You may have an amazing website, but not many people will see it if other sites aren't linking to it.
Relevant inbound links from authoritative, trusted and/or quality websites are every search marketer's dream. (An inbound link, also called a backlink, is a link from an external site that points to content on your site.) Google, which owns about 66 percent of the search engine market according to comScore, sees such links as votes of confidence for your content. Because Google wants to serve users the most relevant, freshest, trustworthy results, inbound links from trusted sites to yours can go a long way toward pushing your content up in search result rankings.
Of course, obtaining those inbound links takes considerable time, effort and resources. There are also a lot of myths and misunderstandings related to link building. For example, some believe Google will penalize you for getting too many links too quickly (not necessarily) or that reciprocal links are a surefire way to boost your rankings (it depends).
To help your site develop a quality inbound link profile, we've collected 25 top link-building strategies and tips from three experts:
Eric Ward, a link-building strategist since 1994 and author of LinkMoses, an email newsletter ($8 monthly).
Debra Mastaler, president of Alliance-Link, which provides custom link building training.
Scott Fasser, director of customer experience for Optify, developer of SaaS-based inbound marketing software.
Set Your Link-Building Foundation
1. Put someone in charge.
Because link building is time-consuming and resource intensive, someone needs to be responsible for driving the effort, Fasser says. "You need someone focused on actively managing the program, promoting the right content and always looking for new opportunities."
2. Set up a process for monitoring and measuring progress.
From the beginning, have a method in place--usually accomplished via SaaS tools--to monitor and measure your link-building efforts on a regular basis. "If you don't have that process set up, when someone asks how effective your link-building campaign is, you won't have a good answer," Fasser says. "And if you don't have a good answer, you're not likely to get the time and resources you need to continue the link building."
3. Don't outsource your entire link-building campaign.
"You can't outsource 100 percent of your link building or website promotion to a third-party and expect to get the same results you'd get if you had someone doing it in-house. You need someone in-house who really knows your industry," Ward says, since that will give link campaign strategies both context and focus.
Every site, Ward adds, "was designed with a specific and potentially unique audience in mind, specific objectives for that audience and specific subject matter. Doesn't it make sense that every site is going to require a specific approach to link building and content publicity? You can't cookie-cutter the process."
4. Begin by examining the links on your own site.
Unlike most inbound links, the links on your site are entirely within your control. Take a close look at how you're linking to your own content on your site. Are you using keyword-rich anchor text to point to relevant content elsewhere on the site? (Anchor text is a hyperlinked phrase, such as click here, that links to content that typically exists on another web page.) If anchor text is not keyword-rich, revise it, Fasser says. This can help the content that's being linked to with anchor text get a boost in search engine relevancy.
5. Create a baseline of existing inbound links.
Use a tool such as SEOMoz's Open Site Explorer to see which sites are currently linking to yours as well as the anchor text used in those inbound links, Fasser advises. This provides a snapshot of your complete inbound link profile, which is useful for tracking progress.
Open Site Explorer can help you improve your link-building strategy by providing a quick look at your inbound links--and the ones your competitors have.
Open Site Explorer data can be exported in CSV format. The basic tool is free. Additional features are included in subscription plans that start at $99 monthly.
6. Study your competitors' links.
You can also use tools such as Open Site Explorer to investigate the links your competitors have, Fasser says. This can provide ideas for directories and other sites to pursue.
7. Go after links your competitors don't have.
It's not enough to simply find out which links your competitors are getting and go after them. At best, that will simply put you on an equal footing with them. You should also pursue inbound links your competitors dont have, Ward says.
8. Focus on link quality, not quantity.
Relevant links from a few high-quality, trusted, authoritative sites are worth more in SEO terms than a ton of links from low-quality sites, Mastaler says.
9. Develop a list of top-priority keywords and use them in your online content.
Determine which keywords have the most search volume, are the least competitive and have the highest relevancy to your business and its products or services, Fasser advises. Use those keywords in your blog posts, white papers, press releases and other online content. "When you get links from other sites to your content, you'll be more likely to get good-quality anchor text links using your important keywords," he explains.
How to Get Inbound Links
10. Begin with the low-hanging fruit.
Ask for links from industry connections. Suppliers, donors, employees, retired employees, industry associations, forums, fraternal organizations and anyone else with whom you're affiliated can offer a great place to start your link-building strategies, Mastaler notes. Any individual or entity with which you have "a point of commonality" can serve as low-hanging fruit in your link-building efforts, she adds. Ask them to link to your resources page, blog or other page on your site, or for a listing in their directory.
11. Focus on directories relevant to your industry.
General Web directories are fairly useless in helping your site rise in search result rankings or attract targeted traffic, Ward says. A far better strategy, he adds, is to go after vertically oriented, curated directories maintained by people with "extreme knowledge or passion" who take their time to "collect useful resources."
The best Web directories are those maintained by people who are doing it out of passion, not for SEO. "Google loves and respects these sites because there's a layer of human quality control involved," Ward explains. "The more heavily edited or curated the content is, the more likely it is that Google will respect an anchor text link from that site."
12. Go after a diverse set of links.
The best link-building practice is to obtain inbound links to pages across your site, not just your home page, from a variety of domains using different anchor text keywords, Fasser advises. Just as it's important not to invest in one stock, the same holds true for your link portfolio--ideally, you want to get traffic from many sources. Also, a diverse set of links and anchor text keywords gives you more credibility with search engines.
13. Focus on relevant links.
An inbound link from a site that's relevant to your business is worth more for ranking purpose--sas well as for attracting targeted traffic--than a link from your cousin Billy's site about his favorite beer. "Getting a blog or other site that writes about things related to your product is the way to go," Fasser says.
