If you’re curious on a real-life approach to building links to your ecommerce site, pay close attention to these words of wisdom from guest blogger, and Volusion customer, Nick from Shirts That Go.
Link building is a big buzz word when it comes to SEO, especially for smaller online businesses that are trying to optimize their site on their own. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of cloudiness around this buzz, as the practice of link building can be a lot more time consuming than most entrepreneurs would like it to be.
To help demystify this important SEO practice for you, I’ll first describe what link building is in simple terms. Then, I’ll share some details on what’s worked for us at Shirts That Go. While what worked for me won’t necessarily apply to every site, the underlying principles are the same for all of us.
When I opened my online business, I had no idea about the importance of links or how search engines work. First, know that when I say “links,” I’m talking about links that come to your site from other sites, sometimes referred to as “in links.” Search engines are able to see which sites link to your site. They also have details about how many sites link to your site, what those sites are about and information about what links point to those sites. Search engines use this information to determine how much authority your site has on various topics.
Wait, what does any of this have to do with Chinese Food? Consider the following:
Have you ever stopped at a strip mall to try your luck at a random Chinese Food restaurant? I love Chinese food, but like most anyone else, I’m hesitant to try a new place without hearing a good word from someone I know. So, what if one of your friends tells you that XYZ Chinese is great and that you should eat there? Or, what if all 100 of your Facebook friends told you how great this restaurant is? Even more, what if your favorite movie star raved about that restaurant on Jay Leno the night before? Based on all these outside recommendations, you’re definitely going to check it out, right?
In other words, link building is all about increasing credibility for your website. A search engine’s job is to serve up the best possible “recommendations” for users’ search queries, as determined by highly complex algorithms. One of the biggest factors being considered in this algorithm includes the links coming to a website. Links to your website are to Google as your friends are to you when recommending a restaurant. The more links you have, the more likely your site is seen of high quality and authority.
But what matters most is the quality of these links. Let’s go back to the restaurant analogy. What if you have, say, 20 acquaintances that you just don’t know that well – would their recommendation have a different influence on your decision to test the restaurant? What if a celebrity recommends it? With websites, it’s the same. Links from well-established and trusted sites carry more weight in ranking algorithms than links from lesser sites, and the more topically relevant the linking site, the better.
Over time, you’ll want to increase your site’s authority on the main topic of your site to help improve its ranking potential. Each of your pages will have their own authority to build on, but to keep it simple, let’s focus on your homepage. For example, we sell kids t-shirts. Thus, to improve our own authority, we seek links from sites that talk about apparel and kids clothes. The good news here is that if you have a good product, it should be natural for sites that cover your marketplace to want to link to you.
Starting out, I would aim for something like this:
- Include well-written, informative and unique content about your site’s main topic
- Have links to your homepage from other sites that have a connection to your main topic
- Have links to your homepage from various quality sites that aren’t necessarily related to your main topic
- Ensure that on-page factors are optimized around your main topic
Bottom line here is that, over time, you’ll likely need to get good quality links to your site. How many links you might need will really vary from site to site. Some market segments are more competitive than others. If you’re entering an obscure niche, then with some decent content and just a few links, you may be able to rank well for your top keywords. But if you’re in a highly competitive market, then you might need thousands of quality links to even get on the map.
Ideas to get started with link building
Let’s get started with some ideas for link building.
For us, the best source of links has been blogs. Bloggers are a great place to start with getting the word out about a new product. At first, you won’t need to go to the most prominent blogs in your market. Instead, start with a search for blogs that cover your topic, or things related. Identify a few that you like and start working on your pitch. While bloggers get pitched a lot, they’re always looking for new ideas to talk about or inspire a post. Often, you can earn links back to your site by contributing an article to their blog. Depending upon what you’re selling, you might be able to offer product samples or special discounts to their readers. Working with bloggers is a lot of fun and has become something we do on an ongoing basis.
Caution: Don’t confuse my mention of blogs with “blog commenting.” Another way to get links is by replying to posts on blogs. Many blogs allow this, and often there’s a place to include a link to your site. While these are of some value, don’t abuse them. If there are some blogs you read and contribute to, then it’s fine to have your site link in your profile and replies. However, it’s considered spam if you’re dropping your link in the replies or just posting to blogs for the sole purpose of gaining links. You’ll be very hungry for links when you start out, but don’t rush to get links that aren’t deserved.
