Well, it’s that time of year again. Since 2007 I’ve been bringing together some of the best minds on link building for an interview series that has resulted in three amazingly educational posts on link building:

Link Building with the Experts – 2007 Edition
Link Building with the Experts – 2008 Edition
Link Building with the Experts – 2010 Edition

And this year is no exception.

Keeping with the format from prior years, this interview is very unique in my eyes as opposed to other interviews for two reasons.

The first being that the questions submitted are actually submitted by the interviewees (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). This isn’t about us all nodding heads in agreement and feeling politically pressured to answer a question a certain way. Any agreements come from true beliefs and any contrary opinions come from the same. We’re all good at what we do, and all of us have been developing link building strategies for many years, but it doesn’t mean we always agree or that any single one of us is THE authority when it comes to link building.

Meet the link building interviewees…

I’d like to sincerely thank the folks below for continuing to share their knowledge by and give their time to doing this series. They rock.

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

Question one…

Over the past couple years Google’s algorithm has seemed to have put more weight on brand (or things that feel a lot like brand) in a way that one can almost view brand signals as a part of the link graph. How does this change your approach to link building & online marketing?

Aaron WallAARON:

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Consider giving people additional reasons to search for you with branded keywords. Some of our top keywords are things like “seo book blog” “seo book keyword tool” and “seo book toolbar”.

Ad retargeting is also a powerful way to stay top of mind. The people who see those ads have already visited your site in the past, so the odds of them clicking on an ad and/or searching again for you are much higher.

If I was starting a site from scratch today I would probably make it less literal and more of a unique brand name. I wrote a blog post about how Google has lowered the value of domain names relative to branding. CopyBlogger has a great post about how to dominate your niche, in it he highlights the importance of thinking territorially rather than hierarchical.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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The most important thing is looking at what signals they are picking up on as traditional brand signals and try to replicate them. Most of this is happening via social media and non-linked mentions. Also measuring your inbound link text in terms of exact match anchor text via brand anchor text is important. Natural brands normally have link profiles that skew towards their brand over other anchor options.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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If the brands are being given more weight in Google I think it’s due more to an aging algorithm not the fact Google’s made a list of sites and said “ok, bump them up”. Brands have been online for a long time, their link graphs are huge and people search for them by name. Add all of that plus the social and traditional media input and it makes sense these sites rank well.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I’m more likely now to try to identify linking opportunities from sites with strong brand signals. The concept of “brand” extends beyond just famous or FORTUNE 500 sites though. Within any vertical, a little research will start surfacing the sites Google values, and when you start seeing the same sites over and over across a variety of searches, that’s a strong signal for me. I think it’s also important to be able to recognize target sites that might not be as strong today as they will be a year down the road. Recognizing quality before the link graph does, and being there as it catches up.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I place more of an emphasis on getting sites to mention the client’s name. Both in the anchor text, or near it.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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I wrote about this recently in a post “How to Make Your Website Look More Legitimate”, doing things that “real world” businesses do is important, even for business that have a small real world presence. Real world businesses that are successful do things to build their brand, and these are things that online only businesses have ignored in the past. Links from government websites, even local government websites is more important. Getting links from educational resources like local schools, or libraries are more important, as are links from trade organizations. Typically these types of activities require a real world investment of time and relationship building, and isn’t something churn and burn MFA sites typically do. While the value of links from press release websites can be debated, the value of doing “press worthy” activities has more value now IMHO. Are you sponsoring local events, or getting written about in newspapers or magazines? Maybe everyone doesn’t have the connections to get written about in the Wall Street Journal, but it isn’t that hard to sponsor a local charity event and have your company name or URL mentioned. I would always prefer having it linked, but I think having your domain written as a non linked citation has some brand building value for search engines.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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I think that most people who’ve been doing SEO and building links for a while have long considered “brand signals” to be something you need to pay attention to when developing a natural looking link building strategy. For example, Dell ranks very well for a variety of computer related terms, but the largest single portion of their anchor text is “Dell” and not “computers.” A true brand has a lot of anchor text confirming that they are indeed a brand. Additionally, real brands have people searching for their brand. BBgeeks, our BlackBerry blog, has tons of brand searches coming in every month (“bbgeeks” “bb geeks” “bbgeeks blog” etc) that let Google know we’re “looked for” and not simply “found.”

In the beginning, Google’s purpose was to identify relevant (and popular) websites so that people could find them. But as time evolved, ranking in Google was what actually determined if a site was relevant or popular. So to me, it only makes sense that Google would attempt to find ways to cross verify that a site that meets their qualifications to rank on a keyword basis also can prove they have some type of traffic avenues *besides* ranking in Google (social media, direct traffic, non rank focused links and unlinked citations, etc) . Don’t try to manipulate the anchor of every inbound link.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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It certainly makes me more and more excited about the practice of brand building. As a direct marketer and SEO for so long, it feels good, though admittedly rusty, to stretch new muscles and work hard to act outside of the classic keywords/content/links box. That said, it’s rewarding in so many other ways outside of SEO when branding succeeds that, were I to return to an agency/consulting world, I think I’d be much more holistic in my approach to web marketing.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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There have been some interesting discussions lately on about how links are not working. Less so about which ones ARE. Perhaps it might be oversimplifying to think in terms of putting weight on brand. I tend to think of it more in terms of the site that is giving out the link and how they happen to link out. MomandPops, non-profit organizations, hobbyists and enthusiasts, the low level “honest” sites that generally link out without an exact keyword match. Google has aspired to rank a site based on the topic/subject of the page giving the link (title tag, topic of surrounding keyword phrases). Similar to how Google ranks images, using the surrounding text to infer something about the image, only in this circumstance it using that data to infer something about the link. If Google increased the importance of that then it could appear to be a weight on brand, especially if this is the typical backlink profile of sites with quality content that wouldn’t otherwise rank well. I have been noticing a trend on a set of sites where the “Hey we’re here!” approach has been working exceptionally well.

