Linking Strategies: The Complete Guide
There are many ways to go about getting links; the different methods vary widely. I recently helped some clients with their linking strategies, and when I did, I researched a wide range of approaches from the perspective of a number of characteristics.
This article presents a massive comparison chart that may even make you reconsider certain link building practices you might already be pursuing. Let’s get a few points straight first though.
Credit for photo of Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” : Architect of the Capitol
——– Characteristics of Linking Strategies ——–
Ethics and Legality
The “ethical” part involves two aspects: not making the internet a worse place, and protecting your client (or your company) from problems down the road. Case studies abound of people pursuing linking strategies where adverse consequences resulted (search on [jcpenney penalty] or [chrome penalty] for some good examples).
Do everyone a favor please – from an ethical standpoint, please don’t spam the world, and make sure you take good care of whoever you’re working for by not doing anything “sketchy”. As far as the “Legality” part goes:
I am not a lawyer, so *don’t take any of what you read in this posting as legal advice* – you should obtain your own legal advice and research all issues to your own satisfaction before proceeding with any ideas mentioned in this article.
However, I can tell you this much – if you are creating fake reviews, or are lying about your identity and are making claims about your company’s products or services (or about a client’s) anywhere, you are treading on *very thin ice*. Just because you’re marketing on the Internet doesn’t mean you are more immune to false advertising claims than your counterparts in the print and broadcasting world.
It’s also important to note that the FTC has put regulations in place to address some internet-specific activities, which appear to be primarily related to blogs. Also, they have strict rules about disclosing certain relationships with bloggers – you would do well to read these two references (note – these references are not necessarily comprehensive, they are only included here to give you a general sense of the issues involved):
- Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising
- Notice of Adoption of Revised Endorsements and Testimonials Guides (Federal Register)
At any rate, you need to determine for yourself what is ethical and legal, I am not going to define that for you.
I will, however, plead with you to at least not utilize some of the more egregious tactics such as mass comment spamming. Think of the Internet as a campsite. Those who know me from Scouting know that I’m not a proponent of “Leave No Trace”; back in the day they taught us to actually leave a campsite *better* than we found it. Please do the same for the Internet – put some good content out there and pack out your trash!
White Hat and Black Hat Linking Strategies
Let’s get this straight right here – “Black Hat” simply means, in my opinion, artificial interference with ranking signals, which Google dislikes. Google, in a sense, acts as the god of the online marketing universe, and a proper god should define “good” and “evil”, which Google has. Understand that, if you pursue “black hat” strategies, you are risking potential thunder, lightning, plagues, and various penalties from the online marketing god if they come to light.
Frankly, there are so many “white hat” strategies available, it’s hard for me to understand why people pursue some of these.
Of course, if you’re pursuing a particular “black hat” strategy that Google has clearly prohibited in their Webmaster Guidelines (via their Terms of Service) and you’re then violating them, then you’re crossing into the areas of both ethics and contract law. Be sure to check out Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and educate yourself – it also links to numerous other pages defining different terms and so on, and can take a long time to read, but it’s well worth the time:
Penalties – A Pragmatic Reason for Sticking to “White Hat” Techniques
Even if you have no moral qualms about pursuing black hat techniques, there is definitely a practical reason to avoid them. If you pursue them, or have someone pursue them on your behalf, you are opening yourself up to some penalties, particularly if someone “rats you out” to Google, or if Google suddenly makes an algorithm change unfavorable to your approach.
Let’s say you hire an SEO company to build links for you, then you fire them after six months. How do you know they won’t report you for the very links they built? Or let’s say one of their employees is fired and goes to another company that has clients that compete with yours. How do you know that disgruntled employee won’t report your clients? Remember, the number one way that the IRS nails tax cheats is through angry ex-spouses; you may have a good relationship with whatever firm you’re currently partnering with, but you never know how that partnership will ultimately end up. This is why selecting an SEO partner with impeccable credentials and a strong reputation, and avoiding techniques that could get you in trouble later, is a must.
