Giant sequoia at Mariposa Grove, Yosemite (photo by JD Lasica)
Tips on optimizing your online presence by building links & making your content more valuable
Guest post by Rand Fishkin
I‘ve gotten to spend some time recently with folks who run small, personal blogs. Many of them have asked me whether SEO, in particular link building, is an activity they can take on to help grow their online presence.
I sympathize with the challenges – from reading many of the guides and posts about link building, you could be forgiven for feeling “in over your head” or that “only real businesses can do this kind of stuff.”
This post is intended to provide answers specifically targeted to organizations and individuals running their own blog, personally or semi-professionally, on how to engage in activities that will draw in links from other sites and grow your potential to rank in the search engines.
Generic directories aren’t your best bet
1Thinking of spending a few dozen or a couple hundred dollars on a generic directory listing like Yahoo! or Best of the Web? For personal bloggers, my advice would be to save your money. These directory listings may provide some small amount of value, but there are dozens of different activities you could engage in that cost less or have higher return on investment. Generics are also extremely unlikely to send you direct traffic, and what’s more, Yahoo! only lists 46 personal blogs now; it might be hard to make the cut.
Even directories like the long-neglected Open Directory Project have such long wait times, tough criteria and poor acceptance rates that it’s barely worth submitting these days. There may be a few exceptions here and there, but on the whole, I’d urge personal bloggers to shy away from large, subject-agnostic directory sites.
Note: These generics may make sense for larger operations and sites, depending on your goals.
Niche blog listing sites can be much more effective
2Don’t give up on directories or listing sites entirely. For personal blogs, particularly those with a targeted niche, there are a lot of good places to create listings or fill out a submission form. For example, here are some blogs in specific niches I’d encourage you to check out. You can find these types of sites quite easily through searches, but looking at the link profiles of other blogs in your niche that perform well in the search rankings can also provide a lot of value.
- Geography specific
- Travel blogs
- Technology blogs
- Crafting blogs
- Law enforcement blogs
You can use search queries like “niche+blogs,” “niche+bloggers,” “niche+blogs+list” at Google or Bing or try Yahoo! Site Explorer or Open Site Explorer – plug in the blogs you’re most jealous of (or most similar to) and you’ll often find a few dozen to a few hundred opportunities.
A few well-targeted searches can reveal hundreds of link opportunities
3Finding quality, targeted directories and lists can be a good start, and may bring traffic as well as better search rankings, but if you get creative with your searches, you’ll often find even more specific and sometimes valuable opportunities. Think of these queries on three levels: overall blog topic (similar to the suggestion above), category theme (of or related to one of your primary, consistent topic areas) and post-specific (related to an individual piece you’ve authored or are considering writing).
For category themes, you’ll want to identify a particularly strong category focus on your site. For example, my wife has a collection of posts about air travel, and could find opportunities for links specifically to this section or posts in them using queries like air travel blogs suggest or air travel resources. Don’t give up if you don’t find opportunities on the first page of results. Dig deep. It’s often where you’ll find the best opportunities.
You can also use this tactic on individual posts – particularly those that tackle important, controversial or high-demand topics – the kind that fit nicely into resource collection lists.
Once you have a few posts or categories in mind, leverage link searches from this SEOmoz list, this one from SEJournal or this one from SELand. You can also use the Link Acquisition Assistant from Labs and this free tool from SoloSEO to help.
Answer questions in online forums / Q+A sites
4When you participate positively in online forums, it often sends referrals to your site from those who check out your profile. Many of these are nofollow (meaning they don’t pass link value in the search engines’ eyes – more on this here), but the traffic you receive from those who ask the questions or who find value in your response can be useful – and earn you links.
As an example, for the past six months, I’ve been answering a question or two each week on Quora, a relatively new but well-regarded Q+A site focused on technology and startups. My answers page shows that I’ve left 77 total answers since April (~11/month) and you can see the impact that has had on traffic back to SEOmoz:
While not stellar, it has been building as the site grows and the answers get indexed by search engines and seen by more people. For personal bloggers, spending a few hours each month contributing to 5-10 relevant Q+A sites or forums can have a substantive impact on your traffic and on links that you generate inside your community. It’s a great way to interact with those who, otherwise, might never stumble across your site.
