I attended two sessions on Day Four of the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York. The first session, named “Advanced Link Building” focused on strategies to attract the right links to your site to impact organic search engine marketing.
Up first was Keith Hogan of Ask Jeeves. Ask Jeeves uses the Teoma search engine, which is highly attuned to the “communities” formed through links, so their results are sometimes different from other search engines. Keith says that other search engines rate minor directory pages more highly than Ask Jeeves does, but that the important directories are useful in every search engine.
Keith advised search marketers to:
- Be in Yahoo! and DMOZ and any important industry directories.
- Focus on your anchor text to mention the keywords you are targeting.
- Pay as much attention to avoiding bad links as to attracting good ones—you are known by the company you keep. Random links from message boards and blogs just don’t work in Ask Jeeves.
Matt Cutts of Google was up next, saying it’s important to know whether you are willing to do anything to get links fast or whether you are really in this for the long haul. He advises that you use life-changing weight-control techniques rather than a “lose ten pounds fast” approach.
Matt unfurled a laundry list of “lose ten pounds fast” approaches that just don’t work:
- Free-for-all links: You sign up and can put your links there, but so can everyone else. Because you get only a fraction of the value of that page’s PageRank (based on how many links are on the page), it isn’t worth much.
- Spamming people with reciprocal link requests.
- Buying links—you get some of the same problems as free-for-alls, but sometimes they do work.
- Triangular links: Get three companies to do it so the search engines can’t tell the links are reciprocal. It’s hard to scale this trick.
- Involuntary links using blog and guest book spamming.
- Linking to sites that themselves practice these techniques.
- Stealth links that only the search engines see.
The next panelist, Eric Ward, is the best-known advocate of using links to build your Web site, going back to 1993. He describes himself as a publicist for Web content. Eric believes that some links that do nothing for search marketing can nonetheless be important to your site. For example, every day editors choose cool sites and those links get enormous amounts of traffic as a result:
- Yahoo! Picks of the Week
- USA Today Web Guide
- Kim Komando site of the week
- New York Times Student Navigator
RSS Feeds are critically important because they build links to your site by getting your message out there. RSS-specific search engines such as Feedster help people find RSS feeds. You can also put a button to add your site to My Yahoo! which gets individual visitors to come to your site every day.
Eric warns against changing domains and URLs without taking steps to retain your links.
The next speaker was Greg Boser of WebGuerrilla, a well-known expert in search marketing, known for staying on top of the latest techniques. Greg is down on reciprocal links, because they are:
- Not as valuable to search engines (one-way links are worth more
- Not possible for many big brands—their PR people rightly do not want to link to smaller companies that might cheapen their hard-won brand image
Greg emphasized that blogs and RSS are the most important ways to attract links for any company. His advice is to add a blog and then give it an RSS feed, and to embed a link back to your site in your feed.
One often-overlooked technique for attracting links, according to Greg, is to create a Web tool, because if you give people something useful, they will link to you. Or they will use your tool with a “Powered by” link back to you, such as the way Atomz does its search engine. Greg showed a great example that uses this technique: Carp is the #1 site for “newsfeed display” in Google based on one “Powered by” back link—distributed thousands of times.
Greg advises against using the big affiliate programs because they circumvent the link value from your affiliates—there are a few programs that offer straight (not redirected) links to your site and you do get the value for those links.
If you buy links, Greg urges you to approach them the same way you would any link. If there are many links on the page or the site has a PageRank much higher than yours, or the site looks like a link farm, you won’t get any value for your money. Greg also cautions against using identical anchor text in every purchased link.
Debra O’Neil-Mastaler of Alliance Link was the final speaker. Debra emphasized that, used skillfully, anchor text is critical, but it can be a big problem when used badly. She mentioned that links have the most value when the PageRanks of the pages are similar—not much higher or lower than yours: If you are PageRank 5, looks for links from sites between PageRank 4 and 7 and get links from sites that are on the same subject as yours.
Debra believes that Teoma is a great place to find links—look for the high-ranking sites for your keywords and you will see highly-linked sites within the community.
Debra passed along a few other tips:
- Avoid internal links between pages on your site that do not make sense-site-wide chunks of links that reduce your topicality. You are especially vulnerable if you get site-wide links from other sites.
- It makes sense to cross-link multiple sites that you own, but be aware that overdoing it will look suspicious to search engines. If all of your sites are in DMOZ, however, that reduces the danger considerably.
- Use Yahoo! to check your back links, not Google (whose back link operator does not work).
- Look for directories already listed in search engines that don’t use redirection-you want to make sure you get credit for the link.
Following Debra’s talk, there were many questions from the audience:
Q. If you have budget for only a blog or an RSS feed, which is more important?
A. Greg said that this is a false choice because all blogging packages have RSS feeds built in. Check the box in the blogging package and you get RSS as well. Matt pointed out that sometimes you can get your employees who are curious about blogs to do it for free, greatly reducing your costs.
Q. Should my blog be at a different domain?
A. Greg says not if you want it to show up at Google.
Q. If you have a new product line, should you have a new domain or a subdomain?
A. Greg: The Google Sandbox does not affect subdomains, so it is usually better to have a new subdomain. But don’t be too granular: “electronics.domain.com” is OK but “digital-cameras.domain.com” is starting to create too many domains for the search engines. You also want to use your main domain to make sure that people know exactly where they are going so that they trust it.
Q. How can I get links if I don’t have much budget and I am not sure I have the creativity to keep a blog going?
A. Matt cautioned against putting the cart before the horse-write for visitors first. One way to get links without writing a blog is to offer a forum for your visitors to create that linkable content themselves. Some shopping sites are using RSS feeds to alert shoppers to new products or sales, using content that you already create. Debra says you should add links to confirmation e-mail with links back to your site for more deals or more information.
Q. How can SEM vendors be protected against algorithm changes?
A. Matt advised that you read Google’s terms of service so that you know what will always work as opposed to what is the fad of the week. Use robots “nofollow” tags to surround places on your site (like guest books) where you are unsure about whom those links go to). Matt asked whether, instead of making your links appear natural, how about making them really natural? Matt advised that if you make your content good, the links will follow.
About Mike Moran
Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Senior Strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society of New Communications Research.