An advanced link building discussion with Ralph Tegtmeier. Ralph is a highly regarded SEO, and runs Fantomaster.com
Thanks for talking with us, Ralph. For those readers who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself, and tell us about your background?
I was born of German parents in Egypt, my father being in the Diplomatic Service, and spent the better part of my childhood years in Africa an Asia – a multilingual environment that certainly proved a great help when I forayed into that globalized environment we term the Internet many, many years later.
My academic background is in Comparative Literature, English Literature and Portuguese Philology, in which I graduated as a Master of Arts with a thesis on “Occultism and eroticism in fin de siécle literature” at Bonn University in Germany.
Later, I worked as a bookseller, a seminar trainer, a freelance writer, a translator and a publisher. I became interested in the Internet in 1994 and soon discovered its marketing potential. So I have been an online entrepreneur in various fields since Fall of ‘94. It must have been around 1996 or so that I purchased a “top secret” report on optimizing web sites for search engines and tried out the techniques and strategies it expounded – with spectacular success. Of course, in those days it was all mainly about duplicate titles, keyword stuffing your meta tags, invisible text, etc. As Baudelaire was wont to say: “Ah, qu’as tu fait avec ta jeunesse!” (laughs)
Anyway, in 1999 I teamed up with an old school buddy, Dirk Brockhausen, who happens to hold a doctorate in physics and worked as a certified SAP Consultant in both Germany and Switzerland. And so, fantomaster.com GmbH was born. Technically, we’re German expats domiciled in the German speaking (eastern) part of Belgium, just a few meters from the German border.
While we also developed a few nifty tools entirely unrelated to search, we did focus on IP delivery (aka cloaking) applications right away as it was perfectly clear from the start that this was the most powerful optimization technology extant.
Contrary to what many people would like to make you believe, it’s still exceedingly effective, though of course, as in every field of SEO/SEM, you’ve got to adapt to the ever shifting ground that is search technology. For example, nowadays link building has mutated to an all-important component of any serious search marketing campaign with the obvious exception of PPC.
In the past, the focus tended to centre around page content – build “quality” content, and they will come. Would you say that linking factors are the most important aspect of ranking? Has SEO become all about links?
Search ranking technology being an exceedingly complex set of different data retrieval and processing algorithms, with network stability, hardware performance and scalability issues governing a lot of what’s going on, it would be pathologically simplistic to reduce it to any one, single be all and end all factor.
Of course it’s being done all the time. That’s because people will always look for simple solutions to complex problems, it seems to be hardwired into our brains. But of course that doesn’t make such simplifications either true or effective, no matter what any which “guru” may proclaim to be the latest fad of the day.
I’ve never subscribed to the “Content Is King” paradigm as an exclusive, predominant causal factor of search engine rankings. By the same token, I won’t endorse the current craze of reducing all and any SEO to “merely links, naught else”.
So I said it’s an all-important component of SEO, and that’s what I stand by. A component being defined as one part of an entire set. But claiming that links are everything would be a gross exaggeration.
Because it’s simply not borne out by real world results. This is not saying that you can’t at all do well with links alone in search under a given set of very special circumstances. For example, many black hat SEOs will auto generate web sites by the ton, and rather than optimizing the content in any particularly sophisticated way, they’ll simply throw a slew of fairly powerful links at them. The result being that very many of these sites will actually perform quite nicely in the SERPs – with a half life, however, that’s generally measured in days, occasionally in weeks, almost never in months.
Is this a feasible business model? As Earl Grey (aka Mick) outlined in the interview Rand Fishkin did with him a while back, it actually can be – provided it meets your personal philosophy and lifestyle. “Interview with a Black Hat Seo” However, I don’t think I’m overstating things if I say that it’s certainly nothing your average Web entrepreneur is likely to embrace.
The really interesting question this brings up, actually, is how we want to define “SEO” these days? For most members of the hard core black hat community it’s a “churn and burn” approach, i.e. an exceedingly short term thing – and in case someone’s wondering, yes, these days they’re quite proud to call themselves “search engine spammers”, no holds barred. Not too surprising, when you think about it – after all, the term “punk” used to be exclusively pejorative too until Punk Rock hijacked it.
