Today, on the Business of Software forums, a newer software developer asked how I managed to get people to link to me.  The motivation in getting links is both to get visitors directly from the websites you are linking to and to influence the search engines into prefering your site over the other fifty zillion on the Internet when they decide “Who is worthy of this searcher?”, on the theory that someone who has convinced unrelated webmasters to link to them must be doing something right.

But getting links can be a little challenging for some small businesses.  For one thing, us software developers don’t typically start with massive amounts of marketing or sales talent, and getting a link is effectively selling someone on the proposition that you’re worthy of them spending their time, attention, and social capital on you.  

As my anonymous questioner points out, “it is quite difficult to get people to link to a website which is selling a product.”  There are a variety of reasons why many people believe that to be so — one is that many people who are otherwise free with links resent the commercialization of the Internet.  Another, I feel, is that folks who make money with websites are not that great at explaining the value of linking to that website to people who will not see money from the link.

Let’s see if we can’t fix that.  I’ve been successfully building links to Bingo Card Creator for going on two years now.  Apparently my ideas on the matter were consistently interesting enough to convince Aaron Wall (a SEO and marketing professional of some note, who writes SEOBook) to give me a free subscription to his service if I kept posting them there.  (So I guess that is one way to get a free link — flatter folks and give them stuff for free.  Guess what, all joking aside, this works great!  But I digress.)  So I want to walk you through some of the things I’ve done which I have found successful and which I think you can adapt to your own businesses.

1)  Make some friends, fans, or fans into friends.  A while ago I had this idea that all anyone really needs to succeed in business on the Internet is to have about 1,000 fans.  I was going to blog about that and then got beaten to the punch by 1,000 True Fans, which is just an excellent article.  The author talks about how 1,000 people buying what you write, be it music or software, is enough to support an independent IP creator.  

I want to approach the idea of how fans can support you in a bit of a larger sense.  One way a fan can support you, without ever spending a dime, is by considering you worthy enough to tell their friends about.  For example, your fan might have a blog with a readership of a handful, a few dozen, or a few hundred people.  If your fan were to develop an emotional attachment to your success, for whatever reason, they might decide to blog about you just to share their passion with people that they care about, because that is often what we do with our friends. 

For example, my participation in the uISV (small software makers) community has gathered me a handful of very good friends and fans.  Vanishingly few of them will ever need what I sell, but they like the advice I give on this blog, they like that I am generally generous with my time for helping other folks trying to start up businesses (even in the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog market of selling bingo cards to elementary school teachers), and hopefully they like my personality.  So many of them will, for example, cheer when I have successes and actively try to bring them about.  One way they can is by spreading my ideas (i.e. linking to me), and they often decide to do that with no special prompting from me.

Truly an amazing phenomenon, that, and this is one absolutely anybody can participate it.  Find your local community, for any value of local you can name, and engage in it.  Use all of that collected wisdom from kindergarten — share, play well with others, don’t pull little Suzy’s ponytails.  Give folks a reason to like you, and the links will follow it.

2)  Blogging for your customers and people like them.

Blogging for your customers is different than what I do on this blog, most of the time.  For example, the typical elementary school teacher will never understand the value of getting their personal page linked at — it just does not advance them towards a goal that they value.  But suppose I got around to fulfilling my many-times-postponed resolution about opening a teaching activities blog on Bingo Card Creator. 

This would immediately make the site more linkable — blogging is quintessentially about having a conversation on the Internet with the basic utterance containing hyperlinks.  Its like they invented a form of communication to line up with what Google thinks is a sign of value.  Since your blog will typically not be commercially focused, but rather focused on providing value to your customers and/or people like them, it avoids much of the difficulty of getting folks to link to your product pages.  There is easily explainable value to linking to a post which is useful (“My readers will find this useful”), emotionally resonant (“Wow, this is emotionally resonant and I want to share this experience with other people”, well-written, funny, etc. 

(Incidentally, the only difference between your customers and “people like them” is that the second group hasn’t given you money.  Yet.  I say have an optimistic point of view about things.)

3)  Create resources your customers/people like them can use.

