April 26, 2005
How To

How to (Really) Gain Link Popularity: 5 Mistakes and 3 Proven Tactics

SUMMARY: Link popularity is the search marketing tactic de jour. Every marketer wants bucket loads of incoming links to their Web site from other sites, and they want them yesterday. So, we interviewed the world's top link consultant for you to discover what works, and what doesn't. Includes handy links to:
  • a directory of 590 niche topic \"hubs\" that might link to you

  • a copy of Google's revelatory patent filing

  • how to get loads of blogs to link to you.
Eric Ward has a straightforward philosophy on link popularity: "If the word 'Google' appears in any part of your reason to get links, you're doing it for the wrong reason."

That's because the search engines seek "natural link structure," he explains. They want to know a site is getting inbound links because it's a quality site, not because a marketer is doing a link campaign. In fact, Google's patent application makes it fairly clear overt link building campaigns may hurt your rankings (link to info below).

Only problem -- just like public relations, you'll almost never get the attention you deserve if you sit back and hope great sites will link to you. Link building is a critical part of any marketing department's online tactics. And the reality is, it's usually budgeted under SEO (Search Engine Optimization) because that's where you get the biggest return.

Eric Ward has been the Web's most famous link campaign consultant ever since he helped Jeff Bezos launch Amazon back in the mid-90s. Since then, his clients have included PBS, Dell, Law.com, Volkswagon, and RodneyDangerfield.com. Currently he's working on a linking campaign for the Muppets, among others.

We asked him how marketers can create link building campaigns that work without being too overtly "marketing" in style and turning off the very search engines you're hoping to impress.

Five mistakes to avoid: what doesn't work for SEO

When search engines take links into account to rank sites, they look not only at the number of links but also the quality of links to help decide if they are a fair assessment of a site's quality.

Mistake #1. Links on pages search engines don't see

As much as 80% of Web pages are invisible to search engines' spiders. While links from these may send you great traffic (which Ward's very much in favor of), they won't help your SEO campaign. So, definitely go after these links, but don't have unrealistic SEO-related expectations.

For example, search spiders often can't see pages such as:

-- Password-protected or registration-required pages

-- Dynamically generated pages (often featuring long URLs including characters such as ?)

-- Pages buried so deep within a site that the URL again is very long (more than 60 characters) and/or contains a lot of forward slashes indicating levels of depth

Hint: you can discover if a particular page is crawled by a search engine by running a search for the URL of that particular page without the "http://" in front. If a match to that page is listed, then you know the search engine crawls that page. However, you won't know how *often*.

Mistake #2. Planting links on link farms

Ward doesn't believe the search engines go so far as to penalize sites for being listed on link farms, "but you won't be rewarded," he says. Plus, your regular traffic won't increase, so link farms aren't worth your time.

A link farm is a site or page that's dedicated to nothing more than listing links to other sites, usually without any relation between them. So, it's not a true hub where a genuine collection of related links is posted. Human visitors are unlikely to go to a farm because it's not terribly useful for Web surfing.

If you can obtain a link automatically without having to get involved with anyone -- for example, a site that allows you to enter your site and email address and you're automatically linked -- you're probably looking at a link farm.

Mistake #3. Loading up with reciprocal links

There's nothing wrong with reciprocating links, if the site linking to you is appropriate for your content. But the search engines may not take much notice.

"If it looks at your 100 links and sees that 98 of those are reciprocal, it doesn't show anything about the quality of the site. It could just be, 'You link to my crap, I'll link to yours,'" Ward explains.

Mistake #4. Buying links

Search engines will generally disregard paid links. However, "there's a subset of people out there who buy and sell links just to try to improve your rankings or link popularity scores," Ward explains. Those companies claim the search engines can't tell the links have been paid for.

While Ward is neither for nor against this practice, he warns, "the search engines will figure this out at some point."

Mistake #5. Emailing form letters

Sending out form letters (or emails that look anything like form letters) saying words to the effect, "I've visited your site and would like to exchange links" won't work. Site owners assume these are being spammed to thousands of sites and delete them without a second thought.

Don't have your intern send out a bunch of emails -- it's not worth your time.

Three tactics that work for gaining link popularity

Tactic #1. Make the most of your current links

Most companies utterly waste their current inbound links. First, take an inventory of every link you have coming in from:

-- Customers - Resellers
-- Trade association and online magazine directories
-- Divisions and related sites your organization owns
-- Vendors boasting that you're a client
-- Staffers' blogs
-- White papers posted on 3rd party sites

You want to make sure they all include text in the link -- not just a graphic such as a logo or "seal." This anchor text (the clickable text that brings visitors to your site) should contain search terms that potential visitors might use to find you in search engines.

If the anchor text isn't quite right, contact those sites and ask for small adjustments in the wording. However, do not ask them all to change the anchor text so that it's exactly the same for every link. Remember, Ward says, "Search engines are looking for a natural linking structure. If all your anchor text is the same, that's not natural." In fact, you could be penalized for it, especially if a whole bunch of identically changed links launch at about the same time.

Tactic #2. Get listed on Hub sites

Links from hub or authority sites -- sites that exist in order to help browsers find information on a particular topic -- are given credence by the search engines. If you're going for links, these are the places to get them. (See link below to a useful, free directory listing 590 of them by topic.)

Another way to find hubs: search for your keywords plus the word "links" in each major search engine. The pages that come up should be the best hub sites for that topic. Also, check out Teoma.com. When you type in your keywords, you'll see a section on the right titled "Resources: link collections from experts and enthusiasts."

If you approach a hub for a link, and they're seeking reciprocal links, "then they're not really a hub," says Ward. Sites that are trying to be a resource shouldn't be bartering because "a search engine would then say, 'gosh, now I've got to scratch my head and wonder how valid this is.'"

Tactic #3. Approach niche sites individually

Rather than sending a form email letter requesting a link, review each site carefully to figure out who might be in charge of links and how you can appeal to them. The right person might be:

-- An editor seeking columnists (that could include links)
-- A marketer seeking contributed articles for a newsletter they also post on their Web site
-- An online publishing manager seeking to improve the content on the site currently with more "best of" tools, tips, graphics, fun downloads
-- A trade magazine's online calendar of events that might include webinars
-- A popular blogger who wants to appear to be in the inner circle covering your organization or topic

How do you find them? Again, search popular search engines to find out what sites come up for your desired keywords. Detailed, multiword keywords are the best. Plus check out who links to your competitors by again using search engines in conjunction with directory sites such as Alexa.com and Feedster.com.

How should you approach them? Picking up the phone is often the best way, especially to get the name of the person in charge of site content (who will rarely if ever be the webmaster contact listed in a domain's registration at WhoIs.net). Then either chat on the phone and/or email a truly personalized pitch discussing what you can offer their site.

Useful links related to this story

Brief Case Study and data from MarketingSherpa's Viral Ad Campaign Showcase on a site that used a clever Blog-linking campaign to get loads of links: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/vas/11.html (Open access)

Incoming Links Guide featuring 590 niche topic directories that might link to your site, along with how-to instructions on contacting them: http://www.incominglinks.com/ (Open access)

Google's application for a US patent, which explains some of the ways the search engine reviews links (note: lots of legalese, but useful for SEO experts):

Eric Ward's site: http://www.ericward.com

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