With algorithms evolving, changing how much weight is given to different metrics, one constant remains: Link-building is critical in ranking well in the search engine results page (SERP), particularly so in highly competitive markets. Yet many people ask why links are so important, what makes a good link, and how to get links. So with that in mind, the following will (hopefully) answer those questions and provide scalable link-building strategies.
Why Are Links Important?
So why put so much weight on inbound links when there are other metrics that could be measured, such as on-site page optimization or site content? In short, because off-site optimization cannot be easily manipulated, as a site’s webmaster does not typically have direct control over who will link to it.
Google et al. want to provide users with SERPs filled with relevant, quality, trustworthy sites that will best answer the user’s queries. In order to earn trust and authority, a site must receive incoming links from other quality, relevant sites. A link is seen by search engines as an endorsement from the linking site to the recipient, but, as we will explain later on, not all links are created equally. To overgeneralize, all other things being equal (alas, there is no such Utopia, online or otherwise), the more links the better.
What Makes a Good Link
Clearly, a contextual link from a site deemed to be of the utmost trust (i.e., CNN) is of much more value than one from a low-quality, irrelevant directory. So what should one look for when evaluating link possibilities? Here are factors that will make link analysis much more productive:
Authority: There are different metrics that can be used to gauge a page’s authority/trust, such as Google’s PageRank or Open Site Explorer’s Page Authority/MozRank/MozTrust. A caveat: The PageRank (PR) toolbar can be fairly inaccurate, as it is not updated frequently, and OSE’s Page Authority (PA) can be misleading at times, reflecting a comparatively high PA for a page that clearly has little (if any) value.
Going back to our analogy of links being endorsements from the linking site, a link from a high-authority site is much more valuable than that of a low-authority website. As we are in the midst of Republican candidates battling out for the nomination, look at it this way: Would a candidate be better off with the endorsement of a key, well-liked, public figure or that of Joe Blow?
Note: Today’s PR1-2 could easily become tomorrow’s PR5s, so when assessing a site’s “authority” look at the overall picture (Is the content well written? Is it updated frequently? Is the webmaster/site owner heavily involved in the industry?).
A good example of it is the team at BuyIdahoRealEstate.com. A few months ago the site’s home page had a PR of 2 whereas today it is a PR4, and based on how involved/proactive they are, it is likely they will continue to increase the site’s authority and trust.
Relevance: The subject of relevancy is applicable across any vertical, but let’s focus on real estate. As real estate professionals, more than likely one specializes in a specific geographic region. With that in mind, relevancy can come in two ways: location-based and topic-related.
For example, Ben Fisher is a real estate agent in Park City, Utah; links from sites — whether blogs, forums, e-commerce, etc. — that specialize in serving the Park City community would be useful not only in passing link “juice” but also in generating qualified click-through traffic. But, of course, links from other real estate-related sites could also be extremely relevant. How do search engines determine such relevancy? The content itself (whether taken from the meta titles, description, context, etc.) speaks as to whether there is any relevancy between linking and linked site.
Anchor: Although it’s not always feasible (particularly for editorially given links), incorporating desired keywords/key phrases as the “anchor” for links can pay huge dividends. For example, in the sample above, Ben would be better served by having links anchored with “Park City real estate” as opposed to “click here” or another overly generic term. However, it is important to have a link profile with a diverse set of anchors from a diverse variety of linking domains, so avoid using the same anchor text in every link whenever possible.
No-follow attribute: A critical aspect when assessing a link is whether it has a no-follow attribute, which basically annuls the link “juice” passing from the linking page but still allows for click-through traffic to the linked page. There are a number of plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome (such as the NoDoFollow add-on for Firefox) that allow one to easily differentiate no-follow links without having to look at the source code.
Location, location, location: The old real estate adage regarding location is also applicable to links. Contextual links inserted on a relevant page of a trusted domain will be of much more value than one on the footer of a deep page in a low-level directory. Location within a page could be contextually in the body, header, navigational tab, blogroll, footer, etc., and for a natural link profile, having links from varying locations will be seen as most organic by search engines.
Outbound Links: Great, you get a do-follow link from a PR4 niche-relevant site with your anchor text of choice. Surely this will help! But what if the linking page has 300 outbound links? The link “juice” of the page gets divided among all recipients and what you thought was a great link (which it still could be by providing direct traffic to your site) turns out to be mediocre at best. In essence, look at the number of external links from the linking page in order to better gauge the link’s overall benefit.
How to Get Links
So the information above is pretty straightforward, but how to get links is where new webmasters get stumped. First, let’s say it loud and clear: Building quality links is hard work!
There are many services that profess a quick and easy way to get tons of links, but what invariably happens is that those resulting links are just about worthless. So with that let’s break down tactics by ease of implementation:
Forums: Whether industry-specific, hobby-related or community-based, there is a plethora of forums that allow members to add a link to their profile and (more importantly) to their signature. However, many forums put a no-follow attribute on signature links, and due to the high amount of outgoing links and relatively low authority of the linking page, these links are low in quality. There are a few forums that allow followed links in signatures after a minimum amount of posts, so be sure to check a forum’s terms of service.
