Building links to new sites is exceptionally difficult, and exponentially more important than almost any other SEO activity (other than having a good site). One of the unfortunate truths of the SEO world is that the rich get richer.
By this we mean that the sites with the most links also attract the most new links.
This happens because a site with a lot of links is vastly more likely to rank highly in the search results. Because of that they get massively more traffic. And because vastly more people find the site, they’re more likely to link to it. After all, a blogger that has never heard of your site can’t possibly link to it.
The Rich Getting Richer in Example
Perhaps a blogger is writing an article about baking apple pie. He decides to link to an apple orchard directory — of course the blogger knows about his local orchards, but isn’t aware of a nation-wide directory. So in the interest of making the most useful post the blogger hops on Google and does a search. The first result is indeed a national orchard directory and is good enough, so the blogger links to it.
End result: the rich get richer. That orchard directory got the link because it was ranking at the top of the results, not necessarily because it was the greatest orchard directory out there. Even if another site was much better, it didn’t have a chance to earn the link.
A Steep Climb for New Sites
New site owners usually feel this is horribly unfair, and in a way it is. But it’s also the method that yields the least spam and most relevant search result for every search engine out there.
This is why it can take so long for a new site to get started — in fact I’ve known SEOs who refused to work on new sites at all. It’s also why link acquisition is so vital for new or otherwise unknown sites. If you can just get your site so that it starts to rank anywhere on the first page for even your long tail phrases, then you can start to attract users to your awesome site and increase the odds of getting organic links in the future.
Of course, since the guys who are already ranking on top are getting far more organic links without any effort, you have to acquire links substantially faster than they are. That means either having a site that is hugely superior in most ways (including design, usability, navigation, selection, information, pricing, etc.) or doing better link acquisition campaigns.
I don’t mean to imply that if you’re starting a new site that you’re screwed. This is not the case. I am saying that you should have realistic expectations: you will have to work hard to develop a great site and link worthy content, then promote that content.
You should also expect it to be a slow process. Very, few new sites can be ranking at the top of results within a year. That’s usually only possible for relatively low competition niches, and then often when you have a leg up (existing relationships with big sites).
But the good news is that you can also expect to see steady progress. Your traffic won’t skyrocket overnight; instead it will slowly increase from month to month. Every two or three months, if you’re working hard and smart, you’ll hit a new plateau of increased organic traffic.