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Question two…

If shares, tweets, likes and +1s become the new ‘link,’ what 3 social-metric building strategies will you invest in (for yourself or your clients)?

Aaron WallAARON:

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We already have buttons for Twitter, Facebook & +1 on our featured content. I don’t use Facebook much, but the beauty of embedding like buttons in your site is that they cost you virtually nothing to do. We also have a Facebook page that automatically syndicates our blog content. I also participate on Twitter, though I haven’t done as much with the official site account as I would like to.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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a. Sharable content has replaced linkbait in terms of importance. Are people sharing your content across their social graph? If yes, you;re winning, if no step it up.

b. Connect with influencers in your vertical. This is so much easier than becoming and influencer in your vertical.

c. Make your site shareable, and optimize it for social sharing.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I do think social media mentions are important but I doubt they’ll ever be given the same weight as links. If I had to pick three social strategies it would be: 1. develop a Twitter following, 2. re/tweeting of content, and 3. developing Facebook specific content. I’d also step-up my Q&A site participation.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Make all content easy for the user to push in multiple directions. At the same time, we are quickly getting to a point where there’s so many social options the user may not know exactly what they are doing with those buttons. For example, the ability to follow someone on twitter directly from any page without leaving it is great, but is the follow what you wanted, or were you hoping for a tweet of your page? Or both, which means a new “Tweet and Follow” button can’t be far away. So that’s three options just for twitter. Now add in Facebook, where you can share a link, like a site, or both, and you’re at six options for the user, and we haven’t tacked about google+1’s yet. Or the share farms. Paid likes and tweets are already here. I’m sure these signals will factor into everything we do, but I hope this does not happen at the expense of the link graph as the strongest potential signal set.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing, and promotions. All three work for both social media and traditional link development.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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The key to getting the most out of Facebook is understanding Edgerank. People aren’t going to see your updates by visiting your page, in fact it’s unlikely they will visit after that first “like”. What you need to do is engage your fans with updates they read/click/share. The higher that engagement the more likely it is they will see subsequent updates.

While you obviously want people who are following you on twitter to click and read what you are posting, from a marketing perspective the retweet is the ultimate goal. Creating something people want to share is the first hurdle, but so is writing a compelling click enticing message. The real hurdle is getting it down to 120 or so characters, allowing room for official and non official retweets. After that I would say the most important thing is repeating your most important message several times on Twitter. I know many social media experts say this is a mistake but there is plenty of evidence showing that if you repeat your tweets they are more effective. Another important aspect of this is timing your tweets for maximum exposure, Tweriod is a good tool for helping you find the most effective times to tweet.

The next thing I would focus on is the social bookmarking or sharing website that most closely matches the topic of your websites. Two of the most popular ones are Reddit and Stumbleupon, but there are some niche sites that may be a better match for you.

IMHO by focusing on those aspects you are most likely to send signals to the search engines that users are coming to your site, deep parts of your site and spending time there.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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Nothing’s changed really. Ten years ago, you were creating content for spiders. Five years ago, you were creating content for social bookmarking sites. Now, you’re creating content with social media in mind. The method hasn’t changed, but the audience and distribution have.

First, make social sharing easy. It amazes me when I find a good article and yet am presented with no easy way to tweet it. People are lazy. The easier you make it to share content, the more people will share it. Secondly, build up social equity by developing relationships and building your social media accounts. People want to help people they know and like. Lastly in the same way you should push flagship content to get traditional links you need to push your content socially – and in a targeted fashion – to get social shares. Just like you would tip off websites via email, you can tip off real people (and websites) via social channels. If you’re blogging about the top ten home decorating personalities to follow on Twitter, then make sure you tweet the article to them. Never assume you’ll simply be noticed.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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#1 – Given that contests are still well-regarded and not considered spammy or manipulative (and yet, can help drive up followers/votes/social sharing dramatically), I think I’d certainly engage on that front.

#2 – Paid acquisition through sponsored tweets, Facebook ads, etc. are a direct path to better social metrics, and they’re currently well-priced and reward creativity.

#3 – Some form of a network effect inside the product feels essential. I think building social value and rewarding social sharing through gamification or tangible rewards (though not directly-monetary ones, e.g. Overstock) should also be effective. A good example is something like Cubeduel.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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That’s the recognition that more citations are made on social sites than they are on self-published websites and blogs. The citations are coming less from publishers and increasingly from people sharing them. There was an interview on TechCrunch where a Google exec said:

“There’s a lot more sharing than creating going on the web, …In fact, he said that something like 100 million times a day people are sharing links that Google sees…”

PageRank is a citation based algorithm. The web has changed. The citations are coming in many more forms than the original hyperlink.

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Question three…

Have you done anything different in your link building because of the Panda Update? Do you think a link from a Panda effected site is worth the same as a link from a site that wasn’t hit by Panda?

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think links from sites that were hit by Panda still count just as much as they did. As far as links go, I think Panda shows the importance of working on multiple projects in case any of them get hit. Up until Panda I was pushing toward working on fewer and larger projects, but Panda caused me to think it was worth using a bit more of a mix, just as an insurance policy.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Our linkbuilding is based around content creation strategies so it has changed a lot. We are only looking to place links on sites that have a healthy status in the index, and use that as a key indicator of their value in terms of linkbuilding. Obviously sites effected by Panda have content Google questions in terms of quality, so I am not sure why anyone would still perceive a link from such a site as retaining value.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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No, I’ve not changed my approach to linking since Panda. If the site/page affected by Panda was removed from the index then it’s of no use to me from a linking or traffic standpoint.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Other than smile more, no.

