NETSENSE: How to find the best inbound links

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A popular coffeehouse topic among Web marketers nowadays relates to building inbound links to Web sites as a way to develop an audience. Thus, this issue's NetSense question is: What is the best way to generate and manage inbound links to my site?

A: First, one shift in thinking I recommend is recognizing that your site listing in a directory like Yahoo! and your site listing at any other site are equal in one respect: They are both nothing more than inbound links leading to your site. A banner ad or button is nearly the same.

Sure, one may seem far more valuable than the other, but the power of any inbound link pointing to your site is based on the interests of the folks that see that link, not the numbers.

Not to pick on Yahoo!, which remains excellent after all these years, but as big as most Yahoo! categories have become, if you are one of 1,000 sites in your category, you better look into building some links to your site at a collection of more focused and targeted sites.

The best are those that are a good match for your site's content. Depending on people finding you through the big search engines and directories as your sole marketing strategy is nuts, since thousands of new sites are launched and submitted a day.

The process of developing an inbound linking program is much more administrative than you might think. Why? Free links are rarer these days as folks realize that links are worth money.

In fact, several services have sprung up that connect buyers and sellers of links, text-based or otherwise. It's sad, in a way, but a reality of the commercial Internet. Some sites even have policies of never granting off-site links, as they fear a link from their site could be a traffic siphon. It is, however, still possible to generate a nice collection of inbound links to your site without paying much at all -- except for your time and brainpower.

Connect with the best

To illustrate, let's assume you have researched and identified 25 other Web sites on which you would like a link to point back to your site. Some of these 25 are directories with no strings attached, some are topical site guides, some are specific to your geographic region and some are even at other promising sites in your industry.

The next step is where things get interesting.

As you approach these sites to negotiate your link, you need to be prepared to track the following information (I use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet): The name of the site, the URL, contact person and e-mail address, and the date you contact that person. That's just the start.

Next, you must track the date you get a response, the resulting deal -- some will say, "Yes"; some, "No"; others will not reply; others will want a link back from you or money for the link, or both; or who knows what -- the status of the deal; and verification of link in place. Finally, check the link over time to be sure it hasn't vanished (that happens).

As you can see, at any point in your inbound-link-seeking campaign, you have many sites and deals to track.

Ironically, you must do most of this before you know if such a link on the page will generate even one click and deliver someone to your site. Thus, it's important to cautiously examine which sites you want to link to yours and be prepared for the fact that, as time goes on, you might have to pay for the better ones.

Eric Ward began the Internet's first third-party Web site awareness-building service in 1994. He also publishes the URLwire, a private e-mail-based news service for new-media editors, writers, reporters and reviewers who cover the Web.

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