We talk to SEO experts who show you how to use links the right way to help your small business website rise in search result rankings.
You've created an awesome website. You've optimized it with the right keywords in the right places. And yet, you're still showing up on page eight of Google search results for your keywords. What are you missing? Links.
Links from other websites pointing to yours, called backlinks, are a vital component of any small business SEO (search engine optimization) effort. To the search engines, a backlink from a trustworthy site to a page on your site is seen as a vote of confidence for your page. The more trusted and authoritative the site linking to yours is, and the more relevant the context of that backlink is to your page's content, the more that backlink will help your page rise in search engine results.
Here are 10 SEO link-building strategies that every small business with a website should know to improve search engine rankings and Web marketing.
10 Tips to Build Backlinks and Improve SEO Ranking
1. Quality trumps quantity
Backlink quality counts more than quantity. "I'd rather have five good-quality links than 5,000 crappy ones," said Rhea Drysdale, chief operations officer of Outspoken Media, during a recent link-building clinic at the Search Marketing Expo (SMX) conference in San Jose.
In general, a quality backlink is an endorsement in some way of your Web content from a trustworthy and/or authoritative site.
"A high-quality link is often a link in an article pointing to a Web page on your site that's relevant to the article topic," said Thomas W. Petty, an Internet marketing consultant who offers San Francisco Bay Area SEO services.
"When the content of the article, the anchor text, and the page being linked to are all on the same topic, Google will view that as a quality link, and that kind of link is what helps in your search engine results position."
2. Relevance and legitimacy matter
Eric Ward, chief link evangelist for search intelligence firm AdGooroo.com and the founder of EricWard.com, firmly believes in obtaining quality links from relevant sites. Ward said the links he pursues for clients are "from non-spam, legitimate sites within the same subject matter as my client's sites."
3. Quality content attracts quality links
When you write a blog post that's interesting, useful, controversial, topical, or funny, you've created "linkbait." Linkbait is content that others want to link to and share on their blogs, in their Twitter streams, on their Facebook pages, or in some other online forum. Search engines, which are beginning to experiment with using Twitter and public Facebook data as ranking factors, see such links as endorsements of your content.
4. To get a Quality Link, offer something valuable in return
One way to get a backlink to your small business website is to create original, worthwhile content that contains an anchor text or other link to your site, and to offer that content to another site. For example, Drysdale suggested, offer to write a guest post on a blog relevant to your industry and add a backlink to your site in the post.
Do your research first, she advised, to ensure that you know the site's target audience.To sweeten your offer, propose guest posts on topics you know people are actively searching for at the moment. Free keyword tools such as Google's AdWords Keyword Tool and Google Insights for Search can help you determine search volume for specific keywords and identify search phrases that are rising in popularity.
5. Link exchanges aren't worth the effort
Reciprocal links -- in which a friend links to your site and you link to his -- are widespread across the Internet. In general, though, most SEO strategists advise against pursuing link exchanges."If you have a website, and I have one and we just point at each other, Google thinks you're trying to manipulate the system, and that link won't count as a quality link," Petty said.
6. Get listed in online directories, especially those that are relevant to your industry
There are countless Web directories, such as Best of the Web and Business.com, which will list your business by one or more categories and include a backlink to your site. Generally speaking, look for directories that are human-edited, as the search engines tend to give links from those listings a bit more weight than directories that allow you to add a listing yourself.
The most valuable listings are from directories particular to your vertical industry, Ward said. For instance, if you sell products of interest to human resource professionals, a directory listing on a site such as Workforce Management -- even though it requires a fee -- is more valuable than one on a general business directory. In this scenario, you're not just getting a potential SEO lift from the link. You're also posting your listing in a place where your target customers are likely to see it.
7. Don't be afraid to buy links. Just be smart about it
Link building is a time-consuming process. Unsurprisingly, there's no shortage of businesses offering to do the job for you quickly. But paying an SEO firm to get backlinks from dubious, spammy sites can actually cause you to get penalized by the search engines; J.C. Penney found this out the hard way earlier this year.
Even so, "paying for links should be a part of an overall link-building strategy," said Ward. "If there's an online trade publication in your industry and they have a vendor area or sponsored content, it would be foolish not to consider that as part of your link marketing strategy." As with an industry-specific directory listing, you're exposing your site to target customers -- which can deliver more business benefits than the potential search engine lift.
To stay on the right side of good SEO practices, it pays to adhere to the paid link-building guidelines laid out in Google's Webmaster Tools, which states as follow:
"Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:
- Adding a rel="nofollow" attribute to the <a> tag
- Redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file"
8. Scope out the link universe and look for patterns
When formulating a link-building campaign, think about where your target audience goes online to get information about the kinds of products or services you offer, Ward advised. Do relevant, topical keyword searches in Google or Bing to see which sites rank highly.
Usually, top-ranking sites are those that the search engines trust to be legitimate and that offer quality content on the topic relevant to your keyword. Look for competitors as well as bloggers, informational sites and trade shows.
This research will help you define the potential "link universe" to target for your particular industry, Ward said. The goal is to create a list of the 25-50 sites that represent the competitive landscape as well as the top content sites for your industry.
Then, using link analysis tools (see the Resources section at the end of this article), look for linking patterns between the sites in your link universe. This will help you identify links your competitors are getting but you aren't. This gives you a starting point for your link-building campaign.
9. Don't just copy your competitors; go after links they don't have
If you want to beat your competitors in search engine results, simply copying their link strategies isn't enough. Look for holes in their strategy. Think about high-quality, original content you can create to get backlinks that your competitors lack, Ward recommended.
10. Don't get fixated on Google
The mindset behind nearly every SEO effort is to improve your search engine result placement for the keywords you care most about. But Ward cautioned against relying too heavily on this strategy. Instead, he advocates that you focus on using link-marketing tactics to increase targeted traffic to your site from other sites, rather than simply focusing on boosting traffic from Google.
"The more you design your linking strategies to increase your Google (search engine results page) traffic, the more risk you create over time if you succeed, or if you fail," Ward wrote recently in Search Engine Land's Link Week column. "Why? Because you have devoted resources, time and money to a single traffic source with no concrete evidence it will work, work for how long, or work at all." He added that "a perfect traffic scenario would be (that) a site sees its traffic and leads increasing while at the same time sees the percentage of that traffic coming from search engines decreasing."
In other words, the SEO benefit of a well-placed backlink from a contextually relevant, authoritative, trusted site can be fleeting. On the other hand, the long-term benefit of such a link is that it can continually drive targeted, motivated viewers to your site -- which is the ultimate goal of any SEO effort.
Link Building & Analysis Resources
Many SEO specialists recommend the following link-building, analysis and management tools.
- Majestic SEO -- free and paid Web-based tools
- Raven SEO Tools -- low-cost (beginning at $19 monthly) Web-based tool set
- SEO for Firefox -- a free Firefox plug-in
- SEOMoz -- paid set of Web-based tools
- AdGooRoo -- paid set of Web-based tools (Eric Ward helped develop the Link Insight tool ($399 per month per license)
- Buzzstream -- link-building tools; $29 per month and up
- Getlisted.org -- free tool helps you identify and create directory listings for your business
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