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Why All Links Are Paid Links in the Travel Trade

osmeloski-elisabeth
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What constitutes a paid link? That's the key question Justilien Gaspard asked in a recent Link Love column.

High Demand for Link Building Experts

Some of Justilien's 2008 predictions are frightening. For example, custom link builders like Justilien, Debra Mastaler, and the rest of the crop are so busy, travel sites need to get into a long line for links.

The travel industry, early adopters of SEO (define) and link building, must face the harsh reality of link building issues in 2008. We're now going on nearly a decade of tactics that have come and gone. Sites, older and wiser, are bound to have some dirty laundry in their backlinks.

Google, Yahoo, and MSN aren't going to quickly discount some long-standing deals, reciprocal or not. The question of what truly constitutes a paid link, and what qualifies as advertising, will continue to be a huge point of contention. I have to agree with Justilien when he says the issue isn't so black and white.

Print Media Comes of Age Online

After years of struggling to find the right mix, major newspapers, magazines, specialty periodicals, and trade publications finally understand the interactivity that comes with online publishing.

Just turn to any of these powerful pages: USA Today Travel, The NY Times Travel Section, and Travel at LA Times and you'll see top quality columnists publishing blogs, linking to noted resources within the context of the article or editorial sidebars, and incorporating social media (define) tools. But, are these links maximizing the value to both users and search engines? How much did these links cost? If you think they're free, think again.

Travel Writers Reap Rewards of Press Junkets, FAM Trips

If you've made the cut in a travel trade publication, then you've likely paid for that link in some way. Either you've enlisted one of the most cunning PR firms that knows its way around the travel trade press, or you've directly invited one of those writers to stay or play for free (or at a ridiculously reduced price) so there's no "appearance of bias."

Right.

I'm not knocking traditional press trips and FAM (familiarization) tours. I've benefited from my fair share of travel trades. Here's how it works: if you don't have something nice to say, you simply don't say it at all. Or, you say it in highly creative or constructive way that gets you more invites and makes you look like a hero at the same time.

Travel writers don't make a lot of dough, but they're rich in experience from accepting these "once-in-a-lifetime" trips -- or several of them a year if they're lucky.

Lost SEO Opportunity

There's a downside, though. As this standard travel trade practice filters down to smaller publications, it turns a great SEO opportunity into a lost opportunity.

You'll note that links in many of these publications are often in the most simplistic format: www.yourtravelsite.com. Gee whiz, that's creative and oh-so-helpful when your site wants to rank for "cheap airfare." Don't get me wrong, any link of this nature is going to have some added value, but a simple domain link does not add as much weight to the overall relevancy of the link as anchor text can.

Unless you're the type to talk your way into the swankiest party in town, you likely won't have much luck convincing some of these writers and bloggers to link to your keyword anchor text. If they're even the ones to enter content, that is. If not, those old-school editors are your foe.

Bonus points for traditional journalism. Tough luck for you, the search marketer.

Let's cross our fingers and hope some overzealous Webmasters at these publications don't get the bright idea to add nofollow tags. No, that's not a suggestion. That would completely negate the idea of editorially blessed links, which are intended to be a vote of confidence that benefits users and then is rewarded by search engines.

Search engines would also benefit from links associated more directly with anchor text (hotel name, location, or special features and area attractions), particularly if a domain isn't well chosen for the property. Having those links with naturally keyword-rich anchor text will assist in creating relevance for a particular resource.

Why should search engines compel publishers to add nofollow tags to ad units? As long as publishers command premium ad rates and providing reasonable traffic, why shouldn't the ad buyer be entitled to all the benefits of having a link on their site?

Aren't the search engines who are encouraging the use of nofollow going to shoot themselves in the foot, by reducing the relevance factor of these links? I'd be willing to bet many advertisers are willing to pay a little bit more or negotiate for pure, unadulterated links.

Here's a resolution for you -- spread the link love, pay it forward. It's what the Web is all about.

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