CMOs and other senior marketing people need to know the building blocks of link building for large enterprises.
Every senior marketing executive should see clearly where link building fits in the integrated marketing mix. There are many approaches, such as identifying relevant content on other sites and asking for links; developing content for third party sites; PR and SEO PR; social news sites, like Digg; social media sites, like del.icio.us and StumbleUpon; and many other promotional concepts such as widgets; viral videos; and directory links.
With hundreds of variants of these major approaches to link building, keep it simple. Let's start by discussing why large enterprises should never buy links; almost never swap links; and then list the critical questions big brands must ask when building link strategies.
Why You Should Never Buy Links
Search engines don't want you to purchase links for purposes of link building because they want the links to be the result of the editorial judgment of someone at the site providing the link.
We've recommended against this strategy for several years now, as it has always been at odds with the stated expectations of the search engines. Now that Google has taken the next step and is actively punishing sites that buy and sell links, this tactic is riskier than ever.
You can read a bit more about Google's official stance on paid links. In this post Matt Cutts makes it clear that Google will take action to penalize sites that buy and sell links for PageRank purposes. Matt also takes this further with an example in his post, "Selling Links that Pass PageRank."
Honestly, you can still buy links that pass PageRank. Google's system isn't perfect. However, it's increasingly hard to do so when your competitor can manually detect your paid links and report them to Google, who will then turn them off.
So, if finding links that pass PageRank to buy is hard, and developing natural links is hard, why not focus on the strategy that comes without a risk of your efforts being wasted (i.e. developing natural links).
Why You Should Almost Never Swap Links
This is another tactic search engines don't like, because it's barter. You're giving a link in order to get a link. It's also pretty easy for the search engine to detect and devalue. There's no reason not to swap links with a small number of selected business partners -- just don't expect to get SEO (define) benefits from it.
Where you get into trouble with link swapping is when it makes up a large percentage of your inbound link profile. Google made adjustments in it's Bigdaddy update, which reportedly devalued the rankings of sites with too large a percentage of inbound links.
How to Choose a Link Strategy
At the beginning of every client engagement we always begin with a review of the content and tools on a client's site, as well as the types of content and tools that could be generated. This quickly raises some critical questions that must be dealt with early on:
- What types of resources can be applied to content and tool development? For example, is there a copywriter available? Or, do they have development resources available to pursue widget development? If they don't have these resources, is the client willing to hire them? Fundamentally, this is about budget allocation. Is the client willing to spend money on developing new content and/or tools, or to hire a PR firm?
- Are there limitations on the approach due to the nature of the brand? Not every company is willing to write the types of articles it takes to succeed on Digg, or develop the types of videos that can go viral. These often require a certain amount of irreverence, and it may not fit the brand's image.
- Are there limitations imposed by the nature of the market and/or business? For example, some markets are highly regulated (for example financial services companies). Some strategies that may work for a commercial company may simply be unavailable to such companies.
- What's the nature of the competition? What are the competitors doing, and what strategy is most likely to bring benefits relative to the competition? Determine if there are weaknesses in the competitor's marketing strategy you can exploit.
- Where are the opportunities? Each market space offers different opportunities. Each company has different types of connections and assets you can leverage in putting together a link building plan. For example, perhaps the CEO of the company has a strong personal friendship with a major influencer in their market space.
Deciding the Marketing Mix
Ultimately, there's no simple formula. Picking the right link building mix depends on getting answers to the questions posed above, and brainstorming with the team in charge of marketing the Web site.
For most companies, it won't make sense to pursue every possible opportunity, and it's better to focus on a smaller number of strategies to drive initial success within those strategies, rather than using a shotgun approach.
I like to get a list of the opportunities up on a whiteboard, along with an understanding of the amount of effort (and cost in pursuing the strategy), the potential benefit, and the likelihood of success. This makes it easier to review the benefits and risks of all of the strategies side by side, and it helps when making decisions.
We almost always do some "old fashioned" link building, and get directory links. While these aren't breakout strategies sometimes, this type of basic blocking and tackling will help grow a Web site's traffic.
In addition, don't rush to the conclusion that you can't achieve a breakout for your business using this approach. We've seen that happen many times (for example, five times more relevant traffic).
In addition, I like to evaluate other breakout strategies for each particular business. If old-fashioned link building doesn't offer breakout potential, then it's important to consider other avenues. It's great to help someone grow their traffic by 50 percent, but it's far more interesting to generate large multiples of traffic increases.