Here’s one of the most common conversations I had in almost 10 years of working with small business owners:
Business Owner: “How come my site doesn’t show up in Google for ___________ (keyword)?”
Me: “You need more links to your web site.”
Me: “Yep. Links are like votes. The more links you get, the more likely your site will show up in Google.”
BO: “I can ask my brother to link to me from his web site. You mean like that?”
Me: “Well, not really. You need more than one link, and it would be better to get links that are from sites related to your industry. And they need to be from other quality sites.”
BO: (gets frustrated and changes the subject)
Fact #1: The competition for links is tough for any business, big or small. Confusing the issue is “link lingo” — inbound links, reciprocal links, sitewide links, paid links, text links, deep links … the list goes on and on. How’s a business owner to keep track of it all?
Fact #2: When you’re looking for links, quantity is one thing — but quality is better. Not all links are created equal. How can you tell which links are better than others?
That’s the idea behind this guide — to help you understand which links will help the most. To help you … Build the Perfect Link.
What is the perfect link? It depends if you’re seeking links for direct traffic acquisition or for improving your visibility in search engines. If you seek the former, the perfect link is easy to describe: Any link that brings in direct, qualified traffic can be called “perfect.” But this guide will focus on the latter. If you’re looking for links as part of an SEO campaign, there are a lot of things to consider.
TYPE OF LINK #1: WITH WHOM?
Options: one-way, reciprocal, 3-way, 4-way … 400-way, etc.
Perfect Link: One-way link
A one-way link is a link from one site to another, usually given voluntarily. Site “A” links to Site “B” because Site A likes something about Site B and wants to tell its visitors about it. My regular Friday Night Link-o-rama posts are all examples of one-way links; I’m linking out to other sites to tell you about them because I think you’ll like what I’m linking to. I don’t tell the other sites I’m linking to them, nor do I expect them to link back to me.
What about reciprocal links and 3-way links? When done in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with trading links (i.e., a reciprocal link) with another site, as long as the other site is related to yours in terms of content, scope, etc. Several of the sites I link to in the “Random Good Stuff” section on the right of this site also link to me. Though we didn’t specifically ask to trade links, the engines consider these to be reciprocal links. Since the subject matter is similar, these reciprocal links are good and will “count” for SEO purposes.
Sidebar: At this point, you need to understand the idea of site profiles and trust. Stop for a moment and read my earlier post, The No. 1 SEO and Marketing Tactic for 2007. I’ll open that in a new window so you can get back here easily.
Keep this “site profile” idea in mind as you read the rest of this guide, because almost all of the things I’ll mention that are frowned upon are less of a red flag for sites that have great profiles. When you’ve earned the trust of the search engines, you have more freedom than sites that haven’t earned their trust.
I said above that trading links is okay “when done in moderation.” What’s that mean? And how do the search engines define moderation? They define it like this: If traded links make up an unusually high percentage of your inbound links, that’s a red flag. No one outside the search engines knows what the percentage is, but as an example, if your site has 100 inbound links and the search engine can determine that 90 of them are the result of link trades, that’s not good. Sites that rank highly are sites that earn the majority of their inbound links, not sites that negotiate for them.
When three or more sites agree to exchange links, things get a little more dicey. A 3-way link trade is when Site “A” links to Site “B”, then Site “B” links to Site “C”, and Site “C” links back to Site “A”. While surely there are occasions when this happens naturally, too much of it can be a red flag that invites scrutiny from search engines — especially if the 3-way (or more) link swapping happens simultaneously.
TYPE OF LINK #2: HOW’D YOU GET IT?
Options: paid or earned
Perfect Link: While the search engines will struggle to identify many paid links, the safer & better option is to earn a link on merit. Buying links is not evil. It can be a great form of advertising. If the search engines can’t identify it as a purchased link, it can help your SEO efforts because it would be treated the same as an earned link. But, there’s always the risk that the site selling you the link will be discovered, at which point the link you bought would likely become useless for SEO purposes.
TYPE OF LINK #3: FORMAT
Options: text or non-text (image, Flash, etc.)
Perfect Link: Text. There is no link format as trusted as a text link. The alt attribute of an image link can be “fudged”, and Flash isn’t trustworthy at all (as a file format) where the search engines are concerned. A text link can’t be fudged. The link is what the link says. And that’s why anchor text is such a key element of search algorithms.
TYPE OF LINK #4: PLACED WHERE?
Options: sitewide placement or unique location(s)
Perfect Link: Unique location(s). If you’re only getting one link, the perfect place is for the link to be placed in the main body content of the page — as opposed to the sidebar or footer, for example — with other words/text before and after the link. Sitewide links — e.g., if the link to your site appears on all pages of the site linking to you — carry less weight and aren’t considered the same quality of a “vote” as links in the body copy of pages (where the meat of the valuable page content is). If you’re getting more than one link, but less than sitewide links, it’s best to scatter the links — don’t do anything that looks like a pattern. Patterns can send a red flag to the engines.
Now let’s move beyond the various types of links to other issues that should be considered as we’re building the perfect link.
QUALITY OF OTHER SITE
Links from high quality sites are better than links from low quality sites. But how do you measure the quality of a site from which you might want a link? Here are some things to look for:
- Does the site have content that’s relevant to your site? Your music shop web site will do better to have a link coming from a musician’s reference site than from a pet store site.
- Does the site have the trust of the search engines? Some ways to measure that:
- How old is the site? Older sites generally have more trust than newer sites, though not always.
- How many backlinks does the site have?
