Links and More SEO Tips for Beginners

Welcome to the second part of a two-part article that strives to give an overview of search engine optimization for beginners. In the previous article, we explained the limitations of search engine spiders, the importance of good content and frequent updates, and how to use keywords. In this article, we’ll start by focusing on links.

Broadly speaking, there are two very important non-technical aspects to your web site when it comes to ranking high in the search engines for your chosen keywords. One is your content, and the other is your links. These two factors play a huge role in the algorithms used by the search engines to determine your site’s relevance.

And “relevance” is really the key point here. Just as you would not include any content on your site that isn’t relevant to its themes and keywords, you should not pursue links to any site that does not have a good, logical reason for linking to you. If you carry pool-cleaning supplies, it makes sense for a pool construction company to link to you, but not a pet-grooming company.

Content and links have something else in common: key words. Any links to and within your site should use appropriate key words as anchor text. If the key phrase “blue widgets” carries a hyperlink that takes you to a particular web site, the search engine spiders will treat it as a “vote” that says “this web site is relevant to the topic of blue widgets.” Not every vote is counted equally in the algorithms, and the search engines constantly tweak their indexing rules, but a link that features “blue widgets” in its anchor text will generally give you more juice as far as relevance for blue widgets than one that uses “click here” as anchor text.

You may not be able to control the anchor text to one-way links into your site, but you can certainly control it for internal links within the site. “Digital Cameras” will do better for you than “our products,” and the name of an actual product line such as “Inspiron laptops” is better than, say, “our mid-range laptops.” Consider what key words you want to target when you choose your anchor text.

If “mid-range laptops” really is the key word you want to target, though, go ahead, but be mindful of this: there is a lot more competition for general keywords than those that are more specific. Therefore, it will take a lot more effort to rank well for a general keyword than for one that is more specific.

Potentially, you’ll see more traffic for the general keyword, but you won’t necessarily see more conversions. Searchers who use more specific key words are more ready to buy than those who use general key words; they’re interested in a specific brand, not just a mid-range laptop. So a more specific keyword may bring fewer visitors, but more conversions.

Now that I’ve given you a general overview of the importance of links and how they work in combination with key words used as anchor text to bump up your site’s relevance, it’s time to focus on the details. Most of these are simply useful points to keep in mind as you’re building links to your web site. Here’s one to write at the top of your list: go for quality, not quantity. As Richard Burckhardt, writing for Search Engine Journal, notes, “One single, good, authoritative link can do a lot more for you than a dozen poor quality links, which can actually hurt you.”

Now let’s talk about some of the ways links can help you, aside from the obvious. If you’re in a hurry to get a new web site indexed by Google, the quickest route may not be the submission form. Instead, get a link to your site through another quality web site (one in the same field would be ideal). Google will see the link to your site when it indexes the other site, and the spider will visit you in good time.

Web sites aren’t the only places that links to your site might appear, and they’re not necessarily the most valuable either. If you send out e-mail communications, such as newsletters and zines, you’re sending links to your site to qualified leads (your subscriptions all require an opt-in, right?). Every time you send out this communication you’re reminding interested visitors of your existence and encouraging them to stop by. Don’t abuse the attention, but be mindful of the links.

Other valuable links back to your site can be gained from .edu domains. A one-way link from a .edu domain to your site could give you a boost in the SERPs. But how do you get such a link? The May 2, 2008 issue of the SEO Chat newsletter featured some suggestions in its Spotlight. One possibility not mentioned: find a not-for-profit .edu site that is looking for sponsors.

A third valuable source of links comes from sites with high PageRank. The high PR means that Google strongly trusts the site. By extension, any links from the site to other sites carry some of that trust with them. A deep link, which is a link to a specific page on a site rather than the home page, from a high PR site is especially good to have.

What other kinds of sites should you try to obtain links from? Look for influential bloggers, especially in your field. And don’t neglect authority sites. They may be interested in your images, video, podcasts, or even ask to reprint your content. Here at the Shed, if anyone wants to reprint our content, we expect them to ask permission first; if we grant permission, we’ll usually allow a reprint of the first paragraph and a link back to the original article. You will want to have your own policy in place. 