For a more mainstream, long term approach, links are definitely of eminent importance, too – but there’s a whole lot of other factors to take into consideration as well. So will your SEO efforts work out without building decent incoming links? Certainly not. Will they work out if all you care about are links? No, they won’t – at least not if you’re interested in a modicum of relative stability, taking a long term approach, however shaky your rankings may finally prove to be in actual practice nevertheless.
In your linking workshop, you advocate webmasters build links at a consistent speed, rather than building too many links, too fast. What is the reason for this?
It’s not really about “how many” – the keyline is consistency. The main reason being that you want it to appear as “organic” as you can.
If you can build a thousand good incoming links a day and you can actually keep up that rate for six months or more, fine: go ahead and do it. After all, many news items will generate similar spikes of interest – and that’s what links are supposed to convey: Not a “vote” on how good or bad any given page is, as popular misconception will have it, but, rather, a vote on how interesting (which may well include “controversial”) in whichever context people deem it to be.
Thus, there would probably be nothing “non-organic” about such a spike in incoming links if it’s some fairly popular topic. Which, of course, can easily create a headache for you in its own right: What’s a “fairly popular topic” anyway? I mean, if you’re selling teak wood knitting needles, sure, by some lucky fluke they just *might* happen to become the latest craze, with slews of links suddenly pointing to your mega hip knitting needle pages from all over the Net. But then again: How likely is that, really? Nothing you would probably want to bet the farm on, I would think.
Plus, if anything of the kind should actually happen, the search engines are pretty sure to be the first to know about it. After all, they own the entire set of search queries. So to make it actually plausible, you’d probably have to launch a huge network of zombie bots, daisywheeling across a myriad of proxies (fat chance – after all, they’d have to be properly geo targeted as well…) to generate such search queries artificially.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that for most if not all non-black hat webmasters this is an entirely academic scenario.
So in a real world environment, avoid linking spikes. I’m stressing this because many people find link building a dire chore. It’s arguably the most unloved and thankless SEO task of all these days. It’s extremely time consuming, pretty costly even if outsourced, and very often it can be a decidedly humiliating experience (as in begging for links in unsympathetic quarters). Personally, I don’t know of a single SEO who actually enjoys doing it.
So humans simply being what they are, we’re all too prone to opt for the easy way out: Throw a ton of links at your new sites, be done with it as fast as possible, and move on to more interesting tasks. Which, of course, tends to create linking patterns blatantly shouting “artificial” – and which, in turn,goes against the whole rationale of informed, smart link building.
Can you offer our readers some tips in regard to their link building strategies?
Ok, let’s start off with two very generic recommendations.
One – don’t overestimate link building!
Two – don’t underestimate link building!
Now let me explain this a bit. For the past two or three years, very many webmasters, amateurs and pros alike, have become obsessed about link building. And so have most if not all SEOs.
However, most people being lazy and given to oversimplified i.e. skewed and fundamentally faulty strategies, a link building craze has ensued based on the rationale that link building is the philosopher’s stone of search engine optimization. And it gets worse – oversimplifying even further, people took to letting themselves be hypnotized by some neat free gimmicks such as the Google toolbar and the PageRank (PR) values it displays when you switch it to spyware, pardon me: to “Advanced Features” mode, as our friends in Mountainview, California prefer to dub it. This holds true even for those who should really know better because it’s their daily bread and butter, namely SEOs. But I guess PR as a purported or real ranking factor would merit a hardnosed sober assessment in its own right.. Everything on the commercialized Web being about traffic and conversions, link building should focus on this first: Are the incoming links you are getting worth the effort or the costs, provided you have put any serious effort or money into having them set up? And if they do happen to generate traffic to your site – will it convert sufficiently? If it doesn’t, there’s basically two possible reasons for this you’ll want to investigate: Either your site sucks or your traffic source. (It’s a very rare case when both do, but don’t rule out that remote possibility entirely either until you know exactly what you’re dealing with!)
If your on page factors aren’t up to par, be it in terms of content copy, of usability, of navigation – not to forget the products and services you’re actually offering -, even top quality targeted traffic won’t do you much good.
By the same token, even if your page is the world’s finest in its industry, getting untargeted, non- or low converting traffic won’t help you very much either.
So if you’re really subscribing to the simplistic view that all you’ll have to do by way of Web marketing is throwing a ton of links at anywhich crappy web site, think again. You may be wasting the better part of your efforts and possibly losing lots of money in the process.
