Link building is without a doubt the most time consuming—but most rewarding—aspect of search engine optimization. It usually takes more effort to promote your content (build links) than to actually create it. As I have stressed repeatedly before, compelling, useful content should make your link building efforts much easier.
Before I go any further, let me note that I have a slightly different perspective when evaluating link-building tactics than most SEO consultants. I do SEO primarily for my own sites and my income depends on the ability of those sites to make money. That means that I try to build links that primarily offer long-term value. I still try to get the short-term and medium-term value links, but I like to build authority for my sites. If you’re working for a client or a boss that wants to see immediate results, your priorities will probably be different.
In situations where I have to pay or put some serious effort to get a link, the most important criteria is always: Will the link send useful, converting traffic?
Why is this my most important criteria? Let's explore three different scenarios to illustrate this:
Jennifer is a link-building analyst at a small SEO agency. Her job is to select the link sources for her clients. Most clients want to see results instantly. She knows that the easiest way to get links and potentially good results is from directories. It doesn't matter if nobody knows about the directory. If it has a high PageRank and the cost is reasonable, she goes for the link. The result is that the site might experience a boost in rankings—temporarily—and the client will be happy—temporarily. Hopefully, long enough for Jennifer to collect payment for her services! 🙂
Obscure directories are visited by search engine crawlers, but they are rarely visited by users. This might result in fleeting search engine rankings, and subsequently visitors from those rankings, but ultimately the search engine's purpose is to follow the user. We (as webmasters) are the ones casting the votes by creating the links. Eventually search engines get 'smarter' and discount these directory links. I assign them a low weight as the probability (risk) of these links losing value is very high. They are of short- to mid-term value. I pursue them for my sites, but they are low on my priority list.
Now, Susan is an in-house SEM analyst. She needs to drive sales to the company's website. She does so primarily via PPC as the results are immediate and effective. But she also complements her strategy with SEO, pursuing organic links that will primarily send converting traffic to the site and maybe even higher search engine rankings.
I assign medium weight to these links. As I said, search engines need to follow the user if they want to be successful. The result is that they will have to follow these links eventually, and that will result in search engine referral traffic.
Let's take for example forum signatures or Wikipedia links (which are 'no-follow'). Even though I know these links are not very useful at the moment for link juice, the referral traffic is excellent, because it's highly targeted, and best of all, some 'influencer' might read your post and potentially provide a direct link from their blog or site, tell others and so on.
Search engines are currently following these patterns via their surveillance tools (browser toolbars, analytics, etc.). Whether they are using the data is a matter of debate, but they will eventually use this information to tell if a link is really valuable or not. That’s ultimately their purpose, isn't it?
Our final link builder is Aaron, a well-known writer with a big following on his blog. Most of his posts are useful and naturally linked to by other bloggers in his industry. Search engine robots follow and trust the links, and so do users. He gets direct referral traffic, as well as good rankings when search engines rank his pages for the relevant terms. This is the ideal case. You get good rankings as well as direct referral traffic from visitors. I assign strong weight to these links.
As I have mentioned before, the way to do this is to build your site into an authority in your specific niche. Easier said than done, I know! It takes time, it is more difficult to do—but is definitely rewarding. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all.
What is your most important criteria? Speak out in the comments section.
July 25, 2007 at 12:05 pm
This is definately some sound advice. I've seen lots of sites that try to build links long before providing valuable content and, while they might temporarily earn a higher Technorati ranking, they seldom last long. Your suggestion that the best way to gain readership involves commenting on other blogs is dead on. More often than not I've been directed to a site because the commentator provided some value to the post :)
July 26, 2007 at 5:36 pm
Jason, That is how I've built all the traffic and links to this blog
July 25, 2007 at 1:24 pm
I think the most important criteria initially is pretty much anything that will get you ranked in Google for a term that will bring you targeted traffic. I have seen some people achieve this by spending a few thousand pounds on links in directories. For mildly competitive search terms, this seems to work quite well. I know one site with about 600 links which ranks above other highly spammy sites with 1000's of links. I've also seen sites rank for search terms that have approx. 750 searches a day just because they are listed in the Yahoo Directory and have a handful of other links, but these rankings seem to be temporary. I'm not sure if its coincidence, but I’ve also noticed very impressive ranking climbs in Yahoo after getting listed in DMOZ. I'm not sure if you have any insights on this? Recently I had a site that was ranking on page 9 -13 in Yahoo that shoot right up to result 3 and the only change was a DMOZ listing. Yahoo is a mystery to me. As you say though, and has been the focus of many of your articles, if you want to be one of the big boys you’re going to have to get some real high quality links. They may not bring as much converting traffic as organic/PPC, but this can make your traffic go through the roof. If you can keep it up, the results of your quality link building/baiting will be what gives you industry recognition and in turn will probably allow you to up your prices and get the biggest clients. On Jason's comment above regarding gaining readership through commenting. I am on the fence with this one, I think most of your readership will come through the socialbookmarking sites. However, I found your blog via your SEOMoz posts and have kept coming back because its the only <i>advanced</i> SEO blog around.