The very first thing I ever did to get links to my site was to create a list of Dolch sight words.  In brief, that is a piece of information that almost all my customers understand the value of (all you need to do is say those five words, bam, they think “Ooh, I want!”) but that few of them have memorized or written somewhere convenient in their notes.  Generating them was trivial, as they’re in the public domain.  Writing them up nice and pretty took me an hour.  That page has been linked to about 65 times according to Yahoo, probably half of them by people other than me.  These include school districts, libraries, teacher blogs, a government agency or two, and other folks who Google (in its infinite wisdom) decides to value the opinion of highly.

(Speaking of which, a particular competitor of mine had an interesting twist when he copied this idea: he bought an available domain just for that one resource, which makes it look like the official place to find the information and gives a pretty sweet bonus for ranking for the exact query [dolch sight words] in Google.  I think that tactic is worthy of the most sincere form of flattery, particularly if you know a resource is going to be very popular.  Domains are cheap, bordering on free when you consider how many thousands of people you’ll be showing your software to every year if you own the right ones.)

4)  Creating resources that other people like to use.

This next one is a bit of a mind-bender for many folks: while topical links are the best kind of link, in general, links which are not topical are still worth something, too.  Potentially a lot of something.  Thus, particularly when you are in an industry which is naturally link-poor (say, something in which the typical customer doesn’t own a blog and where most websites are 5 pages large, hosted on Geocities, and have Under Construction signs on them), you can get a lot of value out of expanding the reach of your offerings to include folks who are link-rich.

There are any number of folks who are link-rich.  Most readers of my blog are programmers, and we tend to be near the bleeding edge of the tech adoption curve.  If you find folks who are near the bleeding edge of the tech adoption curve for programmers, the odds that they give out links on a regular basis approaches 1.  (Heck, they probably have already gotten bored of some Web 3.0 ways to do so which I haven’t even heard of yet.  Maybe you can telepathically insert links directly into the eyeballs of anyone who has ever used Twitter to access Facebook through an iPhone these days.)

On group which I happen to belong to is Rails programmers, and when I write useful information on how to solve business problems in Rails (such as how to make Rails even more friendly to search engines than it is out of the box), they flood me with links.  (I think that page has gotten about 100.)  Granted, it doesn’t go direct to my product pages, but it increases my domain’s overall trust and I can control the links on the page to channel some link juice wherever I want it.

5)  Do it with style.

Always remember that there are, according to rigorous scientific studies, approximately 53,234,324,658,342,190 web pages out there that people could be looking at rather than your site… and those are just the ones that include pictures of cute kittens. 

Visually engaging your readers works.  The Internet, I swear, it sucks the literacy straight out of people, but arresting photography, stunning site design, cute icons, and the like make it much easier to rise above the Don’t Care threshold and get folks to recommend you to other people.  You subconsciously trust almost anything more if it is presented in an attractive fashion, and in some cases you might decide to share something just because it is pretty.  (It certainly worked for Clicky getting a link from me earlier this week.  Looks like it has now worked twice!  Just a pretty, solid site design there.)

Speaking of sharing things for the sheer beauty of it, it is sakura season here in Japan.

Photo of Sakura in bloom (mankai) taken in Gifu City, Japan

(I took that one two years ago in a park in Gifu City.)  We now interrupt your photo viewing enjoyment to continue with an important message from the article proper.

6)  Do it to scale

Imagine you have one really good idea for a resource to attract links.  Maybe it is one beautiful picture of sakura.  Now imagine that you could expand that to pictures of a hundred sakura, all beautiful, organized in some effective manner which both shows folks the ones that are most beautiful and hints at the richness which is only a mouseclick or two away.  Do you think you would get linear returns to the extra photos, i.e. 100 times the worth of one photo?  No.  I think this strategy is super-scalar — if you are good with information architecture, and site design, and in quickly communicating the value of what you have to the reader, I think that doing things in larger numbers turns you into something qualitatively different instead of just quantitatively different.  When you need a picture of beautiful sakura (and who doesn’t?), you don’t go to the guy who has one picture.  You go to the guy who has a hundred pictures, because he has established himself as the Authoritative Source on Pretty Cherry Blossom Photos.  (That title may be copyright and trademark of this lady I found on Flickr earlier.  Simply stunning.  More broadly, the whole “we aggregate a few million pictures, most of them are stunning” thing has certainly paid off for Flickr, since when I wanted to find someone with pretty flower pictures I went straight to Flickr to search because even artistically-disinclined me knows that Flickr is the place to go when you want pretty pictures.) 

