Explaining link building strategies to those who are unfamiliar with them is often an uphill battle, and about as easy as explaining bitcoins to an 80-year-old who's never used a computer before (learn more about Bitcoins at CoinTree).
Digital marketers live in a digital world and have a good understanding of the world they live in, but most people don't live in a digital world-at least to the extent digital marketers do-most people live in a 3-Dimensional world filled with things you can actually hold in your hand, as opposed to data and pixels.
(For more on the terms and concepts digital marketers use, click here)
In order to better explain link building, I've correlated digital processes to everyday world processes that a brick and mortar business may do in order to bring customers to their store. Take this scenario, for instance:
Max Power, the owner of a new restaurant that serves healthy food called The Health Nut, would love to get the word out about his business, so he does the following:
1. Directory Website Listings
Real World: Max first drops some money to be listed in the Yellow Pages. His restaurant, The Health Nut, shows up in the 'T' section of restaurants and doesn't particularly stand out. It's just a name in a list of names.
Digital World: Directory listings, which, for the most part, are no longer valuable, work in the same manner. Your business shows up with hundreds of other businesses, with nothing to distinguish yours from others.
2. Niche Directory Website Listings
Real World: From a fellow restaurant owner, Max learns that there are a few local magazines and mailers that list restaurants in his area, and Max gets listings there.
Digital World: In the digital world, industry-specific directories exist as well, and it never hurts to take a look and see if they can be valuable for your site. With any site, you want to make sure there is an editorial process and links aren't just posted automatically. You should also only get the link if you think it will send actual traffic to your site. Check a site's Domain Authority for its overall strength, make sure it is in the index and not penalized by doing a search for site:site.com, and determine that it will actually send traffic to your site. Don't just get the link to get a link.
3. Review Site Links
Real World: After reading a review of a competitor in a local paper, Max decides it's a good idea to get his restaurant reviewed as well. He contacts the paper and requests that a critic visit the restaurant and taste his food. One does, and he gets four stars!
Digital World: For almost any industry, there are review sites and blogs that do write ups on businesses in those industries, ranking them relative to their competition. This is a great way to earn traffic and links, but be forewarned, make sure you have a quality product before seeking reviews!
4. Blog Comments
Real World: Max Power is walking down the street one day and overhears a conversation between a family of tourists regarding where they should eat. Stepping in, he says, "I've got a great restaurant located a few blocks over, and we'd be happy to have you." Max may occasionally happen upon such situations, but they are few and far between.
Digital World: Commenting on others' blogs should only happen if you have something of value to add to the conversation. If, in the real world case of Max, he stumbled upon a conversation about the previous evening's episode of Game of Thrones, and Max decided to jump in and say, "Why don't you discuss this while seated at my restaurant, just a few blocks over!" he'd be sneered at. In the digital world, this is called comment spam. For the sake of all us bloggers, please don't do it!
5. Email Marketing
Real World: Mr. Power puts together an enticing flier with great, inviting text and prints five hundred copies, then hits the streets to hand them out. These are cold leads, and most of the people who take the fliers will just throw them out in the next trashcan they come upon.
Digital World: In the digital world, cold outreach emails are just as easy to discard, but valuable when it comes to reaching out to potential new customers. Acquisition of emails, however, is another story, and lists can often be unreliable and expensive.
(To learn more about email marketing's incredible numbers, click here)
6. Link Outreach
Real World: Mr. Power finds that restaurants have brochures in certain key locations, such as hotels and visitors centers, and prints up a brochure to be placed in the same locations.
Digital World: In the digital world, these brochures translate to links from sites such as visitor centers and hotels. Identifying potential opportunities from high-quality, relevant websites and contacting them to request a link is an important aspect of link outreach. It's an old strategy, but still worth the effort.
7. Organization Links
Real World: As a business owner in the community who is interested in networking with other business owners, Max decides to join the local merchants' association and the Chamber of Commerce.
Digital World: Digitally, these organizations can provide links to websites and are a good measure of quality.
8. Sponsored Links
Real World: Because his son has autism, Max decides he'd like to sponsor a 5k for that cause, and his restaurant logo is printed on the back of the race t-shirt, which is handed out to thousands of runners. The Health Nut is listed with a lot of other sponsors, but he's happy to help the cause anyway, and he may get a few new customers as a result.
Digital World: The general rule of thumb with link building is, "If search engines did not exist, would you still seek out the link?" If the answer is 'yes', chances are the link is worthwhile. If the answer is 'no', don't get the link! If you genuinely care about the cause, the link is just a bonus.
9. Competitive Analysis
Real World: In the real world, competitive analysis comes fairly naturally, and Max often finds ads and references to his competitors in papers, news outlets, and in advertising. He reviews these and determines if he can get mentions in the same locations.
Digital World: Sites such as Ahrefs make this process extremely easy. Simply punch in the competitor's URL in the search box and see where their links are coming from, and determine if you can get the same ones!
10. Blog Posting
Real World: Because he's somewhat of an expert on healthy eating, Max begins giving speeches on the topic at relevant locations, such as healthy grocery stores, on local news broadcasts, and even in his own restaurant.
Digital World: Posting to blogs is the near equivalent to public speaking, and finding relevant blogs on which to guest post is similar to going to other locations and speaking. Posting on your own blog is like Max giving a talk at his own restaurant. These methods are great for building brand awareness, and, in the case of your own blog, earning links with quality content.
11. Social Media + Social Media
Real World: In the 3-Dimensional business world, as well as the digital one, there is nothing stronger than word of mouth. Over time, The Health Nut starts to get some buzz; friends tell friends, who tell friends, who tell family, and so on. At that point, Max is so busy he can't even worry about his marketing campaign.
Digital World: Word of mouth in a digital world is generally the realm of social media. With social media marketing, it's key to stay engaged with your customers, which, in a 3D world, would be equal to Max visiting tables and mingling with his guests. He builds a relationship with his customers in the restaurant, just as he should build a relationship online with his customers via sites such as Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. Review sites such as Urbanspoon and Yelp also help build buzz for his restaurant.
Ultimately, Max's business ends up thriving, all thanks to great marketing in both the real world and the digital world!