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January 27, 2009

Six Questions with Debra Mastaler

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Next in our series of SES London speakers is Debra Mastaler, president of Alliance-Link. Debra will be speaking during the sessions Link Building Basics and Beyond Linkbait: Getting Authoritative Mentions Online.

Debra has shared her experience and insights about link building at various conferences, through articles on Search Engine Land and Search Engine Guide and by moderating the link building forums at the Small Business Ideas Forum and the SEOBook Community Forums. We’re glad to have her here on the BCI blog for a little Q&A time!

1. One of the panels you will be speaking on is Link Building Basics so let’s start with the basics. Where should someone start their link building efforts? What is the low hanging fruit?

I recommend webmasters start their link building campaigns by doing what we call “foundational link building”. Much like building a home, foundational links work toward developing a strong base of authoritative links by establishing algorithmic credibility and building trust with both the search engines and your visitors.

LOL… I know that sounds like a mouthful of textbook jargon but it’s true; start your campaigns with strong links from quality sites to support your SEO and marketing efforts. Doing so helps insulate your pages against fluctuations in the algorithm and promotes your site. When you start building links, spend the greatest amount of time and financial energy going after quality links.

Some foundational links are easy to get and can be considered “low-hanging fruit” but others are definitely not. Securing links in the better general directories, from your Chamber and industry associations could be considered “low hanging” links while getting links from sites ranking well or the editorial media are not. Both types of links are foundational and necessary to help build a base of strong links.

2. Can you explain how perception affects the value of a link?

Perceptions are hard to qualify since we have no control over the way the search engine works. The value of the link is judged in part by the quality of the host page so we need to broaden what we look at to include the content as well as links when we talk about values.
And even then we may get it wrong. How many times have you looked at a competitor and thought “how the heck are they ranking number one with those back links?” Or how many times have you been surprised to see no change in your rankings after landing a number of high quality links? We think we know how and why a page ranks but we can’t be 100% certain each time. Ours is a perception, the engines know reality.

That said, we’re not totally shooting in the dark here. If you read the papers/patents the engines are publishing, listen to their reps, spend considerable time online watching search results and fiddling with links we know there are a handful of link variables that produce fairly consistent results. From experience I’ll say when linking you want to get links that:

  • Sit in content areas.
  • Are placed on high quality pages.
  • Sit on “aged” pages (3+ years).
  • Use targeted anchor text.

If you get links using these four variables, you’ve hit link nirvana and I’d love to talk to you about joining my team. :)

The reality is, it doesn’t happen often or in great numbers. There are far less high-quality authoritative web sites willing to link out than Joe average site so the trick is to focus on tapping as many of the variables as you can when linking.

3. What kinds of links are seen as bad by search engines and which are seen as high-quality?

Bad links are like the tooth fairy, they just don’t exist. Provided they’re not broken, all links have value in some fashion. How you use them is another story however and in that regard could fall into the “bad” category. Here’s my interpretation of what the search engine guidelines say about links to avoid:

Any link secured to manipulate search engine rankings is viewed as a “bad” link in the eyes of the search engines. Google’s guideline doesn’t say you can’t swap links; just that you can’t swap “Excessive reciprocal links.” There’s no clear-cut number associated with “excessive” so don’t make swapping links the only tactic you use.

However the guidelines are more specific when it comes to paid links, it clearly states you can’t pay for them if they’ve been purchased to influence rank. Site-wide links usually come to mind here as well as sponsored links. We’ve seen both devalued and we’ve seen both work so the decision to use them (or not) is up to you.

Following up on that, you’ve said that targeting fast and easy links is counter productive because there’s not a lot of value in them. Can you explain why this is the case?

Yep, that’s true for the most part. There are exceptions of course but for the most part, when it comes to building links, those acquired quickly tend to be the type of link that doesn’t carry a lot of algorithmic weigh.

Think about it. What kind of links can you accumulate quickly? Directory links. Site-wides. Comment drops. All easy to get but not particularly long-term rank productive.

4. If people do invest in their link campaigns, what kind of return on investment will they typically see? Where will the money come from?

It’s hard to give a qualified answer to a question like this given the variables involved. Competitive markets require a more aggressive link building approach while those in small niches only need a handful of links to see an impact.

For some, link campaigns are done to generate massive traffic to a webpage. Social media campaigns usually fall into this category, their goal is to drive large amounts of traffic to a landing/web page and hopefully attract links in the process. Those campaigns don’t focus on making a sale, just driving traffic and picking up links.

For others, campaigns are created with a dedicated goal in mind which includes incentive redemption or even sales. They have a more narrow appeal and focus on getting links from targeted groups of people predisposed to liking/buying your services. Go after a proven demographic if you want to build links and generate sales/traffic.

Regardless of the size and scope of your business, everyone shares this point of commonality: the effort you put into your link building influences what you get out of it.

5. I noticed that there’s been a shift in thinking within the SEM community. Instead of “link building” you should be “marketing for links”. What’s the difference?

Well, there’s been a de-emphasis on technical SEO so I’m not surprised. Add in the fact we’re using marketing platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook as part of our promotion efforts and it’s natural we look at the social nature of linking as marketing.

Here at Alliance-Link our tagline has been “it’s not just linking, it’s marketing” since day one. You can link all you want but if you don’t tie the link to your marketing and SEO efforts, your website will be a very quiet place.

6. A few months ago you wrote a post on your blog inviting Matt Cutts to explain whether Google counts the second instance of anchor text to a link that is included twice on a page. Matt said that if the anchor text in both locations is the same, the second link will likely be ignored. If the anchor text is different he said that testing could be done to see how value is passed. Is this something you’ve looked into since?

Yeah, I kept reading all these blog posts being written back and forth on the topic and decided why not just ask someone at Google for an answer. Since Matt Cutts is Google’s SEO ombudsman he got the honors and I wrote the “Calling Matt Cutts to the BatPhone” post.

But the answer to your questions is no, I haven’t tested it further. I read what other people write and occasionally discuss it with my good friend Michael VanDeMar but as for testing it further — no. As a link builder my focus is to secure links on quality pages by promoting content and developing incentive programs. I seldom place two identical anchors on a page, not because of this new revelation but because using multiple keyword terms is smart marketing.

Bonus question: Other than the panels you’ll be speaking at, are there any sessions that you’d like to attend while you’re at the show? While you’re in town are there places in merry old London you’d like to visit?

This is my first time doing the London SES show and I’m excited about going. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting some people I’ve “talked” to online for years but never met in person!

My first touristy stop is Buckingham Palace where I plan to wave to the Queen and get a picture taken with the Palace guards. I also plan to visit Westminster Abbey and anywhere else I can dash off to between sessions. My kids have given me a laundry list of souvenirs to pick up so Harrods is definitely on the list.

Harrods has an insane amount of cool stuff so you may want to bring an extra empty suitcase with you on the trip. Oh, and say “hi” to the queen for me! To read more from Debra you can follow her on Twitter, @debramastaler, or subscribe to her blog, The Link Spiel. Thanks for swinging by, Debra!

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