How do you 'do' SEO past on-page optimization?

The short version for generating 'useful' backlinks

  1. Start a blog.
  2. Fill it with remarkable things.
  3. If you don't currently have remarkable things to fill it with, do or make something related worth talking about.

The longer version

You're right: for a lot of businesses, it's not easy to get links. If you can't get your customers to link to you, there aren't any obvious directories related to your field1, and your standards are high enough not to stoop to buying or trading links, what do you do?

In 2008 Eric Enge asked Matt Cutts, an employee from Google's 'Search Quality' (web spam) team, the same question. On the subject of what type of links people should be seeking to build, here's what he said:

So, what are the links that will stand the test of time? Those links are typically given voluntarily. It is an editorial link by someone, and it’s someone that’s informed. They are not misinformed, they are not tricked; there is no bait and switch involved. It’s because somebody thinks that something is so cool, so useful, or so helpful that they want to make little sign posts so that other people on the web can find that out.

Now, there is also the notion of link bait or things that are just cool; maybe not helpful, but really interesting. And those can stand the test of time as well. Those links are links generated because of the sheer quality of your business or the value add proposition that you have that’s unique about your business. Those are the things that no one else can get, because no one else has them or offers the exact same thing that your business offers.

On the subject of how to get those sort of links, he offers several pieces of advice. I've cherry-picked and summarised three of them, which each cited real-world examples:

  • If your company or product is interesting enough to talk about, talk about it. He uses the example of Zappos' hiring policy: they hire staff, train them, and then offer them $1,000 to quit, ensuring those who stay are fairly loyal and working for love as well as money. Zappos blogged about this policy and generated a lot of links as well as national media interest.

  • If your company or product isn't interesting enough to talk about, talk about something that is. Cutts suggests doing original, interesting research related to your field and sharing the results in a blog post. He gives the example of Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, who sent all of his email to a Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo email account, then measured which of them detected the most spam. It turned out that Gmail is much better than the other two, which caught the attention of Google, and led to them publishing a link to the research on their blog.

  • If your company or product isn't interesting enough to talk about, make something that is. The 'something' can be a physical product, a piece of software, or another download or takeaway, but it should be something that's incredibly useful to a large group who'd like it enough to share it. Cutts gives the example of eBay, who, while not in desperate need of inbound links, created a Firefox plugin to watch auctions. Lots of eBayers liked it, so they linked to it.

And where do you write about these sorts of things? Typically, on a blog under the same domain as your company website. Getting people to willingly link to your product pages is going to be tricky unless you're selling something that everyone wants, but you'll have more luck encouraging people to link to an interesting blog post. From there, you can use your blog to sell and promote your products if you wish.

In short, you have to either do or sell things that are extraordinary in the first place, or create and offer content that's unique and interesting enough to be shared. When you stop thinking of 'link building' as physically adding links to pages all over the Web, and start thinking of it as getting people to talk about you, it starts to become easier to imagine the sorts of things that might result in incoming links.

As a footnote, it is possible to create an online shop that generates huge amounts of inbound links to the product and sales pages (e.g. ThinkGeek, Firebox), but it's a lot harder when you're selling items that aren't particularly unique or desirable, which makes generating traffic in other ways a better option.

1: Even if there were, I think you're right in your feeling that it's often best not to bother with link directories.

One often overlooked strategy for online shops would be to set up affiliate marketing. Go to the top 5 affiliate networks, set up your database and let blogs, niche sites and others link to your content naturally (whilst making a small commission on sales).

That way you could get dozens, if not even thousands, of sites naturally linking to different shop categories, product pages, etc. making a massive impact on your SEO. Also setting up promo-codes and deals lets these deal-sites and code-sites jump on your offers and linking back to your site (with the benefit of additional traffic) ;)

EDIT: Oh, and most of the affiliate sites should also be relevant to your product pages from a search engine point of view, leading to good SEO.

For the last few years, I've been into PR, so I think I'm qualified for answering this question.

So to make it simple:

You have on-page optimization, including technical SEO audit and content creation (blog articles, for example).

By writing a high-quality article that brings value to your target audience, you will increase the chance people will read your content, stay on your site, and have a low bounce rate when visiting it (which makes Google and other search engines understand your content worth ranking for a specific search term)

Another essential thing is off-page optimization. There are hundreds of different marketing channels, but they all sum to one indicator: Backlinks.

Your ranking is decided by the link's quality from other sites and the competition for the search term you're trying to rank for. Add to it the on-page factors such as time on page, bounce rate, article length, site speed, accessibility, etc., and you will better understand how search engines work.

I recommend you to read those articles to expand your knowledge about anything related to SEO, PR, Content Creation, Ranking factors, etc

Google’s 200 Ranking Factors: The Complete List (2020)

How to Get Backlinks in 2020 [Series] - Whiteboard Friday

The Beginner's Guide to Link Building

Understanding how PR works in the blockchain industry

How to Do Keyword Research for SEO

What Are Backlinks? How To Get Them in 2021