Link development has long been a cornerstone of a successful search engine optimization (SEO) programs, yet few search engine marketers do the process correctly. With free-for-all (FFA) link farms and poor Web rings polluting search results, how do Web site owners know which SEM companies to avoid, and which are legitimate?
This column addresses some basic guidelines for successful link development. It will help Web site owners avoid common sales pitches from unethical SEMs.
Link Development 101
At a basic level, a link counts as a vote. If a Web site owner finds content on a site is particularly useful and informative, he’ll link to that site.
As both a Web developer and graphic designer, I always visit and purchase from stock photography and digital image Web sites. Therefore, I have a page on my site that links to the stock photography sites I use most. I link to these sites because I find their content to be useful.
One might think if a site receives more "votes" than another site, then the site with more "votes" has higher link popularity. Unethical SEMs have promoted this myth for years, just so they can close a sale. As outlined in a previous column, Link Development: The Key to Successful SEO, the quality of a link always carries more weight than the quantity of links. It’s much better for a site to have a small number of high-quality links than to have a large number of low-quality links.
In an ideal situation, of course, a site should have a large number of high-quality links. Link development takes time. If a site has (a) a large number of high-quality links; (b) keyword-rich text; and (c) a site and page architecture the search engines (and end users) can follow, then qualified search engine traffic isn’t an issue. It’s very difficult to imitate high-quality link development.
Reciprocal Linking — Is It Flawed?
I do not and never have believed in reciprocal linking because the fundamental concept: you link to me and I’ll link to you, is flawed.
If you find a site’s or page’s content to be particularly useful and believe its content will benefit your visitors, then link to the page. You won’t link to another Web page because they wouldn’t grant you a reciprocal link? Perhaps you didn’t find the content as useful as you thought you did.
Many Web site owners receive emails from SEMs saying they’ve added a link to their site, with a request the site owner read and edit the listing. The email commonly mentions PageRank, or "PR," as it’s known in the SEM industry. The expectation is the site owner will return the favor. Otherwise, the link will be removed.
Whenever you receive this type of email, promptly filter out the address and delete it. If the SEM company truly felt your site’s content were valuable, they’d link to your site with or without that link being reciprocated.
Besides, last time I checked, people who search for home refinancing don’t type "search engine marketing" into a search query. A high-quality link comes from a site with content related to your site’s content.
Web Rings — Good or Bad?
Another way unethical SEMs try to score link development points is by creating artificial Web rings. Unfortunately, many Web hosting and design firms try this strategy as well. What they do is create a directory of sites that are somewhat related and encourage these companies to link to each other.
Quite often, you’ll see a link that says, "Site designed by XYZ Company." It in turn links to the various Web rings.
First of all, no client should be obliged to link to their Web design firm’s site. When people visit your site, they aren’t searching for the company that designed it. They’re searching for the products, services, and information offered on your site. Unless you’re selling Web design or development services, or offer products related to this industry, it’s not a good idea to link to your Web design or hosting company.
I’ve seen more bad uses of Web rings than good uses, which is a shame. There are some cross-links site visitors certainly will find useful. If all domestic violence shelter sites would link to each other on a state-by-state basis (shelters in New York, shelters in Arizona, etc.), that type of cross-linking will make it easier for victims of domestic violence to find the shelter closest to them.
Non-competitive vs. Supplemental Content
I get an email from a link development company every day asking me to link to their client’s site. I wrote a book about search-engine friendly design, and have a book Web site. Many search engine markers seem to think this is a magnet for link development. What amazes me about these link requests is they violate a fundamental concept: not only should link requests go to sites with related content, they should go to non-competitive sites.
Let’s return to what I wrote above. If a site offers useful and informative content, then I’ll link to it without expecting a reciprocal link. I’m always bookmarking content in Search Engine Watch and HighRankings.com. So I have no problem linking to those sites.
Additionally, whenever a company sends a link request, someone must read the content on that site before sending the request. Nothing is more annoying to a site owner than someone who doesn’t read their site, but still expects you to modify your own site in his favor.
Here’s another example. In my book site, I’m not in favor of Web positioning software. I’ve never supported Web positioning software, and I write about the topic quite often. Every week, without fail, I get a link request from SEM firms who offer Web positioning as a service, or I receive a link request from a Web positioning software company.
My reaction? Filter and delete. I won’t even read the entire email. If a person requesting a link doesn’t have the courtesy to read the content on my Web site, then I certainly won’t grant that person the courtesy of reading his email. Common sense isn’t always link development firms’ forte.
Link development is fundamental for search engine marketers. It’s very difficult for a site to get long-term search engine traffic without it. The focus should always be on high-quality links, not a large quantity of low-quality links. SEMs must teach their clients how to correctly request links from high-quality, non-competitive sites. With successful link development, Web sites can receive long-term, cumulative search engine traffic. Just do it right.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.
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