What if all search engines got together and decided that links were no longer important? Suppose, in a blink, they all changed their ranking algorithms so that link popularity meant nothing to your page factors. Would that mean that you should not care about getting links to your site? Of course not!
Links are hugely important in and of themselves. The best links are always contextually relevant to the visitor. Those are the links you wantthey drive qualified traffic to your site.
And that should be your linking philosophy. It sounds crazy, perhaps, but you should practically forget about search engines. If you chase what you think search engines want when it otherwise makes no sense, it will not make any sense to the search engine either. You want the links that drive the highest number of qualified visitors to your site, so that you can convert them. If you relentlessly pursue that strategy, you will find that the search engines reward you, too.
How Not to Get Links to Your Site
To prove the point that your best policy is to ignore what search engines think about your links, it is worth exploring the alternative. How have sites fared by chasing the algorithm to build up links? Well, it has been an interesting ride.
We begin our story back in the B.G. timesBefore Googlebecause at that time no search engine ranked sites based on links. Sites linked to other sites purely because their visitors would benefit, so the number of links to a site was a good sign of how good its information was. From its inception, Google, in its wisdom, used the link information to determine which sites were of higher quality (that determination made up a huge part of its page ranking factors) and was able to rank the better sites at the top of its search results. This technique worked so well that many people began to use Google.
As Google began to attract more and more searchers, and as other search engines began to adopt similar page factor approaches that also relied on links, search marketers began to see how important links were. So they tried to get every site in creation to link to theirs. "Get more and more links!" they told themselves, no matter what the source. Search marketers with multiple unrelated sites heavily linked them all together, all in an effort to impress the search engines. For a short while it worked, but the search engines adjusted.
Search engines began to look at the quality of the site being linked from, weighing links from important sites more heavily than from unknown sites. They rated each site on the quality and quantity of links and used that rating to judge the strength of each link's endorsement. As a result, pages with links from only low-quality sites plummeted in the rankings, so the search marketers adjusted.
"Get links from the biggest sites!" the search marketers exclaimed. The directory frenzy was on. Find the sites that seem to be the most important and get your site listed. Yahoo! Directory and countless smaller directories were the places to be. However, the search engines noticed that many of these directories were not careful enough about what sites were linked and many popular sites seemed willing to link to almost anyone, regardless of how relevant the links were. So the search engines adjusted.
Search engines noticed that these links tended to go to the home page of each site, but the interior pages got very few links. The search engines began to place more and more emphasis on the anchor text of each link, looking for more than just the name of the company pointing to its home page. Sites with just home page links stopped getting high rankings for informational and transactional queries, so the search marketers adjusted.
"Deep links are what are important!" they told themselves. Soon, they started the two-way (reciprocal) linking frenzy. "I'll link to your pages if you link to mine," they told each other. Some sites set up dozens of links to each other to get those interior pages connected, causing the search engines to notice that two-way links do not call out quality sites as well as one-way links. So the search engines adjusted.
Suddenly sites loaded with reciprocal links began to fall in the search rankings, as sites with many incoming one-way links began to receive more weight. The search marketers noticed again, and they adjusted.
"We need as many one-way links as possible!" the marketers realized. They started littering the guest books and message boards of other sites with links to their URLs. Marketers discovered that posting to blogs was especially easyyou could even write a program to do it for you. Some of these links were legitimate services to visitors, but many were designed only for search engines to findthose links did not really identify the best sites, just the most aggressive marketers. So, the search engines adjusted.
Each search engine began to look more closely at the type of each link, placing more and more emphasis on how important the linking sites seem to be. Search engines also discounted links from pages with dozens or hundreds of links. The sites with thousands of random one-way links from guest books stopped ranking #1. Instead, the core sites (from the bow-tie theory) were thought to be more important than other sites, so links from those sites were also deemed more important. Again, search marketers noticed. And they adjusted.
"Buy one-way links!" was the new rallying cry. Because a search engine cannot tell the difference between a one-way link that was freely given from one that was purchased, search marketers went out to buy as many links as they could. They had to pay top dollar to get links from those very best core sites, on pages that did not have many other links on them, but it was worth it. For a while, at least. Until the search engines noticed that little-known sites would suddenly leap up in the rankings when nothing about the site had improvedbut they had begun to get a lot of important links. So the search engines adjusted.
Search engines started downgrading links between sites that had wide disparity in popularity with no strong relevance between them. (Just why did that popular technology newsletter suddenly start linking to this new gambling site?) Search engines began to downgrade sites that were new or small that take sudden leaps in link popularity, assuming that they have bought their links.
"Relevant links are what are important!" they told themselves. And they were right. Relevant sites linked to other relevant sites. They linked to home pages and to deep interior pages. Is that the way the story ends? Only in fairy tales. This story never really ends. It will go on as long as there are search engines and search marketers to adjust to each other.
And our story was a fairy tale, too. The evolution of ranking algorithms and search marketer behavior is far more complex than our little story showsit did not play out in the neat order we show herebut you get the point. You can decide to play this game of cat and mouse with the search engines, but we recommend that you play a different game instead. Our game takes a lot less energy, and you will not be subjected to bumpy ups and downs in your rankings every time the algorithm zigs when you zag.
So what should your linking philosophy really be?
Think About Visitors First
Sound familiar? Yeah, it's the same advice we gave you for content in Chapter 12. It works just as well for links. And it makes sense, if you stop to think about why links are valuable to you. First and foremost, links drive visitors to your sitevisitors who come to your site because they followed the links. These extra visitors can complete your Web conversions the same way that searchers can.
