Aug 21, 2012 at 5:15pm ET by Julie Joyce
Like it or not, link building has been and still is big, big business. Doing it well takes a lot of time and resources, which means that many webmasters/site owners can’t or don’t want to do it themselves. Many agencies that handle other aspects of search engine marketing want to outsource it simply because of the massive resource drain.
That’s great news for people like me who specialize in link building but the intense supply and demand nature of links coupled with the ease of promoting yourself through social media have led to a frightening increase in people who build bad links and really have no idea what they’re doing.
As link building is considered an offpage tactic, to actually sell yourself as a link builder, you don’t have to do very much. People are desperate for help.
However, it’s better to build no links than it is to embark upon a link building campaign that is full of nothing but spam that you will pay for twice: once when you put it up there, once when you have to remove it. If you’re shopping for link builders, make sure that the one you go with knows most of the following.
1. Why Links Matter
There’s no way to describe that quickly here but if you don’t know why links are important, you shouldn’t be building them alone. Links are how users and search engine spiders move around the internet and they give clues to what the linked-to content is about.
2. HTML Code For Text & Image Links
For a good reference you can visit http://www.w3schools.com/html/html_links.asp but generally, it’s pretty darned easy stuff:
3. How To Read A Robots.txt File
These can be tricky and you’ll se a lot of robots files that are coded incorrectly, so if you’re unsure of how to read one, there are a few good validators that are online. (I usually gravitate towards http://tool.motoricerca.info/robots-checker.phtml.)
Robots files are always named robots.txt and are always found at the root, which means you can always access them at yoursite.com/robots.txt. If one doesn’t exist, well, you just won’t see one. That’s not a problem, but if one is there, make sure it’s valid.
Here’s the code you want to really watch out for:
That tells the search engines to go away when they show up. People commonly use this when they don’t have a development/test environment so that they can code live but not have the site get indexed. That’s ok if it’s how you want to work, but remember to remove that exclusion when you do want the engines to index you.
If your site has recently disappeared, check the robots.txt immediately. You can also block engines using the method listed below.
4. How To Check For Robots Blocking Outside Of The Robots.txt File
There are some intricacies involved with using this method so it’s a good idea to read what Google has to say about blocking robots here.
If your site has just disappeared and you have checked the robots.txt file and it’s all fine and dandy, check to see if this line is in your code:
5. How To Use WordPress
As one of the most common blogging platforms, you should familiarize yourself with it. It’s quite user-friendly in my opinion but there are tons of tutorials out there. However, like with many things, it’s something you can learn best by actually setting up a site and using it.
If you don’t want to use WordPress, that’s fine – just learn how to set up a basic site on a popular platform. Here’s why I think this is so important for link building: once you are intimately involved in the innards of a site, you do start to think more critically about SEO, content creation, and usability. Those are all aspects of marketing that aren’t always involved with link building, but they should be.
6. How To Do A Link Audit
Don’t wait to audit your links until you get a warning letter from Google. Check and see what’s there right now. There are some great free tools that will give you a list of your back links so use them. You won’t always get all the functionality that you need from free tools and free versions of tools so if you’re doing a decent amount of link building, you should probably invest in at least one major paid link tool.
Grab your data and start to analyze it whether you can export it or you have to copy and paste it. You need to know how to look at your profile as a whole, break it down into different parts (like percentages of sitewides, money keywords, etc.) and actually look at the sites in the report and evaluate whether or not that link is a good one.
7. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
Located here they’re something you should be familiar with, especially if you plan to violate them.
8. How To Do A Basic Link Check In Various Tools
Don’t limit yourself to one. Some databases are refreshed more often than others, some give you more information that you might ever need, some give you less, etc.
9. How To Analyze Anchor Text
You need to be able to grab your information and sort the anchors into categories like brand, URL, money keywords, and noise at a minimum.
10. How To Do Competitive Analysis
I truly don’t think that there’s a better post about this than one written by Jane Copland. Whether you always perform competitive analysis or not, you need to know how to critically analyze your competitors and figure out why they’re doing better than you when they are. Sometimes people only do this when things go wrong, so I suggest you do it when things are going well so you aren’t trying to think critically when you’re in panic mode.
11. How To Negotiate A Link
Whether it’s through an emailed link request, a phone call, a guest post, a connection on social media, etc. you need to know how to deal with people. Just people this is all online doesn’t mean that you can ignore basic manners and politeness. If you want something specific, lay it out and don’t take 10 emails to say so. If you don’t get what you want, either speak or or shut up and deal with it.
