What is the hardest task in search engine optimization? Whether the question is asked in a formal poll, on an online forum or over a cup of coffee, the answer most commonly given is “link building.” With good reason: an external link, by definition, is something outside an SEOs immediate realm of control. External link building requires strategic focus, a large commitment of time and effort, and no small amount of creativity and resourcefulness.
The existence of an in-house SEO program does not lessen the importance of link building or obviate the need for a well-thought out and well-executed link development strategy.
There is an in-house advantage, however, in terms of available resources. While those resources might include specialist SEO support or a link-building budget, even a lone SEO without a dollar to spare will almost always have access to link building partners throughout the organization.
Link building essentials for internal partners
Virtually any member of your organization whose work activity involves interaction with external websites is a potential link building partner. Take time to sit down with individuals or representatives of different departments to help identify potential link development opportunities.
Start off by ensuring that your potential link building partners have a basic understanding of linking mechanics, and the best practices for creating optimized links.
Without getting unnecessarily technical, it is important you identify the difference between direct links and those throttled by the nofollow attribute or a redirect (the difference between a 302 and 301 redirect falls into the “unnecessarily technical” category; provide the rule of thumb that if the URL displayed on a mouse-over is different than the URL returned after clicking, the site probably does not offer good linking opportunities.) Without this information, well-intentioned colleagues may pursue valueless link placements.
Also ensure you explain the concept of anchor text optimization, including the value of varying anchor text when linking to the same page from multiple locations, and that linking using a URL as the anchor text is less than optimal. Touch on the potential value of hyperlinked images, where the alt attribute assumes the role of a text anchor.
Roles and departments with link building potential
Bloggers, copywriters and other wordsmiths are obvious candidates in the quest for external links. Ensure that any of their company-sponsored writings on external websites include optimized and spiderable links back to your target site or sites.
Encourage them to serve as guest bloggers, or otherwise contribute content to other sites, if necessary helping to facilitate these opportunities. Many sites are hungry for well-written, relevant content and will gladly allow one or two outbound links to be embedded in a post or article, especially if you are able to offer that content at no cost.
Media planners and buyers can be encouraged to include, or at least explore, direct links to the site as a component of advertising deals. These may either augment indirect advertising links (such as banners) or bundle linking opportunities into a traditional media buy, such as securing a link from a radio station’s website, in addition to the radio spot itself.
As the individual responsible for search marketing initiatives you must, of course, determine to which degree you think such placements might be considered paid links, and the degree to which you are willing to expose yourself to possible search engine penalties for employing such tactics.
The subject of deriving link value from affiliate partnerships could easily be the subject of a separate article, if not a fairly lengthy treatise. Suffice it to say that a company is not doomed to write off the SEO value of affiliate links because of tracking requirements that usually involve 302 redirects, parameterized URLs, or both.
It is possible, particularly if the technical portion of an affiliate program is administered in-house, to use a combination of cookies and 301 redirects to create SEO-friendly affiliate links. Aside from this, affiliates with whom you enjoy a good and profitable relationship can often be persuaded to include direct links to your site from locations that are not a source of substantial monetized traffic. Again, only you can judge whether this crosses the paid link divide and, if so, if this is a divide you are willing to cross.
The link potential of PR
Whether your PR efforts are outsourced or supported by in-house resources, do not ignore this important source of potential links. At the very least, every press release should contain at least one well-optimized link. This is particularly true when a service is used for digital press release distribution, providing you with complete control over the link targets and anchors used in the release.
Your PR person may have close relationships with bloggers, journalists or other influencers. Encouraging your PR specialist to leverage those relationships can result in extremely lucrative links to your site. In many instances, a media source needs merely to have an optimized link included in material destined for digital publishing, something you can help facilitate by ensuring your PR person appreciates the value of external linking.
Social media and the evolving link landscape
The social media space is probably emerging as the most important source of link development opportunities. When social media is defined narrowly as “social networks” this may seem counter-intuitive, as most links that appear in social networking sites are throttled either by the use of the nofollow attribute or rewrites.
Propagation of links in any capacity, however, can still end up with direct links being built to your site: the greater the number of links that appear on social networks, the greater the chance that they will end up as direct links on blogs, vertical directories, forums and other spiderable locations.
Social media mentions are, in any case, emerging as the “new links.” It is uncertain to which degree social media citations may already be a factor in search engine ranking algorithms, or what part they may play in the future.
It seems increasingly likely, however, that the search engine authority model that has traditionally relied on links as “votes” for the quality of websites will, in one form or another, accord ballot status to social media citations as well. These socially generated links are certainly already making an impact in real-time search verticals, and in the results of searches conducted on social networking sites themselves.
To this end, it is obviously it is important to ensure that the material on your site can be easily shared and ideally, that what you offer is worthy of sharing. It is also important that you make it easy and attractive for users to link back to content that they have generated on your site, such as blog comments and product reviews.
In many cases, SEO is also the department in charge of social media marketing: needless to say, such an arrangement goes a long way in ensuring your social media effort strategy supports external link development.
Company-wide link building
In aggregate, employees of the company may have a presence on a large number of websites that are potential link sources. These can include personal blogs, personal or commercial websites and profile pages. Even in the absence of education on link building, ensure employees understand the importance of links, and the benefits of linking back to their company’s website. If you conduct SEO training or information sessions, this is an excellent “by-the-way” slide to include at some point in your presentation.
Executives may be a source of especially valuable linking locations. Do officers or others in your company hold university positions, teach courses or belong to professional organizations?
If so, they may have highly relevant profiles, presentations, or course outlines residing on .edu or .org sites that can be leveraged for links. In many cases, such pages already contain unlinked references to their company.
There are, of course, other strategies than can and should be employed to create links to your site. In the context of an in-house SEO program chief among these strategies is a dedicated link building program, either run by internal SEO specialists or contractors working with SEO oversight.
However, either to augment other strategies or as a jumping-off point for your link development efforts, do not neglect the potential link builders already available in your organization.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.