. It’s much safer to consistently create content that people will enjoy linking to.
Three practices to avoid:
o Link buying
One marketer we talked to is buying links through an agency with great success. The agency maintains a network of high-quality editorial publishers. The marketer is allowed to stipulate the types of websites, anchor text, number and the target for his links.
As good as that sounds, we strongly advise against this approach. Buying links to influence page rank is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. If the search engines discover this relationship, the marketer’s website will be almost impossible to find via search.
o Excessive reciprocal links
Trading links with your partners and friends is acceptable, but keep trades within reason. If the number of these links is too high, you’re asking for trouble.
o Link spamming, or linking on spammy sites
There are places and websites where it is effortless to post a link. These places are spam havens and should be avoided. A link on an irrelevant, link-laden site is more likely to hurt your ranking than to help it. This link sends a clear signal that you’re trying to bend the rules.
Most places that attracted hoards of link spammers in the past have been rendered useless by SEO. For example, most online forums will only allow links with “nofollow” tags, which was not always the case.
Useful links related to this article:
Sherpa 101: How to Use Digg to Go Viral -- 10 Strategies
Problogger: 20 Link baiting techniques
Google Webmaster Guidelines: Link schemes
Yahoo! Site Explorer
SEO for Firefox Extension
David Airey: Graphic and logo designer
SocialMedia – Social advertising network
OPD: Open directory project
Best of the Web Directory