Do you think a link from a Panda effected site is worth the same as a link from a site that wasn’t hit by Panda?

I think it’s possible that a link could be just as important even from a Panda’d site, if the page on which the link appears is of high content quality, and if the sites overall historical link graph shows it’s credible. Web pages are supposed to be able to stand on there own merits and earn their own links.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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My strategies have not changed. Although, I believe some link building strategies were effected.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Post Panda I think getting deep links is more important than it was before, as is getting a wider variety of inbound anchor text. For example lets say only 50% of your links went to your homepage, and the rest went to deep pages. However if these deep links only had a few variations in inbound anchor text I don’t think they would be as effective.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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Not really. But I’ve been preaching traffic development instead of low handing fruit type or manipulative link building since 2006 and have long since changed my link building methods accordingly. So the types of links I truly work towards getting typically are not on the kind of sites that were hit by the Panda update. However, IMO, it did take away some of the “easier to get links” link value from article sites and other Panda hit properties that were handy when promoting very small and very niche affiliate sites. In my opinion, (being hit by) Panda is more of a content issue then a link issue – the outbound link devaluation issue for Panda hit sites, from what I’ve seen, is created when the linking page isn’t being crawled by Google DUE to the content issues causing it to be hit by Panda.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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We gathered a bunch of data suggesting that Panda didn’t have much to do with links or linking. Based on that information and the statements by Google’s representatives, my guess is that link values from Panda vs. non-Panda hit sites hasn’t changed much. The only caveat would be if the site lost indexation, in which case a link from a non-indexed page has likely lost value.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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No change. The kinds of sites I prefer links from tend not to fit the Pandalized profile.

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Question four…

Given the search engines penchant for link embedded content, are link wheels a viable link building method?

Aaron WallAARON:

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I haven’t used link wheels that much, but a general theme amongst link building advice is that Google doesn’t count dirty thing x or gray area thing y. The more testing one does the more they realize the general consensus is overly conservative. The reason I don’t use a lot of the free / bulk / scalable link building stuff is that I think it is easy to duplicate. But if I were just starting off & had fewer resources then absolutely I would test using that sort of stuff more.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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It depends on what you mean by viable. Does it work, sure. Is it a good strategy to build on long term? No. The viability of any linkbuilding strategy is basically an exercise in evaluating risk tolerance and market competitiveness.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Depends on the industry. They’re not as effective for competitive terms but for less competitive terms, they’re not a bad way to get started provided you use unique sources. The algorithmic concept behind link wheels is sound, the issue with them, IMO, is most companies selling the service use the same sites over and over regardless of the niche they’re promoting. That repetition leave footprints and makes you part of the herd. Use the concept but don’t use the same sites you see being discussed all over. Your industry has unique content outlets, find and use them.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I’ve seen some completely contrived wheels that the owners swear are working. This tells me it’s going to become one more thing for the engines to polygraph. People will overgame it and they will end up being offered by link building boiler rooms in third world countries. Maybe not, but I can’t help be a bit cynical after seeing so many linking tactics created solely to fool Google.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Like everything in link development it all depends on how it is done.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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I’m going to tread lightly here, but I’m going to say it’s very hard for a link network to get to the point where it’s profitable and stay off the radar screens of search engines. While the links are embedded in the content, and in many cases it’s good content, the links are still the result of a commercial transaction not an editorial decision, and that’s not what search engines want to see.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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I’m really in the middle when it comes to link wheels. What puts me on one side or the other is the implementation of them. “Services” that offer it eventually become identifiable by footprints. If I’m a search engine, I’m simply going to devalue the outbound links on the most known hubs being used to create stock generic link wheels (remember user created pages on .edu sites?) If I’m Google, I might even go so far as to demand they nofollow them if they become a big issue (not saying that’s not bullshit on Google’s part, but it can happen.)

However, when done in a more “leg work” and legitimate fashion, they can definitely be part of a longer term link strategy. Identifying sites specific to your niche and creating link wheels so to speak via guest blogging on high quality sites? Effective and typically off the radar. Identifying UGC sites specific to your target audience and creating content for them? Same. Providing they have “strength” to pass some of it through to your site. But if you go with services or with “generic” methods, you’re likely only looking at short term effectiveness. As with all link development methods, the easier it is to duplicate them (and the more well known the “workaround” becomes), the less value they’ll eventually have.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I suppose in the edge cases where they’re used in more white hat ways, they could be. Right now, I’m seeing Google do a lot of widespread link-value-removal from the more obvious and manipulative link wheels.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Link wheels are the process where someone is paid to go out and create relevant web pages for the client from User Generated Content (UGC) websites. Typical sites are Squidoo, Blogspot, HubPages, blogs on a WordPress subdomain etc., which all link back to the client site. The downside of this method has always been that the web pages lacked adequate inbound links to provide the best ranking pop and may have contributed to the Pandalization of some of the sites that were open to being utilized in this manner.

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Question five…

You have a client with a site that was hit by panda, but not destroyed. Let’s say its rankings all dropped just a few places, but remain page one. They ask you if it’s possible to regain the higher rankings post panda. How do answer them?

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think John Andrews said it best “as always, the exceptions provide the clues.” When you see Visa ranking for “credit cards” that isn’t a real shocker, but when sites that violate different “should be” requirements those are the ones I would try to research further, and if you figure them out then it might make sense to try to emulate some of what they are doing.

