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Organic traffic & link building for small businesses
Link building is often one of the most challenging digital marketing tasks for small businesses. In this helpful how-to, columnist Marcus Miller explores how link building works today and what small businesses can do to get started.
When it comes down to it, the hardest part of SEO for most small businesses is building links and authority. Keyword research, on-page optimization, local SEO — it’s all doable, and to some degree mechanical. But raising your authority? Not so much.
While the importance of links is clear, Google’s messaging is confusing and unhelpful. We are told to “make sure other sites link to yours” while at the same time “avoiding link building as it can do more harm than good.” So, what’s a small business to do?
In this article, I am going to take a quick look at why links influence results and then outline a simple link-building strategy. The goal is to help small businesses build authority and target the commercial search terms that matter to them.
There is still a creative element required here, but my goal is to provide a simple strategy that small businesses can use to help build their authority and improve their overall organic search visibility.
How important are links in 2017?
In the most recent Search Engine Ranking Factors published by Moz.com, domain-level link features and page-level link features are still the top two ranking factors. Keywords and content factors are not far behind, but those elements that are directly under the site owner’s control are far easier to dial in.
There are a few other factors to consider for local businesses that typically fall under the local SEO banner. Address, citations, NAP consistency, Google My Business and reviews all factor. However, in the Moz Local Ranking Factors study, links are still the second most important factor after on-page signals, and yet they are considerably more difficult to influence.
Both of these studies were published in 2015, yet things don’t move all that quickly, and new signals tend to have a more gentle influence. Much more recently, Google’s Andrey Lipattsev revealed links, content and RankBrain are the top three ranking factors, so links are every bit as important in 2017 as they were in 1998 when the first Google prototype launched.
Penalties, spam and link quality
I really don’t want to go too far down this rabbit (penguin) hole, but given the financial rewards associated with visibility in search engines, it did not take long for individuals to start trying to reverse-engineer PageRank. This led to 15 years or so of duff tactics (that often worked better than they should have), subsequent penalties and all manner of problems.
I am not 100 percent convinced that Google has completely solved this issue yet, however, focusing on the relevance and quality of the links you build is crucial for long-term success. That means real links from real sites that are returned in real search results and are read by real people. Got it?
Get everything else dialed in first
Before we dive in, let’s just get a few things straight — don’t start here. Get everything else dialed in first. It may be enough. Certainly, you want to maximize results from the somewhat easier tactics and get your Local SEO and on-page optimization dialed in.
Local SEO is the cornerstone of organic visibility for most smaller businesses. Things have gotten more competitive recently with the move to a smaller local pack and more competition from ads. That said, local SEO still provides the backbone of local listings in the three-pack and strongly influences organic listings for local businesses. Do this well and you can get a spot in the three-pack with the organic results underneath.
It’s a little beyond the scope of what we can cover here, but this article is a good jump-in point.
On-page optimization covers the nuts and bolts of optimizing your site. If you are a local business, then you will cover this in your local SEO. If you cover a wider geographic area, then you still need to make sure that your domain-level and page-level optimization is fine-tuned to maximize results.
Google’s own SEO guide is a good place to start here. The document covers optimizing page titles, meta descriptions, site structure, URLs and navigation. It’s an oldie, first published in 2008, yet it covers the basics well enough.
Leverage existing assets & relationships
Many small businesses only need a couple of really good links. Have you got links from your suppliers? Have you got links from any trade organizations relevant to your business? From the major web directories like Yell in the UK? From any industry-specific portals or directories?
Get together in your office and have a quick brainstorm on where you could possibly get links from. You may find a surprising amount of common-sense opportunities here.
Small business guide to link building
The strategy outlined here is designed for small businesses. It is an approach that we have used to help hundreds of smaller businesses rank in the UK. Often this is the last big push when everything else is dialed in.
This strategy will help you develop anchor text that includes your primary keywords, and do so in a way that is natural and will not upset the Google gods. This will help you build more organic traffic and build overall authority. Most importantly, this approach will allow you to rank for the big terms that you know deliver the leads and customer inquiries that your business needs to prosper.
This approach works as a one-off, or it can be repeated and scaled. It is also based on delivering value and has a creative element, so it can’t simply be copied by a competitor. That also means it is not as easy, but it is strategically sound.
Before we dive in, we must get our thinking straight here. The biggest issue with many small business link-building efforts is the mindset in which they are approached. If you can change the way you think about link building, then you have a strategic advantage that will leave your competitors in your digital wake.
- You must first build something that deserves to be linked to.
- You then simply connect what should be connected.
We are not trying to manufacture links and artificially inflate your authority. We are trying to create something that your competitors don’t have and, as such, earn links that they never could.
Remember, we want links from high-quality and relevant sites, as these links are more trusted and add more value. But real websites only link to other real websites, hence the key to this strategy: build something that deserves to be linked to. From Google Search Console Help:
Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages important.
The approach works as follows:
Step 1: Create something of value to your target audience
Create something of value to your target audience. This is often the hardest area. Ideally, this will be something that can be integrated into your overall marketing strategy. Something that in of itself will help you generate more business. In an ideal world, all digital marketing will work in synergy (rather than in silos). This is not always possible, but if your marketing assets can be multi-use, then you will get a better return overall.
