Natural Link Building : Create an Online Presence and Linkable Brand

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Link building is generally a term used around the SEO industry to describe building relevant links to a website in an effort to rank that site for specific terms while also building trust, value and equity to that website. All too often however, link building is associated with questionable SEO practices such as link buying or link spamming.

As an old school online marketer and PR guy, I tend to take a different approach to my link building philosophy, and see link building as more of a branding and web presence approach. The beauty of the Internet, especially the Internet of 2009 – 2010, is that so many different opportunities are out there to build an online brand, from video distribution to social networking to blogging. I think far too often, especially in the world of linking, too much emphasis is placed on buying static sitewide links in an effort to build “link popularity” and once a specific number of links is established, sites or businesses will “set it and forget it”, becoming complacient with their link numbers and or ranking … only later finding out that they ultimately lose such ranking to more diverse and creative online brands which take a more interesting approach.

The Fall of Sitewide Linking

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed more and more devaluation of sitewide linking, that is links which are placed on all pages of a website. At one time, sitewide links may have led to higher rankings under the school of thought that the higher number of incoming links with targeted anchor text, but over the past 6 months or so, that value has diminished for obvious reasons.

One issue, especially in the field of paid linking, is that it is usually unnatural for a site to have the majority of its inbound links to come from sitewide linking, and sites which do partake in such link acquisition and development, tend to focus primarily on building those large batches of links, disregarding the more purposeful relevance of precisely targeting link acquisition.

In a nutshell; you usually have to earn the right to obtain a sitewide link, they don’t come out of thin air. Likewise, how natural is it for a newspaper website to link to a payday loan lender from all of its pages? Not natural at all.

Foundational Link Building

In order to earn sitewide links, which would come from links in a template, sidebar or other “sitewide” area under a “friends”, “links” or “resources” section, ideally a website would have to earn and establish its web presence. And how does a site initially establish web presence? Well, before jumping out of the gate by acquiring sitewide links via buys or other methods, I whole heartedly recommend waiting until the incubation period of linking, or a site’s link foundation is built.

Establishing web presence does not just equal linking, it equals site branding. This is done by writing and distributing press releases about your site launch and business news, contributing guest posts on blogs that you have taken the time to build relationships with, developing your branded social profiles across multiple social networking sites, building out your Facebook fanpage, your email newsletter, Twitter account and YouTube profile AND actually using these tools to build your brand. The more connections you make, the more natural links will come.

The incubation period also is the perfect time to build directory links in Best of the Web, Yahoo and other web directories.

Long Term Link Strategy

All too many times link builders, or link development strategists, get impatient … always wanting to jump the gun with hundreds or thousands of links in the first month. But before a site is really going to start ranking or really should naturally be pulling in thousands of links per month, its brand should be built. When I’m working on a client’s overall linking profile, I like to give the client a six month to one year timeline to achieve their long term linking and SEO goals. Sure, using shortcuts sometimes ranking can be secured sooner, especially for an established site, but by building out a long term strategy, the end result is not only going to be more effective, but more natural …. which means a long term result and not a flash in the pan or blip in the Google results.

I would say that generally 10% of the incoming links to the sites I work with come from sitewide links, I like to keep that as a rule of thumb. The real power in linking comes from utilizing the tools given to you by your employer, site or client. Obtain the following marketing material from your client in order to build the more diverse and structured link portfolio in your vertical :

  • Video : Video can be uploaded to YouTube and dozens of other online video sharing platforms which not only include links to the site behind the video, but also will show up in targeted search queries for the company name and relevant terms in Google, Yahoo and other search engines.
  • Documents : Many companies have PDF’s and libraries of other documents from offline marketing collateral including eBooks, guides, downloads, brochures, flyers …etc. All of these can be used online to assist with link building. Marketing collateral and white papers can be uploaded to your Scribd profile and other document sharing sites. eBooks can be housed on the website and links built to them via press releases or blog coverage.
  • Product & Press : Contests, giveaways, donations and joint ventures are a surefire way to build strong links. Holding contests for free product will get your site covered on contest sites and also give you fodder for a press release that can be distributed to news outlets and blogs in your vertical. To get the most out of a giveaway, partner with various non-competitors who attract a similar target market to do a massive giveaway. Also, instead of just donating money to a charity, giveaway a product and or get a giant check printed, call local journalists and make a press conference out of it.

