“Like China, the Internet is a huge new market. It’s up to you to figure out what to do with it. Use it as a prospecting tool, make connections with people, add value for your existing customers.”  – Larry Chase 

In the world of search engine marketing, links are extremely important. Search engines view inbound links to your website as votes – endorsements of your site and its content. The more of these votes your site receives, the more the search engines regard it as a trusted source and the more likely you are to rank high in their search results for your keywords.

There are many different kinds of websites you can get links from. There are links from big trusted sites and directories like Yahoo and DMOZ, links from relevant vertical search engines, links from respected industry organizations, links from forums and blogs, and so on. And there are almost as many techniques for getting the links from these sites that the search engines love.

Today, I’ll talk about one of those techniques: how to use social media for building links.

The term “social media” typically refers to social news sites like Digg, social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us and StumbleUpon, and social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook. Social news and social bookmarking sites are the most common social media sites used in a link-building effort.

These sites were designed specifically for people with shared interests to post and vote for content all over the Internet. Social media is a great way to get your articles and website content in front of a large group of people in a relatively short amount of time. And this can generate lots of traffic to your site.

Now you may be thinking: “Um, didn’t Patrick Coffey just tell me that social media will bring my site useless traffic?” Yes he did. And he’s right… mostly.

Through my own recent experiments with link building through social media (as Patrick mentioned), I attracted over 28,000 visitors to our health-newsletter site, Total Health Breakthroughs. And a measly 0.2 percent of those visitors signed up for the newsletter. If this were the only marketing technique we were using to build the e-mail list for the newsletter, we’d be in some seriously sorry shape.

We’ve made some improvements to ensure that our conversion rate will be higher next time. Still, despite getting a disappointing number of subscribers from all that traffic, my little experiment with social media did have a positive side. It also resulted in about 600 inbound links.

This is how social media can give you a big boost, especially if you are just starting out building links for a new site. If a page of your site makes the first page on Digg or gets a lot of reviews on StumbleUpon, you get that much more exposure to Web users who have their own sites and blogs. If these bloggers and website owners like your content, they’ll link to you. This has the potential to build your links exponentially! And remember, the search engines love it when your site has lots of relevant inbound links.

“All right, you’ve convinced me! So now what do I do?”

1. First, you have to have interesting content.

For some ideas on how to create top-notch content that will help your website’s pages do well on social media sites, take a look at David Cross’s “Bad Writer’s Guide to Creating Website Content” and Patrick Coffey’s “Creating Content for Your Website.”

2. Then you have to present that good content in ways that will get the attention of social media junkies.

Here are four types of content that social media users love:

  • Lists – Some would say lists are cliched or overused by now, but they still work. Top-10 lists seem to do really well, particularly on Digg. As I write this, there is a story on the first page of Digg with the headline ” The Top 10 Places to Take a Techie on a Date.” So if you can rework a page of your content or one of your articles into a Top-10 list, give it a shot.
  • How-To Articles – Like lists, how-to guides do well. If you’re in the business of teaching people how things are done, you’re one step ahead of the game.
  • Controversial Topics – People love controversy, but use this tactic wisely. You don’t want to misrepresent yourself or your site. You just want to create a buzz.
  • Catchy Headlines – As with every other form of marketing, your headline is key in social media. Craft it carefully to attract the most attention.

3. In addition to having the right content on your website, you have to comply with social media’s unwritten code of conduct.

There is a reason social media is also known as social networking . When you create an account on a social media/networking website, you are literally signing up to be part of a community. Kind of like a condo association, the early adopters and hardcore users of social media sites take their communities very seriously. And they like it best when you play along.

If there’s anything this society hates, it’s overt marketing. If they suspect you are participating in their network purely to promote your site, they will report your submissions as spam and can even have the site disable your account. So here are some tips to help you appear more like a real person and less like a loathsome marketer.

  • Upload an Avatar – An avatar is a little picture that’s associated with your account. It’s a pixilated ambassador that represents you and all the actions you perform on your account. An account profile without an avatar is a pretty good indicator of a marketer.
  • Don’t Submit Content Solely From Your Website – This would seem like a no-brainer, but it is often forgotten. If the only pages you submit to a social media site are from your website, chances are you’re a marketer.
  • Add Friends – Friends will usually vote for the content you submit. The more friends you have, the more votes for your content. The more votes you have, the better your chances of getting content on the first page of the social media site. But remember to reciprocate. Nobody likes a taker.
  • Be a Real Person – A surefire way to look like a real person and not a marketer is to actually be a real person. Social media sites are fun! That’s why they’re so successful.

Let yourself go, and truly participate in the community. Make friends. Comment on posts. Discover new websites. When you do submit something from your own site, it will simply be another genuine contribution of great content. After all, marketers are people too, right?

Using social media to build links to your website can help boost your search engine rankings. It’s a lot of work, but it can also be rewarding… and entertaining. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to driving useful traffic to your website.

[Ed. Note: Alexis Siemon is ETR’s resident Search Engine Marketing Specialist. Get step-by-step instructions for starting your own Internet business with ETR’s Magic Button program.]

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.

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