An Introduction to Link-Building: A Crucial Aspect of SEO

Link-building is one of the most important factors of SEO. This guide will explain exactly what link-building is, how to approach it, and what you should avoid. If you're serious about increasing your rankings, then make sure you do not miss this article!
Written by Stephen Chapman, Contributor

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) falls into two main categories: On-page and Off-page. On-page SEO is comprised of the factors you change on your actual Web site itself. Off-page SEO, as you may have guessed by now, is essentially comprised of everything you do elsewhere to promote your blog with search engines in mind. Link-building falls under off-page SEO and is one of SEO's most important aspects. Consequently, it's also one of the most controversial, convoluted, and complex. In its simplest form, link-building can be defined in the following way:

A Simple Definition of Link-Building: The process of generating a link to your Web site on another Web site.Example for Clarity: When you post a comment beneath a blog post and leave a link to your Web site either within the comment or in a predesignated space where you're allowed to enter your Web site along with your name. That's it! Sounds simple enough, right? Well, unfortunately, it's a very complex and convoluted process once you start setting out to intentionally build links. That's when the controversy of the topic also comes into effect -- when you set out to leave a link to your Web site with the sole intention of building a link in mind. And to note, link-building is one of those aspects of SEO that many consider bad practice altogether. Many think of it as a "black hat" tactic but the truth is that there's nothing inherently unethical about building links. It's how one chooses to go about it that can be considered questionable. I'll delve more into the topic of ethics later in the post.

The Importance of Link-Building: Votes for Your Site

Put simply, the more links you have pointing to your site from other sites, the more popular your site appears to be to search engines. You see, search engines (like Google) count links to your site kind of like votes: The more links (or votes) you have coming from different Web sites, the more important search engines (like Google) view your site to be. A very simple concept with a snowball effect towards convolution once you really begin to dig in and implement the practice of link-building. When you set out to build links, it's not enough that you just find any old site and leave your mark, though. That's actually a rather reckless approach and can yield less-than-desired results in the long run.

A much better approach is to seek out relevant sites that have some kind of relationship with your Web site, industry, content, etc. and actually provide something of value to them in return for a link back to your site. For instance, leaving a beneficial or relevant comment based on the post you're leaving a comment on will generate activity and content for that site (things search engines also like to see). With that said, the way spammers and black hat SEOs choose to build links can be compared to a dog who goes out and frequently uses the bathroom any and everywhere; be it a fire hydrant, sidewalk, building, lush green yard, or someone's leg. Naturally, the most appropriate place in the example above is a lush green yard, but where a dog doesn't know any better, a spammer does but doesn't care. The sole purpose of building links through spamming is to get the highest number of votes as quickly as possible from as many different sources as possible.

Speaking of that, here we have a point to ponder on for a moment: Getting votes from as many unique Web sites as possible. Let's say you are setting out to build 10 links to your site. Instead of finding one Web site where you can post 10 links on 10 different pages of the same site, it's much more valuable for you to find 10 completely separate sites to post 1 link each to your Web site on. The difference can be thought of in the following analogy: If you held a vote where people were to pick a favorite choice, would you give more weight to the most voted upon choice resulting from one person voting 10 times on the same one, or would you give more weight to the most voted upon choice that resulted from 10 people voting 1 time each? The latter, of course. While there is much more to it than that -- both technically and theoretically -- the aforementioned is a good introduction for understanding why link-building is important.

Keyword Research and Link-Building: A Perfect Marriage

Note: In an upcoming post, I will explain the tremendous significance of keyword research as a prime mover for your SEO efforts. I will update this portion of this post to contain a link to it once I complete it, but in the mean time, I will simply explain it within the context of link-building.

To make the most out of your link-building efforts, you need to use relevant keywords as your anchor text (the text used within a hyperlink: this is anchor text) wherever possible (but not in a spammy manner) whenever you leave a link. An unclear understanding of how to properly execute this is when some people begin to trespass upon unethical link-building practices. Conversely, a crystal-clear understanding of how to properly execute this is when some people knowingly trespass upon unethical link-building practices in attempt to abuse the system.

