Most webmasters who are interested in promoting their sites via search engines such as Google are aware of the importance of backlinks when trying to rank for their chosen keywords.
One of the things that set Google’s patented algorithm apart from the lesser search engines was their use of link popularity to guide their SERP (search engine results page) positioning. As a result, backlinks matter – you can’t do without them if you want to rank well in the major search engines.
Regardless of which methods you choose to promote your site, you should be aware of the following general guidelines that can make or break a campaign.
Black Hat Versus White Hat – You’ll hear these terms a lot. Techniques that are considered white hat are those that the search engines endorse, while black hat techniques are those that the search engines disapprove of. If you pursue a black hat strategy you run the risk of being penalised or even banned from the search engine indexes. If you’re reading this article, that’s not a good thing.
PageRank – This is a logarithmic scale from 0-10. Sites with PageRank 10 have the highest level of importance in Google’s eyes while sites with a PageRank 0 have the least. Install the Google toolbar. Make a note of your site’s PageRank by moving your mouse over the green bar. Ideally, you want links from pages that have a higher PageRank value than your own. A site’s PageRank is determined by the number and quality of its incoming links among other factors.
Nofollow – This link attribute was introduced in 2005 by Google to thwart blog spam, whereby posts are made purely for the purposes of gaining backlinks. MSN and Yahoo also respect this attribute. Nofollow tells the search engine that the link isn’t meant to be a vote of confidence for the target page, thus eliminating its SEO value. There’s a great Firefox plugin that highlights nofollow links in pink, saving you from having to check the source code of every prospective page. Links can also bring traffic directly to your site, so if you do gain backlinks with nofollow attributes, they may still be useful, especially on high traffic/high relevancy pages.
Relevancy – A few years ago this mattered much less. Then, the quantity (PageRank) of incoming links was the most important factor in a site’s link profile. Nowadays quality (i.e. relevancy) is at least as important. So if your site is about fishing, you’ll want links from other sites about fishing, or thereabouts.
Spam – Any user generated approach to building backlinks can open the door to spam. Nobody likes spam, not the search engines, nor bloggers, nor users. Build your links for people, as well as for search engines and participate in the communities you’re targeting for promotion. This is crucial if you’re serious about your reputation.
Automation – Keep it to a minimum. This is a hard subject to generalise about, since automation could refer to sophisticated black hat php techniques or the use of relatively innocuous link management software.
Anchor Text – This is the most important thing to remember when link building. Anchor text is the text that is used to visually represent a hyperlink on a webpage. Search engine spiders use the anchor text of links to help determine the subject matter (and thus the keywords ) of the target page. Therefore, you want to use keywords that you’re trying to rank for in the links and, crucially, make sure that the keywords are on the page that you’re linking to.
It also helps to have keywords in your domain name, so that when someone links to you (without your control) using, e.g. yourkeywords.com, the search engine will use the url as the default anchor text. This is most applicable to viral/linkbait approaches but has value whenever you receive an unoptimized backlink from a third party.
1) Link Exchange
What is it? You contact another webmaster proposing that you link to them and that they link to you.
Hat Colour: Dark Grey
Pros: Large volume of links can be acquired relatively quickly. Anchor text can be arranged to suit. Exchanging links can open the door to wider affiliations between sites and has the effect of shaping web communities.
Cons: Google cracked down on reciprocal links a long time ago, so if the links are traded from site A to Site B without any triangulation, the value of the respective links goes down a great deal.
Should you do it? Use a three way liking structure if one of the potential link partners has more than one indexed domain. This makes it less likely that Google will discount the exchange (as it’s not a reciprocal link in the classic sense) but don’t expect miracles from link trades, even if a lot of PageRank is involved. Web sites with fully automated link exchange processes are close to the black hat border and so are probably not suitable for sites that have a reputation to uphold.
2) Buying Links
What is it? You contact a Webmaster directly or through a link rental network and offer money in exchange for (generally high PageRank) links from their site.
Hat Colour: Grey to black.
