I assume everyone reading this knows of Aaron Wall. Aaron is a very skilled marketer and author of the hugely popular SEOBook.com. I’ve known Aaron for a few years, and he’s always impressed me with his knowledge and insight, so I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to ask Aaron a few questions about links.
Thanks for talking with us, Aaron. The issues surrounding links are a hot topic at present. What is your take on Google’s recent comments regarding paid links?
As with any for profit business, I think Google’s views of paid links / marketing / the web in general are self serving in nature. It was an accident when one of their workers revealed on an official Google blog that health insurance companies and HMOs can use Google’s ad network to educate the public to defuse Michael Moore’s Sicko movie, but I think that accident says a lot of how Google views the web. If you buy or sell through Google you are deemed clean, even if you are pushing what appears to me to be ponzi schemes. Operate outside the bounds of Google and you are made to feel like a dirty, vile, unethical, immoral, filthy, slimy, classless, and an evil spammer.
What makes their policies particularly sleazy are not that they suggest that corporations should manipulate public opinion with the Google ad network, but that they prevent individuals from buying ads critical of corporations. Add a bit of uneven “anti-spam” hand editing, while allowing select advertisers to dominate the organic search results and it is clear to me that Google doesn’t think much of independent webmasters, small businesses, or end consumers.
If all that didn’t sound dirty enough, consider that Google removed the ads by Google label from many of their ads, many of Google’s pay per action text link ads are virtually unmarked until you scroll over them, and Google filed a patent for paying people to recommend ad links in their email and instant message clients. Why is it that they recommend publishers blend ads in content and use minimal disclosure (sometimes none) on their ads, while asking everyone else to clearly mark their ads as being advertisements? Probably because that hypocrisy increases Google’s profit margins.
The reason Google is trying to manipulate public perception about the effectiveness of paid links as an SEO strategy is because paid links are so effective. They can’t stop them with algorithms, so now they have to try to dominate the discussion and manipulate public perception. Unsurprising given their ad centric perspective of the web.
I think that’s a great couple of points. One, Google has a competing product. And two, paid links must work, else why would they be giving this issue so much airtime?
Exactly. If you saw me posting every day that seo forums, blogs, and conferences are garbage and my book was the only way to learn SEO then I don’t think you would trust me much. I don’t see why people trust Google on this issue. IMHO, in my experience, Google has proven untrustworthy.
Given this scenario, do you have some tips for our readers in regards to paid links? How should they go about acquiring paid links? Will the practice simply disappear beneath radar?
I don’t see link sales as disappearing altogether. I see more of the deals being done between independent webmasters instead of running through central networks. Also, the central link selling networks are getting more aggressive at protecting their partners and ensuring they deliver value. Text Link Ads has a post level links program that puts links inside of content, and many of the paid blogging services such as ReviewMe and Blogsvertise allow you to buy in content reviews or links.
The other thing I think people will get better at is buying links indirectly, using a wide array of techniques including social interaction, industry gathering sponsorships, awards and contests, buying established sites, hiring people who already have a following in the field, various types of ad buys, etc.
Right. So webmasters need to think strategically. You’ve hinted that contextual is one good option. What is the value of contextual links compared other types of links?
When you buy ads away from content they are easier to algorithmically detect and people generally ignore them. Ads have to be in in the content to work long-term. It is what Google tells publishers to do with AdSense ads and text link ads. To quote Google, here is how they say their PPA text link ads should be used
“Publishers can place them in line with other text to better blend the ad and promote your product. For example, you might see the following text link embedded in a publisher’s recommendatory text: “Widgets are fun! I encourage all my friends to Buy a high-quality widget today.” (Mousing over the link will display “Ads by Google” to identify these as pay-per-action ads).”
and here is what they say about regular AdSense ads and regular text link ads as well….
“Ads placed near rich content and navigational aids usually do well because users are focused on those areas of a page.”
