Your business may have the most finely crafted, informative, and useful website ever, but it won't do you much good if no one can find it.
That's why you need to know about links. They're what guide users from one website to another. And just as important, links are what search engines such as MSN Search/Windows Live Search, Google, and Yahoo use to determine how popular your website is, and where to place it in their page rankings.
The higher your website's page ranking appears on a search engine, the more prospective customers are going to see it. It gets a bit more complicated because there are different kinds of links, different ways to obtain them, and some rules to follow if you want the search engines to select your website. A couple of things are critical:
- Quality content on your website will help generate quality links.
- Follow the rules, because search engines can ban your website if they don't like what they see.
Free links, paid links, or trading links?
There are three basic ways that you can get links to your site:
- You can pay somebody to link to your site - for example banner advertising, paid directory listings, and 'sponsored' search results.
- You can find sites that will link to your site for free or trade links to your site
- You can send emails to your list of email contacts with a link to your site.
Go for the free links first - with an eye to establishing links to websites that focus on the same topic or topics yours does.
Reciprocal linking, or trading links with another website, is controversial because it can be both good and bad. If your site sells pet food and you link with someone who sells beds for pets, that makes sense and it's a very positive link. The search engines will approve.
Soliciting reciprocal links just for the sake of having a lot of links is not a good strategy. ‘Link farming' may result in your website being banished from the search engines because they consider the merits of the content of your website in large part by the links associated with it and by how popular your content is.
Ditto for subscribing to automated linking services that advertise submitting your site to ‘millions of search engines' every month. Leading search engines don't accept automated submissions. Standard practice is to submit to a search engine once, and re-submit only if the original submission hasn't been accepted within the time promised. It can take months to be accepted into human-edited directories.
How to tell if search engines are linking to you
Understanding how the search engines operate is useful. MSN Search/Live Search, for example, uses MSNBot, a web crawler that combs billions of web pages looking for links within websites to add information to their search index.
Yet not every page that MSNBot crawls ends up being indexed. There are technical, design, and content standards that have to be met - primary among them is placing important content in searchable areas of your pages.
So how do you know if your pages qualify? The easiest way is to actually run a search by typing the URLs for the pages of your site into the search box of the search engine you want to check. If you have followed the guidelines the best you can and your page URLs don't turn up in the search results, you may want to submit your site directly - although that isn't a guarantee your site will be indexed either.
Email can be a good way to get your link to valuable contacts. For example, a company collects email addresses from customers who visit its physical store (Borders, for example, has recently started asking for email addresses when you buy something.) They then send email news on new books/DVDs etc just in, with a link to their website. It's a simple matter of visibility: your website needs to be seen to be effective.
For some interesting reading on all things web (and more), browse through the Small Business Books page.