A simple introduction to incoming links

November 30, 2010
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Incoming links to your website from text, images, or otherwise are a mystery to a lot people who do business on the web. In fact, I’ve talked to many people who aren’t really clear on what a link actually is. The incoming link concept is one of those things that is hard to get your head around, hard to stay current with, and hard to make a decision about. It’s also, however, one of the key concepts of having an maintaining a healthy website. Let me help you gain clarity on incoming links.

Incoming links to your website from text, images, or otherwise are a mystery to a lot people who do business on the web. In fact, I’ve talked to many people who aren’t really clear on what a link actually is. The incoming link concept is one of those things that is hard to get your head around, hard to stay current with, and hard to make a decision about. It’s also, however, one of the key concepts of having an maintaining a healthy website. Let me help you gain clarity on incoming links.

The idea of incoming links falls under this large, ethereal, very misunderstood heading of SEO, or search engine optimization. It’s one piece of the very important “how and where do I show up in search engines?” question. It can be low-hanging fruit for those just now paying attention to them and a welcome challenge to those who feel like they are running out of options to improve the number of people coming to their site.

So where to start? A quick explanation of what a link is.

What is a web link?

When I was first asked this question, I didn’t really know what to say. It’s like trying to discreetly define the word “chair.” A chair is … well, it’s a chair, like this chair right here. The definition becomes self-referential and, unfortunately, useless. So, here’s my non-circular definition of a link:

Link: a link is a pointer on one web asset to another.

A link can be an image or text or anything else you can see on a web page. You know how your mouse arrow changes to something different and you know you can click there and go somewhere else? That’s the long and the short of it.

The internet, the whole internet, is made possible by these links. In fact, the whole idea of a “web” comes from just these connections. Being able to jump between documents displayed by servers around the world is what the web is. As such, links are pretty important. Still, this is a bit too abstract of a definition for our purposes.

Why you should care about incoming links

If a link is a pointer from one asset to another, an incoming link is a pointer from an external asset to an asset on your web site (more specifically, an asset contained in your domain name). These are important for two reasons:

  1. An incoming link means that people can get to a page on your site
  2. Search engines see incoming links as endorsements to your site

If someone links to a page or post on your site saying “check out this great dumpling recipe” then the search engines knows that the page being linked to has information on dumpling recipes. It might seem unfathomable that search engines could know such a minuscule detail but they do and the more links that say the same thing pointing to the same place, the more they pay attention. The more of these descriptive, incoming links you have, the better your information appears to search engines and the higher your ranking is on the results page. This can become a major source of traffic when you start to rank well for words many people are searching.

Different links have different values but the short of it is this: increase the number of sites linking to you.

Good links, better links, and bad links

So you know what to do, get more links. But links come in all flavors and you want to concentrate your time and energy on getting the best kind of links.

So what kind of links to you want? Here are the best kind of links you can have:

  • Text links pointing to your site with good keywords. This is the best kind of link you can get. It’s one-way (they just point to a page on your site), it has a few keywords (specific words that describe the page), and comes from a site that isn’t spam. The more text links with keywords from good domains you can get, the better. These come from having great content on your site (a regularly-written blog helps greatly) and little else.
  • Links from very strong domains. A link from joshcanhelp.com is good but a link from harvard.edu is much, much better. See, not only do search engines watch the words that are used to link to you, they watch the domain that’s linking. A link from nytimes.com is “worth” more than a link from a smaller blog because nytimes.com is seen as more of an authority. Combine this with the above and you’ve got a great link.

Other kinds of links are better than nothing and still help your search engine position in aggregate but are secondary to the ones above. For these links, it’s quantity over quality:

  • Links exchanged with other sites. If you’ve had a website for a while, you’ve probably gotten the email about exchanging links from a random person with their own site. For the most part, this kind of linking is unhelpful to either party but people still ask. Exchange links with friends, colleagues, and clients in or near your industry and ignore the rest.
  • Links from Twitter and Twitter aggregators. These move fast, are huge in numbers, and are ethereal in relevance. Links to your site shared on Twitter are a good thing in general but aren’t going to do a lot, directly, for your search engine rank.
  • Links from images. I’ve read a few views on this but it looks like, in general, images that are linked to your site (i.e. images someone can click on and get to your site) are less important than text links for a variety of reasons, most centering around lack of descriptive text in the image.
  • Links from site profiles, directories, and blog comments. These is the trickiest of them all but I put it under “good but not great” for a a few reasons. First, sometimes these links are marked as “no follow,” which means, simply, that it’s not going to help your ranking. Second, sometimes these sites are only viewable to people logged into the site so search engines can’t see them. Third, you don’t always have control over the text for these links so they aren’t going to be strong. Build these link whenever you can but these links, by themselves aren’t going to help much with search engine rank.

There are bad links too but, unless you’re working with an unscrupulous contractor, you won’t have to worry about these. It’s very rare to be linked to without your control and have it negatively affect your rankings. Still, if you are working with someone to help your rankings, keep your eye out for…

  • Links from “link farms.” I hate this term because it sounds so 2001 but they still exist out there. These are pages and sites that exist just add links. Once search engines recognize these kinds of sites, the links become useless at best and toxic at worst.
  • Unseen links stuffed with keywords. Another tactic could be text links with keywords on other sites styled so you can’t see them. Sometimes these are added to your site as well as others to create linking between sites managed by the same contractor. Like the link farms, these are scanned for and ignored, if not penalized.

Q&A from clients

This post was inspired by a emails I’ve received over the last few months. Here are a few specific questions I was asked and the answers I gave.

What is the best link-building strategy?

This is such a massive question that it’s hard to answer succinctly. Still, it’s an important one and something anyone with a website should be thinking about. Link-building can be very rewarding but also incredibly time-consuming so here are a few low-hanging fruit that you should start with:

  1. If you’re reading online content, add a comment on pages that allow you to add your site link (see below for more info on this)
  2. Always add your site link to online profiles you have… Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
  3. Reach out to colleagues and clients to see if you can add a link to their site (suggest the text that they use)
  4. Submit your site to a few free web directories

I assume the only benefit in commenting is if someone clicks onto my picture and follows it to my website.  Or is there something else taking place (with spiders etc) without requiring someone to click on me?

A link is a link is a link and, unless it’s coming from an untrusted source (see above) then the more incoming links the better. Each link, however, has a quality associated with it and this is based on the quality of the site that’s linking to you.

If you have control over the link (if you’re exchanging links or you link to yourself from somewhere else), then use appropriate keywords in the link text. If don’t have control, then just be happy with an incoming link.

When I am posting comments on other blogs what is the best way to identify myself for the biggest SEO payoff?

As for comments, usually sites link your name to the URL you added in the comment. It might be tempting to put your name as “[Keyword 1] [Keyword 2] [Keyword 3]” but that’s pretty spammy looking and you might have your comment deleted. Just use your name and, if it’s relevant (and allowed) add a link to a related blog post in the body of the comment. Be wary of looking like a link-dropper, someone who just commented to add a link to their own properties. If you’re going to take the time to leave a comment, leave a good one and the blog owner will be perfectly OK with a link back to your blog. Just leave a “great post!” followed by your URL and they won’t be (I’ve deleted these before).

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