To make some sense out of the paragraph above, let's assume you run a Web site centered around comic books. Well, what you would want to do is find a way to leave a link to your site using the keyword "comic books" as your anchor text (e.g. comic books). That's just a very basic example, though. In reality, the term "comic books" is very broad and not something you could hope (or maybe even want) to immediately rank for. This is where the value of keyword research comes into play; it allows you to flesh out "long tail" keywords that have decent traffic and are much easier to rank for. But what is high rank without conversions?

If all you're interested in is popularity, then ranking high will certainly bring you the traffic. When you get into conversions, though... it's a whole different beast. I will update this section once I complete my keyword research article (to be completed very soon) and that will allow you to really grasp the concept of keyword research.

PageRank, mozRank, Alexa Rating, Trust, Authority, and More

I'm not going to dig too deeply into these factors at the moment. More than anything, I just want you to be aware that there are factors in which you can gauge the "strength" of a Web site -- or even just an individual page within a site -- and determine if its worth your time to comment on it. There are a vast number of metrics to possibly take into consideration. In years past, the only metric people cared about was Google PageRank. These days, any up-to-date SEO will tell you that PageRank is dead. While it is insofar as how it worked based on the original documentation linked to in the URL just above, there are still a couple of quick uses for PageRank when included within a bigger picture.

For instance, if you generate a report where you're looking to calculate the overall strength of your Web site, you can gather data across a number of metrics, like PageRank, mozRank, Alexa Rating, Compete Rank, Domain Age (try checking Archive.org), number of pages cached in Google (via the site: parameter), et al. What you end up with is a "big picture" of-sorts and it allows you to get a good feel for just about where your site holds up overall. This is also good for when researching your competition. With that said, don't put any significant amount of weight on PageRank, specifically (which is easy to do, because PageRank is still touted as an alive-and-well entity by uninformed SEOs and Internet marketing "gurus" across the Web).

Sans the example provided above (and perhaps another little scenario or two), it really has become a worthless metric on its own. Along with the type of metrics mentioned above, there are "trust" and "authority" to pay attention to. These are very important factors to consider but I'd like to delve into them at a later point when I discuss link-building in a more advanced context. If you cannot wait, here's an excellent video of Rank Fishkin from SEOmoz discussing these two important factors. As a warning, that video may get into some advanced concepts, but Rand is an excellent and engaging presenter, so I encourage you to watch it anyway.

Lastly, I will cover in a future post ways to make the most out of your link-building efforts, which will include plug-ins for Firefox (such as SearchStatusby Quirk) that will allow you to pull rankings and ratings very quickly, a whole slew of metrics to consider, advanced tips and tricks, and more. So, just be aware that there are things for you to implement to make some of the the processes of link-building as facile as possible.

"Nofollow" and "Dofollow" Links

An introduction to link-building just isn't complete without the mention of "nofollow" and "dofollow" links. While they are both very important factors to consider when building links, they aren't difficult concepts to grasp. Below are simple explanations of each:

"Nofollow": A "nofollow" link is a link that search engines discover on a page and visit, but do not count that link as a vote from the site it found the link on. In other words, "nofollow" is a good way to tell search engines, "I don't mind other people seeing this link and going to it, but I don't want YOU to cast a vote from me in favor of that site and boost their rankings." For example, perhaps you're a liberal who doesn't want their site to be directly affiliated with a conservative media site or something of that nature. You certainly don't want to boost the rankings of a competitor, now, do you?

"Dofollow": A "dofollow" link is a link that search engines will visit and count as a vote from the site it found the link on. In other words, "dofollow" is a good way to tell search engines, "I want you to cast a vote from me for this site!" "Dofollow" links are most commonly found within the main content of a blog post, Web site article, press release, etc. To find a blog or Web site that allows "dofollow" comments is like finding the holy grail for an SEO. To note, there are whole posts and lists that focus solely on telling you where to find "dofollow" blogs and sites. Additionally, there are plug-ins for sites like WordPress which allow you to convert your comments to "dofollow" comments. What this does is promote activity on your blog, but it also attracts a TON of spam. Now, while it may seem obvious that all you would want to seek out are "dofollow" links on industry-relevant sites, there is one very important factor (amongst many others I won't delve into at the moment) to take into consideration: Your link profile.

