Getting the right kind of links

On the web, links are the coin of the realm and as such, it is probably one of the most talked about subjects in webmaster blogs and at search conferences. In the last few weeks, there have been a few blog posts and "link" related product launches that make it clear there are still some misconceptions about what are effective and beneficial ways to build links.

Link building is one of the most important and difficult jobs for a webmaster. Generating links for a site is not always obvious and webmasters may not know where to begin getting links for their sites. This leads some to focus on link exchanges or use complex link schemes to improve the rank of their sites. The truth about link exchanges and other link schemes is that if it is automated, super-easy, or super-fast, it is not worth the investment of time or money.

What is wrong with link exchanges?

In our Webmaster Center guidelines, as well as the other search engines’ guidelines, we warn against the use of techniques that artificially increase the number of links to your site as it may actually hurt your rank in the long-term. Link exchanges are a method of exchanging links on a large scale (sometimes automated and sometimes not) for improving search engine rankings. We see these links exchanges as being generated for the search engines and not having value for user. Other problems for link exchanges include:

  • Lack of a valuable return on the investment
  • Being built with software which mass-emails site owners with generic mails, asking for an exchange of links
  • Requirement that webmasters to set up new link directories or require participation in directories that offer little or no value to the end users

Webmasters who leverage link exchange networks are hunting for a perceived win that is easy to automate and replicate. In some cases, the techniques used are less than helpful or downright spammy. Some misguided techniques include:

  • Using auto-surf traffic exchange programs
  • Paying for search engine submission networks

So where do I get the links I need?

That begs the question, "What is a great link and how do I build them?" The truth is that great links are earned based on your unique content, service, or product. These links are always on topic and should not require a link in return.

It is good for a webmaster to link to the products and services they like and believe in. There is nothing wrong with naturally linking out to sites that are of value to your visitors. In addition, often if you link to a product or service you enjoy, they may naturally link in return to where you mentioned and linked to them. However, these links should be in context and relevant to both the linked to site and the linking site.

For most webmasters, you will acquire links from a variety of sites; some that are valuable links and some that are not as valuable. We covered several ideas for link building in the past but here are some additional thoughts on where to get links:

Become a subject matter expert

At SES San Jose during a site clinic, a webmaster shared a site that sold custom and niche glass tools for the hobbyist and professional glass worker. All of the panel speakers agreed that a blog discussing specific tools, their uses, and giving project ideas or patterns was a great opportunity for attracting links. By setting themselves up as subject matter experts, they could submit their articles to industry blogs or hobbyist magazines, which would probably be more than happy to link to the site.

Another benefit of being the subject matter expert writing on a blog is it the content itself can be a draw for those looking for information and help. Adding value for customers is one of the most natural ways to generate links and attract search engines, not to mention attract more readers.

Offer a free service

Whether it is a one-time or an on-going offer, providing a useful service through your website is a great way to capture your audience’s attention and drive traffic to your site. One site that I really like is Microformats.org. It offers an hCard and hCalendar creator. The site’s goal is the promotion of microformats but the free tools are reason enough to go to the site. These tools help create code you can use on your site and at the same time promote the adoption of microformats. It is a win-win for readers and for the site owner.

Work with industry or professional associations

If you are in an industry that has a successful professional association, working with that association is a fantastic way to get high-authority links. For example, in cities around the US, there are home shows sponsored by the local or national Home Builders Association. These shows often promote the companies that participate in the shows. For example, Seattle’s Street of Dreams has a subcontractor page which links out to the individuals who helped with the local home show.

Many associations also link to members in good standing with the organization. For example, USA Hockey has a club finder, which helps users find clubs in good standing with the league. Clubs with websites get a link from the parent organization. These types of links are far more valuable in terms of ranking than those garnered from link exchanges.

Leverage Social Media (blogs, forums, video, twitter…)

Something new that may or may not be useful for everyone is leveraging social media. By building a social network and sharing when you have something people might find valuable or interesting, it can drive traffic to your site as well as get people to link to your site. However, you need to be careful when sharing in a social network, as it is very easy to annoy your audience by spamming the social network. Figuring out when you should share links in a social network comes down to knowing how to add value to an audience.

A couple other good posts on Link Building you should read:

The truth about link building

Trying to create interest in your site with valuable content will always be a hard task. There is no quick solution to that challenge. Remember the old maxim, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is." It holds true for link exchanges as well. Most link exchanges and link building tools will not explain to you the risk of the behavior they are selling. Real success can be yours if you are willing to focus on creating great content and do the hard work of marketing your site. It will pay off with improved ranking and better organic traffic.

Jeremiah Andrick — Program Manager, Live Search Webmaster

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