But some of this also comes down to the scale of what you are doing, what signals are working for you, what signals are working against you & how hard it is to change direction of the ship. At least one guy who was hit by Panda I told him that if I were him I would likely spend my cycles working on the sites that were not hit by Panda. Others have pushed to improve the quality of their content and focus their strategy. However we can’t be certain if it will pay off.

After all, JC Penny *flagrantly* violated Google’s guidelines bad enough to get featured in the mainstream media for it. That got them whacked for 90 days. Sites that were hit by Panda have already been hit for nearly 100 days. At some point part of the response strategy for many folks is going to be “generate opportunistic spam”. Google will once again say they didn’t see it coming, as they have historically. But humans really do respond to incentive structures.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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We have seen people improving with every manually pushed Panda crawl. The ability to improve is based on the website, and that makes a question like this impossible to answer without digging into the particular site and figuring out why it dropped to begin with. A drop like this could well indicate a link graph that was effected by Panda, but it needs analysis.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Work the drop in rank like you would any other, get a handful of quality links pointing at it right away so fresh juice is flowing and then start doing some homework. Research the sites ranking ahead of you, look at their backlinks, domain age and authority. You can’t do anything about a site’s age but you can work to obtain better (or similar) back links as well as mentions from social/media outlets.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Absolutely yes, if they are willing to pursue a more long term and legitimate content linking strategy.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I’d tell them to wait and see what kind of changes Google makes to Panda. I’d also encourage them to focus more on obtaining high-quality relevant links to internal pages.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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I think the key is assessing how bad things are, and being real about how much time, money, or other resources its going to take to fix it. if the site consists mostly of thin content produced specifically for adsense, it’s going to be harder to fix. At the other end of the spectrum let’s say the site is a mix of good and bad content. Are the site owners prepared to fix/rewrite or eliminate the bad content. Once that’s done are they willing to invest in adjusting the inbound link profile to focus on getting higher quality deep links.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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Very few ranking issues are ever permanent, so it’s more than possible to increase their ranks again. But what exactly they would need to do in order to *do* that would really depend on the site. I don’t think there’s a one solution fits all to Panda. However, a quality content strategy coupled with a deep linking campaign as an overall general direction would be where I’d start.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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It’s certainly possible, but we need to improve visitor engagement metrics, content quality, design and, likely, the value proposition of the pages. Even then, we’ll need to wait until Google re-gathers their usage/user metrics and re-calculates the machine-learning model for Panda before we see an uptick. It seems that they run these every month or two, though it’s very rare for sites to recover. If we didn’t see an uptick in the 3 months following improvements in the user/usage metrics (time on page, conversion rates, browse rate, etc), I’d probably recommend 301’ing those pages to new locations and rebuilding them to help rid the legacy of Panda-ouchness :-)

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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As I understand it, Panda is significantly about on-page factors. The understanding of those factors is still evolving. Some sites that were hit may have been collateral damage and Google is still adjusting the Panda algorithm, presumably to compensate for false positives as well as tighten the net. Current thinking looks at things such as the link to text ratio, ad to text ratio, the kinds of things that might indicate that a web page fits the profile of a poor content experience.

That said I have taken a look at some sites that have experienced significant drops in traffics (25% or more) that seem to be related to over reliance on short query terms that are more fuzzy than specific. So to my mind, some of the drop in traffic may be related to a refinement of what Google thinks a fuzzy term means. In the Q and A with Matt Cutts at the recent SMX Seattle, Matt related how Larry Page brought up the query “warm mangos” as an example of how Google could improve understanding user intent. The “warm mangos” query was about a technique for making them ripen faster by keeping them in a box, similar to ripening avocados in a paper bag. But how is that to be inferred by the phrase warm mangos? It’s a fuzzy phrase.

Perhaps this isn’t typical but I have seen some recent examples of sites losing traffic primarily from fuzzy phrases. What I found was a lack of on-page keyword focus, lack of proper headings, improper use of HTML styling tags such as em and strong, and poor title tags. In the past that on-page fuzziness might have helped them rank for short fuzzy phrases but it seems to be working against them now. This might be one element among many others in the Panda update.

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Question six…

Do links shared with shorteners across services like twitter, facebook, stumbleupon and similar services count towards your rankings?

Aaron WallAARON:

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Matt Cutts has publicly stated that they generally do, but I haven’t yet tested them. This would be a really easy way for an SEO to gain some exposure though…set up a test & then after you get the results blog about the test.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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If they 301, and end off on indexable, followed pages. The social signals of traffic pushed through these links obviously has value towards ranking signals.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Yep, you want to use shorteners like Bitly which use a 301 recommended by Google, Bing and Yahoo! for passing link juice. Take a look at Doiop.com, it allows you to add a keyword on your shortened URL. Want to build your own shortener? Search on the phrase “get your own personal URL shortener” and you’ll find the resources, helps with branding as well as link popularity.

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Eric WardERIC:

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They should, and of course Google’s shortener should be easy for Google to resolve :).

