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Link Building Fundamentals: A Primer

The following post was inspired by a presentation I did at Searchfest earlier this month. Since this blog is new, I'll be posting articles on fundamental marketing concepts that we can use as reference points on the site. This is the first in a series of posts along the theme of Internet Marketing Fundamentals...

The Fundamentals of Building Links

There is a golden rule to link building: links reflect value on the web. Remember that rule, because we'll come to it later. Right now, let's expand that rule with two important definitions: 1. Linking is a communication and citation signal inherent to the web. Links reflect contribution, value, relevance and influence. If you want a scalable solution for building high-quality links, then provide solid value and contributions to your market, industry and community. If you do, the links will come - with hard work. 2. There are many different ways to build links. There's no "right way" and no "best practices," there's only creativity, intelligence, and labor. Links are now a major commodity. It wasn't always this way. In the pre-Google era, links were about sharing resources and getting traffic.
Link building (and internet marketing) is more about people than it is search engines; but stay (acutely) aware of the ranking benefits links can provide.
Today, links are about traffic, sure, and they're about sharing - but they're also about search engines (especially Google). Links have two primary audiences: visitors and search engines. You want the traffic and credibility association good links can provide for your visitors, and you want the rankings boost good links can provide for the search engines. Learn to distinguish between these seemingly disparate audiences, but don't forget this guideline: develop your linking (and marketing) strategy with people in mind, not search engines. Just don't be blind to the search optimization factors involved.

Link Building Today

There are nearly an infinite number of potential link opportunities on the web today. Link sources are literally everywhere you turn. That's great if you know where to start, but what if you don't? Then you need to distinguish between low-quality links and high-quality links, or between links that have little value and links that have the potential to be valuable. The image to the right is the entire Star Wars movie in 1 second screen captures. Each screen grab is analagous to a website. The result (for our purposes) is the image of a nearly infinite amount of sites, and thus potential link sources. An endless opportunity for linksThere are endless potential sources of links on the web. To be faced with so many link opportunities can be daunting, and it begs the questions: where does one start? What links matter, and what links don't? How does one find a "good" link in an endless sea of potential link sources? These are all fundamental questions that I'll do my best to answer.

Components of a Quality Link

There are seven primary components that define a valuable link:
  • Relevance: valuable links are relevant to your market, industry or community. Valuable link sources are within your neighborhood on the web and provide you with accurate co-citation.
  • Context: valuable links are contextual and come from sources with keyword-focused pages. How do you know if a page is keyword-focused? Well, does it rank? In most competitive markets, pages that rank well - and hold their rankings - are semantically well-optimized and have plenty of descriptive text on the page. You want your link surrounded by that keyword-themed content.
  • Difficulty: in general, valuable links are difficult to obtain. There is an associated cost: whether it's in the investment of the link itself (note that I'm not talking about paid links), in the content that secures the link, in the site development and design, or in the time requirement getting in front of the webmaster. Valuable links are not inexpensive to secure, and they're not easy to secure. The most valuable links come from sources where your competitors are unlikely to get the same link.
  • Humanity: valuable links require a human element to obtain. We all like direct link sources, but quite often the most high-value backlinks come from sources that have a human being in control of the website. You are picking up the phone and calling a webmaster, or emailing a contact person, or networking with someone in charge of an influential site or blog at a conference. There is almost always a human being in charge of creating links on the pages you want to target.
  • Credibility: a quality link comes from a credible source. Credible link sources elevate the perceived credibility of the site they're linking to because they're already trusted sources.
  • Authority: working alongside the credibility quotient is authority. High quality links come from authoritative sources, either in your niche or in the wide environment of the web.
  • Investment: valuable links require an investment of some sort. This factor goes hand-in-hand with the Difficulty factor. There's an associated cost involved, whether in the development of a targeted piece of content or survey, in the purchase of the link, in the design and launch of the site, or simply in the time required to influence the influencers.

The Importance of Link Neighborhoods

As was stated earlier, there are many different ways to approach link building. By far the most popular and widespread is the tactic of getting links in sheer quantity. The idea is to bludgeon the search engines with so many backlinks that you simply overpower competing sites. After all, a site with 30,000 links is usually going to out-rank a site with 3,000, right?
Your neighborhood matters. Securing backlinks from topically-relevant hubs is a signal of quality and can sometimes be more effective than getting links en masse.
Well, not always. There is another way, and it's called relevance. Remember the importance of finding link sources that are within your ideal link neighborhood? I mentioned that above as the first criteria in our 7 components of defining quality links. Building links en masse is fine if you can do it, but it's usually a ham-fisted approach. The more subtle method (that's also much harder to accomplish) is to target high-value link sources within your market. Monitor what neighborhood Google thinks your site belongs in, and monitor what neighborhood your ideal link sources fall in. Pay attention to co-citation factors to ensure your list of potential backlink sources are citing high-quality resources within your target market. If they're not (and this is another area where paid links hurt you), your rankings will suffer (or at least be sub-optimal). I've seen many sites outrank competitors with less incoming links. They do it (usually unintentionally) by garnering higher quality, more on-topic links from relevant neighborhoods of sites. And there's another advantage as well, in that topically-relevant links will garner targeted traffic that's more likely to convert.

