Note: this is a how-to SEO article intended for small business owners--those of you who sell a physical product or perform a service (versus being a web-only company) and spend most of your time growing your business rather than focusing on SEO or link building. However, you're already web-savvy and know the gist of SEO and take care of it yourself, but you're in search of some up-to-date SEO link building tips and tricks for 2012 and 2013 (stuff that won't get you banned or result in an "unnatural links" notice) but are effective and will increase your site's search engine rankings and help you get an edge on your competitors. You already know backlinks are vitally important for SEO success and now is the time to address them.
Disclaimer: Doing link building is not a substitute for a complete SEO audit or a web marketing strategy, but I've found that most small business websites can see tremendous growth simply by doing some quick (and clever) link building that I will share with you below.
First, find where there should be links to your website but aren't... Get links placed there.
Seriously. Ask/call/email the person in charge of the websites you'd think should be linking to you but for whatever reason aren't, and see if you can get links placed on here. Your business doesn't operate in a vacuum and neither should your website! This is the most important and easiest part of link building and I bet I can help you think of a dozen websites right now that you can very easily get some links from! Some ideas:
- Your suppliers/vendors- Go check their sites and see if they have a consumer resource section or a retail locations page where they list the places their products are available for sale. These are a great place for links. For instance, this page on popular sports car wheel manufacturer's website would be a vital one to be included on if you were a retailer: http://www.mackinindustries.com/md/rays/dist_volk.html. Something a little less common but equally valid would be a medical device manufacturer's list of authorized practitioners if you were a doctor. E.g., http://www.crhsystem.com/states/california/.
- Your customers- If you're B2B, great. Your customers all have websites and there's probably a place on their site where they would be happy to give you a link. (If there isn't, the simple fact that you reminded them might compel them to create a page or section on their site specifically for external links where of course you will be included on... I've seen it happen many times). Here's an example of what you could look for (see right hand column for "official suppliers". There's some small brands listed there besides the large ones.) http://www.speedhunters.com/
- Your partners, friends and acquaintances. Think of everyone you know who might have a website and look them up. If they have one, great! If their site is somehow relevant to yours (they're located in the same city/county as you, they're in a related field. etc.) or even if they're not (say for instance they're a real estate agent with a "favorite local businesses" page etc.), they would usually happily link to your site! I have a friend in New York City who runs a small website that caters to job hunters in his area. I talk to him occasionally, and it wouldn't be a stretch to ask for a link on his website's partners page (http://www.nycjobsite.com/partners.php) if I owned a business that either operated in the New York metro area or was in some way/shape/form related to careers/job searching (which I don't by the way). Don't be a jerk about it of course, but just ask nicely. Remember these people know you and probably would have linked to you anyway if they hadn't forgotten or you didn't remind them
- Niche-specific directories and curated lists relevant to your industry. Yes, I said the "D" word and yes I want you to get links on pages with a bunch of other links. Run fast from anything that mentions "free SEO directory" or anything fishy like that, but if there's local and relevant resources that your competitors are listed on, go ahead and sign up too. Links like these aren't bad and are pretty easy to get. Here's a page I'd want a link on if I was, say, a dentist in Riverside County: http://www.at-la.com/dent/rs.htm. Aim for up to a dozen or so of these links, but don't go overboard.
A good way to find these types of pages is to just Google your industry keywords and throw "list or "directory" or "resources" and your city, county or state onto the search bar and see what you find... For example I just came up with this random search since I saw my mom oil painting last week: "list of art supplies los angeles county". Search for that and you'll find this gem on the first page of the results: http://losangelesartresource.wordpress.com. This looks like a legitimate resource for local artists and I bet whoever runs this site would gladly list my business in their right hand column if I happened to own a fine art supplies store or even a picture framing business in LA county. Try to find legitimate websites like this to get links from and you'll be golden.
Also, feel free to be creative and random with your searches too, even if they're not exactly relevant! For example, Googling "hipster art supply la county" brings up a totally different set of results, and more importantly this Huffington Post article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/10/best-la-art-supply-stores_n_781842.html ) right on the first page, which would be amazing to get mentioned on. To try my luck, I'd probably use the "contribute to this story" option and send a tip to the editor. If that doesn't work, I would at least leave a comment on the article introducing my art supply business and linking to my site since I'm sure many in-market visitors land on there. I may even include my address and phone number in the comment in case someone on a mobile device with a limited browser stumbles on the article. (Note: this is a far cry from being a "spammy comment" that you may have been warned of. Comments like this are fine and provide value.)
