The Need for Quality Incoming Links
by Ryan P. M. Allis, CEO of Virante, Inc.
Visit http://www.virante.com/services/ to learn more about Virante's link building services.
Why You Should Consider Building Incoming Links to Your Web Site
There has been much debate over the past few years as to the value of incoming links. Over the past few months, I have noticed posts in discussion forums of leading web marketing portals such as WebProWorld, Crea8asite, and WebmasterWorld claiming that building incoming links is "in decline" an "utter waste of time" and "will kill your PageRank."
My goal with this article is to explain what does work in link building and add to the body of evidence showing that executing a proper link building strategy is a critically important part of obtaining top rankings for highly competitive search terms on the major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search. I will first provide a bit of background history to explain why quality incoming links are so important, then provide a listing of the top rankings my company Virante has obtained to date for its clients on highly competitive terms. I will then describe the process of building links, how to determine how many links one needs, and how to decide whether to build links in-house or outsource the link building.
Before we get any further into the article, let’s take a look at the results Virante has been able to obtain over the past year for ten of its clients' web sites.
What type of results have we obtained for our clients by following our link building strategy? Here’s a partial list accurate as of April 1, 2005:
#1 for entrepreneurship in Google and Yahoo
#1 for spring break in MSN
#1 for email marketing software in Yahoo
#1 for business broker in Yahoo
#1 for acne treatments in Google and Yahoo
#1 for acne products in Yahoo
#1 for fibromyalgia treatment in Google
#1 for facial skin care in Google and Yahoo
#1 for colon cleansing in Google, Yahoo, and MSN
#1 for constipation in MSN
#2 for constipation in Google and Yahoo
#2 for email marketing software in Google
#2 for progesterone in Google
#3 for make up in Google
Here are the sites we obtained these positions for, the number of PR4+ links built to each site, and each site’s unique visitor count during March 2005:
The Position Results Following a Proper Link Building Strategy
Examples of Results Following Proper Link Building Strategy
Unique Visitors Mar. 05
#1 in Google for entrepreneurship, #1 for buyer behavior; #1 in Yahoo for entrepreneurship, #1 for young entrepreneurship, #2 for market positioning; #2 in MSN for financial ratio analysis
#2 in Google for email marketing software, #3 for email marketing
#1 in Google for acne treatment, #10 for acne; #1 in Yahoo for acne products, #3 for acne treatments, #2 for acne prevention; #1 in MSN for acne treatments, #1 for acne prevention, #2 for acne products
#1 in Yahoo for business broker; #2 in MSN for business broker
#2 in Yahoo for Fibromyalgia treatment; #2 in MSN for Fibromyalgia symptoms, #3 for Fibromyalgia treatment; #8 in Google for Fibromyalgia
#4 in Yahoo for make-up; #4 in MSN for make-up; #3 in Google for make up
#2 in MSN for skin care, #1 for facial skin care; #1 in Yahoo for facial skin care; #4 in Google for Skin Care
#2 in Google for progesterone, #6 for PMS
#1 in Google, Yahoo, and MSN for colon cleansing
A Bit of Search Engine History to Explain Why Quality Incoming Links Are So Important
Now that you’ve seen the results we’ve been able to obtain using our strategy of building quality links, let us take a look at some history as to why exactly building incoming links is so important.
In November 2003, Google had its last major algorithm update. At the core of the current ranking algorithm are factors such as keyword frequency, content freshness, title tags, alt tags, and header tags which fall under the category of "on-site optimization" as well as the quantity and quality of incoming links which is known as "off-site optimization." Prior to 2000, when search engines such as Altavista, AllTheWeb, Hotbot, and Lycos were the market leaders, on-site optimization was the most important factor.
During these times, by making certain easy changes on a web page such as repeating your targeted search term multiple times in your content, adding the search term to your meta tags, and putting the term in your alt, title, and header tags, you could fairly easily obtain a top ranking in the major search engines within just a month or two. For quite some time, all it took to obtain a top ranking on highly competitive search terms was just repeating the term over and over on your page, having specialized search engine text in white on a white background, or feeding the search engine spiders one page and your visitors another easier to read page.
