Link Building with the Experts – 2010 Edition

The link building interview is back. In prior years, I’ve gotten together some of the best minds in link building and asked them to answer some questions about link development. What resulted were two very powerful (and long) link development interviews. It’s been more than two years since the most recent one, so I decided to bring it back.

Keeping with prior format, this interview is very unique in my eyes as opposed to other interviews for two main reasons. The first being that the questions submitted are actually submitted by the interviewees (one each) so you’re not only getting answers from some of the best, but on topics that other advanced link builders want to hear about.

The second is that no one gets to see the answers of anyone else before the interview is published (I answer mine before sending them out to the interview panel). As I’ve said before, this isn’t about a single answer followed by ten head nods. Any agreements come from true beliefs and any contrary opinions come from the same. We’re all good at what we do, but it doesn’t mean we always agree or that any single one of us is the “be all, end all” on developing backlinks.

Meet the link building interviewees…

With that out of the way, grab a cup of coffee (or a beer #justsayin) and get ready to learn about link development methods and theories from (listed and answered in alphabetical order by first name):

Question one…

What are a few emerging link tactics that you’ve seen in the past 12 months providing tremendous value to sites/pages? Can you give a specific example or two?

Emerging Seeds

Aaron WallAARON:

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I don’t know that I have seen much new or different over the past 12 months. It seems for the most part that stuff is generally as it was before. Certainly some people are operating at higher scale and with more automation than before, but I don’t see a big strategic change. The big thing I have come to appreciate is how many of the SEO infrastructure type companies (say link brokers) compete against their own clients, and use their customer data against their customers.

One thing that I saw recently which I thought was smart was how Pearson’s is sponsoring a bunch of Ning education networks in exchange for promotion. That is essentially a great strategy, at scale, which looks clean, and is impossible for competitors to clone.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Inbound Co-Citation – Many people have written about how outbound link co-citation can effect links you build, but we often utilize a strategy of increasing metrics of a valuable link by helping to better define that link via co-citations from relevant pages.

For example, if we are able to get 5 amazing links to page X because it has some killer content, but the pages that have those links are on posts that quickly move off the homepage of their respective blogs, and thus have a lot of relevance, and perhaps even great anchor text, but lose out on a lot of the direct link equity, we may utilize blogger outreach and social media to get more traction for these pages, and increase their value. This not only increases the value for the site linking to page x, but also for page x itself. It makes you a good netizen.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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We’ve had really good luck attracting links with content aggregator widgets, people seem to like them, they’re being downloaded left and right. We’ve also continued to be successful in distributing link filled content, we focus more on getting content placed in media publications over blogs and article directories.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I’d break this into two types of value, search rank and click traffic. For click traffic, I have seen Twitter have a very quick impact, as URLs are tweeted and Retweeted across follower graphs. While some of the novelty of Twitter is wearing off, I think that’s a good thing, as we are seeing more practical, business oriented Twitter use within verticals.

For search rank, over the past 12 months I’d say the tactics I see having the greatest impact are those that move away from mass automated tactics. There’s a mistaken belief that we are at a point where the sheer size, mass or link volume of the web make it impossible to impact search rank with one-at-a-time brick by brick link building approaches. Not true. Not even close.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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1. Writing content geared towards getting links from edu’s, gov’s, k12′s, org’s, etc….and then writing to those sites to inform them about this content.

2. “tremendous value”…I can’t help see the link buyers kicking ass on the short tail. Yes, there is a risk, but if you’re not buying, then often you have to give up the short tail phrases to those who are buying. That old risk reward thing.

Sorry, I’m not an example guy…I’m a Ninja :)

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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In the past year the growing acceptance of using more traditional marketing strategies for link development has increased. I remember years ago people just wanted “links”. Now people are better educated on the topic. They understand obtaining quality links with long-term value takes time and resources.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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You need to make sure that you use your link bait and viral marketing wisely to get the maximum value. It used to be that you where just concerned with building overall site trust and authority, now you need to funnel the link equity into your website.

You can embed links into the content before you push it or after. If it won’t work in the context of the body, then try something like related pages at the end of the article. Avoid using the same block at the end of different articles, you want to avoid Google seeing it as a template as much as possible.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I don’t think I’ve seen much change as far as what I’ve believed in regards to link development. I’ve long been preaching traffic development and I think the only “emerging” trend is that search engine optimizers are starting to “get” that they need to become marketers and not simply generic link developers in order to get the links that are going to stand the test of time and not be subject to every minor algorithmic tweak that Google decides to make.

That said, I think I’ve seen a lot of people accepting that there are “core value” traits of a link and “residual value” traits of a link. For example, traditional link development is that you find a high authority site, that follows links, do something to get linked and if at all possible, get the link to have some awesome anchor text. That’s “core value.”

“Residual link value” has been a theory that it seems has been hard – and taken way too long – for the community at large to grasp. For example, Twitter nofollows links, but if your link is tweeted by an account that has a lot of followers and trust (human trust, not algorithmic trust) you could end up with a ton of new traffic, feed subscribers and follow links from folks who saw your link tweeted and decided to follow up with a blog post or share the link somewhere where the link *is* followed.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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The embeddable infographic appears to be taking off, and while it’s been popular for a couple of years, the last 12 months have certainly seen a rise in the number of SEO-focused campaigns around it.

Here’s a couple examples:

  • Stats on Internet Pornography – although I’d personally choose a more “on-topic” linkbait focus, this one certainly had a lot of viral success and got the site lots of anchor text links with the keyword “online mba.”
  • Chinfographics – the whole site centers around stats and data about China with embeddable infographics
  • The Tiger Woods Economy – Mint.com is constantly doing great informational graphics, and this one covering the “Tiger Woods” economy is no slouch

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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In my opinion, from what I’m seeing, the search engines have already decided on the parameters for judging the value of a link and they aren’t changing their minds. What continues to evolve are the granular details around the ranking factors. The emerging factors that I find exciting are the ones that pay the fare as required and hops on the bus. There are other methods that are analogous to turnstile hopping.

An example of paying the fare is creating engaging content, becoming the site that you want a link from. An example of this concept is Amazon. They own IMDB, DPReview, Woot, and so on. They’re not the only ones, there are others pursuing that strategy and I think it’s great because the man can’t come down on honest content. If you are selling fishing products, why not start a fishing forum? Why not set out to create the best fishing blog? Why not create the best fishing techniques site? That strategy is emerging, but it’s part of an older strategy of obtaining links through the strength of the content. Become the site that you would most like a link from.

The other strategy is thinking of links outside of the context of ranking on the search engines and focusing on sales. Putting the product in front of potential clients. PageRank and page impressions aren’t as important as the quality of the people reading your message. This is the kind of opportunity the average SEO person would overlook because their expectations of PR may not be met.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Specific examples are generally a great way to kill the effectiveness of tactics, so I probably wouldn’t give specifics even if I had them. This being said, I don’t really think a lot has changed in the last 12 months in terms of what works well for linking. Guest blogging has become highly adopted, and is a great strategy. Other than that, I think it’s still the same – sit 10 interns down at their desk with headphones, and start grinding out emails to relevant sites, asking for relevant links, and then make the most out of the successful requests by adding good co-citation and deep links to important internal areas of your site. There are no secrets – only people that get lucky after working hard and being in the right place at the right time. The concepts important to search engine optimization don’t change as often as people often think.

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Question two…

The SEO industry has become so stingy with linking to quality content to the point that many people who used to share a lot of it simply don’t bother, as it is not worth the cost of doing so. Is this a trend which spreads? Are we canaries in the coal mine, or is this just an issue impacting the SEO niche because it is far too saturated? What can Google do to encourage organic linking on the WWW (outside of nepotism, hype, spin, misinformation & ego-baiting)?

It's MINE!

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think internet marketing is worse than most other fields. Lots of creativity, but there is just no incentive to share if you have a great idea.

