When it comes to building links and generating coverage of your web site and products online, there's a skill that often gets overlooked. Relationship building gets a lot of lip service these days, but I sometimes wonder how many small businesses really, truly understand how much work goes into it. Relationships go beyond reading a single blog post or scanning a Facebook page...it means investing time in someone.
With so much focus these days on link baiting, the idea of taking the time to make a personal connection to secure a link has been tossed aside. After all, who wants to invest time and energy in people when you can make up a fake news story and generate thousands of links in a weekend?
The problem here is that building your business is about more than building a ton of links. Sure, link baiting tactics can generate links and can lead to a boost in your search rankings, but you still have to balance the true value of a link. Is the value only in the potential search ranking impact, or is it in the chance for new customers and high conversion rates? What about the potential for future links from the same sources down the road?
Aiming for quantity of links over quality of links is exactly what got sites in trouble back in the days of link farms and reciprocal linking schemes. People found an "easy" way to build links and they went after it like gang busters. Over time, the techniques got overused. It became clear the links weren't built based on value or credibility. Soon enough, search engines began to devalue those links. Is a day coming when search engines begin to devalue all links created by link baiting? Probably not, but I wouldn't be surprised.
I think it's more likely the tactic will start to wear on people and lose it's effectiveness. I also think it's more likely that site owners will begin to realize that all those links aren't sending much in the way of engaged traffic and potential customers.
It's Easy to Get Attention, It's Hard to Keep It
Anyone who has spent time in college or raising children knows how easy it is to get attention. You make a scene, pitch a fit, dance on a table or do any number of things designed to shock or surprise. You'll get plenty of attention. When it comes to link bait, you'll also get plenty of links. But there's a problem with this method.
How many times can someone take off their shirt and dance on a table before it starts to get kind of pathetic? How many times can a child throw a tantrum before you simply ignore them or send them to their room? Not very many. Easily won attention is fleeting, it doesn't last for long.
I've seen this happen with links and link baiting. I have a client site that hit the front page of Digg, Reddit, del.icio.us and a slew of other social media sites. The traffic generated was staggering. It showed up in a wild fury and then vanished just as quickly. When I look through my logs, I can see how little time this traffic spent on the site, most vanished with shorter page view times than it would have taken to read even a portion of the content. Almost none of this traffic resulted in a conversion and there was no residual linking effect from the traffic.
On the other hand, that same content (not even designed to be link bait) generated quite a few links from bloggers and web sites in the same vertical. Many of those links came from people who had exchanged emails and blog comments with the client for months. Other links came from completely new sites, but led to email conversations when the client made contact to thank them for the links.
Here's the interesting thing...
The traffic from these links was highly engaged, often spending 3-6 minutes reading multiple pages of the site. This same traffic also showed a purchase rate of 2.5%, as high a conversion rate as some of the traffic from popular keyword phrases. These links...the ones built because of relationships and trust carried far more value than the ones that popped up because the content reached "story of the day status."
Even better, once the traffic from the social bookmarking sites and the sites outside the vertical died down...it was done. No residual effect. On the other hand, the sites that linked from within the vertical continued linking to future stories. The stream of traffic continued over time and the traffic remained high quality and likely to convert.
More Links or Better Links?
As I see it, small business owners have a choice. They can use their limited time trying to concoct crazy stories, gigantic lists and fancy Flash games, or they can use their time networking with other bloggers and site owners and building relationships with other businesses that compliment their own. Honestly, it takes about the same amount of work either way.
The first option will deliver links, there's no doubt about it. Do it right and it will deliver boatloads of links. But as a small business owner with limited time and budget, you have to ask yourself what the true value of those links are. Is the potential impact on your search rankings alone worth the effort? Or is your time better spent building the contacts that will help you drive targeted traffic that's likely to stick around and turn into customers?
Building links is essential to having an online business, but search engine rankings are not what defines the success of your business.
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.
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