Some of the broad Q+A sites I recommend looking at include:
- LinkedIn Answers (particularly if you have a professional focus)
- Yahoo! Answers (depends on your topic – some areas are very low quality)
- Wiki Answers (gets good search traffic, but a less active intra-community population)
- Facebook Questions (very new, but big possibilities for the future)
- Askville (from Amazon, generic, but large and well trafficked)
- Quora (the above mentioned startup – currently has a tech/valley bent, but is growing and expanding fast)
Of course, you’ll also want to identify niche and subject-specific sites where contributions can be made. A good example starting point would be something like StackExchange’s list of Q+A sites on their platform or using a list of communities (e.g. ODP’s Math Chats & Forums).
Submit your best work to relevant social portals
5If you have posts that you feel are especially brilliant, interesting and potentially “viral” (meaning lots of web visitors will want to share them with others once they’ve seen it), there are a number of portals that can help drive traffic and attention through social “voting” or editorial review. A relatively good list is here, but I’ll also tackle some specific examples:
- Kirtsy – a niche social site focused on fashion, arts, style and family.
- Care2 News – one of the most popular niche social voting sites on nonprofit, environmental and societal stories
- Hacker News – a very popular community around startups, technology and entrepreneurship
- Subreddits – Reddit has grown to become one of the most trafficked social sites on the web, and they have categories (aka “subreddits”) for many topics
Just be aware that submissions should be carefully considered. If you spam these types of sites with everything you write or even a few inconsistent or irrelevant pieces, you can be banned, downvoted or simply shunned by the other contributors/voters. The best way to know what to submit vs. not is to read the site’s top pieces regularly and get a feel for what’s appropriate.
Use Twitter (and possibly Facebook + StumbleUpon) on every post
6While you should be cautious about submitting every piece you write to social voting sites, there are fewer reasons to hold yourself back from promoting everything your post on Twitter, Facebook and StumbleUpon. In fact, may of your fans, friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook may be surprised and disappointed if they don’t see a stream of your latest content through those channels. While subscribing via RSS or email are still quite popular, many folks use Twitter or FB as a way to keep up with your content.
I do strongly recommend that if you’re sharing via Twitter (in particular) that you use a url shortener like bit.ly that captures and displays click-through data so you can measure an improve (see my blog post on Twitter click-through rate for a more in-depth analysis of that issue).
StumbleUpon is bit different in that you earn traffic from it based on the ratio of visits to “thumbs up” received by those seeing your work. However, unlike a Reddit, Hacker News or Digg, there’s no stigma or restriction on thumbing up / submitting every post you create. Providing a good, relevant description and careful categorization is a must, and there may be cases where the type of site you’re running just doesn’t have the relevance to SU’s audience. But, in many cases, regular post submission, at least on the top 50 percent of your work, can make good sense and drive very nice traffic. SU gets smart about your site, their users and the tagging/categorization system, sending only those visitors who have some interest in your topic to the pages you submit.
Guest post strategically
7One of the most common pieces of advice I see on growing one’s blog audience and links is to “guest post” (a practice where one blogger creates content for another site and earns readers, recognition and a referring link). This is, undoubtedly, an excellent way to reach a new audience and create value for both parties. However, like many common tactics in link building (blogrolls, generic directories, reciprocal links), it can easily be abused.
The past few years have seen a bevy of low-quality guest posting submissions and it’s reached an extent where many bloggers and sites that engage with them will publicly message that they don’t accept guest posts. A must-read piece on this topic comes from Kelly Diels on ProBlogger – Guest Posts: How-to, Where-to, Where-Not-To.
The only other critical piece of advice I have for thinking about and choosing guest post options is to be strategic in your decisions about your use of time and content. If you have an amazing piece of content that could perform well, earn lots of traffic and links, it could be a great move to use it on your own site OR guest post it on someone else’s. To choose correctly, you need to weigh the potential positives and negatives:
- Is the content evergreen (meaning it will remain useful and valuable for a long time)? If so, you may want to favor keeping it on your site, as it can continue to build value and earn links long after publication. If the content is highly temporal, it could work well as a guest post, earning you immediate attention, but not costing you as much in the long run.