Google’s rise to popularity in 2000 and 2001 changed all this. Now, instead of easy to implement keyword frequency changes and meta tag stuffing you had to focus on a whole new aspect. It was no longer just about what was on your page, it was about what other web sites had to say about your page. Link popularity came into play. Now, the easy to implement changes were much less useful and your site’s reputation had much more bearing on what rankings it could obtain. Other sites had to link to your site. The search engines viewed every web site that linked to your web site as a vote of confidence. The more votes of confidence and the more votes of confidence from related web sites that had lots of votes of confidence themselves, the better your site could rank. Thus, the incoming link building industry was born.
In 2001 and 2002 the search engine optimization companies that survived the industry shift learned the new rules of the game and found out that although it took a lot more work to get a top ranking, it was still fairly predictable and formulaic. Numerous link building consultants sprung up and companies like Virante found that after about three to four months they could obtain a #1 ranking in Google for any search term no matter how competitive if they built the right number of links.
The SEO industry was thrown for a second spin however in November 2003 when Google modified the rules with the integration of the Hilltop Algorithm into their general ranking formula. The update caused quite an uproar among webmasters, small online business owners, and search engine consultants alike as a large number of high quality web sites went from being ranked in the top ten for competitive keywords to no longer being listed in the top 10,000 results. The update was thus appropriately named the "Florida Update" after the mess that followed the Florida vote in the 2000 Presidential Election. You might remember my article at the time "Google Goes Bananas: Is Florida Update the Beginning of the End for Google?" Fortunately, by January, most rankings had returned to normal for quality web sites.
What this update essentially did, however, was two things. First, it made links from "expert documents" (documents on a specific topic that had a lot of incoming links from other web sites on that same topic) very important. Now instead of the weighting in the Google algorithm being approximately 60% link popularity and 40% on-site optimization, it was 40% link building, 40% expert document links, and 20% on-site optimization. Link building had actually become more important, not less. Secondly, any site built after February 2004 now had to wait a longer period of time before it could rank well in Google. The waiting period that was previously only three months became nine months.
Both of these changes were made by Google for one purpose—to improve the relevance of search results for its users and to reduce low quality listings using "black-hat" SEO techniques to quickly obtain top rankings. Google figured that if it put new sites in a "sandbox" where they could "play around while they mature" that the incentive to build dozens of low-quality web sites as a strategy to obtain top rankings would be reduced. Hence relevancy would be increased and sites would actually have to have high-quality links and a good amount of quality content to obtain a top ranking on a competitive term. Google didn’t exactly publicize that it was putting into effect the Hilltop Algorithm changes and Sandbox Effect. In fact, most of the SEO industry did not actually realize the changes Google had made until mid-Summer 2004. Finally, however, the industry (and the businesses and organizations who banked on using organic search engine optimization as a way to build visitors and sales) breathed a sigh of relief in December 2004 when the first web sites built after February 2004 began appearing in Google for their targeted terms—setting the Sandbox Effect timeline at approximately 9 months, give or take a few weeks, based on when your site first gets indexed.
What Do These Changes Mean in Terms of Getting Top Rankings for Competitive Terms?
Essentially, these changes mean two things. Now, in order to get top rankings you have to go after certain types of link partners and avoid other types. More on this in a moment. Secondly, if you are planning on building a new site from scratch you should get a basic holding page (even if it just says this site is coming soon) up as soon as possible and submit it to http://www.google.com/addurl.html in order to get Google’s nine month watch ticking.
What Links Hurt and What Links Help?
So let’s talk about links for a moment. What you want are incoming links to your web site from other web sites. An incoming link is a simply a piece of hyperlinked text that takes a visitor to a page on your web site when clicked.
Ideally, you want links to you to:
a) be from sites about a topic that is similar to yours,
b) have the actual linked text (what is underlined and blue, known as the anchor text) as your targeted search term,
c) be on a page that has a PageRank of 4 or higher; and
d) be on a page with as few other outside links as possible and certainly under 60 other outside links
It is important to know that providing a reciprocal link back to the link partner is not really going to hurt you. It is true that outbound links do reduce the PageRank of the link that page is on. However, the amount it reduces the PageRank by is so minute that we feel providing a link back to the web site of the site that links to you is the most sensible and efficient method of enticing other web site owners to link to you. It is extremely important to note that links coming from pages that have a PR4 or higher are the only types of links that Google counts. PageRank 1-3 links still help you in search engines such as Yahoo, MSN Search, Ask Jeeves, and Teoma, but not very much if at all in Google. Finally, it is also important to note (and this is where some confusion comes in) that any link to you containing your targeted text in the anchor text on a PR4+ page will be beneficial no matter what the content of the web site is. As long as the page has a PR4+, Google will see the link as beneficial.