In other fields I think it is far easier to be rewarded for doing great, but part of the reason my SEO blog has got fewer posts is because I think this question is right on. You share an idea and others burn it to the ground. Or you can share the idea more selectively and hope that you at least have a few months to run with it before people start copying it.

Largely my view of the web is that more and more people who want to make a living in publishing are going to start having to become marketers to make a good living. But as more people compete then more people will be desperate for attention. So I think for some of the better sites to have sustained popularity they not only need to compete on quality, but it also helps for those sites to view themselves as social platform which passes off attention onto others and hopes that some of it comes back. The trick is to do it in a way which adds value without adding a lot of noise to your channel, or perhaps hopefully mostly preferred types of noise.

What can Google do? Well I think they could blog publicly about the risks of PageRank hoarding and the importance of outbound linking. But they have fought so hard in 1 direction that I can’t see them turning on a dime on that issue, because doing so means they have to admit that they were wrong and that they did a good chunk of damage to the web. Of course in the background they might be looking for additional signals of relevancy.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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I think there is always value to linking out to relevant organic pages on the web. The concept of making your page into a valuable hub, with both quality inbound and outbound links cannot be overlooked. I don’t think that people have stopped linking because of SEO (perhaps in SEO this is true), more so I think people are just linking in different ways. Where I used to only be able to share cool content via my blog, I can now spread it via Twitter and Facebook much more efficiently and leave my blog for original content. Those social links have value to in the traffic they generate.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Yeah I agree, it does seem a lot of people who used to be more visible are now quietly working behind the scenes on their sites and/or businesses. A lot of them are still active, but any sharing they’re doing is done on private forums and discussion boards as a way to control competition and the relentless spamming which happens when sources are made public. Link building has become less about how to link and more about where, why share link sources if you know there’s a good chance they’ll be spammed to death?

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Eric WardERIC:

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I think it’s mostly an SEO centric phenomenon, and that the farther you go towards any specific topic, and the more you encounter passionate content creators, the less link resistance you encounter. There’s still a tremendous willingness to link to the good stuff. I would like to see Google augment the current one size fits all toolbar with a subject sensitive Pagerank metric.

In other words, for example, there may be a site that is the absolute best in class in its topic, but its topic may be so narrow that that site is a Pagerank 1 because so few people are interested in that topic. It’s still an important site, and within its subject area, it’s the best, but for Pagerank fanatics, the page is often looked at as weak. Wrongly so.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Yes, the “SEO Industry has become stingy with linking to quality content”…luckily, I don’t seek links from within the “SEO industry”. I usually aim for links from sites who know nothing about SEO.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Google could start encouraging people to link out instead of making them hesitant. Just look at how out of control the use of NoFollow has become. Then consider how people are debating what is a paid link and what is not. Many see a lot of gray areas which causes reluctance to link out.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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I think there’s more than one factor at work here. First off there’s always been danger in sharing tactics that work, as search engines will try to lessen the effects. Additionally there’s a lot less camaraderie and infighting in the industry. Attacking someone has always been a legitimate tactic for attention and links, but now that more people are using it, you’ve got to really have a thick skin to tolerate it. If sharing info makes it less profitable and subjects you to extra criticism, there’s not a lot of motivation to keep doing it.

Additionally blogging long term is a labor of love (and a huge time investment). Unless you have found a way to turn blogging into a profitable action, or use the attention as a lead generation tool, blogging loses its appeal very quickly. So instead of spending an hour writing, editing and linking to other people it’s a lot easier to spend 3 seconds dropping the link in a tweet.

Publishing has always been the part of the cognitive surplus action that requires the most dedication. The motivation for publishing is different, and not something Google can incentivize effectively on a large scale. While monetization can be one of the reasons someone decides to publish, Google doesn’t want linking to be monetarily influenced, so in effect they have stigmatized part of the behavior they want happen, so it’s a complicated problem, with an elusive answer.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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Interesting question. First, I think the SEO community definitely is impacted much heavier by this. We were having a discussion [subscription required] at WebmasterWorld (which has long refused to allow outbound links to anything other than unarguable authority sites like CNN and the like) about this a few weeks ago.

I’d been very clear that my inability to link out from my WebmasterWorld threads causes the quality of the post and the positive experience for the user to be less than it could be (picture this post without a single outbound link to further the advice and information given within it for example), so that given the choice to post an okay post at WebmasterWorld or a great post on my own site – where I freely link out – I’m going to choose the latter – which means their members lose out on good information.

I also worry that because of the “trickle down” of this advice being disseminated to corporations/clients/blog readers who simply trust the well meaning but misinformed advice about “not linking out” that it will be a trend that spreads into much less technical arenas. Link hoarding lowers the quality of user experience in my opinion and I’d hate to see the practice of it spread across the web.

I think Google should make more of an effort to explain to people that “good user experience” (which they preach almost religiously) includes linking out to quality sites that will further enhance the information visitors are reading. Link hoarding is as much “manipulation” as many of the other tactics they don’t condone… and I wish they’d be more verbal and educative about it.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this one, actually. The surprising part is, the SEO (and broader web & web marketing communities) certainly seem less generous with live links from web pages, but much more generous with tweets and retweets.

If we are canaries, the signal going to the search engines must be, at least in part, use Tweets as votes in the ranking algorithms. Given that Twitter has deals with both Google and Microsoft from last Fall, I’d posit they’re already on top of this (and may even be using it in some cases).

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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That’s why God invented Aaron Wall and Danny Sullivan. I’m not being facetious, either. Aaron provides quality information, not old concepts in new packaging, but real information that matters. SEOBook provides tools that matter. I feel he is the model of what to do if you want to be a thought leader in the SEO community. Danny Sullivan appeals to a broader community. What he does is creates community, evangelizes outside the community, and provides the channels for delivering quality information. That’s your competition so if you want links you have to analyze them and others and make their weaknesses your strengths. What they did in SEO can be applied in pretty much any other niche.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Firstly, we were all supposed to get one question (not three), so whoever wrote this one is in my doghouse for creating extra work :) I think the seo industry HAS gotten very saturated and stingy. It’s definitely not the glorious openhearted community it once was unfortunately. It breaks my heart personally, but I guess people tend to get serious quickly when money is involved.

I think the trend will spread a bit in other industries, but not to the same extreme. Myself included, I think the community that was once very open is now a bit jaded, and has a mindful eye to the capitalist intentions created by links being a form of currency on the web. Even still, having that level of stinginess even among the top competitors is unfortunate, and raises the barrier to entry pretty high.

I think Google has changed the face of the web with their algorithm already. While they maintain their ideals, I don’t think we’ll ever return to a state of “organic linking”. Understanding the value of a link at a basic level has hit the mainstream. Everyone is starting to understand that links are now a form of currency on the web. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but it has definitely changed the thinking of a lot of webmasters. The web is not a perfect utopia, and I think that’s okay. Google has started to patch this gaping hole in their algorithm by incorporating user data, and other validation metrics making it much more difficult to rank well with just links alone. I think that’s about the closest we’ll get to returning to a state of organic linking. Just because we live in a capitalist society, however, it does not mean that everyone will turn into a robber baron.

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Question three…

What are the criteria for the “perfect link”?

A-okay

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think the 3 core criteria I look at would be: near impossible for competitors to get, on an indexed page on a trusted site, and using great anchor text.

Anything beyond that (traffic, endorsement value, conversions, on-topic, in content, from the geographic location of your target market) is just gravy.

I think too much effort is spent by many trying to get the perfect link when adding together many smaller links can have the same net effect. Sure the big links might have a lot of value, but if you get a link which is only strong on one of the above attributes then it is still a great link to get. Link building is a sum of parts game!

