Most small business owners understand that one of the most important things they need to do in order to help their web sites rank better on the search engines is to build incoming links from quality, relevant web sites. I've written in the past about building the right content to serve as link bait, but the reality is that until your site starts to be found on its own, it's hard to get those links, no matter how great your content is. That means that many small business owners will need to start off their link building campaign by asking for links. That may sound easy enough, but a good link request requires true skill to deliver.

The Wrong Way to Ask for Links

Think about the last time you received a link request in your email. Chances are, it read something like this:

Dear Webmaster,

I am contacting you today because I am interested in exchanging links with other web sites. I feel that my site would be of great interest to your readers and that my readers would also enjoy the content on your site. If we exchange links, it can help both of us rank better in the search engines. Would you be interested in sharing the benefits of a new link partnership with me?

Please contact me soon,
Clueless Webmaster

If you're anything like me, you tend to trash these emails fairly quickly. Why? Well, for several reasons.

1.) It's clearly coming from an automated program. Chances are this email went out to dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of webmasters.

2.) It's not personal. There's nothing in this email that tells you that the request is coming from someone who has visited your site. Why then, should you trust that your sites are a great fit?

3.) If has nothing of value to offer. There's nothing in this email to tell you that the sender has a web site of value. Why would the site be of great interest to your readers? Do they offer free tools? Unique content? Fabulous free online games?

Learning to View Link Building in a New Light

Many web site owners find link requests to be perplexing. The web is simply full of articles telling site owners how NOT to link build, but with all those lists of "don'ts" floating around, it's still tough to figure out what the "do's" are. The reality is, there is no simple formula to follow for crafting quality link requests, instead you need to learn to think of link building as a form of online relationship building.

That's right...relationship building. Here's why. Every time you send an email to another web site owner asking them to link to your site, you are basically asking that person to endorse your products, your services and your content. That's a lot to ask of someone that you've never met and who likely knew nothing about you before receiving your email request.

Think of it this way...if you received an email from a business owner asking you to recommend his products to all your friends, would you do it? Likely not... But if you went to the store and bought a product that you absolutely loved, you'd likely be more than willing to tell all of your friends and family about it. That's because most people understand that the recommendations they make are a reflection of their own reputation. If you have a history of telling your friends about really bad restaurants, it won't be long before they're not willing to listen to your suggestions anymore. That's why we tend to so carefully consider the suggestions that we make.

Think Permission Marketing

Once you wrap your head around the idea of a link as a personal recommendation, it starts to become easier to see link building as a form of relationship building. You need to build a relationship with a site owner the same way that you would network with another small business owner for mutual benefit. You must be able to offer something of service in exchange for something offered by the other business owner. In the case of links, you're offering a trade on traffic and a trade of your own personal endorsements.

Consider this example:

Just this morning, I sent out a link request asking someone to consider adding a link from their site to the Lactivist project. The site I was writing to was owned by a woman that was featured in a news story last night on CNN about mother's that rely on other women to provide breast milk for their babies. The woman had had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer and was unable to breastfeed her son. Because she believed so strongly in the benefits of breast milk, she was using a web site as a way to raise money and recruit donors for her mission. The site and the traffic that it receives would the perfect match for the products being offered through The Lactivist store.

While putting together the request, I was keeping in mind the three rules of permission marketing. Be personal, be relevant and offer something of value. Those three rules are generally the best ones to keep in mind when working on your own link requests.

Be personal. I began my email by explaining that I'd heard of her plight while visiting CNN's web site. I went on to explain that I'd been an active milk donor in my own town and that I had been interested to read about how she'd purchased her own pasteurizer and was processing milk for her own children.

Be relevant. I briefly mentioned my own blog and my t-shirt shop and mentioned that I had written about her site on my own blog and that I hoped she would see some new visitors and interest from my readers.

Offer something of value. Finally, I suggested that since she receives a reasonable amount of traffic, she might consider adding AdSense to her site as another way to earn money. I also suggested that she consider becoming a Lactivist affiliate as another way to raise funds through the site. I told her that I would be happy to help her with the AdSense integration or with getting an affiliate account setup for the shop.

All in all, I spent about half an hour reading through her site, watching the video clip on CNN, writing my own blog post and putting the email together. The email may or may not result in a link back to the site, only time will tell that, but what it likely won't do is find it's way into the trash as a piece of junk mail. That said, at a bare minimum, it will likely give her a boost of encouragement and let her know that she's gained an incoming link to her own site with no strings attached. In the long run, that's that way that you build online relationships...and links.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

January 27, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Link Building is Relationship Building