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Help Your Site Grow by Properly Managing Links

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This post is part of a series called SEO Fundamentals for Web Designers.
Website Optimization Techniques for Local Businesses
A Web Designer's SEO Checklist (Including Portable Formats)

Link building is probably the most time-consuming task of an SEO. Nevertheless it’s perhaps one of the most important aspects of search engine optimization. Today we take a look at the various techniques that can be used to create and manage inbound links.

Note: I’m aware that link building isn’t exactly related to web design. But because we want to create a complete SEO Session, we have no choice but to include it.


Let's Back up a Little

In the very first article of this Session - An Introduction to SEO - we learned how search engines work. One of the factors that search engines use in their algorithm are links. Search engines see a link to a website as a vote for that website; the more links (or votes) you get, the higher the page will rank.

It’s important to know that not all links have the same effect. Links from trustworthy sites with a high authority are more valuable than links from less established websites.

That’s why link building is an important part of search engine optimization. Links can vastly improve the performance of your website in the search results.


Things to Consider When Building Links

Of course there are a few things you should keep in mind when you’re building links. As we’ve said before: not all links are created equally.

Domain Diversity

Is it better to get ten links from one domain, or one link from ten domains (presuming that all domains have the same authority)? In this case I would suggest to go for the single link on ten different domains.

Google’s algorithm analyses the domain diversity of inbound links to determine the PageRank of a page. For this reason it’s a good idea to build links from a wide variety of domains. Getting five links from one domain will not help you rank five times as much as a single link from that domain.

Page Context

On a related note; site context also plays a role in the valuation of links. Links from pages about a similar topic to your site are more valuable.

For example: if you sell furniture online, a link from an interior design website will help you more than a link from an unrelated site (for example a pet shop). Context is key.

External vs. Internal Links

There are two types of links: internal and external. Internal links come from the same domain (for example from the ‘about’ page to the ‘clients’ page) while external links come from different domains.

Internal links have some SEO value, but external links are much more important. External links pass more link juice than internal links.

Link Position

Search engines have a pretty good idea about the various elements of a page (body, footer, sidebars, etc.). Based on the location of the link, they might allocate more value to it.

That’s why links in the main content of a page are more valuable than links in a sidebar or footer. Why? Because these links are probably related to the content of the page, thus making them more relevant for visitors.

Anchor Text

The anchor text is the text that is used to link to a web page (usually in blue and underlined). The keyword used in an anchor text can help the underlying page rank for that keyword. So instead of using ‘this page’ or ‘click here’ as an anchor text, use a meaningful keyword.

As with most SEO-related practices, it’s best not to overdo this. The goal is to create a natural link profile for your site (not everyone links with a keyword, so you need to add some diversity).


Link Building Tactics

There are several techniques that can be used to build links. These techniques can be divided into two major categories: natural link building and manual link building.

We talk about natural link building when someone links to your site without your intervention. This is usually the case if you create informative or newsworthy articles. As we’ve said before: quality content will automatically attract more links.

However, the chances are that you need to put some effort into your link building. Manual link building is acheived via outreach to other webmasters. Usually you give something in return for a link to your site.

To get you started and make your link building a little bit easier, we’ve collected some link building techniques that can help you:

Natural Link Building

Natural link building is all about creating valuable content that solves a visitor’s problem.

The challenge is producing unique content on the web. You’ll find information about virtually any topic online - from knitting tutorials to a review of the latest smartphone. So that leaves us with two tactics: either create a more comprehensive source of information or be the first to break a new story.

Choosing a different content type can also help you get links. Some content types tend to attract links naturally, such as infographics, comics or quizzes.

If possible you can develop a tool that can be useful for your visitors. If it can solve a problem you’ll quickly get a lot of fresh links. Joost de Valk, better known as Yoast, has developed several popular Wordpress plugins which earned him links from almost 3000 different domains.

yoast inbound links

Something that is done frequently in the design industry is the creation of freebies. By giving away free icon packs, textures, code snippets... you can easily attract links.

But there are plenty of creative solutions to attract links too. Romain Brasair, for example, turned his 404 page into a real eye-catcher. And even e-commerce sites can attract a lot of links by thinking outside the box. HEMA, a Dutch retail chain, created a Rube Goldberg machine in their online shop.

Manual Link Building

The first step of manual link building is finding relevant websites. As we’ve said before; it’s best to get links from relevant, authoritative domains.

Finding these can be a bit tricky. However, there are several tools that can help you, such as the Mozbar browser plugin (Chrome / Firefox). This plugin displays the Page Authority (PA) and Domain Authority (DA) in the SERPs.

seomoz toolbar serp overlay

These metrics can help identify potential websites to contact. As you can see in the example above: the first and last website would be really interesting to get a link from.

