How Inbound Links Help Local SEO

Inbound links are the most weighted element in Google’s local search algorithm. Learn how they work, why they matter, and how to get them.

Inbound links, also known as backlinks, occur when another website links back to your site. Google views inbound links as an indicator that your site has high-quality content, making these links one of the most important elements in search engine optimization (SEO).

In the early days of SEO, inbound links were merely a numbers game; the sites with the most links ranked the highest in the search results. This eventually led to people using spammy link building techniques to put their websites ahead of the competition, forcing Google to rethink how their algorithms responded to inbound links.

Today, Google values the quality of inbound links over quantity. Links that come from reputable, relevant websites are much better for your SEO than links that come from lower-quality sites that have nothing in common with your own.

The difference between traditional SEO and local SEO

In traditional SEO, it’s crucial to acquire inbound links from relevant sites with high authority. These are reputable sites that have earned the respect of people within their industry, and they often have a large regional, national, or even worldwide audience.

Google’s local algorithm, however, treats links in a different way, which means you need to take a slightly different approach, too. In local SEO, it’s generally more important to acquire inbound links from businesses or organizations that are influential within your area. If you’ve got a small plumbing business that only operates in a particular town, for example, web traffic from local residents is a lot more valuable to your business than traffic from people who live on the other side of the country and aren’t able to utilize your services.

How to get more local links for your business

One of the most effective strategies for acquiring local links is grassroots marketing. In years past, business owners got involved in their community to help increase their visibility with local customers. Today, community involvement often includes another added benefit: inbound links from other local businesses, which help increase visibility with online customers, too.

If you’re already involved in the community in some capacity, take advantage of the things you’re already doing. There’s a good chance that you already have several opportunities to gain some links without even adding anything new to your plate. If you’ve already developed relationships with other businesses or organizations in your area, it’ll be easy to leverage some of those connections and build up a powerful collection of local links.

Need a few more ideas? Here are some common link building tactics you can add to your local SEO strategy.

  • Sponsor local events or organizations. Google doesn’t approve of buying links outright, and it’ll get you penalized. But paying for sponsorships that result in links back to your website is perfectly acceptable. Look for golf tournaments, 5k races, festivals, or anything else in the area that needs local sponsors, and then ask them to include your link on their website. You could even sponsor a little league team and get your logo on their jerseys (in addition to their website) for some real-world visibility.

  • Find out what your staff does outside of work. If you’ve got people who work for you, try to learn more about their interests. Are they involved with their church? Active in a local car club? Fanatical about their kids’ sports teams? It’s typically easy to get your business listed on other sites if your employees are already involved in local organizations—especially if they’re on the leadership board.

  • Support local charities. Supporting charities in the area is a great way to bring more attention to your business while also supporting a cause that’s important to you. Look for opportunities to volunteer your time or services (such as feeding the homeless or cleaning up a local highway, for example), and ask if the organizers will add your link to their website in return.

  • Take part in local meetups. There are 2 common strategies for participating in local meetups. If you’ve got a space that groups could use for their meetups, use a resource like meetup.com to find a local group that doesn’t have a permanent home just yet. If you identify a group that’s a match for your space, you can get a great local link from both the group’s website and from meetup.com. If you don’t have any extra space available, look for groups who need monthly sponsors. For a small fee each month, you could buy refreshments for the group’s meetings, and again, you’ll get a few valuable links in return.

  • Get featured on local blogs. If there are any local bloggers who are popular with folks in your area, reach out to them and ask them to write about your business. It’s even OK to offer them a free product or service in exchange for the coverage, because they’ll write that they received something free for writing about you, but you’ll still receive a locally relevant link.

  • Join local business associations. These are a no-brainer. Business association websites provide valuable local links, so if you’ve got one in your area, it’s a great idea to join. Even if you’re not active in the group, you’ll still get the link—and the SEO benefits that come with it.

  • Get listed in local business directories. Many cities have local directories to help connect consumers with the right businesses in the area. They’re often broken down into categories based on business type, but sometimes cities will even have separate lists to shine a light on businesses run by women or folks of different nationalities. So do a bit of digging to find out what type of directories exist in your town, and then get your business listed (and linked) in the ones that apply to you!

Your next steps

Using the list above (or any other acquisition ideas you’ve considered), try creating a spreadsheet of search terms that will help you find local link opportunities. Building links is an ongoing process; you don’t want to start from scratch each time you begin a new link campaign. As you come up with new ideas and strategies over time, be sure to add them to your list so you’ll be able to use them again in the future.

The inURL search operator will be one of your most useful tools as you get started. A search operator is a parameter that you add to a search query in Google to get specifically focused results. When you use inURL in your searches, you’re telling Google that you want to find sites that include a specific word or phrase within the URL.

For example, a search for “Dallas inURL:sponsorships” would give you a list of Dallas-based websites that include the word “sponsorships” in the URL.

Find out who’s already linking to your site

Before you start building links, you’ve got to know what other sites are already linking back to you. Link analysis tools that Moz, Ahrefs, or SEMrush provide, for example, make it easy to find that information. Simply search for your site’s URL in a link analysis tool, and you’ll get a list of all the other sites that link back to you.

(Note: These tools attempt to replicate Google's index, but they all crawl links a bit differently, often leading to slightly different results from each tool. If you’re working on a larger site—or you want to be thorough—you can use more than 1 tool, compile all the links in your spreadsheet, and then remove the duplicates to get the most accurate picture of your inbound links.)

Check your competitors’ links, too

Since you only need to enter a URL to get a list of that site’s inbound links, it’s easy to compare your links to those of a competitor. As you look through the data, be on the lookout for patterns. Have your competitors received links from more local businesses or organizations than you have? Have they tapped into any areas of the local market that might also be beneficial to you?

If your competitors have local links that you don’t, they’re likely seeing a visibility boost and reaching a larger audience than you are. Contact the owners of the website to see if they’ll add your link, too. While you’re at it, make sure that your site or landing page is more visually appealing, easier to navigate, and useful to outshine the competition.

Rinse and repeat

Your link profile will grow over time, which means you should never stop acquiring inbound links. That’s another benefit of the grassroots marketing strategy: Businesses that get involved in the local community often stay involved.

But you don’t have to acquire links every month. Seasonal fluctuations in inbound links are perfectly normal. Instead, consider running your link-building campaigns on a quarterly timeline; spend 6 to 8 weeks on your research, then go after your targeted links when you reach the final month of the quarter.

After each campaign, clean up your list of prospects. Remove the links you’ve already acquired or any opportunities that are no longer viable, then start your research phase again.

Written by Greg Gifford for Mailchimp. Greg is an expert in local SEO.