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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[For me the criteria for the perfect link are:]

  • Website containing link is relevant to your vertical
  • Content is relevant to your page
  • Anchor text is optimized and the first link on the page
  • Link and content are not found in thematic sidebars or footers
  • Link is on a clean website (no spam links) and clean IP (doesn’t have other spam sites on IP)
  • Website containing link is in the backlink portfolio of two or more of the most authoritative (non-commercial) sites in your vertical

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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The perfect link is one that draws human attention and makes algorithmic impressions. From an algorithmic/SEO standpoint, a perfect link is a clean working link which points to an internal page using a keyword anchor sitting on a frequently crawled page. From a human/branding standpoint, the perfect link is a working image/text link which points to the home page sitting and sits on a very public news/content page. A good link campaign incorporates both types of links for maximum effectiveness.

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Eric WardERIC:

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It’s a matter of the context in which you are asking, but IMO there is no such thing as a perfect link. If we are discussing links in terms of click traffic, then you might argue a perfect link is that link which sends you the most of it. Then again, if your site sells products, the perfect link might be the link that sends you the highest percentage converting traffic. If it’s higher rank, and we are talking about existing links, then the perfect link is the link that if you lost it would drop your rank the most.

If we are talking about links you don’t yet have and higher rank, then the perfect link is the link which will improve your rankings the most and for the longest period of time. Then again, you may only want to be ranking highly for a short time, like for a world cup soccer site, right now is what matters, not as perfect link that’s three months away, after the tournament is over. It is, as always relative.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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A link on the homepage of google…or on this page http://get.adobe.com/reader/ (that page has lots of great backlinks) …hum google has a link on the bottom of adobe page…

Ok…a perfect link…. from and old site, on great relevant page that has lots of backlinks to it, from a site that has lots of trusted backlinks to it, where the page links out to other trusted content about the topic of my link, where the link within the content, above the fold, that gets clicked, using a keyword that I was targeting, linking to the exact page that I’m targeting, and if it didn’t cost me a dime because it was given because they wanted to because my site’s so gosh darn wonderful.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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A link that delivers quality traffic and an increase in rankings for a number of years.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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The ideal link would be from an aged indexed page on a trusted and authoritative domain, with the best anchor text. Ideally I’d like a minimum number of other links on the page, but I’m more concerned about the other factors than the number of links … as long as there aren’t a lot of links on the page.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I think the definition of a “perfect link” changes depending on what the result you’re looking for is. A “perfect link” for branding purposes will have different traits than one for “core link value” purposes in regards to SEO. That said, I’m going to assume I’m being asked about the criteria for the perfect “core link” in this case.

Therefore, I’d be looking for authority (which in my head also brings traffic), anchor text and and exclusivity (meaning it should be hard as hell to get… a lot of link builders are lazy #justsayin). And I’d be looking to get that link sooner (by leading the way in “out of the box” linking techniques) than any of my competitors so that even if they are able to duplicate it, my link would always be older.

The “perfect link” is usually very hard to get… and a lot of folks simply aren’t willing to put in the effort to obtain them. If you are, you’ll always be a step ahead of your competitors and the algorithms.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I don’t know about “perfect,” but if you can hit these 5 criteria, you’re in pretty solid shape:

  • The link comes from a highly trusted, popular, important source
  • The link is likely to send lots of relevant, high quality direct traffic
  • The link contains anchor text and/or surrounding text that effectively describes the target’s content
  • The link is editorially given without financial or self-interested motivations
  • The link is likely to remain in place for a long period of time on a page that continues to receive traffic and attention

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Relevance is an important criteria. However the outbound links and inbound links play a critical role. In my experience, outbound and inbound links create a trust profile that can cause a link to gain or lose value.

PageRank is not a critical metric. A site with a PR of 4 could invalidate itself by linking out to sites of little value whose backlinks are not that great. Or the backlinks of that site could be contaminated by “SEO friendly” links.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Completely relevant. Ideal anchor text. Perfect placement above the fold. I think run of site links can still be very effective if they are part of a balanced link profile. A TRUE presell page (as written about as the perfect link in 2005) is still very effective as well, though I think what passes for a presell page has changed since the time Aaron and Jim coined the term. A real presell page is a page of content designed to deeplink to multiple areas, that has a run of site link with proper text to it. This makes it among the strongest pages on a domain, and then redistributes a lot of that equity along with proper anchor text to the site that it’s linking to – both to the homepage, and to deeper areas of the site. It’s also important to have good bait – meaning something of value to offer the person your trying to get a link from. As my fishing buddy and fellow SEO consultant Charlie would say – “You’ll never catch a trophy without good bait.” (You need big shrimp to catch a big tarpon.)

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Question four…

How do you go about creating a link marketing plan that will A:) Get tangible search results in a 6 to 12 month period and B:) Create sustainability for the website you are creating the plan for (i.e. keeping the links clean and adding links with long term value)

Planning Ahead

Aaron WallAARON:

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I know this sounds old fashioned and bland, but I still like some web directories. Beyond that I mostly like blogs.

At Wordcamp Matt Mullinweg stated that something like 8.5% of websites use WordPress. That means those sites are likely:

  • modern
  • easy to update
  • and frequently have (semi)lax editorial policies where it is easy to get a link added

When you add up the above, their influence on the web graph for marketers is likely far greater than their % of websites. Then when you bake in the social aspects of blogging (syndication subscriptions, comments, follow up posts, etc.) presumably if you are promoting something good on a well read site it should be able to pick up dozens of inbound links.

For me, marketing beyond that sorta base level really comes down to knowing the market, trying to figure out what the market wants, and keep throwing stuff out there until something sticks. When something works keep leaning into it until it no longer works.

Another good point to add with getting results quickly is to pick and choose your spots. Don’t go after “credit cards” using GetOnlineCreditCardReview.biz with a $500 budget. If you are really in a rush you could buy a strong domain name or a strong existing site and build off of that momentum.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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At BlueGlass our approach is to mix several strategies to help create a sustainable link marketing plan. This means mixing blogger outreach, online press relations, social media content creation and aggregation, with other concepts such as reaching out to website owners we know have resource pages around our clients needs. People have proven that you can jump out like a wild person and start utilizing tactics that will get you short term, temporary wins, but if you don’t build that strategy around a concept of sustainability your client will be looking for someone who can.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Before you can create any type of marketing plan, you need to know who your demographic is, what they want and what’s trending in your niche. Start your campaign by surveying your customers and any other membership body you have access to. Find out what publications they read and sites they frequent when not visiting yours. Work to buy ad space in offline publications to support your online endeavors.

Create content based on customer feedback, place in an onsite resource center. Notify your customer base as well as the media when content is online; encourage linking. They’ll link to it, people love to see their advice in action.

Spread the content love by turning your content into video as well as podcasts, blog posts and slide shows. Develop new content on schedule, keep pumping it out and promoting it. Create support widgets, contests and other promotional campaigns to keep the buzz going. Be sure to include the availability of these promotional items in your offline advertising, throw up a couple of Adwords to advertise them online.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I create an individualized linking plan for each site. I take several factors into consideration when creating the plan. Is it a brand new site, or a site that’s been around a while? What’s the link building history, good, bad, and ugly, of the site?

I’ll run a citation analysis for the site, its competitors, and just as importantly, sites in that vertical that provide key content and community. I want to get a sense of the entirety of the vertical and that site’s current place within it. Then I can start creating a plan for multiple types of links, from the most basic vertical or topical directories to identifying the most respected social media voices in that industry, to identifying targets for advertising links, including email. A link building plan is not only about search rank.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Plan, give up the short tail phrases to the buyers, go longtail for hundreds to thousands of phrases, build great content, get trusted backlinks that are non paid based on the merit of the content, structure your site so that the power goes to the pages your targeting (there’s some advanced methods to do this….) and then watch your referral traffic from Google go up over time.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I accomplish this by designing a custom link campaign that can be integrated into a company’s marketing strategy. This way it can be an ongoing effort. I also focus the strategy to target getting links from sites with certain signals of quality and trust.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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In my experience once you get beyond the basic link building your plan will vary depending on your industry, link building for a travel website is completely different than link building for an industrial cleaning distributor website. Ideally it’s generally easier to get links from websites that are consumer related, because the publishing is “looser” and updated more frequently.

