Since 2007, I’ve been doing an interview series on link building with some of the best in the business. That has resulted in five super educational and insightful posts on link building. Now that we’ve launched PushFire, the series is moving from Sugarrae to the PushFire blog. (And now that PushFire no longer has a blog? The series moves back to Sugarrae haha.)
You can check out the past posts below:
This year, we’ve got another great lineup and some pretty interesting “takes” on link building in the post Panda and Penguin world.
If you’ve never read the series before, let me explain how it works. The people being interviewed each submit a question or two that they themselves want to hear input on from the other panelists. No one sees the answers by the other panelists until the interview is published (I answer the questions myself before sending them to the rest of the panel). I’ve always felt this makes the series interesting for two reasons…
First, we get higher quality questions. Secondly, there is no “head nodding” because no one knows how anyone else answered the questions. Each question gets an answer with no outside influence regarding “what the rest of the panel thinks” so to speak. We’ve all been doing this a long time, but that doesn’t mean we always agree or don’t have different methods of achieving the same results.
Meet the link building interviewees:
I’d like to sincerely thank everyone below for continuing to share their knowledge and for giving their time to this series. They’re all freaking awesome..
With that out of the way, grab a cup of coffee (or a beer #justsayin) and get ready to learn about link building tactics and theories from the talented (listed and answered in alphabetical order by first name):
- Aaron Wall of SEO Book – @aaronwall
- Dave Snyder, CEO at SteelCast – @davesnyder
- Debra Mastaler of Alliance Link and the The Link Spiel – @debramastaler
- Eric Ward, Ericward.com Linking Strategies – @ericward
- Julie Joyce, Director of Operations and Co-Founder of Linkfish Media – @JulieJoyce
- Justilien Gaspard, Link Columnist for SEW and owner of Justilien.com
- Michael Gray of the Graywolf SEO blog – @graywolf
- Rae Hoffman, aka Sugarrae, CEO of PushFire – @sugarrae
- Rand Fishkin from SEOMoz – @randfish
- Roger Montti, the founder and owner of martinibuster.com – @martinibuster
- Todd Malicoat, aka Stuntdubl, SEO faculty at MarketMotive.com – @stuntdubl
With that, let’s get started…
1. With all of Google’s recent link-based filters and penalties, there are now massive negative SEO holes in the algorithm. Do you think Google engineers even care about those types of issues, or do you think they don’t give a crap so long as they can thin the herd of webmasters?
AARON: I think they care and that they realize that if they “thin the herd for self benefit” that ultimately they are making the web less dynamic as a medium against other media channels. Another big issue is that as they stomp out micro-parasites they feed macro-parasites…which will eventually harm Google when they try to move into categories like retail and such. So long as they don’t have a strong controlling stake in other big channels, like television, I see the short-term opportunistic self-serving stuff as being something that won’t last. But if they come to dominate other channels like radio and television, they may not care too much about how viable the organic SERPs are for commercial queries. After all, they do have AdWords and in key categories they have shown a willingness to drive the organic results below the fold.
DAVE: Google only cares about driving revenue via advertising. The sooner everyone realizes this the more they can do for their clients or to make money for themselves. The negative SEO issue has always been around, but now Google has given a stage for outings and negative SEO to be more algorithmically triggered than was previously possible. The result needs to be webmasters who monitor their sites beyond their own actions, and stay out of the fray.
DEBRA: I don’t know what Google thinks, but I do know I would never use crappy techniques on my bread and butter sites and risk being herded.
ERIC: I believe Google cares. I also feel that the scope of what they’re up against is so big that collateral damage is inevitable. When you spray the weeds with Round-Up you always hit some grass. From Google’s perspective, there’s a secondary potentially positive outcome. When I was little, if my two older brothers were getting spanked, I know I changed how I acted :) How many marketers have changed their tactics due to what happened to other sites? If anything, Google is too lenient with big brand cheaters.
JULIE: I think that in theory they do care…in practice, however, it’s difficult to see that they do. Looking at some of the SERPs today, it definitely doesn’t seem like anyone there gives a damn. As far as thinning the herd goes, it’s probably easier on them to just scare us into stopping the use of certain tactics that they can’t stop algorithmically.
JUSTILIEN: I do think they care. As anything becomes that complex, more negative issues will arise. At the same time I doubt the search team gets all the resources they need in comparison to some other departments. They are a public company now. All about meeting profit expectations each quarter.
MICHAEL: I think Google is concerned with negative SEO. If Google can be manipulated, or if there is a wide held perception that they can be manipulated, for “good” or “evil”, that’s not a spot they want to be in. That said Google recently revised it’s webmaster guidelines about whether a competitor could harm your results, so pretending negative SEO doesn’t exist is a bit naive. It’s more important than ever to monitor your backlink profile to make sure someone isn’t conducting negative SEO on your website.
You don’t have to worry about a handful of “bad links” or if bad links make up a small percentage of your backlink profile. You do need to be concerned when they make up more than 10-15% of your backlinks.
RAE: First, I think those holes for negative SEO have existed well before Google acknowledged that they existed. Secondly, I don’t think we can look at Google as a single entity in this kind of situation. They are a huge company. I’m sure there are definitely people and divisions within Google that care greatly. I’m sure there are some who don’t as long as the profits go in an upward direction. I think the biggest thing to take from the “admission” that negative SEO is possible is not to forget that Google is out for Google, not for the webmaster or marketer or business owner behind the site. We may co-exist, and even help each other at times, but we’re not on the “same side” so to speak.
RAND: I’ve still yet to see an example of a truly, 100% white hat site get hit wrongly by link penalties and not recover quickly (e.g., the day-long Seer Interactive ban, though hard to know if that was actually related to links). I put up a challenge to black hats to get my personal website penalized and despite Google Webmaster Tools reporting a growth from a few hundred links to tens of thousands of horribly spammy ones (including a bunch of adult stuff), the rankings haven’t moved one iota positively or negatively, leading me to believe that Google’s got a pretty good system of shutting down the value of spammy links, and only penalizing in cases where they’ve got some evidence that it’s the site owner/marketer behind it.
Hence, I’d say it’s a false premise for a question, but that the underlying takeaway is that Google does care about preventing negative SEO and has done a fairly spectacular job of it. If they hadn’t we’d be seeing a lot more examples publicly of white hat sites complaining.
ROGER: The negative SEO discussion has reached an intense state, driven largely by a need for answers. What is overlooked is the reality that any site with decent rankings has always attracted poor quality backlinks. At the height of the scraper days, the number of scraper backlinks to any given site seemed to rival the amount of legitimate links. Ranking in the top ten almost guarantees that some poor quality site or other is going to link your site. I don’t believe they are specifically trying to poison anyone’s rankings. I think it’s more about the low quality sites trying to rank for longtail phrases. This has been going on for years and years and only recently has the concern about it surfaced, not coincidentally with the recent algo tweaks. While I don’t deny that negative SEO exists, I think it’s overblown to the point that it has become a convenient (and understandable) scapegoat for issues related to Panda.
TODD: I think in most instances like these, Google wants to deal with the sentiment of the general population of users over the opinions of webmasters. If allowing “negative seo” equates to better search results, it won’t be a major concern of quality engineers. Negative SEO is like crack cocaine and gang violence—it’s always existed, but it’s never been a problem until it hit the “nice neighborhoods” of the lilly “whitehat” loudmouths who like to out websites and whine about Google not “being fair”.
2. Have Google’s latest actions against the SEO Industry created the most hostile climate for link building ever amongst peers?
AARON: I don’t think Google is the worst part. I mean they did this same sort of FUD stuff right after the launch of nofollow. This attack is something new and something harder, but the big problem is that there is no counter-balance on the messaging front. Access to Google (and/or selling into their narrative to sell the perception of success) is for most folks more valuable than countering any of their stuff. Thus, the thing that makes things worse now is that the SEO industry basically has n0 spine, by design.
DAVE: I have only been in this industry for 5 years, so I am a baby for the most part. This is the most hostile I have felt things before. In the past, we have seen people’s networks taken out, and white hats cheer, but now it seems to be a witch hunt, and it makes me sad.
