Inbound Link Strategies: Movin’ On Up

If you’ve ever done SEO (define) work for a business that leverages affiliate relationships, the phenomenon recently dubbed “Google Bowling” is nothing new. Hotel chains, home mortgage resellers, and travel agencies brokering cruises and cheap airfares indiscriminately rob top search results from business partners and rivals alike.

The intent to do harm to another business on the Web adds a new twist to the age-old issue of bad linking strategies. Google’s ongoing attempts to curb search result manipulation by way of link popularity appear to have reached fruition with its latest algorithmic update.

The good news is by link dampening, filtering, and, in some cases, penalizing sites that purchased or sought out low-value incoming links en mass, Google has finally instituted a way to make search results for highly competitive terms more relevant.

The bad news is some legitimate businesses always seem to have their search positions washed away by improved results. If your results have been affected by the latest Google update, don’t despair. You can do much to move out of a bad-link neighborhood into a better one.

Define Your Link Universe

Before you can ask others to add or remove links to your site, you must first figure out who’s linking to your site. Many tools on the Web can help you define your inbound link universe. Some link-checking tools are free, others are available for varying fees. Most are based on advanced search commands, such as, inurl:yourdomain, and allinurl:yourdomain. MarketLeap’s Link Popularity Check and Webmaster Toolkit’s Link Popularity Checker are two relatively accurate and free link-checking tools.

Even if you’re concerned about your site’s position in Google, it’s best to collect inbound link information from several search engines. None of the major engines will reveal all in-bound links to your site.

It’s relatively easy to organize the list of links connected to your site in a spreadsheet or desktop database. But it takes time, patience, and up-to-date virus detection software to examine your site’s in-bound universe.

Rate Your Inbound Links

Sort through and review each inbound link to reveal potentially harmful links. For a larger commercial site, this can be an excruciatingly tedious task. But, it’s a worthwhile exercise that can provide valuable insight into your online business.

How you sort the links is up to you, but don’t rely on PageRank to determine an inbound link’s quality. PageRank doesn’t determine how relevant the link is to your site, nor does it prove the link is on-topic or provides valuable prequalified traffic to your site. PageRank really doesn’t matter all that much.

It’s relatively easy to qualify each inbound link into five general categories: internal, paid, solicited, partner, and other. Within the “other” category, note which sites are potentially harmful, such as link farms, ad scrapers, search scrapers, and other low-quality links.

Inbound Link Categories Defined

Of the five in-bound link category types, internal links within a site don’t much influence search rankings. But optimizing anchor text used between pages linked within the site is always a good idea, if you haven’t done so already.

Paid sites include links from fee-based search directories. How can you determine which inbound links are most important to your site? Generally, in-bound links from directories should be reflected in your site’s log files because they generate relevant traffic to your site.

Solicited sites can be directory listings from free, industry-specific vertical search engines, Yellow Pages, or other industry specific Web directories. Either way, someone had to request your site’s information be included. Combined together, paid and solicited links can be an important way users find your site beyond general search results.

Partner links derive from business relationships. These links usually include technology partners, trade associations, resellers, suppliers, and the like. These are very valuable third-party link endorsements that are frequently overlooked during a link-building campaign. Your site’s list of inbound links from business partners is something you should always be looking to grow as part of a long-term link building strategy.

Inbound Link Score

As for the “other” category, your site’s overall health can quickly be determined by the sheer volume of low-quality links connecting to your site. For example, if you audit 1,000 links into your site and 700 of the links are from internal, paid, solicited, or relational links, it’s pretty safe to say the latest algorithmic updates aren’t the reason your site lost positioning.

However, if the “other” category accounts for over 70 percent of the links into your site, you probably had some link extraction work to do if you want to keep your search results robust. And it’s relatively important to extract your site from link farms and other poor quality sites while you build credible links into your site.

Legitimate link-building campaigns aren’t easy. It takes time to seek out those sites, blogs, and directories relevant to your business. Keeping track of a link-building campaign takes as much organizational effort as a link extraction project. We’ll discuss both these aspects of linking the next time we link up.

Join us at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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