One of the most prevalent ideas floating around the internet is that if you're not in a sexy niche, no one will want to link to you. Eric Ward once used the example of social media for Preparation H to illustrate the issue of fandom on Facebook. It brings up a huge problem for many niches that aren't necessarily something you want to publicly associate yourself with, for various reasons.
As we rely more on social media for link building and content promotion, how will we deal with the fact that a lot of the general advice out there simply doesn't apply to many sites?
First of all, I do believe that there's no niche that can't build good links. I do believe there are sites that pose a problem though, and there will always be resource constraints, but it's doable with some hard work, so let's start there and talk about some common roadblocks that sites throw up and in turn, make link building harder than it needs to be.
In looking at a recent site that we work with, we determined that with some very simple on-page changes, things could drastically improve. The desired terms weren't mentioned in title tags, for example. They're barely mentioned on the page. Anchor text can only do so much but people don't always realize that link building needs to work in conjunction with everything else.
We have another client whose rankings recently went downhill for certain terms after they changed the wording of the homepage and no longer mentioned those terms. We can't ignore the importance of on-page and off-page working together.
- Poor content: Yes, there are industries that aren't exciting to the majority of the world. However, many people still buy from them because they need the product. Just because what you're selling isn't exciting, that doesn't mean that your content and presentation have to be dull. If you truly make the best item at the best price, then sure, you'll get links simply because you're the best…but if you can't claim that, you need to realize that better content can make you stand out from the crowd.
- Poor navigation and site search: If a user can't find what he's looking for easily, he may never return. If you're going to offer a site search that only works on item number, let users know that so they don't waste time trying to search by a keyword. If your main set of products is buried under four layers of clicks, you're doing something wrong.
- Poor internal link structure: For example, if you have a dynamic site that generates crazy long URLs that have to be pulled up through a site search because you provide such poor internal links and navigation, you are discouraging people from linking to you. What webmaster wants to spend time digging around in order to find a relevant page to link to? If it's not pretty easily found, that link is going to another site: that of your competitor.
- 404 errors: Shari Thurow had a great point in a comment on a recent post of mine where I said that if you didn't have certain content available anymore, 301 redirecting the old page to something (home page, page for similar item, etc.) was the best way to handle it so as not to lose any potential link juice from existing links, but she argued that a 404 was bad for usability, and I agree. If you redirect users to your home page or a page that has alternatives to what a user is looking for, that can cause a lot of frustration. For linking purposes, I still think a 301 is the best but I definitely see the value of just being upfront and giving them a 404.
- Meta descriptions and titles: If your SERP snippet isn't click worthy, you are automatically losing opportunities for someone to link to you.
How can you ensure that your ecommerce site is link worthy? That's half the battle, so let's dig into a few ways and see some examples of who's doing it right.
J Crew has online marketing nailed. I can assure you that they are the only people on Earth who have ever successfully suggested that pointy pumps can work with a sweatshirt, thick glasses, and messy hair.
Their homepage is always changing and always filled with cool "stories" about how to put different looks together. They have a handbag and shoe shop instead of listing them as categories in a drill down somewhere. It all makes you feel like you're actually shopping in the store, which is nice.
They're creative with their content and how they present it, basically. Shopping for anything is fun for someone and torture for someone else.
However, think about going into a clothing store. There are displays, mannequins wearing outfits, gorgeous shop windows, giant graphics of models wearing the clothes, etc. Think about going to that same store's website and looking for a sweater in a sea of small images. It's a very different experience.
Let's look at how their backlink history compares to that of Chicos and Coldwater Creek, both clothing brands targeted at roughly the same age group, but both a bit less exciting in terms of their marketing.
According to Link Research Tools, here's some interesting data about those three sites:
- J Crew has 41,864 keywords ranking with 407,340 backlinks (they even have 341 .edus linking to them!)
- Chicos has 2390 keywords ranking with 24,276 backlinks.
- Coldwater Creek has 3768 keywords ranking with 31.834 backlinks.
According to Open Site Explorer, here's some social data:
- J Crew has 5,196 total social shares while Chicos has 992 and Coldwater Creek has 1,382.
That was social data for the current dataset of course so it should be higher now but still, you can see that generally speaking, J Crew is taking the lead.