DEBRA: I don’t think so, I still collaborate and share ideas and sources all the time with fellow linkers I know and trust. Google has been changing its algo since it launched, that’s nothing new, we roll with it and move on. There are several people on this list I spend a good bit of time with every day comparing notes and sharing insights. The algorithms change, the friendships don’t.
ERIC: Short answer: Yes, quite hostile, and both Google and the SEO industry bear some of the responsibility for it.
Long answer: How come nobody ever mentions that when one site’s ranking declines, another site’s ranking improves? You can’t have one without the other. If your SEO strategies and tactics have not resulted in significant rank reductions for your clients, then you probably aren’t hostile :) Not all SEOs engage in activities that are against Google’s QGs. At the risk of pissing people off, all my clients rankings have either stayed put or improved since Panda and Penguin. Every single client. If you’ve followed my writings and methods over the years, this shouldn’t surprise you. Here’s an bad analogy. I never got drunk with my link building behavior. OK, maybe one beer. I see myself as my clients’ Designated Linking Driver. It may take me a bit longer, but I’ll get them where they want to be safely. It’s taken a few years, but as others got toasted at the linking party, I stood in the corner trying to tell those who would listen that the punch bowl they were drinking from was spiked. Sorry. Fish gotta swim, LinkMoses gotta preach.
JULIE: I definitely think that it’s hostile right now, but there seems to have been a bit of a hostile attitude towards link building from people who don’t do it anyway. There are horrible link builders and there are horrible SEOs. From what I’ve seen the latest Google actions have made many SEOs more hostile to Google, not to each other…and the same holds true with clients.
JUSTILIEN: The world in general is becoming more hostile.
MICHAEL: Anyone who is still using typical link request emails, is doing the equivalent of driving a horse and buggy around the streets of New York City. Smart marketers haven’t been doing that for years. Right now it’s linkbait, infographics, content marketing, guest posts, or other press-worthy marketing efforts that bring the best results. You need the other signals and user metrics that those type of marketing efforts will create naturally. Generating links without the corresponding user data is a fool’s errand and a waste of time. SEO is evolving and becoming more sophisticated, if you don’t adapt and incorporate traditional marketing into your approach, you will have trouble succeeding.
RAE: I’ve been in this industry for over a decade now and yes, I think it is the most “hostile” I’ve ever seen it in regards to how SEOs view and treat each other. I think the blame is more on the industry itself rather than Google in that regard though. I think peoples’ increasing inability to keep their mouths shut and not trade knowledge in for short lived “blogger fame” means that the knowledge share circles that have always existed have gotten smaller and a lot harder to break into.
RAND: Unfortunately, I’d probably say yes. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty out there in the SEO world and many site owners and marketers who aren’t sophisticated have renewed fear about linking out or earning links in.
Of course, it’s hard to entirely blame Google. Yes, they created an ecosystem where lots of low quality links generated rankings very effectively (and some still do, through that ), but it’s SEOs who didn’t heed the many warnings and repetitive cycles of link-based penalties and kept using low quality tactics to buy their rankings. I’d say there’s plenty of blame to go around.
ROGER: Number one, I challenge the idea that Google has taken actions against the SEO industry. Google takes actions to improve the search results. Their rules are the same as they have always been. It’s naive to think it’s a war against the SEO industry. It’s a war only if the SEO only knows how to build links using shortcuts.
How is today less hostile than the reciprocal linking days eight years ago? In the days when reciprocal linking was generally (and mistakenly) accepted to be white hat, SEOs and web publishers scammed each other by offering links from reciprocal link pages that were subsequently unlinked and were left online as orphaned pages. I never did that nor advised any client to do that. That was a mediocre solution to a difficult problem. The same thing persists today…
But is it more hostile today? There has always been a trend for hostile practices when it comes to link building. In a WebmasterWorld discussion from eight years ago, we discussed all the nasty things web publishers did to each other for the sake of links, with one publisher summing up the state of link building that it was, “really a shame that webmasters simply can not play fair.” Here is a partial list of some of the nasty tricks:
- Delink your links page
- Bury the link to your links page on a single page that takes about five clicks to get to
- Run your outbounds through your cgi-bin counter script
- Thousands of links on a single web page
- Offer to link back if the other party links first. Then don’t link back
If you feel the link building environment is at the zenith of hostility today you should take a look back at that thread to see what a veritable cesspool of bad behavior building links was at that time. If anything I think things are less hostile today. Nevertheless, when in the kitchen you’re going to feel some heat. I am happy that good judgment and conscience kept me above those kinds of mediocre tricks described above. Do not compromise your integrity or do things you’ll regret later on.
TODD: It’s becoming more of a “dog eat dog world” by the day in the world of search results. It’s always been competitive, but Google has declared all out war on paid linking, which I think definitely makes the competition more hostile in any vertical. The “seo industry” has always been a bunch of marketers who understand that “optimizing” means pushing the edge of what’s accepted, which, in turn, opens the door for grey area ethics. I think anyone who practices seo has a time when they have to question just how far they go for a ranking and the resulting revenue. We all know we’re playing on a shifting gamefield, so you have to be prepared to hold on when the roller coaster ride takes a turn you didn’t see coming.
At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons there is a level of trust and respect associated with NOT OUTING other websites. It means you won’t resort to that level to compete or garner a few extra pageviews. In a search space that is constantly shifting, that’s a level of dedication that is rarely held to by most when it’s so much easier to turn in competitors, or result to outright sabotage.
3. With brands sitting in top spots for a majority of keyword phrases, what type of link building can you do to jump ahead?
AARON: Ambition is a good driver, but at the same time you make essentially nothing ranking page 2 (you have most of the sunk cost and almost none of the fruits). I am more in the mode of picking and choosing your spots. Sort of a “take what they give you and run with it” type of perspective. Once that stuff throws off excessive profits you can keep competing for more and more competitive keywords. If you have a bit of creativity and a decent budget then you can always keep climbing. The big problem is when the approach is paint by number and is done on a site that both lacks brand power and the budget needed to compete.
People dismiss entire categories of links largely as a shock and awe approach, or perhaps as something to claim that “everything has changed forever, use this new method.” But those of us who have been around quite a while get repeatedly surprised by what stuff works that theoretically shouldn’t. After Penguin rolled out some 0 content pages and sites started ranking…and this was after yet another “surfacing the highest quality content” update or such. And all that goes without even mentioning all the crap propped up from hacked sites and such.
DAVE: If you are a smart marketer you look at what Google is trying to do. In my opinion they are wiping the results clean of those trying to monetize them. It makes sense because they are a public company that must show growth, and forcing people into advertising can initiate that growth. To play in this game you must develop your own brands and information-based content, and be savvy enough to convert those users.
DEBRA: Brands are ranking for everything it seems, it can be frustrating if you’re not a brand and trying to rank for anything but an extra-longtail keyword. Brands employ media specialists and have large SEO staffs who continually build links and generate social signals. They create partnerships, run contests, have widgets and celebrity Gidgets pimping their brands. They buy ads, follow fads, and constantly blog or add content. People spend time on their sites, they attract scraper links, image links and whatever else you can think of. Add it all up and multiply by years of accumulation and you have sites with a big bag of links behind it. Quality links are wonderful and what you should try for, but with competitive terms, you need a lot of links, some age, and traffic to rank well. Just look behind almost any well ranked brand in a mildly/competitive area and make note of the pile of crap links pointing at its pages. It’s depressing.
What can you do? If you’re a small business trying to use primary terms like “weight loss” or “payday loans”, it will be a long and tough battle to break into the top 20 results. You might want to consider using a less competitive term initially, but if you’re determined, here are a handful of things to consider:
- Buy an established, related keyword site and use the equity in the domain. This will help get a jump start on the age thing.
- Associate your site with a local term/address if you can, local results seem to pop for everything if you’re logged in.
- Keep in mind the algorithm is a numerical creature, pages rank the way they do for a mathematical reason. Focus less on the type of link your competitor has, look more to the page hosting that link. What kind of site is it part of? Where is the domain being promoted? How is it being promoted? Does the domain/page share socially? Use what you find to promote your pages and get your links on those websites.
