Jim Boykin Interview

Internet Marketing Ninja Jim Boykin has promoted link building since before I even knew what SEO was. Nearly a decade later so many things have changed in SEO (including renaming We Build Pages to Internet Marketing Ninjas), but he still sees links as a key SEO driver (as do I). I recently interviewed him about links & the changing face of SEO.

so, links links links ... these were the backbone of ranking in Google for years and years. are they still? Is social a huge signal, or something that has been over-hyped?

Yes, I do see backlinks at the backbone of rankings in Google. Every day I see sites that trump the rankings with links, and no social signals...but I've never seen a site that had "poor" backlinks compared to others, but a strong social signal, be ranked great.

There are other signal that I feel are more important than social, like content and user behavior, but then after those, I'd put social signals. Even though I don't think they're more important thank links by any stretch, I do feel that social has a place, in areas like branding, community building, and in assisting in organic search results. I always recommend that people have a strong social presence, even if for only sending additional signals to Google to assist in higher rankings.

Google recently nailed a bunch of lower quality bulk link networks. Were you surprised these lasted as long as they did? Was the fact that they worked at all an indication of the sustained importance of links?

Well...surprised...no... filtering out networks is something that's always going to happen....once something gets too big, or too popular, or too talked about...then it's in danger of being burned... the popular "short cuts" of today are the popular penalized networks of tomorrow... there will always be someone who will create a network (of others sites they control, or their new friends control, or of near expired domains, or blogger groups, etc etc) and that someone will start selling links, and advertising, and it will catch on, and they will sell to everyone and it will become so interconnected that it will cause it's own algorthymitic penalty, or it will get popular, and get the eyes of Google on it, and then it will get filtered, or there will be exact match penalties, or entire site penalties.

If that's the game you play, just understand the risks...or, don't play that game and give other reasons for people to link to you, and get permanent non-paid links, but that takes a lot of time and effort and marketing. That's the price you have to pay...because, yes, rankings in Google still comes down to #1, Links.

After such networks get hit, how hard is it for such sites to recover? Does it create a "flight to quality" impact on link building? Are many of them better off starting from scratch rather than trying to recover the sites?

We've worked with several people who have come to us with after being penalized by Google to some degree (either phrase based penalty, or entire site penalties). Probably the low budget people who got hit just started other sites and tossed their penalized site, but most of the people who come to us can't afford to toss their branded site away.

In almost all of those cases it takes someone removing all the paid and un-natural links that they can. They must understand then that their days of buying links are Over, and they Must create great things on their site that gets natural links....and they must forever give up the chase of being #1 for the big short tail phrases..unless you own the exact .com, or your brand name includes that phrase...In order to recover, they must purge the backlinks of the paid links and the networks, do a reinclusion request, and then start doing "natural things", and then wait and wait and wait...90 days is typical...it's the one Google gave to themselves after you pointed out that Google themselves were buying blog links.

Over time it has become easier to hit various trip wires when link building. You mentioned some things being phrse based or entire site & so on...how does a person determine the difference between these? Some of Google's automated penalties and manual penalties have quite similar footprints, are there easy ways to tell which is which?

A phrase based penalty work like this...let's say you've been targeting "green widgets" and "red widgets" for years...you have lots of backlinks with those exact anchor text....and you were in the top 10 for both phrases....then one day, you rank somewhere on page 3 or higher for those phrases.. you may still rank #3 for "cheap red widgets" or #7 for "widgets green" (reversed phrases)...but for the few exact phrases...it's page 3+ of the SERPS for you....nothing else changes, just those exact phrases.. on the other hand, a sitewide penalty is where pretty much nothing rankings on page 1 or page 2 in the SERPS, when the prior day you had lots of keywords rankings in there. I have no way of knowing which were automatic and which were hand done....sometimes I have a feeling in my gut...but it doesn't really matter...the solution is always the same...clean up the backlinks, and change your methods.

Earlier you mentioned foregoing the head phrase, in spite of things like Google Instant guiding searchers down a path, is there still plenty of tail to be had? Are tail keywords significantly under-rated by the market? How does one square going after tail keywords with algorithms like Panda?

I'm a big believer in the long tail. When we analyze content on a site we tend to grab ranking data from ahrefs for the client, as well as for several of their competitors, and we end up merging all the phrases and showing the search volume and the average cost per click for each phrase...we can always find a huge long tail, even if the clients site currently doesn't have that content (they have to add new original content), there is always a huge long tail to be had.

