This is the fourth post in an 8-part series on how to rank your business for local searches at Google. Previously, I’ve listed the most important aspects that influence your local ranking, discussed how to get the most out of Google My Business, and covered best practices for on-site optimization. Here, I’ll focus on another essential asset for local SEO: earning inbound links to your local business website. Learn why and how to do that!
Since the ascent of Google as the world’s #1 search engine, links have been the primary concern of most SEO practitioners. The seminal idea behind Google’s ranking technology makes it clear that inbound links are the primary vehicle by which Google discovers new pages and websites on the Internet, and they’re the primary way Google assesses the credibility of a given website.
Google’s emphasis on links is the most significant area of overlap between its organic and local ranking algorithms. According to the experts of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey, links make up the biggest piece of the pie in localized organic results. They’re the #1 competitive difference-maker across all types of local results.
Local businesses can’t be fully evaluated on the basis of links, for reasons you’ll see in my next post. But there’s no question that a strong inbound link profile (links pointing from other websites to yours) has a positive impact on how well your business ranks.
Why links in the first place?
I know you’re probably thinking, “hey, I want to rank #1, just tell me what to do!” But understanding why Google values links so highly can help you assess the strength or weakness of your own link profile. This can help you determine your link acquisition strategy.
Google’s robots, or “spiders,” crawl the Internet by “clicking” one link after another after another. They discover new pages and websites as part of that crawl, and store the content of each of those pages in a giant database.
In addition to storing the content of each page, Google also stores how its crawlers arrived on the page. In other words, it remembers the pages and websites that were linking to it. A link from one site to another is like a vote or endorsement for the credibility of the second website.
Diagram courtesy of Aaron Weiche, GetFiveStars
Sites with the most endorsements (green circle) tend to rank better than those with few or no endorsements (yellow circle). Especially links from websites that are heavily-endorsed themselves improve your ranking. You need endorsements in order to get elected, and you need links in order to rank well.
Google counts thousands of PhDs as employees. And while its algorithm over the years has been incredibly vulnerable to abuse by spammers, increasingly it’s taking into account the context in which a link appears. Google largely devalues links that appear on completely unrelated websites. For example, a personal injury lawyer that receives a link from a Russian real estate forum. In fact, increasingly these kinds of links put you in jeopardy of a Google penalty.
Conversely, links that you acquire or earn that are likely to refer you actual customers are increasingly the ones that Google values. For example, a personal injury lawyer that receives a link from a neighboring chiropractor’s website.
Eric Ward a.k.a. “Link Moses,” was building links before Google was even a gleam in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s eyes. As such, his still-highly-relevant advice is to build links as if Google didn’t even exist. Living by this “first commandment” of link building makes it incredibly unlikely your site will ever be penalized by Google. And, it will make the impact of your link building more permanent and effective.
Page / domain authority
The source of a link matters a great deal to how much weight it carries in Google’s algorithm.
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. These are high-trust websites that aren’t going to link to low-trust businesses or scam artists very often. So 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 my last column. Anchor text are the words that make up the link itself. Such as “my last column” in the previous sentence.
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. They’ll help you more than links using generic terms like “click here” or “read more.”
You have complete control over 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 anchor text others are using. It’s just a ranking factor to be aware of.
Assessing your existing link profile
Any number of tools exist to analyze your existing link profile, but in my experience the one that gives the most complete picture for local businesses is aHrefs. It’s a robust product that provides more information than the average local business needs. But just 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. 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 rank above you for your target keywords. Take a look at their DR and number of referring domains. In particular, comparing those two metrics will give you a rough sense of how much link building work you’ll have to do to move the needle on your rankings.
Links that move the needle in local search
Google likes to pretend that great content, and great websites, will naturally acquire links. But for 99.999% of businesses, that’s terrible advice. The old question “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. Many of them simply involve asking your existing contacts at companies or organizations with whom you do business.
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.
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, 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. Preferably 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. For example, 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.
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. Intelligence Software offers this free tool that taps some of Facebook’s more advanced search capabilities. (LinkedIn Premium offers some of the same features, but it’s a paid product.)
Essentially, you want to search for writers and editors who are employed at some of the key publications in your industry to see if and how you’re connected to them through friends. Once you see how you’re connected, you can ask specific friends to put in a good word for you.
Here’s an example of the output of an Intelligence Software search for employees at Third Door Media (the parent company of Search Engine Land, one of the top news outlets in SEO):
As you can see, the search would be pretty complicated to type in, but the tool from Intelligence Software makes it easy.
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.”
Groups for whom you host events at your physical location
Hosting events for outside groups is one of the lowest-cost, lowest-work link building 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 link building for you – and who knows – some of the attendees may even turn into customers!
You probably have colleagues in related industries to whom you refer business, and from whom you’re referred business, regularly. Make sure these referral relationships are represented online in the form of links. That way Google knows that your businesses vouch for each other just as you do in the offline world.
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 works at one of these companies.
Using the same Intelligence Software tool, you can perform searches to get a list of journalists (or columnists) in your city. See how you’re connected to them through friends or family:
The future of links and rankings
Some SEO professionals have been predicting the demise of links for a several years. But there’s little evidence to support this trend so far. Certainly Google has gotten better at penalizing low-quality links over the course of various algorithm updates, but if anything, high-quality links have been that much harder to come by, and even more valuable to their recipients.
Links may very well become “democratized” as they become less representative of the overall sentiment of the online world. A very small percentage of internet users has ever published a link on a website or blog. Also, more and more non-link signals are available for Google to assess the popularity and credibility of a local business. More on these signals coming in the final installment of this series!
More on links
You can truly go crazy with link building, and there are entire companies and agencies devoted to this SEO niche. It’s probably not the highest and best use of your time as a local business owner, or even a local business marketer. But it is important that every local business has a reasonable link foundation underpinning their other marketing initiatives.
Here are four amazing resources for those of you wanting to take an even deeper dive into link building:
Neil Patel has this great summary of link building tools and techniques that have helped him build his own, and his clients’, businesses.
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 as you try to identify what low-hanging link opportunities might be available to you.
And Megan Hannay of ZipSprout has created an awesome product to help you identify non-profit organizations that recognize supporters and volunteers online.
- Inbound links pointing from other websites to your website are critical to establish the credibility of your business in Google’s eyes.
- Build links as if Google didn’t even exist – links that will bring you customers in addition to rankings.
- Assess your existing link profile, and the profiles of your competitors with aHrefs. Pay special attention to DR (Domain Rank or authority) and the number of referring domains.
- Seek out industry-relevant and locally-relevant links from groups and websites with which you already have an offline relationship.
- Ask for introductions from colleagues, friends, and family to key influencers who write for industry and local publications.