by Adam T. Sutton
, Senior Reporter
The links pointing to your website have a huge impact on its search rankings. Your site can have beautiful design and optimization, but without inbound links, it will struggle to reach the top of search pages.
"Links are very, very powerful and useful. Google and Bing continue to rely on them as primary signals," says Rand Fishkin, CEO, SEOmoz, an SEO software and resource provider.
Google and Bing power more than 94% of all searches in the U.S., according to comScore, which means links are important to almost every search query in the country.
To attract more links to your site, we interviewed Fishkin and two other SEO experts. They shared these five tactics.
Tactic #1. Repurpose someone else's data
Many universities and trade groups publish great research. But researchers are not marketers. Their reports can be confusing. You, on the other hand, are a skilled communicator. You can turn that data into juicy link bait.
Start by searching for research on your industry. Google Scholar, for example, will let you search academic publications. You can also use commands in regular searches to target your inquiry. Examples:
- Search for specific types of documents with "type:pdf" or "type:doc"
- Search specific types of websites with "site:edu"
- Search a specific website with "site:example.org"
Once you find good information that is poorly presented, reach out to the organization and ask if it is acceptable to reference the data. You will likely be asked to cite the organization, link to its site, and perhaps follow other usage guidelines. Be careful you do not violate anyone's copyright.
After you get clearance, clean up the data. Pull it into a fantastic article or use it to create good charts or an infographic (see an example of an infographic in the 'useful links' section below).
Earn high-value links
The benefits of this strategy, Fishkin says, are the high-value links it can earn from universities and other organizations. Be sure to show the researchers what you created, because they will likely link to your work.
Also, remember that your goal is to find potential customers, so make sure whatever you create is relevant to their needs.
"Infographics, clever data visualization, and cool charts -- these kinds of things get shared across the Web in industries of all kinds," Fishkin says.
Tactic #2. Participate in social networks
Each of the experts emphasized that social media can be a powerful way to attract links. Fishkin considers it "extremely powerful and essential."
"Writing great content that people actually read and getting intensely social with that content is generally the easiest way to get things moving," says Jon Ball, CEO, Page One Power, an SEO agency.
Depending on the size of your online audience, you can attract links through social media in two main ways:
Approach #1. Reach the influencers
If you do not have a significant audience, then you will get better results by promoting your content on a one-to-one basis. Search for the online leaders in your industry, often called "influencers," and build a relationship with them (see the 'useful links' section for more information on this).
Eventually, you can try to collaborate with influencers in some way. Here are several ideas you could propose:
- Interview them for your blog
- Contribute content to their blogs
- Ask to collaborate on a project
Don't just ask for links. Strive to help them and you will often earn links as a result, Fishkin says.
Approach #2. Engage your audience
If you have thousands of connections on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, then you earn links by sharing content that these audiences love. Just make sure the content you share is hosted on your website (so the links are attributed to your domain).
Sharing content will also encourage "likes," "re-tweets" and similar interactions that are shown to have a positive correlation with higher search rankings (see 'useful links' below for more information).
"If you start getting a lot of tweets, Facebook likes, Diggs and all of that, you will start ranking really high up on Google for a few days," says Neil Patel, Co-founder, Kissmetrics, an analytics platform provider. "It's pretty effective when you are going for really big keywords."
Tactic #3. Research the competition
The power of each tactic varies by industry. To uncover what works in your niche, you must research. One of the best places to start is your competition.
Create a list of your top competitors for search rankings. Then, use link-analysis tools to understand where they get inbound links and how they acquire them.
"That's one of the quickest ways [to find good targets]," Patel says. "It's time-saving, but it's very effective."
Unfortunately, the major search engines stopped providing tools that list the inbound links of other websites (you can only see the links pointing to your own site). Most competitive tools require payment for some or all of their features. Two popular choices:
- Open Site Explorer - from SEOmoz
- Site Explorer - from Magestic SEO
Both tools offer free features but require payment for advanced analysis. (See the "useful links" below for more info. Also note: Fishkin is CEO at SEOmoz.)
Copy tactics that work
The goal of using these tools is to uncover the tactics that helped your competitors. Then, you can put your own spin on them for your site.
In your analysis, look for a high number of links coming from these areas:
- Directories, trade associations, etc.
Directories and other sites that are easy to get onto can be low-hanging fruit for link building -- but be careful. There are many different directories, and some are spam havens.
You only want to be in directories that:
- Show discretion in the links they publish
- Have review processes controlled by a person (not a robot)
Also, be wary of paying for links. Many are against Google's Webmaster Guidelines (see "useful links" below).
- Government, research firms, universities, etc.
Links from these sites can be very powerful, so highlight any that point to your competitors. Go to the page hosting the link and try to reverse engineer how your competitor got there.
Look at the page and ask yourself, did the competitor:
- Interview someone from this organization?
- Feature content, research or other data from this organization?
- Create videos or other content that interested this organization?
- Social networks, blogs, forums, etc.
This is another key area to investigate. Look at where links are coming from, and more importantly, how the competitor earned the links. Did the competitor:
- Consistently share good content?
- Pitch high-profile bloggers?
- Participate in lively discussions?