Go ahead and place some reciprocal links; yes you are allowed to!
Contrary to popular SEO belief, reciprocal links aren't all bad! If you contacted some people and asked for a link and they requested that you link back to them as well, don't be scared. Feel free to honor their request--that's how the web works!
Rankings in Google are like a popularity contest: if you have a lot of links and some of those are reciprocal, it's fine, it just means that you're well-connected and have a lot of friendships. The key is though you should be connected with only upstanding and legitimated sites!
Note: I hardly ever ask for any specific anchor text when requesting a link nor do I go out of my way to optimize the outgoing links on my site. Most people will have no idea what you're talking about anyway if you ask for things like "anchor text" and "dofollow," and there's no reason to overcomplicate a simple link request. Links with the right anchor text of course can help your rankings, but not as much as before. Google is smarter now and too much anchor text sticks out like a sore thumb for users as well as for the search engines. Don't lose sleep over it.
Find where your competitors who are outranking you are getting their links from. Get those links.
But how to? Believe it or not there's some great tools out there that let you see exactly where any given website is getting their links from. There's a free trial version for each of these tools available (usually you need to create an account first), but there's great value in them even if you decide to purchase a paid version of one for a few months. Said tools are:
They're pretty easy to figure out; slap in a relevant domain name or a URL into any of the tools and play around with the various filters and listing options and see all the types of links of your competitors have. Check out your own site as well!
Chances are whoever is outranking you in the search results is doing so because they have a stronger backlink profile than you, and using these tools is a way for you to easily get a competitive advantage over those who don't know SEO, and eventually even those who you're trying to outrank (you'll get all the links they have, and then some more).
Go ahead and check out all the links and you will see a world of possibilities. These are the links that are helping your competitors rank, and guess what, they'll help you rank as well. Of course only go after the links that seem legitimate, and stay away from anything that seems spammy or fishy. For example, stay away from junk links that appear on sites like this (http://www.maxdelivers.com). Notice how this site has no purpose other than to link to dozens of other websites? Avoid getting links on blog network sites like these at all costs. Also, avoid getting links on random sites that solicit you for a link exchange. Other than that, you should be safe. Trust your gut.
There are probably dozens of links out there that are trying to point to your site right now but are simply old or broken, and there are also citations (mentions) out there with an incorrect/out-of-date phone number or address for your business. There may not be many, but the former are still links that you can get with minimal effort, and even if there aren't any links to be had you should still make sure all text citations for your small business are accurate as this is vitally important for ranking well in Google Maps/local (more on that in a bit).
How to? If you're a brick and mortar or if you have a street address associated with your business in some way, the easiest way is to simply use Google and search. For example, if was an acupuncturist and my website was http://www.biorient.com, the first thing I would do is search for was my company name and current address all as one keyword in Google, e.g., " Biorient 27405 Puerta Real, Suite:260 Mission Viejo, CA. 92691".
Quickly I can see that the first Google result is some kind of Mapquest detail page (http://www.mapquest.com/places/biorient-integrative-clinic-mission-viejo-ca-272339318/), and while the link to my site is fine the street address is incomplete and doesn't include my office's suite number. Not the best. To fix this I would visit the Mapquest support page and request the "I want to report an issue with a business listing or business location" option. Most sites have either this or the "claim business" option which will allow you to update your information yourself after you verify your site by email.
This should fix my issue at hand and furthermore provide the correct information for any other websites that makes use of Mapquest data to populate results for my business. I usually go through the first 10 pages of these Google results and try to fix anything incorrect like this that I come across. If I can't update my business information myself I try to get in touch with somebody at the site regardless of how big or small it is and usually they're pretty friendly and quick to fix things.
The second step is to run the same search as before in Google, but this time use any old addresses or phone numbers that you have been associated with in the past. You'll find there's probably a ton of sites out there with your old address or phone number still listed and you need to update those! For example, here's a webpage I quickly found that has both an outdated address AND an outdated phone number (but correct website) for my previously mentioned imaginary acupuncture business (http://bluedoorway.com/component/entry/biz/2521319/ca/san_clemente/biorient_integrative_acupuncture_clinic.html) Inconsistencies like this confuse Google's algorithms and can be significantly hurting this company's rankings in Maps/local where many online customers come from.