Its not just pictures.  One resource which, oddly enough, helps you sell a Bingo Card Creator is having a large collection of printable bingo cards.  Accordingly, I have a few hundred on my site and am adding more all the time.  I can, and have, elaborated on how specific choices of my site design work to convey the richness of the offering to prospective visitors and linkers.  More on that on another day.  It is working out fairly well for me, and as you can see from this handy graph my visitors love it and it is getting more popular all the time.  (I don’t have a graph of inlinks as a result of that resource but if I did its shape would be similar.)

7)  Make your content easy to share

You might not have noticed, but that kitten photo above was built with the Lolcat Builder, because I am a lazy bum and do not want to get out Paint.NET just to make myself a one-liner.  My sloth is their gain, because the straight-line path to getting that joke onto your screen is to link to the image hosted at Lolcat Builder. 

Most of you are programmers.  With just a little bit of ingenuity, you can make your content easy for your customers to embed on their sites.  This could range from anything from programatically composing linking directions (see, for example, the instructions I give to folks for share these cards on my site) to making a widget that lets people get even more goodness out of your content.  (Heck, the widget itself could be the content.) 

For example, Delicious (I hear there are periods in there somewhere — and, darn it, I refuse to use them) makes it really easy for you to embed Delicious links in your site.  Something like, say, this one, which if you click on it will let you bookmark this article. 

Whoopsie, has decided to protect me against Javascript injection by not letting me post this widget here. Grr. See here for instructions on how to do it on your site, or you can take a look at my site where I have examples running.

You might find that useful — if you do, please, go right ahead.  If not, marvel on the fact that without any coding whatsoever I was able to add functionality to my blog post by doing Delicious a favor, and do some thinking on how you can get this dynamic to work for you.  (One of Aaron Walls suggestions to me was that I make widgets to distribute my most popular bingo cards to teachers with blogs and the like.  That is definately on the list of things to do after I achieve any level of expertise with Javascript.)

8)  Write like an Authority

In any field where the cost of replicating a success is zero there is going to be one far-and-away winner and then there is going to be a massive cliff separating them from second place.  Content creation on the Internet typically fits the bill pretty well — winners win, because why would you go to the second best place to get something you need when the first best is, well, better at the same price (free). 

(This does not mean first place is necessarily actually better than second place.  Wikipedia is quite rarely the best single resource on the Internet for something you want to know about, but it is often the first that springs to mind, and thus it is the best at being Just Good Enough For Right now, which is apparently a market segment worth owning.)

This is the basis for the Filthy Linking Rich phenomenon — the page which achieves authoritative status for a particular concept, query, or idea will typically tend to achieve self-reinforcing authority for it.  I am linking to Filthy Linking Rich because I was explained the concept by someone (who I have forgotten!) who used Filthy Linking Rich to explain the concept that someone else (who I don’t know!) used Filthy Linking Rich to…  etc etc, the rabbit hole goes pretty deep, and that article will continue getting backlinks until the end of time.  (October 2004 — that is practically antediluvian in Internet years.  Yikes, back in 2004, we didn’t even have Youtube, did we?  And yet there is that article from Internet prehistory still merrily humming along.)

I like to call content which tends to stand the test of time evergreen content.  While there is some merit in producing things which will be almost useless in a week (like many of my holiday bingo cards — nobody wants St. Patrick’s Day bingo cards 50 weeks out of the year), particularly if you can be the first or best or both at it, most of the longterm value is in the evergreen content.  (Or being the authority for breaking news, because the authority status you earned is evergreen itself, as long as you keep writing — I think I’ve been visiting Instapundit for 7 years now because Glenn Reynolds is to me what newspapers were to my grandfather’s generation.)

I’ll write an article on writing like an authority later, hopefully sometime this week when I have a bit of time to spare.  If you’ve got any particular questions about it, or any of the other points here, please feel free to drop a comment.