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BACK TO BASICS: Link Building Basics

by Virginia Nussey, January 15, 2010

SEO Hierarchy of Needs

At the top of the SEO Hierarchy of Needs you'll find one of the most challenging tasks of Web site optimization: acquiring relevant, high-quality, inbound links. It's a difficult and demanding practice, requiring a well-planned strategy for the best odds of success.

Link marketing encompasses all the marketing activities around the act of increasing the number of high quality inbound links to a page or other document. For SEO, the intent is to raise the site's visibility in the search engine results for targeted phrases. Links indicate trust, authority and relevance — three crucial qualities for success in SEO.

One tactic, the creation of link bait and viral content, thrives on creativity and network connections. Another technique, manual link-requests, demands research and an adherence to social graces. There are many other approaches to link building, though they all require time, patience and often a high commitment of resources; however, the benefit received from even a handful of high-quality, inbound links may make it all worthwhile.

A Quick Background on Search Engine Link Equity

Search engines consider inbound links to be a measure of a page's authority on the Web. Link equity is basically the collection of links pointing to a page or domain. The more relevant, high-authority links pointing to a Web page, the higher that page's link equity.

There are three search engine optimization reasons for link building, as explained by conference speaker PJ Fusco at the Link Building Basics session at a Search Engine Strategies conference in 2008:

  1. Increase search-referred traffic
  2. Improve search engine visibility for targeted terms
  3. Improve relevancy signals to the search engines

What Makes a High Quality Link?

All links are not equal in the eyes of the search engines. As explained by expert and veteran link marketer Debra Mastaler in a 2009 interview with Bruce Clay, Inc., high-quality links have the following four qualities:

  • Sit in content areas
  • Are placed on high quality pages
  • Sit on "aged" pages (3+ years)
  • Use targeted anchor text

Along with links being assigned various degrees of quality and permanence by search engines, some links should be avoided altogether as they can cause search engine penalty. Avoid receiving links from link farms and stay away from obvious reciprocal linking or link buying. The link should look natural to avoid attention or penalty from a search engine. It should also be noted that links including the rel="nofollow" tag pass no or little link equity.

Link Marketing Techniques

Before you undertake link marketing, first weigh the factors of your investment. What are the resources required of a given link building strategy? Are the links expected from the effort links with long-term or short-term SEO value? What is the perceived quality of links you expect to receive from this tactic?

It can be very difficult to put a dollar number on the return of an investment like link marketing. A long-term link from just one extremely relevant, trusted site has the ability to drive a steady stream of traffic with a high conversion potential. Alternately, a high volume of links from users across a social media network can result in a spike in traffic and conversions. If the numbers add up and the investment holds the promise of traffic driving links, there are a number of tactics for the link marketer to choose from. The following are among the most common link building techniques.

Link Bait, Link Magnets and Social Media Links

Link bait refers to Web content that users can't help but link to because it is so interesting or entertaining. Link bait content will appeal to a user's emotions, whether it's happiness, sadness, pride, embarrassment, surprise, thoughtfulness or another strong emotional response. A link magnet works in the same way, but while link bait aims to drive links in a single push of viral attention, link magnets are intended to attract links steadily overtime by virtue of being a useful resource.

An Engagement Object™ is content that interacts with a visitor, such as videos, infographics, and polls, to name a few. Engagement Objects can be used as a link bait or link magnet to attract inbound links.

Include a simple sharing mechanism that makes it effortless for the user to include a link to the content on various social media platforms. One of the most common ways users link to link bait content is through a social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, and social news sites like Digg and StumbleUpon. As such, content used to attract links should be very easy to share via social networks.

Syndication or Contributed Content

This link-building technique, like many others, relies on the generation of high-quality content. Content partnerships with authoritative publisher sites can result in quality links back to your site as a reference to the source. For example, a boutique wedding blog can receive advantageous links from a major bridal publication by contributing a regular column to the site. Syndicated or re-published content has the added benefit of allowing the content producer to include that content on their own site as well, adding optimized, theme relevant content to the site. By providing content to well-known, highly trafficked publishers, you can receive the benefits of a link and any resulting traffic.

Manual Link Requests

Manually requesting links is the act of asking for links from sites identified as high-quality targets. One of the most common methods of requesting a link is through an e-mail. It should not appear to be sent out in bulk and it should be personalized for the site for which a link request is being made. Ideally, it will use the addressee's full name and will include the requester's full name and contact info to support the request's credibility. The subject line should be catchy in order to induce interest, and of course, a link should make sense for both sites, meaning their audience and subject matter should align with yours.

Partners and Sponsorships

One easy but overlooked opportunity for inbound links is through partnerships and sponsorships. Many sponsorship opportunities, such as a non-profit fundraising event, will include a page on their Web site listing the sponsors. By sponsoring an event, a project, a group or an individual, you'll be able to mine that relationship for an inbound link. Community, commercial or other kinds of partnerships can also be a source of an inbound link as a show of support or as a sign of the partnership's mutual value. The technique takes advantage of existing relationships by transferring a real-world partnership into its SEO equivalent.

For a round up of expert analysis on the most promising and least promising link-building techniques in the new year, check out Link Building Trends for 2010. With an understanding of search engine guidelines, link-building best practices and time-tested techniques in your marketing arsenal, you'll be able to generate SEO-boosting inbound links.

This is part 5 in our series on the SEO Hierarchy of Needs.

For permission to reprint or reuse any materials, please contact us. To learn more about our authors, please visit the Bruce Clay Authors page. Copyright © 2009 Bruce Clay, Inc.