12. How To Keep Up With Algorithm Updates
If you’re involved in SEO and pay attention online, it’s pretty obvious when a big algorithm update happens. However, if you’re not that involved, SEOMoz has a good list and the Google Webmaster Central Blog does an excellent job of explaining changes. If you notice something odd, just search for “algorithm change” and if there’s anything notable, you’ll see it.
13. How To Use Google Alerts
I don’t really see why people wouldn’t take advantage of this truly amazing (and free) tool. You can set up alerts for your brand, your name, your URL, your competitors, your important keywords…anything you can think of.
You can choose how often to get alerts, what types of results to monitor, and whether you want all results or just what Google determines to be the best results. The email from your alert makes it very easy to click through to the result, so if you’re trying to keep informed when something that you’re interested in is indexed, this is a fantastic, easy, and free way to do it.
14. How To Use Some Form Of Web Analytics
I use Google Analytics on some sites, but there are other good packages out there. Don’t simply rely on rank checks alone to indicate how well the site is performing.
15. How To Use Google’s Webmaster Tools
While I wouldn’t say that everyone needs to use Google Analytics, if you get even a small percentage of your traffic from Google, you need to use Webmaster Tools. It’s my first stop when something’s wrong. They alert you to problems with your site, allow you to run crawl checks, see your new links, look at your queries, and do about a ton of other things.
16. What Makes A Link A Bad/Spammy Link
Considering the amount of times I’ve pointed out what I think are bad links to people, I don’t think that this is anything we all agree on. However, if a link exists on a page for no easily detectable reason other than that it was purchased or slapped on there through a network, it’s probably a bad link.
There are many awkward link placements that are totally legitimate of course, but if you see a link that doesn’t seem to belong, it’s most likely not a good link. In terms of a spammy link, those are links on sites that are just utter crap. A link for a shoe company that’s on a blogroll comprised of 99 links to everything from payday loans to the best hotel in Baltimore is a spammy link.
17. How To Tell If Code Is Invalid
There are a lot of different validators but a great resource is always http://validator.w3.org/. Bad code can potentially render properly (enough) in a browser but that doesn’t mean that things will work as they should. If you don’t know how to code and you can’t just identify bad code by looking at it, make friends with a validator.
18. How To Check Redirects & Why They Matter
I always head to Rex Swain’s HTTP header check for this one If you’re building links to a site that runs on both a non-www and a www version with no 301 from one to the other, you’re splitting your link juice. If you’ve asked the tech guys to put in a 301 for a page that’s no longer where it once was, you need to be able to double-check to make sure it was done properly.
19. How To Remove A Page That Has Lots Of Inbound Links
People have different opinions about this but I’d either 301 redirect the old page to the most relevant current page or to the home page. I wouldn’t remove it completely without handling it with a 301, as a 404 error just wastes that link juice.
20. Recent Link Smack Downs
If you’re building links and you’re unaware of the fact that big brands can get penalized, you need to be paying more attention. Remember JC Penney’s troubles? If not, go look it up. The same goes for the recent deindexing of a few major blog networks. You need to keep yourself informed about all the guys who get into trouble because knowledge is (hopefully) power.
21. Alternative Engines To Google
There’s Bing and Yahoo of course, but there are also some really cool meta search engines that are well worth exploring. Dogpile is one of my favorites, as is MillionShort. Don’t limit your discovery to one engine. You can find some jewels if you look somewhere else, and that includes directories.
22. Crazy Methods For Discovery
This is one of my favorite things to do…just sit down and brainstorm some off the wall ideas. My son recently said, out of the blue in the car, “taco death pool.”
That’s what I mean by crazy discovery. I can safely say that I’ve never seen most of the sites that show up for that search in Google. If a search brings you something you’ve never seen before, that’s a good thing.
23. How To Use Social Media For Discovery
Icerocket is my favorite tool for this but there are others, and you can just go the old-school route of doing a search in Twitter of course. This is a particularly good way to keep your eye on bloggers who might write about content that pertains to your own site so that maybe you can snag a nice guest post slot.
Followerwonk is also a great tool that lets you search keywords in Twitter bios. Not only can you find bloggers talking about content that’s relevant to you, you can see what topics might be trending so that you can craft content around those as well.
