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Manual Link Building Is Hard, But There Are No Shortcuts To Value

Link building is hard work. Allow me to clarify that: Building legitimate links that have genuine value in search is hard work. Some folks don’t have patience for that hard work, so they turn to alternative means to acquire links.

Sometimes they simply do ineffective work. Sometimes they seek links from junk sites that accept any link request they receive. And sometimes they cheat. They might pay a fee to have link farms link back to them en masse or they might create their own network of low-to-no value sites for the sole purpose of having them all link back to the primary site.

The phenomenon of shortcutting the hard work of link building is not limited to overburdened webmasters, either. I know of an ecommerce business whose audience is nationwide who paid top-dollar for an accomplished SEO agency to do, among other things, a link-building campaign.

Unfortunately, that link-building campaign consisted of nothing more than submitting the client site’s homepage URL to hundreds upon hundreds of useless junk directories, including directories whose themes were completely orthogonal to the client site’s target audience and directories designed to serve a specific, limited geographical (local) audience (outside of the company’s place of business). It would have been laughable if it had not been so expensive.

Think about this: if all you have to do is submit a link request to a directory site to get the backlink, it’s likely to be a very low-quality directory.

So who’s to judge whether or not it’s low quality? The search engines.

Google and Bing spend a great deal of time looking for legitimate and meaningful ways to stack rank sites against one another. Getting tons of irrelevant junk links is easy, pretty much brainless work, and your efforts in that task will be rewarded accordingly (i.e. not much at all).

It’s the hard tasks, like creating great content, that carry far more weight with the search engines. That’s what separates a great site from its mediocre competitors.

Link Authority

The common mistake here is in thinking that a link is a link is a link. That’s simply not true.

Think about a political campaign. If you were running for a seat on your town council, would an endorsement from the mayor be helpful? How about from your state’s US Senator? Maybe even your governor? How about an endorsement from your socially awkward and shy neighbor who just moved onto your street who’s pretty much anonymous to everyone else? Do you think each of these endorsements carry the same weight, the same power of influence, with the voters? Not likely.

Search engines use this metaphor to measure the value of inbound links, which are considered to be endorsements of the linked site by the linking site. Getting an inbound link from a site that is relevant to your site’s niche in the web is important. Getting an inbound link from a relevant site that is a trusted influencer or seen as an authority of that niche is very important.

No Shortcuts To Value

To get those high quality links, there really are no shortcuts. You can wait for them to happen organically based on your site’s great content. However, you’ll likely be better served by seeking them out proactively.

I recently worked with a recent client who had a decent site, moderately optimized for search, but more importantly, they manufactured and sold top-quality products. My audit of their site revealed they had fewer backlinks than any of their top online competitors, yet they had the second best Domain Authority scores according to the Competitive Domain Analysis in the SEOmoz PRO’s Link Analysis tool.

That was reflected in their good (but not great) placement in the SERPs. They certainly didn’t need 20,000 more junk links. They just needed a few more really high quality links to solidify their standing in the SERPs.

Link Brainstorm Time

I went to an inspirational session at the MozCon conference in July. The speaker was the charismatic Wil Reynolds of SEER Interactive (an amazing guy who clearly loves his work!). In his session, he talked about manual link building ideas. One of his proposals was to solicit backlinks from .EDU domains.

According to Wil, educational institutions commonly publish informative academic work, which has high value to searchers, and thus high value to search engines (more so, generically speaking, than .COM, .ORG, and .NET-based domains). Wil suggested that companies actively seek these backlinks by donating items to a school club or student organization for a fundraiser activity in exchange for a backlink acknowledging the source of the donation. It’s a cool idea, it’s factual (there was a donation made), and it’s legit.

Let’s say your business manufactures and sells gourmet seasoning products. You can easily take Wil’s strategy to the next level.

How? By improving the relevance factor.

In this case, you could do link building with culinary schools whose URLs use the .EDU top-level domain rather than just any school using the .EDU domain.

Surely these schools would appreciate a donation of top-quality, gourmet ingredients for use in their vocational training programs. Getting a backlink from a culinary school would be incredibly relevant to a gourmet ingredients manufacturer. And as a bonus, if the faculty and/or the students like the products, they might be compelled to write about them (with a link out to your site) in a school-sponsored blog, giving you additional links from the .EDU domains.

As a second bonus, a donation of relevant product to a school is a smart, long-term investment in the product’s brand name. The people receiving the donations (the school faculty) are incredibly influential to the world of culinary professionals. Those they are influencing are about to start their careers in the big culinary world, which is growing ever-more online savvy (between foodie blogs, restaurant websites, and in all types of media, including social media, but also television and print).

Search Them Out

So that’s a cool idea, but how does one find these types of schools? The information is at your fingertips  – use search! Run a Google or Bing query formed as follows:

site:edu culinary OR cooking

All of the sites listed in the resulting SERP are .EDU domains that are relevant to the keywords culinary or cooking. This is your starting raw data. Begin manually collecting unique school names (in which you verify that the school actually offers a culinary training program rather than just hosts a culinary dinner as a fundraiser or possesses historical culinary documents in their library).

When collecting the verified data, note the school’s official name, the school’s mailing address, the URL of the culinary department, the name of the culinary school dean or program director, as well as his or her official job title, email address and phone number. There’s gold in that data!

You should also prioritize the sites list, based on the school’s Domain Authority (or equivalent) scores, so you approach the schools with the most authoritative sites first (you want to use your marketing budget most effectively) and ramp up the program in phases (going down your list) until you hit your donation budget limits.

Next, figure out what you can afford to donate, and what each link is worth to you. From a school’s perspective, a $10 product donation is likely not worth pursuing. You need to make it worthwhile. I’m not advocating that you bankrupt your marketing budget on just a few schools, however.

Luckily, since your donation is in product you manufacturer, the real cost of the donation to you is much lower than the product’s retail price. Be sure to remember that in your level of generosity, but also calculate what the retail value is to entice the school to accept your donation. Always keep in mind what the recipient needs, not what overstock or seconds junk inventory you have that you can easily donate.

Reach Out

Once your prioritized list is made, you need to solicit the schools’ interest in your offer. You can reach out to the school’s program chair through email, a postal letter, or even a phone call, whatever works best for you.

As with any manual link building exercise, there’s no doubt a sizable percentage of the people you attempt to contact will either never get back to you or will not accept your offer.

But if you present your offer as an opportunity for you to contribute back to the community (the same community in which your business operates!), and all you ask for in return for your donation is a link back to your website from a page on their .EDU-based site that simply acknowledges the donation (they may already have such a page in place!), you’ll get a decent response. It may not hurt to follow up an initial email a week or two later with a letter or a phone call, either!.

Giving you a link is easy for them to do, your donation saves them scarce funds for other needed supplies, and it gives the chef faculty and students access to top-quality gourmet ingredients from which to taste, learn, and enjoy. It’s a big win for everyone.

You don’t need to be a gourmet ingredients manufacturer to benefit from this line of thinking. Who is the target audience for your products or services? Might there be an academic group, be it a academic department, a school club, or other campus-related organization, that is directly relevant to that market? Can you afford to make numerous, worthwhile product donations?

The concept is the same, regardless of the business niche you’re in. Just look for target relevance, and then support that community. But always ask for the backlink. You won’t automatically get them otherwise. Not everyone out in the big world (outside of the SEO world) understands how important these are to a web-based business.

Sure, running a manual link building campaign this way is hard. It takes time, patience and budget (not to mention creativity). But the links you earn from relevant, high authority sites will be of such high value to your site’s page rank that the extra time and effort invested will certainly pay dividends.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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