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Looking for Links in Your Own Backyard The seven-step plan that will help you take advantage of existing relationships to build your website's links

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The following excerpt is from the Garrett French and Eric Ward's book Ultimate Guide to Link Building, 2nd Edition. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

One of the most commonly cited — but rarely explained — pieces of link building advice is to "take advantage of existing relationships" or "reach out to your contacts." This isn't a sensational claim: We've confirmed, after auditing and analyzing the most commonly cited link-building advice, that this oft-cited suggestion has never received the deep dive it deserves.

The idea behind this advice makes sense, until it comes time to put it into action. Reach out to your existing contacts and say what, exactly? "Hey, do you want to help my business by linking to me please?"

The solution isn't to blindly send emails to your friends and business contacts that make you look foolish or unprepared. Instead, we've detailed an easy-to-follow, seven-step process that will keep you focused and on track.

Step one: Identify who you know who can link to your website

Consider some of the following factors when launching your outreach:

  • Who do you know who could potentially link to your website? This doesn't necessarily need to be a business contact. It could be your dentist, lawyer, cousin or former boss. What matters is that you consider everyone you know who's in a position to help with this effort.
  • Do they have a website? The reality is that many of your existing relationships don't have their own websites. At the same time, there are plenty of people you know who do and who, if properly motivated, would happily send a link toward your website from their own.
  • If they don't have a website, what do they have? What's their social media presence? Are they active enough on Facebook to warrant an effort, despite no website? Do they have significant social media followings? If you can't get a link from their website, there might still be a media opportunity, including traceable promotional codes or word-of-mouth.
  • Who makes the decisions regarding the website? This won't necessarily disqualify many contacts, but it's crucial to consider whether you're being realistic. Even if you know someone on Walmart's ecommerce team, it's unlikely they're going to be able to kick a link your way.
  • How strong is the relationship? Are they a friend? A business contact? Rate each contact on a scale, with 1 being the most distant and 5 being the strongest.
  • Ask your employees and colleagues what opportunities you might be missing. Are you sponsoring things? Involved in the community? Consider both your busi­ness and social relationships.

As you ask the questions above, fill out a spreadsheet to keep track of this information. Begin with an ambitious list of at least 20 contacts — as you go, you'll find the number both grows and shrinks, as you determine that some contacts are poor fits while discovering new opportunities that you didn't originally consider.

Step two: Determine what Kind of online asset will appeal to each individual

Now that you've determined who you're going to reach out to, you must determine what you'll offer them. Ask yourself: What can I create that my contacts will genuinely want to publish?

  • A testimonial. The art of testimonial link building has been around for decades. It can be extraordinarily simple: You provide a testimonial (e.g., a simple review) to someone you've worked with before. This can be an ideal option for someone with whom you have worked for or would like to build a stronger relationship with. You may opt to make this testimonial as simple as a one-sentence quip or as involved as an impressive infographic. What matters is that you share something that genuinely compliments and thanks your local contacts in a way that they can't resist sharing on their website.
  • Images you have related to their location or product. Consider how many photographs you have of the places you go, food you eat, services you've paid for, and products you've purchased. If you have some that are high quality, consider providing those directly.
  • A preferred vendor badge. This is a simple thing you can provide to anyone you work with that immediately gets you more publicity, a stronger relationship and a new link.
  • Sponsorships. This is a similar concept to the preferred vendor badge but used spe­cifically for local non-profits or other organizations you're sponsoring.
  • An interview or dialogue with your contact. At its simplest, this is a conversation between you and your contact, one that you will ultimately host on your website or will provide to them to host on theirs.
  • Unlinked mentions. A classic move for earning links—and one made even easier when reaching out to an individual you already know. This can be as simple as vetting their websites to see if they already mention you.
  • Unmentioned collaborations. In some cases, you might have an ongoing business relationship or endeavor that doesn't have any mention online yet. In these scenarios, work with the individuals identified to create some kind of content that mentions your business on their website.
  • Content marketing with a local focus. Quality content marketing can be as simple as a blog post that speaks to a niche audience with information they aren't used to hearing.
  • A press release. If you have several contacts in the world of local news or blogging, a press release is ideal. Remember that you're doing them a favor by giving them something they can easily turn into quality content on their website.

Before you start going down the wrong path, let's pump the brakes on something right away: We aren't recommending you incentivize them with anything other than quality content. This isn't a guide to sponsored content, native content or, worst of all, paid links.

Return to the spreadsheet, and under a column marked "Strategy," keep track of what kind of content fits your situation the best.

Step three: Reach out to every individual about the asset you can provide

Use these two ways to rank every individual:

1. Relationship strength. How well do you know this individual? Are they a friend of a friend? Do they owe you for a recent professional favor or positive business inter­action?

2. Ease level. This refers to how hard the ask is to complete. If you're asking for them to turn an unlinked mention into a link, it's a straightforward ask with a straightforward solution. If you're providing them with a press release, that's going to take more on their end. Consider this: Which of these are the easiest to get out the door?

Step four: Create the appropriate asset

In a vacuum, this would be the most difficult task in this list. However, if you've followed the three previous steps, this should become your easiest, most straightforward task. Create the best asset you can for each interested contact.

Step five: Send the asset, tailored to each contact

This is the big moment — time to provide your contact with the asset you promised. We recommend using a professional email that includes a link to the content.

Step six: Follow up and ensure they have what they need

You've made it through the hard part! At this point, you have to keep communicating. Remember, if you approached this correctly, these aren't strangers you've been cold calling — they're people you know. You should ensure they have what they need to link to your site while improving their own site in the process. It's important to be professional throughout this process so you maintain and build relationships, not burn any bridges.

Step seven: Send a formal thank you

Once it's live, it's time for a thank you. A handwritten note goes a long way. Another simple option is to buy them a cup of coffee. Just make sure you do something simple and thoughtful to show your appreciation.

Eric Ward founded the Web's first link-building and content publicity service in 1994, (then called NetPOST). He has developed content linking strategies for PBS, WarnerBros, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Disney. Today, Eric publishes a weekly strategic linking newsletter called LinkMoses Private, and offers clients strategic linking consulting and training services. Garrett French is the founder of Citation Labs, a boutique agency that specializes in custom link-building tools and services to solve large-scale marketing problems. Ward and French are the co-authors of Ultimate Guide to Link Building, available from Entrepreneur Press.

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