Now comes the hard part: contacting the webmaster. Finding a contact form or e-mail address shouldn't be a problem. Convincing him/her to add a link to your site is a different story. That’s why it’s customary to give something in return.

Writers often provide the webmaster with a guest article in return for a link. This benefits both parties: the host has fresh content for his readers while the SEO has a link. The author usually gets free publicity in the form of an author box at the end of the article.


Editor's note: I have a serious dislike for people approaching me with article ideas when their primary motive is link building! Ninety-nine percent of these article concepts are weak (sometimes plagiarized) attempts at getting the author's domain linked to from tutsplus.com. Kevin's said it before during this session, but it's worth saying again: quality content is more than ever recognized as being important - that's what you need to be creating!

no thanks
Don't expect a reply if you send me an email like this..

Alternatively you could help webmasters solve problems. Notify them of broken links or code-errors. You can even help them with other aspects of their site, for example by designing a new header image.

If you’re selling a product or a service you might do a giveaway. Contact a website and tell the webmaster that he can test the product / service or give it away for free to his readers (in return for a link of course).

You can even sponsor a local event or sports team. These events or teams usually have a ‘partners’ page where they link to all their sponsors.


Managing Your Link Profile

If you have a suspicious link profile you might get a penalty from Google. This means that your page can disappear from the search results completely. To prevent this we need to make manage our links.

Nofollow Tag

The nofollow tag tells search engines not to follow a link. This means that no PageRank is transferred to the underlying page.

You might remember the nofollow tag from our Robots.txt article. If we use the nofollow tag in the robots meta tag, Google will ignore all outgoing links on that page. However, we can also add this tag to an individual link:

<a href="http://website.com" rel="nofollow">Website</a>

Google wants webmasters to add this nofollow tag to paid links. Paid links are a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Besides paid links this tag can be useful for comment sections. There are plenty of spammers out there who want to build links via comments. To discourage these practices it’s best to add a nofollow tag to comment URLs.

When it comes to link building: if you were able to add a link to an external page, make sure it’s a follow-link (i.e. there’s no nofollow tag). Otherwise it won’t help you rank.

Disavow Tool

The Disavow Tool is a brand new tool that was released at the end of 2012. It can be used to remove links that point to your website. Remove is perhaps a bad choice of words - it tells Google to ignore certain links that point to your site.

This tool can be used to recover from Google’s Penguin update. Some webmasters have received an ‘unnatural link warning’ in Google Webmaster Tools due to a high amount of low quality links pointing to their site (something the Penguin update is looking for). Websites with a suspicious link profile were affected by this, often to their surprise. James Farmer from WPMU was hit by this update because he had a link in the footer of the Wordpress themes he released.

Thankfully you can use the Disavow Tool to clean up your link profile. Here’s how it works:

  1. First you need to go to this Webmaster Tools page (you can only use this tool if you are registered as the ‘owner’ of the domain).
  2. Select the correct domain and click the ‘disavow links’ button.
  3. Select the link file (more info below) and hit the ‘submit’ button.
disavow tool

You need to upload a text file with a list of bad links. For example:

#contacted website owner to remove link, no response
http://website.com/page-name.html
#multiple bad links from domain
domain:website.com

It’s best to add a comment (#) to every URL. It can be useful if someone from Google evaluates the disavow file. URLs need to be placed on a separate line. You can add the URL of a single page or ignore links from an entire domain (be careful with this!).

How do you know which links to remove when you get an unnatural link warning? Matt Cutts explains in this Google Webmasters video.


A Note About Social Shares

What about links from Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other social media? Do social shares have an impact on your performance in the search results?

Actually, we’re still trying to figure out the effect of social shares. Multiple studies have shown that the importance of social shares is increasing. They might - and probably will - play a big role in the future.

However, classic links are still more important than social links. Social shares don’t have the same value as links from web pages because they are rather volatile.

That being said, social shares can still be extremely valuable. I’m sure some of you will get the majority of their visitors from social media. Social shares can improve your online visibility and in turn improve the chance of gaining natural links from other websites.


Resources

To end this article I’d like to share two useful resources:

The first is a collection of Link Building Strategies from Point Blank SEO. Jon Cooper has compiled a huge list of tried and tested link building techniques. You can filter the list by time to execute and dependencies.

The second resource is a list of email templates. If you need some ideas for your email to contact webmasters, this list can be a great starting point. You’ll find templates for a wide variety of questions.


Conclusion

Link building is a crucial aspect of search engine optimization. If you want to grow your site and attract more visitors, you should start building quality links. Some links will be created automatically, but most links require some effort from your side. In case you need to clean up your link profile you can use the nofollow tag or Google’s Disavow Tool.

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