SUMMARY: Many marketers struggle to implement link building, especially with the myriad of consistently changing factors search engines use to rank pages. With the April launch of Google's new Penguin update, new struggles and questions have emerged.
A recent MarketingSherpa webinar, "Five Steps for Building Links that Improve Search Results," (sponsored by Aquent) established a specific plan for strategically building links that will improve your ranking. Read on for those steps, as well as the full webinar replay.
Search engine optimization was reported as the most valuable lead source by 94% of inbound marketers, according to MarketingSherpa's 2011 Search Marketing Benchmark Report. However, B2B marketers listed external link building as the tactic that provided the most difficulty, according to the 2012 B2B Marketing Benchmark Report.
In a recent MarketingSherpa webinar (sponsored by Aquent), which can be viewed in full below, Alex Dunks, Manager, Business Development, Webmarketing123, shares his insights on how to improve and ease the process of link building.
Step #1. Lay a strong foundation
The first required step, according to Dunks, is setting groundwork and understanding how to properly measure what is, and is not, working with keyword selection.
The anchor text of a link is important because Google and other search engines evaluate it when they follow a link, according to Dunks.
"So when Google follows a link that says ‘click here,’ they’re giving the website credit for the text ‘click here.’ If we’re trying to market our service and we want to rank better for SEO, we want some links pointing to us that actually use that anchor text."
Dunks likens keyword selection to an iceberg. There are the surface keywords marketers are aware of, but there may be a much larger group to draw from underneath the surface of the obvious. It’s important to recognize existing keywords, but also consider their variations or synonyms that could be drawing traffic.
"One of the most critical components of an SEO campaign is to consider what words is your target market using? Often times what we find is that there are internal keywords, that your company uses and are familiar with, and external words that your target market is using. Sometimes these are perfectly aligned, and sometimes they are completely misaligned," Dunks said.
Dunks recommends thinking about the different mindsets of people. Also, consider how far along in the sales cycle they are when they search for a particular term:
Introducer – in research phase, a little less purchase intent
Influencer – someone who is already introduced to your brand but is doing research
Closer – farthest along in the purchasing decision
It is prudent to prioritize your link building based on the potential visitor’s mindset. A closer’s keyword, for instance, might be an actual model number or branded term. Those keywords, the three- or four-word phrases, have the highest conversion rate.
"If people do search for something as specific as ‘men’s red Nike running shoes,’ they are probably going to be ready to buy, or at least bookmark it and come back to it later," said Dunks. These types of keywords should be a high priority for your link building efforts.
Conversely, a keyword like "shoes" is much more difficult to rank for, because it receives many searches. The competitiveness, plus the fact that it correlates to a low probability for conversion, mean that these types of keywords should be a lower priority for your link-building efforts.
Dunks recommends a few tools to help you optimize:
To measure demand: A keyword selection tool like the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, which will allow you to decide "is the opportunity worth the time and resources to optimize our pages with these keywords and build links for them."
To evaluate trends: Google Trends or Think with Google.
Measuring inbound links: Open Site Explorer, which has free version with limited data. Backlink Watch! is another useful tool, with a complete listing of anchor text. It is important to understand "what links are we already getting credit for?" Look at time of year as well, and plan marketing efforts accordingly.
Step #2. Put tracking in place
"The reason tracking is so important is, in the same way we want to have our keyword rankings benchmarked, we want to know exactly where we’ve come from and where we’ve gone," Dunks said.
The Penguin update from Google launched in April of this year made marketers nervous, and had "a huge effect," said Dunks. "Google sent a lot of unnatural link warnings, and many companies saw their rankings plummet because of these links."
However, factors that were affecting this change are not necessarily new factors, said Dunks. He lists a few areas to look out for while link building:
Create relevant links that are of high quality. Dunks said Google is vague about this, but in general, he said, "with inbound links, we want to have high-quality content that makes sense."
He gave the example of a diet blog allowing links to non-related topics such as shoes or payday loans, adding, "Google is going to look at what the website they’re linking to is about, and what the anchor text is. Then, on your company website, are you talking about that same topic? Google is really looking for consistency."
Don’t build all your links at once. This tactic might raise a red flag for Google, according to Dunks. Instead, consistently build links each month -- anywhere from 20 to 50 each month. To appear the most natural to Google, stay consistent over time, focusing on the pace and not the numbers.
Track keywords using an analytics program. "Link building is an on-going process that is very time consuming, so we want to maximize our time," Dunks said. So he stresses the importance of knowing exactly which keywords are leading to your goal.
