How should I start link building for a small business website?

A few weeks ago, I announced that I added an “AMA” (ask me anything) form to my website and encouraged anyone with an SEO question to reach out. This post is in response to the first question I received through that form: “How should I start link building for a small business website?”

Here’s the question:

I have been working on a small client site, doing all on-page SEO. The client has about 20 really well written posts. I’m thinking about a small link building campaign. I have worked doing link building on a large scale but am having trouble thinking of a one-person link outreach. What would you do? Reach out to other marketing agencies for link trade plus finding similar articles asking for a link swap? How many links per post would you try to get for this small business?

Having spent most of my years as an SEO marketing small-to-medium sized businesses, this question resonated with me. When you don’t have a big name to carry your efforts or the resources that often come with a large brand, where do you start?

What Google says about link swaps

First, I think it’s most important to address what Google says about link trades:

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results: Excessive link exchanges ("Link to me and I'll link to you") or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.

Google says that link exchanges are a link scheme and a violation of their quality guidelines when they’re “excessive” and “exclusively for cross-linking.” So, does that mean that link exchanges are OK sometimes? What does Google consider excessive?

Excessive link exchanges

While I’ve heard some people say that “excessive link exchange” refers solely to the volume or frequency of the request, I actually think it might also refer to the manner in which the request is made. Here’s Google’s own example:

Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)

“Excessive” by definition means “more than is necessary, normal, or desirable.” Bartering links in a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours kind of way is unnatural in my mind no matter how many times you do it. Forget “how many times until this becomes excessive?”  -- this type of reciprocal linking is by its very nature excessive because it’s unnatural.

At best, Google tries to ignore unnatural links, so they won’t help your site’s rankings. At worse, they could land you a manual penalty. I’ve always wondered how Google might detect link exchanges algorithmically, and it seems reasonable that they could pick up on patterns of reciprocity. However advanced (or not) they are at this currently, I’d rather be on the right side of history and avoid doing anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing someone at Google.

Linking for linking’s sake

Another component of a link exchange is that these types of links are set up solely for the benefit of a link. In other words, they represent no real-world relationship or editorial choice. Google wants links to be created out of editorial choice – they should represent a vote, given out of your own volition, in favor of the content that you’re linking to. Here’s what they say:

A natural link is an editorial choice. It’s your ability to link to a site based on the usefulness or merit of that site, because you want to share its content with others.

Compare that with a link exchange, where you’re essentially asking a site owner: “Hey I have this page. Could you link to it? If you do, I’ll link back to you!” If they link to you, they’re not doing it because they like your page. They’re doing it because they want a link in return. That’s why Google doesn’t like these types of links.

Is there a way to exchange links that doesn’t violate Google guidelines?

In order for a link exchange to be natural and not violate Google’s guidelines, I believe you’d have to change the name from link exchange to co-marketing.  

Where a link exchange says, “If you link to me, I’ll link to you!” co-marketing says, “Let’s collaborate and leverage each other’s audiences by promoting this content together.”

Here are a few examples of a fruitful co-marketing arrangement:

  • A local family law attorney and a local family counselor decide to run a free community seminar on conflict resolution

  • A local real estate agent and a local electrician co-author a series of articles about electrical rewiring for house flippers

  • A personal trainer and a dietician contribute content to each other’s blogs since they both have complementary skillsets that would benefit their health-conscious target audiences

This kind of thing takes a lot more work, but it has the benefit of improving your real-world presence, not just your organic search presence.

Link building strategies for small business websites

As much as I’m not a fan of the term “link building,” it’s still what most people use to describe the practice of earning high-quality links to their website for the purpose of performing better in search engines, and how this question was actually asked, so I opted to use the term throughout this post.

With that caveat out of the way, and now that we’ve covered link exchanges, here are some other types of link building strategies that any small business can take advantage of, even when they’re low on budget and resources:

That should be more than enough to get you started.

Think of links as the digital reflection of your business’s true value, and I think earning links for your small business website will become a lot easier.

Best of luck to all you small business link builders out there, and please reach out if I can clarify anything else!

Kameron Jenkins