December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Free, but not easy

(Page 2 of 2)

“If someone has a site that sells cooking utensils, we shouldn’t discount the value of that retailer choosing to purchase a link from a blog or web site that is relevant to their content,” he says. “Determine what constitutes a good link-is it relevant to the page and is it credible-and if you pay for it, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.”

Sponsorships of events in the offline world also can add links. For instance, a retailer could sponsor a local baseball team or a charity event and bring in links from those organizations’ own web sites. A thank you or a testimonial on an outside site in relation to a service provided or a community event can bring links from that site to a retailer’s site.

Blogs are another fertile field for retailers’ link-building. At the online store of Discovery Communications Inc., which also operates the Discovery TV Channel, toys are a major category. So the site has reached out to parent bloggers, bringing new toys to their attention, sometimes offering toys for their review and comment and seeing if links from those blogs result. To identify influential bloggers, it depends on input from Netconcepts as well as its own research.

“It’s a beneficial cycle,” Greene says. “As you have links coming into a particular area of your site, you get more traffic, and then other links may show up that you may not have actively pursued.” For Discovery, links from parents who have blogs help build exposure that leads to links to tech toy pages from technology bloggers and sites, even green-focused blogs and sites in the case of Discovery’s fuel cell-powered toy car.

And while compelling content and products work to bring in outside links, this works even better when supported by offline PR. A Discovery.com microscope mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article got a link from the article online; placement on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” later netted Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth DVD set a spot in the show’s annual holiday “Favorite Things” segment, with a corresponding link to the site from Oprah.com.

National Underwear Day

PR efforts and media coverage also combine with content to bring in outside links at underwear site Freshpair.com, a MoreVisibilty client. The site originated National Underwear Day, which features a live show with models strutting in their skivvies on a runway in Times Square. The site devotes real estate to the annual event year-round, with streamed videos, previews, reports of media and more, all of which helps to attract traffic and build links, says president Michael Kleinmann.

Online community and social sites represent another potential source of outside links for online retailers. Online marketing company Orange Soda leverages relationships it’s established with the most active users on social media sites in link-building program for retailer clients such as AbleKitchen.com.

After reviewing social media sites to see what people are talking about that might relate to a client’s business-for a kitchen site this might be buzz about a favorite dessert recipe at a popular restaurant-Orange Soda might develop an article about how people can prepare similar restaurant-quality desserts at home. It’s offered free as useful content to sites and bloggers in the cooking space. Where posted, Orange Soda then sends those postings to social media sites including Digg.com.

Digg depends on a user ranking system to figure out which submitted postings and articles are the most popular-or “dugg”-and that determines in what order they are posted, starting with the top spot on the home page. Sometimes words in those posted articles are linked back to e-commerce sites and the opportunity to buy a referenced product.

But according to Dan Garfield, SEO manager at Orange Soda, it’s not sales and conversions that are the real payoff for getting an online marketer’s content up high on Digg; it’s links.

“If you get on the front page of Digg, you are going to get thousands of hits in five minutes. Those people are not going to click on your ads, but they are great at spreading the word. A lot of people like to blog about stories on the front page of Digg. So if you get a story there, you might generate a thousand links,” he says.

While putting compelling content up on a retail site attracts traffic and links, e-retailers need to get real about the quality of the content they expect to do the job, experts say. “You have to ask yourself, why would someone want to point a link to you? It has to be something people really want, either because it’s truly useful or because it’s cool,” says John Tawadros, chief operating officer of search marketing company iProspect.

Drag and drop

He offers a hypothetical example of content that would be both: a home furnishings retailer creates a tool for its site that presents 10 layouts of a living room. Visitors pick the one that most closely resembles their own home and travel through the online store, dragging and dropping into the layout the furniture that interests them, so they can see how it would all look together.

“That’s something people might want to use and point to,” Tawadros says. “It’s about building something that will entice people, something they will want to pass around. If it’s actually useful, that creates longevity.”

Best practices in organic link-building revolve around the concepts of compelling content, relevancy and relationships-with a knowledge of new online media, cross-channel media and public relations, and a watchful eye on ever-changing search algorithms blended in.

Successful link-building also takes something online retailers haven’t needed so much in the pay-per-click online marketing environment, and that’s patience. Unlike pay-per-click programs that show instant results, it takes time for link-building strategies and tactics to find their audience and produce an effect.

“A good expectation would be to see some results 30 to 90 days after the initiative is launched,” says Tawadros of iProspect. “If I suddenly have a million links pointing to my site overnight, that is a red flag. No way can you organically get that many links.”

However retailers choose to pursue them, links are key to any search engine optimization program, experts say. “You need good content with sound architecture that is spider friendly,” Spencer says. “But just as important, if not more so, you need great links pointing to your site.”

mary@verticalwebmedia.com

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