Links make the web work. Chances are you’re reading this post as a result of clicking on one — perhaps on a Tweet from Joe or a post on the Cambridge Marketing Meetup page?
Links help people discover things online.
They also help search engines figure out the tangled mess that is the worldwide web. Somebody made a ballpark estimate of how big the web is. They estimated there are some 130 trillion items on the web. Web pages, PDFs, images all that. That’s a lot of stuff.
Search engines are how we find things in that morass. Organising said morass into useful, usable search results is hard. Let’s take a moment to appreciate search engines.
Right. That’s enough of that.
What’s links got to do with it?
(Apologies to Tina Turner) a web without links isn’t a web. To use the spider web analogy, it’d just be series of separate strings and not really a web at all.
Google (and other search engines) worked out links are important early on.
How do you know if one site is better than another? If lots of people say so, of course. Links are the web’s ‘word-of-mouth marketing’.
If lots of people say Site A is pretty good (e.g. they link to it) chances are it’s pretty good. Certainly better than Site B, which no-one says is either good or bad.
Unfortunately, SEO’ers cannot have nice things. As with many things before (and since), we broke it. This becomes a bit of a theme in this piece.
Good links: Relevance is key
Google needed to change the ‘voting system’ again.
To be fair to them, they already have. The big cataclysmic updates (the ones with the cute animal names) are getting fewer and fewer these days — replaced by smaller, more frequent updates.
The shift now is towards relevance.
If you sell doughnuts in Cambridge, a link from New Zealand airlines might have a high Domain Authority (DA)– but it’s probably not relevant.
Links from local coffee shops, who recommend your doughnuts; or on food review sites; or cookery blogs — now you’re talking.
See, Google is clever. Or at least it’s getting cleverer.
They know the Tottenham Hotspur website is about football; they know Netflix is about TV and movies. They know some topics and areas go together. They know other things don’t.
If you’re thinking: “Yes but what about the BBC? What’s their site about? News? Sport? Cooking? Business? Dr. Who?” The answer is all of those things. So the relevance of the page is really important too.
I’m not saying DA is not important — I still use it as a ballpark on how ‘authoritative’ a site may be — but you shouldn’t obsess over it.
I could go on (and on, and on) about this — but that’s enough link history for now. Now you want to know the good stuff.
How do I get more links?
First off. A caveat. This is from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
There are those that will tell you it’s impossible to build a single link within Google’s guidelines. That every link to your site should happen entirely of its own accord without any input from you.There are those that will actively push for and ‘build’ hundreds of links to their website(s) every month.
I think the best route lies somewhere in between. So how do you get more links?
There are lots of answers to this question.
There are ‘black hat’ ways (tactics that bring with them the risk of getting you in a heap of trouble); ‘white hat’ ways (much less risky but more time and money intensive) and some things that fall in between.
If you want to know more about black hat techniques you should watch the video of a talk at the free SEO event I run: Craig Campbell on Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO.
For the sake of keeping this post slightly shorter than most novels, I’ll assume you want to pursue the white hat stuff for now.
The low-hanging fruit
Where could you put a link to your website right now? Right. Now. If I said post a link to your website somewhere online in the next 10 minutes and I’ll give you £1m — where’d you put it?
Chances are, most of you thought of social media. Good! That absolutely counts.
Hopefully you’re posting your content on social media anyway but that all helps your SEO attempts too (not to mention getting more traffic by itself) but it can also mean someone finds your content and posts a link to it on their site. Lovely.
Most links on social media are ‘nofollow’ but that’s OK. Links with a ‘nofollow’ can still have value — especially if they’re somewhere relevant; where your target audience are; where your target audience might go looking for you.
Which leads me to the next easy win: directories.
There are famous ones such as Yelp and the like. How about Google Maps? Have you got your business listed on there? Have you heard of Google My Business? If not, best read my handy guide to getting yourself set-up on ‘GMB’.
And there are other search engines besides Google. How about Bing Places? Is your business on there? Not sure? Here you go: How to list your business on Bing Places.
We’re flying along already. Two or three links for a few minutes’ work.
Find the directories in your niche. If you bake wedding cakes, are you listed on the local wedding planner sites? Some of them may charge you for the privilege, lots won’t. Some may ask you to link back to them. Careful. More on reciprocal links in the summary later.
Again, remember quality and relevance are key. Picking three or four relevant directory sites (that your target customers use) will bring far more benefit than getting listed in a few dozen spammy, irrelevant directories.
How do I get even more links?
Low-hanging fruit gathered you may need to start climbing the proverbial tree now.
To get links you need to be link-worthy. No-one wants to link to crappy, ‘churn and burn’ content. It reflects badly on them if they do.
So the next thing is your content. If you already have some great content (well done you!) try and find people who might link to it. In the doughnut shop example I used above, can you contact your local coffee shop and ask them to link to you?
Sometimes that’s all it takes: asking people. If you have something that’s useful and relevant to their audience they may be only too happy to.
Keep relevance at the top of your mind but not just in your business niche, in your geography can be good too — especially if you are focussed on selling to a specific local area.
