But easy links no longer bring the results that are demanded of us. What search engines are forcing us to do—especially post-Google Panda—is to win quality links. And quality links are hard to get.
But it is precisely because they are hard to get that every savvy marketer should embrace the opportunity to win quality links. It is well within every marketer's grasp to develop the skills, the knowledge, and the experience required to make the task of getting quality links not only manageable but also hugely productive.
To succeed, you've got to target your link-building strategies at different types of sites, just as you'd target your marketing strategies to different market segments.
Think about groups of sites, not individual targets
Gathering big lists of link prospects is relatively easy. But after you've collected your list of prospects, where do you start?
You could segment your list by rank, such as the following:
- We'll only go for sites with a Google rank of PR4 or higher.
- We'll only go for sites with a Google rank of PR7 or higher, starting with the highest.
But those options are not the way to go. Say you target only those sites that are ranked PR4 and higher. Apart from PR4 being just an arbitrary figure, the sites you target will probably have nothing in common. Essentially, you'd be chasing links in isolation.
It's much better to concentrate on groups of sites that share characteristics, and then tailor your message powerfully to that group.
If choosing sites by Google PageRank is an arbitrary way of prioritizing link prospects, what's a better solution? Look at the characteristics of the sites you target so that you can approach groups of sites, not individual targets.
So, how do you segment prospects?
I like to think first about static and dynamic opportunities. Static opportunities are those that are "lacking movement, action, or change." Directories, for example, are clearly static opportunities. Dynamic opportunities are those "characterized by constant change or activity, full of energy or new ideas." Blogs are a great example of dynamic opportunities.
You shouldn't think of approaching static and dynamic prospects in the same way. A dynamic prospect needs constant feeding. Blogs, for example, have a voracious appetite for news, opinions, product launches, online tools, research reports, whitepapers, and samples.
On the other hand, static prospects need a one-off approach. You'll rarely come back to change your listing. All the work, therefore, is done at the start. That work includes choosing appropriate keywords and incorporating them in anchor text, and preparing a variety of listings that point to a variety of important pages on your site.
In our tool, Link Builder, we've incorporated what our research has found to be the most common groups of sites.
Here are eight opportunities to segment link prospects.
Blogs are one of the most dynamic channels. No matter what your market, top blogs exist that service it. Indeed, niche blogs likely exist, too, and finding them can pay dividends.
Blogs, of course, are updated frequently; they demand a constant flow of news, insights, new products, publications, and articles to maintain visibility.
Finding the names of the people behind the blogs and approaching them personally is crucial. That might require hard work at the start, but once you've established a relationship with those people, you can build on that relationship in the future with little effort.
Build your own lists of blogs that are interested in what you do, and you can give a powerful kick-start to any new initiative you launch.
2. News Media
News media are also hugely dynamic and need constant feeding. It's crucial to find the names of editors and journalists to approach with the right type of story.
I did an interview a few weeks ago with the co-founder of Snow-Forecast.com (a client) who had just gotten a juicy editorial link from the BBC. I looked at his link profile and saw that this excellent coverage was not a one-off, but that he had also gotten links from CNN, the New York Times, National Geographic, and a host of others.
Those are all quality editorial links that lead to what I call the cascade effect: when your site is written about and linked to by a major publisher, causing many bloggers to follow suit without even being asked.
Success in that example came down to three things:
- Developing a snow-forecast widget that had the potential to inspire many stories
- Getting to know journalists and what they wanted, and offering them good stories, commentary, interviews, and anything else they wanted
- Getting more links to the site, earning a higher search-engine ranking, becoming more visible to journalists who wrote about the co-founder, and, ultimately, winning more links to Snow-Forecast.com
3. Social Media
Social media can play a major part in generating quality links. However, it's often not direct links that matter, but rather the links that social media inspire. So, although appearing on page one of Digg.com is great, the quick boost in traffic is transitory.
The comments and inevitable links that bloggers, journalists, and experts publish after reading a story are more lasting.
Large amounts of traffic are great, but hard to get. So concentrate on maintaining a steady presence. You'll need to start by identifying which of the big social media sites work best for you.
From a link-building point-of-view, looking for niche social media sites within your industry is a clever move. You won't get the same surges in traffic, but you'll create a steady presence that will allow you to build relationships within your sector and that will continue to bring you benefit.
4. Shopping Sites
Shopping is, of course, a major online activity, and therefore, its potential for generating links is huge. However, it is extremely competitive. When using shopping sites, perhaps more than any other link-building tactic, you've got to earn your links.
Purely commercial opportunities are obvious. Business partnerships, affiliate arrangements, contests, product tests, free samples, discounts, and coupons are all tactics that bring links in this sector. For bloggers or link prospects, all of those tactics address the issue of "What's in it for me?" You need to take care that the benefit to the link prospect is not just a blatant reward for giving you a link.
This is a niche link-building opportunity that is not for everyone. However, if you have the philosophy that every online business activity is an opportunity for links, you may get some tasty links from this tactic.
First, of course, you need to genuinely have something to offer—a vacancy, a freelance job, an internship, or even an opinion on employment policies. A quick chat with the people in your personnel office will give you an idea of which sites they use for recruitment.
For link building, specific posts may not generate as many links as an internship program or a commentary on recruitment.
Do directories still work for building links? Like many things in search engine optimization (SEO), opinion is divided. Some say directories are great to get you started; they may be low-value links, but they're easy to get. Others say directories are a waste of time.
I wouldn't object if you said you were going to ignore directories. Even if they work, they're going to be a small part of the picture. It's inevitable that you've got to get into the dynamic stuff sooner or later, and I think it should be sooner.
7. Business Sites
The link-building tactics I've discussed thus far—particularly directories, news media, jobs, and shopping sites—will always include business-related link prospects.
However, business sites are not very exciting, and therefore, can be underused. When thinking of your company or your client, ask yourself if you have explored every opportunity with business associations, partnerships, business events and exhibitions, research projects, economic initiatives, and industry-wide events.
8. Trusted Sites
Trusted links from academic, organizational, and government sites are highly prized by some SEOs. Yet Google tells us—and I think correctly so—that it treats links from trusted sites exactly the same way it treats any other links.
The advantage in having links from trusted sites is not that Google treats them differently, but that it will encourage other authoritative sites to also link to you. Therefore, links from trusted sites have more link juice to pass on than those from ordinary sites.
The big problem with trusted sites, particularly government sites, is that they're very difficult to get links from, and your time might be better spent elsewhere. However, if you wish to pursue them, think about highlighting your "green credentials," offering discounts to government employees, or sponsoring local events and organizations. Even gifts in kind can attract links.
It's also a good idea to look at your company's or your client's corporate responsibility strategy, if it has one, because there will probably be some underused link potential there.
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Link building is probably the most difficult and most time-consuming aspect of SEO. Yet it is also the most essential. No easy way exists for generating the type of quality links that bring results. However, a link-building strategy that targets specific, meaningful market segments can, in the hands of a creative marketing team, produce outstanding results.