In the comparison chart, I’ve included a column “Relative Safety from Search Engine Penalties”. Just because an activity is marked “High” does not mean you won’t receive a penalty; it’s simply my opinion of how risky the activity is.
Also, don’t forget there are all kinds of penalties – the Panda content penalty, for instance – so you could be penalized for issues completely unrelated to your linking strategies.
In the field of SEO, nothing is guaranteed – Google could make an algorithm change and wipe out the value of any particular method overnight; so it’s important that even with totally “white hat” approaches, you work hard to future-proof any SEO work you do.
A link can have either PageRank Value or Anchor Text value. I’m on record as not believing in “authority” and have blogged about this in the past, just google my name and “question authority” if you really care to dig into my position on that.
There may be other values to links (TrustRank and so on), but I think from a linking strategy standpoint, PageRank (or mozRank, etc.) and Anchor Text are sufficient to focus on. Of course, if all of your links are from pages with the same PageRank level, or if all of your links have the same Anchor Texts, that might look a bit unnatural.
Microsite Masters recently released a great study on
diversity and its impact on ranking, post-Penguin – definitely worth a read:
Reversibility is a *very* important factor. What if you purchase 10,000 links through some fiver gigs, and a year later, you get a message from Google in Google Webmaster Tools that Google has identified unnatural links to your website? What are you going to do – fly to India and see if you can track these people down? They’re probably long gone – good luck with that!
This is why pricing for linking activities on fiverr, and various SEO forums, should bear ZERO relation to responsibly performed SEO activity pricing – the former is likely a fully automated approach that is putting your links onto irrelevant pages that are who-knows-where and who-knows-what-about in an irreversible fashion – the other is doing things in a sensible way (if done right) that, ideally, preserves the ability to remove the links.
——– The Linking Strategies Taxonomy ——–
I ranked the different types of linking strategies along various parameters, turned those into numeric scores (not depicted), sorted them, made a few small adjustments, and then grouped them. I have done my best to separate “white hat” from “black hat” strategies; anyone who disagrees with my categorization, please comment below.
Linking Strategies Taxonomy *click to enlarge* Source:Coconut Headphones
To display this infographic on your website, just copy the code below!
——– Highly Effective Linking Strategies——–
Make Great Content
There are numerous ways to obtain links, including, of course, making great content that people will want to link to. It’s important to point out though, that it’s not enough to make great content, as Google so often recommends – it should be great content about topics people care about, which (ideally) have not been well-covered by others. So, keyword research that takes into account opportunity and competition, and a content plan with a forward schedule of “evergreen” content, blog postings, and things like white papers and app notes, are actually the most important of all linking approaches. Creating great content should be the #1 component of any linking strategy, period.
The great thing about press releases is, you control them and can can embed anchor-text-rich links, and the press releases will then likely be scraped (i.e. copied), links and all, by a number of websites.
*Important Tip*. If you link to your press release on PRWeb, PRNewsWire, BusinessWire, etc from your Press Page, you should “nofollow” the link, or Google may consider it a reciprocal link, and you won’t receive PageRank value from those relatively high-PageRank websites.
Asking Partners for Links
Do you have any affiliates, resellers, sponsoring organizations, street teams, suppliers, or other types of partners you can leverage by requesting they link to you? These sorts of links can be very powerful from an anchor text perspective in that you can generally control what they will put up by suggesting it; I would think of these as part of an anchor text strategy, not necessarily a linking strategy for increasing PageRank.
It’s important however in this case to be a very *poor* partner; you need to “nofollow” all links back to their websites, or the links will be counted as reciprocal ones. Yes, I’m on record as not believing in “nofollow” mattering from a PageRank perspective, but I do believe Google respects it when trying to identify reciprocal links.