However, clothing's pretty sexy so let's look at some ecommerce sites for industries that aren't quite so fun but are using marketing strategies that set them apart.
Republic Bike is an amazing online bike shop. I'm not a big fan of bikes (no desire to get hit by a truck and lose all my teeth) but this site makes me really want one. You can design your own bike in up to five styles and you can see your bike in 3D. Here's mine:
They have a gallery so you can see how other customers have built their own bikes in case you need inspiration, and if you send them a photo of your bike, they'll send you a free gift. If they end up showcasing you in the gallery, they'll send you a free accessory for your bike. That's a great encouragement to link to them isn't it?
They're also on Facebook and Twitter and have a blog that is described as "Semi-infrequent, quasi-relevant notes from Republic." They don't have a ton of links though, showing only 199 linking domains in Open Site Explorer, but their social shares are high and they are currently in the top 5 for "fixie bikes" in Google.
Birchbox is an amazing site that lets you get monthly samples for $10 a month. They sell roughly the same products as Sephora or Ulta but it's this sample subscription that is getting rave reviews everywhere. (I'm personally a fan.) For every purchase, you earn reward points that you can use and if you're clueless, they have lots of videos that show you how to properly use lip balm without getting it all over your face.
They have 1,502 linking domains in Open Site Explorer and are really doing well socially. They're a fairly new site still but look at Majestic SEO's Backlink History for them…looks like they're on the right track!
Warby Parker: These guys are automatically on my radar because of their free home try-on. I hate going to buy new glasses as it always seems to take days, and I love the idea of trying them on in the privacy of my own home without some oppressive lady asking me if I really want to look that severe. (Yes, I really do.)
You can also do virtual try-ons on the site in case you don't want to deal with having five pairs delivered. They also give a pair away to people in need with every pair sold and they're only $95!!
They currently have a very cute "Where's Waldo?" feature on the site (perfect for those of us who remember this craze) so that you, too, can look like Waldo. (You can also get your monocles here, in case you've been looking for a new one.)
They have 1,948 linking domains and an amazing number of social shares (17,900 Facebook shares!). They're also in the top 5 for "glasses" which is quite good considering that SERP is cluttered with those pesky drinking vessels.
Tip: If you have cool features like a "visualize your room with our furniture" room planner or a "see how you look with a blue Mohawk before you buy this wig made from real human hair" area, make sure they're visible on your home page. These kind of features attract links. The bottom line is that with so much crowding online, you have to figure out a way to stand out if you want to attract attention (and links.)
I'll be honest and tell you that whenever I search for the site that lets you try glasses on at home, that's actually how I search for them. I can't remember the site's name, but I can remember that feature.
So outside of having a link worthy site, what can you do to help ensure that you continue to build links?
- Offer something interactive to the user. People like to be able to interact with products online in the same way that they would in person. You obviously can't feel a fabric online but if that's important, find a way to let the user zoom in on it. If the weight of an item matters, list its weight and compare it to something (a feather, a mug of coffee, a cinderblock).
- If everyone's doing what you're doing, find a way to do it better. For example, in looking at furniture sites and their associated room planners, I didn't find a single one that lets you place actual pieces into your "room" in order to get true idea of what a finished room would look like. You can get shapes that correspond to the furniture but no actual pieces of furniture. A room planner that used real products would surely get lots of links. I didn't find any sites that let you upload a photo of your room for use either…wouldn't that be useful?
- Give people an incentive to buy from you and link to you. As seen with both the glasses and bike shops that I mentioned, users are incentivized to buy through being able to try on items at home with no obligation or encouraged to send in photos of their products in exchange for a gift or a bike accessory. Give people a good reason to choose your site.
- Find a way to use social media if possible. You don't have to have a Facebook page if it doesn't suit your demographic, but perhaps you can use Twitter to tweet coupons for your product or contests, for example. Set up a Quora account so you can answer questions about your products. At the very least, you should be listening for what people say about you on social media. You can head off potential problems and maybe get some great information about what your demographic would like to see.
Again, unless you happen to have the luck of being a top notch big brand that can seemingly do no wrong, you're going to have to step up your game and stop thinking that you'll just magically build links and attract users. You also can't fall into the line of thought where you give up, thinking that your niche/site isn't exciting enough. For the people who want/need your product, it certainly can be, but not without creativity on your part.