Where To Begin

Start building links by focusing on your market. Remember the importance of your link neighborhood, and build links strategically with that in mind. Nearly every imaginable topic is being discussed on the web; there are centers of influence, there are bloggers, there are directories and mailing lists and forums and social sites. Find where people are talking about your market, and enter the discussion through channels such as:
  • Hubs: use Aaron Wall's fantastic Hub Finder tool to locate topically-relevant pages through co-citation. It's free and it rocks.
  • Forums: perform searches like this one at Google to find forums in your niche.
  • Authority Sites: perform searches like this one to find authority link sources. Use different words for targets along with your key phrase, and substitute the site: portion with other TLDs: "keywords" [library] [resources] [sites] [links] site:[.mil] [.us] [.gov] [.edu]
  • Social Media: in addition to performing search variations of the above examples, you can use well-researched lists like this one on 48 social news sites and this one with 40 niche social media sites. You should also consider joining SEOmoz.org where a premium membership gives you access to an excellent directory of over 100 social media sites by topic.
  • Influencers: where do the influential bloggers hang out? Find out using tools like Technorati, Techmeme and Google Blog Search. Delicious can also be useful, as can Digg and a number of other tools.
  • Email Lists: email discussion lists represent a wealth of largely untapped link building potential. They're not utilized as much as they could be for internet marketing, partly because they take a lot of time committment and specific knowledge to post to (and thereby benefit from correctly). They also normally don't pass any anchor text in the link - which is great if you've got a domain with some semantic value - but otherwise not ideal. Similar to forums and communities, if you can't offer something of real value you won't last on an email list. There are lots of good potential sources, just take care to approach these with the community in mind first and your link drop second. Sources like this one, and this one, and this one should sufficiently whet your appetite.
  • Blogs: even with rampant nofollow in effect, there are plenty of benefits from posting comments on blogs. Ignore for a moment the question if anchor text is passed from a nofollowed link. By posting on high-traffic and influential blogs, you are getting in front of many people and contributing to the discussion. If you provide something of value, visitors (and the blog owner) will most definitely visit your site to check you out. Do it repeatedly and you'll begin to create a reputation for yourself which could lead to business opportunities. And of course there are lots of dofollow blogs online, just do a simple search to find them.
  • Directories: directories should be considered as a staple for any business online - but not just any directory. Google has increased their disdain of most directories, since most directories are designed only to make the owner the most money rather than create the most relevant lists of links. Good directories to use include Yahoo!, Business.com, Best of the Web, DMOZ, and Starting Point. There are myriad niche directories as well, do creative searching to find them and also use lists such as the one found on SEOmoz (you'll have to be a premier member there to see it).
  • Organizations: every small business should belong to the Better Business Bureau. You get a link, and it's valuable. Third-party organizations exist in nearly every industry and market, use these to advantage.
  • News Sites: news is one of the pillars of online content, and has several advantages for publishers, including wide adoption of syndication. Online press releases are a good idea, use them. Just use them right (and that's another post). In the meantime, no one knows it better than Lee Odden.
  • Human-Powered Search: human-powered search engines are sites like Mahalo, Bessed, and ChaCha where human beings (real human beings!) are assimilating tightly focused, topical pages. If the human-powered search site is valuable and the link category is competitive, it's going to take high-quality or even exceptional content to get listed.

Build Links Strategically

When you starting building links, do it in a systematic way. The following pyramid shows one method of thinking about link building as steps from easiest and lowest cost, to most difficult and highest cost. Link Building Triangle
  • The triangle is segmented into 6 steps. At the base and 1st step are link sources such as quality directories, classified advertising, and third-party organizations. These require some sort of investment, but it's normally not substantial.
  • Working up the triangle, the links get more valuable (only as a general rule) and more expensive. The 2nd step contains link sources such as email lists, forums, blog comments, and social media profile pages.
  • The 3rd step is reserved for places like article sites, niche directories, human-powered search engines and guest blog postings.
  • The 4th step contains techniques like basic social media marketing (creating Myspace pages, Facebook groups and profiles, etc) and online public relations.
  • When we reach the 5th step, we're getting into advanced link acquisition territory: reaching key influencers (Rand Fishkin's linkerati) through social media.
  • The pinnacle and 6th step of the triangle is reserved for the Hilltop: authority sites at the center of Google's Trustrank (which is starting to appear out-dated and vulnerable, but is still essential to their algorithm). For 90% of sites in a market, these are unobtainable links and come from sources like the US Military, government offices, libraries, universities, non-profits, high-traffic Wikipedia pages, old-school individual sites and so on. These sites normally require very topical, high-quality, and mostly non-commercial content (not to mention a concerted effort) to acquire links from. But they're imminently worth all the trouble.
By approaching the art of building backlinks as a series of distinct channels, and by identifying the best links among a sea of potential opportunities, you can strategically find the most high-value links, spend your resources with those targets in mind, and build them systematically. As the pyramid indicates, the bulk of links come from sources that are of relatively less value but are easier to obtain. These build the foundation of a site's link profile. The most valuable backlinks come from fewer sources that are more restrictive in their linking policies, and form the peak of a link profile.

Conclusion

Now forget everything you just read and remember the golden rule of linking:
Links Reflect Value
With that rule in mind, what's the most efficient method of building powerful backlinks? The answer is simple, but the way is hard: you must build exceptional resources and provide information that's unique and valuable. Only then will you succeed long-term in link building, and therefore, internet marketing.
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