You want to keep things going in a cycle from year to year or month to month. Combine your efforts, some press events or functions, white papers or research, link bait, guest articles, and so on, don’t just focus on one technique because its easy. You want as well rounded a link profile as possible, with lots of spikes in growth over long periods of time. I’d much rather have 12 moderately successful link building efforts spread over a year, than one out of the park execution a year.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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For me, it really depends on the industry. A local landscaping site is going to be much easier to do link development for (requires less time, less work and a few “out of the box” strategies will do ya) than a site in a competitive national industry like finance.

Most of my personal affiliate sites are in competitive industries and we work towards developing links on a long term scale. You have your low hanging fruit (directories, guest posts on smaller blogs and the like), your traditional link tactics (pound the pavement requests, partnerships/cross promotion, guest posts on high traffic sites) and then your “out of the box” strategies (which many would call linkbait). We start with the low hanging fruit, do at least one or two “out of the box” strategies within a month or two of launch and then continually develop traditional links and linkbait pieces.

And we don’t stop once we’re ranking well across the board. We keep pushing… or else someone will catch up and surpass us.

As for sustainability – we focus on getting users and traffic above all else. The whole point of a search engine algorithm is to figure out which sites offer the best and most relevant information and rank those sites as the top of the results. So we focus on being the best. We focus on ranking because we truly should and not because we’ve manipulated Google into thinking we should.

Don’t get me wrong… we target certain sites very aware of the SEO benefit we’d get from appearing on them, go for specific anchor text whenever possible… but at the end of the day, if you focus on attracting users you will most times by default get the links that will be the most beneficial in regards to getting you to rank – and help you sustain the hundreds of algorithmic changes Google puts out a year (and somewhere, another Googler has obtained their wings as a result of me saying that).

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I believe this starts with the business’ overall product and marketing plan. When crafting a product strategy, you should be asking “who will benefit by linking to the content/products/services on my website?” If you don’t have a great answer to that question, keep pivoting. Once you’ve got it, your marketing plan can simply be to get in front of that audience and show them the value your site provides to them and how linking to it will improve that value.

As an example, when Twitter started gaining popularity, it merely needed to show users their profile page to encourage them to link. We can all instantly understand that we want to link to Twitter as it’s a platform for promoting ourselves or our businesses. Thus, Twitter went from a few thousand links to millions (it’s now the #7 most-linked to domain on the web in our index).

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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I have a plan with multiple campaigns that works across multiple niches. It produces links from a wide variety of websites. The reason the plan keeps working is that it focuses on quality, the plan is discrete, the plan avoids anything that could invalidate it as an honest link, and most importantly, results in relevant links that avoid deprecation issues and the ups and downs of normal algorithmic tweaks.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Damn you people and your multiple part questions. Training an inhouse team is really the only way to go ultimately. The cost of good clean targeted links from vendors is very high. Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth it, and a much better strategy than buying links from brokers, but you will definitely pay a premium to hire link builders from an agency. There are some very good folks out there, but they are few and far between. I would mention names here, but I use them for my own projects, after I said in the same breath they are buying me links (albeit relevant and clean ones). If you would like names of reputable vendors, I’ve tested many, and you’re welcome to email me to ask me directly.

Paying an agency or link building company is important at first, but it’s expensive, and not very scaleable. Ultimately, it’s important to train some team members in house, and link building is a very good junior role to start someone off as an SEO. It is, of course, a bit self-serving, but we have developed a very comprehensive internet marketing training program that includes link building among many other areas. SEObook, SEOmoz (I’d link to them, but I’m sure they both have at least 10 other links in this article), and many others also have great material on training a link developer. Only an inhouse team is really going to care enough to keep quality control high, and to keep plugging away on attracting links that work.

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Question five…

If you could choose a link on a lower authority page that would provide a moderate amount of targeted traffic or a link on a higher authority page that would provide absolutely no traffic – all other attributes being equal – for ranking benefits on the site you’re developing links for, which would you choose and why?

Traffic is awesome

Aaron WallAARON:

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That “all other things being equal” part is rare of course, because just the act of sending traffic means it has some additional attributes (like the potential for some of that traffic to not only visit your page, but also to link at your site). 4+ years ago generally I would without a doubt say the link with higher authority. 3 years ago to maybe a year or 2 from now it might be a bit of a toss up. Beyond that I would prefer the traffic sending link. As the link graph gets polluted Google has to look for additional signals of relevancy, and one way to help vet the quality of a link would be to see if people are clicking on it.

I have seen sites rank without getting much traffic from the links used to build the authority. And there are some high traffic sites that Google wouldn’t want to have the votes count too much (say some of the social media marketing stuff or pornography sites). So I think if Google is looking at the traffic as a component of link quality that wouldn’t be a stand alone variable, but perhaps a multiplier based on the core level of trust for a link … sorta just like how an in content link is likely to push more weight than a footer link.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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I would always want the signals that come from traffic in the mix. Not only does it legitimize the link, but that is what link marketing is – it’s about traffic in the end. The social signals from that traffic are powerful too.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I would always go for Link A – the link on the low authority page generating a moderate amount of targeted traffic. All links are good links provided they work so algorithmically I’ll benefit no matter what but, not all links point targeted traffic. Traffic brings people and people buy products so it’s best to go for the link which drives people.

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Eric WardERIC:

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The key is you mentioned the goal is “for ranking benefits”. If that’s the goal, the higher authority page is usually the better play. Not always, but usually.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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I’ll take the higher authority page and aim for higher rankings in Google. Why? because I believe that authority is more important than traffic in today’s algorithm.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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For long-term rankings I’d go for the link with traffic. This will lead to increased exposure allowing for the opportunities for secondary links to develop. Plus one never knows when click data when be incorporated into the value of a link.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Ok I’m going to make a distinction here trust is different from authority in the eyes of google. Being authoritative means having a lot of links from a lot of sources, and you can be authoritative without being trusted, ie getting links from a large spam network.

Trust is a different aspect, and comes from getting links from other trusted websites. You can be trusted without being authoritative, by getting a few links once from a trusted source like newspapers. Lastly we have the data that comes from user actions, that in my opinion google is using as part of the algo. IMHO trust is the most important aspect, then user data, then authority.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I’ll go for traffic every time. The first reason is obvious. I want users and conversions (and signals for Google that my site is actually worth something to humans).

The second reason is “residual link value.” A well trafficked link is going to put me in front of a ton of people who can potentially provide me with a “core value link.” Site users/readers make one hell of a Internet “street team” for spreading the word (which on the web often equates to linking to) about your site.

And the third reason is that sites with a lot of traffic also usually have some level of authority anyway. If I’m going to specifically set out to “get a link”, I want to get the best of both worlds.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I’d probably shoot for the lower authority page with the moderate amount of traffic simply because I don’t have enough insight into Google’s ranking systems to know whether higher authority pages would always mean more link value (and traffic passed through may indeed be a signal of some kind, even if indirect).

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Depends on how you define “higher authority page.” At PubCon Dallas someone did a presentation where that presenter related how he acquired links for his clients from the websites of major magazines and how they had no impact on rankings or sales. His definition of authority was off. In my opinion, a web page that would not send traffic is not a “higher authority” page.