This is a win-win for you and the blog you’re guest writing on; you can drop a link or two in the text, and they get a free article for their readers to read. There’s no payment involved, so this isn’t a paid link, and you’re very unlikely to receive any sort of search engine penalty as a result, provided you guest post on relevant blogs about relevant topics, and you’re careful to check out the blog you’re posting on first for any existing penalties.
Answering Q&A Questions
This is valuable more from an anchor text perspective than a PageRank one. Most Q&A sites require that you answer a certain number of questions before they will allow you to embed a link, to discourage spammers. This is also a great way to garner additional non-search-engine traffic from people actually using the Q&A site and clicking through to your website.
A “citation” is a name/address/phone reference on a business directory, and Google is pretty well known to utilize these as a ranking factor in “local searches” (i.e. [pizzas warwick], or [pizzas] if you search on them from warwick). Also these will typically have a link, and you can often “claim your listing” for free, so these are some of the easiest links you can obtain.
There are a few paid services which purport to automatically update a number of these for you; I’m not impressed with them yet, although I have heard good things recently about Localeze, which is probably worth a look.
Another tool, Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder, does not automate the process, but is a very inexpensive way of discovering local “citations” that your competitors have which you don’t – you simply enter a keyword and a city, and it does all the legwork figuring out where you need to claim listings. This a great quick way to figure out where some of your lowest-hanging linking fruit is. I highly recommend Citation Finder to anyone doing SEO for local search-oriented businesses.
Submitting articles to article directories has, until a few weeks ago, been considered by many to be a reasonable linking strategy to pursue – and like a press release, you can embed a link or two pointing back to your website. Ideally the content should be unique in each case, or some of the pages won’t be indexed by search engines.
Certainly, there are tools available to help “spin” the original content to make multiple unique versions. The reason people take this approach is , if the goal is to place an article in an article directory which is relevant to an original content – then by definition the most relevant article is the original article itself, but paraphrased.
These tools are usually pretty complex to learn and operate; simply establishing accounts on 10-15 article directories and creating unique articles by hand is probably enough for most people’s needs. Article Marketing has been somewhat controversial in the SEO industry – some think it ineffective (I think they’re incorrect), and some think it is unethical (I frankly don’t understand that position).
Of course, putting out absolute garbage spun text makes the internet a worse place so I wholeheartedly would agree in that case. Performed with individual, unique articles, in the right context, Article Marketing seems to me to be barely distinguishable from guest posting on blogs.
Penguin and Article Marketing
A few weeks ago, Google released what has been referred to as its “Penguin” algorithm change:
As part of the announcement, an article was pointed out which had been poorly spun, was not even correct English in many places, and had a link with anchor text that was totally out of context. The seems to imply that the algorithm change was aimed at actually evaluating links, the context in which they exist, and the content surrounding them.
What is not clear is whether simply rewriting an article completely, placing a highly contextually relevant link in it, and submitting it to an article directory, is something Penguin actually targets. My guess, based on the announcement, is that the algorithm change was targeted at the vast majority of people doing article marketing, who were probably pretty lazy, created spun content left and right that was nonsensical (making the internet a much worse place), and ended up getting what they so richly deserved.
Is Article Marketing Still an Effective, or Even a Wise, Linking Strategy?
I would say the industry is still pondering this question. Certainly part of the Penguin update seems to have been around identifying unnatural anchor text profiles in incoming links (see the study referenced above) – so any linking tactic that simply creates link after link with the same anchor text is probably doomed to failure. But as to the effectiveness of Article Marketing as a tactic, I don’t believe the industry has quite yet come to a consensus.
Nonetheless, I have classed it among the “highly effective” techniques, until proven otherwise.
——– Linking Strategies Worth Considering ——–
These are often overlooked; if you have an e-commerce store, or are a product manufacturer, online coupons are a great way to both do a promotion as well as obtain links. If you submit them to the top two or three coupon sites (such as RetailMeNot), other coupon sites will *scrape* the coupons and display them – so a few submissions can lead to hundreds of links. Just make sure you set a proper time limit on the coupon so it will expire, and make sure you can handle the business from the deals it will generate!