- Keep your PPC programs up and running, you’re going to need the traffic until you can run content on its own through an established social profile. (G+ for Google and Facebook for Bing)
- Use your PPC campaign in your link development, create promotions around landing pages. Keep in mind, convincing someone to link to you is just another way of making a sale.
- Become media savvy. Learn how to write and use press releases, but more importantly, find a way to befriend a member of the media who is active on Google News and will mention you in stories.
- Add content every day. Promote it via RSS and social media, do everything you can to draw clicks and links to the new pages.
- Hire a member of the media to write that content. They are already connected to the news, use their contacts and influence.
- Promote yourself and your site as an expert or authority on your products and services. Experts are quoted in the media, academically and socially. They’re also added to Wikipedia more easily.
I am also a big believer in adding offline promotions to your online marketing:
- Buy an ad in your yellow pages, you’re automatically listed in the online sites when you do
- Advertise in high traffic areas like billboards and Coupon Clipper (the mailers)
- If you have the budget, buy a list and do a mass mailing
- Join your Chamber and Association and take advantage of their on and offline marketing programs
The idea here is to spread the word offline, which will reinforce your online message and drive people to search for your site.
ERIC: Depending on the keyword phrase, it may still be possible to compete. The great challenge is being able to evaluate and decide if it makes sense to compete for search position or reboot your linking strategy and incorporate non-Google linking and traffic tactics. My site has now been live for 17 years, and I do about 5 million pageviews a year. Less than 6% of my traffic comes from Google. My linking tactics are designed to get me traffic and credibility via the traffic and credibility of the sites I have links from. I’m only marginally concerned with my inbound link profile’s effect on search rank, and even then it’s as a defensive strategy, not an offensive strategy. Ironically, the residual effect of NOT letting Google dictate my linking strategy is that I ended up ranking 1st for the one and only search phrase I care about. As with individual sports, if you focus on what will make you the best athlete you can be, you often end up first anyway. That said, I’m not a believer in the “create it and the links will happen” approach. Rankings are the residue of exceptional content being promoted properly and aggressively. What’s proper and aggressive for my site will not be what’s proper and aggressive for your site. The strategic thinking link builders get this and know how to adapt.
JULIE: To compete with big brands, you may need to rethink your desired keywords and go after a smaller piece of the pie. If you are selling books and you’re competing with Amazon, well you know you’ll never get more links than they have right? So find a smaller niche and go after “used psychological thrillers” or something. Also social can be fantastic here, because it can be a more level playing field if you do it right, and you can easily distinguish yourself by being awesome at social while some big brands ignore their followers and fans. Find an area where that big brand sucks, and own it.
JUSTILIEN: Try to make your link profile mimic that of a big brand.
MICHAEL: You need to look at where the brands are the strongest and learn to not compete where you don’t have the resources. Look at where the big players are still leaving money on the table, don’t focus on high visibility vanity terms, instead focus on terms and concepts that lead to sales and conversions. Large brands are never going to be comfortable being politically incorrect or edgy, look for ways to give the users the content they want, the stuff that the big guys are afraid to touch with a 10′ pole.
RAE: I think brands taking over the first page of the SERPs for most of the short tail phrases is a combination of Google giving them favor and brands having woken up to the amount of money there is to be made in search engine marketing. Five years ago, convincing a big brand they needed SEO was sometimes a challenge so smaller brands and affiliates were able to dominate spaces partially due to a lack of any kind of sophisticated competition. Now the brands all know they need it and are investing in it and they have much larger budgets to do so than the average small business owner or affiliate. Google giving them additional favor helped tip the scales for them for sure, but I don’t see it as the only reason for the ever increasing dominance they have in the SERPs.
As far as link building in the “brand age” if you’re not a large brand, I’d go after the people and not simply the links. Directory submissions, article marketing on generic article sites, blog commenting, forum commenting, link exchanges—if you’re doing these things SOLELY for link building and not because the site you’re marketing on via those methods doesn’t send you actual traffic, then you’re doing it wrong in 2012. Frankly, I think you’ve been doing it wrong since 2006. Does it still work here and there and when combined with extenuating circumstances? Yes. But as a whole, and especially for new competitors and non established sites, they’re a waste of time.
Go for the people because getting links that bring you people send the additional signals your links need to carry to have maximum value in this day and age. If you submit to a directory, it should be because that directory sends you actual traffic and actual business. If you write an article, you need to make it a damn good one and pitch like hell until you find a popular site to publish it—and then you need to help promote that article and a plan to make the traffic referrals you get from it “stick” in regards to your site. If you comment on a blog, the attempt should be to build a relationship and familiarity with the blogger because you believe they can help your business. Participating on forums should be done in an attempt to build your reputation as an industry expert or leader. If you publish exceptional content, you need to do so with a plan to promote it. If you exchange links with a site, it needs to be because that exchange in promotion does actually that – promotes your site to actual people and brings an ROI to both site owners and the visitors to both sites.
Google’s intent (in an ideal world) is to identify popular and useful sites and reward them in the SERPs so that more people can find them and Google’s users are happy with the results a query provides to them. So you can’t simply be concerned with links. You have to focus on creating anchor rich, authority rich and traffic rich links that actually generate you visitors and publicity—that’s the kind of link building you should be focused on.
RAND: Become a brand. Seriously.
All the signals that Google’s seeking and all the best ways to earn links come from doing, as Wil Reynolds calls it, “real company shit.” That’s the type of link building and company building that we should all be investing in. I think SEO, just like many other tactical positions before it, needs to come from a strategic point of view. The wild west days are coming to a close and as real brands figure out SEO, SEOs have to figure out how to build brands or get left behind.
ROGER: At it’s most basic, link building is about getting your site in front of those who are in the position to link to you or who fit the profile of a potential client. This works for B2C ecommerce to B2B. The best but most difficult and less efficient link building technique is the simple link request. Well, it’s not simple. It’s commonly referred to as the link beg, but that phrase obscures the planning and strategy that goes into a truly well planned link request campaign prior to asking for a single link. There are some link beg campaigns that are passive, where you don’t even send a single email nor ask for a link. The link beg is as unsexy as a hand-held cardboard sign. But done right it can lead to rock solid rankings and solid mindshare among consumers.
TODD: The days of being a small business competing at the national level is dwindling if not entirely gone. The optimist in me says try some guest posting, social media, infographics, linkbaiting, and outreach. The clichés “outside the box” and “purple cow” apply if you want to try to get to the top of any relatively competitive verticals. The pessimist in me says that you should probably look for a new marketing strategy, or just buy paid clicks if you can still afford them.
At the very least, there are lots of opportunities for local businesses with Google+ places to be competitive. I’ve been using the local citation finder, which is very handy.
4. There are some products/brands that are inherently unlikely to get a lot of social traction. Not everyone can be Lucky Charms cereal. If you are the brand manager for Preparation H, RID head lice treatment, or heaven help, you a genital wart treatment product, how do you tackle social? And how should the engines take human nature biases into algorithmic signal consideration, i.e., though I may buy, use, and be helped by these products, I’m not sharing this news with my Facebook friends or followers.
AARON: I think Google’s general view is that if your topic is not likely to be discussed then neither are most of your competitors, so your disadvantage isn’t a strong disadvantage against others who play only in your niche. (Though some broader authority sites might easily rank on such topics…look at all the longtail Facebook notes spam and horrible YouTube videos ranking in Google).
In terms of building up your own site, if you are willing to put the courts at the center of your public relations, branding and link building campaigns then certainly there are many options. Further, aggregation and re-aggregation + spreading theme = win. I don’t read Perez Hilton, but as soon as I saw the word “warts” in your question I thought “I bet he wrote about some celebrity having that in the past” and did a Google site search for site:PerezHitlon.com warts. This http://perezhilton.com/2009-06-04-wanna-see-lindsays-firecrotch/ came up page 1 … but it’s probably not work safe. There are probably 100 pages just on his site mentioning the general topic of warts. And there must be another 100 gossip blogs out there. Lice? There are some pages on that too http://perezhilton.com/2010-11-17-madonnas-house-invested-with-lice
Not sure which sites to search against? Use something like AllTop (or a DMOZ category) as a seed to create a list of sites and then search those using a Google Custom Search Engine or another search provider like Blekko.