Scanning through the rest of the listings now. Everything seems fine, but wait! On the 3rd page of Google I see this webpage (https://www.acufinder.com/Acupuncture/California/Mission+Viejo) that includes my business name and address, but doesn't include a link to my site, even though a competitor right above me has one! I should find how I can a get a link on here too. After a few clicks, I see a "list your practice" option in the header of the site and it looks like what I am after. It costs $20 a month to get one of these upgraded listing for my business, but I think it would be worth it in this case since I get a nice link and it's on a very specific and high-authority website that may send me some qualified visitors.
So tell me more about citations and Google Places/Maps/Local.
Having your address and phone number be consistent across all websites is important not only so customers can find you, but because Google and other search engines depend on these mentions to verify your business's authenticity and because they also score your site based on the amount and consistency of these citations/mentions.
They work just like links--the more you have the better, and the more consistent they are the more confident Google is in your business and your website and will rank you higher. (More detailed info on Google's ranking factors for local businesses) It makes perfect sense because the more popular a business is, the more people will talk about it and write about it. For example, a restaurant with great service will tend to be mentioned in local newspapers and win awards in city guides, while a lighting fixture manufacturer which launches a cool new design might be mentioned in home remodeling blogs and architectural design websites.
What else? What other types of links can I get? What if my company is brand new? What if my industry is super boring? What if my industry is super competitive?
The link building tips mentioned above should be enough to get most smaller businesses and websites ranking quite well, but if you'd like to go beyond and put some more effort in, there's an excellent guide on Search Engine Watch titled 131 (Legitimate) Link Building Strategies written by Julie Joyce that you really should check out.
These are general link building tips that any site can benefit from, and keep in mind that most website out there will NOT have anywhere close to this level of effort put in to their SEO and thus are areas you can take advantage of. Here are a few tips I handpicked from the article that I think are important if you run a business that provides a physical product or service.
- Sponsor something. Sponsor a charity, a contest, an afterschool club at your kid's school, anything. Great way to get promotion and links
- Become a content provider. Write something really, really good, something that no one else has yet written. Put a new spin on what you want to say so that it will grab people's attention. For example, if you're writing about pest control, then maybe write a piece about how you're never more than a few feet away from a spider. Shivers.
- Find something that's missing and jump into giving it to us. No forum for your industry? Start one. Looking for a list of all the preschools in your town but can't find one? Do the research, write it, and put it out there for everyone to see and link to.
- Leave your links everywhere. Link to your site in your email signature. Link to your site in all your social media platforms. Link to your site on your business cards that you will naturally give out at industry events. Tell people about your website.
- Interview someone. Interviewees usually link back to these interviews, and they're a great way to get to know people in your industry.
- Speak up on social media. Do it on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+, and anywhere else there's a conversation.
- Ask to guest post. Approach relevant sites and say hey, would you be interested in having me as a one-time contributor? Be prepared with something though, in case you're asked for an idea or a writing sample.
People will always bring up the point--and it's a valid one--that it's lot easier to get mentions of your business and links to your website if you have a product or service that's very interesting and/or in demand, but part of it just comes down to marketing and visibility (you can have the best product or service in the world, but if no one knows about it...). If you follow these SEO and link building tips however and start focusing on getting better rankings in the search engines, you will be a lot more exposed to the public and pretty soon you will have more people talking about your business (and linking to it, mentioning it etc.) and that's a good thing indeed.
If you're in a very competitive industry or don't have much time to dedicate to optimizing your website, you should still try to do the things mentioned here (they don't take as much time as they seem) but you may want to look into hiring an SEO to do an audit of your site and to run a promotions/link building campaign for you. If however you like to do things yourself and want to really dig into SEO and learn more about it (it's pretty easy after all, and if you have a question Google is always your friend), an excellent and fairly comprehensive guide to general SEO was recently put out by the friendly folks at SEOMOZ and read over 1 million times which is available here: SEO: The Free Beginner's Guide from SEOmoz.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you soon!
See some of my past articles on Search Engine People: