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Strategic Link Building for SEO

Posted on Jun 18th, 2009
Written by Lee Odden
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    link buildingNot many in the Search Engine Optimization game would argue that link building isn’t tactical. The problem is, approaching link building as an end goal and tactically, is very much like a hamster running in it’s cage.  That’s what many mechanical SEO consultants do: Chase links one by one or get creative with link bait to attract an influx of links from blogs that write about the kinds of things other blogs do for link bait. I should know, in the past 12 years of providing SEO services, there have been many opportunities to do just that. It’s not scalable, not sustainable and certainly not strategic.

    The best links from one site to another are often a byproduct of something much bigger than standard link building.  They’re evidence, in most cases, that the link destination offers value and that the linker feels will be of value to their readers. Being cited by an online publisher of content that has credibility is meaningful to readers and builds credibility in the same way that being cited by a well respected print publication results in brand influence. Links can drive traffic and search engine bots to your web site.

    Building links is a goal, but many companies that do a fantastic job of it see links as a KPI or a proxy measurement to something else. Something more meaningful and bigger picture in a marketing sense. Strategic link building means having an understanding of audience, tactics and measurement as well as how links can be achieved anciallary to other marketing activities. Many of the most successful sites (at link acquisition) don’t ask for links at all. They build up their channels of distribution and focus on providing useful content that recipients link to and pass along to others who might link.

    Google’s offers this advice, in it’s special way, on link building:

    “The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

    That’s fine as a guideline, but there’s a lot left out as far as planning and execution. The web is a competitive place and it’s getting more so. Companies can’t gain a competitive edge by leaving link acquisition totally to the collective wisdom of the web. There needs to be a mix of efforts by internal resources as well as outside expertise. The question is, how to do that.

    Our agency’s roots are as a public relations firm and in the course of providing media relations services (pitching journalists to write stories about our clients) the goal of being covered in a relevant industry publication was first and foremost. Often times, those newspapers, magazines and media would publish stories online, as well as in print, and would include a link to the companies being mentioned.

    As far back as 2001, we noticed that pure media relations clients (no SEO) would experience increased search engine rankings on important phrases, even though there was no formal effort to optimize content or conduct specific link building tactics.  We would do a certain amount of keyword research for those companies to facilitate searching editorial calendars like Bacon’s (now owned by Cision), or MyEdCals for potential stories and publications. We’d coach executives during media relations training to use some of those phrases in order to stay on message.  A byproduct of the story being published online was a link. Sometimes those links would use anchor text for the keywords mentioned in the interview. Those links from highly credible editorial sources were recognized by search engines and boosted search rankings.

    Were links the goal? No, media coverage was the goal. But additional value and market visibility was achived by focusing on the marketing and not on individual link acquisition.  Long term “meritocratic” link building is strategic and focused on creating and promoting content of value that publishers can decide to link to. The idea is to have an understanding of what structure/syntax/format to flavor content with in order improve the chances of earning such links.

    What does this have to do with strategic link building for SEO?  My point is that while it does make sense to do a certain amount of forms, profiles, content syndication and link bait type of link building, the longevity of a linking for SEO effort needs to be tied to broader marketing, communications and PR activities. Companies interact in many ways on the web that produce links, or could produce links.  The key is to take advantage of what’s already being done and uncover the link opportunities as a process.

    One of the most productive link building strategies is where companies leverage a SEO consultant’s expertise for the mechanics of content based link building in addition to gaining an understanding of how to leverage what corporate communications, PR, HR, Marketing, Sales and even Investor Relations are already doing that could result in relevant inbound links. A process of creating awareness, building value, training on link building mechanics and mechanisms for feedback on performance within a company can do wonders for link acquisition by leveraging existing content publishing and promotion activities.

    Here are a few examples:

    • Public Relations: Links can be included in press releases, an online newsroom, within email pitches to journalists and bloggers, pdf documents of case studies, media coverage and one of the best tips:  When a journalist confirms they’re running a story citing your company, ASK FOR A LINK.
    • Human Resources: Job listings and open house events are good opportunities for links when promoted on aggregation sites for jobs and events. Optimize the job and event listing titles and always add a link back to an optimized web page for more information. In some cases, paid job listings will include a link, but one that gets redirected by ad tracking software. ASK FOR A LINK that is direct.
    • Marketing: Companies partner with other companies, join associations and often produce microsites, buy ads, sponsor events/conferences/causes and many other off-corporate-site communications. All of those present some type of link opportunity.  For example, find email newsletters that are archived to the web and that include good links from the ad (and anchor text if possible) and sponsor them. You get visibility via email distribution and when the HTML version of the newsletter is published online, there’s a link back to your site.  Charitable giving often involves a web site that lists donors. ASK FOR A LINK back.

    The bottom line here is that for a productive link building strategy, it makes sense to leverage both company communications and marketing resources as well as those of a SEO consultant that understand the specific mechanics of linking and can train client side departments how to leverage their current activities to earn citations online. The resulting links tend to be more valuable for driving traffic and for providing search engines with a signal with which to better rank your content.

    If you work as a client side marketer on SEO, what other ways to leverage existing content publishing and promotions have you found to be useful for link building?