"Let your fingers do the walking" was the old Yellow Pages slogan. These days, the more relevant saying for customers may be this: "Let your fingers do the clicking."

As the Internet becomes an increasingly low-cost and effective way to do business, many small and mid-size companies are finding they get better customer prospects by exchanging links with related websites than they do by putting an ad in the phone book. 

But there is an art to linking. There are right ways and wrong ways to link and be linked to. It’s not surprising that many businesses are a bit at a loss about how to use links to generate targeted traffic to the company website.

“The primary lead and customer acquisition source is becoming the Web versus traditional marketing sources, and every year we’ve seen our customers make more and more of an investment in online marketing,” says John Enright, vice president of marketing for Affinity Internet, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which provides services ranging from site design to online marketing to hosting and maintenance. In a recent survey, Affinity found that more than 30 percent of its mostly small business customers expect to spend more than half of their marketing budgets on online efforts.

A cheaper way to market online

The good news is that it doesn’t cost much to get links from -- and link to -- other websites; often it’s just an investment of your time to find the right sites and communicate with their owners, or ante up for a software package or service that helps automate the end-to-end linking process. Enright advises small businesses to find potential linking partners by checking out the major search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, and looking for the keywords in which they’d like to be ranked highly. Then, reach out to exchange links with those related websites that have a high rank for those keywords. That’s a step to getting noticed by visitors to those highly-ranked sites, and also by search engines. “If you have links to your site from other websites that also have high Google or other search engine ranks, the search engines will think that your content is that much more valuable,” he says.

But don’t make the mistake of trading links with a multitude of websites, whether or not they have anything to do with your industry, just to increase your search engine ranking. In fact, some experts advise that to be successful with linking activities, small businesses should act as if search engines don’t exist. “Focus on your website visitors, not on search engines,” says Johannes Selbach, CEO of Axandra, a German company that manufacturers Arelis, software that helps companies manage their linking campaigns. “A link partner with a low Google PageRank that has a similar topic like your site will bring you much better visitors than an unrelated link partner with a high PageRank.” The less dependent your website is on search engines, Selbach says, the less you have to worry about keeping up with their ever-changing search algorithms.

The do's and don'ts of linking

Linking is a reciprocal arrangement. Businesses are unlikely to drive away traffic by adding targeted links. Since customers are going to leave your website at some point anyway, isn’t it better that they move on to websites that send you their visitors in return? “Carefully chosen links to outside resources can improve the experience of visitors,” says Selbach.  “The websites to which you link help your website visitors to put your website into a larger context. If you link to high-quality sites with useful content, Web surfers will associate your website with these high quality sites.”

Here are some other tips about how to link the right way:

  • Do submit your links to service directories, such as local or industry directories. There’s typically no charge to do this, and they’re a draw for both businesses and consumers.
  • Look at where your traffic is coming from. “You may find a particular website that you weren’t aware of is producing a lot of traffic for you, and you can go out and talk to them and see if you can increase your exposure there,” says Enright.
  • Practice Internet etiquette: While you can add links to other sites without informing their webmasters, why miss out on the opportunity to make them aware of your site so they can link to it?
  • Don’t link to junk websites. Linking to websites that are obvious spammers can hurt your search engine rankings.
  • Don’t go link-crazy. Linking to too many other websites may cause search engines to identify you as a link directory, and downgrade your ranking.
  • Fully integrate your link pages with the rest of your website, rather than create link pages just for search engines.
  • Tools that automate link exchange processes can help you save time, as long as they focus on creating high-quality links. “If you use a tool that gets hundreds of unrelated links in a very short time, then this won't do your website any good,” says Selbach. “You will actually lose time because you will have to fix the damage that these link farm products do to your site.”