This is somewhat akin to the old tactic of creating some small piece of software that does some simple task and submitting it to free shareware directories (which also scrape each other and propagate far and wide).
If you read any of the SEO forums (check out my news site, Coconut Headlines for a few), you’ll notice pretty quickly that people frequently comment on automation tools that can create social bookmarking accounts and automatically bookmark websites. Although very promising-sounding from their marketing, a review of comments on these tools in the forums will show that these are notoriously difficult to learn, use, and obtain decent results with.
On the other hand, *manually* creating an account on various social bookmarking sites and then bookmarking a web page on them is pretty straightforward.
I sort of mentally bucket this activity together with Directory Submissions; low value but perhaps worth taking a look at (particularly since a consistently high correlating ranking factor over the years has been the number of unique domains linking to a website).
The emerging area of social pinning might be considered in this class of link building as well; as one would expect, automation products are now emerging targeting Pinterest. Although it’s fascinating watching a new area unfold, I don’t think there are enough social pinning sites around to make that sort of strategy worth considering, even just from a practical standpoint – obtaining thousands of links from the same domain is nowhere near as effective as obtaining links from multiple unique domains anyway.
I call this “thoughtful” to differentiate it from comment spamming. “Thoughtful” commenting involves actual thought and writing (and including a link), in response to a blog post or news story.
I did some thoughtful commenting last summer and found little effect; however, later on after quite a delay (4-5 months) I noticed a very strong effect on rankings. My current thinking on this is that Google may be using some sort of delay before links in comments take effect, from either a PageRank or Anchor Text perspective. Theories on this one appreciated.
By this, I don’t mean large well-known directories such as Open Directory, Yahoo! Directory. There are thousands of directories out there, mostly based on open source PHP libraries. Many of them are working on building up their PageRank in the hopes that they can eventually get some small percentage of submitters to pay for better placement. PageRank is generally pretty low from these sites, also most of them only accept a link to a website’s home page, rather than inner leaf pages. It’s fairly easy to submit to these; also a number of automation tools can help with this process – check out my review of SliqSubmitter for one example.
Make it Easy to Link To You
This is a no-brainer; simply putting some logos and easily copyable HTML makes absolute sense, even if you only get a few links out of it. For good examples of websites doing this, see:
——– “Hard to Get Right” Linking Strategies ——-–
Email Requests for Links
Simply reaching out to websites that might be a good fit to link to you is difficult to get right; if you don’t know what you’re doing but try really hard, and always email a particular person who is likely responsible for a particular page, rather than “webmaster”, you can expect something along the lines of a 5% success rate (20 thoughtful emails = 1 successful link).
If you know what you’re doing, put workflow and followup capability in place, have trained personnel using a variety of templates, and are pursuing some smart strategies for convincing people to add your link, you can double this rate to 10%. How to do this is a very long topic better handled another time – this can be a highly effective approach though – outreach of this kind is well worth consideration for any substantial link-building efforts.
If you can give out legitimate awards for something, that can be a great excuse for issuing press releases, and giving badges (with links back to your site) to the recipients. Coming up with a good excuse that isn’t lame, however, is difficult. You also run the risk that you’ll attract too much attention with an award, and Google may put in place measures to devalue the links from your award badges (probably not a serious penalty actually, it just might negate your hard work).
——– Wildcard Approaches to Linking Strategy ——–
Infographics are the new badges (see below). So far it seems like they work pretty well; at some point Google will probably start taking a look at these and figure out a way to devalue infographics (like, hmmm…maybe looking for a string “infographic” on a page, and then examining all the pages that point to it, and noticing they all have the same picture on them 😉
You may have some success with them for now, but I’m a little lukewarm on them long-term because they would be so easy to detect. Even though I’m not a fan, figure 1 is essentially an infographic and you’ll note I included code to make it easy to share.