I don’t think we are at a point where all shortened URLs are being given credit, but my feeling is this will have to happen, because URLs seem to be getting longer and longer, and there are just too many shortening services in use to ignore. Sites are also creating their own, and that’s an area that will grow, especially for huge deep content database driven sites. Those links will need to be credited.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I’m sure some count for a small amount. After all, Google is testing hundreds of changes a year to their algorithm. What’s more important in my opinion are those shortners that bring a lot of exposure. This increases the chances of it being picked-up by people who will link with a traditional link.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Well this is a bit of a mess currently as Twitter changed the way handle links, and rewrite many of them using their own shorteners, even if you are using custom URL shorteners. That said I don’t think the search engines give much weight to the links they find on social services, they act more as pointers than anything else. IMHO it’s the toolbar data, and user data that have more of an effect on rankings than anything else. I’ve seen too many cases where pages with a lot of social activity rank for short term time periods, if they generate social activity without links.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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IMO, if the shortened URL is 301’ed and the end destination page is indexable, then links through URL shorteners count. How much is debatable. The link merely appearing on Twitter isn’t going to do you much good. Social networks are more a way for the links to be found and utilized in other mediums for any heavy value to come from them. I prefer to use my own shortener whenever possible so that I maintain control. There have been instances in the past where popular URL shortening services have ceased to exist – and therefore, so did all their redirects for the shortened links. If you’re using WordPress, creating a custom URL shortener is incredibly easy.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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Not directly according to the search engines, but indirectly, Google + Bing both buy and consume data from Twitter + Facebook in their rankings, including the locations of tweeted/shared links (even those using a shortening service). We found a strong correlation between Facebook shares and higher rankings in Google, even when controlling for links, and plenty of real-life examples (plus the public statements by Google) suggest that there’s a lot of potential value to be garnered here.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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This intersects with non-link citations. The shortened link might not give joy but in a post-hyperlink citation environment the unlinked citations might have value. When talking about social media I think you have to move beyond the link in order to extract the citation value because of shorteners. What is left is the name of the site or the non-link URL. Those become the citations.

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Question seven…

What advice would you give a small business owner who could only devote 1 hour per week to link development?

Aaron WallAARON:

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If they have little to no momentum and see search as an important aspect of their business, they should increase their efficiency elsewhere, work longer hours, and/or hire on another employee.

Compound interest is a powerful impact working for or against you (depending on if you have capital or debt). Cumulative advantage sorta acts the same way. Off the start you need to work a lot to gain momentum, but after you already have a lot of momentum then you can work much less. But working too little off the start almost guarantees you will miss your goals, because search is a winner take most market.

If they already have lots of organic momentum due to having a unique product, great customer service, or some other differentiators then they might be able to bake link building and social signal promotions into their customer interactions. For example, Rand highlighted an invoice email with a “please link to us” message.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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They should spend time reading up on creating high quality sharable content, brainstorming this content, creating it, and building a network to share that content. This has benefits beyond linkbuilding, and I am a big advocate of an integrated approach to marketing resources.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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Be sure you have an active PPC program running because if all you have is an hour a week to build links, you’re going to take a long time to rank organically. (Unless your target phrase is six words long and in pig Latin!) I’d invest an hour a week by starting with the directories (submit to general, niche, element and local) and when that was done, finding and submitting guest blog posts.

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Eric WardERIC:

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If his market is local, focus 100% on local link marketing. Scope the local link universe and infiltrate it. If it’s national, it will depend on the vertical and the competition. To pursue any strategy without first studying the competitive data is a mistake.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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First I’d tell them to figure out what that hour is worth if it was spent on their core business. Let’s say your time is worth $50 per hour. That’s $200 a month for a budget. Next hire an independent contractor to market your business with links as the measurement of their success. I’d hire someone good at either marketing, or public relations. Provide them with fundamental link knowledge and examples. Be very specific in the types of links you’re seeking.

Keep in mind those eager college students and internet savvy retirees!

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Ok I’m going to cheat a little here with my answer I don’t think it’s possible to do just one thing and have it be enough, but if I had to pick one I would focus on blogging, guest blogging, and interacting with your community on one of the social sites. There’s a lot of carryover value for those actions. Getting value in an hour a week would be tough, but you could do it in 3-4 hours a week with a little time say a half hour each day.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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If they’re truly a small business owner, especially one that is service based to a specific locale, chances are that Google Places and local results are likely taking over the real estate that typical organic search results used to fill. So, I’d start out spending those hours ensuring that my Google Places listing was optimized. Dawn Wentzell recently wrote a guest post on optimizing your Google Places listing here on Sugarrae that is a great (and detailed) primer. Once I had my Places bases covered, I’d begin working more on traditional link development methods. A few years ago, I did a post on basic link development techniques for small business, using lawn care services as an example. Those ideas can really be applied to any small business as a starting point for link development efforts.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I hope the other marketing hours are spent community building, content optimizing and publcizing! If so, you may even be able to ditch the active hour on link development. After all, the links that come in naturally because you’re doing interesting, reference-worthy stuff and engaging with communities likely to share it are often better than those you’re actively pursuing in a “classic link building” mode.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Cut 30 minutes out of their lunch hour and add 2.5 hours to the cornerstone of their online leads. Link building is a crucial piece of the online marketing strategy. If a small business owner is strapped for time then hire a college student to execute on a “Gimme a Link” link building strategy, one of the viable strategies still standing.

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Question eight…

Is it possible that Google is supplementing link citations with non-link citations as an indicator of a website’s popularity and relevance?

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think this is already true in local search. Another current application of this is the adjustments Google made to websites where they felt those businesses had poor customer service & a poor reputation from end users. Schema.org just recently launched. Off the start businesses will feel an incentive to use it in order to have a more enhanced listing profile in the search results. Over time the search engines will look at the aggregate use of it across publishers and be able to create additional relevancy signals off of it.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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If it was my engine I would use non-linked mentions in my index to gauge a sites relevance, so I think it is only logical that Google is looking at that signal. We already note it in optimization for local search as well.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I’m sure they do if there isn’t much in the way of inbound linking but I don’t believe they’re given the same weight algorithmically. Relevance has always been attributed with non-link citation (content association) so I don’t think that’s changed. I also think relevance, as one of the four elements of link popularity, is more heavily weighted in Bing over Google. With Google it’s still a linky-link world.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Oh yeah. Always been possible. Just because someone doesn’t include an a href tag shouldn’t negate the citation. Some sites have policies against out links but do allow text citations ( dumb), so if a URL is referenced, clickable or not, I’d hope it was being credited.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Of course, the algorithm is based on citations – links are just the main indicator. Google is always testing new things. They have to do something to balance out all those NoFollow links they encouraged!

