We use the term "relevant" a lot in link building. We use it talking about relevant websites, relevant content, and relevant links. But what really is the function of relevance in link building?
In general, we believe that the level of relevance will affect the quality and value of a link. Which, of course it does. But relevance matters on different levels throughout the link building process. To me, it's most important in the conversation about why one site should link to another.
But what is relevant isn't always instantly apparent; sometimes to find it we need to expand our definition of what relevance means. We can stretch it, and even is some cases, create it. But only by exploring different variations of salience and all of the many ways that two sites or subjects can be connected.
This is the way most people think of relevance. My topic is cows and your topic is cows, so we have something in common. You have a page about bovine mating rituals, I have an article about how a calf is born. It makes perfect sense.
The only problem here is that if we're doing our content right, both sites could actually be competing companies. Of course, we could be a couple of cow enthusiasts, but odds are I'm building links to the article section of a site selling milking machines.
So if my target site is also selling cream separators, there could be some reluctance to hand out links. It happens though. As utopian as it sounds, these situations can breed partnerships and alliances.
The best place to start looking for links is from every non-competitive site that is really passionate about your subject. But don't just beg them for links. Share that passion with them.
These aren't contacts to blow through like a bull in a china shop. Participate in the community and keep them close. It's good for links, co-operations, networking, and the occasional guest post or social push.
Ideally, we're befriending every single cow lover on the web for backlinks, but when we run out of those, where do we go? How do we get keep from getting put out to pasture? We can stand around chewing our cud until the cows come home, or we can go where the grass is greener.
OK, I'm done milking this cow metaphor. Now.
I love tangents. Tangents keep conversations interesting. They make geometry complicated and they open up in-roads for link building.
A website usually serves one main purpose, but that central theme always connects to something else. Even the most technical, complicated, seemingly isolated subjects can be attached to more accessible mainstream topics.
Let's take lab equipment for example. There aren't a lot people who get all that excited about the latest developments in compound separation. Once you've made the most of those who have, it's time to introduce a new generation to the wonders of centrifuges.
Stretching relevance means thinking about concepts and ideas that are related to your primary subject. So using our centrifugal example, there are connections to be made with science labs at every grade level. Lesson plans maybe? Centrifuges are also relevant to blood, earthquakes, sugar, and even carnival rides.
The argument against this kind of stretching often sounds like "Well, the links to that won't really be relevant to what you want to rank for." Totally true.
Maybe writing a hilarious article about why people puke on those stick-to-the-wall rides won't help you rank for "high speed tubular bowl supercentrifuge" -- at least, not directly. But it's so much more widely linkable than a detailed explanation of centripetal force and fractionation.
I'm not saying you shouldn't offer a comprehensive guide to the centrifugation process, you absolutely should. But if that's all you have, your pool of linkers on the web is a relative puddle.
If the relevance is indirect, you can expect that the benefit will be as well. As in, the links you get may not be for the exact phrase you want, but if they come from good, clean, strong credible sites, the boost to your overall authority is well worth the foray into tangent-land.
Look out your window. Whatever you see there, those places are geographically relevant to you.
It sounds crazy, but actually talking to people face to face about the Internet is still a great way to get links. Sure, you could e-mail the deli on the corner, but it's just as easy to talk turkey over your pastrami isn't it? If they have a website, maybe they'd be willing to link to you, as another local business. Or maybe with a printed coupon from your site people can get free chips with their sandwich.
It doesn't matter what kind of arrangement you make, it matters that you're thinking about links in terms of your own neighborhood. Literally.
There's power to be had from making the most of what's in front of you. Sure, you may be completely unrelated to a deli. But in a community, unrelated businesses partner and support each other all the time.
It also can't hurt your geo-targeting. Having links from several other websites with a similar geographical location should further support your local ranking efforts.
If it's relevant to your customer base, it's relevant to you. If you sell Silly Bandz, then Justin Bieber is relevant to you. If you sell diapers, then dinner short cuts are relevant to you. Moms looking for meals they can make wearing a BabyBjÖrn might also be interested in bulk diapers, right?
Individuals who comprise a common demographic tend to have similar purchasing interests and lifestyle needs. It's not that hard to draw conclusions about the kinds of information and products your users want and then find ways to connect with websites offering exactly that.
The thing about these kinds of links is, like other indirect links, they carry a benefit, but not necessarily one that leads directly to ranking for your key phrases. But you do have a high probability of attracting traffic and isn't that the ultimate goal anyway? In a way, links of this kind do an end-run around search engines altogether, making them some of the most powerful links you can get.
If every link could be from a directly relevant site, using target anchor text, on a page with 30 million backlinks and keywords in the content, life would be blissful. But that's just not how it happens. In fact most of the time we're lucky to get a few dream value indicators attached to any given link, so we need to change how we look at link building relevance altogether.
It's time to re-shape our vision of relevance and disengage from our obsession with being dead-on all the time. Only when we do that can we open ourselves to discovering relevance in all of its many incarnations.