The question is somewhat vague because it assumes that a page that sends traffic could also be lower authority. In the way I judge the quality of a web page/website, a site that sends traffic is actually a higher authority site because that is a signal that it ranks for something relevant to you. A site that has higher PR but does not have much traffic and is invisible on Quantcast AND Google Trends is low quality. Traffic is a signal of importance. If a site is important then the search engines will send traffic to it.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Profitable sales trump rankings every time. If the traffic converts, I’d take the direct traffic low authority link. If the traffic doesn’t convert, and I’m only seeking rankings, I would take the high authority link with no traffic (assuming it passed all it’s linkjuice).

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Question six…

Do you feel that you can conserve pagerank or that it’s still worth the effort to sculpt your links, by limiting the number of links on a page, creating them with JavaScript, passing them through a blocked page or using nofollow?

Sculpting

Aaron WallAARON:

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I often use overly flat site structures off the start (mostly out of laziness) & then adjust them over time to promote some of the more important sections (keep linking to them sitewide) and demote some of the less important sections (linking to them more selectively). This gives the benefit to low authority sites of helping flow more link juice down into the deeper pages, and then as the site gets stronger and builds authority you can try to use a more refined strategy based on your market feedback and ranking data.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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I have thought a ton about this and I think people should stop carrying as much as about sculpting as just creating really strong Information Architecture (IA) for their sites. Most link sculpting issues get solved by strong IA and web design. This runs parallel to the concept Edward Lewis taught me that a robots.txt file is almost unneeded if you do proper page level meta robots exclusion.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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We do advocate the use of nofollow on outbound links but not for PageRank flow, we do it for reputation control. Sometimes we just don’t want to vouch for a link. If there are internal pages which need a little shot in the arm, we point links to them from external sites, that typically helps far more than funneling PageRank.

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Eric WardERIC:

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A small but well thought out on-site link optimization plan is a beautiful thing. So is testing. A massive effort to create the perfect on-site link structure is both silly and potentially disastrous. Perfect link structure for engines often is terrible for usability.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Yes and No….I do believe in sculpting your links on your site, but I don’t believe the algorithm works like it used to (I don’t believe that the juice of a link is divided by the number of links on a page). I have my own ideas on sculpting, but I don’t use the nofollows, or redirects…. but I make sure that my most important pages are linked to from all my other pages…and I like having internal links to other pages in areas beyond the navigation (to escape block level analysis, and to get more internal link keyword variations to each subpage).

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I think it’s worth it to limit the number of links on important pages. At the same time I’m still an advocate of linking to authority sites from those pages. I’ve never been a fan of using NoFollow to sculpt.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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In my opinion Google is looking for data that’s on pages people typically try and sculpt page rank away from. Google wants to see your physical address on your about us page, and that it matches your Whois data, in some cases you’ll get a boost for that. You can control the flow of link equity around your website by linking or not linking to other parts of your website. Having a crawlable architecture with links in the content and not the template (ie sidebar and footer) is more important than it ever was. I’ve changed my opinion on using nofollow for sculpting page rank/trust/link equity. Right now the only place I recommend using it is on UGC links and to block out parts of a website behind a password.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I’m not too much for “algo tricks” but I definitely make sure my most important pages are prominently linked and internally link sites in a “theme pyramid” type fashion, but that is simply good architecture helping to “sculpt” your site for both users and link flow.

Aside from that… I’m not afraid to link out, am not a fan of nofollow for “internal sculpting purposes” (it doesn’t work in the way you want on internal links anymore anyway) and don’t play the JavaScript tricks. That said, I am a fan of using noindex via robots.txt when it comes to Google – to allow internal pagerank to flow properly (and naturally) through my sites while keeping pages I don’t want (or need) in the index out of it (for either my own reasons or for the purpose of not allowing Google to index “low quality” pages it has stated it doesn’t want in their index (like search result pages).

I run affiliate links through redirects in blocked directories, but that is about tracking (and preventing merchants from using me as their free link work horse) and not about sculpting.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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In rare cases for specific reasons I think it can be worthwhile. More convincingly, at least to me, is that we’ve seen a number of sites pull off their nofollow links after Matt Cutts’ announcement of the “evaporation” principle and lose indexation and traffic dramatically. That certainly suggests that nofollow helps conserve something – maybe not PageRank – but definitely a piece of what determines where/how crawl/indexing bandwidth is spent.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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A recent thread on WebmasterWorld discusses a video by Matt Cutts explaining why sculpting doesn’t work.

Google recently officially confirmed that they follow and add JS links to their link graph. So I think the issue of sculpting can be put to bed for now.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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There are much better things you can do with your time. Go outside and get some fresh air you closet case – then spend time attracting and soliciting relevant links, and building great content with a strong distribution strategy. Most things that seek to manipulate others generally turn into a bad idea in the long run. It’s called karma.

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Question seven…

Please discuss what link deprecation is and what impact it may have on a link building campaign.

Losing Value

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think that could have many meanings…links from certain sources may lose trust over time, some sites might go offline, and Google might not count your old links as much if your site isn’t getting any new links.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Link depreciation is the devaluing of links in your portfolio. Like a stock portfolio your links will gain and lose value, the job for a link marketer is to balance this growth to loss. The only way to do this is monitor a clients entire link portfolio, and make additions where losses happen. One further step we go is to find links that fall in bad neighborhoods and look to get them pulled.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Search engines assign value to links based on the quality of the page hosting the link, the anchor text used and the relevance of the host and destination pages. They can, for a variety of reasons, take exception to certain links and assign little algorithmic weight to one or more of these value factors. When they do, the link is deprecated, or its algorithmic value has been decreased. Two of the most commonly discussed deprecation factors are site-wides and links from multiple sites sitting on the same IP.

Problem is, as SEO’s we can never be sure why a page drops in rank or when an engine devalues a link. If you want to avoid ranking fluctuations and link deprecation, it’s best to be consistently proactive rather than reactive with your link building.

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Eric WardERIC:

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If by link deprecation you are referring to the ongoing process by which search engines identify and eliminate certain links from affecting search rank, then I would say it does not impact my linking campaigns at all, because I do not pursue links that would be devalued, nor do I advocate that approach to anyone. If by link deprecation you did not mean that, then please ignore everything I just wrote.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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[no comment]

For whatever reason, Jim chose not to answer this question. :)

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Often it’s in reference to when a link’s value is reduced (e.g. off-topic links). To avoid this try to get links that are as much on topic as possible. Let’s say you want to do a viral link marketing campaign. Instead of trying to get national attention – do a small viral campaign that targets your industry. That will produce more relevant links.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Ok let’s look at both sides of the coin, you don’t want to spend time getting links that will disappear quickly, or shift to a part of a website that is infrequently crawled. Conversely (he says pulling out his thesaurus) you don’t want to build links to pages that your crazy web-developer will change when he changes the architecture 6 months from now. You don’t want to lose links thru your own fault or someone elses if possible.

Part of having a diverse inbound link profile is making your website immune to link deprecation. If 90% of your links came from forums and the software changed nofollowing all your links, chances are pretty good your rankings would drop. Diversify your link profile as much as you can from the start.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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For the most part, when I hear link deprecation, I think of links on sites that cease to exist (and therefore so does the link), links on sites that have lost value over time (due to the linking site losing search engine value), links to pages on the linked site that no longer exist and haven’t been redirected, sites changing ownership and losing links that were nepotistic prior to the sale… basically, link deprecation is losing links you’ve previously “earned” for whatever reason.

It’s why I said above that you should never stop building links (would a brick and mortar business stop advertising simply because business is good?) and you should always keep pushing. Constantly building new links whenever possible is the best defense against link deprecation.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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To be honest, I haven’t heard the term “link deprecation” before and Google has less than 100 results for the phrase (and many of these are sentences that end with “link” and then a new sentence starting with “deprecation”). I’m really not sure to what this refers.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Deprecation as I understand it is when a search engine evaluates various criteria of a link and decides the value of the link is worth full value or less than full. For example, various patents and official statements indicate that the location of a link, surrounding text, and the context of the link create scenarios for the deprecation of a link. For example, a link from a page that is unrelated to your niche may result in a deprecated link value- meaning you may have to work twice as hard to gain ranking traction. This can affect the quality of a link bait campaign when the link is to a web page about a “novelty topic” unrelated to the “money phrases.”