14. Develop high-quality content.
Google's Panda update of 2011 pushed pages it considered to have poorly written and/or spammy content way down in its rankings. As a consequence, Web sites need to focus on creating high-quality content that's informative, useful and relevant, Fasser says. Not only will high-quality content keep you out of Google's crosshairs, it will help you attract inbound links and targeted traffic.
15. Create infographics and make them easy to share.
Infographics are extremely popular and can increase site traffic, Mastaler says. Other sites often link to them, and they can get lots of Tweets and Facebook likes.
For example, BlueGlass Interactive developed a content marketing infographic] that Mashable subsequently hosted. As a result, the infographic has attracted more than 3,800 Tweets, 650 Google +1s and 1,100 Facebook likes.
The keys to getting your infographics posted and shared is to make them visually compelling, informative and neutral in tone--that is, not about your company. It's OK to put your brand on an infographic aimed at consumers, Mastaler adds, as long as you understand that businesses will be less likely to share it.
16. Create custom widgets.
Customize a widget that delivers information relevant to your business, make the widget easy to post on other sites (via cut and paste) and embed a link back to your site, Mastaler suggests. She recommends Widgetbox, an online service that lets you use existing or create custom widgets for $25 monthly and up.
For a monthly fee that starts at $25, WidgetBox will help you build a custom widget that you can easily post on other sites.
Together, infographics and widgets are "a great use of your time" in delivering ROI to your link-building strategies, Fasser adds.
17. Write product reviews.
Well-written reviews of products related to your industry or niche are ideal "linkbait" to post on your site, says Mastaler. Include images (and credit the source) with your reviews to drive engagement. To help each review get noticed, post a link to it and a description on LinkedIn, Quora and Twitter. Create a Pinterest board with photos of the products you've reviewed; each pin (or photo) will include a link back to your site. Video and podcast reviews are another way to attract links and traffic.
18. Develop social media press releases.
A social media press release typically includes one or more photos, social sharing links and video clips. As such, it's more likely to get picked up by other sites, Mastaler says. Services such as BusinessWire and PRWeb will host your release and distribute it to news services and media outlets across the Web. Be sure to include your top keywords and one or more anchor text links back to your site within the release.
You can use services such as BusinessWire to host press releases. Include keywords and at least one anchor text link back to your site for even better visibility.
19. Don't forget online forums.
Online forums are "a tremendous resource," Mastaler says, since that's where you'll find people who are passionate and are often active bloggers. If you can connect with them in a meaningful or helpful way without overdoing a sales pitch, forum members may reward you with a link.
Other Helpful Link-building Strategies
20. Be sure you really need a link before you pursue it.
Before you request an inbound link, ask yourself if you really have a good chance of getting it, Fasser advises. "Link building eats up a lot of time and resources, so make sure you've taken the time to understand the site and its content and if it's truly relevant for what you do."
21. Reciprocal links aren't necessarily a bad--or good--strategy.
"Many people mistakenly make a blanket statement that a particular link-building tactic is good or bad" in terms of SEO effectiveness, Ward says. "The reality is, its just not that simple."
His advice: "Always ask yourself if you would pursue a link (reciprocal or not) if there were no such thing as Google. Instead, do it because swapping links with another site will be beneficial in some way to your site's visitors." As one example, it makes perfect sense for a local veterinarian to exchange a link with a dog grooming service in the area.
22. Big, sudden changes in your inbound links may--or may not--get you into trouble.
Some worry that if their site suddenly attracts a ton of inbound links, Google will suspect black hat or unorthodox link-building activity is occurring and penalize that site in the rankings, Ward says.
The truth is, he says, it depends on the site, its history, the links and the circumstances. If a company is suddenly in the news, its site is likely to gain thousands of inbound links in a few days, with no penalty from Google. Conversely, if about 8 percent of your inbound links had keywords in them and, suddenly, 30 percent of your links are keyword-rich, Google might be suspicious.
"I hate to compare Google to an IRS auditor, but, in some ways, it's true. Google is auditing your site, looking for things outside the norm," Ward says. That's why it's best to grow links naturally by developing and publicizing great content, instead of hiring someone to plant thousands of identical anchor text links to your site on low-quality websites within only a few days.
23. Make content easy to share over social media.
Whenever you post new content on your site, such as a white paper or video, Fasser says to be sure its easy to share across social media. Social media updates containing links are great for building traffic and awareness. You should also share the new content with a Tweet or social media update that includes a relevant keyword and a shortened link, such as from bit.ly, to the content.
24. Your site's ideal link builders will do the job for free.
"The person who is your best link builder is the one who visits your site, likes it, and wants to share it with others," Ward says. That's why it's important to ask yourself what can someone do with your content once they see it, he adds. "It's a mistake not to give people a way to share your content with a Google +1, Facebook Like, or Twitter button. Make it easy for them."
25. Don't put all your eggs in the Google basket.
Too many people put too much emphasis on getting traffic from search engines, Ward says. "The more of your traffic thats coming from Google, the more precarious your position is. Your rankings are fluid and subject to every Google algorithm update," he says. "I've had clients call me and say that, all of a sudden, they're no longer ranking well and it's costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars a month."
Instead, your goal should be to get traffic from a variety of sites, of which Google is simply one. Though achieving this takes time, Ward acknowledges, it gives you a solid, stable foundation that will serve you well in the long run.
James A. Martin is an SEO, social media and blogging consultant and author of CIO.com's Martin on Mobile Apps. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.
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