SEO tips: building external links

When it comes to SEO, optimising your content is important, but not the whole story – other websites can affect your search ranking too. To rank highly, you’ll need to work on building valuable incoming links.

How does it work?

The job of a search engine is to return the best quality search results possible. One of the ways they determine which are the quality sites is to look at the number of links coming from other sites, weighted by the popularity of those sites. This means you need as many incoming links as possible that are:

  • From high-quality, influential sites – these are given a much higher weighting than unknown sites
  • From relevant sites – not unrelated ones
  • One-way – link exchanges are valued much lower, and excessive link exchanges may be flagged as spam
  • Not paid for – it is against Google’s guidelines to pay for links for SEO purposes, and you can be penalised for it

Link building

The main objective of off-site SEO is to increase the number and quality of incoming links. But how do you go about that?

1. Create content worth linking to. Before you even think about link building, make sure you have content that’s worth linking to. If you don’t, go back and create it – otherwise you’re wasting your time asking for links!

2. Find sites you want to link to you. Start by identifying popular, relevant sites that might be willing to link to you. There are several ways to do this:

  • Search for your key terms (and variations of them) to see which sites are ranked highly but aren’t competitors
  • Look for magazines, blogs and trade groups appropriate to your industry or aimed at your target audience
  • Go through your list of customers, suppliers and partners
  • Find out who links to your competitors’ websites

3. Ask for a link, review or editorial. In some cases you can ask the websites you identified for a link directly – particularly magazines, blogs and trade groups, because their business is sharing information with their audience. They may even write a review or editorial about you, which could also be good P.R.  Customers, suppliers and partners are also good sources of links and online reviews, so it’s worth asking for their help. However, you should be aware that offering incentives in the form of link exchanges, payments or gifts could violate Google’s guidelines.

4. Build connections with influencers. While it’s possible to directly approach strangers asking for links, you’re more likely to be ignored or marked as spam. A better approach is to connect with them personally (e.g. on social media), then once you have made a connection share your product / service / website and convince them that it has value for them. If you do it right, they’ll be eager to share it with their network.

5. Offer to write guest posts. Another way to promote yourself is to find relevant high-traffic blogs that are willing to accept guest posts. In addition to building high-value incoming links, this gives you a chance to talk directly to your target audience. To have a shot at this, you will need to come up with interesting and original ideas that are relevant to the blog you are targeting, then pitch your ideas to the owner. It also helps to provide evidence that you can write well, such as links to other articles you’ve written.

6. Submit to online directories & review sites. Online directories used to be an easy way to build incoming links – however, they were often abused by spammers and are now relatively low value. These days you should only submit links to high-quality directories that manually review all links and have relevant, up-to-date listings. If you can see any hint of spam, steer clear.

7. Post to forums and blog comment sections. Again, these are easily and regularly abused by spammers, and as a result they have a relatively low value. They should only be used as a small part of a link-building strategy, not as your main source of links.

Write personal messages, providing useful information and link to your site only when it’s relevant. Use your real name – don’t put your company name or keywords as your name – and don’t stuff your signature with keyword links either. The aim here is to connect with real people – you don’t want to look like you’re trying to game the system.

You should also be aware that many sites now use “nofollow” for user-submitted links – this tells Google to ignore them when calculating PageRank, to avoid giving value to spammers. This greatly limits the value of this strategy – although some sites still pass PageRank, plus you could generate some good leads if you post in the right places.

Social media

Creating a social media strategy is a whole topic itself, but here are a few tips for sharing your content socially as a way to build incoming links:

  • Share your own links. Whenever you post something new, share it on your social media accounts. Make sure you repeat it a few times, at different times of day, to increase the number of people that see it – but not so often it becomes annoying.
  • Share other things too. Be sure to mix your marketing messages with interesting, useful or fun messages to keep your audience engaged. See Twitter’s official guide to creating a Twitter content strategy for some suggestions.

  • Get involved. Social media is all about conversations. You shouldn’t simply post messages and wait for others to read them – find your target audience, follow them and start talking to them. Use search to find relevant discussions and join in, sharing links to your own content where appropriate. Just make sure you’re being helpful, not annoying!
  • Encourage visitors to share your content. Add “Share” buttons to your site to make it easy for visitors to share your content on their social media accounts, and actively encourage them to use them.
  • Run a competition. Running a competition can be a good way to get followers to interact with you. You can have them perform an action such as signing up for a mailing list or tweeting about you to their friends in order to enter the competition. This can help to build your network as well as increasing links to your site. (However, make sure you follow all relevant laws and site rules.)

Keep your readers coming back

The more your readers come back, the less work you have to do to market each new article you write. In an ideal scenario, once you’ve built a big enough audience, you could simply write new posts and your loyal readers would share them for you, building incoming links for you. There are a few ways you can encourage them to do just that:

  • Set up RSS feeds. News aggregators such as Feedly allow readers to subscribe to multiple blogs and read them in a central location. Although RSS is not as popular as it was 10 years ago, you should allow those that do use it to subscribe to your blog with minimal effort. With most blogging software RSS is available out of the box, or very easy to enable. You could also put a link to your RSS feed on the page, to encourage visitors to subscribe.
  • Set up a mailing list. A mailing list makes it even easier for readers to subscribe to your posts, allowing you to reach more people on a regular basis. Depending on your audience and goals, you can automatically send an email to your list whenever you publish a new post, which requires no extra effort, or you can send more personal emails on your own schedule.
  • Encourage readers to follow you on social media. Another way to get readers to come back regularly is to get them following you on social media – so make sure it’s easy to reach your social pages and follow you from your blog posts. To get the attention of casual readers, tell them exactly what you write about and how often – show them the value of following you.
  • Be slightly pushy about it. No-one really likes those popup messages that ask you to sign up to an email newsletter – but the truth is they work. So if you’re looking to build up your subscriber list, it’s something you should consider carefully.  You can even offer them something in return for their email address – everyone likes free stuff! Or you can simply promise them valuable content. It’s also worth telling them how often you send emails out, and making it clear that they can unsubscribe at any time if they change their mind.

Other ways to bring in visitors

The more visitors you can bring to your website, the more likely it is that they will share your content, thus increasing your search ranking. With that in mind, here are a few additional things you could do to get more visitors:

  • Paid placement campaigns (PPC). PPC refers to the adverts displayed next to search results, on social media sites, and on other websites. You can use these to generate initial interest, before your SEO takes effect, or as a longer-term strategy to ensure a regular flow of leads. Due to the fast turnaround time (minutes instead of days), it’s also a good way to test different keyword variations to find out which ones are the most popular.
  • Other multimedia formats. Different people like different media formats, so try making your own videos or audio files and posting them to sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud. You could even turn this into a regular thing and create your own podcast. Other formats worth considering include presentations, infographics and ebooks.
  • Press releases. Press releases themselves are generally considered to be low value for SEO. However, if you have a truly newsworthy story that stands out from the crowd, you may be able to get it picked up by news outlets, increasing your exposure as well as bringing in links from some high-value news sites.
  • Offline marketing & P.R. Your offline marketing and P.R. efforts can also help draw visitors to your site. Be sure to promote your website at every opportunity, and emphasise the value it can provide to the visitor (useful information, free trial, etc.). If they truly find it valuable, they will be happy to share it with others.

Summary

There are many link-building techniques available, but these should be plenty to get you started. Remember that SEO takes time to get right, so if you need help from an SEO expert please get in touch with us.

Next month we’ll talk about Technical SEO, and explain terms like search-engine friendly, XML sitemap and canonical URL!


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