Anatomy of a Link
The most common analogy of a link is to liken it to a vote. If page A links to page B then page A is suggesting page B is a good page, page A likes page B. The only slight complication is the nofollow tag. In a nutshell the nofollow tag allows links to be added to a page that create a click-able link to another page without the link passing a vote. These are used for text link adverts for example where they will send traffic to another page without passing a vote.
I'm not going to go into any more detail on the nofollow tag here but I'd strongly advise reading the WikiPedia page for an in depth explanation. In short if you want to link from a page on your site to a page on another site without inferring any kind of endorsement use the nofollow tag.
Why Links Are Important
Having established links are like votes it's not too hard to understand why links are important. Just like a politician wins an election by securing more votes than other candidates, web pages secure the first position in a search result by securing more votes than other pages. However, unlike a political election where all votes are equal, where search engines are concerned this isn't the case, and this is where most of the confusion arises.
Why Links Are Not All Equal
In order to explain this further I'm going to stick with the voting analogy and expand on it. When thinking about links as votes it's useful to consider the term block vote or block voting. Most commonly associated with unions a block vote infers upon one person the voting rights of all members of an organisation. Let's say there are 4 people in a room each representing one group of people.
A proposal is put before the group and Mr Smith, Mr Jones and Ms Samson all vote in favour with Mrs Collins voting against. On the face of it that's 3 in favour 1 against and the proposal would be carried. However, Mrs Collins represents a group of 5000 people, 500 more than the number represented by Mr Smith, Mr Jones and Ms Samson so in fact, the motion isn't carried, it's defeated by 5000 votes to 4500.
This is pretty much the same as the way links work. Simply put links carry different voting rights and it's perfectly possible for a page with only 3 or 4 links to rank higher than a page with several hundred or even several thousand links. It's this aspect of link building that's so badly misunderstood and the reason there's a whole industry offering to build links on the basis of X number of links for Y number of dollars.
How To Secure the Right Kind of Links
There are some people who will argue any link is worth having, they may be right. However, given that we now understand links don't all carry the same weight it should be clear that securing links that carry a lot of weight will have a much bigger impact on your web pages than links carrying little or no weight. So how can you secure links that carry weight? Simple, create something worth linking to! The problem is this isn't simple, it's hard. It requires thought, planning, research, creativity and hard work and because of this most people revert to link spam.
The vast majority of link building companies operate by creating link spam. In simple terms they create links from places such as forums, link farms, directories, blogs, hubs, social bookmarks and an ever increasing number of other ways. There are also hundreds of article directories who, unlike EzineArticles accept low quality auto spun articles in exchange for a link. If you believe all that matters is link quantity you really are spoiled for choice and there are thousands of companies who will build you a set number of links for a set fee.
In order to allow you to make an informed decision let's look at some of the more common link building techniques and discuss why they may not be worth the effort.
- Forums - The most common link building techniques using forums are to create a profile page and a signature link. Signature links allow links to be created at the bottom of posts or comments you leave in a forum. Signature links are at best very low quality and although they may send you some traffic are unlikely to have any long lasting impact on the pages you link to. This is because these links are not merit based, as is the case with all link spam methods, and it's accepted the search engines are getting better at ignoring these links and assigning them no value.
- Link farms - These are employed by many link building companies. A link farm can often have a vast number of websites and web pages within it, all under the control of the link building company. By building a link farm link building companies are able to offer a set number of links for a set fee as they have plenty of web real estate on which to build the links. The problem with link farms is they can be discovered by the search engines and when they are, the links within them will cease to have any positive impact on the sites they link to. There are a number of variations on this theme including a technique where link building companies buy pages within legitimate websites in an attempt to appear credible.
- Directories - These are useful and can create links carrying some value in the sense of attracting traffic to your website. But, in another sense, they are a form of spam; and, as with other spam techniques, links from directories are generally not merit based and as such rarely carry any weight in terms of helping to increase your ranking. There are, however, some notable exceptions such as the DMOZ directory and Yahoo.
- Hubs - These are pages created on services such as Squidoo. In theory Squidoo hub pages or lenses as they are called by this particular service are a great idea and allow people to create pages about something they care about. Sadly the spammers have also realised it's an easy way to create pages for link building so it's a fair assumption using hubs such as this won't have any lasting or hugely positive impact on your website.
- Blogs - Often referred to as SPLOGS (spam blogs) blogs are a favourite haunt of link spammers. They seek out blogs in the hope of leaving a comment and associated link to their client's website. Again these are not merit based unless the blog is actively managed by its owner and popular blog software such as Wordpress automatically nofollow links in comments anyway. This makes the links of little value other than the small amount of web traffic they can generate unless your comment is accepted on a high traffic popular blog.
- Social bookmarks - In their early days social bookmarking sites may have been a source of valuable links but the link spammers have put an end to that. Most of the credible bookmarking sites (Digg, Sphinn etc) recognised their platforms were being abused by link spammers and as a result they nofollow links to deter them.
We could go on looking at the methods and platforms used by link spammers but by now you should be building a general picture. Link spammers generally create links that are not merit based and as such the links you buy from them may work for a while but ultimately will stop working. It may take weeks for them to stop working (days in extreme cases), it may take months and occasionally it will take years but eventually they will stop working as the search engines become better at filtering out the spammy links from the merit based ones.
It may be worth employing a link building company who use the techniques outlined above but if you do you must be aware that you are potentially building your house on sand, which is seldom a good plan.
There are many ways of buying links. Again you can employ a link building company but you can also buy links directly from website owners. If you buy a link and the link is not nofollowed you are in direct contravention of Google's guidelines. In short if Google discover your purchased links your site may be removed from their directory. In general they will simply remove any value from the links you have bought rather than directly penalise you, however the effect can be the same.