So how do you drive the most conversions from visitors who follow links? You start by thinking about which sites can deliver the most qualified visitors to yours:
Okay, so you want links from high-traffic sites related to yours, especially sites that do not have many other links. Sounds simple, right? In some ways, it is. You want links to drive the most qualified traffic to your site so that you can increase conversionsthis strategy does that. What is amazing about this simple strategy, however, is that it will give you the best search rankings, too. If you attract links to your site from popular relevant pages that have few other links on them, your pages will score high page factors from search engines. Remember, search engines are forever tweaking their link popularity algorithms to better reflect the quality that human visitors impute to each page. If you identify the links you want because they will draw the most qualified visitors, you will always be in sync with what search engines want, too.
But knowing what links you want is actually the simple part. It is harder, we admit, to actually go out and attract those links, but we cover how to do that later in this chapter. For now, let's look a little more closely at what kind of links you want.
Think about the bow-tie theory, with a twist. (Can you actually twist a bow-tie?) You want to be part of "the core"and depending on your site, you might be able to achieve that (maybe even do it rapidly). However, it might be helpful to think about every subject or theme having its own bow-tie with its own core. Snap Electronics wants its site in the core, yes, but it should think about placing the digital camera area of its site in the core for digital cameras. Because a search engine looks at the thematic content of your pages and of your overall site, it asks, "What subject is this page about?" It checks which words are commonly used on your site and correlates those words to popular subjects. You can think about the search engines discerning the bow-tie relationships between all the sites on a certain subjectthese are the sites that get the highest page ranking factors for queries on that subject. Any query relating to digital cameras will tend to find core and destination sites from the digital cameras bow-tie.
If you seek out relevant, popular sites, especially sites that do not have many competing links on them, you will be targeting the right sources for your inbound links.
The Harder a Link Is to Get, the More Valuable It Might Be
Attracting links to your site is, unfortunately, one of the tougher things to do in search marketing. If you start with the right philosophythink about your visitors firstyou will be off to a great start. However, you must realize that there is no quick fix in building quality links to your site.
It isn't hard to get links to your siteif you aren't picky about their quality. If you do not mind getting links that drive little traffic, you can get them quite easily. You send out some e-mails to a bunch of Webmasters and offer them a link if they give you one. You both dump links on rarely visited pages that have dozens of other links on them and off you go. You have links.
But how valuable are those links? If the pages containing the links are not heavily visited, how many visitors will come? If the sites are not related to yours, how qualified will they be? If the sites are not well respected, will their recommendation of your site engender deeper trust? Exactly what do you get from such links? Table 13-1 shows the value that you should place on links from different placesit is the same value that search engines place on the links, by the way. The table is a gross oversimplificationthere are more than just two kinds of Web sites and five kinds of linksbut is instructive anyway. Look closely at the table and see the pattern. The more-popular site's link is always better than the less-popular site's link of the same kind, but some links from average sites can be valuable (and are often easier to get).
You might see a pattern here. The links that are most valuable are actually the toughest to get. Anyone can set up internal links from one page on a site to another, but it takes more effort to negotiate two-way links with another site. It is harder still to get a popular site to send a one-way link in your direction. For example, it typically takes three to six months (or more) to get added to the Open Directory (www.dmoz.org). This exclusivity is one of the reasons search engines give "extra credit" to pages included in DMOZ. Because there is a human review process, directory links are highly regarded by search engines.
In general, search engines are smart and getting smarter. The best links for your visitors might be difficult to get, but they are the ones that search engines reward, too. Later in this chapter, we show you how to go about getting those links so that you attract both visitors and search engines.
Think About Links from Your Site
You need to have an outbound link philosophy, too. What sites should you link to? If your site links to mediocre (or worse) sites, you devalue your site's authorityto visitors and to search engines. Ask yourself whether the link to that site enhances the value of your site in your visitors' eyes. Some experts say that you should have very few outbound links, so that you take no chances of devaluing your site, but that makes no sense for many sites. Very successful sites can have few outbound links (those are the destination pages from our bow-tie diagram) or they might have many outbound links (they are the core pages)it all depends on what fits your site. You do want to avoid having a site full of origination pages, where you have many links into the core but attract few back to your own site. If you think about it, pages that have lots of links to low-quality sites mixed in with links to core sites are probably origination pages, because they attract fewer links back from the core.
So what should you do? As usual, consider outbound links based on their effect on your visitors first, not the search engine. Here are the key questions to ask when considering an outbound link from your site:
If you create an outbound links page, it sounds better to call them "resources" than "links"it is more oriented to your visitors' needs and helps to set the tone of what the value is to your visitor. Snap Electronics thought carefully about their outbound links and decided to avoid a "links" page entirely. Instead, they made sure that each product linked to camera review sites that posted favorable reviews, both because they wanted their visitors to see them and because they wanted those reviews to be found by search engines. (They made sure to use anchor text that would be useful for searching, such as SnapShot digital camera review.)
Some experts advise that all outbound links open a new browser window, because it makes it more likely that visitors will return to your sitethey will eventually have to close that window, at least. Although this is true, it is also widely believed that opening new browser windows can confuse novice Web users and those that are visually impaired (because their screen readers do not always handle this technique well). In addition, new windows often annoy experienced users who want to control their own browser. We advise avoiding new browser windows because annoying your visitors is not the ideal way to get their attention.
By now, you should have made some decisions on your link philosophywho you want links from and who you are willing to link to. Because search marketing revolves around inbound links far more than outbound ones, we spend the rest of the chapter showing you how to go about attracting those inbound links you need.