The Basics of Link Building

The most valuable link

The most valuable link is one that your competition cannot get for as long as it sticks

This blog isn’t intended as a source of basic search engine optimization tips – there are already plenty of SEO “experts” clogging Twitter with posts like “showing the user different content to the search engine could get you banned”. But over the coming weeks we will be posting several entries explicitly showing how to be effective in link building. Rather than just posting these entries It seemed like this topic required an introduction rather than just starting with “link building tip #1”, as we don’t want to alienate anyone.

The acquisition of links is considered one of the most basic concepts in SEO, but the actual practice of gathering links is something people often struggle with – it’s time consuming and some markets. So, we’re going to give you the kind of justifications you would need to convince an outsider that a link building project is worthwhile. Then we’ll look at the best ways strategically to go about obtaining links.

Question: Do I need to bother with link building?

Short Answer: Yes, if you want to rank in the search engines.

Detailed Answer

Yes. The only exception is if you have an established, respected and trusted domain that already ranks well in the search engines and you are targeting a non-competitive term. If this is the case, you might get away with putting up a new highly optimized page on your existing domain.

Search engines respond to queries (searches) by showing the most relevant results from previously indexed web pages. The decision around which pages to display will largely be informed by which site, and page, is regarded as “the authority” on a given query. For example, if you search for the term Jaguar parts, the more authoritative sites on that topic stand a better chance of ranking than those regarded as less important. Domain trust comes a close second to authority. Trust is built in a very similar manner.

The single most contributing factor in deciding if a website (or web page) is an authority (or is to be trusted) is the site’s trail of backlinks (sometimes called a backlink profile or backlink footprint) – that is, an assessment of all the links that point back to the site. You may have heard the analogy that a link to your site is like a vote for it. Life would be much simpler if all votes were equal…but as you would expect, some votes are more equal than others!

It is a common misconception that the strength of a site’s vote is related to the pagerank of the site and of the page on which that link appears. Although there is some truth in this, building links purely through a pagerank focused approach is just clumsy.

Question: So what makes a link valuable?

Short Answer: Relevance, authority, trust, page position, anchor text and natural flow of traffic from the linking location

Detailed Answer

Relevance

When you acquire a link from a relevant source, that link has more weight than a more general link from a site or page that is unrelated to your content. The more relevant the link, the more value that link will be credited with. A complex algorithm is employed by the engines to evaluate pages and part of the evaluation process decides upon the topic of a page.

Authority

Links from sites which have established themselves as an authority on a specific topic will have more weight than links from sites which have not established themselves. This means that an authority link from a relevant page on a related site is extremely valuable.

Trust

Search engines will “trust” credible sites, and a relevant link from a trusted site carries significant weight. One element that establishes a website’s level of trust is the site’s backlink footprint. The more “good” links a site has from authoritative trusted sites, the more it can be trusted. Pages on a domain are also allocated a trust factor, and a homepage is more likely to be trustworthy than a forum page. This is because a homepage is the site’s front to the world while the forum contains content which the site owner has less control over – and in the worst case, contains totally unmoderated content.

The main objective of equating trust into rankings is to eliminate low quality spam sites from search engine results pages (SERPs). Presently, sites that are new and appear to be spam are prevented from gaining significant ground in the SERPs. As a general rule, such sites have a poor backlink footprint, and linking out to them is something you should avoid if you want to increase the level of trust in your own domain. Linking to a neighborhood of bad sites immediately associates you with them – and naturally, you are less likely to trust someone in a bad neighborhood.

Link Position/style

This is a grey area with no explicit statement from any authority figure at the time of writing (of which I am aware – please enlighten me in the comments section if you know otherwise), but I feel confident in saying that different areas of a page are trusted more than others. Links at the foot of a page carry less weight than those in a side bar, and they too are less powerful than links in the header. But the best type of link is a contextual one which sits within relevant body copy of a page.

In addition to the position of the link outlined above, it’s useful to note that text links carry the most weight, image links with alt text come second and flash/java links finish close to the bottom. Anything leading edge from a design perspective (Flash) is not good for SEO, however, we can do some magic things with CSS styles on HTML menus quite effectively.

Anchor Text

While the link itself is a vote for the site, the anchor text could be said to be the “definition” of the vote. Search engines validate the topic of your page by using the exact text used to link to your pages. the “anchor text” is the wording used in the html link for example in the following link the words “penny shares” form the anchor text: Penny shares

While it helps to have internal links within your website that point to different pages, having external links (the voices of others) to define these pages adds considerable weight. This is especially true when these definitions come from reliable sources, when there are multiple different sources, and when those sources are considered to be authorities on that subject.

By this point you should start to see how it’s all coming together.