Even with organic links you can overdo it. A friend has a site that gained links so quickly that in spite of the links being organic they don’t count because the growth rate was so fast it looked spammy. In spite of hundreds of references to that article, it does not rank for it’s own official title, but it still does not matter because sites rerferencing his site do rank, and send traffic to his site.
Getting exposure inside content is not just about getting better at fooling engines, but it is also about capturing attention, driving direct traffic, and secondary citations. The latent traffic mentioned in the above paragraph, and the direct traffic that comes right after a well known blogger talks about you are both traffic streams of great value. That was what made the idea of paid blog reviews so appealing to me, you get the focused attention of a target demographic cheaper than you can with just about any other form of advertising. Unless, of course, you sell beer and have a porn star run nude across the field with your URL on their body at the SuperBowl.
We’ll keep a close look out for the next SEOBook.com Superbowl promotion How do you think Google evaluates the text surrounding the link?
Generally I try to mix up nearby text if I can to make it seem as natural as possible. I know that if your anchor text is too well aligned your site can be precluded from ranking for those terms. I have not tested nearby text as much as some people have, but have noticed a couple sites in unique situations that yielded some interesting tidbits.
A friend has one site which has most of its link equity coming from a document placed on many other sites and he still ranks well. That leads me to believe those links still count, but going forward I think it is a good idea to get keywords in the content near your links as well, and try to mix that up if you can too. Algorithms such as Hilltop (which may not be in use) mentioned using headings near links to help score and categorize the link.
I was sued by Traffic Power a few years back, and for a while Microsoft ranked them in the top 10 for my name. Nobody linked at them with my name in the anchor text and they did not mention me on their site. They ranked for my name due to proximity and co-cition data associated with their brand and my name.
You made a cool post a little while back entitled “How to Buy Links Without Being Called a Spammer” in which you outline think-outside-the-box link tactics. A common theme in your writing seems to be that public-relations style integration is something webmasters need to get a handle on? The approach to link building and SEO in 2007 is a lot more holistic than it ever has been in the past?
My partner, Scott Smith, has said I was an instinctive marketer at birth. I am not sure if I buy that, but many of my current marketing techniques tend to be more about sending stories and ideas mainstream…spreading them far and wide. In some cases people working at the search companies end up blogging about my sites without knowing I have any input in them, and I have also seen friend’s sites on major industry sites without the people writing about them knowing who was behind the site.
You don’t need to be a PR expert to be near the top of the heap if you are really passionate about your topic, early to a growing market, or in a market that is uncompetitive. In almost every other scenario public relations is a key to sustainable SEO. It is important in two phases of SEO
- building enough criteria to rank and get a following
- not having an engineer hand edit your site because you rank better than he likes you to
I had a site with over 95% of its inbound links clean and hand built by my team, in an industry where some banks own a half dozen sites selling the exact same product with the exact same name to the exact same audience. A couple years ago when I bought my site it had a few hundred links from the prior owner. It helped starting out with a couple hundred links, but years later and after about $100,000 worth of public relations a Google relevancy engineer hand edited out all of our link equity because our site had a few links when I bought it years ago, and I am known as an SEO. Is that fair or equitable?
To call the site that was edited out of the search results spam would require ignoring the 10,000+ organic links it got over the last couple years, including some recent ones from the US Coast Guard and a US Embassy.
And if you look at what Google does after they buy websites – what appears to be a rewrite of the algorithm to feature Youtube more aggressively – it isn’t clear exactly why they should burn down a site just because an SEO owns it or it was purchased from another person. Maybe someone was having a bad day at Google or hates SEOs. Who knows, but I do know that they pay an AdSense spammer who has stolen all my content, and ranked his site where mine was.
If my site had a stronger brand and a larger following then I might have been able to shame Google into fixing the issue similar to what Robin Good recently did. Robin blogging about the issue created a meme that Google did not want to spread so they fixed it almost immediately.