Linking Strategies

Search Engine Marketing
(“Relevant Links Program”)

Executive Summary:

Linking (technically, hyper-linking) has been around as long as the Web – in fact, it’s what makes “Web Surfing” possible! It’s the act of providing a link from a page on your Web site to a page on another Web site (and vice versa) that has a similar or complementary (“relevant”) theme to the content on your Web page. It’s really what the Web is all about – the ability to jump from site to related (“relevant”) site via hyperlinks.

Linking, both within your Web site and to your Web site from other Web sites, is critical to ranking well in the search results of the major search engines for your most important keyword phrases. That’s why I list linking as a key topic under Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in this Digital Marketing Tutorial.

A sound linking strategy, just like the overall subject of SEO, should always start with a focus on the visitors (Customers/Readers) you want to attract to your Web site. And so, just as we discussed in the “how-to” SEO sections in this Digital Marketing Tutorial, the FIRST step in a successful linking strategy is to identify what those potential visitors are searching for in the major search engines, what keyword search phrases they are using, that are closely related to the product or service you are offering for sale and/or discussing on your Web site. That was outlined in detail in the SEO how-to sections.

A great linking strategy contains both “on-the-page” and “off-the page” elements that have been developed around these keyword phrases. We’ll get into the details for each below, but the central idea is that in order for a search engine like Google to find and ultimately rank your Web site highly for a specific keyword search phrase, it is imperative that the search phrase is used both in links on your own Web site pages and in links to your Web pages from other relevant Web sites.

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Linking Strategies

On-the-Page (Internal Links):

FIRST, let’s do some useful SEO-related internal linking. Pick the most important keyword phrase for your product or service. Make sure it’s at least somewhat popular in terms of search engine traffic – no sense in being number one for a keyword phrase no one searches for! (Hopefully you’ve already used the tips in the SEO “To Do List” sections of this Digital Marketing Tutorial to select the major keyword phrases for your site.) Now use that exact phrase as the visible text in a link back to the Home Page of your Web site and/or to the first page of a major Web site topic/category. Place these links toward the bottom of every page on your site. For an example, see the “Search Engine Marketing” link at the bottom of this Web page.

This is called internal linking and it is an effective part of an overall linking strategy because it helps search engines understand what the Web site thinks it’s about! Remember, a crawler-based search engine like Google uses the links it finds on all of the pages it crawls on the Internet to help it define what Web pages are most relevant for a particular keyword phrase. That includes the links on all of the pages it crawls and indexes on your Web site.

Off-the-Page (External Links):

Off-the-page linking involves getting external links (preferably one-way links and “in context”) from relevant Web sites back to your site. These links contain YOUR specific keyword phrases in the visible portion of those links.

How do you find those Web sites that are relevant to your site? Easy – just go to the major search engine of your choice (usually Google), enter your most important keyword phrases and note the top 30 results that appear on the search engine result pages (SERPs) for each of those phrases.

Next, sift thru those results until you find non-competitive sites that might be interested in adding links to specific pages on your Web site from their highly ranked related Web pages.

Here’s an example related to this Web site, the Digital Marketing Tutorial. Imagine if I could get the following paragraph placed on a Web site called “Digital Marketing Tutorial Reviews” that ranks highly in Google for the phrase “Digital Marketing Tutorial”:

Digital Marketing Tutorial by Dave Ingalls – a wonderful resource for new and seasoned Digital Marketers looking for insights into a number of key Digital Marketing topics along with helpful how-to information.

Here’s what makes this link so valuable:

First, the visible text in the link uses the top keyword phrase I want my site to be found for (“digital marketing tutorial”)

Second, the text surrounding the link is highly relevant to the subject of the link itself (digital marketing tutorials) – in other words, the link is embedded in the content of that Web page – it is “in context” with the rest of the page.

Third, the link is on a Web page on the “Digital Marketing Tutorial Reviews” Web site that is directly related to the keyword phrase.

And fourth, hopefully, the link is a “one way” link (you did not have to offer a link from your site back to that external site in order to get that site to link to your content). One way links to your site from relevant Web sites and, in particular, links that do not contain a “nofollow” tag, are considered very important  links by search engines like Google.

Now what do you do? You craft a specific email for the Webmaster/owner of the Web site from whom you want to receive a link. That email contains the external link to your Web site and surrounding text as shown above in the “Digital Marketing Tutorial” link example. The email also contains a quick overview of your site and why it deserves the link to it that you are requesting from this Webmaster. Do this for every external link you attempt to get.

Because of the effort involved, you won’t be able to get many of these links, so why make this effort to get a few external links back to your web site? Because the MOST VALUABLE EXTERNAL LINKS to your Web site are links from Web pages on reputable Web sites where those Web pages are highly ranked by one or more of the major search engines for one of your keyword phrases. Getting a few of them is all you need because it is the QUALITY of external links to your web site that makes a difference in SEO, not the QUANTITY of links.

A nice shortcut in this process used to be Yahoo! Site Explorer, but Yahoo! Site Explorer no longer available. Instead go to Exalead (there our other “backlink search engines”) and enter “link: www.website.com”). Enter the Web page address (URL) of one of the top ranking Web pages in Google for your most important keyword phrases. You will then be presented with a list of Web pages that link to that well-ranking Web page. It’s Exalead’s list of backlinks, not Google’s, but if Exalead found them, you can be sure that Google has as well. Now go thru that list and look for likely candidate Web sites that might also be interested in linking to your site!

Reciprocal Linking:

Originally, proactive linking programs were all about “Reciprocal Linking”. In its simplest form, reciprocal linking is the Webmaster (or Site Owner or Site Marketer) of one Web site sending an email to his/her counterpart at another Web site that has been found to contain complementary content to the first site. The email contains a request for a link exchange between the two Web sites. The email usually also contains a link to a “Useful Links” Web page on the first Web site where a link to the target Web site has already been placed.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And back in the good old days it was! But problems arose when Google came along in the late 1990’s and started to use links to web sites as a very important measure of the importance of a Web site for a given topic. In order to ensure that this “relevant links” strategy worked well, Google had to discount the reciprocal links Webmasters had swapped among themselves over the years because they tended to distort the real relevancy of a specific Web site for a given topic.

So you can add as many links to other Web sites as you like on a “Useful Links” Web page and request that Webmasters at the linked-to sites add reciprocal links from their Web sites to yours on their “Useful Links” Web pages, but be aware that Google does not value these types of links as much as the true external “in context” links discussed above.

My recommendation is to set up a Useful Links Web page on your site. Whenever you receive a traditional reciprocal links request, review the Web site and specific Web page where the link to your Web page has been placed. If it’s from a legitimate Web site with good content related to the content on your Web site, provide a “reciprocal link” back to the originating Web site from your Useful Links Web page.

Why bother? Because as much as traditional reciprocal linking is discounted as ineffective, I believe that there is still some SEO value in these links and it’s worth the little bit of effort on your part to make sure they stay in place.

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