Link bait is generally understood to be a more or less Google approved link acquisition technique. This is based on the idea of quality content attracting links. Where link bait goes rogue is when the content is about a novelty topic. Then you will have a situation where links will be coming in, but they may not have an effect on the ability to rank for a specific query or generate sales. But they may assist on ranking for a novelty topic. This is because of the link deprecation issues.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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I like the term. I’ve often said thought that a link appreciates over a few months to reach its full value. There is likely a peak to this where depreciation starts as well. I think if a site doesn’t attract any new links, it says something about the value of the site, and this would be taken into consideration. With links on blogs, they eventually get buried low in the site’s information architecture, and thus would have less value. I’m sure there’s probably other variables that cause link depreciation as well. It’s one more reason why ongoing link building really has to be a priority if you are serious about search optimization.

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Question eight…

Do you think search engines are trying to find a way to depend less on link popularity and more on other algorithmic/social media factors?

And the crowd is amazed

Aaron WallAARON:

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Well I don’t know that social media is the key…it is soooo easy to manipulate. But you can see Google raising the bar on certain strategies. Lots of thin exact match domains and lots of internal pages on authority sites got toasted by the Mayday update.

The hard part for Google is figuring out signals of relevancy which still have an informational bias to them (like links historically have). During the “brand” update they put more weight on query chains/search funnels which is essentially awarding awareness. The big issue with that is there are lots of ad networks (particularly offline) which can drive significant awareness, and Google doesn’t get any cut of that action…so they need to either find a way to find signals which are not representative of ads on 3rd party networks, or they need to have enough bleed over within their own ad network and control enough of the ad market that advertisers feel they must buy in or fall below the fold.

Short term things that build brand (or brand-like signals) are likely a win, but there is a ying and a yang to every algorithmic move. Rel=nofollow + emphasis on domain authority created (or at least promoted) the content mill business model. Now that AOL is pushing on that strategy, Demand Media is leveraging over $300 million in capital & forging partnerships with traditional publishers like USA Today, and even Yahoo! bought out Associated Content that business model is putting a serious dent in the search results. There is also a risk to Google if they consolidate certain verticals too much then advertisers might want to work directly with those leading publishers outside of the Google ecosystem.

Another thing to think about going forward is… how might the search results change when Google is able to put Google-hosted & AdSense wrapped content directly in the search results? We saw a big video push after Google bought Youtube. If/when Google buys Twitter does that create another push? And then there are partnerships with book publishers where Google editions ebooks will launch soon. Imagine pages of that editorially vetted content well formatted and linked to & promoted aggressively in the search results. And Google getting a cut of the action if people click on an ad or if people buy the ebook or book.

Google is a leader in maps & something like 13% of their search results show a map in them. Recently they also became the #1 shopping search engine due to promotion of their product search in the regular search results. The vertical search filters can be thought of as ad channels. Google is positioning itself to be the leading super-affiliate in the world. And with them getting some brands to re-buy the brand equity they already paid to build up…it really makes it easy for the aggregate ad buys to look *really* profitable, unless you back out that some of those brand searches and such would have come to you free even if you didn’t buy those ads.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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This is one of those questions that is like “Do you think Facebook is rising in importance compared to Google?” Sure Facebook is huge, but until it generates the shear revenue Google does, and has the economic power behind it, it is not to be compared (regardless of social importance). Social media factors, traffic and other issues are having major implications on search. Anyone who has run tests can see this clearly. However, social signals do not have nearly value in the search engine’s algorithms that links do. Looking at the future of links and relevance I think they will always play a major part in ongoing ranking of documents on the web, but social factors will play a huge role in indexing, QDF, real time, and universal search.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I don’t think link popularity will ever be totally eclipsed, but I do believe the engines continue to work on finding algorithmic ways to incorporate signals, reviews, links, tags and more from outlets like news, YouTube and social media. If you’re not convinced, just take a look at current search results!

The search engines challenge lies in access points and crawl speeds; with privacy issues and millions of people participating in social media daily, they are challenged to keep up.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I think that it’s possible that certain search terms and phrases may invoke a subtle change in the scoring algorithm. A search for Diabetic Ketoacidosis Symptoms might look at different signals than a search for Best Steak House Atlanta. I think the engines have to be flexible based on search intent, and while that’s no easy feat, they will get there.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Yes I do, but currently, from what I see, links still beats every other factor…in fact, I see links beating all the other factors combined…but yes, search engines are using social media signals as part of their algorithm, and they will continue to use social media…as they will continue to use links.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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They are always going to be testing and incorporating new things into the algorithms. At the same time they’re always trying to better determine the value to place on each link.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Yes IMHO Google is absolutely using user data as part of the algo. It’s not a leading indicator, but it plays a part for sure. On numerous occasions I’ve seen sites with social signals and user data but no link data start to rank, or rank in the indented position.

Google is a data pig, they want more and more of it, to assume they aren’t using it is pretty naive. Recently they were caught using the cars for street mapping to sniff open wifi points and “accidentally” gather emails, usernames, passwords, and lord knows what else, do you really think they are gathering toolbar data and not using it?

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I think it’s already moving in that direction and has been for quite a while now. If you get one hundred new links overnight, you should probably have a matching traffic increase if the links are “legit.”

And what happened as a result of that traffic increase? Did you get new feed subscribers? Did the visitors spend time on your site? Did they view other pages? Did people search for your brand as a result of hearing about whatever it was your site did to earn those links? Was the link also shared on social media where “core link value” doesn’t exist?

Think of all that Google owns… the number one feed burning service, the number one feed reader, the number one toolbar, the number one search engine, they access social for real time search… they have tons of ways to cross check the validity of a link to decide how much weight, if any, to give it.

I might sound paranoid, but so be it. Showing the right “cross check” signals means I’m getting traffic and users along with the links I’m developing, so I benefit either way.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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The evidence suggests “no,” but my intuition tells me “yes.” Perhaps it’s just taking them a while or they’re happier with the strategy of filtering and pivoting around more sophisticated link evaluation. They might also have serious concerns about the power of spam in social platforms, and they certainly seem highly resistant to employing usage data in any measurable/observable/testable way.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Understanding what a page is about just by what the images and text say is the holy grail. I think that’s part of the reason why Google has invested so much effort into OCR (optical character recognition) on images, as well as being able to analyze images.

Already there are SERPs that are relevant but have less connection to links. Bing is a great example of showing relevant results that aren’t necessarily well linked. Google seems to reserve some spots for similar sites as well, like a mom and pop ranking algo boost.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Absolutely. It will go on the list of historical SEO game changers, which contrary to popular belief, don’t happen that often (a few per year max). Major changes that are even noticeable to most sites (like the Mayday update) will happen less and less now that relevancy is as good as it really needs to be. I think this will be among the last major shuffles in search algo factors that we will see. The algorithms are so diverse now, that even the introduction of new factors that are significant are only one small piece of the overall ranking factors. Certainly things will change over time, but I doubt we will see changes in search results that were as pronounced and dramatic as things like the “florida” update.

Depending primarily on link popularity has been an algorithm hole that has been closing slowly over the years. It’s closing so slowly in fact, that I don’t think a lot of people pay enough attention to it. This being said, citations and links will always be a significant portion of the ranking equation, and it has gotten much more difficult to solicit links from other websites. Social media metrics, and other user validation metrics are the main solution to having all search results being made up of old sites that are grandfathered in because of their link profiles. As with most things, I’m sure Google will tip the scale a bit too far at first with things like real time search, and other terrible ideas, and then will find a good balance for optimum relevancy.