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Yes I absolutely believe that non linked citations are important to Google, and I think it’s almost impossible to reach the critical mass of becoming a brand without that happening naturally.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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It is already occurring in local search. If I were Google, I’d certainly look at unlinked citations for traditional search as well. The masses trying to game Google – especially those simply following the herd advice, aren’t going to bother with attempting to game for unlinked citations. To me, that means an unlinked citation is much more likely to be an honest occurrence. I doubt it has the same weight as a linked citation, but again, if I were Google, I’d be giving it *some* credence. Additionally, many larger media publications and larger brands don’t link out, but often use unlinked citations. These are typically authority sites, where even non linked citations are hard to come by. If I’m a search engine, I’m definitely not ignoring that.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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It’s possible they’re doing some, but link metrics are still strongly correlated with higher Google rankings and anyone can prove to themselves the value of links simply by pointing a few from diverse domains at a page and watching it rise in the rankings. Non-link citations (mentions or references) are probably used in some ways, but it seems potentially challenging to use that signal without worrying about gaming/manipulation (there’s no “nofollow” for mentions).

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Yes. They’re already using it in other contexts such as local search. The way people make citations has changed. This is the dark web. We discover cool and interesting links via Twitter and IM. Why shouldn’t Google now that “sharing” rather than “links” has become the predominant method of citation?

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Question nine…

With the recent changes to how Google handles links (aggressive filtering), how do you plan a strategy for linkbuilding that is effective without being potentially harmful long term?

Aaron WallAARON:

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I think the key is to mix things up and see time as being on your site. If you launch a viral link bait and it pulls in many links of course you want to keep pushing it getting more links. But if one is building links in a non-viral manner it is helpful to do things slowly over time such that you can track the response, and so that you can adjust your strategy if something doesn’t work as planned. The problem with doing things in bulk quickly is that if you dig a hole you could end up digging a rather large one that may cost far more to dig out of than it cost to dig into.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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It all has to begin with strategy today. The days of brute force linkbuilding are over, and the level of filtering has really been a pain point for people in aggressive verticals. We begin every linkbuilding engagement with a link analysis to figure out where the client has historically been, how close to the brink of getting a filter they are, and mapping out a natural plan from that point.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I wouldn’t use the same anchors over and over. Don’t link into the same pages. Don’t drop 1000 links in 2 days. Don’t drop links in navigational areas. Do drop good content in high traffic/visibility/authoritative sources. Spread your link wealth around so if a segment of sites takes a hit, you are insulated.

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Eric WardERIC:

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The most important thing for me is to set expectations early and realistically. The client should know the potential risks and rewards and accept that nobody knows exactly what’s coming next.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I’d focus on marketing strategies that would be successful if search engines didn’t exist.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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I think for links to have their maximum effect they need to come from trusted sources. Low quality links will help get you crawled but I don’t think it’s possible to rank for anything competitive without some trust in your backlink profile. I also think you have to be careful about throwing off the ratio of trusted/non-trusted links. I also think that link growth over time is a factor. Sure link growth will occasionally be bursty, but if you where to gain 100 links in month 1 and a handful of link each of the following months it would stand out out as “un-natural” link growth. It would look much more normal if you got 20-30 links each month over the next 5-6 months.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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First, a good, targeted link building campaign is like good plastic surgery… if it’s done right, no one should even know you’ve had work done. ;-) It’s all about mixing it up. I’d never put all my link eggs in the same basket. You need authoritative links. You need links with your brand as the anchor. You need links with keywords as the anchor. You need to vary the keywords you use as an anchor. You need a strong internal link strategy. You need a few developed social profiles. You need unlinked citations. You even need some crap links (all *real* sites have them, even if not intentionally.) You need toolbar signals (visitors, engagement, etc) and various other signals to validate the growth of your links. And you need to build links steadily. Everyone has a thing or two that really gets traction, but over time, your link graph should be steadily rising and look more like a slope rather than a pole vault (taking random spikes after a good piece of link bait out of the equation.)

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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My philosophy centers around inbound marketing – building up content, community, engagement, social metrics, diverse contributions on and offline to drive awareness, interest, branding and traffic. All of that will then drive natural links, which can be bolstered through more pro-active campaigns like embeddable content/widgets/badges, bio+profile links, syndication, guest authoring, news + press, etc.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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The “Gimme a Link” strategy seems to still work well. Google’s webmaster guidelines page used to advise telling other webmasters about your site. Twitter, Facebook, AdWords, StumbleUpon etc. are the latest ways to get the word out about your site, a way to wave your hands to say, “Hey, take a look!” That’s basically the essence of one kind of link building.

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Question ten…

Why are links so &^$%ing expensive?

Aaron WallAARON:

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Anything Google puts weight on gets abused. If you want to compete in terms of buying them directly then the prices are often high. When the prices are too low what happens is that many of the pages selling them get full up with overt paid links & then they get discounted. So in some sense, when links are drastically under-priced & have no editorial function there is a bit of a self-correcting mechanism where a lot of those sorts of links get flagged and discounted.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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If you are smart they shouldnt cost more than the time you take to create content and seed it.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I know! It’s crazy what Cutts charges for a blog link these days!! [ ;)- ]

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Eric WardERIC:

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I don’t understand. Links can be purchased? No way.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Haven’t you heard of OLPC? The Organization of Link Producing Countries (aka the Link Cartel.)

