Building Links and Reputation for a Popular Website

There’s more to building a website’s popularity organically than creating a community for the site and sending out press releases. It helps to know what your competition is doing as far as link building, and give people who haven’t yet visited your site a chance to associate a “personality” with it. Keep reading to find out more.

In a previous article, I discussed a number of ways to grow your website’s popularity organically. Rather than dealing with ways to get your website to score high in the search engine results pages (SERPs), I wrote about ways to promote your popularity more directly with visitors. The point of that kind of promotion is to attract and retain visitors from sources other than the search engines.

To recap the earlier article, I talked about building a community focused around frequently updated content in the form of a blog, forum, wiki or other multi-user input system. I also talked about the hallmarks of a healthy community, the work that goes into creating and maintaining it, and the rewards once you have one. Another way to promote your website I covered last article was press releases. I explained how they were different from advertising, and why a well-written press release could end up being used almost verbatim by a journalist.

At the end of that article, I promised to discuss link building based on competitive analysis, building your own personality and reputation, and how to deal with highly competitive terms and phrases more effectively. While each of these topics could almost be covered in its own article, I can give you enough information here to get you started thinking in the right directions.

Let’s start with link building. Everyone wants to have a high number of incoming links to their websites. We know that the search engines count large numbers of incoming links as “votes” in favor of a website being a good resource for particular information. In the eyes of a search engine spider, that makes the website very relevant, and therefore deserving of a high ranking in the SERPs. (I know — given what I said earlier, you were expecting a discussion of organic links, not a mention of search engines and SERPs. Bear with me for a second).

Therefore, a high number of incoming links to your website is generally a good thing — but this depends in part on exactly how you acquired those links. The latest update to Google’s algorithms as of this writing (Big Daddy) shows signs of being able to distinguish much better between paid links and organic ones. Naturally, organic links are going to carry a lot more weight with Google, as far as relevance is concerned, than paid ones.

So how can you encourage more people to link to your website naturally? Well, you might start by checking out your competition. Specifically, you might start by checking out what websites are linking to your online rivals. Think of it this way: if the site is linking to one of your rivals, it ought to link to your site as well. After all, you have something new, different, better, and/or unique to offer that your rival doesn’t, or you wouldn’t be in business in the first place, right?

How do you find out what sites are linking to your competitors? There are a number of ways to research this, some more complex than others. But a great place to start is with the search engines themselves. In this case, Google is not the be-all and end-all. Some SEOs have noted that it purposely does not report accurate link data with their link: command. It has been said that MSN’s rankings leave something to be desired as well. No, in this case, if you want to research link data, start with the oldest major search engine: Yahoo!

In order to use Yahoo! for researching your competitors’ links, the five following commands are the most useful:

1. Linkdomain:url.com — This command shows you all the pages that link to any page that is hosted at the domain url.com. So if you used that command for the site “seochat.com,” you would find the pages that link to the main page for SEO Chat. You would also find pages that link to the various articles on SEO Chat, and the forums on SEO Chat, and other areas. (So it’s no wonder that this particular search turns up about 565,000 links!).

2. Link:http://www.url.com/page.html — This command shows only those pages which link directly to the specified page. For example, when I used this command to check the number of links to one of the articles on SEO Chat, Yahoo! told me there were 229 (and showed me 19, eliminating the ones it thought were redundant, though offering me the option to see them). This is a large number, but much smaller than the 565,000 turned up with the previous command.

3. Linkdomain:url.com word — This command comes in handy for finding topical pages. It shows you all the pages with the term “word” that link to pages hosted at the URL. For example, using this command for SEO Chat and the word “keywords” (without quotes) turns up 134 links.

4. Linkdomain:url.com -term — Those of us who are avid users of search engines know that there are far too many terms that have more than one meaning, so we know about the advantages of the minus sign. If we want to find information about bass guitars, we might enter into the search engines something like “bass -fishing” (without the quotes) to tell them that we want pages that have the term “bass,” but not “fishing.” This search works the same way. You can search for all links that point to a site that don’t include your company name on that page, for example. If you want to exclude a lot of noise, you can do searches that contain multiple minus signs to eliminate lots of terms.