Pros: The advantages are potentially greater than those of exchanged links (due to their non – reciprocal nature). Many agencies (no names) use this method to quickly buy powerful backlinks for their clients.
Debate in the industry seems to reveal a consensus that there are cases where paid links are legitimate, if they’re serving a form of display advertising in their own right.
Cons: Matt Cutts, Google’s anti search engine spam guru, has written a lot about the subject and has stated that paid links are an unacceptable means of acquiring links. Several high profile sites have been penalised for selling links by having their PageRank taken away so that their outgoing links have no value, while several have even been de-listed completely from the index.
This is easily the most controversial and potentially confusing item in the list.
Should you do it? Possibly, if you’re careful. Make sure that the link is on a relevant page and in a location that won’t appear spammy if checked manually.
3) Article Marketing
What is it? You write articles and post them on article sites. The articles contain backlinks to your site.
Hat Colour: Muddy White
Pros: This is a great way of getting a high relevancy link from a page that is customised to the particular (SEO) requirements of the writer. Post your article on sites like Goarticles and link to your site in both the text (using appropriate anchor text) and boiler plate section. Makes sure your keyword variations are spread through your article once or twice per paragraph. That’s enough that Google gets the message of what the page is about and not too much to make it think that you’re trying to trick it.
If you write well and have something worth saying, people might link to it, causing it to rank well for your choice keywords and send you traffic directly through its links.
Cons: It’s quite rare that an article site does well enough to gain much PageRank itself, so individual links will not carry much weight in ultra competitive markets. Even if an article directory site has a high PageRank at the top level domain, it’s unlikely to trickle down to the page on which your article will be published.
This technique is labour intensive.
Should you do it? Almost certainly yes. Assuming you have time, this is a great way to market your site. If you’re in charge of lots of sites and don’t have the time to write yourself, it’s worth paying a copywriter to write them for you.
On the other hand, it’s possible to build many thousands of links this way and high volumes do help.
Also, articles can look very spammy if they are copies of other people’s material or are churned out without significant useful content.
Just because the top SEO agencies don’t always do it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.
4) Blog Posting
What is it? Links are included in comments on blogs which the search engines find and count as a vote for the target site.
Hat Colour: Grey
Pros: Blogs still represent and opportunity for the link builder as long as your posts are appropriate and the blog dofollow.
Cons: When blogging became popular, SEO savvy folk jumped at the opportunity to use and abuse the comments features of blogs. The original PageRank algorithm, devised in 1997, didn’t take into account user generated content and by 2005 blogs had become a major target for spam. The nofollow attribute was introduced as a standard feature of Blogger and WordPress. This took most of the SEO value out of links posted in user comments of blogs.
Should you do it? Only after considerable research. Some bloggers remove the default nofollow attribute and if you can find a list of dofollow blogs that are relevant to your niche, you’ve found a very useful potential backlink source. Make sure that your links are relevant to specific threads and do not spam the blogs.
If your posts are good and the site you’re trying to promote through SEO as good, there’s a good chance that the links you post will act as ‘linkbait’.
5) Forum Posting/Signatures
What is it? You post on relevant forums and include links in your posts to your site. You also take advantage of the signature feature so that every one of your posts has an optimised anchor text link to your site.
Hat Colour: Light Grey
Pros: Forums don’t have nofollow in their user generated content very often. If you start a thread yourself, you can control the title and much of the content of the page your link will sit on, thus ensuring relevancy in the eyes of the search engine.
Cons: Forums have a lot of outgoing links so the link value per link is devalued greatly. Therefore, not a lot of ‘link juice’ will be passed via links from forums. Many experts in the industry are of the opinion that forum signatures are of very little SEO value but that they’re very useful for getting referral traffic, especially if from a respected poster.
Should you do it? Yes, but don’t centre your campaign on this method. Make sure you don’t spam the forum (by not participating in it and then immediately plugging your business blatantly) and be sure that its niche is relevant to yours.