DAVE: First, there is a ton I could do with genital wart treatment in social ;-) But the notion that social is not reachable for everyone is not true. Social ad platforms have opened the gates to anyone with a brand to get viral traction in an acceptable format. The same core of good content is important, but the days where you had to sneak in are over. You can create amazing content for the above products and advertise them on StumbleUpon in the health section and get quality results.
DEBRA: I’d push the three brands mentioned through the demographics they target and also through their employment segments. Because I’m looking for long-term links on topically related authority sites, I’d probably focus more on the employment segments and pimp clinical content to the medical communities behind each. After that I’d do magazine grade medical pieces and push to offline publications that also have an online presence and finish with joining and participating in every niche forum and/or social site discussing the three topics. (Like HealthCentral.com) When you get involved in niche social sites, you will find professionals participating there who also participate on the big social sites (FB, Twitter and G+). You’ll have an easier time being followed and interacting with the professionals if they already know you from the niche sites.
ERIC: This is one of the fundamental problems with the math of social signals. There are numerous biases that impact the numbers, from product type to demographics to incentivization to the device being used when reading and on and on. I love social, and it is a vital part of my client linking strategies, but from an SEO perspective, I’m not sold yet. G+ has incorporated social in a way that is kind of helpful sometimes, but I’ve noticed I’m ignoring them more and more. I find them to be more of a curiosity than something that makes me click. I could care less what a college friend thinks about the new IPad. I am not moved to action because Pepsi has 37 million likes and Coke only has 36 million. I do however, read reviews at Amazon for products I’m on the fence about buying. This makes me wonder if there’s yet another bias against social based on where we encounter it and our intent during the moment of encounter. I expect reviews and opinions at Amazon, but I ignore them at Google. This could be due to habit. For many years I’ve used Google with the intent of clicking on their results to go somewhere else for whatever I was looking for. I don’t search Google and expect to stay at Google. It’s just ingrained. Reflexive. I suppose over time I’ll change, as we all do.
JULIE: This is definitely tricky…people find no shame in sharing many things that repulse me, but I don’t see anyone in my Twitter stream tweeting that they just got a free tube of Preparation H. I think the approach to this is to ignore the personal “I used this and my warts went away in 24 hours!!” sharing aspect of social (which mostly defeats the purpose) and focus on social in private forums (there seem to be forums for just about every ailment known to man), giving coupons or free samples to these people, and making sure they are your fans offline as well as online.
JUSTILIEN: Turn it into something funny, or even a satire. Maybe a story about celebrities whom have had head lice, or a funny mobile app.
MICHAEL: Even the large players are going to have a hard time generating social signals for products that may have a social stigma attached to using them, so you have to look for creative ways to get any traction. Using humor or frank honesty are two approaches when dealing with delicate subject matter. For example, Gillette has produced a series of videos on how men can shave their back or shave their groin area. Look for ways you can create content that stands out.
RAE: I think in this case, every competitor within your industry will have to same issue as well. So if none of you are throwing out those large scale social signals, then it shouldn’t be a huge factor in your ability to rank within the niche. That said, if you can be the one competitor to figure out how to earn those huge social signals, you could get a bit of an advantage. The more boring the product, the harder it will be, but it won’t be impossible to get it legitimately socially shared. Humor is usually the way to a social win in the types of categories listed above.
RAND: In sectors where there’s a natural tendency for consumers to be uncomfortable (like those described), three angles seem to work particularly well for social and content marketing: how-to, research, and humor. I’d focus on what works with your brand image and tackle one of those.
ROGER: Courtney Love aside, it is unsocial to share about the awesomeness of Preparation H on Twitter. It is unreasonable to be tasked with making private issues, such as hemorrhoids, a socially acceptable topic of discussion—whether the discussion is online or off. Nevertheless, bringing this back to link building, the solution is the same as any other link building project.
Step 1: Identify constituents
Step 2: Create a presence where your constituents live online
For step 1, the constituents for lice treatments are primarily moms, but don’t forget school principals, teachers and other school workers. They can be powerful evangelists for lice treatment products.
For step 2, the obvious places for lice treatment is Facebook, which has countless moms having conversations about their families.
TODD: I think this is definitely a bias that Google will have to figure out to some extent. Even then, great brands find a way to be creative. There are still contests and conversations that can be had by those companies that don’t necessarily directly reflect what the brand does.
5. Do you think we will ever reach a point when links aren’t a primary factory in Google’s ranking algorithm? Will they ever put more confidence in social signals, user data or some other factor over links?
AARON: If you look at Google Advisor or AdWords or AdSense ads those channels are already wallet dominated ;)
Google rolled out their knowledge graph and I suspect that if they can get a decent % of the market in things like apps, games, movies, music, etc. then they could leverage direct reviews and cut a lot of other players out of the field. Of course they still might have organic results, but if the “organic” results are below the fold (like with flight search, Google Advisor, and so on) then Google effectively destroys the value of top rankings without having to bother with trying to formally kill them off.
Google is better off not killing off the SERPs but just displacing them. This way they get virtually all the economic benefits of the search result via aggressively monetizing the whole page AND they retain the ability to outsource any blame for relevancy issues onto evil spammers of some stripe.
DAVE: No. Links and how they are classified will change and grow. However, Google remains the biggest player in search and a complete change in alogrithm doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, social factors and user data can be manipulated as much as linking so that change would pry be something marketers would cheer.
DEBRA: I’m doubtful links will completely go away given the huge and complex nature of the link graph, but I do think as more and more of their products are integrated you’ll see less dependency on links. I was a little surprised there wasn’t more press on the launch of their Account Activity report recently. Basically, Google shows how you’ve used their products during a month’s time. Since they’ve keeping tabs, it’s only a matter of time before it’s all brought into the search fold. I am wondering about G+ though, none of my offline friends use it and a lot my colleagues in SEO use it half-heartedly. I’m not sure a lot of people at Google will get bonuses this year.
ERIC: Yes, but its going to be term specific. There will be a time when the classic HTML <a href> tag in source code will not be the primary ranking driver, for example if the search term is Justin Bieber. But, if the search term is endometriosis treatment outcomes, I want links, not tweets or pluses or likes. The engines are going to have to make decisions about where the most useful signals can be found for any given search term and searcher intent. Google already knows this. You could argue this can be seen when you do a search and a .pdf document shows up first even though that .pdf document doesn’t have it’s own potent link profile.
JULIE: I think the importance might lessen, but I do not see that there’s any better way to gauge the worthiness of a site than through its links. It’s far from perfect and it’s been highly manipulated but hey, so is everything else in marketing. I think many things will continue to gain in importance (social signals, user data, click through rates for sites, any other metric that can be found in Google Analytics) and links may become less important, but they are still the backbone of the algorithm and I don’t see that changing.
JUSTILIEN: What’s important to remember is that links are merely citations (a.k.a. quality signals.) The big question is how will mobile change search. That’s the game changer.
MICHAEL: I think Google would love to get to a point where they can use data from users instead of links as a primary factor. Even if you can fake user metrics or build temporary mindshare with advertising, if your content isn’t noteworthy, people will stop looking for it. Maintaining it artificially over a long period of time simply isn’t cost effective.
That said I don’t think we are there yet, Google simply doesn’t have the confidence in its user metrics to make it the leading factor. Google is getting smarter every day, so I’d say in the next 3-5 years social signals and user metrics will play a larger more significant role, and as Google gets better at isolating real user metrics from artificial and garbage data, it will become more important.
RAE: I don’t ever see links being a “non factor” when it comes to deciding how to rank the organic results. Even if you utilize social signals, user data or whatever they come up with – the links and the anchor text of those links still tell Google what the actual target page being linked to is about. I think the intent of all these new signals and factors is more to validate which links to give credit to and not so much to replace them as a ranking factor.