Next up is your local media. Local newspaper sites are a great place to get links from. Pitch your local papers and other types of media outlets and expand from there. We haven’t had a ton of media opportunities yet, but of the ones we have obtained resulted in sales and links. (This reminds me that I need to do some pitching!)
Next, start to think about ways your customers can help. If you have an established customer base, you can ask them for mentions on their Facebook pages. We ask all of our customers to help during the checkout process in two ways: 1) we have a Facebook widget that shows folks a sample of our Facebook fans during checkout (this builds instant credibility and aids with conversions) and 2) we include a short message to like us on social media with each order notification.
We’ve also found that by delivering great customer service, good things (e.g. links, tweets, etc.) happen without even asking. Delight your customers with great service and they’ll be glad to serve as a reference or provide a testimonial. If these folks have blogs or other contacts, they’re often glad to help you out.
“Well, Nick, eat your Wheaties! I just posted a shout out about my great experience with you, which will go to my network of more than 18,000 across LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. (See attached- this is just the LinkedIn post) You’ve restored my faith in e-commerce :)”
A few years ago, our best link came about because of the way we handled a problem with a defective product. I was shocked at the way it happened, but it makes sense. One minute I had an angry customer on my hands, then a few days later I had a big fan and a link from the sidebar of her very prominent foodie blog! All I did was let her keep a defective t-shirt and gave her a new one for free. I let her pick another design so she could then have two (the other one just needed a few stitches). In a nutshell, take extremely good care of your customers.
Link building advice for brand new sites
So what if your site has zero links and you want to get some right away? Here are some things you can do to get your site going.
First, know that your site will be crawled and indexed by Google in the first week or so if you set up an account using Google Webmaster Tools and submit your site through their interface. Second, set up your social accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., including a link to your site from each of these. These social accounts give some signals to search engines that your site is actively engaged with your customers and your industry.
Consider your immediate friends and family. Some of these folks may have a blog or site and would likely be willing to link to you. One example from my family is my amazing dad’s blog about his Ironman triathlon training and experiences with an aortic aneurism. Over time the link(s) from his site will become some of my best links due to his efforts as an emerging blogger. Don’t forget your friends and family!
Next, hit some of the free directories (ideally in your vertical) by using a tool like this one from SoloSEO to get a few more links, and, if possible, join some organizations that make sense for your business such, as your local chamber of commerce and the BBB. It will vary for each of you, but there should be at least 10 links you can go get to work on right away before you even start the effort of pitching your story.
Link building pitfalls for you to avoid
In my last article, I listed several pitfalls of SEO for newcomers and will now do the same for link building. Before I get into these pitfalls, here’s a tip: link building is an area where cheating is possible. In other words, if your link building tactics don’t feel right, then they probably aren’t. Make sure you read the Google Webmaster Guidelines and learn all you can from Google and SEOMOZ.
And now for the things you should avoid:
Pitfall #1: Paid Links
For search engines to give good results, they must be able to trust the links that their algorithms are evaluating. Buying links from others, or from sites that sell them, is a way of defeating the very system set up by search engines. Let’s go back to the restaurant analogy again. How would you feel if your 100 friends were paid by the restaurant to give it a positive review? Probably not very good.
Pitfall #2: Mass Directory Listings
You’re sure to find and receive offers to be indexed faster on Google or listed in 10K+ directories in 24 hours for $19.99. Remember that your site will get indexed without doing anything at all, so don’t think you’re missing out when you delete these email offers.
Pitfall #3: Reciprocal Linking
This is the “I will link to you if you link to me” offer. This exchange is similar to paid links in that links gained in this manner are more about gaming the system than earning true links. I do have a few links to vendors and they link to me, but it’s a courtesy and appreciation type of thing. A few such links are ok, but avoid participating in schemes to get links this way.
Pitfall #4: Chasing Google PageRank
As I made progress, I started to focus more and more on Google PageRank, so I would ask folks for sidebar links. As I focused more and more on PageRank, I finally realized that PageRank increases just happen over time, so it’s really not worth focusing on. Consider it to be a “fun” metric, but it doesn’t equate to better results in search or more sales. (About the only thing high PR guarantees is that folks will want to buy links from you, which you don’t want anyway!)
After a while, you’ll get to the point when you no longer think of link building as SEO. In actuality, link building is nothing more than basic marketing and public relations, while being mindful of how search engines work.
I truly hope that this information is helpful to you all. For me, the process of getting the word out about my business is really fun. Learning the SEO aspects just adds even more interest to this great endeavor.
Nick – Shirts That Go!