Links: Cheaper and Better Than Banners

If you decided to follow my advice from last week and set out topical bait online, the next thing you want to do is get it linked like heck. Once you’ve chosen an appealing topic, filled your piece with meaty content, and kept self-promotion to no more than 10 percent of the file, you should be able to arrange free links with a lot of effort but no monetary outlay. Here’s how I’ve done it.

The obvious, head-on type of link campaign involves visiting a search engine, plunking in the keywords that would index your bait piece, and screening the sites that turn up, selecting those likely to be receptive to a link request. You’re best bet is noncommercial information sites trying to offer comprehensive links to quality resources in your topic area. For linking to your bait piece, forget brochure sites of companies and professional firms unless they include sizable link directories.

Because this method forces you to screen out so many poor candidates for links, I recommend a more backhanded technique. First, I identify a well-established site or page containing substantive bait that targets the very audience I would like to reach. By “well-established,” I mean something from a respected source that has been on the web for at least a year — the longer the better. Then I perform a link search to hone in on sites that have linked to the well-established site’s bait.

For instance, when looking for sites to link to my resources for freelance writers, I sifted through those linking to Inkspot, which predated me on the web by a couple of years. When looking for link candidates in the solo-professional category for my marketing and publicity resources, I performed a link search on predecessor Working Solo.

Several of the major search engines make a link search easy to do. For example, at GO.com, if I wanted to find which sites link to the ClickZ Forum, I would type into the search box: +link:clickzforum.com -site:clickzforum.com. This asks GO.com to find all pages linking to clickzforum.com, except pages within the ClickZ Forum domain itself.

You can also use free-standing services set up for precisely this kind of search, such as LinkPopularity.com, which provides easy access to the links turned up by AltaVista, HotBot, and GO.com.

Once you’ve identified sites you consider likely to add a link to yours, how should you approach them? I’m not a big fan of a “you link me, I’ll link you” overture. To me, that implies that your site lacks intrinsic value and that you have to add an incentive to become worthy of the link. Also, you’ll often find sites you don’t want to link to (because they’re amateur looking or contain nothing distinctive, for instance) but still want links from. Instead, I tell the webmaster or site owner that I’m writing to tell him or her about a new resource on (the topic you’ve written about) that would make his or her list of links even more valuable or more comprehensive.

If you are creating a master list of topical links for your own site, it works well to say that you’ve linked to them and would they consider a link in return. This makes most people curious enough to check out your site and reciprocate when appropriate.

Make sure your link request is patently personal, a genuine one-to-one message. And instead of merely providing a URL that you invite them to check out, provide the title of your bait piece and say something about its value to their site visitors. Something in the format of a press release or any kind of carbon-copy message will definitely not yield the results you want. Eric Ward’s article “What Your Link Request Should Contain and Why” contains additional suggestions for your link request.

I have to admit that even with the strategy outlined above, the quest for links is tedious and slow. Don’t even get started with it unless you feel relaxed and have a long evening ahead of you. You’ll encounter frequent frustration when you find a perfect link candidate and comb the site in vain for the webmaster or site owner’s email address or, indeed, any contact information at all.

Above all, remember that links to your bait piece are not the end in themselves. You’ve installed your bait within your site so that any inbound link to your information piece stimulates readers who find it valuable to explore the rest of your site and buy your products or, better still, sign on as clients. And that’s the real goal of all this work!

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