The search engines use links between websites to help determine which are the most important.
Your business can benefit from this, by looking to attract links, and appearing before your competitors in relevant searches. This works for the regular search results, and is true to a lesser extent in the local results. See an explanation of the types of search results.
This guide will run through some general concepts regarding links, and then provide specific suggestions for small business link building.
What Are Links?
This is a link – clicking will send you back to the Small Business Shift home page. The innovation that helped make Google dominant was to count these links as votes, assuming that if many people linked to a site, it must be valuable.
What Is A Good Link?
Over the years, people have come up with a variety of ways to build links even to a worthless site, manipulating Google’s results. Google (and the other search engines) wage a constant war, attempting to find and devalue these links. Here are some general guidelines as to which links are most valuable:
- Links from trusted sites – Links from trusted sites carry more value. Most big, famous sites are good examples – but many small businesses or local sites carry plenty of weight as well.
- Links from relevant/local sites – Too many links from irrelevant places may leave the search engines wondering what your site is about. Links from local sources are be particularly useful for local search.
- Links with good anchor text – The actual link text (“This is a link” in my example) is the “anchor text,” and gives the search engines an idea as to what the link is pointing at. Words near the link may also help provide context.
- Links in content – Links within articles tend to be valuable, particularly compared to a place such as the website footer. The main content is where people are looking, and links placed here tend to more trusted.
There are a few things you should avoid when link building:
- Links on spam sites – Don’t bother with links on sites that are junk, or sites that link to many worthless locations.
- Links on naughty sites – You don’t want to be associated with sites promoting porn, gambling, or anything illegal… stay away.
- Excessive Reciprocal Linking – Small businesses used to love trading links, helping each other out. This is fine, but has been penalized when done excessively (ie, 10 probably help, 100 will not)
- Excessive Anything Linking – Much like the reciprocal linking issues, anything excessive can trip spam signals. A good example is identical anchor text on all 1000 links to your site. You shouldn’t have to worry about this unless you’re being quite aggressive with your tactics, but it’s good to keep in mind.
A Note On Paid Links
Many people pay websites to link to them – there are large businesses devoted to brokering these deals. However, the search engines are absolutely against this practice, and do everything they can to devalue the links. It’s relatively risky, as your website could even be penalized for taking part. I don’t recommend most small businesses engage in link buying, and won’t be discussing it in this guide. I would also highly discourage selling links, as that is even more likely to merit a penalty.
As we’ve just discussed, some links are more valuable than others. There are services online which will build hundreds of links for a few dollars – but these are of little to no value. We’re going to look at some more productive link building methods. These will build fewer links, but they will be much more useful.
Suppliers & Customers
One of the first places to start looking for links is any company from which you purchase stuff. Look to see if they have a “customers page” – and ask to be listed, with a link to your site. Do they have testimonials with a link to the testimonial giver?
Depending on your industry, customers may also be a possibility. Maybe they want to brag about how they purchase your high-end product as a material for theirs? Or perhaps your ice cream shop is so awesome they would like to tell their friends?
+ Can be very effective links, and some companies may dislike being asked
– Will not be too plentiful, and some companies may dislike being asked
Local Groups / Organizations
There are a variety of local groups that may link to your site. Your chamber of commerce, local BBB, perhaps a newspaper or other site with a directory of local services. Some of these have subscription fees, but others will be free – and all help confirm to the search engines the location of your business.
+ Nice local-centric links
– There are only so many out there, and some memberships are expensive
Online Yellow Pages / Local Directories
There are a large variety of national websites that provide local listings. Many will include a link, although you may need to purchase a paid listing. Claiming these will help your local ranking as well. Some to look at include:
- Best of the Web Local
- Merchant Circle
- Angie’s List
- Judy’s Book
+ You’ll get links for sure, and can get many (this is a partial list), plus it’s good for local rankings.
– The links generally aren’t super-valuable, and it’s repetitive work.
Trusted, General Purpose Directories
There are three major non-local directories that are worthwhile. DMOZ is owned by Google and free – although it can take forever for your site to show up after submission. The Yahoo and Business.com directories are each fairly spendy, but will also provide valuable links. (and yes, you could call these paid links – but they do not violate search engine guidelines because they are editorial – your site will be declined if it is really bad)
+ A near guaranteed way to get some fairly strong links.
– Yahoo, $300 for a listing? And DMOZ may never bother to put you in.
Charities / Non-Profits
When your business donates or volunteers for a non-profit organization, there are a couple chances for links. First, this is yet another shot at getting covered by the media. Second, many groups have websites that list donors – and they may be more than happy to link to your site if you ask.
+ Charity work is good anyway, can get great links, may generate some goodwill
– Requires time/money to donate, and you might not get a link.
Do Something Newsworthy & Promote It
With most local media firmly online, it’s possible for anything they cover to end up on the web – often with a corresponding link. Contact local media outlets next time your business does something interesting, and see if you can get some coverage. You can also submit a press release through a service such as PRWeb, with the hope of getting some national distribution.
+ May get media coverage, some excellent links
– Need something interesting – and it has to fit within the image you’re looking to project. Even a good idea might not get much distribution.
Group / Corporate Discounts
Many groups or corporations have pages listing discounts for their employees. Search Google for some of these pages at local companies/associations, and then offer a discount. If you’re in a college town, the University may have a page as well.
+ Can be very strong links, will probably get business from people that use the page.
– Must find these sources, and need to offer a discount.
If you run a business that people like, and run a really great promotion, there’s a chance customers will blog about the promotion, or link to it on social media sites. Some companies even run giveaways with more entries for those who blog about the contest, although this takes more organization.
+ If it takes off, can generate tremendous buzz/links
– Need to publicize the promotion, may not acquire any links regardless
Social media participation can generate links in a wide variety of ways. Links may be had from social bookmarking sites, in profile pages, from forum signatures, and more. If you’re producing good content (blogging?) the number of links your site could acquire rapidly expands.
+ Can build your reputation along with links, tremendous source if you are a valuable participant
– Can take a large amount of time, and is an ongoing commitment
Keep in mind that links are valuable, and you may be surprised how often the opportunity comes up to ask for one. Combine this with some dedicated acquisition, such as the ideas described above, and your site will gradually acquire more links – and hopefully rise above your competition. Don’t forget to track the visitors to your site to see how much it has helped.