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Link Building 2011; what works and what doesn't
Written by Jennifer Van Iderstyne
Tuesday, 25 January 2011 06:08

4 Link Building Phenomena Dissected by 3 Phenomenal Link Builders

There are two sides to every story. And there are pros and cons to every link building tactic. But there are some methods that raise questions and dissention even among industry authorities. They beg the question, does it work or not? Is it safe or risky?

In the 4 areas we’re exploring today there is inevitably a worst case scenario, but there’s also an upside. We reached out to some of the brightest minds we know in link building, so special thanks to Debra Mastaler, Julie Joyce, and Melanie Nathan for their input in this fascinating conversation.

Link building Experts Speak


Site-Wide Links

The question: What are your thoughts on Site-wide links? How effective are they still? Would you advise them to clients?

Debra: I'd only advise using site-wides if the client was in a competitive niche, the link graph can handle them without the page getting spanked.  The site-wides I've watched seem to work initially, they can be useful for getting a page indexed and in a respectable position but they usually don't pass enough juice to hold it there or bump it up.  I'd stay on contextually or geographically similar sites if possible.   I wouldn't recommend using them in any other situation.  

Julie: I really don't like them anymore, at least not for our no, I wouldn't advise them but I also think that, like most other things, they're part of a normal, natural link profile. We've done work with changing site wide links to one-page links but whether or not it was responsible for rankings improving, I really can't say because we did a few other things at the same time.  I think that site wides can be effective for traffic if they're placed on a great site, but I'd not recommend that anyone actively pursue them in great quantities right now.

Melanie: Yes, site-wide links are still affective and I don’t shy away from attaining them for my clients. Anybody that says they DON’T still work, is doing it wrong. I generally don’t refuse ANY link without a really good reason though.

The Consensus: Site-wide links still have a role to play in SEO. They are a naturally occurring link pattern and can certainly help new sites and sites in competitive niches. But are they the best links you can get? Probably not. Then again, like Melanie says, it’s hard to turn down any link, unless it coming from a site that’s seriously circling the drain.

The Worst Case Scenario: It would probably be a bad idea to rely solely on site-wide links for rankings. If that’s the focus of your link building campaign, now is a good time to diversify. Having a few site-wide links can easily happen on its own. But if you have nothing but site-wide links, that kind of in-bulk linking isn’t likely to have any major long-term, positive impact on your rankings.

Link Networks

The question: What are your thoughts on link networks? How prevalent are they still? And do you advise them to clients"

Debra: Are we talking about things like link wheels, content networks or reciprocal linking groups?  If it's the latter, bleech!! Not only are recip linking groups an algorithmic waste of time, they look stupid too.  Link wheels pass a little link juice but since most use very public sources like Squidoo and Tumblr, you have to continually work them to keep the juice flowing and the content growing. 

Content networks come in all shapes and sizes, from the "bad" scraper sites to a stable of hobby blogs to developed mini nets to Demand Media types.  I don't recommend scraper sites but hobby blogs can be golden.  Mini nets??  I think they're ok as long as they're on topic and continually work to attract links on their own.  When content networks depend solely on the other sites in the network for their link juice, you're playing with fire.

Melanie: You mean A links to B which links to C which links back to A? If so, I’ve never tried it and therefore can’t really say either way. I will say that I can’t see it being harmful getting a link from a network such as that though…. unless it shares servers with some pretty shady sites.

Julie: I never advise these to my clients because of both the footprints involved in the links and the low-quality nature of the ones I've seen. However, I do think they can work very well, especially when meshed in with other links.

They must be prevalent considering the amount of times I have to justify our labor costs to prospective clients who ask why they should pay me x amount when they can get 500 links for 50 cents. This is not to say that there aren't quality networks out there, of course. I've just never personally seen them.

The Consensus: Not every link network is bad, but most large, deliberate, networks usually aren’t worth the time. The kinds of large, cheap networks that Julie mentions are likely the ones that Debra references, that “depend solely on the other sites in the network for their link juice”. In those situations, you may benefit from getting one link from the most independently powerful, relevant site in the group and moving on.

However, as all of our experts acknowledge, there circumstances under which a network isn’t so bad at all and actually may be a good thing. When like themed websites inadvertently become a network by virtue of mutual links, getting into that group can actually be useful. Provided that all of the websites can stand on their own merit and are generating links from other outside sources.

Worst Case Scenario: Getting into a bad network can hurt you, but it is far more likely it just won’t HELP you much. But if your site gets tied into a network that already has a lot of red flags attached to it those negative factors could impact your site. However, the more likely pitfall of large networks is that they are poorly set up. If it is obvious that one person owns 100 sites that are hosted on the same C-class, then it’s likely that getting a link from all 100 of them will do you no more good than getting 1.


The question: What are your thoughts on over optimization? Can it be a significant problem? What’s the best way to avoid it?

Debra:  I'm a link builder, there is no such thing as "too much" anything :)

Melanie: Over optimization can definitely be a problem especially where repeatedly using the same anchor text is concerned… but usually only if you’re obtaining copious amounts of links on a daily basis. Best way to avoid is vary your link text as well as the type and format (i.e. with description, without description, in sidebar, within content etc).