RAND: It’s certainly possible in the long run, though I think we likely have 3-5 years at least where links are still dominant (or at least, very powerful). That said, it’s a great time to be an early adopter of Google+ and to focus on inbound marketing (or whatever you want to call content+SEO+social+community+PR+email+analytics+CRO) more broadly. Being active and successful in all these channels is the best way to insure that whatever direction Google takes, your strategy holds up.
ROGER: I like to think we’re pretty much at a point where links are not a primary factor in Google’s algorithm. But if we’re not there Google will eventually get there. And I will be there, waiting for Google.
But seriously, I don’t think you can go wrong anticipating the most rational scenario of what’s coming next and building for that. It makes sense that the search engines would want to move beyond the simple hyperlink.
TODD: Probably not. Links have always been significant to determining relevance, and I don’t think that has changed. The granularity necessary to properly measure and quantify links on the other hand continues to shift and improve. User data and social signals serve as validation for these metrics.
6. What is your position on the “SEO outing” debate? Do you believe that the open discussion of webspam does more to hurt or harm a) you personally/your business interests b) the SEO industry c) the web as a whole?
AARON: I think it is largely a bunch of self-serving asshats who do the outings…and they do it for attention. But I also think they are short-sighted idiots.
The wage of most in-house SEOs is not set by the value they deliver, but by the credible threat that they could go off and do their own thing and go make more. If the industry gets too consolidate and too many affiliates and so on get killed off, then that will drive down the wages of the alleged “white hats” who work in house for big companies. What they thought was making things better for themselves, eventually makes things way worse. But most of the market will probably be too shortsighted to appreciate that until they are on the wrong side of the chopping block though. They will root for blood until it is their head in the guillotine. Then what? :D
The core argument/issue here is if you think the world is better with diversity and lots of personal freedom, or if you think the world is better when dominated by large corporate interests (I mean even the alleged change agents Google and Apple were caught up in signing those illegal anti-employee agreements with each other against their employees.)
Here is another issue that is framed in an entirely bogus way: accountability.
- If someone small does something that could be perceived as being in the gray area negative intent is presumed
- Meanwhile at bigger companies, benefit of the doubt is granted. Even if things escalate, a phantom “contractor” who is never named can be the fall guy. X months or Y years later the process repeats itself.
How stupid is it that we claim that brands are better because they are more known (while having 0 concern for accountability with them), whereas it is allegedly “white hat” to try to destroy the life of someone weaker simply because you can get away with it.
I used to be pretty proud to be an SEO, but not so much anymore.
DAVE: It hurts the industry. Even the whitest of white hats get thrown into the mix when a company is outed for links, because the term “SEO” is automatically thrown into every mainstream article as though SEO only means link manipulation. I see no value in outings, and I believe in Karma.
DEBRA: I am, and never have been, a proponent of outing. I believe the people who create the rules need to monitor them and not depend on others to do their work. But I don’t condemn people who feel differently, if you feel it’s your duty to submit spam reports or you want to use a site as an example in a blog post, that’s your decision. I’m not going to snap at you for tweeting something or put you down publicly. If you want to blog your outrage, fine. If you want to tweet your opinion, fine. Just don’t hold it against me that I disagree with you.
ERIC: In the long run it helps everyone, though their will be casualties along the way. I guess it’s a sign of the times that I hesitate to answer this question honestly. I don’t like public outings, but I like being able to privately bring concrete evidence to the search engines, and I like it when a company that’s knowingly violating QGs is nailed. I think some play a fake “we didnt know our agency was buying links” game, but there are plenty of true stories of web sites not knowing that their SEO firm was using tactics that landed them in trouble.
JULIE: I think that outing is truly one of the most despicable things we can do as SEOs. I think that we’re all manipulating the results to our own advantage in some way. I also think that I’d never want to be responsible for someone losing his or her business, and pointing a site out to Matt Cutts on Twitter and asking why it hasn’t been penalized is a seriously low thing to do. I don’t even want to reference good sites that I’d like to use as an example, just out of fear that someone would start digging and find those spammy backlinks that every site I’ve ever analyzed has, then yack about it until something is done. I cannot see a single reason why anyone would think that outing is a good or beneficial idea.
JUSTILIEN: Drama in general is negative.
MICHAEL: I’m not a fan of outting people, it’s like tattling on your friends for staying out past curfew. That said you should never engage in high risk tactics on your own projects or for your clients unless everyone involved understands the risks. I’m not a fan of people who think they are helping the industry by cleaning it up and outting the “bad guys”. It makes us as a whole seem like a bunch of petulant children, who simply aren’t mature or professional. Unless someone is breaking the law there simply is no good reason for outting them. Despite what engineers from the plex would have you believe Google’s guideline are just that, guidelines, they aren’t the law.
RAE: I absolutely hate outing. Google’s guidelines are not law. There is so much to learn by studying competition that has found loopholes—and the truly smart can think of a way to utilize what they learn in a “white hat” method to promote their own sites legitimately.
As the old WebmasterWorld saying goes “SPAM: Sites Positioned Above Mine.”
Plus, now that negative SEO is a “known” tactic, you don’t even have any way of knowing if the site you’re reporting is indeed willingly participating in spam tactics—yet, you could potentially ruin their livelihood because you’re pissed they’re ranking above you (even better, you don’t even know for sure if whatever spam tactics they’re engaging in are indeed the reason for their rankings). I’ve seen very, very few cases of outing that wasn’t self serving in some way, shape or form.
My motto has always been live and let live, learn what you can from it, let it motivate you to up your game and never forget that Karma is a bitch.
RAND: I’m strongly in favor, as I’ve always been, of discussing webspam openly. A great example might be this recent analysis of several thousand directories. Technically, there’s 800 sites being “outed” for the penalties/bans that Google’s put on them, but I hate to think of SEOs or link builders spending time and money investing in these, and I think the comments and thumbs clearly show the great value the community gets when we can have these discussions and data sharing free from vitriol and name-calling.
In terms of the letters… A) It both helps and hurts SEOmoz’s business. You can read plenty of blog posts and forum threads with SEO folks, many of whom I think of as friends and respected colleagues, saying pretty nasty stuff about SEOmoz and swearing off use of our products as a result. On the flipside, there’s a ton of marketers who get value from the discussions, learn more about how search engines work and can make better-informed decisions about which tactics to invest in and how, and some of that likely brings folks to like and trust us more, so it’s a double-sided issue.
B) I wholeheartedly believe the industry, both internally and externally (particularly in terms of perception by others) is massively helped by the open discussion of webspam. When we say things like “snitches get stitches” (an oft-repeated phrase I see in more gray/black hat forums and on Twitter), we’re presenting a side of the industry that makes everyone in the wider business and marketing world certain that their worst fears about SEO are true. I hate that and I want desperately to stop it.
C) I think the web’s great promise is to help spread information far and wide. Transparency is far better than secrecy on these issues.
ROGER: I was solicited to comment for the article but declined to participate because in general the act of pointing fingers is the province of those who are mediocre in skill and knowledge. Whether “SEO outing” is good for the industry, I have no idea. But I prefer that people fight poor practices by making a positive contribution to the community at large by publishing useful information and discoveries.
TODD: I covered this again recently with a discussion with Danny Sullivan here.
Personally, I’m not a fan of outing, but I don’t think it’s a black and white issue. It really depends on your business goals and priorites where you’re going to stand. I wrote this a few years ago and think it’s still a valid assessment of my feelings on the subject.
7. What kind of link building do you do for one of your own sites? Specific details aren’t necessary, just a description of the general kind of link building that you actually practice for one of your own sites.
AARON: My goal is to combine a bit of background basic link building with doing some link building that is cost prohibitive or time prohibitive or relationship prohibitive. So there are baseline things like nepotistic links from others you know in a market, a few directory links, press releases and perhaps a few other links from blogs and so on. Then I usually try to layer on a few custom things until one of them really takes. So the first sort of stuff is background (or as Debra Mastaler would say) foundational link building. And then I try to figure what I can add on that would make it hard for someone to catch up…something that they couldn’t just see and clone.
