By now, you probably know the basics of local SEO and what to do to make sure your business is found online. But we're going to take it a step further and talk about something you may not know you need to be actively acquiring: inbound links. Let's talk about link building for local businesses.
What is link building?
Link building is the Search Engine Optimization process of acquiring inbound links that point to your business's website from other websites. Link building helps increase search rankings because search engines see links as a sign of popularity.
So if a local blogger visits your business and writes a blog post about it with a link to your website, that link (also called a backlink) is part of the link building process.
How does it work?
There are many ways businesses acquire backlinks. And just as there are many ways you might acquire backlinks, there are probably many different pages on your site that other sites can link to. For instance, your business's website probably has a homepage, an about page, a contact page, etc.
Why should you care about link building?
Links are good for both organic SEO and local SEO.
Google's Andrey Lippatsev recently revealed that inbound links and content are the top two search ranking factors for organic Google searches. This means that the amount of backlinks that point to your website is either the most important factor or the second most important factor in how Google will rank your site in organic searches.
And according to Neil Patel, links are still the most important components of search algorithms for organic searches. So if you want your business to be found in organic searches, link building is an absolute must-do.
So we know that links are important for organic searches, but what does all this have to do with local businesses? And why should you even care? Well, inbound links are also good for local SEO.
Why? Because (just like in organic search) search engines like Google use backlinks as one of the factors that determine your business's rank in local searches.
And local business owners should be trying to be found in local searches, because consumers are searching:
- 97% of Americans use the Internet to search for local products and services
- 54% of Americans use online local search instead of using phone books
And online local searches lead to store visits - 50% of consumers will visit a store within 24 hours of performing a local search.
Potential customers search the internet to find local businesses, and local businesses always want to know how to rank higher in local searches. Well, guess what? There are many factors that determine a business's local search ranking, but link signals account for 20% of how search engines rank your business in local searches.
So if you want your business to be found in local searches (and we know you do) you should be looking for opportunities to build inbound links to your website. But before we get into how you should and shouldn't be building links, let's talk about how search engines find backlinks.
How do search engines find backlinks?
Search engines send out "web crawlers" to look for websites. Crawlers are pretty sophisticated and important, so they are even given names (like Googlebot and Bingbot).
Here's what Google has to say about crawlers:
"Crawlers look at webpages and follow links on those pages, much like you would if you were browsing content on the web. They go from link to link and bring data about those web pages back to Google's servers."
So when crawlers find new inbound links to your site, they see those fresh links as a sign that other websites think your site is important.
And they aren't just good for search engines. Backlinks are good for business.
Think about it: Imagine scrolling through Facebook when you see a friend posted a link from a blog talking about their favorite things to do in your town. You open the blog post, and the list probably contains links (backlinks) to the websites of the places the blogger listed.
If your website is listed (and linked to) in that post, the backlink isn't just helping your website rank higher in search results. It's also possible that some of the people who follow that blog are going to click the link to check out your business. Now, that blogger's audience becomes a well of potential customers.
So what can you even do about it?
While link building might seem like a hands-off process, successful link building campaigns are very much hands-on. I mean, sure you could sit around and wait for those links to come to you, but we don't recommend it.
Now that you've got the basics down, let's talk about what you should and shouldn't do in link building.
Link building experts say creating high-quality content on a regular basis is one of the best tactics to use for link building. However, writing a blog, making a video, or creating an infographic just for the links isn't going to get you anywhere.
If you're creating content that potential customers will be reading, then you'll need to have something interesting or helpful to tell them. Don't write a blog post just because you think someone will link to it. Write something that will provide value to your readers. People tend to share what they find interesting or funny.
What kind of content should you create?
Long-form blog content is the most shared type of content across email and social media, so that's a good place to start.
Not sure what to write? Industry-relevant content is the way to go, and you can use Google Analytics to help you figure out what to write. If your business is a spa, you can write about the benefits of the various types of massages. If you own a car dealership, you could write about how often to get your tires rotated. Lists are also popular forms of content, so something like "5 Ways to Prepare Your Vehicle for X" works - X could be anything from winter to road trips, depending on the season.
For local link building, other local websites are a great place to start. Small businesses in your area might not receive a ton of website traffic or even have a great website, but they will be targeting a local audience.
According to this Search Engine Land article, when you're trying to build local relevance for your website, you should go for those less-than-perfect local websites. While they might not have the most authority, they are focused on a specific geographical area, and those local websites are great for building the link profile of your website.
So if a blogger has a website about places to eat in Columbus, and they link to your website, search engines are smart enough to see that the link from the blogger's website is relevant to your website. And because their website focuses on Columbus, that is going to give your site more local relevance and help you show up in search results.
Consider going offline
Why go offline for online link building? Well, think about what building offline relationships can do for a local business. Your business is likely a part of your community, and you probably already know (and have even worked with) a lot of people in your area who would be willing to link to your website from theirs.
And if you don't have a lot of local contacts, think about making new friends. Find some local bloggers, businesses, or websites. But make sure to reach out and work on building a relationship before you ask about links.
If you're still stuck on who you can reach out to for backlinks, check out Local Search Association's list of the best places to look:
- Local bloggers
- News websites
- Local directories
- Chamber of Commerce
Although link building is good for SEO, it's important to think about actual human beings here.
Your customers are human, so where might they go to find local resources? All the above examples are resources for real people. And don't forget to claim your pages on listing directories such as Yelp, Google My Business, Bing Places, and TripAdvisor. Once you've claimed these, you can add links to your website from there.
Now, before you go out and add a link to your business from every listing directory you can find, remember that these links are sometimes considered "unnatural" by search engines. Unnatural links are easy to get, links that you can create yourself.
Link signals are important for local search, but search engines put less importance on some links (certain low-quality directory links) than others (links to content).
Links to content that you have created are considered "natural" links. Search engines put a lot of importance on natural links, especially if those links are from websites that are relevant to your industry or location.
And content is more likely to be shared than a directory listing, generating even more backlinks to your website. So having a bunch of low-quality directory links might be considered spammy and lower your local search ranking, but more links to your content are considered votes of popularity, and they can boost your local search rankings.
Think about it this way - the easier it is to acquire a link, the less importance search engines place on it.
Don't do this:
According to the Local Search Association, link building is one of the four top local ranking factors, and it's also the most abused.
In the past, companies have used black hat (shady) tactics to quickly acquire many (spammy) inbound links.
But companies that use black hat link building tactics are often penalized. Google launched its Penguin update in 2012 (and continues to update Penguin regularly) in order to penalize websites that try to spam the search results.
Don't mess with Google unless you want it to go all Taken on your website. I know you want a better search ranking right now, but get-links-quick schemes will only bring you trouble in the end.
Google has an extensive list of guidelines for links and link building. Here are just a few:
- Don't buy or sell links
- Don't try to acquire a huge amount of links at a time by exchanging links (offering to link to other sites if they'll link to yours)
- Don't be deceptive with links by asking others to use HTML and CSS to hide links to your site
- If the link-building tactic seems ethically questionable, don't do it
And Google isn't the only one. Bing also penalizes websites that use black hat link building tactics.
Link building isn't something you do once and then forget about it. Search engines like fresh content. There will always be new places you can look (think new content you can create and share, local bloggers who are just getting started, or new businesses that pop up in your neighborhood) for link building opportunities.
This post was created in collaboration with David Jackson.