The unsung power of outbound links

The W3C recommendation for HTML 4.01, refers to links as “one of the primary forces driving the success of the Web.”

The ability to link to external resources is so fundamental to the Web’s success all you really have without it is an online library. Links make the Internet a social network. They are the basic building block of online social transactions.

Optimizing a website for social media isn’t all about creating linkbait. It’s about making your website as socially connected as possible. Although the importance of inbound links is well known, outbound links are also a powerful tool in the webmasters’ toolbox.

The risk of outbound links

When it comes to monetizing a site, many view external links as a liability. I remember clients of mine back in the late 90’s that were worried about their site “leaking” visitors and asking me to remove all their external links. Nowadays, Google has made external linking even more stressful for all of us. Not only are our visitors possibly going down the drain, but maybe our PageRank and our Google ranking as well. Google’s webmaster guidelines are worrying enough to send you periodically scurrying through your source code to make sure nothing you’ve linked to has gone downhill and turned into a “bad neighborhood.”

While in certain cases outbound links may in fact be a risky, there is often bigger risk associated in not linking. That is the risk of lost opportunity in social networking.

We don’t just link to websites, we link to people

There was something I read the other day on Neil Patel’s new blog about personal branding that was really memorable. His business partner, Cameron Olthius, wrote a guest post where he discussed the success that Neil has had in branding himself. Cameron felt that one of the biggest contributing factors was Neil’s tendency to “never let anyone do a favor for him or anything unless he has done something for that person first.”

Not only is this a good strategy for life, it’s a good linking strategy for the web. The humble link is the only thing webmasters really have at their disposal to impact another website. When you provide a link to someone, it is often noticed. Savvy webmasters will see it in Yahoo! Site Explorer, Technorati or as a referral in their website statistics.

Just seeing your inbound link has benefits – all of a sudden you exist. Of course, webmasters are a curious lot. Many of them (Hi Neil!) will drop by your page to see the link and the context surrounding it. It can be a great way to get other people’s attention.

The good old days of webrings

Back in the pre-Google days of 1994, the social benefits of linking were perhaps a bit better understood. People had to scratch for every click-through. One of the most interesting ways in which webmasters leveraged the social nature of links was by creating webrings.

These were essentially websites that shared a common theme that linked in a circular pattern. For example, if you liked to play chess you could browse through a circle of chess websites, one by one and bookmark those that you liked.

Webrings were so popular, even Yahoo got into the game for a while. In many ways these were homegrown precursors to more sophisticated social recommendation systems like StumbleUpon.

Creative linking strategies

I was reminded of the spirit of the webring when I was invited to participate in an interesting project that Nia over at Make Money Online has been working on. What she’s done is gather up a group of about twenty bloggers that cover a wide range of topics and asked them to submit a short phrase that identifies their blog in some way.

She then asked each participating blog to use the linked phrases in the context of a blog post that fits with their own blog.

This is a lot like an approach that used to help me back when I was writing short stories in college. I’d throw a bunch of index cards with assorted nouns, verbs and adjectives on them into a paper bag and draw out three or four of them. The rule was that whatever cards I plucked out would have to be included in my story. Once I knew I was writing about a frog, cowboy boots and someone that plays tennis then I’d really have something to go on.

With twenty terms, it feels a bit more forced than I’d like but I think Nia’s done a pretty good job of incorporating them as a post into the theme of her blog:

Blog Your Dreams True

Clean up your act & get on with your life! Them sounds like fighting words! Well they are meant to be encouraging and getting you headed in the right direction toward a healthy lifestyle.

Reading about heroes daily is another way to be inspired unless of course you have a divas approach to life and work!

In that case, you need not rock your world today, you can ease into it with a personal blog, an online journal built on a platform similar to the one you are reading now.

Everyday pictures, everyday. Jennifer, our model for this post, does just that. Parenting humor, things that parents can appreciate, is a popular topic to blog about. Sometimes there is no “theme” other than, you know, “a day in the life of”.

To get a blog is a cinch. Just go to Word Press or Blogger and sign up. There is absolutely no need to be techno savvy, web development knowledgeable, or even know what social media optimization is! (However having access to some computer tips and a site like this will serve you well.)

Relax, sure you can work on that million dollar project or decide to share your articles on an article directory, but first it starts with a blog and a dream:

Have you ever thought about taking a trip to Norway, Bhutan, Portugal , rural India or some other exotic place? Ah, someday. What if today is that day?

I can’t wait to see what some of the other bloggers do with this.

Wait a minute, isn’t this a link scheme?

Google’s beloved webmaster guidelines say pretty clearly:

“Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank”

It sure gets harder and harder to remember the time when linking was much less stressful and you didn’t feel like you had to look over your shoulder and worry that you’ve just planted a link farm.

While there may potentially be PageRank benefits in a project like this (although these are minimized by the reciprocal nature of the links), reciprocal links predate Google by many years. Considering Google also recommends that we “make pages for users, not for search engines”, this should be the criteria we use to answer our question.

The benefit of breaking out of your circle

One of the things that I like about Nia’s project is that it gathers a few bloggers together that really don’t have anything to do with each other. They are not thematically related. It is easy to fall into a pattern where you are linking to the same resources over and over again.

There are a lot of good reasons for this – by and large it is more useful to link to other websites that are at least tangentially involved in whatever it is you are doing.

The benefit of linking outside your typical circle is that it has the potential to get some fresh readers that have potentially never been exposed to your content, yet may happen to have some interest in it.

While it’s not likely to build a significant amount of new readers through these approaches, lobbing a few external links outside your typical circle may result in a few new visitors that never could have found you in any other way. Considering that links are free, that seems like a pretty good deal.

What do you think? I’d love to talk to you about the pros and cons of this, and other linking tactics in the comments section.