For example. Suppose your website is about lizards, and one particular page is about lizard food. You would link to that page using words like “types of lizard food”, and that would help search engines to define the page content. If a partner site also linked to that page using the words “healthy lizard food”, this would add weight to the page and increase the trust of the search engines that this page is indeed about lizard food.

For this reason, the classic “click here” anchor text is now being hustled out of fashion. It is non-descriptive and it doesn’t help target any keywords (other than “click here”, of course).

As different pages on your site will be about different things, you might have pages on lizard food, lizard habitats, lizard hygiene and lizard life expectancy. It would therefore make sense to acquire links to all of these pages with relevant anchor text and to consider breaking them out into different targeted pages.

Clearly, exact duplication of the phrase you want to rank for in the anchor is the best option in a theoretical world. But having some variation is a good thing. For example, it’s important that your page about lizard life expectancy is linked with “lizard life expectancy”, but it would also help to have “how long will your lizard live”, “lizard life length”, etc. This is because in the real world people search for different things (and you should evaluate the number of searches on each specific term against your targeted phrases). Varying the anchor text while staying on topic makes the link building process seem more natural to the engines (the chances everyone who naturally stumbled across your site and linked to it of their own accord using exactly the same text is slim) so will help avoid any spam flags and providing the anchor text is related to the content it will help define it and add credibility.

This type of deep linking enhances the chances of an individual page appearing in the SERPs, and it gives the site more weight overall.

The natural flow of traffic from the linking location

This is definitely not something you should overlook. If your link can bring a flow of natural traffic from the site which it lives on, then you will have the added benefit of visitors. And we mustn’t forget about visitors. All the work you are going to do to achieve high rankings is basically intended to pull in visitors, and a really good link will do this by the very nature of its placement. Let’s face it, if a link is bringing in visitors, then it will go some way to ticking all of the boxes we’ve just talked about.

How to plan a link building campaign

If you are thinking about a link building campaign for the purpose of improving your rankings in the SERPs, then you have already realized that on page optimization is not going to be enough to get you where you want to be. Link acquisition is where you need to be.

Put simply, the most effective thing you can do is acquire as many backlinks as you can that fit the criteria that has been defined above. You might not need more links than your competitors, but you will need a better link profile all in all. This might mean more links, might mean links from more IPs, more trusted links or more relevant ones, aim for more links to the best practices defined above and you will outrank the competition.

Amassing links

Contrary to what many experts would have you believe, getting lots of links from a single domain can be very advantageous – and it can provide you with an easy way to collect several different versions of your anchor text. If you’re able to acquire several links from a single domain (perhaps you have a good relationship with the webmaster) then it presents you with the opportunity to easily acquire a selection of varying anchor text from that domain (possibly to different deep linked locations within your site) thus targeting different phrases. If the domain in question meets the other criteria above to make it a worthy link neighborhood this will greatly help towards ranking for more than one term. Networking is a powerful thing!

One thing to note here is that Google only accredits the first outgoing anchor text link to a domain on an individual page. So for example, if the text “one thing” at the start of this sentence linked to your page any anchor text lower on the page would not carry weight. This is why it’s useful to have multiple link with different anchor texts on the same domain. That said, it can prove useful, but not if they reside on the same page.

In conclusion

The above steps will help you target different keywords and potentially allow you to give your vote many different definitions. But you need to go further. Increasing the number of vote definitions you have you will still need to raise the number of votes overall (bearing in mind those watchwords – authority, trust, position and anchor text guidelines).

Even when you achieve the rank you desire within the search engines, linkbuilding is something you should continue with. Admittedly, once you have got where you want to be you can often slow down in your link building. But there is an argument that says links can lose weight over time. If you acquire a mass of links which push you though to the first page before stopping, you are also in danger of appearing as though you have created all of your links using an unnatural process (spam flags).

Search engines aim to rank content in order of relevance to search queries, and they encourage only natural link building. If a website owner publishes a piece of high quality content and it naturally attracts links, it is likely that there could be a surge in the number of links initially pointing at it. And more would be acquired gradually over time, even when people eventually stop linking to that content in mass.

This natural approach is one that most SEO experts would advise you to adopt. In my experience, gaining no links over a period of time and then gaining a few hundred a week and repeating the process does not cause a problem. I can’t say for sure if a couple of hundred links a week would fly below Google’s radar, and if you want to be super cautious with your site, following the best practice advice would be the best approach. To get flagged as a spam site for the volume of links you build you have to do something pretty special.

But even so, you should always work out the risk and potential reward on a per site basis.

The next few posts will identify the most effective ways to build a quality backlink profile, the techniques will be enlightening to some and common sense to others, subscribe to the RSS to be informed as soon as each update goes live.

Update to original post:
If you are working on improving your ranking please see the post regarding selecting the best rank tracker for your requirements.