24. How To Guest Post
You need to know how to find sites that accept guest post, you need to know how to write one, and you need to know how to promote the ones you write. My Blog Guest is a guest posting system where people looking for guest posts or looking TO guest post can connect.
You can also just simply add “guest post” or something similar to your keyword search when you’re doing discovery. Most guest posters are allowed a link in either the content or the bio, which is where the link benefit lies. Considering how spammed up this practice is becoming, make sure you’re savvy about how to actually find good placements and make the right pitch.
25. How To Analyze A Site In 5 minutes
While you need to understand what all the metrics mean, you need to be able to judge a site just by looking at it. There is an overwhelming amount of information that you can get for a site from various tools and plugins, and this information can be extremely useful for various purposes.
However, let’s say all your tools and plugins aren’t working for some reason. You need to be able to manually check the important metrics and see if a site is a good fit for a link to you. Is the site indexed in Google? Is the content written by humans? Would you trust this site?
26. How To Find Contact Information If It’s Not Listed
You can try a Whois search, looking for the webmaster on Twitter, or use Rapportive. I’ve even found email addresses in the source code. Sometimes bloggers don’t list their email addresses on their site but they may provide contact information elsewhere, such as on sites where they’ve guest posted.
27. How To Check For Social Signals
On older posts and sites (way back before Twitter!) you aren’t going to find lots of social signals in terms of tweets, likes, and shares but you should still see comments.
On new content, you may see more tweets, shares, and likes than you do comments, as lots of people discuss blog posts on platforms other than the actual blog posts themselves a lot of the time. Bottom line: new content should look like it’s being seen and enjoyed by people. Danny Sullivan wrote a great piece about social shares as the new link building. Definitely worth a read.
28. TBPR (Toolbar PageRank) Is Different From Actual PR (PageRank)
What Google shows you on the toolbar is not frequently updated information. If you’re judging a site based on what you see on the TBPR, you’re doing it wrong.
29. What Link Juice Is
Link juice is basically link popularity passed from one page to another. Nofollow is intended to stop its flow. It’s a much more intricate concept than the example I’m about to give but in a nutshell, it works something like this (note this is not an exact/ real formulal, but used for illustration):
Page A has 10 link juice points to give. There are 5 links to other sites on this page, so each of those pages receives 2 points of link juice.
Page B has 10 link juice points to give. There are 10 links to other sites on the page, with 5 of them being nofollowed. The 5 links that aren’t nofollowed should still send 2 points of link juice. The pages linked to from the nofollowed links shouldn’t get any link juice.
30. What Page Rank Sculpting Is
Using the idea mentioned about link juice that I discussed above, page rank sculpting is the practice of trying to funnel link juice into certain pages in order to make them perform better and restrict it from others in order to prevent them from getting any benefit from your links.
31. How To Optimize Internal Links
Recently there has been more talk of this since most of the discussion of over optimization has been taking place regarding links coming into your site from another site, not your own internal links.
Since the goal of internal links is to help a user navigate a site, you should understand that proper keywords in internal links should be present if they make sense to a user. There’s an excellent article about site structure and internal links here.
32. Ways Of Identifying A No Followed Link
Yes, there are plugins that can highlight them but you know what? You can also just look at the code. If a link has a rel=”nofollow” on it, it’s nofollowed.
33. How To Do Keyword Research
There are a bazillion free and paid tools that do this but here are a few that I use regularly:
34. How To Write Well & Not Just Well Enough
While I am definitely a grammar/spelling freak, I still truly believe that badly written content (whether it’s a blog post, an email, a review, or whatever) makes you look like you don’t truly care enough to take the time to do something well.
Some people have fantastic ideas and points to make but it’s hard to wade through something that is badly written. Spellcheck exists for a reason. I also realize that some people write just to get content out there. Trust me when I say that it shows. However, if you’re not a naturally gifted writer, practice, read some fantastic writers, and you’ll get better. Just believe that it’s important.
35. How To Find Your Influencers
I view this in two ways: finding those whom I can influence and finding those who influence me. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time but there are many people who’ve been doing it longer and who do it better, and those are the ones I keep my eye on so I can keep learning.
Crowdbooster is really useful for this as they have an Influential Followers tab. This lists then people who follow you on Twitter, along with their number of followers. If you want to get the attention of someone who has a massive reach, this is a good way to do it.
