Link-Building Basics

It’s the time of the year when the biggest SEM show on earth takes place in San Jose. One of my favorite sessions at the Search Engine Strategies (SES) conferences is the link-building basics session. It’s a great event for those who are just coming into the search marketing industry and want to know what all the fuss about linking is.

Quality linking is essential for securing those high-ranking pages on competitive keywords. Getting it wrong by trying to artificially inflate linkage data could make your Web pages spiral instead of fly. So practicing safe strategies, as with all other aspects of SEM, is essential.

I was thinking it had been a long time since I did a link-building basics column. Then I discovered I’ve never written a link-building basics column!

Quite a bit of this column’s feedback comes from people new to search marketing. There’s a ton of information online about linking, so I’m frequently asked what’s right and what’s wrong. As with many aspects of SEO (it not being an exact science), there are many myths and hugely differing opinions on what works and what doesn’t.

Be Informative and Entertaining

I have a simple rule of thumb when developing or optimizing a site: make sure it’s built to be informative and entertaining for the end user. Improving the user experience is the holy grail for search engines.

Content is still king. Develop great content, whatever it be, and you’re en route to generating quality links. It could be anything: a well-written article, a useful online tool, or even just a funny home video. But to kick-start initial efforts, you need to get a good buzz going to generate naturally selected editorial links. The way you differentiate and present your content, products, or services to the blogosphere, in viral marketing campaigns, and in other forms of promotion are all very important.

What’s a quality link? There are two sides to this coin, as my friend and fellow SES panelist (and former ClickZ columnist), Eric Ward (read: Moses of linking) always explains to an audience. There are those you may generate purely for ranking purposes at search engines. And there are those search engines may not be aware of (e.g., in e-mail) but that still send tons of traffic your way.

And let’s face it, who’d refuse a link from a widely distributed e-zine sending qualified traffic regardless of whether it affected search engine rankings or not?

The Basics

Why do search engines put such a high priority on links when it comes to ranking? There are a couple of basic assumptions a search engine can make by looking purely at links. First, if someone decides to link to your Web pages at his own discretion, it could be said he’s casting a vote of confidence in your content. Second, if someone is happy to pass his visitors on to you by placing a link and recommending your content, you could well be focusing on the same topic (often referred to as community).

So, regardless of the words or the type of content you have on a page, a search engine can tell a great deal about how popular your content is by looking at the links that surround it.

This is where we come back to quality. Another friend and SES panelist at SES, link-building expert Debra Mastaler, readily explains the importance of quality over quantity.

It’s not about the sheer number of links you have. It’s about the links’ quality. In search engine terms, quality is about the link coming from the same community and the prestige of the page linking to you (i.e., their own linkage data). Some links, then, are better than others. And some links, I can tell you from my own experience, are infinitely better than others.

My buddy Andy Beal published a report last month that highlights the quality-over-quantity issue. Certain areas of linking strategies get bad press and the thumbs-down from search engines, such as paying for links and reciprocal linking (asking a site owner to link to you if you link to them).

I look at all forms of generating links as an option in any link-building campaign. But I do place a huge emphasis on the safe linking aspect. There’s no reason why Google or any other search engine should complain about me buying a link from an on-topic page to my own, providing the end user experience is good.

And there’s no reason any search engine should complain about a gentleman’s agreement between people who want to link to each other. However, it gets a bit murky when your linkage data is wholly reliant on reciprocal linking or paid links, and no quality editorial (or authoritative) links.

A good mixture of editorial links, relevant directory links, reciprocal links (where beneficial), and paid links (when it’s the only way you’re going to get them) can shape a perfectly normal linking pattern.

As usual, I’ve run out of room too quickly in this column. But there are a couple of recommendations for further reading I have if you’re new to link building.

It’s been around a while now, but Ken McGaffin’s “Linking Matters” report is still worth downloading (it’s free). And for only $8.95, friend and Internet marketing stalwart Ralph Wilson has a guide to reciprocal linking tools.

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

Mike is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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