Going back to my earlier analogy, endorsements from major groups and figures help politicians earn votes more than do endorsements from anonymous individual voters.
In the same way, links from pages and websites that are themselves heavily linked-to (such as BBC.com or WashingtonPost.com) are going to benefit the linked site much more than a link from a hobbyist blog or tiny startup.
In particular, links from government, school, and non-profit websites tend to be particularly powerful, since these are high-trust websites that aren’t going to link to low-trust businesses or scam artists very often.
Websites that earn links from these high-trust, high-authority websites, have a leg up on their competition.
I mentioned the concept of anchor text briefly in the last section about cross-linking pages. Anchor text is the words that make up the link itself: like this.
The text of the link helps provide Google additional context about the topic of the linked page–i.e. what keywords that page should rank for. So links that contain keywords related to what you sell or where you’re located–and even links for your brand name–are going to help you rank more than links using generic terms like “click here” or “read more.”
You have complete control of anchor text on your own website, and you should use it to your advantage. But you don’t really have control over what text people use on other websites.
In general, it’s not the best use of time for local businesses to influence what text others who are linking to them are using. It’s just a ranking factor to be aware of.
Assessing Your Link Profile
In my experience, the tool that gives the most complete picture of a small business’s link profile is aHrefs.
It’s a robust product that provides more information than the average small business needs, but take a free trial and capture a high-level summary of your link profile (most small businesses won’t need to continue usage beyond a day or two).
The key aHrefs numbers are in the top row of the screenshot above: UR, DR, and referring domains. UR and DR refer to Page / Domain Authority, and the number of referring domains is the best heuristic for most local businesses as to how strong their existing link profile is. Click the number under Referring Domains to view a list of the sites that are already linking to you. Are there obvious sites not in that list that should be linking to you? Consider reaching out to them to let them know how much a link would help your business.
During your free trial of aHrefs, I also recommend researching the profiles of the sites that are ranking above you in Google for your target keywords and taking a look at their DR and number of referring domains. In particular, comparing your numbers to your competitors on those two metrics will give you a rough sense of how much linkbuilding work you’ll have to do in order to move the needle on your rankings.
Acquiring Links to Your Website
Google pretends that great content, and great businesses, will naturally acquire links. But for 99.999% of businesses, that’s bad advice. The old saw “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?” applies to content and links.
If you produce great content, but no one’s there to see it, does it acquire links?
The answer is a resounding no–businesses need to be proactive about acquiring links. As long as you follow Eric Ward’s first commandment and acquire links that will actually send you customers, you shouldn’t fear a Google penalty.
Over the years, many local businesses haven’t followed Eric’s advice, have fallen victim to scam artists selling hundreds of links, or have otherwise been too aggressive about acquiring links.
The reality is that, for many businesses, 10-20 high-quality links will lead to top rankings in short order–sustainable rankings will last for years. Take the time to earn these high-quality links and don’t pursue those over-aggressive tactics.
Industry-relevant links are often the easiest links for small business owners to acquire, as many of them simply involve asking your existing contacts at companies or organizations with whom you do business.
Regional/national certification boards and industry organizations
Depending on your industry, you may also be licensed by, or participate in, a regional or national organization.
Don’t just display your certification on your website — link to your business’s online profile on the websites of these certifying boards and industry organizations. This not only increases the credibility of your business to potential customers, but helps Google’s spiders discover and crawl your profile on these highly-trusted sites.
Distributors (directories or announcements)
For those of you who are retailers or eCommerce companies, think about the products that you sell in-store.
Are you unique, or one of the few stores in your local market that carries a particular product? If so, consider asking the manufacturer or distributor of that product for a link from their website, possibly from a “where to buy” directory.
At the very least these companies should partner with you on a press release–containing a link to your website–to announce to their customers (and Google!) where people can buy their product in your area.
Are there particular vendors from whom you purchase a lot of goods or services? Ask them if you can contribute a testimonial to their website, and if they really appreciate your business, that testimonial will contain a link back to your site.
