LinksManager Gets a Patent – Interview with Joel Lesser

So, back at Boston PubCon I was at the bar, introduced myself to two guys while grabbing some shots and it happened to be Joel Lesser and Doug McGaughey, the guys behind LinksManager. When I saw that they had gotten a patent on their linking system, it made my ears perk up a bit since this is the first I’ve heard of a link system grabbing a patent and a quote about auto-rotation in their press release made me curious enough to ask Joel some questions, which turned into an interview about the patent and their intentions for it, along with their system in general. So, here ya go.

Q&A with Joel Lesser of LinksManager

RAE: Thanks for doing this Interview Joel. I normally don’t interview companies I haven’t had “personal experience” with, but because I’m so heavy into the “link development world” your latest developments have interested me and I think others will find them interesting to. There is a thread at webmasterworld on the subject, but I wanted to get a bit more in depth.

JL: You are welcome! I am happy to discuss this especially with someone like you who has so much experience in the world of link building.

RAE: First, can you briefly tell us about LinksManager?

JL: The LinksManager concept was conceived in the late 90’s when we realized a great way to build traffic was through link exchange. However, we realized quickly that the data management challenge of managing a quality link exchange campaign was overwhelming. We tried spreadsheet solutions and other methods to manage the data which were too cumbersome and time consuming. We knew we had to automate some of the tasks but we wanted to maintain quality control so we knew an editor based system was going to be needed.

We started scripting some of the processes and early on, decided that the system would have to be editor-based for quality control. Editor based meaning that each webmaster would decide who they will and will not link to. 12 months later, the first version of LinksManager was completed and launched in the year 2000. This was before Google went online so it’s important to refute the myth that LinksManager was designed to affect link popularity. It was not. LinksManager was designed to manage linking with like minded sites.

We conducted some research and realized our editor based method of managing links was original and we could not find “prior art” in the patent database. It was then when we decided to file for patent protection as we had a hunch that our system would probably be the target of cloning with features that may not benefit the betterment of the Internet.

As the Webmasterworld discussion forum archives will reveal, our initial link checking bots were far from perfect and we used webmaster input to improve the system greatly. We revamped the link checking system in 2004 and now it is much more web friendly. LinksManager’s bots behaves very similar to how search engine bots work. For more information see this page.

RAE: Your press release says you’ve been awarded a patent for an “Ethical Link Management Solution”. But no where on the patent is the word “ethical” used. Why did you choose to add that to the title of your press release?

JL: Great question. The patent does state: “The practice of automatically linking the web page of the first Webmaster to the web page of the second Webmaster, without any intervention from the first Webmaster, is not believed to always be in the best interest of the first Webmaster.”

Of course it is difficult to convey this ethical concept in a short headline announcing a patent. Every idea we ever had for LinksManager, every potential feature and module has always been judged against a single standard: Does this benefit the Internet and its end users? If the answer was yes, the feature went in. If the answer was no, it didn’t.

So to answer your question, because LinksManager is an ethical link management solution, we felt that the word made sense in the headline.

RAE: Are you aware of any other links management programs that already have a patent on their system?

JL: There are issued patents on other linking methods. Some are specifically referenced at the top of the LinksManager patent However, we have not been able to tie many, if any, of those referenced patented methods to commercial services available on the web today.

RAE: What makes your system different than others to the point you felt the need to patent it?

JL: The combination of methods and most specifically, our editor based method, is what makes the LinksManager system unique. We applied for 15 claims and we were awarded all 15.

Back in 2000, we felt the need to apply for a software method patent because we were concerned others would copy our editor based model and most likely add features that do not better the web. It was a hunch. We weren’t sure. But we were right. In the past five years, over 100 competitive alternatives have been devised and have been placed online that have many similar features as the LinksManager model . 95% of those alternatives are thought to offer features which we do not believe better the Internet community. We believe at least some of those products have given reciprocal linking a bad image and are believed to have made things tough on search engine engineers.

We have always believed links should be obtained using editorial discretion. The search engines also appear to share the same mantra. Some of the claims of our patent relate to our editor based model.

There are also independent claims in the LinksManager patent related to spidering to check for link reciprocation and dead links as well as claims directed to autorotation of links from a set of links. But the principal reason we pursued patent protection in 2000 was a particular interest in editor based link management.

RAE: How long did it take you to get the patent – how long has LinksManager been working towards this goal?

JL: It took almost a year to research and prepare for filing. We then filed in June 2000. We went back and forth with the examiners for years. As you can imagine, they had a lot of questions! And the patent isn’t easy reading unless one is familiar with the technology or pays particular attention to which entities represent an Account Owner, an Administrator and a Webmaster. We received the patent on July 25, 2006.

RAE: Will you be attempting to “take aim” at any other link manager type companies who appear to be in violation of LinksManager’s patent?

JL: Probably. However, this type of research takes time so don’t expect that to happen next week. A lot of research needs to take place first. We have over 100 sites bookmarked that appear to have at least some similar features. We expect we will make a determined effort to decide which companies we will address in what order in the near future.