In 98% of the cases, there are no one or two or three main phrases that account for more than 2% of the total potential search traffic. Even with a sites existing content and existing traffic, the short tail tends not to be more than 5% of traffic for any sites I've been seeing.We often find that a site that may have 5,000 pages, but only 500 pages that site are of value via ranking for anything that has a decent search volume, and a decent worth in a CPC value in Google. If you look at those 500 urls, and you optimize each url for say 5 phrases on average, then you're looking at 2,500 phrases...of those, 50 phrases might be the short tail, and 2450 I would consider the middle tail. If you also add words like "shop" "store" "online" "sale" "cheap" "discount" etc to all those pages, you'll pick up tons more phrases. And from there, the more original content you can add, the more long tail you can get.... but..be careful...no one wants a site to be hit from a Google panda update...make sure the content is original, of value, and that it's of use to the viewers of the page.

When going after head or tail keywords...with one or the other do you feel that link quality is more important than link quantity?

Link quality always trumps. Otherwise, I'd buy those 10,000 backlinks for $100 packages that I see in Google AdWords... and my job would be a lot easier :)

With Google it is getting easier to hit tripwires with anchor text or building links too fast, does this also play into the bias toward quality & away from quantity?

I think it is easier to hit tripwires...but it's nice that Google sent out 700,000 "be careful" emails a few weeks ago... those were automatic....I think the "over optimization update" that Google has been speaking of will trip a lot of wires and people will have to mimic the natural web more and not focus on exact short tail phrases.

Those scammy AdWords ads proming link riches for nothing in part shape the perception of the cost & value of links. How do you get prospective clients to see & appreciate the value of higher quality links (while in some cases some of them will be competing with some of the bulk stuff that ranks today & is gone tomorrow)?

Well, luckily I'm not in sales calls anymore so I don't have to do the convincing :) but I'd say that if you can get links that you just can't buy (ie, a link from NASA.gov or harvard.edu/library/) then they're priceless. Each update Google will filter out some of the links from sites that it feels are artificial. If you can build things that stick and stand the test of time, and if you don't need to be #1 tomorrow, and are willing to invest in the sites content and the sites future, then think long tail and long term. If you're all about today, then do what you have to do today, but those cheap links won't move you much anyways & you'll just have a spammy backlink profile.

Building quality links that last isn't particularly cheap or easy. Even harder to do it in volume. What has allowed/enabled you to succeed where so many others have failed on this front? Is it that you care more about the client's well being, or is it that you have to tie together a bunch of clever bits to make it all back out?

Well, I have an army here....nearly 100 ninjas..the biggest group is the link builders, so I have a lot of link ninjas, we also have a lot of tools...tools that suggest the things we should write that has the highest probability of getting trusted backlinks, we have a content teams that knows how to write to get links from professors and orgs and government agencies, etc.

We have tools that help us to know who to write to after we've written the content..and we have tools that help us send out a lot of personal emails...between the tools and the people and the content, we manage to make it work. If we had to do all the work by hand, and by human guesses, it would never work, but with the tools (and human intervention along the way), we're able to get the links and scale it, while keeping the high quality.

When you talk about getting quality links that are priceless, those have that sort of value precisely because they are so hard to get. How big of a role does content play in the process? Is this something anyone can do?

Content is Key to getting links. There's different types of links....there's the low hanging fruit..then there's the fruit that's way on the top of the tree....the things that tend to be harder to get, also tend to be the most valued and the most trusted. If I wrote to a college professor at Harvard and said, "Hey, Professor Bob, I just wrote a great paper on "The History Of Widgets", you should add it to your article in the Harvard library" then if the article isn't Great, they'll never link to it. It starts with a great idea that morphs into great content, and then we promote it to those we're targeting. Anyone can write this content, guess at what a gov page would link to, or a college professor..see what they currently link out to...write them an email that's been personalized...and with enough emails, you can get the links if your content is good enough. It's a long slow process, but anyone can do it. Thank goodness I have tool that make that process much easier and more accurate to getting links.

You mentioned thinking long term, how long does it usually take to start seeing results from quality link building? Do you ever work on new sites, or do you mostly try to work on older websites that tend to respond quicker? Also have you noticed newer sites being able to rank much quicker if they do a quality-first approach to link building?