The Types of Links You Want to Avoid Having
What you want to avoid, however, are links that are in what is known as bad neighborhoods. A bad neighborhood, by definition, is a grouping of web sites that have been penalized by Google for either following banned SEO practices or offer no valuable content other than a listing of other web sites (a link farm). You can tell a link farm apart from a legitimate links directory by a simple litmus test. If the directory is organized with topical links in the appropriate categories, it is okay to have your list be there. If the pages are simply posting of hundreds of unrelated links that are not sorted in any fashion, Google may view this as a link farm and penalize the web site.
Determining if a Site Has Been Penalized by Google
There is also a very easy method of determining whether Google has penalized a page. First, download the Google PageRank toolbar at http://toolbar.google.com. Second, look at the PageRank for each page you go to. If you ever see a completely grayed out toolbar, this means that Google has penalized this page. A completely white toolbar with a PR of 0 out of 10 is okay. This just means Google hasn’t assigned a PageRank to the page yet. And of course any PR bar that has a PageRank and thus has green in it is also fine.
Posts in some of the forums I mentioned at the start of this article have led some people to believe that only links that come from highly related web sites are of value. This simply is not true. Any link from a page with PR4 or higher will help in Google as long as the anchor text contains your targeted search term and any link from a page with a PR1 or higher will help in the other major search engines. While a link from a related web page will indeed be more helpful than one from an unrelated web page, all links from high PR pages with the correct anchor text will be accreditive to your own PageRank and thus improve your search engine rankings for your target search terms.
In review, prior to 2000 it was very easy to obtain top positions for competitive search terms using on-site optimization. In 2001 and 2002 it became more difficult as link building became required to succeed. Today, and since February 2004, link building has become even more important and the criteria for the types of links that are required to obtain top rankings have become stricter. Today, building PageRank 4 or higher incoming links (PR4+) to a web site through a coordinated strategy of reciprocal linking, article syndication, directory submission, and online press release distribution through services such as PRWeb and 24-7 Press Release is a key component of obtaining top rankings on competitive keywords in Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search. A proper incoming link building strategy works hand-in-hand with the on-site optimization strategies (increasing keyword frequency, optimizing the title, alt, and header tags, and increasing content freshness through an RSS News Feed).
Determining How Many Links You Need to Build
Determining how many links you need to build is fairly easy. All you need to do is go to Google and type in the search term you’d like to be #1 for. Then take a look at the URL of the first listing and type in "link:http://www.theirwebsite.com" and click search. This will tell you how many PR4+ incoming links this site has. Do this for the first few listings and you’ll generally see a decreasing trend as the positions go lower. As long as you can match the on-site optimization attributes (title, keyword frequency, etc.) of the first web site listed, all you have to do is essentially build one more PR4+ link to your web site in order to get above this listing. Once your link campaign is completed, it will take approximately three months to see the full effect if your site has been around a while and about 9 months to see the full effect if you’ve only recently started your web site(s).
Should You Build Links In-House or Outsource the Work?
When building links you have three options. You can either do it yourself, have someone in your organization build the links, or outsource the work to a link building firm such as Virante. If you follow the proper methods for finding quality potential link partners, contacting the potential partners, and adding the links you would likely be able to build 30-50 PR4+ incoming links per week working 9 hours per day. If you are just starting out with your business or have a person in-house that you can train to build links it may make sense to do it in-house.
This noted, Virante has a team of four full-time persons who do nothing but find and build high quality reciprocal links. We already know the right places to look to find high quality and related partners, already have a database of 4,000 topic-grouped web sites that have exchanged links with our clients’ web sites in the past, and know how to do the in-depth keyword competitiveness analysis required to determine how many links you need to obtain a desired position as well as what search term combinations would be best to target. Finally, because we build links for so many clients at a time, you can have experts working on your behalf at a cost that would likely be less than the cost of building the links in-house. You can view our link building packages and prices and place an order at http://www.virante.com/services/. Please feel free to direct any questions you may have about links, search engine optimization, web marketing, or web site development to our Director of Client Services Malcolm Young at (919) 386-0133 or by email at email@example.com.
Visit http://www.virante.com/services/ to learn more about Virante's link building services.