Link building is something that all webmasters aim to achieve. It involves other websites linking to your website using a hyperlink. Most of us will already be aware on these hyperlinks, they are links the that connect to other websites or pages. Usually, they are underlined, in bold or a different colour text. They are generally regarded as the easiest way to navigate around the internet.
It is not only humans that use hyperlinks (often referred to as ‘links’), the search engines use them to crawl the internet. They will use them to navigate between individual pages on your own website as well as to external sites. Most SEO companies agree that link building is fundamental to a website’s success. There are many techniques that can be used, the most effective of which tend to be quite difficult and most professionals would agree that it is one of the hardest parts of their job. Mastering the art of high-quality link building will place you ahead of other SEO companies and your competition.
Why is so much emphasis placed upon link building?
Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate the importance of link building is to understand their anatomy, how they are created, and how they are viewed and interpreted by the search engines.
1. Start of link tag: This what is referred to as the anchor tag and is often denoted by “a”. This is what instructs the link to open whilst at the same time informing search engines that it is something that they should follow.
2. Link referral location: Once again you will probably have seen the abbreviation before without understanding what it means. “href” stands for “hyperlink referral”. The text inside the quotation marks is simply the URL of the content that you are linking to. It is important to understand that this doesn’t necessarily need to be a website, it can be the address of a file or image that needs to be downloaded. If you see a link with a #, this is a local link that may take you to a different section of the same page.
3. Visible/anchor text of links: This is the text that is shown on the page, the part that is underlined, in bold or a different colour text. This what needs to be clicked on if you want to open the link.
4. Closure of link tag: This quite simply signifies the end of the link tag and is detected by the search engines.
How do search engines interpret links?
As we have established, search engine also use links and they do this two crucial ways:
1. As a means of discovering new web pages
2. To establish how a page should be ranked in their SERP's
As part of the crawling process, the search engines extract content from the page and add it to their indexes (a form of library). The search engine will then evaluate the quality of the content, initially by focusing on the relevant keywords. In the past the written content was all that was taken into consideration, however, it is now more complex looking into the number of inbound links to the page along with the quality of those external links. As a rule of thumb, the higher the quality of the links, the higher ranking the page will achieve.
Links have been used by the Google since the late 1990s and it is this ranking factor that enabled them to dominate the search engine market. It was Larry Page, one of the original founders of Google, who invented the PageRank, upon which Google to this day judges the quality of webpages.
Used alongside other factors such as keywords, it formed part of Google’s overall ranking algorithm and allowed the search engine to determine ‘quality webpages’.
In many ways links are viewed as a ‘vote of confidence’ in that sites wouldn’t be prepared to link to another site if it didn’t deserve it. The theory behind this is that a link is effectively a referral and someone vouching for you being an authority. It is the same as recommending a mechanic or restaurant to a friend, if they weren’t very good, you would send them.
With the emergence of an increasing number of SEO companies, it became apparent that these page rankings could be manipulated. The techniques, which are nowadays referred to as ‘black hat’ techniques, involved links coming from less reputable sources. Google quickly became wise to this and began frequent roll outs and changes to their algorithm, primarily with the intention of filtering out websites that had used rogue links to obtain their rankings.
As we move forward to the present day, Google has started to actively penalise sites that are viewed as over optimising – in their link building. Often this is in connection to linking to numerous internet directories, many of which have little or no relevance their industry. Google’s regular Penguin updates are an example of this type of clamp down. Arguably, knowing which link building techniques to avoid is equally as important as knowing the ones that you should adopt.
It is always advisable to avoid SEO companies that claim to know all of the algorithm that Google uses to determine results. Quite wisely, Google never reveals how they decide upon results in too much detail, although the broad consensus is still that links play a huge role. It is said that they “represent the largest two slices of the pie”.
The weighting of thematic clusters of ranking factors in Google
When we refer to thematic clusters of ranking factors it usually to cover the points outlined below: Domain-Level, Keyword-Agnostic Features - (e.g. quantity of links to the domain, trust/quality of links to the domain, domain-level PageRank, etc.)
Whenever you consider the weighting of different individual dynamics, it is always wise to assume that that the remaining factors remain equal. On the basis, we feel that the quality and the volume of the links play a huge significance in SERPS. However, unconfirmed speculation suggests that their role may be diminished due, largely due to the release of the Penguin updates and Google’s drive on Google+. Social signals from Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media are likely to play an increasingly important role in a page’s ranking.