With getting the trusted links we tend to see an increase in traffic during the first 3 months. I do the 3 month review phone calls here, and my goal is to show them the ROI via overall rankings increase of the long tail, and an increase in google's organic traffic. Sites tend to see much better increases in these if they also follow our internal linking strategies, and our on page optimization strategies. If someone does link building, on page optimization, and internal linking, after 3 months there's almost no way someone can not increase the traffic to their site.


Thanks Jim!

Jim Boykin is the founder and CEO of Internet Marketing Ninjas (formerly We Build Pages, since 1999). Jim's team of marketing ninjas offer a full range of internet marketing services including link building services and social media branding, as well as they employ an in-house team of website designers. Follow Jim and the Ninjas on their blog, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, foursquare, and Linkedin.

Published: April 4, 2012 by Aaron Wall in interviews


April 4, 2012 - 12:32pm

Thanks to Jim for sharing his experience and confirming my own experience of the continuing importance of good-quality links - a point in this interview that stood out for me is that I have definitely seen newer sites rank quickly when they start out with a quality approach to link building. They don't have any of the baggage to carry with them of the thousands of poor quality links. From an SEO perspective it is much easier to see with newer sites what is and isn't working and much easier to convince the site owners of the benefits of quality links. With older sites it can actually take longer to see improved results becasue you have to counteract the poor quality links.

Another point - I have also experienced the phenomenon of "widgets red" ranking well above the heavily targeted keyword "red widgets"

April 5, 2012 - 9:19pm

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and Jim clearly has a holistic understanding of the whole linkbuilding process. Well done all around. Question: as far as content - are top 10 list style blog posts and linkbait still valid tools to use for getting links, or should we focus more on permanent evergreen content with the new Panda update. I know it shouldn't be one or the other, but are linkbait style posts that are written well still valuable?

April 5, 2012 - 11:12pm

as is each author.

Really it comes down to style, tone, perspective, market saturation, etc. Formatting is super important as well. A great piece of content can feel tired & like a lame duck if it is poorly formatted and/or hard to read.

I think what is more important than the general recipe of the content is the targeting. Who / what / where / when / why is not only content that should be thought of within the piece of content, but it is also a mental framework for who would be willing to spread it, where might they share it, why they might share it, how they might share it, etc.

April 8, 2012 - 10:38am

I remember hearing Jim talk about link building via educational sites a few years back, and on that occasion he also hinted at his technique for outreach to this audience. I appreciate that he'd not want to give too much away about the specific methodology - surely a competitive advantage as a link building service - but I'd love to know what types of sites they are link building to using this approach. If an ecommerce site managed to secure a link through outreach to Harvard or similar wouldn't the lack of any obvious relevancy between the subject matter of the two sites be an issue? Or would this get outweighed by the huge trust value of the educational site?

April 8, 2012 - 4:18pm

...and almost every major college has dozens to hundreds of departments. So in theory there are loads of opportunities per college * loads of colleges. Likewise with getting some governmental resources & other high trust link sources.

Ignite Visibility
April 14, 2012 - 6:17pm

I have to say that this is great insight. It's nice to see that your organization takes an organic, real approach to building links. This is really important. Cheap, quick paid links will only get you in trouble and this is really what most seo companies offer.

May 4, 2012 - 6:35am

A diverse link profile is absolutely necessary, when it comes to links. I agree with Jim than links are the still the #1 factor when it comes to rankings. However I would like to point out some difficulties while building natural links for a website.

  • Webmaster Unwillingness:- More often than not, a webmaster views his website as only a money-generating machine, and quotes insane rates for giving a link. This brings in budget constraints.
  • Creating Content for Links Purposes - Even if one manages to ensure a healthy supply of fresh as well as unique content for links, as blog networks are getting hit, finding platforms to get content-based links is an issue. A good website will have a so-called-extreme-scrutiny process to publish good-quality content. Also, when you manage to reach the go-ahead stage, more often than not, the webmaster asks for a fee.
  • Creating Content on your website is great, but the amount of effort spent in spreading the word on social media, leaves you with precious little time to create more links from websites. Also, social media links are mostly no-follow, so they cannot be counted as a reliable ranking factor.