Julie: I'm fairly sure that one of our clients has suffered from over optimization. You can't keep building 50 links a month to your homepage using just one key phrase. Sadly, not everyone listens...anyway, I think it can be as detrimental as any other technique that you can abuse. It's very important to vary your anchor text, your target pages, and your link sources but it's also very time-consuming to do so, which makes people want to take shortcuts. I like to see a nice variety of anchor text, including noise anchors, brand and URL, keywordized anchors, image links, etc.

I don't like seeing a link profile that is 90% "Ramones tee shirts" for a site that sells, um, Dead Kennedy's tee shirts too, and CDs, and leggings, and loads of other items. Even if your biggest seller is a Ramones tee and you think that's how people search for you, it's just not natural so quit overdoing it.

The Consensus: Gotta love Debra’s spirit, but 2 out of 3 seem to agree that over-optimization can exist when you completely ignore the essence of natural link profiles. Too much, too fast, too targeted can probably put you above the radar. The best way to regulate that is as Julie and Melanie note, to use variations.

Use “click here” as anchor text occasionally, go ahead and link using your URL and definitely use your brand name from time to time. These kinds of links may not help your keyword rankings, but they may help keep your more targeted links from being hit with dampening factors due to anchor-text over-kill.

Worst Case Scenario: Exactly the situation Julie describes. If that’s been your link building strategy up until now, switch keywords, and get some deep links…stat. But other than that, it takes some effort to over optimize. Just vary your anchor text, your target pages and the number of links you acquire each month and you should be fine.

Link Spikes

The question: What are your thoughts on link spikes (I.e A huge influx of links)? Can be counter productive? What’s the best way to avoid it?:

Debra: From my experience, large link spikes don't happen naturally, they're either a result of some sort of breaking news or link drop.   Anytime you're adding a lot single links (those not embedded in content) make sure you run multiple campaigns using a variety of tactics and add content to your site for balance. 

Melanie: Link spikes are tricky. On the one hand they can be perfectly natural as a result of recent media attention but on the other hand they can easily be faked by buying a ton of links all at once. I guess it depends on just how MANY links we’re talking about here and what kind of quality they are. With Google, it’s all about keeping the links as relevant as possible (as they will obviously be able to tell the difference if they investigate). I’ve done campaigns where I’ve obtained over 100 quality links in a very short time frame though and the worst that has happened is I got the ranking I was after… only way faster than usual lol.

Julie: I confuse myself on the issue of link spikes unfortunately, as I think they can be very dangerous and possibly give clues that something spammy is happening and I also think they are completely natural. My biggest concern with link spikes is that it's not always apparent what caused them, and I'm paranoid that they indicate something that's manipulative and suspect. I think any webmaster should watch his or her own link spikes and see if they can be correlated with events, though, because I think this gives you valuable insight into how you build links, which hopefully will help you capitalize on that and build even more.

The Consensus: Link spikes are good and bad. Each of our experts seems to acknowledge that there are positive circumstances that can cause a natural link spike. Having an article go viral, getting news coverage that becomes syndicated, or any situation in which something you’ve done, or something about your website gets a lot of attention all at once in the way of links. The flip-side of that is that there are also a number of situations in which those links are not natural, and that a sudden, and drastic increase in those kinds of links can have a negative impact on a website if it gets slapped for spam.

Debra and Julie in particular use words specific words that I think are poignant to managing link spikes: “Balance” and “relevance”. If the links you are getting are relevant and you have other link building efforts happening simultaneously, you’ll likely achieve the balance you need not to suffer from having a large influx of links.

Worst Case Scenario: You are doing something spammy, and you didn’t hide it very well. If you buy 1000 links that go up overnight, all using the same keyword, to your homepage, you might be in trouble. You might also be living in 2004, if no one has warned you not to do that yet.

The other interesting point worth noting is that, in general, most of us are way too paranoid about Search Engines examining our back links. I really like the way Melanie put it:

After years of link building, and seeing for my own eyes what works and what doesn’t, I firmly believe in my heart of hearts that Google doesn’t know as much about (or care to investigate) your back links like you think they do.”

In the end, I guess it just comes down to diversity and not taking short cuts. If you commit yourself to the long-haul and doing the hard work, then you can probably breathe a little easier.

That's a wrap!

I started out planning to write this from one perspective, but thanks to Dave’s advice and the contributions of these amazing ladies, (Seriously you 3 are AWESOME) it became as Dave called it “A living breathing beast”. I can’t thank the participants enough. And now I want to open it up to the rest of you, drop your comments and weigh in on these link issue or any others that have been on your mind!


About the respondents;

Jennifer Van Iderstyne -

Jen is currently the online marketing director and primary SEO consultant for Search Slingshot, based out of Albany NY.


