Linking Strategies: Myths and Truths

Written on December 5, 2006 – 11:21 am | by Shell Harris |

There are two camps in the world of directory-to-directory reciprocal linking, and each have a distinct approach to the work.

One camp treats linking as a branding function of the business, as well as a way to provide a genuine resource directory for their site visitors. It’s what I call “traditional” reciprocal linking, because that’s all there was to it in the pre-Google days. There were no “games” to play. Many practitioners of this method of linking have been going grassroots web marketing work since the mid-1990s, and they understand it, at their core. Others have learned from these masters, usually by following their successful examples. Their strategy is not very complex, but their approach and methods are very thorough, and they’ve enjoyed some phenomenal search results for a long time. So why change what has always worked? The answer is, they don’t.

The second camp is comprised of people who are absolutely certain that, with the right “tweaking” of their websites, that they can rocket to the top of the search engines. Branding is not the goal. Search engine placement is the over-riding concern, which causes them to pursue all manner of complex strategies and theories, in hopes of “gaming” the search engines. Having read much of this complex theory over many years, and reviewed it against hundreds of real world examples, little of it holds any water. Beyond that, it adds layers of complexity, cost, and work to a process that needs no more.

Many people focus their linking work on the Google PageRank value that is reported with the Google Toolbar. They strive for a higher PR value for their own site, and their primary way to get that is to try to manipulate it with links from other sites. Other people use Alexa rankings as a linking criteria. Other people develop even more odd limitations.

The Basic Truth

Here is a basic truth: A site will always have a difficult time achieving link popularity dominance in their own competitive realm if they first decide to eliminate from consideration large numbers of sites that would possibly link with them, but that don’t meet certain arbitrary criteria. Think long and hard about that statement, and please read it again, to fully grasp what I am saying.

Then combine it with the fact that the sites that index the best in Google are generally the ones that have overall link popularity dominance from unique domains, not the ones with a handful of high PR links. Abbreviated, contrived linking is a doomed strategy, from the outset.

Google does not appreciate attempts to manipulate search rankings. Their own website states this. Linking only to-and-from high PR sites is a marker that easily identifies such attempts. Demanding reciprocity, thus showing a near 100% reciprocity rate, is another. On the other hand, traditional linking practices were around before Google, and they are still a genuine way to market and promote a website. Is this all just shades of gray? Possibly, but I think it is pretty cut-and-dried.

Traditional Link Directories

Traditional link directories that serve the dual purpose of providing a genuine visitor resource typically have very low reciprocity rates. Maybe 10 to 40%, at most. What’s more, these sites have links to and from other sites that have a wide spectrum of PageRank, 0 to whatever (yes, 0 PR!). Links that come from link directories reside on low PR pages. That’s life. Forget about it, and get the link.

All of this also relates to the concept of “themeing” a website. As it is in 2004, when this was written, the search engines do not establish a “theme” for a domain, and then begin rewarding or punishing a site for links within or outside of that theme.

That is an interesting theory that is bandied about endlessly on SEO forums, but for the rest of us who are willing to step back and apply some logic, computationally, it is not possible. A lot of websites need to link to other sites, for reasons that go far beyond the capability of any algorithm to determine. Postings in forums and guestbooks link to all manner of other content. Words do have alternative meanings in this world. A Mustang could be a car, or a horse. All of this is very nuanced.

My advice is to not worry about it. If you stick to linking within your realm of interest, you will eventually earn the relevancy that you seek, while also not wasting your time, or that of other people who are outside of your realm. If your definition of relevant is too tight, it will severely limit your link popularity. A fabric shop should certainly link to a silk flower shop, but a diet supplement site should not try link to an automotive site. Common sense works, and there is no need for paranoia. That should be a relief.

The Bottom Line

As of 2004, honest, traditional linking practices, pursued within a broad-based realm of interest, and done with determination and commitment, have proven to be quite successful, time and time again. The proof lies in an analysis of search engine indexing results, which is publicly available to anyone who takes the time to do it.

The “game players” are only winning when there are no other serious competitors for their keywords. They are generally not beating sites that have dominant overall link popularity, a condition that causes many in the SEO world to cry foul, because they don’t want to apply themselves properly when their games fail to work.

Successful, traditional linking also manifests itself positively by way of the volume of traffic that is earned directly from the links themselves, especially in enthusiast realms of interest. That is a hidden bonus that is only obvious to the site owners who do this work diligently. The rest of the world never sees it.

All of the rest of these theories and speculative strategies make for endless discussion on the SEO forums, but if you employ them for your own site, they will make your job harder, take more time, add more cost, and probably produce less successful results than those of your competitor, who may be blissfully unconstrained by such unproven nonsense.

The search engines seem to reward the most basic but determined linking efforts, much to the dismay of the theorists in the SEO world. Ask yourself, “Am I adding this task to my linking workload because I read about it in a search engine forum, in the hope of higher PR or rankings?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably gamesmanship.

Simplify. Be honest and genuine with your linking efforts. Do that diligently. Ignore the rest. Good luck!

Dirk Johnson has been managing link campaigns since the mid-1990s, and writes for various sources on web promotion and linking. His advice and commentary is regarded as “expert through experience.” Dirk’s approach to linking has been more traditional in scope, treating it as a branding function, and not a search engine optimization function. He operates LinkStrategy.com.

Shell Harris co-founded Big Oak on January 1, 2004. In a previous career he was a print & web designer and often developed the sites he designed before focusing on his current passion for search engine optimization and Internet marketing. He is an avid researcher, SEO specialist, company mouthpiece and is always looking for the next big thing in Internet Marketing.

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