What is the motivation for one site owner to link to another site?
The fundamental design of the web allows for any document to link to and to be linked from any other document. This is how the web's inventors intended it when the hypertext protocol was first developed long ago, before most of us had ever heard of the Internet.
Initially developed as a way to help researchers interlink related documents from computers all over the world, the web was soon discovered by those more interested in commerce, and several years later, here we are. It's interesting to me that nearly every commercially related web development since its founding has been in some way related to the link (that is, an attempt to find new ways for one site to be linked to another). Banner ads are, at their core, just a link from one site to another. So are text ads in newsletters, buttons, badges, icons, etc. A paid search engine listing or optimized search result is nothing more than a link. Your coveted Yahoo! text listing, that banner that gets you one percent click-through, and even that email newsletter sponsorship -- no matter how you spin it -- are all links. Anything to be clicked on that shuttles people from one place to another while online constitutes a link.
The development of all forms of linking has never improved upon the original, and no amount of cleverness will ever change one universal truth: the less useful your content, the less likely you are to ever receive a link to it.
If we think of the word "useful" as a continuum, then the most useful sites are those that provide rich, quality content on a specific subject on which the editor or provider is an authority. Think of the U.S. Government's CancerNet site. Now there's the ultimate example of content on the right side of the continuum -- tens of thousands of pages on every facet of cancer, all free, all generated by experts in the field. In fact, with no marketing department, the CancerNet site currently has more than 3,000 links pointing to it from other sites around the world. It's one of my standard sermons: Useful content gets linked. When CancerNet hired me to do some Link Planning, there wasn't a whole lot for me to do. It took me less than a month to tweak what was already in place -- a great collection of inbound links.
The reality is we can't all be CancerNet. Most sites simply do not have the kind of relevant content that allows them to get linked. So what do you do if you are simply trying to sell a few widgets and don't have any reference to quality content? If your site lands on the left side of the useful continuum, you accept that you are not going to get many links. And those links you do get, you will probably have to pay for.
If you don't want to accept this reality and truly want to seek and acquire links to your site, you have one (and only one) other option available to you. Make it link-worthy.
What is a link-worthy site? Let's imagine you have an online magic store that caters to professional and amateur magicians. On your site, you sell tricks, supplies, hats, capes, and wands, even the saw-the-person-in-half gag.
If your content were nothing more than an online store, why would anyone link to it? You might get a few links on any magic-site web guides and link lists. But then what? If you are an online store with nothing but products as your content, then you MUST look to associate/affiliate programs as a means of generating links. Basically, paying for them.
But maybe there is something more you CAN do, if you are willing to roll up your sleeves.
What if, along with your products, you create a searchable database of information on magic. What if you had complete biographies of more than 700 magicians? What if you had a section devoted to magical world records, or a glossary of magical terms, or a directory of magicians on the Internet?
This would then be an excellent example of how a store site can add rich, relevant content, value, interest, and community to its web site, as well as sell merchandise. This site would be covered by just about any writer who writes about magic and/or reviews web sites.
The above is not just a wide-eyed, hypothetical example. In fact, the site I'm referring to is called MagicTricks.com.
Thinking like a site reviewer, it's difficult to find
high-quality online media outlets and site reviewers willing to cover or link to marketing/sales sites. The more a site offers deep information on a certain subject, databases, community, guides, forums, reviews, etc., the more likely the editors are to want to cover it. Whether it's a business or consumer site, the more content-rich the better, especially if the site's mission is sales. A site designed to sell a product is far different than a true reference site with hundreds and hundreds of pages of free information on a particular subject.
The best analogy I can think of to explain a sales-focused web site is a public library. A library is, first and foremost, about content, although it does sell things. You can buy copies of books, order maps, buy online database search time, or rent study offices or PCs. Some libraries even have video-rental services and snack shops or restaurants. Money definitely changes hands at a library. But nobody would confuse this commerce with a library's true mission: offering content to patrons. In a like manner, a web site also needs to be a library of information on whatever its focus might be. Add great content to your product site. Again, why?
Because useful content gets linked. Products don't.
Until next time, I remain,
The Link Mensch
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