You probably have colleagues in related industries to whom you refer business, and from whom you’re referred business, all the time.
Make sure these referral relationships are represented online, in the form of links, so that Google knows that your businesses vouch for each other just as you do in the offline world.
Interviews and guest columns
Getting featured in a trade publication is not only a great driver of business–especially referral business– but can provide a powerful link back to your website. These links are a little more difficult to acquire, as they require building a relationship with authors or influencers in your industry.
To get started, see if a friend can make an introduction on your behalf to one of these key columnists — use LinkedIn to search for 2nd- or 3rd-level connections at publications where you want to get exposure, and see if your existing connections might be willing to make an introduction for you.
Charities—or schools—to which you’ve donated money or goods, or volunteered with
Many of you, and perhaps many of your employees, are likely involved in local charities on non-profit organizations. These links are highly-valued by Google, as charities tend to be trusted institutions in the offline world as well as online.
You want to make sure your involvement is acknowledged online. As my friend Mike Blumenthal likes to say, “You don’t need a thank-you from the executive director. You don’t need a plaque. If they really want to thank you for your involvement, they’ll give you a link from their website.”
Local business and neighborhood associations
Are you a member of your local chamber of commerce, business association, or neighborhood association? Most groups like these operate a member directory, and you want to make sure that directory is online, visible to the public, and to Google’s spiders. If the websites of these groups are not showing up in your aHrefs backlink profile, bring up the issue with the director or marketing manager of these associations and ask them to put up a webpage that links to each member.
Groups for whom you host events at your physical location
Maybe not during the COVID pandemic, but once things return to normal, hosting events for outside groups is one of the lowest-cost, lowest-work linkbuilding initiatives you can undertake.
Chances are good that the business or group hosting the event at your business will link to your website’s contact/directions page when they post their invitation online.
Someone else is doing your linkbuilding for you — and who knows–some of the attendees may even turn into customers!
Interviews and guest columns
Local publications like newspapers and alternative weeklies or monthlies are terrific places to get your business featured.
And the chances may be better, especially in smaller towns or tightly-knit neighborhoods, that a friend of a friend may work at one of these companies.
To get started, see if a friend can make an introduction on your behalf to one of these key columnists — use LinkedIn or even Facebook to search for 2nd- or 3rd-level connections at publications where you want to get exposure, and see if your friends or neighbors might be willing to make an introduction for you.
More on Links
You can truly go crazy with linkbuilding, and there are entire companies and agencies devoted entirely to this niche within SEO.
It’s probably not the highest and best use of your time as a small business owner, or even a small business marketer. But it is important that every business have a reasonable link foundation underpinning their other marketing initiatives.
Here are three amazing resources for those of you wanting to take an even deeper dive into linkbuilding:
- The aforementioned aHrefs has published this excellent guide on the discipline their company was founded to help master.
- Phil Rozek has a terrific series of questions you can ask yourself to identify what easy link opportunities might be available to you.
- ZipSprout is a great product that helps you identify non-profits who recognize supporters and volunteers online.
Any content you create should be shared with customers and colleagues who have signed up to receive updates from you. It sounds obvious, but only half of small businesses are sending a regular email newsletter!
In addition to being the primary channel through which your customers want to hear from you, done well and done regularly, email newsletters lead to direct sales and positive affinity for your brand amongst your subscribers.
And you never know who’ll subscribe to your newsletter — sometimes they might be great cross-promotional partners, offer opportunities for interviews or other commentary, or just plain ol’ fans of your business who want to spread the word about you amongst their own networks.
Most SEO experts feel that posting on social media has, at best, a minimal direct effect on your organic rankings in Google.
But journalists and bloggers are people, too 😂, and they’re probably browsing and searching Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn for story ideas.
An active social media account, particularly one that gets shared, liked, commented on dozens of times by your customers, might lead to additional exposure for your business down the road.