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Question nine…

How much do you stress internal linking on your own or clients’ sites? Do you have a quick rule of thumb or strategy to maximize the effectiveness of internal links?

Rule of Thumb

Aaron WallAARON:

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I don’t typically heavily stress it unless I see major issues with duplicate content, clearly missed opportunities, etc.

But I think rather than having 1 routine way to go about it, the best way is access the data and listen to what it is telling you. Have sections which are heavily promoted but doing nothing for you? Drop the dead weight. Have sections which are not heavily promoted which are doing well? Give them a bit more promotion.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Internal linking should be a part of a solid Information Architecture (IA) strategy, and beyond there be natural. No nonsense with extreme over optimization of internal anchor text. You shouldn’t need it if you have good IA.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I don’t spend a lot of time working with clients to optimize their internal linking structures. I’m a link builder, I develop marketing plans to bring links to a site, not maintain what’s on it. IMO, that’s the job of the SEO.

That said, I do work closely with the SEO to be sure the content we create and links we secure are being used to their full potential. Inbound links need to point to optimized pages and those pages should be well linked within the site.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I stress it more when the client has full control of the site and can make changes without having to get buy-in from 4 other departments and approval from 3 VPs. Seriously, some sites require a near act of congress to get even a minor on site edit made. Other sites can edit in real time while I’m on the phone with them. There are times when I can tell that some internal linking changes would be beneficial, but I wont press it because it can be so futile.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Internal linking is extremely important for our clients. We take data from 5 different keyword tools, merge them, associate phrases with urls, and create internal links based on this data…it’s complicated…we have a tool…and yes, how we sculpt internal links for our clients is very important to our campaigns.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Internal linking is very important and often underutilized. For the strategy keep it looking natural and link from within the content.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Internal linking is huge, most people underutilize it. For sites with lots of editorial or blog content, they should be auto linking high level keywords to other editorial or commercial pages, it’s a no brainer, really…

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I think internal linking is often one of the most under-utilized and over-looked link building methods. Sure, the links carry less weight, but you also have full control over the anchor text. I also think the Mayday update makes internal linking strategies even more important then they were in the past.

But I’m certainly not suggesting that you make your “Home” link anchor text “my five word keyword phrase here.” But I make sure the links are text, contain core keywords whenever possible, are easily accessed and built in a theme pyramid fashion and that content is linked lightly, and smartly, within internal content (in addition to the navigation structure) whenever possible where it makes sense.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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My general opinion is that information architecture and the IA planning process are critical to success with internal links. If you can map out the hierarchy of your site effectively and implement a way to minimize the number of clicks to/from any page with relevant categories, subcategories and cross-linking, you’ll be set.

I will say that while I like internal anchor text when possible, it can appear overly spammy if not done correctly. Careful page and category naming can help solve this, but I’m always more concerned with usability and usefulness over link text being perfect on every page.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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I have experienced positive results updating the anchor text of internal links from less relevant to more relevant. So in terms of pulling a site away from irrelevant topics, this seems like a worthwhile thing. Within a topic, there are some words and phrases that can cause the algorithm to associate your page with something you may not want it associated with. For instance, a hotel page may have its ranking ability dampened, if it features internal links to pages about SEO. Removing the anchors with the words SEO may help it rank better. That’s an extreme example, but it happens on more subtle levels.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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It’s not as important as it once was, but it’s still important. I think being well organized, creating a somewhat dynamic anchor text structure, and linking from body copy often are three of the most important things to remember when creating your internal linking strategy.

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Question ten…

What’s a successful link development strategy many overlook or dismiss?

Missing Piece

Aaron WallAARON:

—————

Anything that is time consuming, unique to the market, and not bake by number. That is where those endless and everlasting editorial links often come from, but they require more thought than most wish to give.

If I had to add a #2 here it would be that when people find something successful they often leave it at that, when they should keep pushing further and harder on whatever is working really well for them.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Many people simply overlook or don’t know how to do online press relations and blogger relations. This is basically creating amazing relationships with other people on the web and connecting on topics that interest them. Take blogger outreach and make it a long term relationship. This is where the best linkbuilders play. Most dont go after it because of the time involved, or fail because of spammy outreach tactics.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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One tactic you don’t hear much about is using landing pages to capture email and then using the addresses as a link building broadcast system. If you’re doing a lot of link bait and/or driving people to see your latest infographic, why not capture their email while you’re at it? Use the content as an ice breaker and suggest they link to it using the copy and paste code you provide. Don’t be a pest and send repeated link requests, do it once or twice and then use the addresses for your newsletter or sales flyers.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Low Pagerank sites within narrow verticals that are highly related to the subject matter of your site. People are still Pagerank snobs. Mistake.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Writing research content aimed at educators and educational institutions, and contacting educators and educational institutions, to get your site a higher trust.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Offline strategies are often overlooked. People get so caught up in the online world they forget about using more traditional or guerrilla marketing strategies.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Not enough people use scrapers to their advantage. Its hard to get links to commercial pages, but if you publish a blog that gets scraped, put some links to your commercial content in the rss feed and enjoy. Rotate the links every few months. I’d like to thank everyone who scraped me and helped me rank for [SEO blog] that’s 800+ extra visitors to my blog every month.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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As I said above, most link builders are lazy. So the most overlooked strategies are usually the ones that require a lot of work. Once you cover the traditional basics, it’s all about continually pushing to get new links even when your ranks are where you want them to be.

I also think people tend to think very vertically when it comes to link development. If they’re developing links for a site about widgets, they simply look for widget sites to get links from rather than looking at horizontal markets and figuring out how they can *make* their site relevant to it and grab links their competitors aren’t getting.

If you have a site about apples, don’t simply go to apple, recipe and fruit sites for links. Write an article about spending time with your grandchildren (and have one of the suggestions be baking apple pies together) and finding a senior living site that will publish it for you. Find a way to make your product relevant to other markets and build links both horizontally and vertically.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I’m always surprised that local directories and business listing sites don’t get more attention. There are lots of spammy ones we should probably ignore, but there’s also a lot of good ones that are niche, focused and provide good value.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Reciprocal links with quality websites. Reciprocal linking as a complete strategy may not be recommended, but as part of a larger link acquisition campaign, some reciprocal linking between high quality topically relevant websites can be a good thing.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Working on link development every day. No one wants to do it – but if a website is your livelihood, you should be considering your link strategy daily. It’s such a critical piece of your ongoing SEO strategy. I think many people overlook semi-automation, and proper link development approaching methods as well.

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Question eleven…

What have you been most WRONG about over the course of your link building/SEO career?

Spilled milk

Aaron WallAARON:

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If you become fairly successful it is easy to become somewhat righteous and think that whatever you are doing is the best way to do things. But really if you look at what is actually working, it is apparent that FUD is still a big part of the relevancy algorithms for a reason. The search results don’t lie!

Work within your risk tolerance & try not to connect the clean & dirty stuff too closely on something you can’t afford to risk ;)

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Thinking you had to be competitive to be a linkbuilder.

The best link marketing you will do is based on collaboration.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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People mostly.

Some are harder to read and understand than algorithms and search results.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I never would have imagined that links would end up becoming so crucial to search rank. Having been building links since before there were search engines, I felt both vindicated and nervous when Google first launched. That said, the flip side is I didn’t envision the down side of link building, which is people being interested in it only because of search rank and at any cost, willing to try any tactic, and treating web sites like disposable lighters.