For more info on building out diverse links, see the Link Building Evaluation Guide.

Blogging and Linking

Besides the obvious benefit of bringing in longtail search traffic because of the variety of content and natural language on a blog, hosting an informative company blog or third party blog around your vertical can also bring in a lot of links, and also redirect that sitewide link equity you may be looking for. Sitewide links don’t make search sense a lot of the time, unless they point to a blog. One of the basics of blogging is blogrolling; linking to other industry blogs in your blogroll, and vice versa. By doing so, you can attract a lot of links from other relevant blogs and their link equity.

Don’t stop there however. Make sure that if your blog is hosted on your own site (via blog.site.com or www.site.com/blog) or on a totally different domain, that the blog spreads equity to the main business site. I like to be open and brand a blog as being the editorial arm of a business, therefore it is natural for that blog to link over to the main business site, therefore spreading that relevance to the target page.

Blogs, especially those hosted on third party domains, can assist your overall site and brand in other ways too. First, a targeted news oriented blog around a specific vertical is more likely to be picked up by Google News than a corporate blog. Or if a business plan is generally that of a resource, I would suggest building the site off of a blog.

Case in point : launch blog, get links, get listed in news site, go social on Digg & Stumble Upon, then build out the bulk of the MONEY part of the site off of the already established authority domain.

Like I eluded to above, a blog is much more likely to get picked up in social news sharing networks and it’s also against the terms of services of some of these sites to submit ecommerce or commercial material, so establishing a blog to push socially, then taking advantage of that equity in a responsible manner, may make more sense then first building the ecommerce site then launching a blog off of it.

To add to the equation, it’s also much more natural to start link building via blog commenting. If you represent a blog, chances are you will have a much better chance of being approved by a blog comment moderator.

Here’s some advice on blog commenting in an effort to build links :

By taking the time to comment on blogs, even one or two comments per day can lead to extremely positive results such as reputation building, expert positioning, and the building of inbound links, even if said blogs use the no follow attribute in their comment fields (and if they do not, all the better).

Why not worry about No Follows? Because ALL humans ignore No Follow. If you participate in a blog comment discussion and link to your site, chances are readers of that blog will follow the link … building to your site’s traffic. The more popular the blog, the more traffic you can build.

But do not place a signature link in the comment body itself except for critical circumstances. Linking to your own site in the comment body is not only spammy in nature, but can also get your name, site, email and IP flagged by ’social’ blog spam software like SpamKarma, and get your comments automatically deleted from dozens of blogs which use the application.

Using blatant Anchor Text instead of a handle or name in the Name field of blog comments can have the same result, so don’t do it!

Now Go After Your Sitewides

The reason I started writing this post was to talk about how sitewides may not be as valuable as they once were as they could be an instant red flag for spam, especially if they make up the bulk of your linking profile. After you have first established your online presence, I then would recommend going after some sitewides. This does not always mean you have to buy them, and you should attract some nice natural links by building your online brand, but if you do acquire them in a questionable manner, be smart about it and also keep in mind that if you build smartly, your established linking presence will justify the sitewides you acquire.

Just like traditional marketing and branding, link building should never have a set it and forget it mentality, the industry and serps are always changing, and this is going to influence the way you build links. By keeping your linking on an even keel and setting a natural strategy however, those changes at Google or Bing should not have a massive effect on your ranking, at least your ranking which is attributed to linking and branding, as this core method of smart linking has worked for 10 years, through changes and updates, because it is natural and web presence does not go away.

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Loren Baker
Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing strategy & development agency.
Loren Baker
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