- Are those backlinks from quality sites?
- Do those backlinks include some .edu and .gov sites?
- Does the site have a high Google PageRank?
- How often is the site crawled? Frequent crawling can be a sign of quality, and will also help that backlink you’re getting get counted sooner rather than later.
On that last point, you can learn how often a site is crawled by using Google, Yahoo, etc. The search engines will often show a crawl date right in the SERPs; if not, you can click the “Cached” link to see the last time the page was crawled.
WHAT PAGE ON OTHER SITE
You won’t often get to choose where on the other site your backlink will appear. But if you’re actively soliciting links, contacting other webmasters about getting links to your site, it’s a great idea to suggest a page where you think the link to your site makes the most sense for the other site’s visitors. That sounds tremendously altruistic of you; just don’t tell the other webmaster you have selfish reasons for wanting the link there!
So, which page do you want? Some things to consider:
- You want the link on the page that is most relevant to your keyword/phrase. For example, if you do red widget repair, you’d want a backlink from the red widget page on ABC Widget Store’s site. Wait, Matt – wouldn’t I want a link from the home page since more people see that page? It’s true that ABC Widget’s home page probably gets more traffic, but how much of that traffic is looking for red widgets? A small percent probably. But people looking at their red widget page are bound to be more interested in your repair service, more likely to click your link — and, for SEO purposes, you get the benefit of all that red widget keyword juice because your red widget link is on a page using the same keywords you’re targeting.
- What is the PageRank of the page where you’re getting a link? This actually runs contrary, to some degree, to the above bullet item. ABC Widgets’ home page probably has a higher PR and might pass more of that your way with a link. But — ABC’s home page probably has a lot of other links on it and as one link of dozens, you’re actually getting less PR transferred to your page. As one link of only a few on the red widgets page, you get more of that PR passed your way.
- How often is the page crawled? Same reasons as above.
- You don’t want your link on a “Links” page. Pages with big lists of links don’t get much traffic, and won’t help much with your SEO efforts. With the exception of trusted directories like Yahoo, ODP, Business.com, etc., “links” pages are borderline useless.
HOW MANY OTHER OUTBOUND LINKS ON PAGE?
The perfect link appears on a page with few other links. The fewer other outbound links on the page, the more valuable is the link to your site.
RELEVANCE OF OTHER OUTBOUNDS
Since it’s likely that your link won’t be the only link on the page, you have to examine the other outbound links. “Co-citation” comes into play here. Co-citation means your site will be associated with other pages getting outbound links on the same page, so it’s okay if there are a couple other link to red widgets. You won’t benefit as much if other outbound links on the page are to completely unrelated topics.
QUALITY OF OTHER OUTBOUNDS
Just as relevance of other outbounds matters, so, too, does the quality of other outbounds. You don’t want to be linked next to spammy links. This is what we mean when we talk about “link neighborhoods.” You want to be linking in good neighborhoods.
You may not have any say in the anchor text used when another site is linking to you. That’s certainly the case when you’re earning one-way links. But if you’re buying or trading links (in moderation, please), you may get to choose the anchor text. Here’s what you need to know:
- If you’re getting just one link, use your keyword/phrase as the anchor text.
- If you’re getting lots of links, mix up the anchor text to keep a “natural” look to your link building efforts.
- Another good idea along those lines: Have your keyword/phrase appear in close proximity to the link. The text before and after a link helps add context/relevance to the link itself.
This is another factor you can’t control when someone is linking to you voluntarily. But when you can control it, the perfect link is one that points to the most relevant “landing page” on your site — the page that matches the keyword/phrase used in the anchor text of the inbound link. If another site links to you with a link that says “red widget repair,” you’d want that link pointing at your red widget repair page, not your home page. In a perfect world, you’ll already have optimized the page with the keyword in your page title, in H2s and/or H3s, and elsewhere in the page copy as necessary (without overdoing it).
Don’t be tempted to put more value on links to your home page. Links to deep pages on your site have all kinds of SEO benefits, such as:
- encouraging spiders to crawl that deep content more often,
- which then helps get other deep content crawled more often;
- transferring PageRank to your deep pages
- and all of the above helps keep your deep pages out of Google’s supplemental index
Deep. Links. Rock.
There’s one last thing to consider when discussing the perfect link: How is the link coded? Here are three coding elements that impact the benefits of any inbound link:
Is the link “nofollowed”? You’ll have to look in the source code to find out (unless you use Firefox and have the right extensions installed). If you see rel=”nofollow” inside the link code, that link has little value. The nofollow attribute tells search engines that the site owner doesn’t trust the page being linked to. The link may still be crawled, but we’re told by search engines that these links pass very little, if any, value to the other page.
Is the link redirected? You want links to point directly to your site. A redirected link, if I were using them here on SBS, might look like this: http://www.smallbusinesssem.com/refer?=http://www.yoursite.com — the link points to a referral script on my site. This is another way to code a link so that it doesn’t give any benefit to the other page.
These last two examples are quite often (but not always) used by link farms and other low-quality sites — and you shouldn’t want a link from them, anyway.
OTHER LINK RESOURCES
Here are some of my favorite resources for learning and following best practices related to links and link building:
With competition for links being what it is, it’s okay to be happy with just about any inbound link you get. But it’s important to realize that some links are better than others, and in those rare cases where you have some say in where and how another site links to you, I hope this guide helps you make the right decision.
Comments are always welcome, and in this case, especially if I missed something that should be added to this guide. Speak up and help out future readers!
[tags]links, linking, link building, seo[/tags]