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This may seem like a fairly trivial question, but in it's most basic form - How do you do SEO?

To go into a little more depth, presume the website in question that we want to optimize is 100% complete as far as on-page optimization goes - great content, perfect SEO-friendly HTML markup.

I don't consider myself 'new' to SEO at all, but past this point it seems like the most obvious activity is link building. I don't know if it's just me, but I'm finding this incredibly hard. If it were a humour site with lots of viral content, I would just post my content in humour threads on various forums and let links accrue naturally, but the site in question is a commercial site - online store - and I can't think of anywhere that might want to link to my content. I don't want to spam and my understanding is that submitting to random directories is of little to no value since my site has already been indexed by Google (past point of indexation, I doubt adding any further links would have much/any value at all). My target audience are 'installers', so short of looking for 'installer' forums relative to my company's products, I'm not sure where else would be relevant.

An obvious step for where to start would be to analyse our competitor's back links, but most of those are spammy directories or from a 'SEO firm' which have just used their link farm. There is the odd giant site that has links from websites like the BBC to pages not relevant to the products on offer, but there isn't much we could offer in the way of alternative content that would invoke people to link to us either.

Ideas?

My question is applicable to any site, not just e-commerce. I guess my main problem is that my target audience aren't of a generation that live and breath the internet, meaning there aren't many relevant websites to gain links from.

How do you sit down and 'do' SEO past on-page optimzation? Presumably link building. If you have an audience that aren't likely to be webmasters themselves, you don't stand a chance of being linked to, so where do you turn?

(Obviously I undertake other marketing activities - we have a healthy base of 3-5k emails (given willingly at exhibitions/trade shows) that we can use to promote ourselves, as well as social networks and so on, but we are only really promoting ourselves to people that already know about us. We need to expand - with SEO being probably one of the most promising ways to do so (in theory)).

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3 Answers 3

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The short version for generating 'useful' backlinks

  1. Start a blog.
  2. Fill it with remarkable things.
  3. If you don't currently have remarkable things to fill it with, do or make something related worth talking about.

The longer version

You're right: for a lot of businesses, it's not easy to get links. If you can't get your customers to link to you, there aren't any obvious directories related to your field1, and your standards are high enough not to stoop to buying or trading links, what do you do?

In 2008 Eric Enge asked Matt Cutts, an employee from Google's 'Search Quality' (web spam) team, the same question. On the subject of what type of links people should be seeking to build, here's what he said:

So, what are the links that will stand the test of time? Those links are typically given voluntarily. It is an editorial link by someone, and it’s someone that’s informed. They are not misinformed, they are not tricked; there is no bait and switch involved. It’s because somebody thinks that something is so cool, so useful, or so helpful that they want to make little sign posts so that other people on the web can find that out.

Now, there is also the notion of link bait or things that are just cool; maybe not helpful, but really interesting. And those can stand the test of time as well. Those links are links generated because of the sheer quality of your business or the value add proposition that you have that’s unique about your business. Those are the things that no one else can get, because no one else has them or offers the exact same thing that your business offers.

On the subject of how to get those sort of links, he offers several pieces of advice. I've cherry-picked and summarised three of them, which each cited real-world examples:

  • If your company or product is interesting enough to talk about, talk about it. He uses the example of Zappos' hiring policy: they hire staff, train them, and then offer them $1,000 to quit, ensuring those who stay are fairly loyal and working for love as well as money. Zappos blogged about this policy and generated a lot of links as well as national media interest.

  • If your company or product isn't interesting enough to talk about, talk about something that is. Cutts suggests doing original, interesting research related to your field and sharing the results in a blog post. He gives the example of Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, who sent all of his email to a Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo email account, then measured which of them detected the most spam. It turned out that Gmail is much better than the other two, which caught the attention of Google, and led to them publishing a link to the research on their blog.

  • If your company or product isn't interesting enough to talk about, make something that is. The 'something' can be a physical product, a piece of software, or another download or takeaway, but it should be something that's incredibly useful to a large group who'd like it enough to share it. Cutts gives the example of eBay, who, while not in desperate need of inbound links, created a Firefox plugin to watch auctions. Lots of eBayers liked it, so they linked to it.

And where do you write about these sorts of things? Typically, on a blog under the same domain as your company website. Getting people to willingly link to your product pages is going to be tricky unless you're selling something that everyone wants, but you'll have more luck encouraging people to link to an interesting blog post. From there, you can use your blog to sell and promote your products if you wish.

