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 He’s an SEO expert who’s previously worked with, the Austrian Press Agency,,, 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.

  • Ziad Salloum

    Very interesting analysis
    But the question is still there. How to find links?

    • franz e.
      • Ziad Salloum

        I meant link exchange or swapping. Coz I have the same problem. I want to exchange links but I am unable to find partners.
        My site is about chatting with mini profile,, i case someone is interested

      • franz e.

        please re-read the article above, it practically is the antithesis to link swapping.

        now i’m a little bit frustrated.

  • josh kliman

    This is like saying schools should constantly test children in order to educate them. Weigh the links in an article to find out what it is worth.

    Writing for links is like writing prose that is complete nonsense that will be marked by computer based on certain words. As long as somewhere in the prose you insert the words the computer counts, you are a triple A student.

    Problem is, the objective view sees that what you are doing is weighing links. |You loose the trust of your audience. The reader leaves for prose not oddly interrupted by strategically chosen anchor text links.

  • Stefan

    Thanks Franz for this insight. We launched a couple of months ago and recently I have been receiving mails from other sites that want to swap links. However the other sites are not in our market and are things like, Our target market are young professionals who may not be that interested in any of these, and at first thought I would have thought that it may cheapen our brand and seem like adverts almost, we have none of on the site; although after reading this article I should definitely reconsider. Should I leave these sorts of sites and do a better job at finding others to link to? Or exchange links with these companies anyway? And where do you recommend placing the links? In a fat footer, links page, or in our blog (although our blog is in a subdomain so that will probably not do). Thanks. Stefan.

    • franz e.

      > receiving mails from other sites that want to swap links
      yeah, thats the linkbait spam thats the logical consequence ouf our current linking behaviour. ignore it like any other spam. i hate this linkswapping like any other guy.

      my recommendation goes into the complete other direction, the opposite of link-swapping: start linking to sites – within your vertical – that makes sense four your users. just so, without demanding anything in return. you loose nothing. start linking to your competition.

      in a perfect world this or other sites in the same market will link to you, sadly we are not in an perfect world – but anyway, you should start as you do not loose anything, your users win, your market segments wins, if your users win, you win, if your market segment wind, you win. and somebody has to start.

      and then, yes you could approach them (or other sense-making sites) to think about an even deeper integration (in function, content and interlinking) of your both properties. if you come to an agreement, wow, great for both of you. if not, well the internet is bigger than we can comprehend and you will find another startup where an integration into your product makes sense.

      and these links / these integration should be from you valuable pages, the pages the users actually use, from areas where the users actually uses them. so footer -> bad

      • Stefan

        Thanks very much Franz (and everyone else that asked great questions). You saved us lots of time in doing the wrong things. S

  • Daniel Sim

    Great to see someone else flagging the misguided PageRank obsession and linking out paranoia that many dipping their toe into SEO pick up.

    However I disagree with your recommendation that linking to direct competition benefits your business. But I’m intrigued. I haven’t seen it work in practice (side-by-side product comparisons being an exception).

    Before we built our SEO web app, we reviewed would-be competing products on our blog. We still get organic traffic for their brand names. But when we launched I wouldn’t dream of it (not impartial, signposts competitors, dilutes our brand).

    Would love to see some examples of direct linking to competitors in the wild. Does Tupalo link to Yelp & Qype for instance.

  • Brian Field

    Tsk, more link bait…good though.

  • Andrew Girdwood

    I think you have to ask questions like – just how and where would a site like link out from? Their product pages? A blog?

    Linking out from their product pages would be an administrative challenge, they’d have to make sure none of those links wound up pointing to 404 errors, or none of the pages they pointed had been bought and transformed by spammers. Target, I feel, would want to stress that they’re not related to the companies they’re linking too nor would they want their customers to think there was a connection.

    The same is true for most finance sites; perhaps even worse as there may be local legislation which restricts who/where they can link to.

    Linking out is pretty easy if you’re a content publisher; a blog or newspaper. I don’t think the same is true for companies in most other sectors.

    • franz e.

      i 100% agree – and i have encountered all the arguments you mentioned and thousands more in various colors (angry red to shocked yellow) and sizes (from “oh no” to “oh my f*cking G.. you want to do what?”).

      linking out from your valuable pages to other valuable pages is a challenge in itself – but it is also a major competitive advantage, an advantage that startups can tap into much easier than big companies with oversized legal departments.

