Link building is like networking: you have to do it.

By James Florence, Contributor

When it comes to promoting a business website, good content is critical—after all, it not only improves SEO, it also shows visitors you’re an expert in your field. However, as it’s often said, “It’s not what you know but who you know,” which is why an equally important asset is the connections you make with other sites. This practice of creating digital connections is known as link building. 
 
Link building is a simple concept: You get other websites to link to yours and vice versa. Think of it like networking, with an emphasis on the “net” part. Yet, while the value of in-person networking may be obvious, you might be wondering, “What’s so important about building links with other websites?”
 
We’re glad you asked. 
 
First of all, links are the primary means by which users navigate the web, enabling them to easily click from one page to another. That’s why the more links that lead from other sites to yours, the more possible avenues users have to arrive there. This is known as referral traffic.
 
Second, good links lend credibility to your site. When a reputable site links to your content, it means they regard you as an accurate, high-quality source of information, which serves as a value signal to users and search engines alike.
 
Third, links are crucial for SEO. Let’s face it: Even if you’re creating great content, if you don’t have a substantial following, it has a slim chance of being seen. Likewise, keyword targeting can improve your site’s SEO, but you have to remember that hundreds (if not thousands) of other sites are competing for the same keywords you are (unless your targeted phrase is “Hasselhoff pistachio mannequin”). That’s why it’s unlikely that content or keywords alone will significantly boost your search ranking. Add to this the fact that links are a key ranking factor in Google’s algorithm and it’s clear why link building is an invaluable SEO strategy. 
 
However, there are potential downsides to be aware of with link building. While links from reputable sources (i.e. UC Berkeley or The LA Times) can give you a boost in SERPs, links from spammy sources (i.e. CouponCentral101.com) can have the opposite effect. Furthermore, acquiring links the wrong way can get you penalized by Google. That’s why it’s important to be cautious and discriminating in your link building crusade. 
 
There are two basic types of link building strategies: “white hat” strategies and “black hat” strategies. White hat strategies seek to “earn” links by creating link-worthy content or requesting them from other sites via personalized emails; they defer to web best practices and strive to add genuine value for users. In contrast, black hat strategies seek to obtain as many links as possible with as little effort as possible. Such strategies include buying links or sneaking them into non-contextual webpage comments.
 
Obviously, black hat strategies exist because of a desire for quick results. However, as conventional wisdom consistently shows, quick results don’t provide as much value as those attained gradually through honest means. Black hat strategies are more likely to get penalized by search engines, which means any short-term gains can quickly disappear. White hat strategies, on the other hand, require a substantial investment of time and effort, but they’ll yield lasting SEO benefits with legitimately earned links.

 

Here are a few white hat link building strategies to consider: 

  1. Request links from current connections. Remember, it’s not what you know but who you know, which is why a great way to acquire links is to request them from your customers and associates. You can even create your own “partnership badges” (graphic icons that link back to your site) for them to display on their sites. Of course, you should return the favor by linking to their sites as well.
  2. “Link up.” Another smart strategy is to place relevant links in your content to websites more prominent than yours. This doesn’t guarantee the gesture will be returned, but it can’t hurt if it’s done in a natural, respectful and non-spammy way. Who knows—if you’re lucky, you might receive a charitable link in return. 
  3. Create link-worthy content. Start a business blog and post new articles regularly. While good, informative writing is priority number one, consider adding viral value by infusing your content with humor or referencing trending topics. You can also publish press releases about new products and host giveaways to drum up interest and social media shares. 
  4. Launch a manual outreach campaign. Sometimes the best way to get links is simply to ask for them. Send sites’ webmasters personalized emails that present your content and offer persuasive reasons why linking to it would be in their best interest. This strategy is a little more time-intensive than others, but it’s also a more straightforward way of acquiring links. Even if only a few sites out of 100 reciprocate your request, it still may be worth your while. 

 

Here are some more link building tips to keep in mind: 

 
  • The more trusted and popular the source of the link, the better. In many cases, a single link from a prominent site will bring greater value than a large accumulation of lesser links. 
  • Avoid “guest blogs” offered by unknown sources—this is a common tactic spammy sites use to gain links, and Google has been cracking down on it for a while. 
  • While external links are what you’re looking for, don’t overlook the value of good internal links. If someone links to one of your content pages, it’ll benefit you a lot more if that page contains links to the rest of your site. 
 
Now get out there and make some connections!
 

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Read the previous article in our SEO for SMBs series.

To read more of James Florence's work, check out his blog posts for diamondcertified.org.

Photo: Open Data Institute Knowledge, 2013