Feature Article (Pub: July 07)Is it time to rethink your link-building strategy? by Paul Rudman

Links are good, right? The more links we have pointing to our websites the better we will rank, right? Well that's not necessarily the case, as link-building strategies are fraught with pitfalls and potential penalties that can do more harm than good, so the canny link-builder is one that always evolves and stays one step ahead of the search engines.

Why link-build?

I won't waste too much time on this, because if you don't already know that link popularity is a major factor in the Google algorithm for ranking websites then you're not ready for getting under the bonnet of link-building strategies, which is where we're heading.

For the completely un-initiated, link popularity is based on:

The quality of the inbound link
Page rank of the page, number of outbound links from the page, frequency of outbound links across the site, relative link popularity of that site in the first place
The theme of the inbound link
How similar to your site is to the site that is linking to you (in terms of content / products / services / information on it)
Volume of links
There is no perfect number of inbound links to have - 1 good link from an authority site such as the BBC is worth 200 links from non-authority sites for example, but generally more is better
The anchor text within the links themselves
This is a highly contentious issue with me, and I will refer back to this later
The stability of the links
Links need to be in place for a sufficient period of time to bed in and be regarded as static rather than transient (the suggested period of time is 3 months)

So if you have a high number of inbound links from authority websites with high page rank, and that are all closely themed, and are stable over time, then in theory you have a great link popularity.

What not to do when link-building

This article is aimed at fellow SEO's and interested people who have experience at this, so again, I don't want to waste too much time discussing what not to do when link-building in basic terms, but for those who want to know (that are still reading) here's a quick summary:

Don't do reciprocal linking
This is the most obvious, artificial form of getting more websites to point to you, through offering a link directly back to them. If you've not been penalised for doing this yet, you will be, so I'd steer clear of this approach in the future
Don't try to get links from sites in wildly different sectors
If you sell shoes don't try and get links from Casino or adult sites. Not only is the theme so far off they will provide you little value but there's also the risk they'll become a bad neighbourhood site because those sectors commonly resort to black hat techniques to achieve results as their markets are so competitive
Don't get more than 1 link from a single website
Multiple links from websites are not good news, they are considered rightly or wrongly by search engines to be a cheap attempt to get more inbound links to your site by having say 200 links point to it instead of just 1, and as a result will get your site flagged as suspicious at the very least

So what is the best link-building strategy to have?

At this stage I do have to point out that the best link-building strategy is to have none at all. Why? because then your link popularity will more accurately reflect your website contents, and if that's rubbish after you've been live for 12 months then it should tell you something about the (lack of) interest in your website. Don't think that paying for link-building fixes problems - it doesn't, it merely papers over the cracks in a lot of cases, and covers up the fact that people either aren't finding your site or just don't find it of relevance. Trust me, I know link-building helps achieve high rankings, which in turn means more people find your site, which in turn means more people will link to it, but original websites with unique, interesting content will always be discovered and linked to eventually.

So if you do go ahead with a deliberate strategy to improve the link popularity of your website, then here's my list of the best ways to go about this:

Do your research
The most obvious link ploy is to find anyone in a similar sector and ask them for a link in exchange for a link from another site (which rules single site owners out!). Stop worrying about how many you can get and try and negotiate a really good link, by making sure your link doesn't just appear on page 55 out of 67 link pages on a website
Pay for it
Yes, it's a capitalist world and money talks. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as text link advertising has as much right to exist as banner ads, intersticials, supersticials, Adsense, and every other form of online advertising. But there is one difference in our recommendation, and that's to try and tempt someone to sell you some link space on their site when they're not associated with a text link broker. There are still good text link broker slots to be had, but if you can find a site that ticks all the right boxes as an authority site then make them an offer
Link bait
If you've got something good to say then shout about it. Let other websites know you write good articles, or that you've got great idea. Whatever it is, other sites are far more likely to add your content if it's a) Unique and b) substantial. The reasons are that unique content enriches their website, and substantial content shifts it away from the typical method of presenting links(linking text and description). A good article with a link back to your site in it is also more likely to be placed on it's own unique page away from all the other outbound links, which is a good method of making sure your links is valued more.
Encourage links to different areas of your website
Try and make sure you get links to different pages on your website, not just the home page. This is important both to build up the internal page rank of your sub-pages and also to develop a better search engine presence for the really niche content that is usually what people are looking for. Thiswill mean a higher percentage of leads and conversions from this traffic than from your average homepage-entry site browser.

The importance (or lack of) anchor text within your link-building strategy

I've done plenty of research recently into search engine ranking placements (SERPs) and inbound link anchor text, as I was curious to see what - if any - patterns I could determine into how these factors influenced the search engine listings. I have come to the conclusion that Google have de-valued anchor text as a factor in determining ranking placements. This makes sense - if you are going to conduct a link-building campaign, you are going to specify what text you want linking to your website if you think it will boost the site in the rankings. Google therefore seem top have placed more emphasis on the fact that there is a link there in the first place. Basically what is happening is:

  1. Other websites link to you
  2. Google determines the relative value of a link from that site (regardless of anchor text)
  3. The on-page factors on your site then determine how well you will rank in conjunction with the inbound links

Of course I'm sure people will disagree with this opinion - but that's the interesting side of this business, we all have opinions based on our own experiences.

How does this influence the future of link-building?

Don't be too surprised if you start seeing more and more link-building companies and SEO firms getting links to clients sites using the brand name or the domain name. After all my analysis I realised the average model was:

  • 60% of other sites link in using the brand name, domain URL, or derivative of the brand name
  • 30% of other sites link in using "click here" or "more information" type phrases
  • 10% of other sites had a wide variety of linking text

The key is that genuine inbound links that are not artificial do not link with optimised anchor text, so I would suggest that it isn't difficult to spot a site with an artificial linking strategy when this model gets turned on its head, and 60% of inbound links have popular keywords.

My recommendation for link-building strategies now - and in the future - is to focus the emphasis more on the quality of the site the link is coming from, rather than the anchor text within the link itself, and be sure to request that the anchor text is your brand name or URL the majority of the time. This idea goes against all well-established SEO principles, but when you actually analyse the model above, and add to this the fact that most sites don't have a single inbound link with a phrase they rank #1 for in Google, perhaps optimised anchor text is the next big penalty area when it comes to link-building.

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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