For the example above, I experimented with various infographic code generators (just google them), but ended up instead simply copying the actual HTML code from the HTML of my blog, ran it through an HTML to ASCII text encoder, and then enveloped it in some HTML to display it in a scrollable text area. It was actually a pretty painful process to get it to where I liked it – if you know of any good infographic generators please comment below.
These are those pre-templated photos with slogans at the top and bottom you see everywhere. These can work well if you make them easy to share with some easy to copy HTML; most of them are generated at meme sites though, and probably whatever you do will make its way on to those sites, without the links.
Here’s an example of one I made but never bothered publishing, poking a little fun at how Matt Cutts seems to always qualify every statement, but then people take the statements as gospel and forget they were qualified.
Much Cutts on Keyword Density Source:Coconut Headphones
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Badges were all the rage a few years ago (SEOMoz actually still has a few of their own they sort of passively promote) but it became widely known that Google appeared to be discounting the links from them, so they’ve generally fallen out of favor. It could be that since they haven’t had much attention lately, perhaps Google is ignoring them from a penalty standpoint; if anyone has revisited these as a linking strategy, thoughts below would be appreciated.
Any fool can put out controversial material; the trick is doing so in a fashion that:
- Doesn’t open yourself up to a libel lawsuit
- Doesn’t open yourself up to false advertising claims.
- Doesn’t open yourself up to a defamation of character lawsuit.
- Makes the world a better place.
- Is clean and on the level.
Sorry though – if you use those five principles as a filter, you’re not going to have many ideas make the cut! Most of the outlets you’ll see for this sort of thing are Reddit, Break, and The Chive. Be careful out there!
——– Black Hat Approaches ——–
As opposed to “thoughtful commenting”, this involves using automation tools such as SENuke, XRumer, or Scrapebox to “blast” out comments to a large number of blogs (or forums). Unfortunately, when people do this, they usually spin comments, target a huge number of blogs, and end up with totally random unrelated comments on the blog posts (for instance, Coconut Headphones gets the occasional “viagra” links in comments – which are invariably formula-driven comments, unrelated to the article the comment is submitted for).
This type of activity is *not* making the Internet a better place – please don’t do it! Also, by doing so, you may be violating Terms of Service on hundreds of websites left and right – making this a doubly-bad idea.
Forum Profile Spamming
This involves using some of the tools listed above, or others, to create thousands of forum profiles; typically a profile is allowed a link back to your website, so it’s an easy way to get many links back to a site. My feeling on these is that search engines must have these types of links pretty well identified by now, so this approach is probably of little value, if any.
Paying Individual Bloggers for Articles
Reaching out to an individual blogger and asking them what their article rates are can be a simple way to get an article written mentioning a service or product.
You need to be careful however – if the blogger makes claims about your product or service, or doesn’t disclose their relationship with you (i.e. you compensated them for that), you might run into big trouble with the Federal Trade Commission (see the section above on “Ethics and Legality” for some useful links on this).
My personal feeling is, steering away from having bloggers make any claims about a product or service at all, and including disclaimers disclosing any relationships, just seems like good business ethics anyway.
It’s important to also note that Google’s Webmaster Guidelines link to a help page on paid links that specifies any paid links should have a “rel=nofollow” appended to them. “nofollow” is an HTML property that was created with the thinking that search engines could use it to disregard links for ranking purposes – see:
Interestingly though, even if a link is “nofollow”-ed, my opinion is that there is a good chance Google will still use the link for ranking purposes (perhaps for PageRank value, Anchor Text value, or some other purpose). SEOMoz’s ranking correlation study for 2011 actually showed identical correlation of rankings on the part of regular and “nofollow”-ed links.
It is important to note that sitewide “blogroll” links are probably relatively more likely to attract search engine penalties (especially if there are several unrelated links next to each other).