What kinds of links should you NOT pursue? Besides links from sites that are not relevant to yours, do not pay for links. As  Burckhardt explains, “You get NOTHING from paid links except a few clicks unless the links are embedded in body text and NOT obvious sponsored links.”

These are the kinds of items that won’t actually squish the spiders (see last week’s article for those), but might cause your web site to have certain issues and/or not perform as well in the SERPs as it otherwise could. Some of these concern links – such as the link for your home page. Is it yoursite.com or www.yoursite.com? Whichever it is, you need to be consistent. If you choose the www version to be the canonical one, you will need to set up a 301 redirect so that yoursite.com sends users to the proper place.

Now look at the form of your home page URL. Does it end with index.html? Or possibly default.php? If it does, you’re losing link juice. Drop whatever is tagged onto the end after the com/ and you’ll do better in the search engines.

Especially if you have to do redirects, you should check your server headers. There are free tools online that can do this for you; just Google “check server header.” Make sure your URLs all report a “200 OK” status or “301 Moved Permanently” for redirects. If you see anything else, you have some troubleshooting to do.

Some of the technical stuff that concerns your site isn’t necessarily ON your site itself. For example, do you know what “neighborhood” your site lives in? More specifically, your web site probably shares a server with lots of other sites. If it does, you really should make sure the other sites on the proxy don’t have bad reputations. You can do a blacklist check. If you’re sharing with a spammer or a banned site, it could reflect badly on you.

If you don’t want to be thought of as a spammer, don’t behave like one. Apparently, Google looks suspiciously at those who register a domain through a service that blocks domain ownership information. Weigh that against your need for privacy, and think carefully when you register your domain.

Always use absolute links on your site. It will mean you have fewer problems with on-site link navigation. As an added bonus, you’ll get link juice if someone scrapes content from your site.

When you’re trying to check on your site’s status in Google, you’ll want to make sure that you’re not searching with Google’s Personalized Search results active. If you do a lot of searches, this can be easy to forget about. There are two ways to make sure it’s not active. The first way is to log out of Google. If that’s not convenient, append &pws=0 to the end of your search URL in the search bar.

Is there anything technical you don’t have to worry about? Yes: URL file extensions. When it comes to optimizing a web site for the search engines, you don’t need to worry about whether the file extensions say .html, .htm, .asp, .php, .xml, or anything else.

You have to remember that search engine optimization as a field is constantly changing and evolving, rather like the Internet and the search engines themselves. If you want to keep up, you have to be to prepared to adopt new strategies.

One of the most important of these is social marketing. There’s been a ton of articles written about it. You need to understand it if you hope to be ready for what’s coming next. In particular, you need to understand the special attractions of sites like Yelp, Facebook, del.icio.us, and so forth. You need to know WHY people go to these sites and what they get out of them before you can even think about marketing to them (hint: if you’re thinking anything like a conventional marketer, you probably have it all wrong).

You also need to be geared up for things like image search and video search, which are increasingly part of the “blended search” approach that many search engines are taking today. Even if a spider can’t actually read a video, there are a number of ways you can tell the search engines about your video content. If you have a Google Webmaster Central account, you can create a video sitemap and list it there. You should also enable “Enhanced image search” in your account to help Google spot the images on your site.

You can submit your videos to YouTube, of course, but don’t stop there. Google indexes other quality video sites, and those items do show up in blended search results. So consider sending your videos to Metacafe, MSN, and Yahoo. And whether the video is on your site or elsewhere, add keyword-rich text so that the search engines will know what they’re about.

Many people who search for an image of an item will include the word “picture” or “image” as one of their search terms. For example, someone looking for a good picture of a horse to sketch might search for “horse image.” You already know that you should use the alt tag on your images, and put key words in it; add the word “image” or “picture” to those tags after your key words, and you may be able to snag a few of these searchers.

Above all, remember that SEO is an ongoing process. You need to remember it with every site redesign, sure, but you also need to remember it every time you add new content or repair code or build links. Keep that in mind as you climb the SERPs. Good luck!

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