Link Profile: While "dofollows" are certainly more valuable than "nofollows," search engines (like Google) have all kinds of metrics for fleshing out the true motives behind what would otherwise appear to be a popular site. One of these metrics looks at your Web site and all the sites that link to it and says, "how natural do these links appear to be?" A natural-looking link profile will undoubtedly consist of more "nofollows" than "dofollows" -- especially in today's day-and-age where social media sites make their links "nofollow" and so many CMSs (content management systems, like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, et al) enable "nofollow" comments by default. A lop-sided link profile is a good way to flag your Web site as having suspicious motives. So, to put this into an actionable item for you, the goal of seeking out "dofollows" is not to simply weed out "nofollows," because you should make sure you create links on both types of sites. You just want to make sure you're getting some "dofollows" in the process and not just posting to all "nofollow" sites.

Ethical Approaches to Link-Building

When it comes to building links, there is nothing wrong with the practice itself. Having said that, there is a fine line to walk between what is considered ethical and unethical. Luckily, it's not too terribly difficult to stay ethical. Unfortunately, the desire to rank higher as quickly as possible typically supersedes the desire to stay ethical for many. Accompanied by short explanations, here is a list of some of the methods accessible to build links through. Remember, when applicable, use keywords and link to relevant landing pages based on those keywords:

Blog Comments: As discussed earlier, this is when you leave a comment below a blog entry. This is about as easy as it gets but pretty low on the value scale.

Forum Comments: If you participate on any forums around the web, posting your link within a thread or as your forum signature are two of the easiest methods of link-building. Don't be spammy, though. As with blog comments, these links are quite low on value as well.

Directory Listings: Much more popular in the early days of the Web (and more valuable to SEO back then than they are now), site directories allow you to find Web sites based on specialized categories. They are great ways to pass relevant value and land targeted links and traffic to your site, but once again, they aren't as valuable as they once were. Having said that, they do still offer some value; though, the directories that will make the most difference for you will most likely cost you money to submit to (such as JoeAnt).

Press Releases: Press releases (via sites like PR Newswire)are a great way to generate targeted links using your choice of anchor text! The only problem is that they can be a bit expensive to submit to. Having said that, it can be very worth it if your content is something of interest to others. You can expect a good number of natural link-backs to transpire from a press release, but there has been some debate sparked recently about Google lowering the value passed to links clearly generated as a result of press releases (which isn't too difficult to discern since most press releases post to Google News). Regardless, there is definitely value to be had here.

Social Bookmarking: Sites like Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon exist primarily as an avenue to allow people to share links. They provide good opportunities for you to gain a lot of traffic and, hopefully, back-links as people share your site via other sites. The value of the link itself being posted to one of these sites is very low. Social

Media: Sites like Twitter and Facebook are hot spots these days. Where building links is concerned, if you post the right content and it gets shared enough, there's a high likelihood of traffic transitioning from social traffic to traffic originating from new posts/comments on various Web sites. Whole link-building campaigns these days can happen on the grounds of social media alone -- and for good reason -- but not just any old content will result in a viral response. As with social bookmarking, the actual link on Twitter or Facebook itself isn't very valuable. The goal is for people to take action with your link and post it externally.

Guest Posting: This is when you post an article as a guest speaker on another site -- most likely, a site related to your industry or site content. The trade-off is unique content generated for the site you're posting on and a "dofollow" link or two to your site (if it's not "dofollow," then make sure you request it to be). This can work out extremely well for both of you and help to produce one of the most valuable types of links in all of link-building.

Custom Campaigns: Custom campaigns are my favorite as they allow you to be the most creative. Additionally, the types of links you generate are often as natural as it gets. A few examples of custom campaigns are holding contests, generating controversial content which people will want to share and get involved with, and offering rewards, such as a custom award badge (or image) that someone can place on their site which links to your site and says, "hey, I'm awesome because I have this badge that was given to me from such 'n such Web site!" In terms of value, anything custom that you do should be something that will pay off for the time and energy you've invested in coming up with the campaign.