That being said, for the time being at least, high-quality links are what will drive more traffic to your website, and in conjunction with that, will help your webpage to achieve a higher page ranking. “High-quality” is a term that is used frequently and this isn’t by coincidence. Google unquestionably focuses on substance over quantity and as its algorithms have become sophisticated, it has endeavoured to filter out poor quality links. Naturally, this impacts on the SEO companies who now need to place their own focus on quality.
What is "nofollow"?
An attribute that is used on some occasions and can be applied to links is known as “nofollow”. It is undetectable by the user although the physical link will appear differently. Below is an example:
<a href="http://www.example.com" rel="nofollow">Example</a>
This is effectively telling Google that you don’t trust a link and you don’t want it to be considered with your content. Basically, the code informs Google that you do not wish attached any PageRank data across this link to the target URL.
The use of “nofollow” and the desire not to be associated with a link is more common than many would perhaps realise. They are frequently used on editable pages such as Wikipedia, guestbook comments and blog comments where people notoriously add dubious links to their own sites.
"Nofollow" code is also used by advertisers who pay for links. They may have agreed to purchase a banner on the site or have included a link in the page’s content. Google believes that a “nofollow” attribute should be added so that the banner is not considered in any organic search engine results. This has been expanded to include optimised links that are frequently seen in advertorials and press releases. Once again the intention is to ensure that they are not considered in the organic SERPS. One the face of it, it would appear that links that include “nofollow” offer no benefit. However, this is not the case. The fact that people click on your link or on your banner suggests that it is working. After all, this is the purpose of your advertising and you are still reaching out to potential clients who may otherwise have been unaware of you or your company.
"Nofollow" links should be viewed in context however. The main purpose of link building is to strengthen your position in the organic searches. It is therefore advisable to keep these types of link to a minimum in order that you have the maximum impact in Google. If you are looking to identify which links have a “nofollow” attribute you can use MozBar to identify them. This will work for any site, not just your own.
What are the benefits of link building?
We have already established that links are one of the most, if not the most important fact when it comes to determining a page’s ranking in the SERPS. It, therefore, stands to reason that the more high-quality links you have pointing to your website, the higher your chances of ranking highly with all the search engines, not just Google.
Of course, link building has a number of other benefits that may be less obvious but should still be taken into account.
By its very nature, link building involves reaching out to others within your industry or closely connected to your industry. This is often referred to as outreach and more often than not it involves offering a promotion of content that you have just created. This may be something as simple as content in the shape of a blog or perhaps an infographic. Regardless of what you are wishing to promote, the common goal is to get a link back to your site. However, whenever you reach out to others in the industry you are aiming to build long-term, professional relationships with key influencers. These will be regarded as those who are highly regarded and trusted within your sector.
Increase in referral traffic
Links have an impact on your search engine rankings and this is obviously hugely beneficial but you may be pleased to learn that they often have an impact on your referral traffic. A quality link from a respected website can lead to your site receiving more hits. The more hits that your site receives, the greater the chance of increasing sales – the ultimate goal of your SEO campaign.
Respected websites tend to receive a lot of visitors so in this case the purpose of your link is not purely about SEO but engaging with potential customers. If you are a frequent guest blogger on a respected website you may get a following of your own. In these cases, avid readers may be more inclined to take your advice than that of a relative unknown. This will lead again to an increase in your referral traffic.
SEO along with other forms of marketing is about building a brand. If you can create good quality links and show some level of authority within your niche it will have a very favourable effect on promoting your ‘brand’. Creating data about your industry and publishing it will undoubtedly increase your reputation within your chosen sector. This will make reaching out to obtain links far easier as you will already have an established reputation. Indeed, many may actually wish to include your links to obtain referrals themselves.
Link building vs link "earning"
The concept of link building appears to be fantastic but the harsh reality is that before you even consider building links, you need something of quality to link to. Sometimes this will be your site’s homepage but more commonly it will be to a specific blog or other content such as an infographic. Quite often, this content will already be available before prior to starting a link building campaign and on other occasions you may need to start afresh and create the content.
Everyone wishes to earn links but this draws upon the point above, the content must be worth sharing. Low value webpages will rarely earn any links but something that offers ‘value’ and people find useful or share-worthy will make your whole link building process far simpler. Therefore, it is worth spending that little bit of extra time and effort to create content that will appeal to others.