One of my first in-house SEO management positions was for a company called Sesame Communications in Seattle. Sesame is a leader in dental and orthodontic patient communications. They create an online presence for their clientele (dentists and orthodontists) as well as supply in-house tools to maintain patient loyalty. When I started at the company, my job was to take the thousands of websites that Sesame had created for their clients and optimize them to ensure these sites ranked higher than the competition for local searches.
Once all possible on-site SEO was taken care of, I had to create a plan for continued optimization which, naturally, included link building. At the time though, my link building experience was limited to online businesses and national brands. At no point had I focused on optimizing websites for local search and growing local clientele, and I quickly learned that this process is a different beast entirely. If you're a small business looking to grow your local presence, here are some tips from someone who had to build local links for thousands of websites:
(Note: each link below is to an example of a company using one of the tactics to gain inbound links so click thru to see how they did it)
Identify and Partner with Neighborhood Blogs
Not every city has neighborhood blogs, but if yours does then reach out to the one that covers the neighborhood your business is in, as well as the blogs in surrounding areas you may be targeting. Ask if you can write a guest post about running a small business in the neighborhood or if you can host their events calendar on your website. If you're having an important event, pitch it to see if they'll post about it. These are two ways to build a strong partnership that can foster some quality backlinks. If time is of the essence, then create unique content showcasing what you love about the neighborhood and pitch that content to the blog with a backlink request. If going the guest post route versus announcing an event, the key is not to advertise your business. Instead, show your pride for the neighborhood in which you run that business and, assuming that pride is sincere, you will get noticed with a nice writeup and link.
Get in the News
Your local newspaper, free paper, or news show will always be looking for a piece that tells a great story about the city. So what's your story? What makes you stand out from the competition? For instance, are you a new brewery that mixes up experimental beers like Peanut Butter Stout or Chili Amber? That's definitely worth sharing with more than just your neighbors, so why not pitch it to the local news? Not only will you get into everyone's living rooms the next evening, but your news story will likely live online with a permanent backlink for your efforts.
Sponsor Local Events
Whether it be a local softball team or a neighborhood jazz crawl, there are likely dozens of events in your city that need your sponsorship. For instance, checkout the sidebar of any page on Geekwire.com and you'll see a long list of sponsors with logos. Some of the companies on the list have a national presence, but have built up some great local clout from sponsoring Seattle-based Geekwire events like the Geekwire Awards. Knoll, a high-quality office furnishing company that has to compete with the low-price (and so-so quality) of the local iKea, has made a splash in the Seattle startup world partly due to its sponsorship at neighborhood Geekwire events and the backlinks from this sponsorship help to keep them ranking high for important search terms.
If you're a bootstrapped startup that can't front the cash to get your logo in the sponsor column of an event, consider trading your services for that sponsorship instead. For instance, at Killer Infographics we traded our design services for a permanent sponsorship link AND free tickets to the Snoho Brewfest (3 of 5 links in this article are related to breweries... do you see a theme?).
Enter Local Competitions
The Geekwire Awards, mentioned above, are a great example of a local competition to gain great backlinks. Each year after public nomination a panel of judges work with Geekwire to identify 5 nominees per category for the annual Startup Awards. Geekwire then writes an article for each category, complete with backlinks to each nominee. The winners get at least one more article and backlink. Not only does each nominee and winner gain high-quality backlinks, but they also gain amazing press and visibility from their local community. Identify local competitions in your area and see where your business fits in.
Link building is an integral part of the SEO process with many online companies always focused on the next best thing in linkbait to grow inbounds and move up in SERPs. That said, what works for a primarily online company won't work for a small business trying to grow local clientele so it's important to take a different approach that benefits both you and your neighbors.