An Interview With Debra Mastaler: Link Strategist Extraordinaire

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Synopsis — Link building is one of the cornerstones of search engine optimization, and Debra Mastaler is one of the best link builders in the business. She agreed to answer some questions about various aspects of link building strategy for our magazine, and the resulting Q&A is revealing and informative. Read this interview for some great insights into important link building issues.

The complete interview follows …

An Interview With Debra Mastaler: Link Strategist Extraordinaire

SMS:  Debra, welcome. As one of the leading link builders and link building trainers online today, I’m sure you’ve seen it all over the years. Do you still find utility in paying attention to Google Toolbar PageRank when searching for links?

Debra:  I do. It’s a handy and quick way to see what Google thinks about page quality and also gives you an idea about crawl rate. Pages with higher PageRank scores tend to be visited more frequently, which is good. But I don’t use it as a stand-alone metric to determine linkability. As long as the page is in the index, it’s going to pass link popularity.

SMS:  Do you try to negotiate for link placement if you know the link will have a nofollow attribute placed on it?

Debra:  My actions would depend on the type of campaign I’m running. If I’m building links for SEO purposes, I prefer links without a nofollow attribute, but if the page was very high ranking and the link was on a home page, I would do it. When building links to support an ongoing SEO campaign, it doesn’t behoove me to spend a lot of time securing page partners who use nofollow on outbound links. Nofollow acts like a dam and stops the flow of PageRank (in Google’s case) and removes anchor text from the scoring process. In addition, the link is ignored and not crawled again, so the search bot won’t use it to discover new pages (my pages!). Those components of link popularity are strong and what help make pages rank. I want pages and links to work for me — not ignore me — so I won’t actively look for sites using nofollow on their links.

Link building for traffic generation purposes is different of course. In that case, I don’t care about the attribute because I’m after click streams. So, yes, I would place a link knowing it would use the nofollow attribute in such cases.

SMS:  Does the standard approach of emailing webmasters and asking for a link actually work in today’s market?

Debra:  It does. It works better in some areas than others, but overall, it works. This tactic works best with these two methods:

1.  Pointing out broken links — Search for broken links on established pages and ask to replace the link (or content) with a link you provide. Try searching on your keyword phrases plus a year — for example, “running shoes” + 2007. Review the source pages returned and contact the webmasters of any site you find hosting broken links. Remember that your link needs to fit the discussion and link to support content for what’s being discussed.

2.  Content dropping — Find established websites hosting content on your subject and offer fresh content (embedded with one of your links) as support material. Subject matter ages and changes just like anything else, so offering updated or new facts as content can be very attractive for webmasters, especially for ongoing stories.

SMS:  Content marketing has gained greater attention recently although it has been a favorite for Internet marketers for many, many years. What have you found to be the best type of content to attract links?

Debra:  In general, content answering a question or providing an answer to an issue attracts the most links. Some industries respond well to humor-based content while others crave white papers — it really depends on your target audience. We watch Q&A sites such as Yahoo! Answers, Answers.com, and Quora for topical trends and develop content around those question streams.

We’ve always had good luck attracting links and attention by creating content in response to breaking news stories. Look for issues and events taking place in your niche and launch opinion pieces in response to what you’re reading. Link to the original article and comment on it leaving a link to your article. This type of content generation works best when the response piece is done within 24 hours of the news story. Otherwise, interest in the topic dies down and the links won’t materialize.

SMS:  How do you feel about the value of reciprocal links, blog comment links, and forum signature links?

I’ve always thought of them as the Rodney Dangerfield of linking, because they tend not to be taken seriously and get no respect as a promotional technique. Granted, they’re not strong algorithmically, but they do pass link popularity and can be used to support larger link marketing programs. For example, if you’re pushing strategic content, leaving link-embedded comments on popular blogs can help promote the content and draw traffic to it. Links left in forums can accomplish the same goals and also be a testing ground for material before you launch it to the public. We also mine forum links for our keywords and offer content to those sites with similar interests or in our niche.

A lot of forums and blogs use the nofollow attribute on all outbound links so the link popularity impact can be minimal for these two, but don’t let that stop you from using either platform. If you drop a hyperlinked comment on a high traffic blog or forum and offer your content as a counterpoint, you draw attention to your content. We’ve had great luck getting media hits with this type of link building. News outlets seek out different opinions and will frequently follow our link and request interviews.

Of the three, reciprocal linking is the only tactic we don’t use regularly. It only emerges as a last resort. In my experience, small business owners are comfortable with this technique so we tend to swap links in these niches. The upside of this method is the control you have over the links you place — you can dictate the anchor text used and where the link points. The downside is well-known (spam links anyone?), so don’t go overboard and only partner with sites in your industry.

SMS:  Engagement, social signals, and social search – it seems that trust is becoming more about connections, fans, and followers than links from blogs and websites. Relationships could be replacing links eventually. As you peer into your looking glass, where do you see link building moving toward in the future?

Debra:  I don’t think social signals will ever replace links as the algorithmic fiber shaping the web, but search engines do constantly evolve and change their ranking methods, so I’m sure they’ll continue to play some part in how web pages are ranked. Instead of trying to figure out where the engines are going or what they’ll do next, I focus on building smart marketing strategies that will withstand fluctuations in the algorithms. It’s impossible to completely insulate a website from algorithm changes since you have no control over search engine programming, but it is totally within your power to market your site to the right people and on the best sites.

I believe it is smart marketing to cultivate a loyal following to help bring attention to your content and products. Capture email addresses at every opportunity and consider splitting your marketing campaigns so one focuses on building algorithmic popularity, while the other generates traffic, emails, and social media followers. If there’s a hiccup with the algorithm and your linking partners take a hit, you’ll be ready with a built-in base of devoted fans to ask for links. I’ve never been fond of exclusively sending content away from a website as a way to build links. I like to develop a site as the authority in a niche and bring attention to it. For me, that makes more sense and is a better long-term strategy.

SMS:  Thanks so much, Debra, for talking the time to talk to us today. You’ve given our readers a lot of food for thought as they plan and prepare link building strategies for their websites.

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