If you sell shoes in Norwich having lots of sites Google strongly associates with Norwich link to you will help no end when someone searches for “shoe shop in Norwich”.
If you have a PR or marketing team, talk to them. They may be pitching stories to local (or even national) newspapers and magazines. Make sure they include links to your website in their efforts. Ideally links to your relevant content, not just your homepage.
If you don’t have any link-worthy content — you need to make some.
What that is depends on your targets and your audience. What would they find useful, interesting, engaging? If you sell jewellery can you write a piece on how to decide what length of chain to use for a necklace? Or what the pros and cons of different metals are?
A good content plan considers links as a key part of the strategy. If you write [x] who would link to it? How are they going to find out about it, so they can link to it?
PR stunts are a classic example of this. There are some terrific examples of SEO equivalents, like the financial firm that faked a story about a child going on a crazy spending spree with their parent’s credit card.
It was picked up nationally and they got dozens of links from the BBC, national newspapers and financial magazines… until they were rumbled as fakers. Part of me almost wishes they’d got away with it.
When is a link better than a link?
No hilarious punch-line here, sorry — but there are other things which make a ‘good’ link even better.
A big one is anchor text. This means the words that are actually the clickable bit of the link (they usually go blue and underlined like this link to optimisey.com).
For that link the anchor text is “optimisey.com”.
This is a big signal to the search engines what that link is about.
No prizes for guessing which of these two is a more ‘optimal’ link:
- The Marketing MeetUp is the best networking event. Find out more. Click here.
- The Marketing MeetUp is awesome. Find out more about the best networking event in Cambridge.
Argh! Even typing that was painful. Burn them. Burn all the “click here”-s.
They’re terrible SEO, they’re useless for users (it’s not clear what they’re going to get) and don’t even get me started on the accessibility of “here” for the partially sighted. Just stoppit.
Even with your own content. Especially with your own content. No more click heres. Promise me. Promise?
Link building is hard
If you’ve made it through all that you may have got the impression link-building is hard.
You’d be right. It is.
Like anything: you get out what you put in. If you invest time, effort and resource into building links to your site, you’ll see the benefit. If you don’t, you won’t.
Russ Jones of Moz, revealed on the TechSEOpodcast when he does link building training he doesn’t mind giving away all his secrets — as he knows 9 out of 10 people won’t be bothered. It’s too hard. Just by doing it you’ll be ahead of a swathe of your competition.
Need some more motivation?
What if I told you each link you build to your site was worth £30? What if I told you some links you build will be worth £250? Or some of them may even be worth £2,000. Each link. Per year.
Suddenly the effort to pursue them; to ask for them; to send an email; to build that content that’ll get you 10, 15 or 100 links… it’s not looking so bad eh?
Those prices aren’t plucked from the ether. Ahrefs, another big SEO firm, published a study back in 2016 calculating the price of links.
With timing so good it’s almost like I planned it, they updated it recently: What’s the cost of buying links in 2018?
And that’s just if you were to buy links. Just so we’re clear: NEVER BUY LINKS.
If you factor in the value of a good search ranking for a competitive term, which thousands of people search for? You can almost hear the tills ringing.
The first result on a Google search can expect around 40% of searchers to click on it. So for a term that 1,000 people search for every month — if you rank #1 you can expect around 400 visitors a month.
If your site, on average, has a conversion rate of 5%. That’s 20 conversions or sales. From one keyword.
SEO just got a bit more sexy, eh?
Tl;dr — summary
Read all that? Well done. Here’s the summary for you and for those of you who skipped to this bit (I see you!).
How to build links
- Obvious places: social media channels; profile pages; other owned sites
- Local directories
- Business niche directories
- Google Maps, Bing Places etc.
- Unlinked mentions (find people who talk about you but don’t link to your site)
- Find who links to your competitors but not you
- Broken link checkers can be a good route here: somewhere linking to a broken page — drop them a note offering your great page as a working alternative!
- Ask people! Find sites where you ‘could/should’ be link from — ask them!
- Be patient — good link building is hard
- Every good link you build is a step forward
- Results (e.g. improved rankings) can take months — but the results are worth it.
What makes a good link
- One that sends you traffic (and sales!)
- of linking site
- of linking page
- Quality > quantity
- Links to ‘deep’ pages e.g. pages other than your homepage
- Relevant anchor text
- Not “nofollow”
- Ideally from a site that hasn’t previously linked to you before
Things to avoid
- Never buy links. Ever (yes, even sponsoring the local Girl Guides)
- Don’t sell links either
- Listings on spammy directory sites
- Reciprocal links (“I’ll link to you if you link to me!”)
- Spammy anchor text e.g. deliberately packed with keywords in an unnatural way
- Over optimising anchors — Google expects sites to have a mix of URL links; generic text links and specific text links
- Links appearing on every page on another site (e.g. footer links)
Want more? Moz have written a really thorough guide to link building: Beginners guide to link building (if you thought this was essay-length, this is the PhD dissertation!).
I hope you learned something from this post. If you’d like to find out more about SEO check out my blog and/or come along to the free SEO MeetUps I run in Cambridge. Or you can find Optimisey on Facebook or Twitter.