Feature Article (Pub: January 05) Everything you need to know to start link building (Part 1)by Paul Rudman

Search engines use a number of different methods to determine how to rank websites in their listings, and one of the most increasingly weighted methods is links - hyperlinked text pointing to an external URL.

'Links' refers to the number and quality of links both pointing into your website and pointing out from your website, so we shall take a look at these one at a time. It is important to remember that Google, MSN, and Yahoo all place emphasis on the linking 'value' of your website.

Outbound links

If you enter any number of queries into search engines these days you will see more and more that directories, and search results from directories, ranking high in the results. Personally I find this annoying as you tend to use search engines to find results, not effectively click on a link to another search engine that in turn presents search results itself. However, like it or hate it, these directory results are with us for the present, so lets take a look at how outbound linking is important to your website and can improve your search engine placements.

There are two types of websites that achieve search engine recognition, hubs and authorities. In this case, hubs are directories and websites that act as a portal, they refer you to authority sites on a variety of subjects. An example of this is the Open Directory, a website that for all our gripes is still probably the best manually updated directory on the web. It contains little information of its own, but contains thousands of outbound links to other websites. The volume and quality of these links make the Open Directory an excellent example of a Hub.

If your website is planning to act as a portal or gateway to further information on other websites, then you need to adopt a Hub linking strategy. The great thing about this approach is that, unlike trying to get inbound links, you don't have to cajole, tease or blackmail another website into providing a link to you (only kidding...), you do all the linking yourself.

When beginning a link building process for a Hub website, stick to the following guidelines and you can't go far wrong:-

The build of your website
Make sure that your website has a clear definition and structure - check out the Yahoo directory structure if you need a good working example - but for your outbound links to be truly effective then make sure that your categories are clearly defined and make sense. For example, search engines can relate contextually, so will comprehend (in a non-human kind of way) that if you drill down from links relating to Ireland, that links underneath this category relating to Dublin, Cork, and other cities in Ireland are related to the category above. This makes sense to humans and makes sense to search engines (who, like C3PO, have been programmed to think like humans), so working out a clear and concise category structure is an essential foundation to gaining great Google PageRank, and getting good search engine placements.
Do your research

Don't just link to any website willy-nilly, study and research the sites that you think is worth a place in your directory. Questions to ask could be:

  • Do they contain interesting information?
  • Do they have a usable look and are they well designed?
  • Is there information on the website up to date or has it been ignored for 2 years?

Believe it or not, if you like it search engines probably will too. Relevant, fresh, interesting content has always been the cornerstone to a successful website, and nothing has changed there.

Show you know something about your listed sites
There are all sorts of programs out there now that scrape information from other websites and glue it into their site. The idea behind this is to appear like a knowledgeable, 'with-it' kind of website without actually putting in the sweat and the hours. You would appreciate a manually, hand-crafted directory way more than a bunch of URLs glued into some pages right? Well, so would a search engine. Make sure that you provide a nice paragraph or two in summary of the sites you have listed, perhaps even rate them out of 10 or own some scale unique and known only to you, but make sure - both for the visiting search engines and the visiting users - that you can help them find what they are looking for.
Don't overload your categories
Now you are unlikely to do this if you are manually creating your outbound links, but don't dilute the value of the entries to your directory by putting too many links in any one page. Try to limit the number of outbound links on a page to 30, and if necessary have more pages linked to from the bottom as in "This is page 1 out of 3 in this category". This is important as search engine's eyes will metaphorically glaze over if you put too much on a single page. The text nearest the top is always more important, so following this principle text 500 lines down the page is just about at the bottom of the ocean. Remember, 30 links to a page on your site, max.
Keep the themes clean and distinct
Make sure that all the links in each section of your site are along the same theme, such as a place, time, language, sport, etc. This is because search engines appreciate the idea that themed content has been placed together, it suggests a more useful source of information than if you have 30 links pointing to different themes of websites on a single page. Remember, that's what simple link exchange websites do and that's a no-no for the "super linker" you will become ;-)
Make it clear and simple how someone can submit a website to your directory
If you have followed the above tips then there is a fair chance you will be on your way to the next super-uber-galacticos of a web directory (ok, not quite, but you are getting there). By now people will be looking at and enjoying your websites and may want a piece of the action to, and so making it easy for them to submit their details to you, will help your site snowball in size as you have to do less and less research, and more and more the horse comes to you for water.
Keep those entries of yours fresh
Fresh content is key to search engines and users alike. No-one likes a broken link and no-one likes 2 year old information on a subject that is relevant in today's world. The Internet is quick moving, there's a high turnover of information and knowledge and if you don't keep your directory fresh, then you may as well pull the proverbial plug and kill your creation till it dies of loneliness, because when search engines stop visiting you, people stop visiting you. So always put aside some time to check your outbound links still point to a live site, and make sure you add at least a couple of new entries a week to keep those old engines happy.

If you are not looking at creating a Hub site, and instead are looking more at an authority site that provides unique, useful information to users then be very careful about your outbound linking strategy. Avoid link exchanges (only link one way) and make sure the websites you link to are themselves either quality Hub or Authority sites. A Canny outbound link to an expert site in a relevant field to your site is always useful in showing those search engines you are not an Island and that you do recognise quality in other sites when you see it. Don't overdo it though, 1-2 such links on your site is just fine.

Well, that's enough about Outbound linking for this month, try not to chew those nails away, and I'll be back next month to talk more about inbound linking and how to do it effectively for direct clicks and improved search engine placements.

Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at CommerceTuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.

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