You probably know there are three “pillars” of search engine optimization: content, architecture and links. You optimize your content based on the keywords that are popular with your target audience, you create a site architecture that is conducive to high search rankings, and you attract inbound links that point to your site.
All three work in concert to drive search traffic to your site. But of these three pillars, it’s linking that is typically the most underdeveloped — despite the fact that Websites’ search rankings are so utterly dependent on Webmasters linking to your site. No links equals no traffic.
Links are at the foundation of the search engines’ algorithms. Google, Yahoo! and Bing all employ a methodology for assigning an importance score to each Web page by counting and valuing each link. Links act like votes, votes that help the engines ascertain which sites are worthy and which are worthless.
It’s not just a sheer numbers game: Google’s PageRank algorithm factors in the importance of each link using a weighting factor calculated by analyzing the interconnectedness of all Web pages.
In other words, all votes are not created equal. The Web — at least the one accessible through search engines — is better described as a meritocracy rather than a democracy. A link from an “important” site such as CNN.com will count for much more compared to a link from Jim-Bob’s personal homepage.
Tactically improving the PageRank of a site’s homepage and its key internal pages is critical to being well ranked and thus to getting traffic. But in order to improve something, you have to be able to measure it.
That’s where the Google Toolbar comes in. Available for free at http://toolbar.google.com, the Google Toolbar installs into your Web browser — either Internet Explorer or Firefox. Once installed, the Google Toolbar sports a small PageRank meter that indicates the importance of the page currently being viewed.
Hover your cursor over the meter and a numerical score between 0 and 10 will be displayed — with 0 being the worst and 10 being the best. Don’t be mistaken: A 5 is not a middle-of-the-road score. That’s because PageRank scores are on a logarithmic scale. As such, the effort required to move from a 7 to an 8 is monumental compared with that required to move from a 3 to a 4.
There is another metric for measuring link importance/authority that comes not from a search engine, but an SEO firm. Similar to Toolbar PageRank, this score, called mozRank, is based on a close equivalent to Google’s PageRank algorithm and is available through SEOmoz’s Linkscape tool (www.seomoz.org/linkscape).
Why bother with an approximation when you can have the real thing from the Google Toolbar, you might ask? Because the mozRank scores are more current, reliable and precise than the PageRank scores that Google makes available via its “toolbar servers.” PageRank scores that Google “exports” are truncated and can be months old by the time they are displayed in the meter.
That’s why newly published Web pages will display no PageRank in the meter for a number of weeks. I just don’t trust the PageRank meter, so it’s nice to have an alternative.
Link building basics
The discipline of gathering high quality links and boosting your PageRank is referred to as “link building.” Link builders can garner links from any number of sources — including vendors, clients, business partners, sites related to your industry, general directories such as Yahoo, and nonprofit organizations sponsored by your company, to name a few.
Targeting topically relevant sites will earn you bonus points. Reciprocal links (i.e., “you link to me and I’ll link to you”), on the other hand, are likely to be discounted.
Search engines have a comprehensive link map of the Web, so they can spot reciprocal links easily. Links from your affiliates are likely to be discounted too, as will “footer links” located in the footer at the bottom of the pages.
Some types of links are just bad news. Google warns not to link to what it calls “bad neighborhoods.” These include link farms and search engine spam sites. Do not respond to e-mails inviting you to get a link submitted to many thousands of search engines and directories.
At best, these sites are irrelevant. At worst, they consist of link farms and bad neighborhoods. The results of participation can be devastating and include ranking penalties or even the banning of your site.
How can you differentiate a link farm from a legitimate directory? A link farm has poorer organization and more links per page than a directory.
Directories have lost some of their luster too. Many of the directories out there are targeted not to Internet users, but to Webmasters, with their sole raison d’etre being to extract money from those Webmasters in the form of listing fees.
The value of links from such directories is dubious at best. Contrast this with listings in Yahoo’s directory and the Open Directory (dmoz.org), where links are trusted by Google because of the rigorous editorial review governing each directory’s listing process.
Generally speaking, the best links are obtained not through leveraging your existing relationships or outright buying them, but by earning them through merit by offering noteworthy, valuable content. When Webmasters and bloggers discover this content, they are inspired to link.
This is affectionately known as “link bait.” Irresistible link bait can take the form of scoops, exposés, humor, tools, downloads, how-tos, original research, event coverage, contests, quizzes or surveys, for example.
Not all links from a high PageRank-endowed page are equally as good. If there are many other links on that page linking to you, you will end up with only a small share of the PageRank that has been passed down, as you are sharing it with the multitude of other sites linked on that page.
Proactively solicit links carefully. Identify suitable targets by reviewing the links of competitive sites and sites in your keyword market. Suggest a link as a site visitor, or contact them representing yourself from your site.
If you represent a site visitor, offer them some additional constructive feedback besides inclusion of your link. For instance, in the same e-mail let them know of any broken links on their site that you have spotted, or of any other suggested links besides your own.
Offering a reciprocal link in exchange is not a viable approach, because their link to you will not be worth as much once the search engines pick up the fact that you link back to them.
You might also want to buy some text link advertising. If you do, it’s worth working with a text link broker (such as Conductor), as these companies tend to have a large network of top notch, respected publishers with text ad inventory readily available.
If this approach sounds oversimplified, it is. The process is fraught with landmines; and the outcome is largely outside of your control — you can’t dictate who links to you and who doesn’t. But nobody said it would be easy!