To track which keywords lead to a shopping cart transaction, Dunks advises setting up a goal within Google Analytics, for example. Every time that goal (e.g., a "Thank you" page with a unique URL) is reached, Google Analytics will record it and correlate the different characteristics of the visit.
With that set up, it is possible to figure out how many people from organic traffic reached that page, and look on a keyword level for what someone may have searched.
"What we want to figure out is which are the keywords that are actually making a difference? What if it’s just two of the 20 keywords that are delivering conversion? Hone your campaign and focus on only the two that are leading to conversions, and find some new variations that are very similar to those words," Dunks said.
Step #3. Make links as diverse as your keywords
"What we’re really talking about here is how are we diversifying our link portfolio and what are all the strategies we want to employ," Dunks said.
External vs. Internal linking
Dunks advises marketers to "think of external links as entry points to your website and especially to those deeper points in your website" because of the third-party credibility they provide to Google.
Links with a keyword that is not your brand name, or a combination of your brand name, give Google more ways to find your site.
Once Google is on your website, then internal linking can be utilized.
Make sure your website is organized into themes, and divide your content into silos. Because its algorithm is thematically optimized, Google will start to pick up on those themes over time.
"A good strategy to employ is to make sure that the content on your website is organized into themes, so for silo one that might be men’s shoes, silo two might be women’s shoes … by grouping things into silos, Google is better able to understand that theme."
NoFollow vs. DoFollow links
"The first thing to be aware of is that NoFollow links are not passing on SEO value. However, that doesn’t mean that Google doesn’t see them. What Google actually wants to see is a healthy mix of both of those types of links," said Dunks.
Anytime you link to another site from your domain, "link juice" or SEO credit is being sent to that page. Dunks doesn’t advise using too many external links for this reason, because each time you are leaking link juice to other pages.
Another way to diversify keywords is to evaluate risk, according to Dunks. He advises avoiding link exchanges to move up in rankings.
"This is a technique that used to work … however, Google quickly realized that anyone can do that and it isn’t the kind of third-party credibility that they are looking for. It will not necessarily improve your rankings, and it could even hurt you and prompt Google to send an unnatural link warning," he advised.
Step #4. Tailor your content strategy
Two things to think about is page content and content for inbound links. One of the major factors for the Penguin update is content relevancy.
First, inventory your content. Both existing and potential future content -- press releases, articles, infographics or PowerPoint presentations. Anything that is publishable and you are willing to share.
Also, develop content around what people are asking and talking about, but relevant to the target audience. Find out exactly where your target market is, what industry specific sites do they use. Find a way to insert yourself into a forum.
Next, evaluate content for suitability.
"What we want to tell our audience is not always in line with what our audience wants to hear. There’s usually kind of a sliver in the middle in terms of what we should say," Dunks said. "Maybe we don’t need to go into a detailed product specification; maybe what we need to do is talk more about the actual application of our products -- what is the problem that people are searching for?"
Marketers should base content around this middle group, and from there link to the main website. The audience will dive into more detail once they have already found the content relevant and worth their browsing time.
Start researching building links, and see which ones engage people more into the site, which ones have a lower bounce rate, and which ones get people to stay longer on the site.
To create high quality, useful content that both Google and users will find useful, "build out a plan in terms of what kind of content we can create, or what kind of content do we have that we can turn in to syndicate."
Step #5. Create a three-month game plan
To put into place all of these steps, Dunks offers some final details to pay attention to before beginning link building.
First, he advises that taking advantage of low-hanging fruit is essential.
"The clickthrough rate on the first [search engine results] page is so much higher than right outside of page one. ... If we’re not listed in the first 10 pages, but we want to think about a keyword that is right outside of page one, we will see the biggest increase by moving up those five spots than 98 or 60."
Naming an image properly will contribute greatly by helping the website to begin showing up in image searches. Add descriptive alt text that can tell Google what this keyword is about, which acts as the anchor text.
Guest blogging is another useful way to build links. Many blogs are accepting or even completely powered by guest blog posts. Reach out to those webmasters and offer to write in order to build credible links to your site.
Social is, as always, a powerful tool to consider, especially in the last two years since Google and Bing announced they would be attempting to pick up these social signals.
Associate your website with different social profiles, gain interaction and put in compelling content, this is the idea Google and Bing will associate with social success. This is also a good tactic for adding third-party credibility, as well.
Watch the replay
For more information on link building, watch the full replay of "Five Steps for Building Links that Improve Search" below:
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