How Not to Get Links for Your Website
July 25, 2010
A student from Columbia Business School sent me the following email — I have redacted a few identifying bits:
Dear Mr. Jennifer,
My name is [redacted] and I am the founder of the [website] . The purpose of this website is to:
1. Attract foot traffic to [businesses in a particular location]
I have been working with various local officials and non-profits to help promote this blog. I am wondering if you could help me with this task by adding a link on your website, or promoting on your twitter feed. Thank you for your help.
Let’s begin with “Mr. Jennifer.”
Long ago, I ran a company, and often dismissed internship applications from people who addressed those applications to “Dear Sir.” Although many of the “Dear Sir” addressers were of particular cultural backgrounds that value formality, any job I would ever hire someone for would require enough knowledge of modern-day American business culture to have had the common sense to look at my company’s website and see that, obviously, I was the one in charge, I have a name, and I am female.
Cut-and-paste error or not, this really another level beyond that. I don’t even have one of those dual-purpose, androgynous could-be-a-first-name-or-a-last-name-of-any-preppy-person names, like “Chandler.” There is no one named Mr. Jennifer. Actually, correction: there seems to be a Ugandan recording artist by that name. I am clearly not this person.
Next, there is a numbered list with only one number on it. If your website has only one purpose, it probably doesn’t need a number.
Finally, and most importantly, why on earth would I actually link to your website? Have you looked at my website and seen that I am linking to other, similar websites, or that I have been posting on topics related to the topic of your website? Note that supporting shops and restaurants in a particular neighborhood of New York is not a charity. If you want to get someone to link to you, you should offer something in return, or at least give some lip service to liking that person’s work. It’s not that hard to fake this. In fact, it’s expected (although I am a big fan of sincerity). Here are some practical steps for trying to get someone to link to your website.
(Note: I don’t want to write something article-length about one ineptly written email. My goal for this post is to, hopefully, say something that will be useful to others, as I attempt to do in my articles on TheGloss).
1. Address that person in a way that makes sense for how the person refers to himself or herself online. If you were writing to me, you could write “Dear Jennifer” or “Dear Ms. Dziura” or just “Hello!” Even anonymous bloggers tend to have handles: “Dear LinuxBabe,” etc.
2. Say something like, “I’ve been a follower of your blog for years,” if that’s true. If it’s not, say “I came over to your blog via a link from ThisOtherBlog, and have enjoyed reading your last few weeks of posts.” Or, the version with the minimum effort from you could be something like, “I just heard about you today from XYZ and loved your post about TheMostRecentThingYouWroteAbout.” How long does that take? About as long as it would take me to add a link to my blogroll?
3. You could try offering a return link, if appropriate. Among comedians who know each other, “Wanna trade links?” is all that’s needed. But if it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to put my link on your website, then do question whether it would be appropriate for me to put your link on mine. (I have no connection to the neighborhood associated with this request). Sure, some things are one-way relationships. For instance, I enjoy the A Word a Day list and am happily linking to it. I certainly don’t expect them to return the favor (nor did they ask me to link to them). I also have a rational expectation that anyone who is reading this post would also be interested in a Word a Day list. If you’re not offering a return link, or I would have no interest in your return link, then either don’t ask, or…
4. Acknowledge when you are asking for something that does not benefit the person you are asking. You know what I do like? Emails from teenagers who like philosophy, or punctuation, or whatever else I do here. It’s neat. It makes me feel like I’m reaching out to someone who cares about those things and might be feeling a little alienated, the way I did at their age, and who might want to hear something optimistic about nerdy adulthood. And do you know what a lot of those writers do? They usually apologize that there’s nothing they can offer me. Sometimes it’s pretty cute. Like, “Can I quote you in my school project, I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything in return.” You know what they are offering in return? Making me feel warm and fuzzy. Young people often underestimate the extent to which adults want to hear from young people who enjoy their work. So, back to the topic at hand. If you have nothing to offer, make note of that. Either apologize, or make a good case. For instance, here is a link to GEMS, an excellent organization that helps girls who have escaped from domestic sex trafficking. If they asked me to link to something in the future, I probably would, because that’s a great cause. If you ask me to link to a website encouraging people to support certain bars and restaurants, you’ll have to make a stronger case.
5. A really good request might end with something like, “Thanks for reading, and whether you link to MySite or not, thanks for making me laugh / I’ll definitely keep reading / I’m sending a link to YourHumorArticle to my friends.” If you can’t sincerely say something like this, question why you are asking favors of people you don’t really like all that much. I’m a niche property, and that’s fine.
6. If you are writing to a professional blog — something that has paid writers and publishes many times per day, on a schedule — then some of the above doesn’t apply, since sometimes writers and editors of professional blogs are hungry for content and do use tips and press releases. In that case, there are numerous sources of information about pitching to the media, and you should use those. You should also, of course, pitch your story as a story, and not as a favor. It might also take a little poking around to figure out whether you’re looking at a personal blog, a promotional blog, a blog-as-media-outlet, or some hybrid. If you don’t know that yet, you don’t know enough to pitch or ask favors. The internet makes things so easy! It’s not like you have to go back in time and use a rotary phone to call a reference librarian.
In closing, I’ll say that I’ve certainly violated these rules in the past, when I’ve had projects I was excited about. Once, I even had an assistant email tons of vaguely-related websites asking for links or link trades. I got virtually no takers, and since I was paying my assistant for her time, the folly of such an approach was obvious. Hopefully the above will keep someone else from making the same time-wasting, embarrassing mistakes I once made.
- Mr. Jennifer, Ugandan recording artist