Make Links Work for You—Carefully

(Searchline) If you’ve been running a Website for any length of time, you’ve probably gotten at least a few e-mails offering to trade links with another Website. Without doubt you’ve gotten offers to get “10,000 quality links for only $499.95!” Maybe you’ve even considered taking the plunge and doing some large-scale link-swapping, in the hope of improving your natural search ranking on Google and Yahoo!

But look before you leap, say linking and search optimization experts. As with most other aspects of SEO, there are white-hat and black-hat tactics for setting up links between sites, along with every shade of gray in between. And the possible short-term benefits of employing some of those tactics can be more than outweighed by the long-term pain of being penalized with a lowered ranking in search results.

In the beginning, links almost created the searchable Web. Following links was the most efficient way for early search bots to locate and index the pages that made up the Web. Back in the late ‘90s and thus B.G.—Before Google—many search engines drew their results from a subset of the whole Web that contained about 100,000 pages or so. Having few links to or from other Web pages and sites was one factor that could get you dropped out of the bottom of that subdirectory and thus out of search. Webmasters joined “link farms,” large groups of Websites that linked to all the other members in the group, in order to bulk up their links and stay in the index.

As search engines became able to crawl more Websites regularly, they began to move from a mechanical approach to search—simply finding as many pages as they could–to an algorithmic one that tried to find the best, most authoritative, or most valuable pages and display them first. The sheer number of links on a Web page was not a good enough criterion for determining its worth, and engines—Google first, then in time the others—began looking deeper into inbound links, the ones that other people create to your page.

They started by looking at the link text to see what linkers were saying about your page, to get a clue on what keywords and phrases count most for your site. In time, the engines were able to go further and evaluate link quality and determine that, for example, a link from a Website for a national newspaper or a professional journal probably conferred more authority on a site than a link from a small business or a private individual. Most recently, the engines have begun looking at link longevity. The theory here is that a site that has kept good solid links for a few years is probably more reputable than one with a whole bunch of links added only a month ago and therefore deserves to rank higher in a search on an appropriate keyword.

All along the way, search optimizers have been able to find ways to game the linking system just as they have developed for other aspects of organic search. Link farms still exits, but their use has been discouraged by Google and the rest. Some ex-link farmers have developed software that claims to identify useful link prospects for a site—those with lots of “link juice,” or high Google Page Ranks—use a template to build e-mail messages offering to swap links, and blast them out to large numbers of potential link mates. These offers can be reciprocal, or they can trade inbound links for cold, hard cash.

Those gaming possibilities have also increased recently with the rise of such trends as blogging and social bookmarking. Until about a year ago, it was widely possible to add a link to your URL into the “comments” section of many blogs, producing what looked like a link from that blog into your site—until the engines deemed it “comment spam” and offered bloggers a tool that would make those links invisible to searchbots. And getting an article on your Website bookmarked by Digg or two or three hundred times can give your page a boost in both traffic and search rank, at least over the short term.

But before you go off chasing links to make your site more findable in Google or Yahoo!, some experts recommend that you stop and think about the right and wrong ways to forge those links.

To some SEOs and Webmasters, there is no “wrong” way, of course; whatever brings people to your site and visibility to your page is worth trying. But search marketing consultant Eric Ward doesn’t agree. Ward specializes in consulting on link-building and link campaigns, and he says the pursuit of a quick ranking or traffic hit comes with the risk of a long, slow, painful penalty from the search engines if you get caught.

There are some rules of thumb engines use in evaluating links today. For example, Ward says, search engines like to see a variety of domain types among the links to a site: not just .com, but also .org, .edu, .gov, or .mil. That diversity can factor as a tie-breaker if they’re trying to decide which of two sites with 100 inbound links should come higher in a search result.

They also favor the site that has a mix of domestic and international links. That may go against common sense in some cases, Ward says, but it’s nonetheless true. For example, a florist in New York may have no practical business reason to seek links from the U.K., because regulations prevent shipping fresh flowers from the U.S. to that country. But if Google and Yahoo! sees a few .uk links on that site, they’re going to pour it an extra shot of link juice.

But don’t assume that you can go out and earn your site some additional rank with Google or Yahoo! by adding these links without regard to relevance, Ward says. For example, some Webmasters have taken the path of buying ads in the online versions of college newspapers because that automatically links them to top-level .edu domain sites. But that comes under the heading of buying links rather than earning them, and Ward says that even if it works now, it won’t work in the future.