Article Marketing: This is when you use a site like EzineArticlesto produce link-backs. The short gist of it is you create and submit articles based on a category/topic of your choice, then link to your site either in the author bio section or as a source of information found within the content of your article. By itself, article marketing isn't extremely valuable unless you do a LOT of it across every article marketing site there is. Remember what I said about placing links on as many *unique* sites as possible? 10 articles placed across 10 different article sites will be worth more than 20 articles placed all on one (in the eyes of search engines, at least). There is also the chance that your article gets shared and generates some good referral traffic, so make sure you don't just cook up garbage articles. Provide something of value for others!

Those are just some of the ways you can build links, but the important thing to ask yourself when engaging in link-building is, "if Google asked me how I decided to build this link, would I feel comfortable with telling them or not?" Any time your answer isn't an immediate "yes," you may be stepping into unethical territory in the debate of ethics.

Why Good SEO Agencies Charge So Much for Link-Building

Put simply, good SEO agencies/freelancers/consultants will take the time to find the most relevant keywords you should be focusing on, match them up with specific pages (also known as "landing pages") within your Web site that speak the most to a given keyword, then set out to find the right mix of industry-relevant "nofollow" and "dofollow" sites to participate on in a manner that provides value both to you and to the sites they make contributions to (via creating comments that are relevant to the topic of the page they're commenting on). They will take your brand, reputation, and credibility into account at *all* times and represent you in a manner no less than you would want yourself represented. Shoddy agencies couldn't care less because they know that, most of the time, they don't have to due to the lack of understanding of how this industry works.

While the practice of hiring an SEO agency/freelancer/consultant to do link-building may appear to infringe upon unethical boundaries, the good ones know how to make it look as natural as possible. They will do what you, yourself, would do if you were as good at SEO as they are. The difference is that you can tend to other matters not related to SEO while leaving it to the pros. With that said, if you see a site that offers to build numerous links for you at a ridiculously cheap price, you can expect to be the victim of "spamgrish". If you know anything about business, then you know that to offer something for cheap means that it must be an efficient process for you to make any money. SEO is no different. The question is, "well, what's cheap?" The answer to that is to seek out a legitimate SEO agency, freelancer, or consultant, and ask them how much they would charge for a link-building campaign. After you speak with them and flesh out a number of links to be build over the course of a certain span of time, go compare that price and campaign to the "250 links for $70" type of offers and see. The price will be drastically different, but when your reputation and credibility are at stake, the price of having the job done right makes all the difference in the world.

Buying and Selling Links

DO NOT BUY OR SELL LINKS! In other words, don't offer someone money to post a link to your site on their site. Likewise, do not accept money in exchange for posting someone's link. If Google catches you buying or selling links, they will bring the hammer down on you and possibly blacklist you from their search engine (something you want to avoid at ALL costs). Now, while you might say, "how could Google know if I paid someone to post my link?" Well, if your competition cares to report you for possibly buying or selling links, that's one way. Also, you never know who you're propositioning. You could email the wrong guy/girl who may well just turn around and send your email to Google. Imagine how detrimental *that* could be! So, for all intents and purpose, let's just keep it simple and say "don't buy or sell links!"

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

I have to ask: Are you beginning to see now the complexity that encompasses SEO as a practice? This is just link-building I've been discussing and there's still *SO MUCH* of it I have left to discuss in later posts! To do this stuff ethically and beneficially takes a lot of time and perseverance and it's the reason that no 100% "white hat" SEO solution comes at a small price. Now, read that sentence again. See where I said "...takes a lot of time?" SEO takes time. There are many ways to go about SEO, but to have them done right, they take time. Remember to follow these 3 rules when building links and the rest should fall into place:

1 - "Would I feel okay telling Google how I built this link?"

2 - "Am I providing value to the site I'm contributing to or am I just being "spammy?""

3 - "I will not buy or sell links!" Also, as I said before, your reputation and credibility are worth the cost of having SEO done right and as "white hat" as possible. If you're looking to get into link-building yourself, make sure you read through this post again and again and take into account all of what I say.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me via email or inquire via the comments below, because there's absolutely no way at all that I was as thorough as I would like to think I was, so I have undoubtedly left out some bit of information you may need for something to make sense. There are no stupid questions here and it's *always* best that you err on the side of caution and safety. Please chime in via the comments below as I would love to hear from you!

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