  • amrix

    your pagerank argument doesn’t make sense at all, especially when compared to the pagerank equations

    • franz enzenhofer

      yeah, and windows 98 was an awesome operating system. anyway: expert understanding of the interna of win98 will not make a great developer in 2010.

      knowing the pagerank formula (and most who talk about it dont even know or understand it) does not do you any good on your seo job now.

      oh yeah, both win98 and pagerank were developed 1998.

      pagerank is thoughtcancer. so please get over it.

  • Danny

    This is what im talking about! It has to be the competitors or the relevancy of both sites. Linking with the competitor is great link juice, and why would he be worried of his PR, if the meta data is there for ever on that page, NP. What bout the anchor text Franz ???

  • http://N/A Iqbal Gandham


    Interesting article, and one I feel makes sense (although cases studies would do more to convince)

    I would look at linking to competitors in a ‘special box’ in your website, and asking people to go and take a look. If they do a) you know where they are going, and b) just ask them that if they choose someone else’s product/service if they would be kind enough to let you know why ?

    So you do them a favour by saving them time, and letting them know of similar services, they in turn return it by giving you feedback to make your product better.


  • Barbara

    you don’t have to swap links to have links on other sites. You can add a link to your site on for free… without begging… as long as it’s relevant to a discussion. So the deal is: write a quality post on yoomoot and you can post a relevant link to your site… – if it’s not relevant or it’s not a quality post then it gets deleted.

    • Danny

      Your missing the point! what about the link back? you cant just spread links on your site like that, you’ll lose your link juice. Definitely if you don’t have a partner website with the same niche you will lose or by means get a link back from anywhere.god knows what algorithm Google coming up with. Google give good traffic in sites with quality link backs within the same niche, but getting links from other non related sites still works, not as good but works

  • Marti

    Sure linking out to other relevant sites doesn’t hurt you (in fact it’s thought it can help a little) but linking to direct competition??? Ok, it won’t hurt your site but at the same time it will help your competitors. When you’re trying to out rank the competition do you really want to be helping them but giving them good relevant links and not get anything in return… ?

    • Danny

      Who cares, you can get high paid one way links to your sites, like linking from paid relevant sites, directories, but is that good enough? How does the food chain work? the same as the google algorithm, it follows a rule of a chains effect. Do you know that your not losing much linking to the competitor, its actually good, your helping google find you better, now getting the link is the matter, and i doubt you’ll get the anchor for it but a link is a link. Now yes when the competitor is strong in the engines, your more than likely to be deleted by the competitor, as your not helping him, he’s helping you now.

  • Tom Nash

    Sounds more like the argument of someone with User Experience in mind rather than SEO imho. Linking out can have a positive impact (even on rankings) but ranking to competing websites / pages? I wouldnt recommend it to clients.

  • Danny

    “Sounds more like the argument of someone with User Experience in mind rather than SEO imho. Linking out can have a positive impact (even on rankings) but ranking to competing websites / pages? I wouldnt recommend it to clients.”

    Obtaining a link from a competitor is still good as the google algorithm will still find content relevancy better than a link , although when the competitor smartens up, he would go on a comment cleaning frenzy!

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  • Marti

    @Danny… Tom is talking about linking OUT to competitors as per the recommendations in this post. He is saying he wouldn’t recommend linking OUT to competitors and I agree. You’re just assisting their SEO benefits by doing this.

    • franz enzenhofer

      the web is not a zero sum game. you help yourself, you help others, you help your market segment, you help google, you help your user. – or you just not do it. then, eberybody looses (or to be correct: everybody not wins) if in doubt i choose to be on the winners side.

      i recommend googling “zero sum bias” for more understanding why people insist on non scaleable competitive thinking.

  • Werner Wichmann

    Our company has been doing what you have been talking about for a while and we are getting excellent results. It is really useless to keep focussing on pagerank, rather focus on the quality of links and the users experience and google will reward you. simple really.

  • Billing System

    I don’t see any search engine related benefit to linking only one way to a related business in your industry. I also don’t see any harm in doing so. This is quite pointless to be honest.

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