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Jim BoykinJIM:

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Hum….buying links?…naw, I don’t regret that :)…. hum… I thought link buying would be dead….but nope… the link buyers kick my ass on the short tail…so we adjusted to not buying links, and going for the long tail instead.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Thinking Yahoo would get their act together with search.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Thinking that all links on a page where treated equally. In one or two extreme cases I’ve seen them almost completely ignore some site wide footer links, that had no external links.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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I’ve been wrong about a lot of things… and I’d be scared to take advice from anyone who hasn’t. If we’re never wrong, it means we’re never testing, never pushing the limits and never doing anything “outside the link development box.” It would mean your link development techniques are average. And as the commercial web gets fuller, some marketers get smarter and more experienced and algorithms get harder, the average will not survive.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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Oh man – there’s so many things. I’ll try to make a brief list:

  • When I first started in SEO (2002-2003), I thought I could engage in link exchanges and just meta robots nofollow all the links on my link exchange page without anyone noticing. Wrong!
  • Dave Naylor had me convinced that XML Sitemaps were a potentially bad thing because they could hide indexation/linking problems. He was right, but it was not advice that should have been passed to the broader community. XML Sitemaps have had an amazing positive impact on so many campaigns I’ve observed that I now know I was an idiot to think otherwise.
  • The H1 tag! After years of recommending that clients fix up their H1s, I feel really awful about this one. Folks in the SEO world had been emailing and commenting for a long time that in tests, the H1 did no better than just having the keywords at the top of the page (like a headline but without the semantics of the H1 tag). I shrugged them off only to find, once we built our own correlation and causation ranking models that the H1 element appeared to have virtually no positive impact. Covario later released similar research using different methodologies. I feel pretty guilty for all the development resources and time I likely wasted with H1 tag recommendations.
  • I’d never known that the alt attribute on images was a potentially valuable place to employ keywords to rank in normal web search (I knew it was good for image search, but never carried that further). When our ranking models work showed it performing well, I was taken aback. Now it’s part of the best practices suite we espouse, but it was probably a good idea for a long time before that.
  • Paid links – I used to recommend them to clients and even help clients buy them. But the risks seriously outweighed the rewards – after seeing so many penalties, bans and devaluations, I realized that money could always be spent in better ways acquiring lower risk links with long term value.
  • Probably dozens more I don’t even know about!

As I get more mature (both as an SEO and as a person), I’m realizing more and more that being “consistent” is a far worse value than being right. Make me think the pejorative term “flip-flopper” is actually quite a compliment, suggesting a person who can recognize when they’ve had mistaken thinking and shift to where the evidence points. I’ll keep holding out hope that politicians discover this someday :-)

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Update Florida. Update Florida ushered in relevance metrics into the SERPs. It was a flawed update but it improved over the course of a few months. Everything after that followed in a similar path. At the time I (and many in the industry) had difficulty figuring out what was happening, but part of the confusion was because the algo wasn’t finished yet, which made it difficult to identify what was causing sites to rank or not rank. Rankings stabilized a few months later and the picture became clearer.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Thinking I could win a debate with Matt Cutts about the semantics and ethics of paid linking:) Fortunately I had Michael “The Troublemaker” Gray, Greg Boser, and Todd Friesen on my side. Somehow thinking that was a good idea was probably among my worst ideas, but it sure was fun. In retrospect, it would have been a much better idea to be a glowing whitehat (which I tend to be most the time anyhow) and condemn paid linking.

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Twitter asks…

I tried to be a bit social this year and asked Twitter “if you could ask someone kick ASS at link development ONE question – what would it be?” and picked a few questions that I thought were good and tossed them in as a sort of “social lightning round”:

Twitter Bird“What ‘ice breakers’ do you find most effective in initiating a relationship with a webmaster from whom you want a link?”

- asked by @_seandolan

Aaron WallAARON:

—————

I think finding a unique bond or striking up conversation for another different purpose (and then asking for a favor over time) is typically a better approach than having 1 routine angle.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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Twitter itself is actually a phenomenal ice breaker. My wife uses it with her blog all the time. She’ll start following someone, engaging with them over Twitter and often, even without asking, they’ll start reading her site and linking to content they find interesting/useful.

I think all forms of social interaction can be good for this – attending conferences/events/meetups, friending on Facebook, commenting on blogs, emailing with tips or friendly remarks, etc. Great salespeople always build relationships before they sell; I think link building can be much the same.

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Todd MalicoatTODD:

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Any icebreaker that elicits a response. It’s often helpful to use a question that requires a response either way. If you can get ANY response, it’s likely a good icebreaker. Compliments or pointing out site errors are generally my favorites.

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Twitter Bird“How do you make QUALITY link building scalable (think dozens to hundreds of client websites)?”

- asked by @daveminchala

Dave SnyderDAVE:

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This has been our specialty. Basically we have taken several approaches:

1) Not becoming reliant on one linkbuilding style, and being flexible

2) Find ways to automate portions of the process, but not the process. So for example when you get into automated linkbuilding you really get into some spammy stuff. For us it was figuring out parts of the process that could be automated that didn’t have to deal with the core of sustainable link marketing.

i.e. finding qualified link targets, indexing our links, QA’ing links, keeping an organized and up to date list of our press relationships.

If you can scale those concepts, and can scale the production of quality content (which we have with CopyPress) there really becomes no limit to the number of links you can build even on a minimal staff.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

—————

For me, there are three key points here:

1. Develop your own database of sites and key contacts, keep adding to them so you have resources when you need them.

2. Hire really good copywriters who can work with minimal supervision and turn content on a dime.

3. Build a good back end system where you can keep tabs on what everyone is working on at any time. It’s crucial to keep work flowing and people motivated.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Nobody and no agency can create a quality link building service that can work with hundreds of clients at a time. This is the out-source or in-house question asked a different way. If you have hundreds of clients, you’d better be helping them think in terms of link building as a core competency for their staff, augmented with specialized help from you as needed.

I’d argue that any website in competitive niche deserves a full time link builder, so if you have 100 clients, you’d better have 100 link builders, which isn’t practical. I’ve worked solo at link building for 15 years, and I’ve never tried to work with more that 3-4 clients in any given month. Any more than that and it’s impossible to give them each the attention they deserve.

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Twitter Bird“When (if ever) should you try and reduce or eliminate some of the links you have out there?”

- asked by @norcross

Jim BoykinJIM:

—————

I wouldn’t worry about it too much… if you have some big ole paid links that you’re worried about, then sure, remove them…but then again, you might slip in rankings for those phrases.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

—————

If I was approached by a site that had gotten on a search engine’s bad side with their linking practices, then I’d advise them to clean up their links.

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Twitter Bird“Is quality of the link more important than relevancy of the link?”

- asked by @JoshuaTitsworth

Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Yes I would rather have a link from a trusted website not in my industry, than a non trusted one in my industry. IMHO trust is the most important aspect of a link.

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Rae HoffmanRAE:

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It really depends on how you define “quality” and “relevancy”. I’ll take an off topic link from Yahoo over a tightly on topic link from crappydomain.info any day of the week. I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer here. If I had a gun to my head though and the links were similar aside from quality vs. relevancy, I’d likely go quality. I can find relevant links all day long. Quality links are harder to get – and harder for my competitors to duplicate.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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The combination of quality AND relevance is the ideal. It is what I look for when acquiring links. I don’t think you can separate the two. Web pages that fall short of quality or relevance are rejected. So the answer is no. They are both important.

Quality can be defined as factors that tell the search engines that a particular web page is acceptable for the SERPs. It relates back to what is commonly referred to as trust. Trust is generally what allows a web page to be considered for being tested on relevance to a particular search query. Quality and relevance work together to produce a superior backlink profile that in my experience will produce ranking performance that withstands various algorithmic changes.

While low quality web pages can and do rank for phrases in the SERPs, they often have to work many times harder to overcome the dampening effects of quality and relevance, and may not be immune to changes in the algorithm. So even if you’re pursuing a link strategy outside of quality and relevance, it is important to understand those issues.

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And there you have it. I’d like to thank all the interviewees (and you can too by subscribing to their Twitter handles and feeds) for being so giving with their time and knowledge – yet again – and turning this into a link development guide that can keep any link builder busy for months to come. Cheers.

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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