DAVE: We create high quality content of varying formats, utilize white hat social seeding techniques, and outbound tactics such as blogger outreach and guest posting. It is as simple as that. We have created powerful tools to allow us to scale these actions, so we can be more proficient than most shops, but this type of work will always yield traffic even if links die in terms of search value.
DEBRA: As far as my hobby sites are concerned, I do a lot of article marketing, promotional partnerships, and media outreach.
ERIC: I think it might have been Aaron Wall who used the Fight Club reference. First rule of link building is don’t talk about link building. And I’ve managed to write about link building all these years without really writing about link building at the tactical keyboard level specific to my own site. I don’t want to give away certain things, and there are things I will never share about how my link profile came to be what it is today, I can share one specific tactic. I have a wildly long advanced search string Google Alert set up in a way that lets me know any time a university professor or business librarian posts a class syllabus or content related to online public relations strategies. When I receive a new alert, I look for ways I can help that curator/professor, and I offer them a free subscription to my LinkMoses Private Linking Strategies newsletter. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s all I’m giving up.
JULIE: I contribute regular columns to some industry publications and socialize my agency’s blog on Twitter. That’s really it. It’s why we have no links, now that I think about it…I don’t rely upon my site’s rankings enough to use any more aggressive tactics right now.
JUSTILIEN: Quality old fashion links and marketing.
MICHAEL: I’m a big fan of linkbait and content marketing, if you create good compelling content that solves someone’s problem, makes them think, makes them laugh or is in some way noteworthy or exceptional people will share it. Sure you will have to give it a “push” but if it “has legs” it will walk on its own, and people will share it, bookmark it, tweet it, post it on Facebook and so on.
RAE: It depends on the site. I have some sites that have branding and authority behind them that I’ve built up over the years by spending a lot of time doing link building tactics to attract people and not SERP favor (but 99% of the time results in SERP favor). For those sites, we do media outreach, blogger outreach, guest posting on high quality sites, have continual guest column gigs on high quality sites, give interviews, etc. For sites starting out that haven’t yet achieved that kind of branded or authoritative status yet, we use the same methods, but we do them on quality sites vs high quality sites while we build that status. Building a social following is also a big deal. Not so much because it helps you rank, but because it helps your content get shared, which gives you more leverage when you approach other sites with partnership or contribution requests. In reality, for those sites, we focus on brand building vs. link building even though we’re acquiring links all along the way.
RAND: I work primarily on SEOmoz, my personal blog, a few charity projects and help out with some early-stage startups in mostly unofficial capacities. My favorite link building techniques almost always center on either content or community. The former is all about building content that builds brand recognition, likability and trust, which leads (directly and indirectly) to a lot of links. The latter is around identifying the players in an ecosystem who’d have a non-monetary incentive to share something on or about the brand. Both work phenomenally well, but are very long-term approaches. Still, just like everything else in life, what comes easy usually isn’t worth having, and the payoff from a multi-year vision can be exceptional.
ROGER: The link beg. It’s the VW Bug of link building techniques. It will never die!
TODD: Guest posting, begging, borrowing, begging, and baiting. Writing every day on your topic is really the best technique. Content distribution has always been the big winner.
8. Why do links cost so much?
AARON: Price and value are often well correlated. It turns out that typically links count way more and social media counts way less than a lot of social media promoters will tell you. :D
DAVE: If you are still asking this question you may be in trouble.
DEBRA: LOL – now where have I seen that question before? I have a feeling, after recent events, they’re going to cost even more :)
ERIC: It’s a seller’s market :)
JULIE: Excluding the cost of a paid link, the labor alone will kill you sometimes. We occasionally spend days negotiating one link, and that is no reflection on my link builders. Finding a good site that is relevant and a good fit, finding contact information, writing an email or reaching out through social, then negotiating placement is enough to fill hours sometimes. We wade through loads and loads of sites that we decide aren’t worth contacting. You do find some amazing sites in there, but by and large the web is so cluttered with crap, it’s more difficult every day. As far as paid links costing so much, one reason is that webmasters are a lot more savvy than we like to think, and if they’ve ever sold a link to a big brand who has paid them $1000 a year for a link, they aren’t going to give you one for $100. Enough competitive industries buy links on a yearly basis also, so webmasters know that instead of taking one payment, they can get one every year.
MICHAEL: Links cost so much because they are harder to get. Fewer people are linking out freely and are less inclined to link out without some form of incentive. It’s simple market forces at work, the laws of supply and demand in action.
RAE: I honestly don’t buy links, so I can’t speak to their cost directly when it comes to purchasing them as a marketer, but as a site owner, I can tell you that I won’t sell links at all because of the risk involved. So I’d guess anyone who is willing to sell links, takes that into consideration and prices their links accordingly with an added “risk” charge.
RAND: I’m going to interpret this question as “Why do high value links cost so much in time and effort?” rather than “why are spammers charging so much for their paid links?” :-)
Because they’re a valuable commodity! Links aren’t just useful for SEO—they provide an endorsement from one site to another, send direct traffic and build rankings. They’re the backbone of the web’s infrastructure and if they weren’t hard to earn, there’d be no way search engines could use them to separate the wheat from the chaff.
ROGER: The last one buying links, will you please turn off the lights when you leave the room!
TODD: I would say it’s due to supply and demand—and because they’re WORTH it.
9. Over the past year how has your approach to link development changed?
AARON: I think I used to be too much of a “brute force” type of person and that burned a few good sites. I tend to think that the word Matt Cutts used to describe something is perfect…and that word is surgical. He suggested they had surgical tools for dealing with link issues and I think as the algorithm gets more complex and layered then ones approach to SEO needs to be more refined, measured, methodological and surgical. The other part I would add in would then be “and then leave a big cloud of dust” … and by that I mean that the best SEO isn’t just about doing push marketing and manufacturing signals, but also about being a bi-product of other efforts and having a cloud of other good karma signals around so that if you are a bit too aggressive here or there the rest of the profile helps carry you and earns your site the benefit of the doubt.
DAVE: I have personally given up on the idea that short cuts have any sustainability. Short cuts work, so if you want to build and burn go ahead. Personally I have seen the gauntlet thrown by Google, and I am heeding the warning. Today everything we invest money in has to answer the first basic question of “is this sustainable?”
DEBRA: I wouldn’t worry too much about older links you’ve placed unless you get a love note. If you feel you may have links that may cause a problem down the road, do what you can to remove them and then work to get media exposure, social media signals and a lot of quality links pointing at you.
ERIC: It hasn’t.
JULIE: I have focused much more on the use of social media tools in order to identify good link targets, whereas even just a year ago, I relied more on engine searches. Now, I want to see an opportunity the second it’s there, so I rely on Google and Twitter alerts much more these days also.
JUSTILIEN: I still prefer good old fashion links. Although I’ve taken newer approaches such as marketing mobile apps for link development.
MICHAEL: You have to create better content that IS interesting. There was a time you could slap some pictures in a top 10 list without caring and it would generate some links. The days of low hanging fruit are gone, you have to create something people want to share. More and more websites are competing for that “sharing mindshare” if you aren’t creating content that’s really worth reading people aren’t going to link to it, tweet about it, share it or like it on Facebook.
RAE: I don’t think my tactics have changed much. I got off the burn and churn bandwagon a long, long time ago. My focus for years now has been on building “affiliate brands” for my own sites and actual exposure, traffic, branding and conversions for client sites. I’m not saying the old school tactics don’t work. I’m just saying that I’ve long thought they will continue to be less and less effective— and in some cases, harmful—so I changed direction back then as a result to get ahead of the curve I felt I saw coming.
RAND: Not a ton, honestly, though I have started to focus a bit less on links for rankings and a bit more on links for the PR, credibility, branding and traffic value they provide. That’s likely a result of our own brand growing, and of SEO being just one of many tactics we employ, rather than the all-consuming focus (which it was for years).
ROGER: Social media profiles, specifically in Twitter and LinkedIn have become necessary tools for link acquisition. Twitter is the new email. LinkedIn is the 21st century’s version of a industry water cooler where you can meet peers and influencers.