In short, you have to either do or sell things that are extraordinary in the first place, or create and offer content that's unique and interesting enough to be shared. When you stop thinking of 'link building' as physically adding links to pages all over the Web, and start thinking of it as getting people to talk about you, it starts to become easier to imagine the sorts of things that might result in incoming links.

As a footnote, it is possible to create an online shop that generates huge amounts of inbound links to the product and sales pages (e.g. ThinkGeek, Firebox), but it's a lot harder when you're selling items that aren't particularly unique or desirable, which makes generating traffic in other ways a better option.


1: Even if there were, I think you're right in your feeling that it's often best not to bother with link directories.

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I'm glad they've addressed this. It looks like the way forward is to create link-worthy content. I find that a little bit annoying since basically unless a business can spend the time creating 'overly?' useful content they won't perform with search engines, when all they want to do is offer their real-world services or products online... but of course, this is the world we live in and SE's have to base their algorithms on something - and for the most part, it works. –  Anonymous Aug 16 '11 at 11:40
    
@Chris You can still offer services and products without performing well in search engines. Sure, it helps to be ranked well, but there are other ways for customers to discover you. The good thing about blogging is that you take traffic generation into your own hands; instead of being dependent upon advertising and organic search traffic, you create an opportunity to bring visitors that doesn't rely on either of those things. And you potentially increase page rankings too. I know what you mean about 'overly' useful content, but it's one of the few non-sleazy ways to build traffic and links. –  Nick Aug 16 '11 at 13:23
    
I'll have a brainstorm and think of some content or tools I could add to my particular site and experiment. Now the question is... if you were to hire a 'reputable' SEO firm (assuming they exist ;) ), given the task of improving our rankings for a number of product terms for a site that isn't likely to naturally accrue backlinks (and all on-page optimzation was taken care of) what do you suppose they'd do, other than twiddle their thumbs? I'd hope they'd come back and explain basically the issue we've just discussed, but somehow I expect that wouldn't be the case. –  Anonymous Aug 16 '11 at 13:27
    
<opinion>From a code perspective, SEO is simply correcting mistakes that shouldn't have been made in the first place. From a link building perspective, SEO is mostly competitor analysis and marketing. Frankly, a lot of it is common sense.</opinion> So yes, you're right to be skeptical about the value an SEO firm might offer. But don't let that put you off approaching some for a free consultation. Just be wary of paying anyone who guarantees a result. It wouldn't hurt to teach yourself SEO but, if you're short on time, spend it writing instead. –  Nick Aug 16 '11 at 13:59
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@Joshak You're statement "...networking with people who are likely to link to content..." is highly suspect. Are these people actually interested in the content they link to or simply engaging in traditional, "spammy" link building techniques? In what ways do SEO consultants "leverage the content for links" that marketing consultants are likely to do? –  HK1 Aug 17 '11 at 20:39
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... presume the website in question that we want to optimize is 100% complete as far as on-page optimization goes - great content, perfect SEO-friendly HTML markup ...

If your content is solid, you've eliminated any improper server responses or errors, the site passes Google's PageSpeed test with flying colors, and you are keeping on top of trending keywords for your subject, there really isn't any more search engine optimizing to do.

Link building is more a function of site marketing and public relations than search engine optimization (notable exception: black hat schemes intended to fool search engines).

If the budget for marketing and PR is limited, consider expanding the site's functionality to include services visitors can use (i.e. "take our health quiz") or investing in search engine marketing like Google's AdWords.

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SEM is something we have covered - a relatively useful method of researching which keywords it would be in our best interests to rank naturally for. Thanks for the other information - pagespeed is something I've paid attention to, I'm running a Magento store with 6k products, so it's a toughie. Thanks for the answer. –  Anonymous Aug 16 '11 at 11:07
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One often overlooked strategy for online shops would be to set up affiliate marketing. Go to the top 5 affiliate networks, set up your database and let blogs, niche sites and others link to your content naturally (whilst making a small commission on sales).

That way you could get dozens, if not even thousands, of sites naturally linking to different shop categories, product pages, etc. making a massive impact on your SEO. Also setting up promo-codes and deals lets these deal-sites and code-sites jump on your offers and linking back to your site (with the benefit of additional traffic) ;)

EDIT: Oh, and most of the affiliate sites should also be relevant to your product pages from a search engine point of view, leading to good SEO.

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