6) Press Release
What is it? You release a statement on press release sites such as Technorati including a backlink to your site. People are likely to link to you if the press release is relevant, interesting or pertinent.
Hat Colour: Quite White
Pros: Google thinks highly of this kind of approach, as it involves no manipulation of the search engines and relies on other people linking to you. If your press release is good, you can get strong relevant links from people.
Cons: You need something of substance to talk about in the press release which must grab people’s attention. This isn’t always easy and depending on your niche, it could be virtually impossible.
Should you do it? As long as you’ve got something worth saying and have a strong unique selling point it’s certainly worth trying. Vary your source of distribution for maximal results.
7) Directory Submission
What is it? Google started its initial crawl of the web by using the contents of the Open Directory Project (DMOZ). Using such directories, you post a link to your site along with a short description.
Hat Colour: Beige
Pros: You often get to customise your backlink. This means you can use your own description, your own keywords and choose the category that suits your site the best. Some directories (such as DMOZ) require manual checking before a site is submitted, which means that a larger degree of trust is ascribed to links from these locations.
Cons: Many directories charge in order to send you a one way link or ask that you also link to them. Both of these clauses speak to the link exchange and paid link discussions above. By definition, directories have enormous numbers of outgoing links, which devalues each respective link. Also, as with article directories, the pages that your links will appear on won’t have the same PageRank as the top level domain.
Should you do it? It’s certainly worth submitting to DMOZ and the Yahoo Business Directory. Yahoo charge commercial sites $299 for a listing but if your site is non commercial it’s free. Make sure that the Site Title Field has keywords you want to rank for in it. Posting your site in a multitude of directories has diminishing gains.
8) Social Bookmarking
What is it? Sites such as Digg and Stumble Upon allow you to create pages within their domain containing links to sites that are shared with peers. A bookmarks page on Digg could become viral and the content could be compelling enough that people link to you from their sites.
Hat Colour: White
Pros: Very useful both for gaining backlinks and getting direct traffic, which, as has been discussed, stands a good chance of earning more backlinks as people link to you. If your site is good and has something unique, your backlinks could increase exponentially.
Cons: It’s not always easy to know what pages to bookmark and there’s a knack to getting people to bookmark your content. Can be spammy and can look like an unattractive marketing ploy if you’re not careful.
Should you do it? It’s not guaranteed to work but some swear by it. If you’re site’s about paint drying it may not work for you. It can’t hurt to try.
9) Widgets/Link Bait
What is is? Link bait involves getting people to link to you automatically and not necessarily because they want to endorse you. Writing a provocative or controversial article or blog post (such as the famous ‘SEO is dead’ posts, for example), could irritate people enough that they want to write about you and thus link to you. Likewise, fun, interesting widgets that spread virally can have html links included in them that link back to your site.
Hat Colour: Light Grey
Pros: Vast numbers of high quality links can be acquired in a short space of time. Linkbait methods can help sites rank well in highly competitive market places.
Cons: Like most link building techniques, a spammy approach is tempting. If an html link in a widget has nothing to do with the sites that the widget is on, or that the widget is about, Google has been known to penalise sites by de-indexing them.
Should you do it? Yes. This is one of the hardest techniques to execute effectively. There is a degree of chance involved and it helps to have great content in one form or another. Research this subject well before taking any action.
10) Word of Mouth
What is it? You speak to people every day. Tell them about your site. Sell it to them and there’s a good chance that people will want to link to you without you having to prompt them.
Hat Colour: Angelic White
Pros: This is a cheap method that allows you to get links that are utterly natural in origin. There is no more a white hat technique than this.
Cons: It’s a slow method of self promotion. You need to have good content and nice presentation in order to attract links.
Should you do it? YES. This is a harmless way of promoting your site and though it’s slow and less direct than some of the other methods, it could provide you with high quality links that are a genuine vote of confidence for your site.
There is one concept underpinning link building that has been alluded to but deserves its own section. Make sure you have great original content that people want to link to spontaneously. After all, that’s why Google introduced link popularity in the first place.
By Joe Lewis
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