Personally, I would also give public marketplaces for text links in blogs a *very* wide berth – using these (just like publicly marketed blog networks) seems to be just asking for a penalty, in my opinion. Infiltrating these marketplaces and figuring out what sites are selling links seems like it would be a pretty easy task for search engine spam teams.
As I mentioned above, you’re on your own, make sure you get legal advice and research these issues to your own satisfaction before proceeding with any linking strategies!
Publicly Marketed Blog Networks
Anyone reading the traffic over the last year on SEO forums like WarriorForum and BlackHatWorld couldn’t have failed to miss all of the offers for services that would give you “hundreds of links per day”….”dripped out regularly”…”high PR backlinks”…and so on. These “blog networks” actually are not networks per se, they are simply collections of large numbers of domains, hosting blogs or other content, where a network owner can easily drop a link to another website.
These were hit hard earlier this year by Google (and I have to say, many people I know in the SEO industry were ecstatic at this change since it resulted in higher rankings for their harder-won, more ethically-linked content). It’s not clear to me whether Google simply devalued the links, or assigned actual penalties (my guess is, it was an actual penalty).
After Google rolled this out, people then scrambled to get these services to *drop* the links they had spent months or years creating. This is a great example of why any linking you do should take into account *reversibility*.
No one seems to have a handle as to how Google targeted these networks, but many suspect it was done by having Google spam team members identify a few sites within the networks, and then using linking analysis technology to roll up the rest of the network, rather than some automated approach.
For instance, one could easily identify a network even if none of the websites linked to each other – by analyzing the sites they link to – if hundreds of them link to site A, and there is high overlap linking to site B and site C, you could easily tease out some commonalities and use those to “cluster” groups of websites. Some networks, for instance, lost nearly all of their sites, while others appear to have been hit only partially.
The consensus seems to be that, as a result, publicly marketed blog networks are now a thing of the past, and only a fool would use them.
Private Blog Networks
The general mood on the various SEO forums seems to be that, contrary to publicly marketed blog networks, small, private ones (again, not really networks, just collections of unconnected websites) are likely to still be effective, if done with care.
This makes intuitive sense – how can a search engine determine whether someone placed a link on a website intentionally for marketing purposes versus the normal organic process, if it’s a single website, with an in-context link that is relevant, and in content that is well written, unique, and interesting? Of course, putting 200 blogroll links on a website, next to links about “debt consolidation”, “payday loans”, and “viagra”, on a blog that is about yard landscaping…is obviously asking for trouble.
Then there those who pursue so-called “Web 2.0” links – the practice of putting up a number of free blogs and so on using sites like blogspot or tumblr, so links can be placed on them. I would consider this to really be the same as a “private” blog network, except instead of requiring domain purchases and hosting fees, the blogs are hosted on subdomains of these high-PR sites for free.
I would expect that the ultimate result of the recent updates by Google is that we’ll see fewer publicly marketed blog networks down the road, and high growth in private blog networks, below the radar, as a result.
I’m sure finding and qualifying customers will now be very challenging for private blog networks, so their impact on the SERPs down the road should end up being relatively much smaller than the blatant publicly marketed ones had been; this is *great* news for people pursuing more “White Hat” linking strategies.
——– Conclusion ——–
Most of the advice I’ve seen in the industry very correctly recommends that you should pursue multiple linking strategies – the taxonomy we’ve presented here can be helpful as you think about what sort of linking “marketing mix” you want to pursue.
When doing so, you should take into account what effort you can reasonably expend or outsource, and your appetite for risk and reward.
Again, get your own legal advice and research any legal or ethical issues to your satisfaction before proceeding with any of the ideas mentioned here.
If you see any incorrect facts, or ill-considered opinions here, by all means, comment below. Any anecdotal information or data you have on the value of Article Marketing as a strategy, post-Penguin, would be of particular interest.