A link is a shortcut to quickly get you from one website to another. If you can harness the power of the link, you can make your website a force to be reckoned with. That means higher search engine rankings, more traffic to your site, and, eventually, more customers and more money in your pocket.

That’s why one of your New Year’s resolutions should be to become a master link builder. Today, I’m going to show you just how to do it.

Link building is one of the most important aspects of search engine optimization (SEO). When you attract links from other relevant websites, that tells the search engines that yours is a site to be trusted, and, therefore, displayed for relevant keyword searches.

The process of building those connections can be tedious. First you have to find sites in your niche, determine whether they’re relevant and of respectable quality, and then figure out the best way to contact the people behind them. It can be overwhelming. But I have three simple steps to get you started.

Link-Building Step #1: Link Research

The first step is to do a bit of research. What kinds of sites do you want to get links from? How do you go about finding them? There are several strategies, but one that will get you going in the right direction is to research your competitors’ links.

Let’s say you just launched a new site selling homebrew supplies. You would likely know that a popular competitive supply shop is NorthernBrewer.com. By finding the sites that link to the Northern Brewer website, you would instantly have a list of relevant sites that would potentially be willing to link to your site as well.

And you don’t need any fancy software. Both Google and Yahoo provide ways to perform this link research right from their websites:

• Link research on Google. To research the sites linking to your competitor, Northern Brewer, on Google, you would enter the following in Google’s search box:

  • link:http://www.northernbrewer.com

• Link research on Yahoo. To research the sites linking to your competitor, Northern Brewer, on Yahoo, you would go to a special section of Yahoo’s site called Site Explorer (https://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/) and enter Northern Brewer’s URL in the field at the top. Make sure to click the “inlinks” tab to get the list you are looking for.

Now Google is a little stingy with their information. They will typically display only a portion of the links that they have in their database, which is why it’s a good idea to use Yahoo’s Site Explorer as well. In our example, you’d see that Google shows only 352 links for Northern Brewer while Yahoo shows 62,810.

Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of links. Now the hard work starts. You have to go through all those sites and determine which ones you want to have link to your site. Why not just pick them all? Well, just because a site is linking to Northern Brewer doesn’t mean they were asked to do it. Remember, any website can link to any other website for any reason at all… and without the site owner’s knowledge. There can be some link farms and other dubious low-quality sites in the mix, and you definitely don’t want to get links from them.

Link-Building Step #2: Link Quality

You want the good links – the high-quality, relevant, highly trafficked websites. So how do you weed them out? There are a few online tools that can help you make the distinction between a good link and a bad link.

• Alexa.com and Compete.com.  These websites give you a general idea of the kind of traffic a particular site gets, and that can help you determine the quality of the site. High traffic typically means high quality.

• Google Toolbar PageRank (PR). Always controversial in SEO circles, many debate whether this particular little number means anything at all. Whenever I mention it, I always recommend taking it with a grain of salt. But a site with a higher Google PR is seen by Google as a higher quality site with a respectable number of links. In other words, a website you would want a link from.

These are good tools to have on your side, but not the only ways to determine the quality of a potential link. You can also use a kind of website common sense.

Does the site have quality relevant content?

If the site makes it possible for users to leave comments about its content, are they participating? This can be a sign of how active the site’s community is – a sign of quality.

Does the site consist of nothing but links to other sites? If it’s not a known directory like Yahoo, etc. it’s likely a link farm – so stay away.

Does the site have good design and navigation? Or does it look like it was patched together with FrontPage in 1998 and left to die?

Once you’ve identified the websites you definitely want to target for links, you have to determine the best way to approach each one.

Link-Building Step #3: Link Request

Gone are the days of the generic link request form letter. E-mails addressed “To Whom It May Concern” are usually deleted automatically by website owners

Link requests are now a request for a kind of partnership. That doesn’t necessarily mean reciprocal linking, but it does mean that site owners want to know that you have a genuine interest in their sites, not just in the “link juice” they can pass on to you.

Try to get familiar with the sites you want a link from. If you are targeting a blog, read it. Make some non-link-related comments. If you become part of the blog’s community, you’ll find the site owner much more receptive to a follow-up link request. You may also find that other commenters on that site have their own sites – and they may be willing to link to you.

If you find that you have no choice but to send a cold e-mail, try your best to find the e-mail address of a person to send it to. Not just a webmaster@ or info@ e-mail address. And when you write to that person, make it personal. Talk to them about why you like their site and why you think a link to you would be a fit for their readers/customers. Spouting off stats about your PageRank and traffic could be a turnoff for the site owner. If those things are really important to him, he knows how to do his own research (and will).

Link building may be a slow and tedious process – but it’s an absolutely necessary part of a successful SEO initiative. Knowing how to get started will make it much easier for you to build the links you need. And once you start acquiring some really solid quality links, you will no doubt begin to see improvement in your search engine rankings, your website traffic, and even your sales.

[Ed. Note: Running a successful online business takes more than just throwing up a website – but it doesn’t have to be complicated or confusing. Get a step-by-step guide to link building, search engine optimization, and more as a member of ETR’s Internet Money Club. Spaces are limited, so find out now if there are any spots left for the “Class” of 2009.]

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After graduating from Florida State University in 1997, Alexis got started in the golden age of the Internet marketing industry working agency-side where she performed everything from search engine optimization (SEO) to web analytics to media buying for several clients. She then took her expertise client-side managing SEO and pay-per-click (PPC) efforts, as well as other print and interactive marketing initiatives for companies in the financial and software industries.