In terms of actual link building this implies that you shouldn’t just look for your incoming links’ search engine ranking power – because links simply aren’t everything if you want to achieve rankings let alone traffic and conversions. Sure, they can qualify for a lot of clout if established well, but again: THEY ARE NOT EVERYTHING!
Equally, there’s all the webmasters, and even a few SEOs, who will dismiss links entirely. Not too many of them around anymore, true. And even those who are won’t typically trash links in as many words – actually, hardly anyone in his right mind will pretend that they can totally do without links at all.
Hmm, no – maybe I actually missed a fairly substantial group of webmasters and SEOs when I said that: Because obviously the entire PPC crowd can do very well without links, thank you very much. Well, not quite – they actually go for a hell of a lot of links, come to think of it. Only their links are called ads. Banner ads, text ads, contextual ads, AdWords, YPN (what used to be Overture what used to be GoTo), AdCentral ads – links, the lot of them. And paid links, at that. Only they’re the kind the search engines love. At least those they’ve sold to them in the first place.
So why should these people worry about link building, seeing that they are doing it all the time with a checkbook or an online advertiser account anyway? As long as you’re funded, there seems to be no point in musing over ” organic” links, or is there?
The reason I’m mentioning PPC links (ok: ads) at all is that links are all about, well, you guessed it: traffic. Restricting yourself to PPC, while an entirely valid way of marketing, especially when rolling out a campaign, is very much like putting all your eggs in one basket to the point of utter dependence on the PPC networks. You may be losing money that way as well for two reasons: For one, paid click bids have historically appreciated dramatically and currently it seems highly unlikely that they’ll experience any serious slump in pricing anytime soon. Already, a good many SOHO setups simply can’t afford serious PPC marketing anymore, certainly not in highly competitive industries.
Just as importantly, however, there’s a strong indication that organic search traffic actually converts better. The reasons for this are manifold and beyond the scope of this discussion, I would assume. But what it does boil down to is that even as a PPC marketer you should always include consistent, smart link building in your arsenal if only to at least partially offset the perpetually rising costs of paid search marketing.
As for some more technical tips, I’d recommend devoting your attention specifically to your links’ anchor text, i.e. the viewable and clickable part. Generally, you’ll find a lot of advice about always including your keywords in the anchor text. This is essentially quite correct but it doesn’t reflect the entire picture.
Because you will want to avoid blatantly discernible anchor text patterns as best you can. Make it look as organic as possible – a statement that holds true for all of SEO, of course. But how organic does a network of incoming links look to you where every single link is highly optimized for specific keywords? When everything screams unisono: “For the cheapeast teakwood knitting needles, click here”? Ok, so you will want to vary your anchor text, going for long tail phrases as much as for your more generic terms. But that’s not all there is to it, either.
For you see, based on public statements by search engine reps, and backed up by extensive long term research, it is strongly recommended to NOT include keyword phrases in your anchor text for about 50% of the links you’re generating. Instead, make the web site name itself clickable, just like most mom and pop web sites pointing somewhere will do it.
So how do you optimize those links, then? Easy: by leveraging proximity. While this isn’t hewn in stone, my general recommendation is to place your targeted keyword phrases about 3 to max. 5 words removed either preceding or following the clickable web site (or page) name. The reason being that search engines are growing more leery about artificially inflated linkage on the one hand, while relying on contextual analysis to automatically determine what any given text is about on the other.
And let’s not forget “deep linking”. While the majority of your links should point to your site’s home page, make sure you throw a sufficient number of links at your important internal pages as well. This makes your linkage look less artificial and will lend more link love to those critical pages as well.
Finally, make your links consistent. If you want to use “www” in your page addresses, fine: It’s the Web standard, and if in doubt, simply go for it. There’s no tangible disadvantage in leaving it out to make your links shorter, however. Just make sure you don’t mix the two – so do it either one way or the other, but not both. The reason being that for search engines (especially Google!) these two links are not alike:
So mixing the two may cause your linkage to be diluted and it may actually land you in even more serious trouble in terms of inadvertently risking a ” duplicate content” penalty.
Thanks Ralph. Part Two Next Week….
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Category: Link Building Tips