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The Art and Science of an Effective Link Building Campaign

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Is it wrong to buy or sell links? How far is too far in optimizing your internal link structure? If you operate a network of sites, can natural interlinking be perceived as link spam? A group of experts offers answers to these questions, and more.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2004 Conference, March 1-4, New York.

These were just some of the questions that a panel of experts tackled at the Advanced Link Building Forum held during the Search Engine Strategies Conference in New York. The panel included:
  • Craig Silverstein, Director of Technology for Google
  • Paul Gardi, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Growth Initiatives for Ask Jeeves
  • Debra Mastaler, Owner of Alliance-Link.com
  • Eric Ward, CEO of EricWard.com
  • Greg Boser, President of WebGuerrilla LLC

Craig Silverstein, Google

Silverstein set the stage with a general discussion of why Google spends a good deal of time evaluating links. "Links are the proxy for human judgment of page value," he said.

PageRank, Google's system for ranking web pages, is about "relevance," he added. In determining relevance, hypertext analysis is important.

PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. But Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important."

Important, high-quality sites receive a higher PageRank, which Google remembers each time it conducts a search.

To achieve high PageRank, Silverstein said you want the expert sites in your market linking to you and hopefully nobody else.

For example, if an authority site links to you and two other sites, then you get 1/3 of the link value. If the same authority links out to four sites you get 1/4 of the link value.

Silverstein also said to pay attention to your site content. Is there content that your community deems valuable and would want to link to?

Silverstein provided the following guidelines:

  • Let sites link to you
  • Augment links with relevant content
  • Link out to sites that are like yours
  • Use descriptive anchor text to describe the link, rather than the unhelpful "click here"
  • Avoid link farms - or "skanky sites"
Silvestein's phrase "skanky sites" was picked up by the whole panel and became the running joke for the rest of the session.

Paul Gardi, Ask Jeeves

Gardi followed with the Ask Jeeves/Teoma perspective. "We serve 20% of the web. What makes us different?" he asked.

First, Ask Jeeves delivers its primary search results using Teoma's search technology. Teoma search technology uses sophisticated algorithms and subject-specific popularity data to generate relevant and authoritative results.

Second, instead of ranking results based upon the sites with the most links leading to them, Teoma analyzes the Web as it is organically organized -- in naturally-occurring communities about or related to the same subject -- to determine which sites are most relevant.

Gardi said the Teoma approach offers better vision, expert validation, context, experience (both peer and personality) and what he called "smarter navigation."

Debra Mastaler, Alliance-Link.com

From a search engine marketing point of view, Mastaler provided a ton of practical advice. "Start any link building campaign with a trip to your stats to find out where your traffic is coming from," she said. "Armed with this information, you'll have an easier time maximizing your linking efforts in the right markets."

She begins by using her keywords and the keywords she's gleaned from reading stats. She runs those through Gigablast, Teoma and Google and reviews the top 30 sites she finds.

"By submitting or swapping links, I try to get my site added to as many of the top 30 results sites as possible because 'supposedly' the top sites returned are authority sites," says Mastaler. "They are there because of text and link analysis and are grouped according to topic. We want links from these sites."

Why focus on results from these three specific search engines? "Gigablast has a very helpful keyword relevancy list that comes back with each search."

"Teoma offers something similar with the 'Link collections from experts and enthusiasts' results returned with each search. This information is very helpful in identifying authority sites to secure links from."

And Mastaler uses Google to hunt for niche directories with the "keyword" + add URL search phrase. She also substitutes other phrases such as "submit url" + keyword phrase, "add your link" + keyword phrase and "suggest a link" + keyword phrase.

According to Mastaler, "There are additional ways of securing links -- submitting articles for publication, creating an on-site library and asking for content in exchange for a link, back linking your competition, offering link incentives, hiring a link building firm, etc."

"Don't forget to search and find your industry and geographic specific directories and blogs to add your optimized link to," she advised. "A lot of the specialty directories will let you add your business twice, once topically and again geographically. This is where I strongly advocate paying for a link. There are a number of directories I think it's worth paying to be listed in, with Business.com heading the list."

Who links to you? Better yet, who links to your competition? To find out, Mastaler said "Use a link popularity tool such as the one found at Marketleap, and find out who is linking to you, where your competition links and how the two of you compare."

Using anchor text effectively in your inbound and on-page hyperlinks will also assist in producing higher rankings for your targeted keywords. Knowing where and how to use anchor text is one of the major components of a strong and successful SEO campaign.

She said, "You need a number of inbound links from quality authoritative sites using keyword appropriate anchor text. In addition, hyper linking keyword phrases and incorporating keywords in your link navigation are solid optimization tactics and reinforce your overall on-page marketing efforts."

According to Mastaler, people have a tendency to link using just a URL "which is great if you have your keywords in the domain." But for those who have company names in the URL, she advised providing optimized anchor text along with your URL.

She added, "If your URL doesn't have your keywords in it, one of the easiest ways to get people to use the link/anchor you want is to provide the information on your site and in the linking requests you send. People will generally copy and past what you give them or what they find on your site."

