Link-Building Vs. Relationship-Building

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In the short but eventful history of search engine marketing, link-building has been touted as the key to the holy grail of high page rank; subsequently it has become one of the most abused and ineffective strategies in all of SEM. Black-hat tactics abound, with automated “bots” being used to create bogus online identities and flood forums and comment system with links. Unscrupulous SEM services offer get-popular-quick schemes which may temporarily boost search rank, but violate the terms of most search engines and put you at risk of being banned entirely. In addition, this type of behavior it reflects badly on your brand, and is ultimately ineffective in building a real audience or customer base. The key to that kind of success is relevant, meaningful inbound links that bring not only high page rank scores, but interested new readers or prospects. And the key to that is relationship-building.

It starts with the Pitch

Jeff Pulver wrote a brilliant piece about how to pitch a blogger, which reads in part:

I enjoy hearing from my friends about new products and services that excite them. This is one of the ways I discover new things. But solicitations from PR professionals who are total strangers to me generally come across like spam.

Now, Jeff’s article goes on to detail a very long and involved process for connecting with him, which can be looked upon as the gold standard of reaching out to an influential individual.

Jeff goes on to say:

“Get to know your target (me)”

Read my Bio. Get a feeling of what I’m about.
Read my Blog posts. Try to get to know me.
Join in the conversations on my blog.
Follow me on twitter – Follow me on Friend Feed.  Comment and establish yourself.
Friend me on Facebook and say something.
Email me and introduce yourself. Ask questions.

By engaging in the above, you are sending me a meta message. That you care enough about what you are doing to make the effort to get to know Me. That to you, I am not just a name on a call sheet but someone who you want to build a relationship with. And this in turn will result in the establishment of a new node in our social networks.

Now, the problem with this advice is that when it applies to someone who is already extremely popular is that you have to fight through a fairly massive crowd for a chance at establishing that relationship – Mr. Pulver has close to 400,000 followers on Twitter, and he follows over 36,000 back. This is still good, sound advice, of course, and you should definitely keep this in mind as you seek to establish beneficial relationships. The main problem with this approach is that it requires a large up-front investment of time, and may not be practical in terms of ROI.

Taking a Wider Approach

Fortunately, there are ways to conduct a more cost-effective outreach campaign, based on creating and sharing useful “linkbait” with like-minded sites, and going from there. This approach offers both the short-term benefits of quickly accumulating some relevant inbound links, and an opportunity to make more lasting connections in the course of reaching out.

  • Have something to offer: put yourself in the position of most professional (or seriously influential hobbyist) bloggers out there. Chances are they spend at least a portion of each day staring down an empty text box, or clicking through their RSS feed, searching for an idea for a post. What do they want? Content! Blog fodder! When do they want it? Well, pretty much always. If you have something to share with them that will help them fill that text box, you’ve opened the door to the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Don’t just copy and paste your pitch – it’s OK to use a basic template that encapsulates what you have to say, but do take a few moments to have a look around their site. Pay particular attention to how they offer their contact information, and whether their “about me” page contains any rants about how much they hate getting random email pitches, or sets out certain rules of
  • In your email signature, give your contact information, including a phone number. In all likelihood no one will call you, but it does give your request a little more legitimacy; it shows you are not just a human spam bot with a throw-away email, but rather a serious potential alliance.
  • Depending on the type of site, they may not respond to your email directly – but a site that has a contact link for “tips” may just use or link to your content, so do follow up after a day or so to check.  If you’ve been linked to, drop a friendly comment, bookmark this site in your RSS feed reader, and make a point to visit again.

The goal here is to establish a regular pattern of interaction and a friendly exchange of links. As with any relationship, this takes some effort on your maintenance on your part.

Taking it to the Next Level

Once you have made these initial connections, it’s time to get organized. Consistency is the key to solid, long-term link relationships, and a good RSS reader is an important part of this. You should, of course, follow, friend, and/or become a fan on social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, but at the core of a mutually beneficial link relationship is keeping up with what your connections are posting on their blogs. Set aside some time every day, say a half an hour in the morning and evening, to check the feeds. You are looking for opportunities to contribute comments, share your friends’ posts socially, and perhaps create a blog response linking to them. Moderation is important here, excessive linking can damage search engine ranking.

If you see that sites you reached out to have linked to you, be sure to respond. You want to be very pro-active about reciprocating and thanking them, reinforcing and encouraging further interactions. This may sound very deliberate and even calculated, but when done properly it should feel a little warm and fuzzy; though these relationships are being conducted primarily through electronic channels, they are ultimately very human connections.

In the early stages of a mutually beneficial linking relationship, you should explore extending the connections to other social platforms, which offer additional opportunities to be supportive and cross-promote. A good multi-platform app like TweetDeck can help you stay on top of activity on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other services. You can also create specific lists in Tweet Deck, or even filter posts using keywords to prioritize notifications, so you stay current on your most important connections without being inundated by constant chatter.

You can also customize your notifications, which can be very distracting – I recommend either turning the audible notifications and popups off, or setting an interval of 15 minutes or longer between them. You want to be responsive, but avoid being completely overwhelmed. Alternatively, you can schedule several “social hours” during the day, and devote that time to catching up with everyone, or even use social time to reward yourself when tasks are completed.

Social Graces

There is sometimes a tendency to become overly comfortable in a relationship, and let your manners slip. Comfort is good, but in professional online social situations, it’s a good idea to always be mindful of proper etiquette. Vadim Lavrusik has an excellent article on Twitter Etiquette, outlining important rules that can be applied across most social platforms.

It’s amazing how many words are devoted to describing the behavior of users on a site that limits their posts to 140 characters. In his article, Vadim lists 10 commandments and his readers submitted an additional 12 that he deemed worthy of inclusion, a clear sign that there is a need for all of us, no matter what level of experience, stop and take a look at our online social behavior. It’s not necessary, or even possible, to avoid triggering everyone’s pet peeves, but it is important to make a conscious effort to minimize these annoyances.

It’s worth noting that 4 of the 12 additional contributions to the list involved the use of automated services.  A few years ago, I found myself abusing these auto-posting services, and noticed that I was overloading my various social streams, so I created a chart to track what was auto-updating where:

Shortly after that, I concluded that I needed to turn off almost all the auto-updates in the interest of being less noisy (and more considerate). One of the biggest challenges facing any social networker is sifting through the noise to get to the important stuff – the last thing any of us needs to do is create so much noise that we drown out (or dilute) our own important content. And in order to build and maintain valuable relationships with fellow online content providers and networkers, we need to be on our very best behavior.

Networking Relationships: It’s Complicated

The advent of online social networking added several new layers of complexity to the already challenging landscape of human interaction. Establishing and nurturing mutually beneficial linking relationships takes a lot of effort, but the difference in results compared with the outdated concept of high-volume link-building is significant and very worthwhile. There are still SEO/SEM practitioners who advocate or use quick and easy tricks to “get your links on thousands of sites” but that strategy is not only ineffective, it can be downright dangerous. Google’s guidelines are very clear on this subject:

Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:

  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)

The best protection you have against being found in violation of these rules is to cultivate genuine relationships which elevate not only your page rank, but your whole brand’s perceived value.