Are Links Really That Important for My Business?
Absolutely! If you want your website to be easily found by people searching for keywords related to your business, then you absolutely need to invest time in earning links to your site. It shows that your website is resourceful and authoritative. The more quality links that point to your site, the higher your ability is to rank high in search engine result pages – and in today’s crowded market place, you want to make sure that people can find you on page 1 or 2, rather than page 67.
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However, you need to be careful. The old days of buying links, begging for them, or buying into directories are long gone. Why? Because Google got smarter. Google has beefed up its algorithms to identify which are poor-quality, unnatural links and which are natural, organic ones. Google will punish sites that have high volumes of unnatural ‘bought’ links by pushing them further down the SERPs. Conversely, they reward sites with tons of natural links by giving them premium placement in the natural search results.
What Does “Natural” Mean?
First of all, let’s clear something up about the language surrounding linking these days, because it can create confusion. When talking about the quality of links we are all going for, the words “natural” and “organic” are almost always used.
However, are we talking about the links themselves being “natural” and “organic” or are we referring to the manner in which the links are obtained?
For some experts in the SEO industry, like Neil Patel for example, the word “natural” refers to the process of obtaining it. A natural link is therefore a link that you yourself have had no hand in creating – people just link to your site because your content is so great that they don’t have to be asked.
Neil says, “I consider a link to be “natural” when people link to you organically, without you asking for a link”. In other words, he is saying that the link is natural because it is not man-made.
Yet, the reality is that we work in industry sectors that are far off “natural” and “organic” to begin with, and it’s simply not practical to sit back and expect links to materialize out of thin air without any intervention on our part at all.
For that very practical reason, there is a second school of thought that says we should be practical about this and look at the “naturalness” of the link itself and not the process by which it is obtained. In other words, does this link make sense in the context of the page it rest on? If yes, then that’s a natural link.
How to Earn Natural Links
In their simple but very logical webmaster guidelines, Google warns that their algorithms are set up to differentiate natural links from unnatural ones. Their advice is simply to create good content, which in turn will build trust with the user and encourage natural linking activity:
“The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, high-quality content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it”.
With that sound advice in mind (and remembering Google’s warning that they can spot a paid, spammy, or otherwise unnatural link from miles away), here are four top tips for how to earn natural links for your site:
1. Be a Member of an .org
Business membership organizations, chambers of commerce, Yelp pages – all of these are organizations that people trust, so when potential clients see a link to your business on their site, that trust gets conferred to your business. Just remember: don’t join any .org for the benefit of a single link. Do it because the membership actually helps or benefits your business in the real world too. If you are already a member (even better!), then make sure your link is featured – don’t be afraid to ask! In addition, most experts or professionals are part of an organization. If you’re part of an association and very involved with their events, you might be able to get a link on their site as a member.
2. Host Meetings, Webinars, Events – for Free
Remember – natural links are natural because you’ve created something of value to your user and they want to reward you by linking to your product or service! So, carrying that concept forward, a great idea is to create valuable content for your user for free and offer it to them in a platform that best suits them. Sponsor a meeting, a local sports event, host a free webinar, sponsor a MeetUp on Google, pay for the drinks at a marketing association seminar – whatever makes sense in terms of the line of business you’re in, of course.
Look at the example below – Oracle paid for a Meeting with the Experts evening hosted by the American Marketing Association (AMA). Every time someone sends a RSVP, forwards the link about the event, or discusses it after it is over, they will likely include a link to this page, where the sponsor and their link is also prominently displayed. This kind of linking is natural and earned, because you are doing something nice for the industry sector in which you operate, and in return you get to piggyback your link on the online asset created to promote the event.
Not only will you obtain a link for your website, but it shows that you’re a knowledgeable and authoritative business in the industry. When you sponsor or host education events like the one below, users are more likely to seek your business as an expert.
3. Create a Resource that an .Edu site Wants to Link To
Universities are places that people instinctively trust and if they see your link on one of their .edu pages, then they are more likely than not to explore what that resource has to offer. In order to see your link on an edu page, you must create something of value for the university – and specifically, that will be a resource that the university views as being very valuable to their students.
One idea might be to develop a specialized resource, list, or scholarship that the university will be more than happy to provide a link to, on behalf of their students. This could be as simple as offering a special rate to students on books, photocopying, tickets for travel and entertainment, and so on, provided by your company. Or it could be a scholarship that your company creates to benefit a student in the same industry area in which you operate. In the example below, The Miller Group has given its seventh annual Rudy R. Miller business/finance scholarship out to a student in Arizona State University.
And then, as a matter of courtesy, the scholarship is mentioned in an official Arizona State University newsletter, below. This is an example of how a business can create something of value for university students, and thus naturally earn a link from the university in question, a link that by its very suffix ‘.edu’ confers a huge amount of trust and authority onto the business being mentioned and linked to.
This may cost a lot of money for small businesses, but don’t look at it as an expense. Giving out scholarships can be seen as a way for you to give back to the community and building your social corporate responsibility. If you’re not looking to spend too much money creating scholarships, then consider offering internship opportunities for the university students. It’s a great way to attract interns to your workplace and be linked on university sites
4. Get in the News
The most natural (and plentiful) linking activity happens when your business is at the center of a newsworthy story that everybody wants to report on, share, or discuss – just make sure that you’re the one driving the story, of course!
One of the best examples of this that we’ve come across is the case study concerning a Denver-based attorney firm that wanted to get natural links coming in from high authority news sites such as the Wall Street Journal. Since the firm dealt with a lot of DUIs, they came up with the idea of creating a scholarship for Colorado students who admitted to drinking and driving. Interesting and a bit provocative, right? It totally worked though – not only did the Denver Post pick up the story, but so did the national media, and finally, the Wall Street Journal itself (see screenshot below).
Not only did the various news sources discuss the story itself but they also directly included a link within their piece to the landing page on the attorney’s website where students could fill out an application form to win this scholarship! Now that’s powerful natural linking at play. It didn’t even cost the attorney very much – just a couple of thousand of dollars in scholarship money. The media exposure and links were free.
Gaining natural links is challenging and requires a healthy measure and out of the box thinking. Your competitor may be eating your lunch in the rankings, employing highly questionable linking strategies, but you should always resist the urge to sink down into the muck with them. Google’s penalties are simply too harsh and have been known to actually shut down businesses due to their swift, draconian punishment. As long as you target high-value links, diversify your linking strategy and look for links that have inherent value devoid of ranking, you will set up your website for continued long-term success. It isn’t a victory you’ll see overnight, but it took you more than a week to build your business. Why should you expect your SEO marketing strategy be any different?