Lately I've been getting more and more requests to link to various Web sites. How many of those have I linked to recently? None.
As most of us know, the quantity and quality of inbound links has a pretty significant impact on search engine optimization. All other things being equal, if I have 10 inbound links to my site, from places like MIT, The New York Times and Apple and you have 10 inbound links from places like Joe's toothpick collectors blog, I'll be ahead of you in the search engine results pages.
So it is no surprise that people strive to attain those links—either by themselves or by hiring SEO firms who specialize in such things. Aside from the SEO value, inbound links also bring in referral traffic from sites that appeal to similar audiences.
Assuming you are producing great content—that people find valuable—there are a variety of ways to gain inbound links. Today I'd like to focus on the most basic approach, the direct ask.
Webmasters and bloggers ignore the majority of link requests simply because the requesters don't give us a logical reason to follow through. For example, this request came in a few days ago.
"I visited your website and found it to be pretty useful content. I invite you to a link exchange (3-way link*) with our website (s)."
This was the extent of the message. The sender didn't include the link to the site, so I had no way of telling whether the site would be useful or not. The person also mentioned that this would be a link exchange. That's a common request, but I'm not going to give away a link just to get a link in return. If I link to a site, I do so only because it has information that I think you, my readers, will find useful.
* A 3-way link exchange is a gray/black hat trick meant to disguise a reciprocal link exchange from search engines. Since we only link to relevant sites we need not play such games.
Visiting Case was redesigned earlier this year. It no longer includes this page, so I'm showing this screen capture of the old version for reference.
When I was Webmaster at Case Western Reserve University I received oodles of link requests because .edu sites are in high demand and we had enough content to appeal to a broad array of topical niches. People wanted me to link to everything from hotels and limousine services to other colleges and "get rich quick" blogs. But every once in awhile someone would suggest a link that was right on target.
One such person was the Webmaster for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA). He first contacted me to suggest some additional bus routes I might link to on the transportation page for our Visiting Case site. When he e-mailed me he sent me the recommended links to his site AND sent me the url of the page on my site where he thought the links should go. Knowing that these routes would be of interest to visitors, I immediately added them to the page in question. Over the years he would send me new links as routes were changed so that I was able to easily keep the information current.
I really appreciated his efforts because they helped me better serve my audience while also making sure that traffic directed to his site went to the right place. Adding the links was beneficial to all involved.
If you don't want your link request to be ignored, then it helps to follow in RTA's footsteps by initiating a link request that benefits both parties.
These cool vinyl critters are produced by Ducobi. I haven't done any package design since the late 1990's, but Lovely Package is a great source for design inspiration.
Let's pretend that you write a lovely little blog about package design.* If you were to embark on a link-building campaign you would probably start by identifying the top blogs and sites geared towards designers—people who would also be interested in your site. In particular you might look for sites specifically aimed at packaging.
After identifying a few plausible candidates such as Package Design Magazine and The dieline package design blog, you should then read through the sites to judge the caliber of the information, and to see if they are drawing in the same sort of readers that you seek.
Next you should ask yourself how your site, or a specific page on your site, would benefit their readers. If you can't come up with a clear and specific benefit then you are better off looking for other candidates.
If you do have a good benefit then you should also identify a place on their site where it would be logical for them to add your link. If no such place exists, it will be hard for them to fulfill your request.
* The folks at Lovely Package have never asked me for a link, nor do they need to. Their site has an Alexa Traffic Rank of 47,211 with 852 inbound links—which means it is already quite popular.
Once you've made it this far, asking for the link is relatively simple.
The first step is to identify the person at the site who has the power to grant your request. This may be the Webmaster, content manager, an editor or someone else.
Then send that person a politely worded email in which you clearly yet briefly:
If they agree with your reasoning then you may very well get that link. If not then at least you'll know you made a sincere effort—rather than spamming them with a nonsensical request.
I regularly add links such as these at the end of blog posts for two reasons. 1) They help guide you to additional information on the topic. 2) It helps me show appreciation to sites that provide helpful information. They didn't have to ask, they just produced worthwhile content.
We all know these blog posts don't get written as frequently as I'd like. But that doesn't mean you need to go weeks without hearing me babble. Over on http://www.facebook.com/heidicool, I'm using content curation to share one link per day. At one tip per week day it won't clog your Facebook stream, but hopefully you'll find something useful.
And for more links (and ramblings that may not always be related to the Web) I usually Tweet and reTweet a few (or several) times per day at @hacool.