TODD: With the rise of social media, it’s even more important to reach out to people through other channels—or multiple channels. Technology for tracking and management has gotten much better, so those tools are an absolute must at this point.
10. With all the recent updates in Google, many webmasters are now worried about older links that may harm them. What are your thoughts on the best ways to identify these potentially harmful links and deal with them (ie removal, alteration, or leave them alone) while minimizing risk?
AARON: If they don’t go to your homepage they should be pretty easy to remove via 404s. A lot of lower quality links have footprints in terms of when they were created, their anchor text, URL footprints, and so on. If you download your link data from a tool like Majestic that should make it pretty easy to dig through and find a lot of the issues. The key if you are looking specifically for lower quality links is to ensure you are using one of the largest databases available. I think Majestic is currently the largest, but Ahrefs is growing quickly. SEOmoz’s OSE is likely a bit behind both of those, but they just took a big round of funding and will likely use it to catch up quickly.
I probably wouldn’t actively remove links unless I got a message from Google and a traffic drop, or if something was rather overt + easy to get rid of. In most cases I would suggest keep building quality over the top…that sort of “big cloud of dust” from the above question.
DAVE: Utilize tools such as Majestic SEO and OpenSiteExplorer.org to find oversaturation points, and bad locations based on block level analysis. Do you have more anchors for your head term than your brand? Do you have a bunch of sitewide blogroll links? This is the stuff that Penguin is picking up. From there its elbow grease. If you bought the links, dust off the contact book and get to work. Offering people to take links down works, and I don’t think thats against webmaster guidelines (probably will be upon publication of this post). However with this last point you then see the further openings of negative SEO.
DEBRA: Not sure you can, since we’re not all cut from the same cloth, there will always be a difference of opinion on this matter.
ERIC: I use my own tools to identify them, but being candid, I have seen very few instances where I felt it made sense to try and chase down and alter or remove external inbound links. All of a sudden nobody is home. On-site is a different story. I wish more sites would improve what exists via content initiatives, because that will them help alter the junk:not-junk link ratio.
JULIE: I think a lot of this has to be done by a manual analysis. Run your link profile and do a hand check to see which ones have URLs that indicate that they could be irrelevant, for example, then actually visit the site to see if you think it’s still a good placement. I would advise that before you remove any links, you make sure they aren’t sending you loads of traffic, of course. If you have a nastygram from Google, I’d remove the links or at the very least, build some great new ones in order to dilute their effects. If you’re worried but haven’t gotten any warnings, I’d still go through and identify them, potentially asking for some of the really bad ones to be removed. If you have a profile of 150k links and are generating 5k new ones a month and you find 500 crappy links, I’d leave them alone.
JUSTILIEN: If they’re worried, I’d recommend trying to get what one suspects as the most harmful links removed. Good luck with that task.
MICHAEL: As long as you are building good links, generally speaking don’t have to worry about the handful of “bad links” that every website will get. However when someone starts pointing a disproportionate number of bad links at your site you may have a problem. In some cases search engines may interpret these bad links as aggressive SEO and penalize your website.
If you want to make sure these links don’t count against you, you need to monitor your backlinks and let the search engines know these links aren’t yours. The best way to do this is thru Google’s Webmaster Central Console.
RAE: I’m personally not going to be removing any links unless:
- I know they were below board tactics to begin with and want to prevent being hit by a future revision of Penguin if I managed to survive this one
- Google sends me a letter saying my links suck
- I see drops in my inbound traffic from Google—either site wide or on specific keywords
If I did need to remove any links however, the kinds I’d need to remove would likely be on crap sites who have zero interest in helping my cause. So, if you think this may be an issue for you (or it already is an issue for you) I’d send out the removal requests, but focus more on producing more quality links to counteract the volume of your backlink profile the crap ones make up.
RAND: I thought Modesto Siotos’ post on How to Check Which Links Can Harm Your Rankings was quite excellent (the comments are good, too) and shows a number of automated and manual methods for doing this.
ROGER: My advice is to get rid of anything that is labeled paid or sponsored. The recent spate of penalizations may be a short-lived phenomenon, but it’s always a good idea to future proof your links and your link profile. Getting rid of them is a solid long-term strategy. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t thoroughly considered the long-term ramifications of leaving bad links up.
TODD: I think we’ll see some tools coming from Google on this front in Webmaster Central. The best tool is understanding the things that Google really doesn’t approve of—and keeping the amount of those type of links to a minimum.
11. How do we stop all the outing of links?
AARON: If a person is being opportunistic and exploitative then adding opportunity cost is one of the few ways to deter them…look at what Google has done with links passing negative karma over the past few months. They sure did slow down a lot of people with that approach. Not saying that Google’s algorithms are without fault, but then if a person declares their intent to out they have made their intent public…it is not something you need to try to figure out.
DAVE: As long as we keep giving people a platform for it we won’t.
DEBRA: I don’t have a percentage in mind when I am developing content, but there are two things I consider: If the content I’m writing is descriptive then I will link with the term. If the content is promotional, I link with the name of the company (think releases).
If I find a blog that only hyperlinks terms (instead of company names and other branded phrases) within the body of the posts, I stay away. I try to link phrases that are conversational and include a verb or call to action because in the end, I need to satisfy the need for traffic and SEO.
ERIC: As long as it benefits someone to out someone else it can’t be stopped.
JULIE: I don’t think that we can. There are too many high-profile SEOs who are known to out and their followers, fans, and new people see this behavior and think that it’s a good idea. If I was not so opposed to outing, however, I’d say that whenever someone outs a site, we dig into his or her sites and see what’s there. I imagine that if any of those guys got outed, they’d shut up. It’s rare to find someone who has never done anything that violates Google’s guidelines.
JUSTILIEN: I don’t think that is possible.
MICHAEL: You can’t as long as people have the need to bring attention to themselves or their company they will always act out to get it. The best thing to do is ignore them,even arguing with them brings them attention. Don’t feed the trolls.
RAE: Until our community stops feeding those doing the outing with attention (both negative and positive—most people dying to be validated don’t care which type they receive), they’ll continue to do it. And I don’t see our community being able to unify like that nowadays.
RAND: We don’t. Nor should we. Unless you’re a spammer, you have nothing to lose from the open discussion of webspam and link spam. I think the SEO industry, with the exception of a very small minority, gains far more value than they lose when these discussions are transparent.
ROGER: There will always be a little man out there who wants to be a big man. What he can’t do by building he will try to accomplish by tearing down. It’s human nature.
TODD: Zombies and guns. Maybe pirates and ninjas if that doesn’t work. My advice to “outers”: I think Ice-T said it best, “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.”
12. With all the talk of over-optimization, what do you think is the best ratio of brand to anchor text links? Even more so, of the keyword based links, how much is “too much” when aiming at one particular keyword?
AARON: I think this question is pretty darn hard to answer, in part because I think some of these sorts of algorithmic thresholds might include factors like:
- site age
- site size
- site authority
And such settings change over time, so even if you are perfectly aggressive today that might be way too aggressive after the next major algorithm update.
I think what is far better than a static number is looking at what other profiles of sites that rank look like. The key is to track rankings over time and to get a feel for a number of sites in your space.
And even then it is not worth playing right at the edge of the cliff, as…
- an algorithm update can move the cliff’s edge, or
- a competitor could give you a kind shove
DAVE: This is an industry specific question. Gambling for example has a much higher threshold than any other market. The reality is that in terms of linkbuilding you should just opt for the most natural route possible, and if you have options when placing content or attaining an editorial link get the most optimized anchor you can.
DEBRA: “Over-optimization”… Can you think of a worse term to wave in front of a group of SEO’s? That term stabs at the very core of our existence—especially since dropping anchors (better known as link building) is such an integral part of SEO. Tweaks we expect but come out and use the dreaded double O word? Yikes!
Gentle snarkiness aside, I have to wonder if Google threw the word “over-optimization” out there as a way to slow down the use of exact match domains (EMD). If you have a good EMD (as opposed to one using three hyphens and keyword stuffed) it’s much easier to build links and affect rank and much harder for an algorithm to determine manipulation. EMD’s reinforce the basic components of link popularity and can withstand a manual review, that makes using them good SEO. But even more so, good EMD’s invite traffic and reinforce brand and that makes them smart marketing.