However, remember that influence isn’t always directly correlated to number of followers. Don’t ignore people who interact with you just because they don’t have a billion followers. Many people are much, much more influential than their Twitter metrics would suggest. I know several people that I speak to regularly on Twitter, and none of them have more than 1000 followers. I get more feedback from them than I do from a lot of other people, and they’re the ones I’ll go to when I need something because they’re the ones who’ve interacted with me.
36. How To Tell If A Link Is Giving You Traffic
This is dead simple but I mention it because of a recent conversation that I had with someone who was concerned about removing potentially harmful links. I asked if they gave him traffic and he said “how can I tell?” If you’re running Google Analytics it’s easy to find your referrals under Traffic Sources.
If you’re considering removing a link and you find that it sends you a lot of traffic, see if it’s converting traffic. If not and you still want to remove it, go right ahead and try. If a link sends you converting traffic, I’d leave it alone.
37. How To Find Dead Links To Your Site
If you have some great links coming in to dead pages and you haven’t 301 redirected them, you’re losing some great link juice most likely. It’s also a bad user experience. Check to see if you have any 404 errors on your site. If so, put those pages into a link check tool to find out who’s linking to them. The W3C Link Checker tool is one that I use frequently to look at broken links, redirects, and other issues. It’s also free.
If you find that you have links coming into pages that aren’t found, put in a 301 or contact the webmaster of the sites linking to you and point out where they could link to. Honestly, that’s my preferred option because when you don’t go through a 301, you don’t lose link juice.
However, if you were going to switch from url.com/thispage.html to url.com/thatpage.com and you had 500 links pointing to it, a 301 is a heck of a lot better use of your time than sending 500 emails and checking to see whether the webmaster complied with your request.
38. How To Find Mentions That Don’t Yet Link To You
One very easy way to do this, moving forward, is to set up Google alerts for your name, site, URL, etc. If something pops up and there’s no link, ask for one if you like.
Many people will mention you and link to your social media accounts, especially Twitter, but if that happens and you’d rather have a direct link to your site, thank the person who mentioned you and ask if you could have a link to your site instead. This is a tricky one as some people might find it rude to be asked to do something when they’re doing you a favor by mentioning you, but still, it’s best to know how to use this tactic judiciously.
39. What A Bad Link Neighborhood Is
We’ve dealt with a lot of clients who say that they don’t want links on sites that link to certain niches. That notion aside, the bad link neighborhood effect is what happens when you have your great link on a site but it’s surrounded by other spammy ones, usually just a bunch of links that aren’t related to each other and are only there because they’re been purchased. These links can cause the site itself to be valued less in Google’s eyes.
A bad link neighborhood can also be a network that’s been devalued or deindexed. Think of it as the same idea as if you wanted to open a kid’s clothing store and you had to decide where to rent a business space. You wouldn’t want to be next to a strip club most likely but if you found a space in a section that had a McDonalds and a kids’ bookstore, you’d probably think that was ideal.
Google says to “avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.” This kind of thinking goes both ways as you can see. You don’t want to link to bad neighborhoods and you don’t want links from them either.
40. What Link Spikes Are & Why They Can Be Worrisome
For one thing, they can indicate network links all being activated at the same time. They can indicate a negative SEO attack. They can also be 100% legitimate (think press releases, new television ad, etc.) but still, you need to understand how to get more information about them when they happen.
This looks a bit odd, no? One quick tip: any time someone approaches me and says “I think some of my past links are hurting me now” I immediately go and do a backlink history check in Majestic. The weird spikes in 2008 make me think that maybe something suspicious was going on (networks maybe?)
This could be natural, but after seeing it, I have a good idea of the questions I’ll need to ask this person.
41. How To Be Suspicious Of A Site Or A Link
If a site has content that does not at all seem to match up with the URL (let’s say the URL is homemortgage.com and the content is all about pet care) then something is definitely amiss here. If you start to see a lot of new links coming in and you’ve done nothing to get them, you need to go and check them out.
With all that’s happened recently with Google, links, negative SEO, and link warnings, you can never be too careful.
42. You Need To Actually Read The Content Of A Site
In other words, don’t just rely on its metrics when evaluating it. Wow, this is a big one. I think that sometimes we all have blinders on when we’re cranking out work, and we tend to be so focused on easy ways to analyze a site quickly that we forget to slow down and actually see if the content makes sense.