Mastaler also suggested using multiple keyword phrases from each of your pages in your anchor text. "Using different phrases in your anchor text increases your changes of being found for multiple keywords and potentially increases your traffic and revenue stream."

She said there is another benefit to using a consistent URL in your linking campaigns: You don't lose PageRank unnecessarily.

If some of your links are written as http://domain.com or www.domain.com or even www.domain.com/index.html, Googlebot sees these as separate sites and splits the PageRank.

Mastaler also said, "Reciprocal linking is and continues to be a great tool to help increase link popularity and drive targeted traffic when used in a thoughtful marketing strategy. It also continues to be the topic of popular debate."

She said, "I use reciprocal linking in moderation," adding, "There isn't anything wrong with swapping links with someone even if you do it a great deal. Know the sites you swap with and where they are linked; you don't want to get involved in linking schemes and link farming."

When it comes to reciprocal linking, Mastaler offered several do's and don'ts:

  • Do link with sites within your industry
  • Secure a larger ratio of one-way to reciprocal links (She does 70/30)
  • Don't employ unprofessional tactics like using JavaScript links in a reciprocal linking arrangement
  • Always provide the URL and anchor text you want used on the partner site
  • Negotiate for banner and image links that use a direct link
  • Check monthly to be sure your links are still in place
  • Find who your competition has exchanged links with and do likewise

Mastaler admitted, "Deciding which websites to swap links with can be difficult especially if you know nothing about them. Keep in mind where the site ranks and who they link with now. Talk to the current link partners and ask about their experience, use your Alexa toolbar if you have one. Is there any potential for additional or piggyback promotional opportunities with this site? Investing a bit of time upfront can save a lot of headache later on."

She added, "I never evaluate a site solely on its meter of green. The PageRank tool bar shouldn't be what you measure your business success or growth on. It's simply a tool... not a decision. Websites change constantly and can't be measured in full by one ranking criteria. Don't let yourself get caught in that trap."

Mastaler advised, "After you've determined which sites you want to exchange links with, send a professional, well-worded email. I stay away from the template generated email spam when asking to swap links. I know that seems a pretty basic thing to say in this session, but I'm still amazed at the number of people who start the email with 'Dear Alliance-Link' (my name is all over my site) and 'I think our sites complement one another' and never tell me how."

Mastaler said that blogs are an attractive resource for linking.

"Blogs need content to stay fresh so they're generous in accepting links," she said. "Consider sending press releases, email announcements, and product reviews to blogs within your community."

Mastaler concluded, "Don't be afraid to link out to pages within your niche. With the recent emphasis on authority and hub sites, linking out and creating a thoughtful and strategically linked resource page will help toward making your site a valued Hub."

Eric Ward, EricWard.com

Ward tackled some of the thorniest issues: Link reclamation and deep links.

He said that one of the most challenging link related issues you can face is when you have a site that's been around for some time, maybe even for years, and then you have to make a major change to your content. Important changes such as moving to a new content delivery system that alters all your URLS, changing domains, or a major site reorganization can have a significant impact on the link popularity of your site.

"For large sites with hundreds of inbound links this can be overwhelming," Ward said. "When every URL on your site changes that means every link from every other site to your site becomes useless, unless you take steps to prevent that from happening."

Ward said, "The steps to take to make content transition and link reclamation go smoothly will vary depending on your particular situation. The best-case scenario is a domain name change where all directories and file names stay the same. That way a single 2-minute change fixes everything. The worse case scenario is when you change domains, change directory structure and files names (like when you migrate to a dynamic content delivery), but you don't have any log data from the prior site to analyze, and you serve a generic error 404 page."

Ward provided the following tips:

  • A few hours of planning beforehand can save months of backtracking
  • Capture the referring URL data from your server logs for 30 days
  • Sort it in order of traffic sent, so that referring links sending the most traffic are listed first. List more than the standard "top 100" referrers; get every referring URL if possible
  • If you've already made a change, you can still mine your logs for error message referrers to see which pages are being requested via a link clicks
  • Creating a before/after URL filename database can be a huge time saver
  • In some cases, you will need to create a contact database for all sites linking to you, and contact them
Ward gave the real life example of eLibrary.com, which had to abandon its URL. The old site had 310,000 links pointing to it. Moving to a new URL, High Beam Research, they were able to reclaim 900 of the most important links after 45 days with lots of labor.

Greg Boser, WebGuerrilla LLC

Boser wrapped up the session with some additional advice. "It is hard to build links one-by-one," he said. "That's why we believe in content syndication."

Boser offered a number of link building strategies:

  • Write and distribute press releases
  • Publish press releases on your site
  • Ask a reporter for links
  • Develop RSS feeds of your content

Boser also recommended, "Give something away free on your site - some type of tool - and provide cut-and-paste copy to that giveaway page."

Boser wrapped things up with a thoughtful suggestion. "Think about highlighting nonprofits you believe in." He urged everyone to build worthwhile links to a mythical site, networkforgood.org.

Greg Jarboe and Jamie O'Donnell are the co-founders of SEO-PR, which combines search engine optimization and public relations.


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