There is no numerical answer that works for all sites in all niches, there are way too many variables involved but a safe answer would be use the name of your company more than anything. Doing so builds brand and reinforces your on page marketing. After that I’d use all my terms in exact and broad variations as well as a fair amount of “click here”. Hyperlink phrases where it’s conversational and when the hyperlink takes you to a page reinforcing the content. Page topics should be related, this reinforces the relevance component of link popularity and helps reinforce your credibility as a brand. There is nothing worse than hitting a link and landing on a page that has nothing to do with what you were just reading. You’re short changing yourself algorithmically and from a marketing standpoint.
ERIC: Of course the easy answer is it depends…On the industry, on the specific keywords, on the existing ratios across the top ten. I would not consider it unusual if the words NFL Apparel represented 30% of a site’s anchor profile if that site only sold NFL apparel, was named NFL-APPAREL.com, was titled NFL Apparel, and was run by the NFL. OTOH, if 30% of a site’s anchor text contained the exact phrase No Obligation Life Insurance Quotes, then something is absolutely rotten. You know it when you see it.
JULIE: I don’t think there can be a general guideline for that. I think it depends on the niche, how competitive it is, what the general link graph for that industry looks like, etc. As far as too much, I’d say if one keyword is more than half of your anchors, you’ve got a problem, but I’d honestly rather see it much lower than that.
JUSTILIEN: I recommend more variations instead of a ratio. Today’s ratio could be negative tomorrow.
MICHAEL: Any time you have a concentration of inbound anchor text on commercial terms that dont include your domain or company name you start to look unnatural. If you look at natural backlink profile you will see a gradual drop off of anchor text terms, when you look at an unnatural backlink profile you will see a cluster of terms and a rapid drop off.
RAE: There is no one size fits all answer for this question. Numerous factors can change the answer. For example, if you’re an established brand who has been on the web since 1996, the answer is going to be different than the answer I would give a small business owner who started his website in 2012. Your niche, site authority, your social presence as compared to your competitors, your existing backlink profile – it all factors in.
The best advice I can give you is to study the backlinks of those in your niche. See what their percentage of “brand name” vs. “keyword” is. Take the backlinks of the sites that closely match your site profile as a road map. For instance, if the folks ranking #1-3 for the keyword you want have been online since before 2002 and you came onto the scene in 2008 and the site at #4 also launched in 2008, they may be a better model for you to follow. Watch your rankings as you acquire links to see how they react as you develop those links and change your approach as needed.
RAND: My general advice would be to generally focus on earning the links, rather than acquiring them in some way where you control the anchor text. That said, when you do have anchor text opportunities (say, in interviews, guest blog posts, bio listings, resource lists, etc), I’d try to keep it feeling very unforced/natural (e.g. instead of linking like this: “SEOmoz – SEO Software is…,” link like this “Software startup, SEOmoz is…”). Use part of the keywords you’re seeking rather than the entire/exact phrase, and surround your links with terms and phrases that are likely to be positive signals in a topic modeling algorithm.
ROGER: The idea of ratios is what got people in trouble in the first place. This talk about looking natural has been going on for years and years. It sounds like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie.
“Hey holmes, the cops are behind us! Look natural dude. Look natural!”
Most of the percentages of anchor text I’ve heard thrown around have always sounded unrealistic to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been buttonholed to give a percentage. But I would like to think I never have. Regardless, ratios of anchor text has never been a concern for me and that’s how I personally build links and recommend for them to be built. But if you really must have a percentage in order to get to sleep at night, here goes: Try 2.37% keyword anchor text and the rest can be variations of more info, click here, and exit now. (Just kidding!)
TODD: You will get banned if you have 61.66% commercial keyword as your anchor text—you should be okay with about 60%— kidding of course. Unfortunately, we won’t know this—it’s still pretty high, but it’s like playing the showcase showdown in the price is right. If you go to high—you hear a big WHAAAA-WHAAAA sound and you lose the new car and vacation to Branson, MO.
13. What’s the best way to dump links from shifty websites that you never asked for/paid for? (and do you even need to?) – from @vikkiorlando via Twitter
AARON: Generally in most cases you don’t have to get rid of bad links if you have lots of good ones, but if you need to the quickest way is to 404 the pages they link to and try to get other good links pointing at those pages to point into other pages. Paying to get links removed or sending legal nastygrams might also help get links removed quickly, though either of those can have backfire risks of either damaging your brand or where a person keeps giving you more crappy links that you keep having to pay to have them removed.
DAVE: Pay them to take them down.
DEBRA: You can ask. You can offer money. You can offer free tee shirts (I never cease to be amazed at what people will do for a free tee shirt). You can try to threaten but I hear the DMCA shtick isn’t going well for most people. It also makes people mad and less apt to help you, asking nicely usually does the trick.
If there’s no way the shifty site will work with you or if they’re scrapers with no contact info, you’ll need to abandon the outreach and resort to good old marketing! Promote your site by adding good content, creative promotions and positive media mentions from outlets on Google News. That will usually “override” shifty links.
ERIC: Unless I could determine that those links had harmed my site, I’d do nothing. I receive 5-10 emails a month from other sites that say “We have already added a link to your site, please link back to us”. I just delete these emails as if they never arrived.
JULIE: If you’ve been warned by Google, I would ask for their removal, but from my experience, a lot of these crappy links are almost impossible to get removed. Even seemingly nice SEOs are in forums bitching about how some jerk comment spammed their blog, is now asking for the link to be removed, and laughing about how they won’t do it. As with most things, I think the best approach is to ask nicely. If a webmaster is unresponsive to an email, find him or her on social and ask again. Whether or not you should worry about it is down to whether you’ve been warned and how much of a percentage these crap links are for your profile.
JUSTILIEN: Focus on obtaining more better quality links.
MICHAEL: Unless there is a significant number of bad links or they are from a really bad site, I wouldn’t worry. If they are I would use Webmaster Central.
RAE: As with any Google update, you should never run around like a chicken with your head cut off making dramatic changes to your site—either on or off site—until you actually understand the update and it’s intent. I wouldn’t worry about it unless Google has told you to do so (either via a traffic loss or note in WMC) or you know you did some shifty things you want to get rid of before you get smacked for them. If that’s the case, it’s going to be a hard road. You’re better off building new quality links than wasting your time attempting (usually in vain) to remove any “bad” ones that you’re not paying for.
RAND: For some folks, they probably do need to invest in this. I’ve heard a bunch of interesting angles, but one of the most effective (though not-entirely-above-board) is to indicate to the site owner/content creator that your site may have a penalty and that by linking to you, they may cost themselves rankings or be subject to a penalty of their own. This isn’t necessarily even false, since if you’re removing links, you’re probably doing so because you do have a penalty. I’ve heard of folks taking this even further (e.g., saying their site has malware and that the link may infect users who visit), but I’d personally stop at the point where you’re not being honest.
That said, the very best way to stop this problem is to stick to link building tactics that you can be confident will last in perpetuity – the kind where if a Google engineer reviewed it personally they’d think “yeah, that’s a great link and I’m glad our algo’s counting it.” It’s hard, but so worthwhile, and once you develop tactics that can earn links like this, SEO becomes a lot more fun (and you’ll sleep better, too) :-)
ROGER: It depends on the link. There are a couple kinds of links to consider. The first kinds are links from scrapers or hacked pages. I don’t think those will affect your rankings and you don’t really need to get them removed. The second groups of links are those that resemble paid links, links that feature the word sponsor or advertiser over it. Those should probably be removed because they could trigger a loss in ranking.
TODD: I don’t think you need to yet, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Google create a tool to say “I didn’t do this,” so that they can offset some of the concerns of negative SEO.
And there you have it. I’d like to thank all the interviewees (and you can too by subscribing to their Twitter handles) for being so giving with their time and knowledge—as usual—and making this series an interesting read. Please feel free to tweet, +1 and “Like” this post! Cheers!