When we filed for patent protection, it wasn’t because we want to get into the business of suing other companies. It was originally done to protect the Internet against unlicensed companies that we believed may have copied the LinksManager model. However we realize the only way to enforce a patent may be through legal avenues . We will look to our attorneys for their guidance and advise as to how to proceed.

RAE: How do you determine if a links management program is “whitehat” or not? Since the industry as a whole can’t seem to agree on what is white, black or grey, how do you plan to make that interpretation when possibly granting licensing agreements?

JL: Excellent question. And I agree there is no exact scientific measurement. So we tend to revert back to what search engine engineers have publicly stated in their guidelines: Obtain relevant links with editorial discretion. Most of the search engines don’t specifically state “editorial discretion” but that is in their own patents and whitepapers.

We also determine whitehat vs blackhat based on how services offer features that influence search engines that also have their own patented technologies to consider.

Google’s 2005 patent publication # 20050071741 is a good example and states:

“… A typical, “legitimate” document attracts back links slowly. A large spike in the quantity of back links may signal a topical phenomenon (e.g., the CDC web site may develop many links quickly after an outbreak, such as SARS), or signal attempts to spam a search engine (to obtain a higher ranking and, thus, better placement in search results) by exchanging links, purchasing links, or gaining links from documents without editorial discretion on making links…”

Getting back to your question, when considering granting licensing agreements, we would base our interpretations on how the service being considered for licensing operates. A service that allows you to obtain links quickly without editorial discretion could be considered black-hat in our opinion. A service that offers features that do not violate search engine guidelines would obviously be more likely to be considered white-hat.

RAE: It is possible for a user to use the system in a less “ethical” way than you intended? Do you plan to police the use of your system by your own users?

JL: We do not think that it is possible for a user to use LinksManager in a less ethical way because of the safeguards we have in place.

Keep in mind: LinksManager is a tool. A hammer is a tool. A hammer can be used to drive a nail or it can be used to smash a window. Any tool can be abused.

We do have a number of thresholds and detection devices in place that monitor our users. We also rely on webmaster feedback and investigate all reports from webmasters and end users. We take appropriate action as needed. And as we noted in our blog recently, potential customers are not always right, ie, we do not allow just any webmaster to use LinksManager. For more on that see the following blog entry.

We have always policed the system and our users are very helpful in alerting us if they see a problem. Some problems are easier to deal with than others. For example, if a user who sells candlesticks creates a link category to loan consolidation companies, that’s not technically against the law or in violation of any specific search engine rule or guideline. Search engines state to keep linking relevant but the site who sells candlesticks and is licking to a loan consolidation site may have a responsible reason to do so. Each case is different so we have to be fair and give all situations a fair examination.

We find that the best way to police the system is through education and we have really ramped that up in the past 2 years. There are now dozens of articles about proper link exchange on the LinksManager website.

RAE: The patent on auto-rotation of links – does that refer to auto-rotation within your system, within any automated system or does it even cover lone webmasters doing it automatically with a home grown script for their own use (an example would be that you can rotate anything with a simple cgi script automatically on a page that is totally static and hand built otherwise)? I think it’s fair to say that webmasters have been using auto-rotation for many years.

JL: That’s a great question. It would be difficult to envision us spending resources to pursue a webmaster who has produced a home grown script to rotate links unless that script also offered additional specific features which appear to be protected in the LinksManager patent. It all depends on the features that the product offers. For obvious legal reasons, I can’t make any guarantees but I can say the targets we have in mind are companies who have used our service in the past, and then blatantly ripped off the majority of features in the LinksManager model and are now marketing derivatives of it. Unfortunately, we may have our hands full pursuing just these types of competitors.

RAE: Where do you see LinksManager heading now and how do you see the patent helping you to accomplish those goals?

JL: We believe this patent helps show webmasters that LinksManager was first online with our patented method of editor based link exchange. We definitely think of ourselves as the good guys and innovators. Webmasters who want an ethical link management solution should consider LinksManager based on the quality of our products and our innovative services which continue to evolve at what we believe to be the forefront of this technology.

While we think we were the first to market with this type of product, we also have been busy continuing to produce dynamic new ways to output link data that enhances the end user’s experience. Once such product released in 2005 is Linklets™ which allows webmasters to output their link data in virtually any format. So if the webmaster doesn’t want link data published in the legacy format that the search engines use (title, description, line break), they can use Linklets to output the data in any format they choose. For more information see this page.

Another new LinksManager product waiting in the wings is LinkBlogs™ which combines the power of linking with blogging. It’s a concept never before seen on the Internet and it should revolutionize how webmasters think about linking. Linkblogs is currently in final testing. We hope to release it by the end of August 2006. For a sneak peek

RAE: Thanks a lot for doing the interview. It’s nice to get some explanations in plain English in regards to your patent. I wish you the best of luck.

JL: I enjoyed doing this interview. Thank you! I would be happy to answer any other questions you may have in the future.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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