Don't be Afraid of URL Links

Search engine optimizers know what makes a good link. It looks like this -- cheap Viagra -- and it links through to your client's page selling Viagra.

But half the job of good SEO is also keeping on top of what the search engines look for when deciding what's important. The rules are always changing.

How Many Contextual Links Really Look 'Natural'?

There's a slight problem with doubting the importance of quality links with clear anchor text: they work. Without a doubt, the most important element of improving your natural search ranking is to get quality inbound links with anchor text that reflects your target keywords. SEO is still a numbers game at its heart -- do enough of the right things and you'll rank number one.

But this is where SEOs need to think about what the search engines see when they manually check what results are being served and decide if the best suppliers are ranking well, or if it's just the biggest spammers.

What Makes a Link Relevant, Important, and Contextual?

There are plenty of examples of links created by SEOs with great anchor text. But if a gas and electricity link near the bottom of an article on cooking is actually "contextual," then I'm the Pope.

The dictionary definition of "contextual," just to labor the point, means "relating to, dependent on, or using context."

Clearly, anchor text doesn't always make a link contextual. We've all seen examples of irrelevant articles with links at the bottom. This is bad practice, bad for the user, and ultimately bad for SEO.

A truly quality contextual link in real life may not even have specific anchor text. What's more important: a PR4 link with "laptops" as anchor text from a blog about cats, or a URL link from a PR4 website about laptops and the best places to buy them from?

You can certainly make the case that links with relevant anchor text are all that matters -- that "Google isn't actually as clever as you think" -- and the SERPs will back up that view in the vast majority of cases. But staying ahead of the curve is just as important as finding ways to enhance your ranking in the first place. If Google is planning an update to reduce the power of spammers, then this is where they should start.

My Recommendation

Monitor and manage the spread of URL versus keyword-rich links across your client's profile and don't be afraid of getting really high quality links that only use your client's URL.

At a broader level, it's also important to try and build a database of the most important and relevant sites, and even individuals in each sector you target. Try to genuinely engage with them, through direct contact, through affiliate and display deals, and by using other more creative methods (where appropriate) to build strong business relationships online that add value to users and provide SEO value for the engines.

About the author

Gareth Owen, Head of Natural Search, Steak, began his career in SEO at ChoiceQuote Insurance based in Liverpool in 2004. Responsible for the full marketing function for insurance products in motorcycle, taxi, van and haulage, he oversaw sizeable increases in ROI from online marketing spend.

He then moved to The Search Works where, as European Account Director, he worked on a range of large client brands, pioneered studies into the measurable effects of TV advertising on search volumes, and generated over £1 million in revenue through integrated search offerings in 2009. While in this role he also successfully created an integrated PPC/SEO/Affiliate offering for the parent company.

As well as being responsible for the SEO offering at Steak, Gareth also sits on IAB and IPA Search Councils and has spoken at IAB, IMRG and Econsultancy conferences.