Startups, linking to your competition will help you – no, really

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This is a guest post by Franz Enzenhofer (Xing), the SEO manager for tupalo.com. He’s an SEO expert who’s previously worked with Bwin.com, the Austrian Press Agency, 123people.com, tripwolf.com, dealhamster.com. He believes startups should absolutely link to their competition, and benefit from it. Here’s why.

Crisis! Oh great, the financial crisis is just behind us and we are already in the next one. But there is another: The Link Liquidity Crisis. Everybody needs Links, nobody wants to give links. There are not enough links on the market. And this crisis has been going on for years. This crisis is seriously hurting your own business, your market niche, your market segment and the Internet as a whole. And we are so accustomed to this crisis that most of us can’t even imagine an online business world without it. Shocking, isn’t it? But: every crisis is also an opportunity, for those who can adapt, change and are willing to try new things. Sounds like a perfect fit for startups. So now, link to your competition.

OK, lets us start slow: For most commercial pages Google has a monopoly on website traffic. Fact. A website which does not get at least 70% traffic via organic search seriously under-performs (and for good search engine optimized sites the truth is more in the 90% plus area). To have a website that attracts traffic via Google you need a few things: a website that actually works, a logical site structure, some unique content Google can extract meaning from, oh, and links, links and more links. Lots and lots of links from other valuable pages to your site. In the Google-Economy these links are the most valuable currency. But other valuable commercial sites are reluctant to link out, they just don’t do it. Why? Stupidity would be the simple answer, the more detailed answer is “Shortsighted non scalable competitive thinking taken from the limited distribution physical world markets applied to the online markets.” Well, time for a paradigm shift.

This “not linking out” of other big sites is the reason why valuable businesses have to play “suck up” with little bloggers and write annoying emails like “hi, we are regular readers of your great blog, we are this company with this product, please link to us and please use this specific links text, thx” mails. To be sure: most of the time, they do not read your blog, don’t think that your are great and they just want that link. There is a whole sophisticated industry out there which does this kind of linkbait in more (see here ) or less (hard cold cash) creative iterations. These agencies are the winners of the LLC, the established online businesses, the start-ups, the annoyed bloggers, the users are the losers. These agencies do not provide any real value to the market, they are just patching over a deficiency of the current online market.

The refusal to link
• The arguments why valuable businesses don’t link out are manifold but in general just variations of PageRank
• We do not want to help our competition.
• We do not want to lose our users.

PageRank = thought cancer
PageRank – the most common and worst “argument” of them all. That’s right when you talk with CEOs and CTOs and sometimes even SEOs about their businesses and why they don’t link out they don’t talk about their customers, their users, or their competition, they talk about PageRank. They believe that the green bar at top of the Google Toolbar is an important factor (if not THE factor) for their website performance in Google. That’s so wrong in so many ways, PageRank is thought-cancer, nothing else. PageRank is the “X. Li Gaussian Copula Function” of the online world. If the “X. Li Gaussian Copula Function” was the justification to make stupid decisions in the finance markets, PageRank is the justification to make stupid decisions in the Google economy.

There are actually two kinds of PageRank patients: One kind believes that linking from one page to another external page lessens the value of the page linking out (oh yeah, this value is then again measured with PageRank), so pages that do not link out are more important than pages that do. The other kind of PageRank patients think that linking out leaks PageRank out of the system, where system is a meta, nearly esoteric theoretic construct of their own website. Both patients come to the same conclusion: Who links out, loses! With this thinking interlinking, partnerships, corporations and even recommending other website becomes a burden-full if not impossible venture. Google has deprecated – what we think of as – PageRank years ago, internally they don’t even use this word anymore. They realized that their ability to discover and rank the web relies on links – and penalizing people who link would be well … stupid. (You can say a lot bad things about Google if you like, but “stupid” usually does not come up). It’s fixed. But actually you can’t really argue with PageRank patients about this, it’s like telling smokers that cigarettes kill. “Well, I know, but….”.

Every link has value!
So get over it, every link has value, a link does not only spread value but has a value of it’s own. You do not hurt yourself with linking. Every link, every connection, ups the value of the whole network, of the whole internet. Every link has value!? – Ok, well, this must be taken with a grain of salt. Every link that is intended for the user has value. Google is pretty good in spam detection. You can be pretty sure that Google found a way to strip out links from the equation that it does not deem valuable for the users. How it does this, well only Google knows, but every link that is intended for the users is valuable in the Google economy. Links are great.

We do not want to help our competition
Another common and dangerous objection. First of all, most Internet companies seem to think of everyone else with a website as their competition, some are a little bit more open minded and see only companies in their market vertical (and neighboring market verticals, and neighbors of neighbors) as the competition. This already makes the job hard to find partners you want to link to, but anyway: we must realize that the mini-competitive disadvantage which might occur for one single landing-page that links to another landing page is nothing, really nothing compared with:

• the positive impact of interlinking for the own webproperty
• the positive impact of interlinking for the users
• the positive impact of interlinking for the own market-segment
• the positive impact of interlinking for the whole Internet

Helping the competition? So what! Who sees enemies everywhere does not have any friends. Those who help their market segment, help themselves.

We do not want to lose our users
Ok, here is another truth that nobody wants to hear: in most cases your have already lost your users. What’s your conversion rate? 2%, 12%? Even if it is 12% you have already lost your users 88% of the time. Congrats. It is an illusion to think you can hold your users longer with not linking out. Most of the time the user is already gone. But you can have a say whereto you lose him.

Reclaim the navigation layer
Every user is just one click away from Google. Always – either the back button, home button, bookmark or the search bar. With Google’s help the user reaches the competition, or even worse, leaves the market segment altogether, jumps to the next niche. Yes, the users are fickle beings these days. Now everybody, you, your competition has lost. Everybody but Google. Google is the navigation of the whole internet, and this is for a good reason. Most websites, especially commercial ones, are one way streets for their users. To reach somewhere else, the users have to go back to Google – we are sending them right back to Google. Due to this, online businesses have navigated themselves into a position where every hiccup in Google traffic is seen with uttermost concern, even panic. And most of the website owners are not happy about it, no, they aren’t.

The solution: Change
It’s time for a paradigm shift. Link from your pages to pages that might interest the user, even if it is your direct competition, even if you don’t get anything in return. Enable the flow of user traffic between valuable sites in your market segment – without them having to fall-back on Google. The users stays longer in the market segment, has more opportunities to spend his money there (or whatever you want from him). Plus: happier users, more links on the market. No more (or at least: less) “sucking up” to bloggers for a simple link. More resources to focus on the product.

The current depression like state of the online business, the Link Liquidity Crisis, is not the way things need to be. Links are the most valuable currency in the Google economy, and we all sit on little link printing presses. It’s time to use them. But yes, for this we need to change the way we do business online.

Sounds like a job for startups to me.

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