Blog Commenting: A very common and heavily utilized method is commenting on other niche-relevant blogs. Keep in mind, though, that a large majority of blogs give a no-follow attribute to links in comments. Use the NoDoFollow plug-in mentioned above when perusing blogs to determine if it will be a no-followed link.
As a further caveat, when commenting please ensure that it adds value to the discussion and it reflects understanding of the subject. “Thanks for the post” is a very weak, obvious attempt at getting a link, and most webmasters would delete it as spam. Do not be a spammer!
Directories: Another heavily used strategy is submitting a site to directories. With an incredible amount of directories available, it becomes more difficult to ascertain which are worth submitting to. Some of the most valued ones include DMOZ (although there is a general consensus that it takes forever and a day to get approved, if at all), Yahoo’s Directory (steep price), Business.com, JoeAnt, Pegasus Directory, and some regional directories. As in most things in life, the more difficult it is to get, the more likely that it’s worth having.
Article Directories: There are a number of quality, human-edited article directories such as EzineArticles, GoArticles, Amazine, and many more that can be extremely useful. As these article directories require a well-written article with unique content, it takes much longer to produce and get approved than the methods listed above, but the links can prove to be worthwhile particularly as they age.
Guest Blogging: Although submitting posts to article directories or article marketing could be interpreted as guest blogging, in this category we refer to the practice of contacting relevant bloggers and offering to post content on their blogs. Relevancy could come by way of industry (whether national or regional in scope) or by the geographic location targeted. Research your specific area to see if any of the locally predominant sites offer blogs for users to publish content, as this could land not only good links but also qualified click-through traffic.
Third-Party Sites: There are a number of industry-specific, national sites that allow users to publish content such as Trulia and ActiveRain. Also, others establish accounts on Web 2.0 portals such as WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr and LiveJournal, as these are well-established, high-trafficked sites that trickle some of their “juice” to individual pages.
Post unique, well-written content and it can help not only in building quality links with anchor text of choice, but also in establishing a rapport with other industry professionals, which could be useful in the next method.
Link Exchange: There are some search engine optimization/Internet marketers who frown upon reciprocal links, as it doesn’t reflect organic link-building patterns, but in a sphere such as real estate, it is not uncommon for an agent to link to vendors of choice (i.e., appraisers, escrow companies, property inspectors) and to receive a link in return. Also, linking to other real estate professionals who service a different area is not outside the norm, but do NOT use this as the only link-building tactic, as it will lead to a very unnatural link profile. For those with multiple sites, three- or four-way exchanges would work better: Linking A to B and B to C, or A to B and C to D, is better than linking A to B and B to A.
Article Marketing: Although I’m personally not a big fan of this method, it is a tactic commonly used and (bottom line) produces significant results. First, write a good, insightful article and “spin” it. This part of the process is very time consuming in order to make “unique,” spun versions of the original, but it will prove to be time well spent.
Best Spinner is an efficient, quality software that is leaps and bounds above others in the market. Take the spun versions and use article marketing software, such as Unique Article Wizard, to distribute among an array of different article sites. The result, after various rounds of article distribution, can be hundreds of different linking root domains. Granted, it’s unlikely that any of those pages will ever gain enough authority to be considered “quality,” but the sheer amount of linking domains can provide a boost.
Link Bait: Writing a well-researched, insightful article or creating a quality video can result in a “buzz” around it, with people “liking”/tweeting it, blogging about it, submitting to social bookmarking sites and linking to it from their own sites. That’s organic link building at its best. But how to go about it? Write comprehensive, uniquely researched posts infused with humor or controversial topics, whether about the industry or community.
And for those tech-savvy professionals who know their way around a camera and have creative ideas, producing a share-worthy video can result in organic links from authority sites. Typically, the link goes directly to the host of the video, but follow these instructions as detailed by the SEO geniuses at Distilled and get a link back to your own site with anchor text of choice.
Paid Links: Paying for links for the purpose of SEO is a big no-no in the eyes of Google et al. However, there are legitimate ways to go about this. For example, donating to a local charity during a fundraising campaign can result in being added to a “donors” page; let’s face it, it’s not uncommon for charities to have highly authoritative sites. In addition, local blogs are often labors of love in the part of the bloggers, and sponsors are usually welcomed, in return for which it is typical to be listed via a link.
In conclusion, search engines will continue to evolve via large algorithmic changes such as the Panda Update or subtle changes such as measuring social media signals in order to provide useful SERPs to queries and (ultimately) to keep users coming back. And continuing to place more weight on metrics that measure off-site ranking factors is not likely to go away any time soon. Sure, link building requires effort, patience and persistence (among other qualities), but the long-term rewards will pay dividends tenfold. To succeed online, get linked!