July 26, 2007 at 4:37 am
Hi Mutiny, I tracked back to your site earlier so commenting has not done you any harm :-) Regarding social bookmarking <a href="http://www.onlywire.com/" rel="nofollow">http://www.onlywire.com/</a> is a free tool that allows submission to multiple bookmarking sites, they have a FF plugin too, so you just click a button in your toolbar when you want to bookmark a page...
July 27, 2007 at 11:09 am
Thank for the reference to this OnlyWire tool - looks very useful. I guess i owe you a link then :P I think Jimson has a good point below, each site requires its own angle.
July 26, 2007 at 4:39 am
Hi Hamlet, Do you plan to divulge the links to any of your sites, it would be interesting to see them....
July 27, 2007 at 11:27 am
<blockquote>Hi Hamlet, Do you plan to divulge the links to any of your sites, it would be interesting to see them….</blockquote> Jez - At the right time, I will.
July 26, 2007 at 5:53 pm
Mutiny - There is a lot of ideas packed in that comment :-) What I can tell you, from experience, is that the worst feeling for an SEO is tasting a delicious profitable ranking for some time, and suddenly see the ranking tank. That is why I don't like to advise quick (spammy) tricks. You need to think long term. Focus on getting the authority links first. Those are the hard ones. They will keep your site ranking. The easy links you can get any time.
July 25, 2007 at 3:10 pm
I just found this site today, and I'm very impressed with the way the topics are presented! But before we argue about Search engines, you have to decide what percentage of your traffic you should work on: Direct (returning visits, etc.), Referral (forums & social bookmarks, etc), and Search (Google, Yahoo, etc). Those are the basic 3 stats from Google Analytics. It all depends on the nature of your blog or wesite: Free site? Selling products? etc. Once you decide, then put your efforts in that area. Comments?
July 26, 2007 at 6:51 pm
<blockquote>I just found this site today, and I’m very impressed with the way the topics are presented! </blockquote> Thanks! <blockquote>But before we argue about Search engines, you have to decide what percentage of your traffic you should work on: Direct (returning visits, etc.), Referral (forums & social bookmarks, etc), and Search (Google, Yahoo, etc). Those are the basic 3 stats from Google Analytics. It all depends on the nature of your blog or wesite: Free site? Selling products? etc. Once you decide, then put your efforts in that area. Comments? </blockquote> Your comment makes perfect sense. Please note that my focus on this blog is primarily search engines. When I talk about social bookmarks etc. is primarily for the link value for search engines.
August 6, 2007 at 7:51 pm
I followed your link here from the "Smackdown" post on sphinn, so I would agree that comment links are working for you. This is an interesting article, and I realize now that I have already largely been targeting sites that could send me focused referral traffic. "detour search traffic" As Danny Sullivan phrased it in his comment. Anyway, having the concept more well defined now I should be able to go about it more effectively. And my ignorance shrinks a bit more. Thanks.
August 7, 2007 at 4:55 am
DrDave - Thanks for your comment and visit.
January 30, 2008 at 8:28 am
I’m not sure if its coincidence, but I’ve also noticed very impressive ranking climbs in Yahoo after getting listed in DMOZ. I’m not sure if you have any insights on this? Recently I had a site that was ranking on page 9 -13 in Yahoo that shoot right up to result 3 and the only change was a DMOZ listing. Yahoo is a mystery to me. Your lucky i cannot get into dmoz, my guess is its because i am a directory. Judging by the listings for directories in dmoz i'm not sure if they frown upon them, maybe they find them as competition. As for my link building efforts, i'm finding it tough not being a writer an all. Creating quality content both in-site and in other locations is the key. If all eles fails, pay for it...
March 10, 2008 at 8:50 am
So, it's about the same as my 401(K) administrator recommended for financial investing: diversify, limit the amount you put in fast-action high risk, but concentrate on the long haul, stable base. Makes sense to me. Knowing your material intimately is one thing; being able to relay it to others clearly is a gift that you use well and we all benefit. (I think that's a 'warm fuzzy' but it's quite true.) n.kateus <a href="http://www.fundraisingsoftwarepro.com" rel="nofollow">www.fundraisingsoftwarepro.com</a>
February 13, 2008 at 8:24 pm
I had not considered that a no-follow link could have value. But, yes, if it generates traffic it would be valuable. My area is law and most law blogs (or blawgs) are no follow and they actually receive very few comments. It's not clear to me how commenting on other lawyers' blawgs could generate traffic for me but I'll explore it. P.S. Thanks to Jez for the link to OnlyWire.
February 13, 2008 at 8:39 pm
Here is a fun variation to blog commenting (which, by the way, I seem to be doing a lot of tonite; we're having a blizzard here in Utah so maybe I've got some subliminal urge to connect with the Domenican Republic right now). Anyway, here it is: college newspapers. They often have a website with articles posted and nearly all use the same software which asks for your link like blogs do. They actively seek comments. You can browse via a site I will tell you about in minute and when you find an article about which you have somthing to say, you make a sincere comment. It's fun and it doesn't feel like work so you can do it while watching television or otherwise spending quality time with your significant other. Go to collegepublisher.com and you should find there a list of some of the affiliates. Each site will have links to other papers which publish that day.