“If I’m Google, all I have to do is take an intern and say, ‘Your job for today is to give me a list of the top 150 universities and give me a list of the domain names for their school papers, so I can pop that into my algorithm and devalue links from that domain,’” Ward says. “That’s not hard at all. And it’s probably on their big old to-do list right now.”

Link-trading is another tactic that the search engines are wise to and one that they consistently devalue, Ward says—not when it really is a useful exchange of links between two sites with a common interest, but when it’s obviously part of a campaign simply to bulk up the number of links on the site. The engines can detect large-scale link-swapping pretty easily; all they have to do is look at your inbound links and compare those to your outbound ones—the links your site contains to other Web pages. If there’s too much overlap, they write off those links as worth less.

Equally futile is the offer to put thousands of links on your site in exchange for cash. “If anyone’s offering you a package of x links in return for x dollars, run,” Ward advises. “I cannot imagine any site that type of arrangement would help except for a brand-new site in a hypercompetitive space with no hopes of ever obtaining links naturally—‘make money fast,’ Viagra, gambling, or porn.”

That said, Ward points out that there’s nothing wrong with buying links—if you do it to buy an audience rather than an improved page rank. “I have no problem with buying links and recommend all the time that clients do it,” he says. “But I don’t do it to try to fool the engines into rewarding me; it’s advertising. I like the audience of the site, and I’m looking for click traffic.” In other words, don’t need to be afraid of buying links, he says; just don’t do it merely to game Google. If you sell equine gear, do some homework, find out where the horsey set hangs out on the Web other than on your site, and make those sites an offer.

“The paid link of today is the banner ad of yesterday,” Ward says. “It’s leading someone from that site directly to yours without benefit of a Google search.” While natural links are preferable, not every Website has the kind of content that drives other people to link to it. So some amount of link-buying, properly done for the right marketing reasons, should probably be part of the strategy of every site that’s designed to draw traffic and making money.

Retail sites are particularly tough draws for links, since most of them tend to be content-poor. Some e-commerce operators have responded by trying to bulk up their content in the hope of drawing more links. But Ward says sometimes the better tactic is simply to bite the bullet and pay for traffic, either in search ads or in links.

Search engines can’t tell whether an individual link was given for pay unless they’re tipped off by something in the source code of the page, so if they’re relevant and properly randomized, bought links won’t inherently hurt your page rank. “But if the link comes within 50 characters of a box labeled ‘sponsorship,’ the engines are going to ask if they can trust that link,” says Ward.

If they decide they can’t trust it, they may decide to penalize your site by dropping you down in the search results, or they may simply opt to ignore the link in calculating your organic search rank–which usually has the effect of dropping you down the result page too.

Those recalibrations happen all the time. “People are always telling me, ‘Oh my God, I used to be on page one in Google and now I’m on page eight—I got busted,’” Ward says. “But it may simply be nothing more than Google realizing that they’ve been giving your links more credit than they should have. You were getting the benefit of the doubt on something, and now you’re assuming the logical place in the search ranking that you should have had all along.”

On the other hand, if you’ve been on the Web for a while and the engines haven’t found any reason to downgrade your site, you’ve earned their good faith. Your longevity has built up your online equity, just the way you can earn equity in your home.

That established trust is the fabled link juice. If you’ve got it, watch out, because there are plenty of Webmasters out there looking to siphon it off, using a link to catch a little reflected credibility from your relatively high page rank.

“If you’ve got a Website that’s more than two or three years old and you’ve never done any aggressive link-building, your job is less about trying to go and get new links than it is about protecting the good name that the engines have already placed in you,” Ward says. “The engines love older sites with a natural inbound link structure, so even if you only have 15 links, you’ve got their trust, something most new sites will never have.”

Recognizing that investment in your site, if you’re still desperate for a rankings boost and want to try some of the questionable tactics such as link-farming or buying links wholesale, at least set up a secondary site or a microsite rather than gambling the equity of that main Website. “Don’t jeopardize the mothership,” Ward says. “Set up a site that you consider disposable, so that if it gets banned you haven’t lost your long, hard work on the main Website.”