- Offer products for blogger reviews?
Again, your goal is to understand the tactics that work in your niche and to use that information to build your strategy.
- Tactics that fail
If you keep a sharp eye, you can also uncover failed tactics that your competitors tried. If you see a mere handful of links pointing to a funny video or a sweepstakes landing page, you can be sure to avoid that approach.
"Most link-building strategies aren't going for one or two links. They're going for 20, 30 or 50," Ball says.
Don't forget general research
You don't want to limit your research to competitive analysis. Your goal should be to outperform competitors, not to mimic them. Look for opportunities that competitors overlooked.
Make sure you know the top online outlets in your niche and consider how to get links onto them. Look for relevant:
- Traditional publications, blogs
- Social networks, groups, forums
- Directories and associations
- Research organizations
- And related website that provides quality links
Tactic #4. Have a blog worth reading
Marketers know that a blog can help SEO. The problem is that many company blogs are not worth reading.
"The simplest, most basic strategy that companies fail at, and that can be used for incredible amounts of good, is to do a blog that people actually read," Ball says.
Company blogs are destined to fail when they are:
- Corporate and formal; lacking personality
- Written for search engines instead of people
- Promotional instead of informative
- Inconsistent in timing, topic and quality
Blogging is about people
One of the most important parts of a good blog, Ball says, is that it comes from a person and not a brand. Readers want a blog with personality, he says.
"When you are trying to get high-quality links from real sites in your niche, often it's very difficult to do that if there's no personality, or individual, or writer behind the blog itself … It's a people business," Ball says.
Set a calendar
People often underestimate the amount of time it takes to maintain a blog. When you're strapped for time, you can find yourself willing to publish anything, even if it’s not valuable to your readers.
Create a plan to keep your blog on target:
- Research what topics get traction in your industry
- List questions a potential customer would have (dozens of them)
- Use this information to set topics and titles for future posts (dozens of them)
- Create a schedule of when you will publish each post
Setting topics six months in advance saves you from having to write a post and
think of a good topic at the last minute.
"Once you can nail down that particular strategy and get people reading your blog and get action with an author, the whole world opens up to you and you can do just about anything [to build links]," Ball says.
Tactic #5. Aim for long term; avoid one-offs
A one-time boost is helpful, but you want a stream of links to flow to your website for months and years. The best way to do that is to build a full strategy instead of focusing on single tactics.
Blogging and participating in social networks can be part of an on-going strategy. Here are a few other examples:
- License your content and technology
Your company may produce information that is valuable and unique. If so, you can invite people to share this resource, but only if they include a link to your website (you can even ask for a specific anchor text, Fishkin says).
Information you can license out may include:
- Monthly research reports
- Images and videos
- Online tools (such as an embeddable calculator)
- Industry awards and contests
- Anything unique and valuable you can share for free
Some companies even create a numeric index to share with the industry. For example, the email marketing vendor Listrak provides the Shopping Cart Abandonment Index, which shows the average rate of cart abandonment across a sample of ecommerce sites.
- Share your bloggers
All of the experts we interviewed noted that contributing content to other websites can be an effective way to build links. If you have content creators on staff (writers, designers, videographers) ask them to contribute to other sites or broker exchanges with them.
And do not limit yourself to trade publications. Many companies are starving for content. You can help by repurposing your content into whitepapers and other resources for their websites. You can set a partnership to provide new content each quarter, for example, as long as a company links it to your website.
"It's not just about regurgitating information. It's about writing something unique, which is what most people don't do," Patel says.
- Encourage creative ideas
A willingness to try new ideas can help drive your link building over the long term. Do not be afraid to brainstorm and test new approaches.
Ball noted, for example, that an e-commerce site he worked with created an online product museum where visitors could view the history of products, a glossary of terms, historical images and other interesting tidbits. Another site created a vintage pop-up book library, he said. Both attracted inbound links.
A good way to find ideas is to consider why people link to websites in your industry. Then, think of how you can target that behavior in a campaign. For instance, people may provide links because they:
For more how-to articles and case studies about social media, SEO, and content marketing, sign up for the our Inbound Marketing Newsletter.
- Contributed to the content
- Think the information is helpful, funny or otherwise valuable
- Referenced the information in a discussion, blog or report
- Want to highlight a resource provide
- Follow usage guidelines when sharing other people's content
- Have a partnership with the website
Useful links related to this articleSocial Media Marketing: 4 tactics for finding and winning hyper-social consumers Social Media Marketing: GNC's strategy for courting online influencers and adding 383,000 Facebook fans Influence the Influencers: 5 Tactics to Generate Demand Marketing Research Chart: Consider SEO tactics carefully; degree of difficulty determines success Content Marketing and SEO: The world doesn’t need another blog postSpecial Report: Missing Links? 7 Traffic-Building Tips to Boost SEO comScore: February 2012 U.S. Search Engine RankingsFacebook + Twitter's Influence on Google's Search RankingsGoogle Webmaster Help - Paid linksCool Infographics blog
- examples of infographicsSite Explorer
- from Majestic SEOOpen Site Explorer
- from SEOmozListrak Shopping Cart Abandonment IndexKISSmetricsPage One PowerSEOmoz