Advanced Linking – Interview With Aaron Wall Of SEOBook.com

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.

Michael Gray Interview Advanced Link Strategies

One of my favorite blogs, Wolf-Howl, is written by Michael Gray. Michael is an expert on cutting-edge site promotion strategies, and often posts about Digg and link-bait strategies.

Thanks for talking with me today, Michael. For those readers who don’t know you, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your areas of expertise?

Sure my name is Michael Gray and I’m an all around trouble maker! Seriously though I started on the programming side of web development in 97-98 for a large specialty retailer in the NY area. I was reponsible for building, maintaining and growing the website until 2004 when I left to go out on my own. Sometime around 2001 or so we discovered SEO which really didn’t have a name back then. I read, watched, learned and applied a lot of the things I read on the forums (there were no blogs at the time) and the company realized some huge traffic and financial gains because of it. Eventually I started to wonder why I was working so hard making money for someone else and began working for myself on the side. After moonlighting for 2 years (often on company time) I went out on my own, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Right now I work on a combination of projects, about 60% of my time is spent client work. Some of the projects are traditional SEO, however the majority of the work I do for clients right now is casino online site, linkbaiting and blog consulting. I also take a few reputation managment jobs every year.

You write a lot about link-baiting, and there is certainly an art to getting it right. What are some the mistakes people make, and what would your advice be to people on how to link-bait to achieve good results?

People in the online world think linkbaiting is some new concept, but it’s been going on in the print and magazine world forever. Visit any bookstore or magazine stand look at some of the covers you’ll see cover stories like this “5 Bedroom Tricks That Will Make Your Sex Life Sizzle”, “30 Day Total Body Makeover”, or “Tips to Help You Get Organized This Weekend”. They are titles designed to catch your eye, connect with you personally, help you solve a problem, and ultimately make you buy the magazine. I like to think of websites, especially blogs as an online magazines. You publish a series of articles every day/week/month and use the linkbait style posts to get links, and more importantly get subscribers (or as Andy Hagan’s calls it defensible traffic).

Linkbait is a proven method and it’s not going away. People have been using “top X” lists ever since Moses came down off the mountain with a top 10 list of “thou shalts”. Radio stations play the top 100 songs of summer every year, every December AFI puts out a top 100 list of movies, and how many “bedroom tricks” do you think Cosmopolitan magazine has published since Helen Gurley Brown changed the format in 1970? People need to get over the “bait” hang-up and understand that in a culture where people have an attention deficit, it’s compete or die.

There are certain elements that you’ll find in a lot of linkbait. A snappy eye grabbing headline, is key. For example would you rather read “Removing Spyware will Speed up Your Computer” or “7 Quick Tips to Remove Spyware and Make Your Computer Run 300% Faster”. The danger with a headline is you now have to deliver. If you promised me 7 tips I better see seven real tips. I need to see some content not just links to 7 software programs you’re an affiliate for. Think of the headline as a contract between you and the reader, you need to live up to your end of the bargain if you want links and subscribers.

Another thing you need is a scan able style of writing. Lists are very scan able which is one of the reasons they work so well. If you’re post is more narrative in style, short paragraphs with h2 or bold headers for sections, can really go a long way towards making things easier to read. Pictures or videos are also an important aspect. When you read a magazine or newspaper article you’ll notice the “best” picture is above the article or near the top with the text wrapping around it. Keep your mastheads small and thin and use big eye grabbing pictures at the top above the fold on all monitor/screen sizes for maximum effect, nothing stops a StumbleUpon user from hitting the “next” button like a great picture.

Additionally put links in your linkbait. Link to other articles on your site, link to other sites too, don’t be stingy with the links. It OK is you send some traffic away chances are the person on the other end will notice if you send enough traffic their way, and maybe return the favor in the future. The only site you should never link to is Wikipedia, well because I hate the wiki :-)

Lastly linkbait is never ending process, the more you repeat it the more effective it is. I can guarantee you in almost every issue of Cosmopolitan there is a cover story about love/sex/relationships. New people come online everyday and you want to do everything you can to get their attention.

