Link-building is one of the most mysterious, yet most important elements of Search Engine Optimization. As the saying goes, "links are the currency of the web." Links are also frequently compared to votes, the argument being that if a person links to "website A" over "website B" for a given keyword, that person is making a value judgement that "website A" is the best website for that topic.
Don't get us wrong: there's no silver bullet to getting your website to rank well in search engines, and focusing exclusively on link-building is no exception. SEO is a complex, ongoing process that requires persistent work, tweaking, experimenting, and time. But link building is by far the most important component of "off site SEO," and should be a central component of any SEO effort.
Here are some of the basic principles of link-building that should at least put you in the ballpark if you're not sure how to get started:
Organic: The Way Links Should Be.
Google and other search engines are constantly tweaking their algorithms to reward those businesses that are doing well organically. They don't like people trying to cheat the system, and they don't like people paying money for spammy links. Consequently, your link profile should show a slow and steady build, mimicking the organic growth of your business. A bunch of links to your site all at once sends a red flag, as will most "black hat" SEO services (which may promise tons of links for a good price, many of which are most likely from spammy websites in Asia), and will likely do more harm than good.
Do Not Buy Links.
As the owner of a website, you may get offers for people to kick you links in exchange for cash. Do not do this. This is really critical. Google and other search engines frown upon paying for links in a big way, and even if that link does you some good in the short term, you will get caught and you will pay a penalty in the long run. This is different than paying for link building services, wherein a legitimate, qualified SEO agency or web marketing agency can help you develop links through legitimate means. But buying a link is a big no-no and should be avoided.
Quality over Quantity.
Links from authoritative sites tell search engines that your site is, likewise, authoritative. Links from spammy sites suggest that your site might be spammy. So it's much better to get a few good links -- the best are from .edu and .gov domains, or from other websites that have a lot of authority (a lot of links to them) -- than a bunch of low quality links. That said, for small local businesses without a ton of competition, links from similar local businesses, trade partners and other websites based out of your neighborhood are all great links. A few links from other businesses in your area can do much more good than a ton of links from spammy websites in Indonesia.
The Importance of Anchor Text and Context.
One oft-overlooked aspect of good linking among many newcomers in the web marketing space is "anchor text." The anchor text of a link is the text that is used as a link. For example, if we were to link to our page on energy auditor certifications, we would want to use anchor text that's relevant to the page, so we'd use "Energy Circle's Guide to Energy Audit Certification" as the link, rather than "click here" or "learn more." The anchor text of a link basically says to search engines that the page being linked to has something to do with the anchor text. A good link for a home performance business will use some good anchor text like "home performance contractor," "energy auditor," or any other of the keywords that you're hoping to rank well for.
Another factor to consider is the subject matter of the site that's linking to your site. If you're an energy auditor, and you want to rank well for terms related to energy audits, a link from another page that talks about energy audits will do you much more good than a page that talks about towels or cats, or whatever.
Any thoughts, comments, questions, feel free to chime in in the comments section!