- Do you have the content/value to take advantage of an inbound traffic rush? If you guest post on a powerful site this week and 5-10% of those visitors check out your site, will they be inspired to stay, subscribe and read more? If you’ve neglected your own blog and don’t have content as powerful, compelling and interesting there as the guest post you’ve just authored, you could be losing a considerable amount of the potential value.
- Have you guest posted on this site before or have they linked to you frequently? When that’s the case, the value of the link from both a new-audience-exposure and SEO perspective may be diminished. Preaching to the choir has its use, but it should probably be done on your own site. You want to branch out, find new sites and audiences to connect with and not get stuck in the same small community. The exception to this rule is when an extremely large, influential site wants you to write for them regularly or semi-regularly. If the New York Times travel blog is ready to host a fourth article from you, don’t say no.
Finally, if you’re considering guest posting or hosting guest posts, I can heartily recommend My Blog Guest, a great community resource/tool for making contacts on both sides.
Maintain a smart, detailed blogroll
8A long time ago, blogrolls were similar to “following” an account on Twitter – if someone interesting linked to you on their blogroll, you’d likely peruse their site and link to them. Today, it’s rare for this reciprocation to take place unless you’ve made your site stand out in some way. Blogrolls, in the traditional sense (long lists of sites on a sidebar), are also less useful from a user’s perspective, particuarly when no description or segmentation is provided.
I’d suggest for those leveraging blogrolls on their own sites and requesting inclusion in others, a more robust, advanced and useful way. For example:
By separating your blogroll into sections/categories and providing descriptions of the sites you include, you can provide more value to those skimming for interesting links and more context for those you mention. The second part of a good blogroll is to be strategic in focus. Listing only the biggest and most-read industry sources/bloggers likely won’t bring you as much potential reciprocation as finding great niche bloggers with less traffic. These sites may indeed see a few referrals or a link from you and check out your site, creating the beginnings of a relationship or even a possible link.
Don’t ignore traditional media
9As bloggers, we often think of ourselves as separate from the mainstream media world and worry that resentment may be harbored. But, in my experience, traditional media often wants and needs blogs as sources for inspiration, for quotes on stories and to help understand a new niche or topic they’re writing about. There’s a number of good ways to engage with the press to help your personal blog gain exposure:
- Story sources: Services like HARO and ProfNet exist to help connect reporters to “experts” or amateurs relevant to the stories they’re writing (good piece on a blogger’s HARO experience). However, connections aren’t limited to these portals alone – by following reporters/journalists on Twitter and connecting/commenting on their own personal/news blogs, you can often build a relationship that will later result in a citation/link.
- Comment on mainstream media stories: Many bloggers are well aware of the benefits of engaging with their fellow blogs and bloggers by leaving comments, but fail to do so on traditional publications. It can be daunting to see hundreds or thousands of comments on a NY Times piece, but it also means there’s tens of thousands of visitors perusing those comments, and leaving intelligent, robust, useful replies and references can be a substantive brand-builder and traffic driver.
- Reference their content in your posts: Even mainstream media folks will look at their traffic referrers and those writing about their work, and if you add great value to the conversation, you could be a central part of it next time. Just writing about topics that are getting mainstream media attention in unique, interesting ways can bring links. For example, in October, I wrote about a study on traffic to advertising value that had received lots of press. My critique was then picked up by several other sources, including the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard.
The mainstream press may have financial troubles, but they still generate an extraordinary share of time spent online. Don’t ignore them as an opportunity to grow your site’s reach.
Don’t buy links or link “advertising”
10You’ll undoubtedly see banners, links and advertising like those above. I’d strongly advise you against using these paid sources to boost your blog’s links. They tend to send very low and low-quality traffic and are high risk from a search engine ranking perspective. While Google has, recently, been soft on link buying and manipulation, that’s supposedly about to change, as the web spam team gets more resources (via GG’s Head of Webspam at Pubcon). Risk isn’t the only reason – there’s also opportunity cost. When you spend money buying or renting links, you lose out on the potential of those resources to be spent on other ways of earning links the engines will want to count. This post on 8 Ways to Buy Links Without “Buying Links” is a good start.
