In the introduction, we looked at the different types of links that can exist between websites, and we saw the important role incoming links play in boosting site traffic and improving link popularity and search engine rankings. Now it's time to turn our attention to the specifics of getting useful incoming links from other sites.
The two types of incoming link
Incoming links can be broken into two types: unsolicited (organic or spontaneous) links, and solicited (or requested) links.
An unsolicited incoming link is one you didn't have to go and ask for - somebody saw your site and decided to link to it. You had no direct input into the process, since you didn't actually have to do anything to get the link - or did you? Let's face it, the link didn't appear magically in a vacuum; somebody took a conscious decision to link to your site or page! We'll be revisiting this subject a little further down this page when we look at what you can do to improve your chances of spontaneous linkage, but after that our focus will be firmly on the second type of link.
A solicited incoming link is one you "asked" for, one that you had to take some action to obtain. This site generally focuses on solicited incoming links, since this is where your actions will have the most effect. Effective link building strategies can start to show results almost instantly, and can be paced to fit your available time and resources.
Where do unsolicited links come from, and how can you get more of them?
The short answer: unsolicited links are made by other people, based on their interest in your site. Make your site more "interesting" and you improve your chance at picking up unsolicited links and traffic.
While we can't of course predict the behaviour of a specific 3rd party, certain trends shine out like a searchlight across the worldwide community of tens of millions of webmasters and site operators. Position yourself to take advantage of these trends, and you'll improve your chances of picking up unsolicited incoming links enormously. By and large, people like...
- Fun stuff
Fun pictures, movies and stories often generate spontaneous buzz, as do some online games. Jokes get emailed around the office or between friends. If your site is "fun" enough, people will start to spread the word, and link back to it from their own sites and blogs. A great example of this type of success is JibJab, which rode the popularity of a single musical parody to reach an audience of tens of millions.
- Useful tools
If you provide people with something useful, many will respond by telling others. Of course, if you can help speed the process along (e.g. the case of Hotmail, where the signature of every email sent via the service helped to promote it), so much the better. Even if the tool doesn't actively assist in the promotion process, make it useful enough and people will start to talk about it. For instance, WhatisMyIP.com offers a very simple IP address finding tool; the site recently sold on eBay for over US$300,000 by virtue of its 1.5 million monthly visitors, all of whom arrived by word of mouth.
- Edgy, unorthodox approaches
Dare to be different! If your site is provocative and pushes people to think, get angry or excited, you've made an impact - and that's exactly what you need to get the word of mouth flowing and the incoming links growing. F'dCompany took a militantly anti-establishment stance on dotcom company failures when the bubble burst, and went on to reach monthly audiences of over 4 million at the height of its popularity. Seth Godin has a unique take on marketing, and his books and site reach an avid and ever-expanding audience.
- Valuable content
The "value" of content is a minefield that's dangerous to tread. Like pornography, it's hard to define, but you'll almost certainly know it when you see it! Typically, valuable content informs, is clear and easy to read, doesn't overtly attempt to sell something, is timely, is unique (in the sense that it appears only on one particular site) and is useful to a specific audience, the larger the better (while remaining relevant). While it represents the total effort of hundreds of volunteer editors and part-timers, there's no getting away from the fact that About.com's traffic was attracted by the content on offer - and that in turn brought a recent buyout offer of over US$400 million from the NYTimes.
- The "biggest" and the "best"
Size and reputation can help spread buzz. Gmail was of course given an immense push by the fact that it was launched by almost mythically revered Google, but it was the unheard-of 1GB of storage space (20x to 500x the size of competing services) that fueled the buzz to fever-pitch. Don't simply break paradigms, smash them to smithereens! RefDesk is the source to go to for reference information links. Eric Ward has gained an unparalleled reputation for his announcement services, such that he has picked up hundreds of clients, including many household names, entirely through word of mouth. You know you're winning the biggest/best battle when your site or service is automatically the first thing a significant number of people think of when talking about a given subject.
- Soapboxes and stages
By and large, people love to talk. If you can help them communicate with others who share similar interests, it's possible to build immense momentum entirely off the back of this desire for shared expression. WebmasterWorld has aggregated an audience of hundreds of thousands of webmasters and millions of posts by providing a controlled (strict rules) yet flexible (many forums, many topics) environment for them to exchange ideas. Similarly, Slashdot has created a much larger - if more anarchic - audience, by offering those with opinions a soapbox from which to share them, and a ready audience of listeners. Every one of the millions of blogs out there is essentially a virtual soapbox in disguise. Shakespeare could almost have been predicting the rise of discussion forums and newsgroups when he said: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
- Timely information
Today's baseball scores are most valuable live, as the game progresses. Last night's scores are of interest to those who may have missed the game; last week or last month's scores will only appeal to the purists, the stats buffs and the most fanatical of fans. Similarly, breaking news is useful, yesterday's news is worth knowing, last week's news is old news. The Drudge Report, essentially a one-man operation, has risen to rival established news organization with thousands of employees on the basis of its hyper-timely reporting.
- Aggregate information
As well as being an incredibly rich source of potential incoming links, niche and themed directories themselves make sticky, appealing, interesting sites or sub-sites. Gather enough information on a particular topic in one place, so that site visitors won't have to go hunting all over the web for it themselves, and you've amplified the buzz. Emailaddresses.com (another of my sites) does this effectively for the free email niche, since it gathers together information on over 500 providers. One day, with a bit of luck, this site might also come to be seen as a must-visit information aggregator for the sites listed in the directory.
The above is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some starting points in your quest to make your own site more "interesting" and ultimately pick up more unsolicited links.
To make the process easier and smoother, you may wish to consider explicitly providing visitors with the tools they need to link back to your site by setting up a "Link to Us" type page with appropriate information.