We’ve been telling you there’s no great secret to search optimization, but that’s kind of a lie, isn’t it?
There is one not-so-secret ingredient that makes SEO work. It also makes social sharing work. Referrals, too.
I won’t be mysterious about it — it’s links. Links make the web go around. They’re why it’s called a web in the first place.
When good websites link to you, those links are votes of confidence. Get enough votes and you win.
The hard part? Getting enough of the right links, from the right people. To do that, you need two things:
- Great stuff to link to
- Relationships with solid web publishers
We hammer you endlessly with advice on #1. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about #2.
The most valuable asset you have
When you’re online, publishing content and interacting with your fellow humans, you develop a collection of what we can call assets.
But there’s one asset that’s more valuable than any of those — your reputation.
Do people know who you are? And if they do, do they want to spend more time with you?
If the answer to either question is largely No, you have a problem.
Reputations are built with content, but maintained with relationships. If you publish good work and you are a good, honorable, and trustworthy human being, your reputation will grow.
But before you can have relationships, you have to get connected in the first place.
Who are your content crushes?
There is only one reason you should initiate a relationship with a content publisher — you genuinely enjoy their work.
Don’t try to connect with web publishers because they have giant audiences or massive influence. Connect with the ones you have a “content crush” on — the ones building something you find exciting and juicy.
Some of these folks will probably have large audiences, because exciting work tends to attract a crowd. Some will have tiny audiences. Some have sites that are growing. Some have sites that are more active or less active.
You’re not going to try to become these folks. That would be weird and insulting. But you might try to find a place for yourself in their ecosystem.
What is it about their work that turns you on? Is it their values? Their approach to the topic? Their voice? Some combination of all of those?
When you take in a lot of exciting work, your own work becomes more exciting. Not because you’re copying, but because you’re inspired by different approaches to your subject.
Don’t suck up — just be nice
If your content crushes are decent human beings, they’re going to be a bit weirded out if you immediately head over to their site and start “squeeing all over your shoes,” to use Pace Smith’s fine phrase.
People who make content share all of the insecurities, preoccupations, and problems any of us have. Good people don’t like to be treated like deities.
So instead of making your content crushes into gods, geek out with them over your topic.
The subjects we write about make dandy subjects for good conversations. Talk about their post structure, the visual detail of those YouTube tutorials, or the epic over-the-topness of that last rant.
When you talk about the work, it’s interesting. When you talk about the topic, it’s engaging. When you talk about how awesome and amazing and godlike the person is, it’s just awkward.
We’ve all done the awkward squee thing. I certainly have. Try not to be embarrassed about what you might have done in the past — just move forward with a different approach in mind.
One thing about our content crushes is that a lot of them teach, either part-time or full-time.
Maybe they’re running a workshop or speaking at a conference. You won’t be able to make every one, but I bet you can make one or two a year. Meeting people in real life makes an impression that can’t be duplicated online, as much as I might love my cozy digital reality.
But we’re digital denizens, and online connections are an important part of how we connect. See if your content crush offers online classes somewhere. If they do, try to attend. You’ll get a much closer look at why their work looks like it does … and it can be a great place to share your own experience, to polish your craft, and maybe even show off a little.
Seek social playgrounds
As a writer, I admire the evocative, nimble, and hilarious writing of Gary Shteyngart.
I also admire Salman Rushdie’s multilayered verbal embroidery.
And one memorable afternoon on Twitter, I got to watch the pair of them play a game of writing handball, tossing tweets back and forth in a dizzying rush, playing with language at a sublime level.
Oh yeah, I fangirled. (Quietly.)
Social media sites make marvelous playgrounds for creative folks. Lots of writers love the compression and immediacy of Twitter. Visual artists naturally make homes on Pinterest and Instagram, but don’t overlook a more niche playground like Sktchy.
And good old Facebook has thriving groups for nearly any endeavor you can think of, from Activism to Zentangle.
Where do your content crushes go to play? You can go there, too. Often, you can even play in the same sandbox. Maybe you’ll make a connection with your content crush, and maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll expand your ecosystem and find other rich relationships.
Which brings us to an important point:
An ecosystem is not made of two people
“Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.” – playwright Wilson Mizner
If you have a secret fantasy of you and your content crush sailing off into the sunset together, I won’t judge you. We’ve all been there.
But trying to connect only with that person, and ignoring everyone else in the room, is obnoxious. As you work on building relationships with your content crushes, you’re also building relationships with all the other folks in the ecosystem — and that’s often where you find the greatest value.
- You’re connecting with their support teams. (Do not underestimate the value of this.)
- You’re connecting with other students.
- You’re connecting with the other writers or experts they work with.
Maybe you aren’t a brilliant expert in your own right … yet. That’s fine. Getting really good at your chosen content form is a matter of lots of deliberate practice.
Working (and playing) within a creative ecosystem makes that practice a lot more deliberate, and a lot more inspired. And as you grow, you’ll meet other folks to share your obsessions with. The relationships with those folks are part of your wealth.
Avoid these relationship killers
I would think all of these would go without saying, but … I have to tell you, people surprise me every day.
Relationships take time to build, but they can collapse in an instant. Wise relationship habits will help you keep the friendships that you form.
- If someone in your ecosystem does something that bugs you, bring it up with them privately rather than bitching about it on Twitter.
- Also avoid “Vaguebooking” — complaining on Facebook without naming names.
- When you do get the chance to work with folks, meet your deadlines and keep your promises.
- Don’t offer other sites second-rate work. Publish excellent material, everywhere you publish.
- Don’t gossip. Trust me, it always, always gets back to the person you’re trashing.
- If you do or say something that isn’t great (it happens), be brave, own up to it, and do what you can to make it right. Hiding from your mistakes just makes them worse.
You already know all of this, I’m sure, but reminders can be useful.
Circling back to SEO
So — now that you have a rich ecosystem of friends, acquaintances, and connections who are publishing content about your subject, you’ll just email them 10 or 15 times a week asking for links, right?
Yeah, you know that’s not the answer.
I don’t think you have to wait around hoping your content masterpiece will get noticed. But not everything you create is a masterpiece, either.
It’s fine to let your ecosystem know what you’re working on. It’s fine to point people to your content, as long as that isn’t all you do. You don’t want to be a self-promotional boor, but you also don’t want to be so polite that no one has the faintest idea what you do. Keep it balanced.
Remember, relationships are wonderful, but they’re just one side of the equation. If you don’t have something on your own site that’s truly worth linking to, you won’t get good links.
No one understands how to do this quite like Copyblogger’s founder, Brian Clark. And he’s going to be writing more specifically about exactly that on Monday. So stay tuned …