Build outside the box
When link building, the trick is to take the road less traveled. Think differently. Be creative. You’ll need to tap into your organization’s best brainstorming if you hope to gain any real traction in your link building efforts. In this vein, I’ve included below just a few lesser-known, yet highly effective, tactics (I don’t want to give too many of my secrets away!):
Next Page: Seeking SEO help
Blog carnivals: That you should be blogging is a given. Blogs generally attract more links than e-commerce sites. But did you know that there are such things as “blog carnivals”? You can find a directory of these — organized by topic — at Blogcarnival.org.
Blog carnivals link out to worthy sites on a constant basis. A blog carnival is a topically focused “traveling road show” of sorts, where the participating bloggers take turns sharing their newest finds in the topic of interest by posting to their blog a compilation of such items (which could include articles, blog posts, events, products, videos, etc.).
If the carnival rotates weekly, then one blogger takes on the first week, another blogger the second, and so on until the cycle repeats. If you were to contact the upcoming week’s blogger with some helpful suggestions for content (and links!) to feature, your e-mail or call is likely to be well received.
Contests: Release a contest into the blogosphere. With a contest, the devil’s in the details. You must get everything right: the prizes, judges, judging criteria, media partners, and so on. Most contests fall flat; they are simply unremarkable.
I love Seth Godin’s definition of remarkable: “worth remarking about.” Something about the contest must be worth remarking — blogging — about. For an example, see “A winning Web contest,” at right.
Multi-author blogs: Many blogs are actively seeking, or are at least receptive to, new authors joining their ranks. I’ve contributed to a number of group blogs over the years — MarketingProfs Daily Fix, SearchEngineLand.com, iEntry/WebProNews, and Shop.org Blog to name a few. (Incidentally, if you’re a Shop.org member, you, too, could blog on Blog.Shop.org, assuming you are contributing something worth reading.)
Any group blog periodically needs new blood, so don’t be shy about stepping up for one. Your approach, though, is critical. Think of this as pitching to write a column for a magazine. Approaching an editor cold, whether it’s a magazine editor or a blog editor, probably won’t get you very far.
This is where an introduction from someone the editor knows will be invaluable. How do you quickly find someone the editor knows? Use LinkedIn. It will tell you who in your network is also connected to that editor.
Seeking SEO help
If you wish to outsource your link building, be careful. Make sure you don’t hire the kind of firm that sends out unqualified, impersonal, grammatically incorrect — and thus spammy-sounding link requests — using cheap third-world labor. These sorts of firms tend to raise the ire of Webmasters, thus damaging your brand. You’re not necessarily safe even if you go with a large domestic firm, as they may in turn outsource the work to an overseas link-building sweatshop.
Hiring a link builder who sends out unsolicited requests (i.e., spam) could be your undoing — we’re all sick to death of link-request spam. Be aware that these sorts of disreputable firms also pollute the blogosphere on your behalf with useless keyword-rich link-containing comments to numerous blogs.
A good SEO firm should also be a good link-building firm, but this is not always the case. In fact, it is not often the case. On-page SEO and technical tweaks like rewrites and redirects are very differenat animals from the outside-the-box thinking and unbridled creativity required for link building, and link baiting in particular.
But whether your company is risk averse or trend-setting, whether you have the resources or not, you can’t afford to neglect the link-building pillar. There’s gold in them thar links!
Stephan Spencer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder/president of search marketing firm Netconcepts, inventor of the automated natural search technology platform GravityStream, and co-author of the book The Art of SEO, published by O’Reilly.
HOOKING UP WITH A LINK BUILDER
Hiring a link-building consultant or agency? Here are a few things to look for when selecting a service provider.
For starters, you should expect to see examples of creative, out-of-the-box thinking, as well as demonstrable success with link bait being well received by social news and social bookmarking communities. The company will also need the tools necessary to do the job well, such as LinkScape, Raven, BuzzStream, SQUID, Enquisite and Internet Marketing Ninjas, and SEO Book tools like the Hub Finder, and so on.
Happy customer references should be a requirement, and the company should have a good reputation in the industry (as judged by mentions on SEO blogs, forums, etc.). Ideally, you’ll want to see evidence of thought leadership, such as industry conference speaking, magazine articles, quotes in mainstream media, and a great blog.
Link-building industry veteran Eric Ward also advises that you ensure you are given a rationale as to why the vendor wants to pursue any given target. Ward recommends that you demand final approval on every target site the company contact, as well as final approval before you agree to link back or pay for a link.
Finally, Ward says to make sure you are provided with a stated deliverable and that you have agreed to it, and that you will be given at least monthly reports of progress. It’s also probably worth getting an expert to review the contract.
A WINNING WEB CONTEST
We are Netconcepts earlier this year created a “Free Business Cards for Life” contest for our client OvernightPrints.com as a way to boost its rankings and build links. We partnered with the Internet celebrity and “Technorati 100” blogger Jeremy Schoemaker (a.k.a. “Shoemoney), who has quite a following, so gaining his involvement was a real coup.
The contest was to design Jeremy’s business card; the winner received “free business cards for life.” The cost to our client for the prize (and the contest overall, for that matter) was negligible: The fine print capped the winnings at 1,000 business cards per year for a maximum of 20 years.
The link exposure this contest garnered was priceless. We received some great, keyword-rich links from Jeremy’s Top 100 blog, Shoemoney.com. Jeremy even posted a video about it to YouTube. A number of design sites listed/linked to the contest. Several bloggers did, too.
The ultimate goal was the rankings that resulted from the links. Check Overnight Prints’ ranking in Google for “business cards.” Not too shabby! And what did Jeremy get out of the deal? A killer new business card design printed and shipped to his door courtesy of Overnight Prints. This just goes to show that you don’t need a big budget, just a big idea — along with solid planning and execution.