I’ve seen links come in that look fantastic at first. The site seems totally relevant to the niche, the link looks perfect, the social signals are good and look like they’ll keep improving, but when I read the article, it reads like it was written by a robot. That kind of site might be ok for awhile but it’s probably not a good long-term potential for traffic.
43. What Markov Content Is
Markov content is content that has been randomly generated to pass as proper text until it’s closely inspected. At its best, it just looks like someone might not be a native speaker of the language in which it is written, but something about it will just be “off” when you try to make sense of it.
Beware of this when you’re evaluating a site that you want a link from, just as mentioned above.
44. How To Check For DuplicateContent
Copyscape is free and you can quickly tell if someone is duplicating your content elsewhere. They also have a premium version that lets you check to make sure that post you’re about to publish is original content. Since scraped sites have been known to outrank those hosting the original content, knowing how to check for this is critical when the site you’re building links for starts to lose rankings and traffic.
45. How To Figure Out If Links Are The Problem Or Something Else Is
Due to the recent panic about unnatural link warnings, links are being blamed more than ever when things go wrong. They can definitely be the cause of your problems but it’s very wise to learn how to see if they are and check out all the other potential culprits.
46. How To Use Advanced Search Operators
If you do manual discovery these can be a massive time-saver, helping you remove a lot of unwanted results. Theres’s a good cheat sheet here.
47. What rel=author Is & How To Implement It
This sounded so simple when I first read about it but making it work really wasn’t nearly as easy as I expected. Verve Search has a great guide about how to implement it as does Rick DeJarnette here on SEL. If you write a lot, you need to get this set up.
It’s like a personal version of the big brand effect wherein you can build up a trusted name and (hopefully) enjoy more visibility on the Web. If one of your pieces shows up in the SERPs, you’ll get a More By X Author link so that all the other articles for which you are a verified author can be displayed.
48. Why Sitewides & Footer Links Might Not Be A Good Idea
Usually footer links are sitewides but occasionally you see them on their own. A sitewide link is one that’s on every page of a site. This used to be a way to get lots of links years ago, and it’s still occasionally a valid way to build links. A blogroll tends to be sitewide and if it’s on a relevant blog and it makes sense, that is perfectly legitimate in my opinion.
However, when you scroll to the bottom of a page and there’s a massive paragraph filled with links, those aren’t good sitewides. Sitewides form a pattern which the engines can easily detect and devalue, so they aren’t anything that I’d usually pursue unless one made sense. Generally speaking, links that aren’t in the actual content of a page aren’t always the best ones.
49. How To Determine Whether You Have A Lot Of Sitewides
I bring this up mainly because many people I’ve spoken to had no clue how to check to see if they had sitewide links. If you run a link check it should be very obvious, as you’ll see a list of pages all on the same domain.
Some people still like sitewides but many link builders don’t actively seek them out anymore, as many people suspect that they’ve been discounted, and some suspect that they can actually hurt your site. I think that some are very legitimate but don’t think that algorithms are always sophisticated enough to be able to detect legitimacy.
50. What Deep Linking Is
Deep linking is the practice of building links to internal pages and not just your homepage. If you only have links to your homepage, that seems as if you have no other decent information on the site. That’s not a good signal to send.
51. What rel=canonical Is
You can read all the details but basically, this is used to specify the preferred version of a page when there is similar content elsewhere.
52. How To View Source Code
In Chrome, you can right click and click on View Source and you can do the same in Firefox. Those are the two main browsers that I use so if you don’t have that functionality, just dig around until you can figure out how to see the code. You’d be surprised at how many people have no idea how to look at the code.
If you’re trying to figure out if a link is nofollowed, you need to know how to see the code so you can check that by hand and not rely on plugins. The same goes for viewing the code to see if robots are being blocked (listed above at #4) and identifying reasons why your link may not be working properly. From what I’ve seen, a very common link code error is with not closing tags properly.
53. How & When To Submit A Reinclusion Request
If you’ve been penalized and you’ve cleaned things up, it’s time to submit a reconsideration request. If you have been penalized and you haven’t cleaned things up, don’t bother submitting one in hopes that Google won’t take a close look to double-check your honesty.
You can submit one here but remember, if you haven’t actually cleaned up any mess, it’s not a good idea to submit this. If you’ve been hurt by an algorithmic update but not actually penalized or warned, you may just have to make some changes and wait for the next update in order to get back into favor.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.