Attend local meetups & free events
11One of the most obvious and enjoyable ways to earn links and branding for your blog is to find local events and meetups for those in blogging, technology or your particular niche, and attend. It can be overwhelming to go to an event by yourself without knowing anyone first, so leverage Twitter and your blog’s network to find folks who comment, read, run blogs or tweet about your site and build those relationships online before you take them into the real world.
A few great resources for finding local events include Eventbrite, Meetup.com, LinkedIn Events and Facebook (but beware, FB only shows events you’re connected to through existing friends/groups). Mashable also has a great list of Ways to Find Local Twitter Users in Your Town.
Comment, engage & build relationships
12When you’re finding new blogs to connect with and comment on, your first instinct will be to focus on dropping relevant links back to your blog posts, getting your name/link prominent in the comments and driving traffic back to your site. These are all fine things – and they should encourage you to leave valuable, useful comments, which other bloggers appreciate (if you do anything but, your comments are likely to be erased or marked as spam). But, you should also consider the value of commenting regularly and productively simply to build a relationship with the few key bloggers/sites that matter most to you.
These aren’t necessarily the sites with the most traffic or highest metrics but those whom you’d like to build and have a professional, friendly relationship. That means looking beyond the content to the tone, voice and emotional resonance between yourself and the blog author. If you feel a connection, try formalizing the relationship after a few weeks of chatting online (through comments, Twitter, etc). If you’re good at emotional intelligence, chances are it could become a real friendship and/or productive, professional relationship.
In many ways, these are better than just earning links, because you’ll have enhanced your online reach through another human (or many) who can then provide recommendations, connections and advice. Just be sure you’re willing to put into the relationship in equal proportion (or greater at the start).
Use plug-ins & site features that will enhance your reach
13WordPress, along with several other popular blog content management systems, offer a great variety of plug-ins and tools to help market your site, but none of them are automatic. To have an impact, you’ll need to use these features wisely and not overburden your users with too many options/actions to take.
Tools that help make sharing content easier, promoting your blog’s reach (and providing social proof – a key element in making others interested in your work), and help you manage, monitor and improve your site are smart choices to consider. A few of my quick favorites include:
- WP Tweet Button – as shown above, it allows you to customize a link to Tweet posts/pages for placement on your site.
- Google Analyticator – an excellent plug-in that integrates your Google Analytics traffic data right into your WordPress admin home, making sure you’re consistently aware of and thinking about traffic and metrics.
- Feedburner Widget – Feedburner itself is a great way to get analytics about your feed; this widget makes it easy to share that link and attract sign-ups (and you can customize the look/feel/messaging). It also enables easy subscription via email; a popular option for many who don’t use RSS.
- Increase Sociability – Allows you to customize a welcome message for visitors from specific social sites; it’s particularly effective with StumbleUpon traffic.
However, I’d be remiss to make so short a list without referring you to some of the excellent, longer lists out there, including SEO Plug-ins from Michael Gray (which goes way beyond just SEO plug-ins), 21 of the Best WordPress Plug-ins from Marketing Pilgrim, JD Lasica’s 10 essential WordPress Plug-ins and Yoast’s WordPress Plug-ins. You almost certainly don’t want all of these, but picking a choice few and testing them out could bring better returns from every post you write.
Include strategic links in your online bio
14A person’s online “bio” follows them around the web like a bad habit. Make yours useful, easy to embed and valuable to your site by strategically embedding links and references. You want to come across as authoritative, interesting, possibly humorous or at least approachable. Here’s mine:
I’ve not only chosen links on SEOmoz itself, but also to other mentions of me online. These help those pages rank well and help pass link juice to those pages which, in turn, have good links back to my site. It’s a virtuous circle, and whenever I’m interviewed, speaking at an event or merely a contributor to an online article, the bio appears. Likewise, when anyone investigates my profile, they find those links and (hopefully) some of them follow them and possibly reference, too.
Hopefully, if you have some less-SEO-savvy/techy friends running their own blogs, this post can be a valuable resource. Please do contribute your own ideas and suggestions for personal blog link building; we’d love to see them (and please link to posts/examples in your comments).