So who buys links? Sadly many companies buy links and as with link building in general there's a whole industry offering links for sale on some impressive websites including many high profile mainstream household names! That said buying links can be very expensive with some organisations charging many thousands of pounds a year for a single link. To further compound this most link sellers require an ongoing payment in perpetuity to maintain the links you purchase. If you go down this route you need deep pockets and you will be running the gauntlet of the search engine spam teams.
How to Identify A Good Link Target
The term link target simply means a web page you would like a link from. Setting aside link spammers, who see all links as equal, identifying a good link target is very simple. A good link target is a web page whose readers might be interested in the content of a page on your site. That's it.
Expanding on this you could argue a good link target is a web page with authority whose readers might be interested in the content of a page on your site, however this simply introduces a whole raft of complications that will see you mired in confusion. There are so many ways of establishing a site's authority, including Google's PageRank technology, SEOMoz's MosRank technology, TrustRank, Spam Signals and any number of other metrics that you should simply consider a page based purely on the simple rule offered above, would this page's readers be interested in my page.
If you adopt this philosophy with your link building work, you will build links that will send you valuable traffic whilst at the same time building your page's authority. It's a win win technique. Of course the link spammers will argue against this suggesting it's time consuming and difficult, and they would be right. These same experts will no doubt want to sell you their amazing technique for search engine domination. They will no doubt have discovered the secrets of building long lasting and effective links with minimum effort and only a few hundred dollars. But ask yourself this. If they have indeed found a fool proof way of building valuable links why are they not simply dominating the search results themselves and making a fortune from affiliate marketing?
Do Link Building Systems Ever Work?
Yes. There's no doubt some people do discover methods for creating effective links fast and cheaply. There's also no doubt these methods are usually discovered by the search engines and they quickly cease to be effective. By the time you get access to these get rich quick schemes it's a safe bet the person who discovered it has made their money and are now squeezing a few more dollars out of it by selling the technique to you. As with most things in life there's no such thing as a free lunch and these schemes are best avoided.
Anatomy of the Perfect Link
If you are still reading this you should by now have a very clear picture of what a link is, why it's valuable, and why links are a necessary part of your on-line marketing mix. As this article concludes I want to outline the make up of a perfect link. The perfect link should:
- Send valuable traffic to your website
- Tell the search engines your site is an authority
Let's say there's a company called Dive Dorset Ltd. They offer diving holidays off the Dorset coast in South West England. Their holidays are unique and have featured on several TV programmes and articles about the company and their unique approach have appeared in several national newspapers. This has resulted in the company's website securing a number of top quality links, and Google often ranks them highly when people carry out diving related searches.
Your company, Diving Gear Specialists Ltd offer great prices on diving equipment and you are trying to build links to your company website in order to increase its authority and the search traffic it receives. There are many websites selling diving equipment and there's no reason Dive Dorset Ltd should link to your site in particular. Calling them and asking for a link simply because you sell diving equipment is pointless, they probably get many such requests every week. They are more likely to offer to sell you a banner advert than give you a link and although a targeted banner advert can be very effective it won't help your search engine cause unless it's given a link directly to your site and the link isn't nofollowed. Such a purchased link could ultimately have a negative impact on your site and would clearly be in breach of Google's guidelines. A more creative approach is needed.
As Dive Dorset Ltd specialise in diving holidays off the Dorset coast you do some research. You establish the average water temperatures throughout the year. You establish the depth of some of the most popular dives, you source the most accurate charts of the coastal waters showing known wrecks and places of interest and you find some of Dive Dorset's YouTube videos of diving expeditions.
Using all this info you create the definitive guide to diving off the Dorset coast. You establish the best equipment based on the water temperature and dive depths, you showcase some of the best dives and you embed videos telling people about Dive Dorset Ltd and their superb diving holiday packages. Note you haven't actually linked to Dive Dorset Ltd from your newly created page even though you have mentioned them.
You now approach Dive Dorset Ltd and ask them for a link to your specialist page about diving off the Dorset coast. Reviewing the page they see the value of linking to it and bingo, you've secured a great link to your website from a diving authority site. The value of the link to your specialist page is passed to other pages in your website, for example the page selling the dive suit you recommended on your specialist page.
This is a simple example and it did require some work but the end result is a genuine quality link that will help to build your own site's authority.
There are two clear paths to go down with respect to link building, link spam and merit based. It should be clear link spam will require less effort but won't build long lasting links where merit based requires more effort but builds links that will stand the test of time. The path you choose will depend on many factors not least of which the resources you have available and your appetite for building a business that will stand the test of time.
The search engines are continuously trying to purge their search results of pages employing link spamming techniques although it's clear they have a less than 100% success rate. The link building methods you adopt will depend on your view of how effective the search engines will be at detecting link spam in the future. If you believe they have the resources to overcome it you are left with no option but to build merit based links. If you believe as many do, that the search engines are fighting a losing battle then you might throw your hat in the ring with the link spammers.
Hopefully now you've read this article whichever route you choose you can make an informed choice. If you take nothing else away from it you should understand that links that require minimum effort will likely bring little benefit in the long term. Link building is a cause of much frustration even for SEO specialists and it's easy to see why so many spam techniques are employed. The web is awash with poor quality content created for no other reason than to create a link to poor quality websites that can't attract links based on merit. Indeed many website owners simply can't see a way of creating anything worth linking to on their sites and resort to link spam out of desperation. This author believes there's a better way and ultimately taking this road less travelled will create a website that will stand the business it represents well for the future.
Happy link building!