Steve Rubel is genuinely surprised to learn that more than 320,000 Web pages link to his blog, Micro Persuasion. “Three hundred thousand sounds high. That many?” he says, laughing. “I had no idea.”
Both the volume and quality of inbound links are a critical metric for any Web site’s success. Inbound links drive traffic and are factored into search engine algorithms to determine a site’s relevancy in highly competitive search engine rankings. Given that, you’d think Web veterans such as Rubel would watch link counts like brokers check a stock ticker. But, as with many successful sites, link love is mostly a byproduct of creating a unique site with interesting, relevant content than a conscious effort.
“I’m not thinking about how to get links; I’m thinking about how to engage in a conversation, and for anyone in this medium that should be their goal,” says Rubel, senior vice president of the New York public relations firm Edelman. “I have a tremendous passion for the Internet and the democratization of the Internet and the changes that are happening in marketing and public relations and media. The links are just an extension of how I operate.”
Still, if you want to improve your business’ search engine ranks and expand its Web reach, it definitely pays to understand the basics of a link-building strategy. Here are BizTech’s suggestions for evaluating and creating links that lead to tangible improvements in your Web traffic and conversion rates.
Unfortunately, all links don’t hold the same value. Here are five ways to evaluate a link’s quality:
1 Authoritative Pages: One way to measure the authority of a page is Google’s PageRank statistic, visible in the Google toolbar. PageRank measures a Web page’s popularity based on the amount and quality of links that point to it. Typically, a site’s highest ranked page will be the homepage, but you can find instances where a popular landing page has a higher rank.
Viewing PageRank is important because when one Web page links to another, a portion of the linking page’s PageRank is added to the page being linked to.
2 Relevant Sites: In the early days of search engines, link quantity was all that mattered. These days, search engines are pickier about determining link popularity. They have dramatically increased the importance of links from relevant sites. The rationale is simple: If you’re important in your topic area, other sites covering the same topic will link to you. If you’re a bathroom-fixtures manufacturer and your site has accumulated several links from real estate sites, you won’t gain much ground in the search engine results pages.
So what constitutes a relevant site? Warm business relationships are the easiest and most effective method to improve the links to your site. For firewall maker BorderWare Technologies in Mississauga, Ontario, their network of reseller organizations provided them with a number of targeted links from well-established, relevant Web sites. “We’re reaching out to our partner organizations to discuss new, mutually beneficial linking arrangements,” says Gregg Timmons, vice president of global marketing and strategy for BorderWare. “We’ll continue to build our network of links as we bring new content and resources online.”
Devalued by search engines, directory listings aren’t the prize they once were. Still, well-placed links in a credible directory such as the Yahoo directory or Business.com  may yield tangible results.
“With thousands of Web directories out there, we recognized that we needed to get the best value for our time and effort,” Timmons says. “When looking at directories, our first priority was relevancy, and the second was potential traffic volume.”
3 Keyword-rich Anchor Text: Opt for relevant phrases, such as “quality imported mongoose meat” or whichever keywords are most relevant to your business, over generic, less valuable text links such as “click here.”
4 One-way Versus Reciprocal: Reciprocal links — two sites linking to each other — are of less value than one-way links. Even so, don’t let this sway you to become a link miser. If a reciprocal link is desired or required for your users, provide it.
Avoid creating a generic “Links” page, and instead consider creating a page called “Associates” or “Related Businesses.” Remember to keep it relevant. If a link seems like an odd association to someone visiting your site for the first time, chances are it shouldn’t be there.
5 Play Tag: Tagging means assigning a keyword or term to a content item such as an article. Popular Web services track these tags and use them to show related content from multiple sites. Consider this: A tagged story on the front page of www.digg.com , a site that lets visitors vote for the most popular content, can generate up to 20,000 visits a day.
Edelman’s Rubel assigns tags for the popular site Technorati.com  to his blog posts. He mixes common terms with some rather unique tags, such as “microchunking,” “atomization,” “transient Web” and “disruption.” The post is then listed on Technorati along with links to other articles that have the same tag. “If I take an obscure tag that few people have used and my post ends up on that page and someone’s searching on that term, in addition to finding my own page, they may find my link on the Technorati tag page,” Rubel says.