Want your company’s website to rank higher on Google?  There are 2 main categories of search engine optimization: things you do on your website and things you do off your website.

“On site” SEO focuses on creating keyword-rich content and optimizing “under the hood” factors.  It’s the more important type of SEO but also the more difficult–especially if you don’t like to write or can’t easily make changes to your site.  If that sounds like you, start with basic link building–the most common type of “off site” SEO.

Simply put, link building refers to getting other websites to link to you. It goes without saying that these “incoming” links are great because they drive direct traffic to your website.  But they’re also great for SEO.  That’s because another site linking to you is the equivalent of saying “I think your site is relevant on this topic.”

In the eyes of Google, these links become ‘votes of confidence’ for your site.  The more votes your site gets from other quality sites, the more relevant Google thinks your site is, and the better they rank you as a result.

The most basic way to build links is to identify and contact sites that already link to sites like yours. For best results, follow these 5 steps.

1. Develop a generic message that you can adapt for contacting different sites, which will save you a lot of time down the road. In your request, include:

  • a short description of your business
  • your site’s URL and where on the other site a link to you would fit best (e.g. “resources” section)
  • your contact information
  • links to any press coverage, awards, or other sources that add credibility

2. Create a spreadsheet for keeping track of the sites you contact. Include columns for:

  • the site name and URL
  • the date you contacted the site
  • the way to contact the site owner or webmaster–typically email or a Contact Us form
  • a “Status” column in which you can indicate whether or not a link is live

3. Now you’re ready to start looking for sites to ask for links. Search for relevant local and national online directories. For instance, when link building for a client who owns a chain of fitness centers, we looked for gym directories focusing on the U.S. and the state and region in which the chain is located. Be sure to check out DMOZ, the web’s largest directory, to see if there’s a category for your industry.

Look also for sites that provide resource lists for a geographical area or industry. For example, the owner of a cake bakery in Chicago should search on phrases such as “cake bakery Chicago,” “Illinois cake bakery” and “cake bakery directory” to identify appropriate websites.

Remember to check the quality of a site before submitting a link request. Is it a reputable, authoritative website that has pages relevant to your industry?  For the bakery, one link from About.com’s directory of Chicago bakeries is worth more than hundreds of links from unrelated blogs.

Also keep in mind that some sites will only link to you if you also link to them (a “link exchange”). Do this only if they’re truly a good fit on your site; relevance is often not a two-way street. Other sites will only link to you if you pay them. Treat this as advertising, not link building, as paid links carry much less weight with search engines.

4. Adapt your generic message for each site you plan on contacting and enter the contact date into your spreadsheet each time you send a request. Some sites will not add your link right away because the request will first be reviewed by the webmaster, owner or a directory editor. So, revisit your spreadsheet every few weeks and check on the status of any links whose status is not yet marked off as live.

5. Finally, if you use Google Analytics or another web analytics platform, head to the “referring sites” or “referrer visits” section of your traffic report. Pretty soon, the sites that have included your URL should begin showing up in the referrer list, along with the number of visits that each sent to your site.

This basic approach to link building is a great way to boost your Google rankings. But an even better way to increase your site’s incoming links is by simply creating great content that others will naturally want to link to. We’ll cover how you can do this in a future article.