A Business in the Middle of Nowhere

Your beautiful, perfect, shimmering gem of a well-copywritten, excellent-usability site might as well be a massive department store-library-night club-school that has been built in the middle of nowhere. The flashing lights and stocked shelves look out over miles and miles of empty fields. It's innovative, informative, fun, easy to navigate and full of discounts... but no one knows it exists.

Sure YOU know how to get there, and your employees and your family- you've given them all the directions. But no one else can find it!

Links are like roads to your site. With every new link, more people can find your site. Just as more drive-by traffic helps a physical business, the more links there are to your site, the more traffic you are likely to get. In the physical world, a location in high traffic areas is one of the keys to success; on the Internet, you can make your site the busiest intersection in your industry by attaining lots of links from related resources and major directories.

Search Engines Map The Roads

If you were creating a map of the physical world, you'd start with the busiest, main roads and work the smaller, less-traveled back roads in later... because the busy roads are the ones that are the most important to the largest number of people.

That's sort of the same way search engines work- the sites with the highest number of links are going to be more important than the sites with only one or two links pointing to them. They are going to make sure the highly-linked sites are up to date in their indexes, and look at them first when rankings sites because they are likely to be more important to more people.

How do you get those links? Let's take a look at some popular strategies.

Free Directories

Your first stop is the free directories. Like asking the government to build a road past your store, free directories are likely to add a link to your site for the public good, but on their own time schedule.

Put in your request, follow up with it, and eventually your link will probably get added. You can't count on it, you aren't "entitled" to a link in free directories but if you've built a great site, they will want to add it to their resources.

Paid Directories

Paid directories are the equivalent of paying the government official to put your project first. You still don't have a whole lot of control over the project, but paying for it speeds it up and makes sure it gets done.

Your link is still probably subject to editorial guidelines and limited to your company name and the description is likely to be a limited size.

About Directories

The plus to general directories is that your link is typically on a page of links with similar businesses on it, making the topic of the page relevant to your site. Some people will try to "game" directories by placing their listing in a higher PR or a less full category, but it's better to be listed where your competitors are, in my opinion, both from a people-traffic and a search engine relevance point-of-view.

Don't overlook industry-specific directories that may be paid or unpaid. These usually send highly qualified traffic and can be a real bargain.

Paid Link Advertising

With paid link advertising, you say where the temporary road starts and ends, how it is structured, and but you stop paying, it goes away. This is the most flexible form of linking and the most costly. It can have great short-term search benefits as well as gain you valuable repeat customers.

You need to consider where the ad will appear, how the link is handled (is it a direct link or a redirect) and what the potential traffic will be. Paid links that are stuffed into the footers of large sites along with dozens of other links seem to be suffering from a search engine point of view, and are obviously not appealing to visitors.

Advertising on related industry sites can often be in the form of text ads, "feature" stories, banner ads, or site sponsorship with footer links throughout. Regardless of whether you are after "link popularity" or real qualified traffic, it pays to advertise on related sites.

Reciprocal Linking

If you and another business agreed to build a road between your stores, you'd have the equivalent of reciprocal linking. This can be a very beneficial strategy where both parties and their visitors benefit. However, if you wouldn't personally recommend that your visitors visit the other site, don't link to it either.

You wouldn't send your customers away to your competitor when they were wandering the aisles of your store, so don't send them there with a link online either. Reciprocal linking is most beneficial when the businesses compliment each other, for example a camera store that links to online photo finishing, a local business that links to other related local businesses, or a baby gift store that links to a children's clothing store. All of these alliances make sense; a jewelry store linking to a pharmacy site does NOT make sense.

When looking for reciprocal link partners, think about vendors, suppliers, happy customers, related businesses, local businesses, blogs and informational sites in your industry.

The Elusive Editorial Link

The holy grail of linking is getting links that you don't have to pay for, don't have to reciprocate, and were actually placed because the owner of the other site wanted their visitors to see your site! It does happen.

One way it happens is by getting to the top of the search engines... those who have will get more. Casual bloggers and forum posters looking for an example of a specific item will link to your site because they found it first. Simply by being visible, you will become more visible.

Others will link to your site because the like what you have to say, your amazing selection, your extra low prices or other deals, or your neat tools, games, cartoons, or resources. See What is Content? Part I and What is Content? Part II for more details and ideas on great link-worthy content.

You can actively solicit those links by offering a special deal to members of an online community or readers of a popular blog or other related sites. Give them a reason, something that benefits them, to link to your site.

If that's too time-consuming or complicated for you or you just can't come up with a good promotional angle, hire a professional link builder like Debra O'Neil Mastaler of Alliance Link to help market your site for more links.

Brute Force Linking

There are people and programs out there that will link your site by putting links on unsuspecting guestbooks and blogs. Does it work? Well, it definitely used to. Things like the nofollow tag are making it harder to get "credit" for those brute force links and the engines are getting better at identifying them and discounting them.

Put your time, effort, and money into getting beneficial links instead of taking advantage of other website owners.

Making Your Own Links

A popular strategy for a while was to just make a bunch of sites yourself, link 'em together, and make your own link popularity. This isn't as easy as it once was because of Google's Aging Delay for new sites. It can take 6 months, a year, or longer to get a new site to rank on Google so creating multiple sites means a lot more work and a lot of waiting.

This was always a risky strategy anyway, as "link islands" can be easily spotted and disregarded. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it got zapped. Then all the work you did on those "link" sites was for nothing!

The Case for Relevant Links

The basic recipe for search engine rankings is simple:

Text on the site (what the site says about itself.)

Links to the site (what other sites think of that site.)

When you think about it, nothing else really matters. The coding of the site, other things you can put here and there on a site, none of that does a better job of telling the search engine about the page than what people can read on the page. For more info on on-page content, see The Secret Sauce in Web Marketing.

The second ingredient, links, are still somewhat easy to manipulate at the moment. In order for the search engines to do a better job of returning truly relevant pages (and not get manipulated), they have to do a better job of weeding out the "real" links from the "fake" ones. They have to analyze those links; where they appear on the page, what's around them, what the topic of the page is, how long the link has been there, etc. There are a myriad of factors they can examine to determine how much weight to give any particular link.

Regardless of how they go about doing it from an algo standpoint, most experts agree that where the link comes from is going to matter to the search engines more in the near future. Relevant links are the way to go. Irrelevant links aren't likely to hurt you, but they are a lot of work if you don't get any benefit from them!

If you build your linking campaign with links from relevant sites from the beginning, you don't need to worry about the latest theories! Your marketing plan won't be built on a quirk of an algo, but logical business strategy. When you have a strong linking campaign, you may be surprised how much business comes from other sites as opposed to the search engines. With that goal in mind, fluctuations in rankings won't affect your site nearly as much as others and you can worry about more important things- like handling your business.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
May 25, 2005

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.

Search Engine Guide > Scottie Claiborne > Threads of the Web - Linking for Success