Read the advice on SEO boards and tutorials these days and you will find a lot of information about linking. There are debates and "facts" on whom you should link to and whether reciprocal links are good or bad. The reality is that the Web is made up of links and you should link to sites that your users will find helpful.
Without links, the Web would be a lonely place. Only those that could afford to buy advertising banners and pay for placement in the search engines would ever see any traffic.
The Importance of Linking
My husband and I have a small moonwalk rental business that was a part-time venture until last spring. (Moonwalks are those big, inflatable, enclosed bouncy things kids play in.) When I decided to really see what we could do with the business, I turned to our Web site to help establish and market the brand. Some attention to search engine optimization paid off, and the site was soon #1 for our local keywords.
What I did not expect was the national and international traffic. Before long, I had phone and email inquiries from all over the country. Even though our region is clearly identified, people wanted to know who rented moonwalks in their area. As a service, I started to make a list of rental companies that I could refer others to. In order to reduce the number of calls and emails we were receiving, I posted my list on the site and invited other companies to send me their information.
I started an aggressive search to identify as many companies as I could, and added them to the directory. When I listed them, I emailed the site owners to ask for a link back. Some did, some didn't, but since the focus was to provide a service to users, I did not enforce the reciprocal link.
Some of the links are from sites Google isn't aware of, some have a low PageRank (PR), and a few rank well. Some are well designed and some are really ugly. Many listings do not have Web sites at all. I did not take PR criteria into account when building my list. The focus was on creating a comprehensive resource for users.
While the intention of the directory was not to influence my search engine rankings, the site is now #1 on Google for its most important keyword phrases. How did that happen?
I believe the site (and the directory page in particular) have been designated as a hub and an authority. An authority is a site with many pages linking to it, and a hub has many similarly themed outbound links. The tight theme of this page and the content that includes both text listings and links have made it spider-friendly as well as user-friendly.
There are many ways that this directory has helped the business:
Content is King
Is your site or industry appropriate for a directory of this type? Think about it from a user's standpoint and decide why they are visiting your site. The best way to determine how your site can be improved is to listen to the comments you receive through feedback forms, emails or phone calls. If you don't have a feedback form, you're missing an excellent free market research opportunity.
The easiest way to improve your site, traffic, rankings, and business conversions is to simply give people what they are asking for. You don't need a high-priced consultant or an in-depth study. Go find some customers and start asking them what they want!
Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.
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