Ideally, this content will be something your target audience could search for, like the resolution to a specific problem.
If we think about it from a small/local business SEO perspective, it could be:
- small business SEO guide.
- small business guide to link building.
- small business guide to keyword research.
These are all relevant to the services provided by an SEO business and contain a relevant keyword. They are also (assuming they are well put together) solid resources that it is far easier to place a justifiable link to.
You get the picture.
Nobody is better suited than you to determine what this content should look like. What questions do your customers ask? What are the common problems your prospects face? What are your goals here? New business? Upselling to existing customers? Create the content that will help your audience and you are halfway there. Here are some examples:
- Small business guide to bookkeeping
- Small business guide to accounting
- Small business guide to chartered accounting
- DIY plumber — How to fix a leaky tap
- DIY electrician — How to change a plug
- Toothache — Do you need to go to the dentist?
A key point is that, where possible, the content should include the commercial keywords you want to rank for. We are trying to help Google understand what you do by creating content relevant to the services and then generating links with descriptive anchor text that relates to the target article.
This is not rocket science. Create an article that is relevant to the problems your audience faces, and, where possible, include the main service term you desire to be found for.
You want this piece of content to be good. Good enough that you can enrich another article by linking to the article. But if you are a local business, you don’t have to create a best-of-class piece of content. It simply needs to provide value.
If you have multiple services, this approach could scale — at Bowler Hat, we provide SEO, PPC, social and content marketing, so we will want articles on all of these topics. If you provide one service (plasterer, plumber and so on), then it is even easier.
Once created, this article needs to be published on your own site and is what we will refer to as our linkable asset. This is a piece of content on our target site that it makes common sense to link to.
Step 2: Promote this content on relevant sites
We are now going to look at creating articles on relevant, high-quality sites and linking to our article with descriptive anchor text.
A key point here is that the content you create and publish on a third-party site should be enriched and improved by linking to your article. This is critical to ensure that the link is natural and is there for the reader and not purely for SEO purposes. Sure, we want the link, but we have to do so in a way that makes sense in the real world.
The specifics of the approach depend upon the content you created. However, a simple strategy we have had success with is to:
- create a linkable asset on a broad topic (like SEO).
- then create a series of smaller articles on subsections of the topic like keyword research, on-page optimization, link building and so on.
- link to the linkable asset from your articles using descriptive anchor text.
- In many cases, you will also have a branded link to the home page in your author box or bio.
Strategically, this is pretty simple stuff and easy to execute. We are not trying to put some unnatural anchor text links to our home or service pages in an article that the editor of any quality site is going to nuke in a second. We are instead offering value to the reader and linking to a resource that expands upon the topic covered.
Using the example of this article about link building for small businesses, and assuming we had a guide that expanded on the subject, an article we put out could easily work a link in at the tail end of the article as follows:
Hopefully, this article has provided you with a good jump-in point and a number of strategies you can use to build links to your small business. If you are hungry for more, we expand upon the range of link-building tactics covered here in our small business guide to SEO. If you have any questions, get in touch on Twitter or Facebook.
This is not manipulative. It’s helpful. We are primarily concerned with building links to influence our authority and visibility, but a secondary benefit here is that we may well build positive referral traffic. Win-win. Marketing that covers multiple bases is marketing that delivers the best possible ROI in the hypercompetitive digital landscape.
The specific tactics you can use to find link opportunities are outside the scope of this article. However, if you are looking to dive in and create your first linkable asset to build some links, I would suggest investigating the following tactics.
- Guest blog posts. Finding sites in your category is relatively straightforward. Remember to focus on quality and think of this as digital PR that builds awareness and credibility; it just happens to also help you rank.
- Digital PR. Tools like HARO can help you identify any number of link-building opportunities. You may not be able to work a link to your content into every one of these, but most will come with a branded link if that fails. This is certainly worth exploring, as typically, this is great PR, and again, can help build authority.
There is a myriad of tactics out there, but I want to keep this simple. By focusing on guest posts and PR, you can easily identify opportunities without needing an SEO magic wand.
You must focus on quality here. You must only look to publish on sites that you would be proud to appear on. Real sites. Read by real people. Think more PR than SEO. Any popular link-building strategy gets abused, from directories to guest posts. When quality suffers, and the link exists only for SEO, then you are on shaky ground. Focus on quality, and think of this as PR with benefits.
As a small business, you should not need tons of volume here. Try doing one of these per month. Again, look at it as a bit of monthly PR and exposure that helps improve your organic visibility.
Link building is often where we see small businesses hit an SEO brick wall. It is all too easy to fall into a world of manufactured links, which can lead to problems. A simple strategy starting with a linkable asset, and then a campaign to promote that asset, circumvents these problems if done with robust quality control.
- Create something of value to your target audience.
- The title of that content should include your commercial keywords.
- Publish guest posts or contributions and link to the post.
- Use descriptive anchor text that contains your targeted terms.
- Measure your results and don’t get carried away.
In most cases, small or local businesses only need a few good links to help improve their organic position. Creating linkable assets that deserve to be linked to makes the link-building process far easier. Working in this manner, we are working with the interlinked fabric of the web and simply linking to something using descriptive anchor text. This is in contrast to forcing unnatural links with service-specific anchor text to the home page of a site.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.