Linking Tips From The Trenches

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I’ve spent over a decade building links and publicity for websites. Back when I started in 1993, search engines didn’t care about links, other than to follow them looking for new pages to crawl. Times change. Now links rule. Even job titles like “Linking Specialist” are becoming common.

However, there’s an ugly downside when a search engine ranks pages based on linking analysis – link spam, link scams, the proliferation of incorrect information (“Reciprocal links are evil!” and “Paid links will get you banned!”), and an increase in the number of companies selling useless link building services (“100 Links for $99!”).

Businesses are worried. Worried they have done something wrong, worried they aren’t doing something right, worried their competitor has more links, worried they are stuck in a sandbox. Worried they have too few anchor text links, or too many. Worried about those links they bought – or sold.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s go over a few truths and myths to begin to clear the “fog of links”. First off, remember the search engine’s motivation. The engines know how to count links. That’s the easy part. What they need to know is which of the links they have counted can they trust? A blog comment link? Not trustworthy. A link from a public library website at a “.org” domain? Very trustworthy.

There are many types of links that web marketers can obtain, but all links can be classified as being one of the following:

a) a link that can help your search rank
b) a link that can help with direct click traffic
c) a link that can do both

The pursuit of links solely for search rank is where companies get into trouble, and where the rumors and confusion start. And, if there is one truth about the pursuit of links, it’s that there are plenty of rumors and confusion.

Here are the top questions I’m asked, along with some comments on each.

Q. Can a site be banned by search engines for its linking tactics?
A. Yes. Participation in link farms, buying site-wide links, and even some anchor text tactics can get your site in trouble. Any tactic that is designed to fool a search engine is risky. Always answer this question about any link you seek. “I want this link because…?”. If your answer includes the word Google, Yahoo, or MSN, then you’d better do a full risk assessment before going after it.

Q. Is the Google Sandbox real?
A. Yes and no. A brand new site will often take some time before appearing in the search results, and this leads people to believe they have been placed in a sort of purgatory (sandbox) until such time that they “earn” their freedom. How do you earn your freedom? Many ways, one of which is links from trusted sites. Still, plenty of sites with few links at all appear in search results, so the sandbox is not universal. I have seen sites buy their way out of the sandbox via links from second- and third-tier directories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this tactic fails over time.

Q. Is swapping links good or bad?
A. Swapping links, aka reciprocal links, is not a tactic that you should use as a way to improve your search rank, nor is it a tactic you should ignore completely. If the only reason you are swapping links is in hopes of appealing to the bots, then you are wasting your time. If you are swapping links because you want your site visitors to know about the other site, then absolutely. Remember, though, the engines can count. If you were Google, and you saw that 90% of a site’s links had been reciprocated, would you trust them? Nope.

Q. Are all paid links bad?
A. Not all, but some are very bad. Paid links are no different than banner ads. Click them, and you go to another site. It’s advertising. The Google AdSense ads themselves are paid links. It boils down to intent. What was your intent when you bought (or sold) the link? Are you selling the link to help the search rank of the buyer’s site? If so, you run the risk of getting busted for it. I buy links for clients all the time, but not for SEO or link popularity reasons. I buy links for the audience of the site on which those links will appear, so ultimately I don’t care if an engine ever crawls those pages.

Q. Which links are trustworthy and how do I get them?
A. Ah, the heart of the matter. If you are talking specifically about search engine rankings, then the links that are the best for your site will be different than the links that are best for another site. There is no common collection of links that represent the Holy Grail to all sites. In simpler terms, if you have a site about poodle grooming, then you need a different set of links than would a site about accounting software. The challenge is in identifying that “perfect storm” of links that makes sense for your site. That’s what I do every day for my clients, and it isn’t easy.

As far as search engines are concerned, there are many factors to consider when looking for trustworthy links. Some of the logic is flawed, to be sure, but most is very sound. Links that are older, originate from certain top-level domains (“.edu”, “.gov”), and those that appear on certain “trusted” content sites have a greater link value. That makes good sense. After all, if a site suddenly gets 1,000 new links, all from “.biz” or “.info” domains, then the engines will very likely just ignore them.

Likewise, a site with a just handful of high-value, trusted links could find itself ranking very high. It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality. A single link from a trusted “.gov” site can have more impact than 100 links from known link farms.

People At The End Of The Pipes

I’ve said this many times over the years, and it is as true today as it was back when I started in this business. When building links, it is a mistake to focus just on the search engines. Why? Because for every website, there is an online collection of people, places, and venues that will care about it, link to it, write about it, share it. Yesterday’s Geocities home page is today’s blog. A zine becomes a podcast. Zeal begets Furl. Social bookmarking services grow to encompass thousands of members, all sharing links with each other. Tagging sites that let people share content flourish.

So, think past the search engine algorithm. In a web full of User Generated Content, the user is the algorithm. And that’s the heart of the matter. It’s still about people. And content. And sharing. One link at a time.

About the Author

Eric Ward advises clients on link-building strategies and tactics that actually make sense. Eric created the web's first service for building links and publicity for websites, and he continues to offer these services today.

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