They meet every quarter to determine pricing and availability. Although I hear there are some disagreements lately since some want a steady income source and others want to maximize their profits while they can.

(The above is satire of course.)

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Everyone wants to get rich without having to do any work (like winning the lottery). The same is true for links, people want to get links without going through the time and trouble of creating great linkworthy content, and promoting it, and repeating it every month. As long as people are willing to pay for shortcuts in the form of links, the prices will respond to the laws of supply and demand.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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I honestly don’t buy links, outside of a few handful of paid directories when warranted, so I’m not really “up” on the prices. But I’d guess part of the high prices is because they’re in demand and ones that pass credit have high values in the right industries where a top Google ranking means six figures in profit. Additionally, Google has made it clear they can and will punish link sellers (when they feel like it), so it’s also a riskier proposition for the site owners as well (assuming they aren’t simply link farm builders and care if their site gets “hit.”)

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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Supply and demand – they’re powerful and influential, but hard to come acquire (even harder if you want paid links that actually work long term).

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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I am pretty sure the price of those links will go down if you report them to Google. I am not encouraging people to report link sellers. Just pointing out that the commerce in links based on PageRank is a rip-off. The metric used to price the link is controlled by Google. Duh. Yet it’s not unusual to read forum or blog posts where they type with the left hand that PageRank doesn’t mean anything to them and with the right hand praise or seek the high PageRank link. PageRank is a useless metric in terms of predicting potential ranking pop of a link. People like to agree to that but when it comes to green pixels common sense and reason disappear. That’s why they’re so expensive.

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Question eleven…

What percentage of your ranking strategy for a client was “getting traditional type links” two years ago? What percentage of your ranking strategy for a client is “getting traditional type links” now?

Aaron WallAARON:

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Both are still quite close to 100% today. However as social continues to get blended in I see it eventually moving toward a 50/50 game for many types of businesses, and those that do really well with social media might even get closer to 80% or 90% of the effort pushed into social at some point.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Our search strategy has always been based around analysis. I don’t think we have ever approach a strategic plan with, get x links rank for y. That has served us well moving into the post Panda world, where so many other factors are at play. None of our strategies ever begin with links, but almost all of them include strategic linkbuilding concepts, so the importance is there, but it isn’t the only ingredient.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I’ve not changed the way I link, just where the links come from. I believe in starting with foundational links (directories, blog posts, profile links) as a way of getting “link juice to flow” and then branching out into more aggressive or non-traditional tactics using the media, offline promotion, social media and content. What we do next really depends on the niche.

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Eric WardERIC:

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The percentages have not changed, but my target site selection criteria has.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Focus is on traditional links now and then. Other links are an added benefit. An example would be using social links to jump start a viral campaign. This way you get the best of both worlds. But my main focus is still on traditional links.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Getting traditional links is still the core baseline for every project. However I spend a lot more time on the social media related ways of getting links. The links are important but so is sending signals to search engines that actual people visited your website. IMHO getting 500 links with no facebook likes, tweets, or google toolbar data is red flag for artificially created links.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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I very rarely do client work because I am usually focused on my own numerous properties. The percentage allotment though would depend on the industry. The smaller the niche, the easier it is to get ranks without straying far from traditional links. The more competitive the niche, the more important it is to have a strategy that includes “indirect link development” through utilizing social networks and traditional media, as well as focusing on creating stellar content and branding.
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Rand FishkinRAND:

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2 years ago we were just leaving the consulting business, but I hadn’t done active, recruiting-style link building in nearly 18 months. Once we found what content/community/education/social/etc. could do for links, we shifted almost entirely in that direction. For some clients, it wasn’t the right match, but for many others, it worked spectacularly.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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A high percentage before. A higher percentage today.

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Twitter asks…

As I did last year, I asked Twitter again this year… “If you could ask some of the best link builders in the world a question, what would it be?” I picked a handful of questions I thought were interesting and threw them in as bonus questions:

“What is a commonly accepted and taught link building practice that you choose to avoid, and why?”

– asked by @RavenJon

Aaron WallAARON:

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I generally do not do too much reciprocal linking in a traditional fashion. I find that I get a better return on my time by going after other link opportunities.

I should say that if a great reciprocal link opportunity comes up & I notice it then I will go with it, but it is not something I have generally found worthy of the time.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Usually if a link strategy is widely taught or accepted it doesn’t have much value, because people begin abusing it, and it turns dirty. We tend to develop organic internal strategies, and keep them close to the vest.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I avoid reciprocal linking not because it doesn’t work (it does) but because it takes an inordinate amount of time to implement. Time = money and I don’t see the algorithmic return.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Anchor text. Overrated. Easily gamed. Easily detected.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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Depends how you define common and accepted. Personally I stay away from merit-less press releases and mass article submission. Anything that can be automated and used by the masses doesn’t produce the results I’m looking for.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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I’m not a big fan of emailing commercial sites and asking or in some cases trying to trick them into giving you a link. I’ve found that automated spammers who came before have pretty much taught those site owners to ignore those emails. I will actively chase .edu and trusted organizations. They are harder linsk to get but almost always worth it

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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Link buying. Don’t get me wrong. It works. and I know how to do it. I advise on it. But I personally don’t do it. I am willing to put in the effort with long term strategy and results in mind. And I’m cheap. :)

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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General directory link building. Even lots of SEOs I like and respect use this and I know it works, but other than manipulating SERPs, I don’t see it providing any other value and for that reason, I think Google/Bing will eventually discount these. Niche-specific resource lists and curated portals like what you’d find on a geography professor’s website for students are a totally different matter.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Shortcuts work for the short term. You have to balance your long-term goals with short term needs. Short term can be lucrative. What one avoids depends on their ambition and goals and quality of life choices.

