July 13, 2010
How To

Forging Link-Exchange Partnerships to Boost SEO: 5 Tactics to Select Partners and Guide Strategy

SUMMARY: Creating great content and pitching bloggers might garner an occasional link, but how can you consistently build inbound links? One way is through link-exchange partnerships that forge ongoing relationships with relevant sites.

Read these five tactics from an expert in forging strong link-exchange partnerships. Includes tips on how to evaluate potential partners, set guidelines for target pages and anchor text, alongside a golden rule you should never forget.
by Adam T. Sutton, Reporter

Marketers with good SEO strategies always pay attention to links. They create great content to attract links. They pitch bloggers to score links and write-ups. They avoid shady strategies such as link buying.

Forging a link-sharing partnership with a website is a lesser-used tactic that can improve natural search performance. Rather than hoping to attract a single, one-time link, companies can partner to regularly point to each other’s websites on an ongoing basis. Such partnerships set guidelines for the links' target pages, anchor text, context and other attributes.

"If a link partnership is going to work well, it needs to be ongoing," says Erica Charney, Associate Director, CPG, iProspect.

Partnerships can be forged with multiple websites, but your team must find relevant partners and follow a set of guidelines. Otherwise you risk hurting, rather than helping, your natural search performance.

Charney has a wealth of experience in setting up and maintaining partnerships to improve a site’s natural search performance. Below, we highlight five tactics she shared to help your team find the right partner and establish an approach that will boost your SEO performance.

Tactic #1. Thoroughly evaluate potential partners

Your team may want to improve natural search performance through a partnership, but this goal must be secondary to improving your audience’s experience. The golden rule is that your audience's needs are the highest priority.

Look for partners that have a natural fit with your company’s mission. The content to which you link must provide your audience with true and relevant value, otherwise you’ll be damaging your brand. Furthermore, if your partner’s audience is not interested in your content, then the natural search benefit of any links will be hamstrung by low performance.

Once you’ve shortlisted potential partners, audit their websites by looking for:

- Clean organization

Make sure the company has a website with which you’d be proud to link. Put yourself in a user’s shoes and perform tasks your audience would want to accomplish. The tasks should be very easy to complete.

Be wary of:
o Broken links
o Broken images
o Confusing navigation
o Obnoxious advertising
o Offensive user-generated content

Have your team’s SEO expert evaluate the site and look for red flags such as:
o Excessive linking
o Keyword stuffing
o Duplicate content
o Poor structure

- Reputation

Conduct searches on the partner’s brand and read the results. Make sure most media mentions and online comments are positive.

- Link analysis

Use tools such as Yahoo! Site Explorer to see who is linking to the site in question. You want to see links from prominent, trusted organizations. An abundance of links from "spammy" sites that lack relevant or trustworthy content should raise concern.

Also, check the potential partner's outbound links and whether those sites' content is relevant to your audience.

Tactic #2. Maintain control and veto power

Partnerships can be loose, with each company linking to each other’s website at will and tweaking after the fact. However, it’s wiser to have a more controlled approach to better focus on results.

Establish control over these areas:

- Anchor text

The hyperlinked words in a text link are known to influence the target page’s relevance in search engines. If your team is trying to associate a certain page with a specific keyword, you’ll want to be able to ask your partner to use that keyword in the link’s anchor text.

- Structure

Links from partners should not be marked "nofollow" in their HTML code, as that voids any SEO value the link will provide your site. Also, text-based links are preferable to image-based links because you can adjust their anchor text.

- Context

You do not want your partner to add a link to your site from a page hosting too many other links. You'll likely also want to test linking from different parts of their site.

"I’ve seen it work really well when a link was added to a global footer of a website," Charney says.

- Target page

You will also want to know -- and have some control over -- pages your partner chooses for links. For example, you may want to promote specific content.

"It’s not necessarily the most relevant to link back to my homepage," Charney says. "If I’m trying to provide your users with relevant information on one topic, I want you to include the link specifically speaking to that one page on my site."

- Veto power

Regardless of how the partnership is organized, your team should reserve the right to ask for a link to be removed from the partner’s website, if necessary. You can include this in your agreement and update your website’s linking policy if applicable (see useful links below for sample linking policies).

Tactic #3. Have an in-house expert

Even if your team uses an agency or vendor to guide your SEO program, you should have an SEO expert on hand to oversee link-exchange partnerships. The expert should be involved from the first step in the process: evaluating potential partners.

After a partnership is established, your team will want someone who can:
o Evaluate steps taken by your partner
o Make suggestions to maximize a link’s value
o Keep the program on an even pace

The last consideration is especially important. Suddenly adding dozens of inbound links to your website is likely to have an adverse impact on your team’s natural search performance. You team’s expert should ensure that links are added in a way that benefits both sites' audiences and avoids appearing like spam.

Tactic #4. Forge ongoing and open partnerships

These partnerships are not quick, one-off relationships where each team is pushing for as many links as possible in short time span.

"I would definitely aim for longer term," Charney says. "Maybe a year rather than two weeks."

Your teams should start small, perhaps linking to each others’ sites from two or three highly-relevant areas, and monitoring traffic and search ranking on the related pages for a month.

- Keep communication lines open

The gradual nature of these relationships may cause communications to go stale. Don’t let this happen. You'll want to maintain a regular, open dialogue with your partner. This way, if a link needs to be removed or tweaked it will not seem like a demand from a distant business contact.

To keep communications fresh, your teams can share traffic, ranking and other performance metrics around your links. Also, regularly call your partner’s attention to any new content on your website to which you’d like them to consider linking.

Tactic #5. Monitor results and adjust

You are unlikely to see a major improvement in your overall natural search performance through a single partnership. Typically, you’ll see increased visibility on a particular keyword or a particular webpage the partnership has focused on, Charney says.

Give your partnership approximately three months before making a solid evaluation. Examine your:
o Website analytics for improved traffic to targeted pages
o Referring domains for a lift in visits from people using search engines and your partner’s website
o Site’s natural search performance for keywords you’ve targeted

- Audience feedback

Last, but certainly not least, ask your customer service team and other outward-facing co-workers if they've received feedback about the partnership. Your website should exist to serve your audience and the content you link to should underline this goal.

Useful links related to this article

Learn more about what's working in SEO in MarketingSherpa's new 2011 Search Marketing Benchmark Report -- SEO Edition

Members Library -- Special Report: Missing Links? 7 Traffic-Building Tips to Boost SEO

Members Library -- SEO Tactics to Quadruple Lead Gen: Link-Building, Keyword Targeting & Landing Page Tests

Link policies:
o Parent Teacher Association
o Texas Instruments
o CNET News

Yahoo! Site Explorer


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