Linking Mistakes to Avoid (Part 1): Link Optimization and Short URLs

Linking to other Web sites has been part of the natural order of things on the Web ever since the Web began. Even so, it wasn’t until about two years ago, when the search engines started factoring external links into their rankings, that people with Web sites started getting serious about link building.

I’ve always preached that regardless of what the search engines do, a network of links pointing to your site is the simplest, easiest, and most cost-effective method of building traffic. I see evidence every day to prove this sermon correct. Yet, even so, many sites do things that discourage links.

You’ve probably heard of search engine optimization (SEO), but what about linking optimization (LO)? Ever heard of that? Linking optimization isn’t about content. Let’s assume you have great linkable content and a strategy to get it linked. If you don’t, contact me. Link optimization is the process of making your existing great content linkable at the URL level.

The easiest way to make your URLs linkable is to remember one core rule: Short URLs are better than long URLs. Why? First, have you ever received an email message that had a URL that wrapped to two lines? Clicking on a wrapped (broken) URL does one thing: It sends the clicker to a file-not-found page. The moment your email software wraps the URL, that URL is no good unless the reader copies and pastes both lines of the URL into the browser window perfectly and then hits the enter key. What a hassle, especially for those who aren’t online as much. Or for anyone who finds a mouse challenging. I’ve been online for 10 years, and I still have problems copying and pasting two-line URLs into the browser window easily.

So if in an email message you were given the choice of the two URLs below, which would result in getting the reader to the page?


Answer: the second URL, since the first one broke when it wrapped in the email and now sends clickers to a file-not-found page.

The same holds true for linking by another Web site. Which of the above URLs would a Webmaster be more inclined to link to? It’s human nature to take the easiest path, and in this case the easiest path is the shorter URL. Having conducted linking campaigns for several Fortune 500 companies, I have experienced firsthand the problems with getting links for long URLs. I’ve had to apologize for long URLs, give directions for copying and pasting, send shorter redirect URLs, and so on. It’s no fun to go link-seeking and have to apologize for your links in your link-request email.

URL wrapping in email is just one area in which long links will hurt you. Another is discussion boards that permit only a certain length of text per line. Try sending to a forum board a post with a long URL in it, and watch as it is rendered useless (from a clicking standpoint). I promise you that this seemingly small glitch is enough to keep people from coming to your site. It takes a split second to click a good URL; it takes 15 or 20 seconds to try to scrape it with a mouse off two lines and paste it back into the browser. That annoyance is plenty to keep readers from even trying. The wrapped URL is the silent deal-breaker of clicking.

Many deep-content sites have database-generated content that results in long URLs. If this describes your site, one workaround is to use redirects for linking. I’m doing some linking work for Warner Bros. right now and using short, static redirect URLs that send the clicker to the URLs Warner needs them to go to. In my email link request, I explain that I have sent a short URL to alleviating dealing with a wrapped (broken) URL. Some Webmasters don’t like to link to redirects; but if there is a legitimate reason why it has to be done, most of them will link to the URL you ask them to link to, even if it’s a redirect. Likewise with forum boards. I post the short URLs — or, in some cases, both the long and short URLs — explaining that if the long one isn’t clickable, the short one can be used.

Thus, although redirects are scorned in the SEO community, they are accepted and often necessary in the LO field. If the primary objective is to simplify things for the person you are sending the URL to, then of course it’s completely acceptable to send a shorter URL that redirects. But, to be on the safe side, always explain to the readers of your link request message or forum post why you are redirecting them. Otherwise, your linking motives might be questioned, and the link won’t be granted.

Until next time, I remain

Eric Ward,
Link Mensch

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