I am not saying that all is lost, just elucidating the fact that perseverance is the only quality that will help you emerge on top with the help of links.

May 8, 2012 - 12:47am

Great interview with Jim Aaron. I would love to know what tools Jim and his Ninja use to target content topics, sites to gain links from and help with the communications to promote content. Jim's Internet Marketing Ninjas owns the phrase "Internet marketing services" which tells you something about his teams capabilities, especially since the We Build Pages to Internet Marketing Ninjas rebarnd (including domain name) is relatively new and 301 link juice has a half-life from what I understand. It helped Internet Marketing Ninjas that the top dog for Internet marketing services got penatlized from Penguin (I assume based on timing) and at the time, they went from #1 to like just one position above my 1 person company on page 2 of the SERPs Internet marketing services. The fact that Internet Marketing Ninajas not only surived Penguin but improved from #2 to #1 for that competitive keyphrase is a testiment to Jim and his team's skills, process and implementation. The fact that they are local to me (Albany NY area) is cool too! Thanks for sharing.

September 8, 2013 - 8:41pm

hate to burst your bubble but I have bad feelings about this whole ninja company.
I used them not much more than a year ago... then after 3 months of service my site was penalized yay! but webuildpages was not even available to help us get out of it... no appology, no suggestions, and forget about a compensation of any sort. ultimately I stopped the service after a few months. but that wasn't the end, after about a year we were hit even harder and then instructed by google webmaster tools, that it's particularly the pages "webuildpages" created. then after I deleted them, and requested a reconsideration, they revoked the penalty...

at least in my case it was a total waste of money! but I heard a similar story from a friend who worked for a big company and used the ninjas. what a shame.

I doubt this comment will make it public, or how long it will stay before it's removed. but this is the most I as a screwed client can do. I can't do it on my blog because I believe Jim is stronger than me, and going publicly against him wont pay off well...

September 10, 2013 - 7:07am

...ramped up penalties over the past couple years.

When you hired them back then, did you instruct them that you wanted paid links & quick rankings, or were you looking to take a slower & lower risk path? Generally I think they are good at giving people what they ask for & they have been moving to lower and lower risk stuff for years now. Lower risk means higher cost per link & less aggressive anchor text.

That said, there are a lot of sites getting penalized & a lot of what pushes a site over the edge towards penalties may be things that were in place for years. Google has really "moved the goal posts" quite a bit over the past few years.

You can read a lot into the specific examples Google gives, but in some cases they are either just the tip of the iceberg and/or flat out wrong. Over the past month or so SERoundtable has blogged about Google highlighting an organic link as an unnatural one. Then another blogger mentioned YellowPages.com.au being sent as an unnatural link. And then a Google+ user mentioned even DMOZ.org being accidentally listed as an unnatural link (when DMOZ was the gold standard of directories & even Google had syndicated their directory for a long time).

One last thing I would mention is that sometimes it is the business model itself Google hates. Payday loan or fake ID types of websites might be held to a short leash. And Google's remote rater guidelines even go so far as stating that HELPFUL hotel affiliate sites should be labeled as spam, even though they are helpful!

If you feel like you got a poor service then perhaps you should be public about it and/or ask them about the experience, but anonymous comments rarely drive the markets & anyone who does client work in the SEO niche is going to have some home run successes and some projects that don't work out quite as well (some budgets are insufficient, some sites are built on a foundation of quick sand, the algorithms shift sometimes even before work commences, and some people just don't work well together). Rarely will the homeruns want to reveal themselves publicly (and tip their strategy off to competitors while placing themselves under the Google microscope), but anyone who has a poor ROI does have incentive to comment.

This is a large part of the reason why so many people want to work with the big brands. They are the sites that Google is biasing the ranking algorithms toward & giving the benefit of the doubt to. Smaller sites keep getting thrown under the bus by Google. Strategy is a big part of success, but since Google has implemented their "size = quality" philosophy, who you work with/for is every bit as important as what you do (and, unfortunately, sometimes far more important).

The who vs what stuff has always been true (I've had clients that were on a blank check relationship with me & I've had clients that were white labeled resellers that wasted time & added uneeded friction to where it was nearly impossible to do anything), but the big shift of late has been not so much down to the process of working with the client, but rather how Google perceives the same behavior in 2 entirely different ways depending on who.

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