How to build links outside the box

LINKS ARE THE CURRENCY OF THE WEB: Not only do they drive traffic in their own right, they are also essential to high search engine rankings. Without good inbound links to your website, your search engine optimization efforts won’t get off the ground.

But link building isn’t about simply increasing your “link popularity.” And it’s definitely not about trading links with your business partners. Countless hours are wasted by naïve website owners forging reciprocal link deals because, in the end, they offer little to no benefit.

It’s true that search engines use link popularity as an indicator of a site’s worthiness, but it’s a weighted form of link popularity that Google refers to as PageRank. Not all links are created equal. Links from some sites are given much more weight by the search engines than those from other sites.

Improving the link authority of your home page and of key internal pages known as link building is critical to getting well ranked and thus getting traffic. In other words, you’ll need to proactively work to attract more, higher quality links to your home page and to other pages of your site.

A simple way to start building links is to submit to directories such as Yahoo’s Directory and Open Directory ( But will this actually make a big difference in your search rankings? Probably not.

What about links from business partners (such as suppliers, customers, distributors) or related industry sites, you may ask? Not so much.

These links will likely be reciprocal and will appear to Google as commercial in nature. The best links for SEO are ones that are earned by merit, rather than gained through commercial means.

The ideal link is topically relevant, one way (not reciprocated), in the main body copy of the page rather than in the footer or sidebar, not site-wide, not crowded with many other links on the page, and on a highly trusted, authority site with a long history and in a pristine link neighborhood.

With link building, just as with investing, it’s important to diversify. You don’t want just a bunch of directory links. You don’t want a bunch of links in the same top-level domain, such as .com, .org, .edu. You need a range of different types of links: from blogs, from news sites, from educational institutions, and so on.

Remember, we’re aiming for quality here rather than quantity. One of the best ways to acquire such quality links is through a technique called “link baiting.”

Baiting for links

Link bait, simply put, is content that is so funny, interesting, useful or otherwise remarkable that it becomes irresistible for bloggers and website owners to link to. I’ve seen link bait take the form of Top 10 lists, humorous videos uploaded to YouTube, checklists, cartoons, infographics, how-tos, event coverage, exposés, personality tests, quizzes, contests, surveys, tools and widgets, to name a few.

Think of link bait as content that stands alongside your ecommerce site either as a separate page, a blog post or a microsite. Expect that if you post the link bait to your ecommerce site, it probably won’t get as much traction with bloggers as it would have gotten had you posted it onto your blog.

Bloggers are cliquish; they tend to link to each other more than they link to outsiders or non-bloggers.

It helps to be humorous in your link bait. But most important, “Be remarkable,” as author/entrepreneur Seth Godin says. Remarkable doesn’t mean you have to be the best at something or have the best post about something. It just means that it has to be worthy of people remarking about it.

One way to stand out is to expose a fraud or to take a position that’s contrary to popular opinion. For instance, you could challenge an A-list blogger on one of his or her blog posts. This can be risky, however, so take great care if you choose to enlist this tactic.

Another way of being remarkable is to be the first to cover a particular story. You could post a scoop or an exclusive, or you could publish some original research. Or you could offer photos of an event that you attended.

You could even license those photos via Creative Commons, which means you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit. People can reuse the images at no charge.

Speaking of no charge, people love “free!” so if you could make available for free any tools, software, plug-ins, blog themes and so on, it will go a long way toward turning your resource into link bait.

Another thing you might have seen happening on the web is “memes” spreading across the Internet through email, YouTube, the blogosphere, etc. A meme is “an idea, value or pattern of behavior that propagates itself through imitation.”

Memes can take many forms — for example, clothes fashions, habits, skills, songs, stories and catchphrases. As memeticist Dr. Susan Blackmore describes it, a meme is basically a “copy me” instruction backed up by threats and promises. An example of a meme in the offline world is the toilet paper folded into a triangle at the end — does that somehow make the bathroom more hygienic?

If you can start a meme that will spread and it links back to you, you will get a lot of nice link juice (i.e., PageRank) out of it. Unless, of course, if it’s in the form of a YouTube video (like the famous Internet meme “Numa Numa”), in which case YouTube hoards all the PageRank, as YouTube “nofollows” any outbound links from its site.

One successful example of an Internet meme is the The Five Things You Don’t Know About Me meme that spread through the blogosphere late last year. Part of the meme was to “tag” five other bloggers asking them to share five things you don’t know about them. The originator of this meme (purportedly Jeff Pulver) is PageRank-rich, indeed.

Classic examples of link bait from years past:

  • Will it Blend? ( Videos showing the founder of Blendtec blending iPhones, rake handles, light bulbs, marbles, and so on.

  • Counterfeit Mini Protecting unsuspecting consumers from buying a counterfeit Mini Cooper. Mini was actually behind this brilliant campaign. This is no longer online — which is a shame, since all the PageRank this site earned is being squandered.

  • Institute for Backup Trauma John Cleese starred in this tongue-in-cheek instructional video on the dangers of not making adequate backups. The microsite was taken offline, but at least it redirects to the corporate site. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind of redirect (a “302 redirect”), so none of the PageRank is being transferred.

  • Up Your Budget Budget Rent-a-Car created a blog to launch its nationwide scavenger hunt with clues planted in various cities across the U.S. Unfortunately, Budget took the blog down, so poof goes the PageRank!

  • Mentos Intern The candymaker Perfetti Van Melle hired an intern whose job was to sit in front of a webcam all summer. He developed quite a following. He’d chat with his fans, even do work for them. Site is offline now, and no redirect — too bad!

  • How Many Five-Year-Olds Could You Take On In A Fight ( This personality test is pure brilliance. At the end you get a badge showing how many five-year-olds you can take on in a fight, which you can add to your blog’s sidebar or various social media profiles.

One success I had with link baiting was with a WordPress plugin for SEO that I developed, called “SEO Title Tag” ( That plugin, because of its uniqueness, utility and low price (free!), earned me a great many backlinks.

Ready to generate some link bait? Then get your creative juices flowing, because out-of-the-box thinking is the key ingredient to a successful campaign. And calling in a favor with friends who are influencers in the social media can’t hurt either!

Stephan Spencer is co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO and founder of Netconcepts (acquired by Covario).


  • In addition to link baiting, you might consider sponsoring organizations with high PageRank websites and getting acknowledgement for the donation through a link. For example, find educational institutions that list sponsors on their sites by using creative Google searches such as donors OR patrons OR sponsors site:edu

  • You’ll also need some tools of the trade to maximize your effectiveness. Tools such as,, Raven, and the toolset, will be invaluable.

  • Make the most of the PageRank that you’ve earned by passing more of it on to your key product/category/content pages, and not so much on to inconsequential pages like your “Welcome Letter from the President” page.

  • Review whether the keywords you are targeting are present within the anchor text of your inbound links. Contact high PageRank endowed linking sites with which you have a relationship or influence and ask them to revise their anchor text.

  • As you may recall from my previous articles, anchor text is critical for SEO. That’s because all the major engines take the anchor text that you have used and associate the words in the anchor text with the page that you are linking to. — SS