11/20/09

How important are incoming links?

Posted by Ben in SEO

Alternatively, this post could have been titled, “Do I REALLY need to conduct a link building campaign?”

I think everyone asks this question because they are hoping to find the answer they WANT to hear. Something like, “A link building campaign? Nahhh, you don’t need one of those!” Unfortunately, it’s my job to bear the bad news (which you probably know deep down already!)

Here’s the short answer: Incoming links are VERY important, and YES, you need to conduct a link building campaign. Strategic on-page optimization is the first step of an SEO campaign, but incoming links are necessary for genuine success.

All search engines are not created equal, and it’s really Google that values incoming links more than anyone else. So if you are only interested in your site ranking well in Yahoo, then perhaps you can discount my advice and do just fine without rabidly seeking out links. But how many of us does this really describe? For better or for worse, Google is the 800 pound gorilla of search, so if you want SEO success, you gotta play the game Google’s way.

Once you’re on board with this cold, cold truth, there are some things you should know about acquiring those precious incoming links…

All Links Are Not Created Equal

If you only take away one lesson from this post, let it be this one (which I promise to describe in deeper detail in a future post all about PageRank). Google evaluates every web page in terms of its perceived “authority” on the Internet, and assigns each page a PageRank, from 0 (the lowest) to 10 (the highest). The higher your PR, the more likely that Google is going to rank you highly for the keywords associated with your site. This PR score is determined entirely by the quality (and quantity) of the page’s incoming links. When a page with high PR links to your page, some of its PR “bleeds” over onto your page, giving a boost to your own PR score. Score!

Since your own PR is determined by the PR of the sites linking to you, the quality of your incoming links is far more important than the quantity. While the exact calculations are buried inside Google’s secret algorithm, understand than ONE incoming link from a site with a PR of 1 may be worth more than TEN incoming links from sites with 0 PR. It is, of course, more difficult to procure incoming links from high PR sites, but when time is money, I want you to invest yours wisely.

Also note that the type of site linking to you matters as well. That is, all things being equal, an incoming link from a .gov or .org site is worth more than a link from a .com site. Again, I will go into more detail in a future blog post.

One-way Links vs. Reciprocal Link Exchanges

Exchanging links with your business partners is a good way to scratch each other’s backs, especially if you each have decent PR to pass on to each other. However, the folks who build the search engines understand these reciprocal link exchanges as well as you and me, and that they are more of a business transaction than a true marker of website quality. For that reason, search engines are built to recognize such link exchanges, and devalue them. Not totally devalue them, mind you, just…not hold them in the same regard as a one-way incoming link.

You see, when someone links to you without you linking to them, it’s an indicator that your website must really have something worth reading. After all,  there is nothing in it for that website owner. Because of their perceived purity, one-way links are more valuable for your SEO campaign than reciprocal link exchanges.

Anchor Text

You already know what anchor text is, even if you don’t know the name for it. That changes now. When I post a link, say to Refresh Web Design & Internet Marketing, the anchor text is the text (“Refresh Web Design & Internet Marketing”) that is serving as the link. Using anchor text like this is much prettier than seeing “html://refreshperspective.com” stuck right in the middle of a paragraph. It’s usually colored or underlined text, so you can easily recognize it as a link.

When it comes to your incoming links, the anchor text matters. A lot. The search engines read this anchor text, looking for keywords to associate with your site. Let’s say you sell apples through your business named “John’s Market.” If people are linking to you with anchor text that simply says, “John’s Market”, then you’re missing out on an opportunity.

If, however, their anchor text read, “The Best Apples in California” and that text was a direct link to your website, then the search engines will associate that key phrase with your site. Now, the next time someone uses Google searching for the best apples in California, Google is much more likely to put your website at the top of the search results. Of course, things like PR and on-page optimization are still in play as much as ever, but the anchor text of your incoming links is a real factor in your SEO success.

Since incoming links are, by their very nature, not on your own site, you do not often have control over what they say. But in those instances where you can control this text (reciprocal link exchanges, business directory listings) be sure to get your most valuable keywords into the anchor text.

The HTML Matters: Follow vs. Nofollow

When working to secure an incoming link from a particular web page, one of the first things you should check is the page’s HTML code to find out whether they are designating their outgoing links as “follow” or “nofollow”. Let’s take an example of a blog. Perhaps you want to post in the comment section of the blog, and leave a link back to your own web page. As long as you aren’t being Sir Spam-a-Lot, this can be a great strategy. But if the owner of that blog has set blog comment links to “nofollow”, you are wasting your time.

By default, search engine spiders automatically follow any and all links they find on web pages, and add the information gained to their indices. In order for Google to give your PR credit for an incoming link, it needs to actually follow the link going to your site. HOWEVER, if the blog owner has set the link to “nofollow”, they are blocking the search engine spiders from following the link, and therefore preventing any PR from being passed through!

View the page’s source code and check any outgoing links already in the comments section. If any of those links include the text “rel=nofollow”, then give it up. The search engine spiders can’t follow the link, and as a result, your site will get no credit for it.

To be continued…

I hope this address the question of the importance of incoming links, and gives you some idea about how this whole link business works. I’m looking forward to going into more detail about the value of different links in a future blog post.

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