Right. I think that’s a really important point – know your audience. What is your approach concerning Digg, and other social networks? What have your results been like using these networks, in terms of inbound linking and traffic?

Every social network is a little different and what works well on one may not work well on others. Right now I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Digg, I love the traffic and the links, but as much as I hate to stereotype digg is an ochlocracy run by a bunch of petulant teen apple fanboys who are all about “hatin’ on the man”. If you want to succeed on Digg try to find stories that are about a similar subject and use it as a starting point. Also watch the homepage for “non news” stories to get some ideas of what they like/tolerate and go from there.

I love niche sites while they don’t bring anywhere near the traffic of Digg, they can bring you better links and higher quality traffic. For example I had a linkbait article about women in the workplace it did really well on sk-rt.com getting to the homepage. Somebody submitted it to Digg and it floundered with 10-15 votes, because it didn’t match the audience.

Targeting your audience is a really important consideration and I don’t think enough people think about it. General interest pieces are good, but highly focused content that’s matched to a particular audience is better. The worst thing you can do is spend time/money/energy creating the best content for the wrong audience. For example you can have a 5 star chef prepare the most expensive Kobe beef you can buy, but serve it at a PETA rally and it will get an icy reception.

Another big mistake I see a lot of people making is cramming adsense or some other advertising down your throat when you come to their site. Giving people “commercials” when you really want them to link to your content is extremely short sighted IMHO. A lot of people who use social sites have “advertising blindness” and won’t click on your ads. The money that you’ll make from 20,000 diggers will probably not even cover the cost of a happy meal at McDonalds, so you’re better off giving up the $5 today, for the extra links you’ll get in the long run. On a lot of my sites I’ll use programming that “activates” the ads as when posts hit a certain age. It extremely unusual for a linkbait post to be bringing in traffic from social sites after a week, at that point it should only be SE referrals, that’s the time to give them the ads.

In you article “What’s One Digg Worth” you provide an interesting breakdown of the traffic and linking stats associated with a successful Digg. You mention that people also need to take a holistic view when it comes to links, such as “mixing in directory submissions, some traditional link development, content creation, article distribution, and a few other tactics as well”. I’m sure many webmasters find the process daunting – what would be your advice to someone with a new site? What are the essential things you would recommend people do in order to build a successful link acquisition strategy?

If you don’t mind, since it’s been nearly a year since I launched that site I’ll give you an update. Traffic has tapered off dramatically, right now the site gets anywhere from 25-75 visitors a week, all long tail searches most in the 4+ KW range. The good part is it’s completely autogen, I don’t have to touch it. It’s not a highly profitable website, but for zero upkeep that’s ok, and I’ve definitely been able to re-use the programming.

Back to your question, I like to think of link building like a financial portfolio, you want to be as diversified as possible to limit your risk. For example a few years ago it was possible to rank for terms purely on reciprocal links. Time passes, Google updates it’s algo, and recip links get devalued. Then article directories were all the rage, a year or so ago a lot of them lost their value. Directories were a solid bet for a long time, until a few weeks ago when Google took a big swipe out of that market. Right now viral and linkbaiting is all rage, and Google really likes seeing it, but will it eventually get devalued, almost certainly. If you, your company, or your website depend exclusively on one tactic, you put yourself at risk to algorithm fluctuations. However if your linking portfolio is diversified your much less likely to suffer those dramatic heart palpitating ranking drops.

It is a lot of work to try and keep up with and manage, but IMHO it’s definitely worth the time. I know a lot of people are probably like me they’d like to pay some writers for some articles this week, and drop them all out next week, and cross it of their “to do” list. However if you spent any time analyzing the Google patent application of 2005 you’ll realize time/age probably play a role. Getting 500 links tomorrow is not as “good” or “natural looking” as getting 500 links over the next 6 months. So if you want to pay for the content for the articles to syndicate and get them all delivered next week, that’s fine, just trickle them out slowly over the next 6 months. I find it’s pretty helpful to come up with rough game plan or timeline so I don’t forget things, again it is more work, but definitely worth the effort.