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“Is there a lifespan value of a given link, and how does that factor in to value & time to acquisition?”

– asked by @MichelleRobbins

Aaron WallAARON:

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I sorta conceptualize link lifespans using the concept of link rot. As more links in an area of a site rot out (sites go offline, sites get repurposed, etc.) then Google may trust the remaining links a bit less as well. And then not every site stays online either…so some of the links go offline, and when they do those links generally no longer count because they are not on the link graph.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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Its all part of the marketing mix. Value of a given link is probably to hard to indicate, but measuring ranking increase with everything you do, and at what point, then measuring the time and costs associated should give you a solid ROI if you have effective conversion tracking setup. From their you can get a base value for your linkbuilding efforts.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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I don’t know, I’ve never tested for this algorithmically nor heard of anyone else who has. Not sure how you can tell and draw a strong conclusion either unless you work for an engine. That said, if I could land a link on a highly authoritative resource page, I would do it at all costs. Resources that continually attract traffic and links no matter what because they provide timeless information or are constantly in the public eye – those are the type of pages I’d put all my efforts into getting. A great example of this would be this post Aaron wrote in 2006, it’s a timeless piece and continues to attract links to this day.

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Eric WardERIC:

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Some blog links lose impact over time, as do some abandoned sites, but I don’t know of a way to measure this. I prefer links that help forever.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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It depends on the type of link and site it is on. I prefer to spend the most time on links from older trusted sites. They may take longer to get, but they’re more likely to be around for a longer period of time.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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You want links that you think are going to last. I run some automated link checking scripts and in the past few years I’ve been blown away out how many sites just shut down. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense trying to get a link from a site you don’t think will be around in a few years.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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Trying to determine what sites will still be around in ten years isn’t realistic. There is a chance that *every* link you get may eventually disappear. But it doesn’t matter – because you need the links to rank, so you still have to attempt to build them. The higher quality the site, the harder the link is to get and the more likely it will live a long life. I had someone tell me the other day they didn’t want to do guest blogging because the post will “eventually fall off the first page” of the blog they guest posted on. Me? I don’t care. If it’s a good guest post and you promote it and the site has a readership, it will still carry value. Especially if that value is held up against a link from a crap splog homepage with eight other link buyers srrounding you. The goal is to get the best value I can, obviously, but I’m not going to turn down opportunities to get relevant links because they “may not be as strong” a few years down the line.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I’ve not felt much in terms of the diminishing value of links, other than the natural “fresh boost” followed by the return to “normal value.” While I suspect there may be some decay factor, good links also do other positive things like branding, direct traffic, etc. so I worry much less about any eventual loss.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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Links are in flux. Links drop off, links lose value because more links are added to the backlinks of a site that is linking to yours, etc. Fortunately, once you rank well there is an echo effect that helps with this. Acquiring links should be an ongoing activity no matter how well your site ranks.

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“WHERE does it make sense to cut corners in the process [of link development] and where do you not dare cut corners?”

– asked by @netmeg

Aaron WallAARON:

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It makes sense to cut corners / use automating when doing a lot of your background research & prospecting. I don’t cut corners when interacting directly with people though, because I fear it leading to brand damage.

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Dave SnyderDAVE:

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I don’t think its ever smart to cut corners. The game is too sensitive now to play around with your livelihood.

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Debra MastalerDEBRA:

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ALWAYS pay top dollar for a good copy writer, don’t scrimp here. If you have to cut corners, look at cutting research hours instead. It’s better to find 10 good blogs than 100 mediocre ones. Once you partner with 10 good blogs, work hard to create the absolute best content for them. Once you do, the mediocre blogs will end up coming to you.

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Eric WardERIC:

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I honestly don’t cut corners.

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Justilien GaspardJUSTILIEN:

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I’d say when going after low-value links it makes sense to cut corners since those links aren’t going to help as much. I wouldn’t cut corners in going after links on authority and trusted sites.

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Michael GrayMICHAEL:

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Trust and authority are the two most important aspects of a link in my mind. I would rather spend 1 week doing the work required to get one trusted link, as opposed to 5 minutes using an automated piece of software that got me 500 links.

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Rae Hoffman-DolanRAE:

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I typically don’t cut corners. The few times I’ve tried to cut corners on link building processes, I ended up paying for it in time or lost opportunity. I know. You want a way to make link development less time intensive or less expensive… but quick and and cheap link development results in quick, cheap, easily duplicated and eventually devalued links. But it all depends on your risk tolerance and what you’re attempting to build. Don’t cut corners on branded sites you value. Cut corners on crap sites you don’t mind potentially losing opportunities for.

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Rand FishkinRAND:

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I like cutting corners on anchor text – it feels like Google’s getting slightly less addicted to exact-match anchor text and a little more worried about context, surrounding text, relevance, quality, etc. Where I won’t cut corners is on intent and lasting value – if I couldn’t proudly display my link building tactics on a blog I knew Google webspam team members were reading, I wouldn’t do it.

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Roger MonttiROGER:

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It makes sense to cut corners in how much you pay for a link. I do not dare cut corners on content, content developers, and link workers. A good link worker is one that can improvise and find new niches, a self-starter.

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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. Please feel free to tweet, +1 and “”Like” this post! Cheers.

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