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The Layman's Guide to Link Building

The Layman's Guide to Link Building

Link building – it’s a massive part of SEO and your online marketing agency will no doubt throw the term around on a monthly basis. You know it’s important, but do you really understand how it works?

While it is complicated, the good news is that Google’s algorithms treat links according to a set of very natural rules, as they would appear in…errr, nature. One particularly powerful and relevant analogy that I have found is to compare websites to people.

A website, like a person, says things in a lot of different conversations. Think of each conversation as equivalent to a page on a website. Some websites talk about a broad range of topics without much depth (like people without a burning passion or specialisation) while some talk about a narrow range of topics but delve into them deeply (a Subject Matter Expert). If you own a business, your website is most likely the latter.

Make sense? Great. So if a webpage is a person, what is a link?



If you guessed a link is a recommendation from someone else, give yourself a pat on the back.

Now, how are different links graded by Google? There are a huge number of factors, I will outline the major ones here.

If a lot of people think that you are important or qualified enough to recommend, then there must be some element of truth in it. After all, where there’s smoke, there’s an arsonist.

Raw quantity used to be a huge factor in search engine rankings a few years ago. However, dirty SEOs in the late 90s built so many low quality, meaningless links with automated tools that Google started to look beyond just the quantity of links. It started to look at the quality of those links – just exactly who is recommending you?

Remember that scene in The Dark Knight, when Harvey Dent walks into a cocktail party full of rich big shots, all by himself? Remember how no-one paid any attention to him? How he shied away to a corner to talk to the butler?

What happened after that is a classic case of passing authority. Bruce Wayne lands on the rooftop in a chopper, steps into a room where he is recognised by everyone (lots of links!) with two gorgeous ladies on each arm (what lovely links!). In that moment, he is The Man. When he proceeds to make a speech about crime, heads nod. When he finally gives a massive prop to Harvey Dent, voila! Cheque books fly open. A thousand street urchins could have recommended Harvey and it would have convinced none of those millionaires to donate to Harvey’s cause. But just ONE recommendation from a power player did the trick for him.

So, getting links from authoritative websites such as Wikipedia or CNN count for way more than getting a bunch links from your mate Ranjit’s 2 week old PR zero personal blog (sorry Ranjit).

OK, so you got Barack Obama recommending you, that’s great! What a huge authority boost for you! Fantastic!

Unfortunately, you’re not running for politics, you’re running for the Head of the Quantum Physics department at CERN. And, as much as El Presidente’s recommendation would impress people and improve your authority in their eyes, the experts would be unlikely to take that as a serious vote. A much better vote would be from Albert Einstein, who is both authoritative AND an expert in the field.

Similarly, links from relevant and authoritative websites are extremely powerful. A link from a high PR website related to your own website is the pot of link juice at the end of the rainbow.

Anchor Text
Great, so you’ve exhumed the great Nobel laureate for a recommendation and he has agreed as long as you stop badgering him and let him get back to sleep . A word to the wise – be SPECIFIC! If he says “you’re a great guy and a loyal drinking buddy”, that’s not as powerful as if he were to say “great candidate for Head of Quantum Physics at CERN”.

Relating that back to the internet, the anchor text (the text of the link as displayed on the linking website) is more powerful if it contains the keyword that you want to rank for.

OK, so in your never-ending mission to become Head of the CERN Quantum Physics department, you have gone out and gotten a ton of specific recommendations saying “great candidate for Head of Quantum Physics at CERN” from Niels Bohr, Fred Alan Wolf, Erwin Schrodinger and all those cats (see what I did there?). You’re on track, right?

Not quite. It turns out those recommendations as a great guy and loyal drinking buddy are important to convince the hiring comittee that you are an all round good guy and that you haven’t actually gone around exhuming and harassing the corpses of dead scientists. While that kind of behaviour may seem fair game to you, it’s not – you will come off as one-dimensional at best and dodgy at worst (not to mention a bad drinking buddy).

In search engine terms, this means that you should mix up your links:

  • Anchor text – natural anchor texts are “click here” or your URL, but also include variations on the words you want to rank for, e.g. “great CERN Quantum Physics Head”
  • Types – a natural link profile includes image links, video links, social links, document links and a whole host of new media
  • Location – having links coming in from various countries is like having a worldwide fan base

Failing to keep a natural link profile can result in your website getting penalised and slipping down the ranks (it happens – Google recently penalised itself for getting bad links!). The word on the street is that anchor text is particularly high on Google’s hit list for 2012.

Growth Rate
You might be thinking this is all too complicated and you understand why you should have the professionals do it. So the next step is to call up your campaign manager and insist that he gets 1 million diverse, authoritative links built by the end of the day or you’ll have his head in a cat box.

Except that will get you banned too. Think about what would happen if Bob, your neighbour’s West Highland Terrier, got thousands of recommendations overnight from celebrities, luminaries and experts around the world. Would that strike you as suspicious?

Clearly, that story never happened. Instead, Bob contacted them all separately and asked them to recommend him gradually over time. He didn’t start at Einstein either – he knew that if his first recommendation was from Einstein, that would be suspicious. So he saved that one up for last and started instead with neighbourhood chemistry teachers and worked his way up, naturally.

So the key takeaways here are that your rate of link growth has to be natural and you can’t have the big hitters recommend you early on in your link building campaign (although you can have low authority websites link to you early and then build authority to them, which then passes on to you in a very powerful way).

And that, my friend, is why Bob got voted the Head of the CERN Quantum Physics department over you.

My Head Is Spinning, Please Stop!
That’s it, in a nutshell! Except, it isn’t. That’s just scratching the surface of link building. I could go into a lot more detail about link decay, internal links (hint: they are like self props from a confident person), domain authority v.s. page authority and a whole raft of other factors that affect link building. There is so much going on in the serach world related to link building, and at such a rapid rate that entire books have been written on the topic (and been rendered out of date by the time they get off the press).

However, if that little spiel piqued your curiosity and you really would like to learn more – why not apply for a job at E-Web Marketing? 🙂


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