5. Linkdomain:url.com -site:url.com — Here we see another use for the minus sign. In this case, you can remove entire sites from the results. If there is a large site that links to the target site on every page, and you don’t want to see results from that site, this is a quick way to eliminate a lot of noise. If you’re examining your competitor (or even yourself), you might find it useful to eliminate the target site itself (for example, linkdomain:seochat.com -site:seochat.com). That would take out all the results from internal pages, and give you a much clearer picture of what is going on.

You probably already are something of a personality, but are you one online? If you’ve spent enough time on forums or in chat rooms, you know what I’m talking about: the kind of person that everyone wants to listen to, who may be opinionated but is usually well respected and even looked up to; in short, an authority, or at least an acknowledged expert on some topic. How do you build something like that? And, more to the point, you may be wondering: why would you want to?

To answer the second question first: if you’re an acknowledged expert, people who want to learn something about that topic will not only listen to what you have to say, they’ll seek it out. Online, that means they’ll visit your website. If they think enough of your website, they’ll tell others and link to it. The Internet is a great place for well-written people whose sparkling personality shines through their prose to make their mark and network. Using the web for social interaction allows you to build your reputation and earn these spontaneous links. So where do you start?

Naturally enough, online forums are a great place to network. Because the interaction online is accomplished mostly via text (and sometimes emoticons), you do have to think carefully before you post. Show honesty, integrity, and openness if you wish to be taken seriously by others and seen as an expert. Online, those who really are experts on their subjects are generally willing to share that knowledge freely, without arrogance or smugness. Be polite, and keep flaming to an absolute minimum (when dealing with an apparently clueless newbie, for example, remember that we were all clueless newbies once).

Most online forums let you use a signature link. This is a way to let people know discreetly about your website. While search engines may ignore these links, those who read your posts in the forums won’t. Remember the KISS principle (“keep it simple”) and use only one link in your signature rather than several.

Other online outlets you can use include blog comments, ICQ channels, chatrooms, Google groups, and privately hosted boards or chatrooms. If at all possible, use the same “voice,” username, and avatar everywhere, so that users will recognize you regardless of where you are. For example, I’m “terriwells” in the SEO Chat forums — and I’m also “TerriWells” in the DevHardware forums.

You’ve been doing your best to build your organic links. You’ve seen some growth, and you’re trying to be patient. But you’re still having a very difficult time breaking into those top 20 results on the SERPs, and you’re almost convinced that you never will, because the competition seems that fierce. Should you resort to other, perhaps less savory tactics?

I can certainly understand the temptation to use what is known these days as “black hat SEO.” If you want to do that, here is my advice: read the search engines’ guidelines again. Read them twice. Remind yourself of the consequences of breaking these guidelines, which are usually spelled out very clearly by the search engines. Remember that you do not wish to be permanently banned. Remember that you probably WILL get caught. Search engines do not tolerate spam or manipulation via automated links. You may do well for a while, but the search engines will find out. If they don’t discover it for themselves right away, they will be informed by others, very likely your competitors — as you would turn your competitors in to the search engines if you caught THEM cheating. Remember, even BMW and Ricoh were not immune to delisting when they broke Google’s guidelines.

So what do you do if you’re trying to score well in the search engines for particularly competitive keywords, such as “mortgage” or “car insurance” or “university degree”? You try to break it down by targeting keywords that are more “niche-related.” For example, “dogs” may be a highly competitive word — but what about “dog training”? This approach is sometimes described as taking advantage of the “long tail” of search.

Also, if you’re feeling frustrated that your efforts aren’t bearing fruit immediately, take heart: anything of value takes time to build. That is still true when what you are trying to build is online — never mind everything you hear about change happening at Internet speed. Search engines take a website’s age and its links into consideration when rating its relevance; they give more weight to sites with links they have held for a long time, from sites that are highly trusted. Over time, if you have put the right kind of work into building your website, you can win out over others who have not built as carefully or as well.

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