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.
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.
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