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0 #1 Julie Joyce 2011-01-25 06:19
What I love most about this piece is that the three of us didn't regurgitate each other's ideas. I hate reading something where everyone says the exact same thing. I think we're all on the same page for the most part, but I like that no one gave the same answers.
0 #2 Yatin Mulay 2011-01-25 06:35
Surprised to read Debra's take on Over Optimization because there certainly seems to be a filter in place that gets tripped when you over optimize ( like the other 2 respondents implied )

p.s: link to debra's blog is broken ( refer: "about the respondents" section )
+2 #3 Dejan Petrovic 2011-01-25 06:48
Would be interesting to hear opinion on link buying, guest blogging, anchor text diversity and link bait tactics.
0 #4 Alex 2011-01-25 06:52
Great stuff, Jennifer.

To avoid using the same anchor text over and over, I put "click here" just to make the link profile looks not that aggressive.
+2 #5 Dejan Petrovic 2011-01-25 07:35
Quoting Alex:
I put "click here" just to make the link profile looks not that aggressive.

I am not a big fan of click here. My preference is on URL as anchor for that reason. It can often contain a keyword within.
0 #6 Melanie Nathan 2011-01-25 09:27
This was super fun! Thanks Jennifer!

And kudos to my comrades Julie and Debra... 2 VERY smart cookies!!
0 #7 Doc Sheldon 2011-01-25 10:01
Excellent article, Jen, and I loved the way you approached it!

Linkbuilding is one of my weak areas, so picking the brains of these three sharp pros is a treat!
0 #8 Jennifer Van Iderstyne 2011-01-25 14:26
Thanks Everyone! Melanie and Julie, you gave great answers and really made it easy to put this together.

Dejen: Those are great ideas for perhaps a 2nd installment in the future...

Doc: Thanks, it was definitely a treat for me too!
0 #9 Julie Joyce 2011-01-25 15:34
I vote for a series! PPC, SEO, social media...I like the quick format for this and think it would work well for any niche.
0 #10 Stevo 2011-01-26 00:24
Wow! That's an awesome piece. The diversity of the content and opinions is strong and welcomed. I love the way that none of the ladies ingratiate themselves with each other, and rather speak their truth from their own personal power and experiential sources. Lovely, informative article.
0 #11 CaliberI 2011-01-26 01:36
Nice and precise article!
Most of these points we have said in our team discussions this year.

Keep the good posts up :)
0 #12 debra mastaler 2011-01-26 08:09
Thanks again for doing this Jennifer and to everyone for their kind comments, Julie, Melanie and I appreciate it. :-)

Regarding @Yatan's comment here: "Surprised to read Debra's take on Over Optimization"

I didn't mean to sound flippant and I apologize if it came across that way.

While I don't recommend anyone dropping single links saying the same thing and pointing to the same page over and over in mass quantities, it's not because I'm afraid of filters. Not all of those links are going to be devalued because the pages hosting those links are all different.

Some pages pass more trust and so single links may not be devalued, or be devalued as quickly or as much. Known page offenders, like a known human offender, isn't trusted after time so anything coming off/from that offender will be ignored. Remember, it's not the link passing the majority of the value, it's the page. Hence my initial comment on never having too many links. :)

However, I am very aware of the engines ability to read patterns. This makes sense if you consider what an algorithm is (math). So while I love lots of links, I prefer them from a wide variety of sources and embedded in content. (can't stress the "embedded" thing enough) ;-) This is good from an algorithmic and marketing standpoint.

In link building and life, it's always about location, location, location.

0 #13 Craig Daniels 2011-01-28 07:41
I loved the format with short incisive responses..brilliant, and I too would like to see more on some of the other avenues of link building...

thanks to everyone for their involvement.
0 #14 Stuart 2011-01-30 18:00
Great Info.

I've used a variety of sources for building links. But none of them were automated services such as link spinning etc. I am very hesitant to try link spikes as I fear it could ruin my reputation permanently. However I did read an interesting article that had some good tips for building high quality links. Hope other find it helpful as well.
0 #15 iDCx 2011-01-31 04:13
Loved the read - although i would suggest that with sitewide links - you're better off picking one page that is relevant to your offering and linking from that page - lonely links in the side bar with little or no proximity text are pointless - simply hot up your footprint...
0 #16 Madison Real Estate 2011-02-01 15:39
Wonderful info for a new business owner that is working feverishly to speed up the learning curve on link-building. Some of the responses went over-my-head, but it has provided me with some homework, in terms to look-up and familiarize myself with. Thanks so much. I'm new here and love it so far...
0 #17 Photoshop 3D Objects 2011-02-03 22:46
What about posting comments on blogs such as this one for link building?

Are there any search engines that follow no-follow links?

I would definitely like to here Melanie's take on this since it seems that she's actually putting in the work to link, link, and link again! :)
0 #18 geo-targt 2011-02-28 12:05
I am scratching my head here. This whole thread sounds like a bunch of beginners' babble, with people all exited from hearing 5-year-old information, and one of the 'experts' unable to put together coherent sentences whatsoever.
0 #19 Robert Somerville 2011-02-28 13:24
Fascinating discussion.

I would have liked to you to have also discussed your top 3 methods for acquiring the authoritative links that a website needs and that are probably mostly responsible for the ultimate ranking position that a website receives.
0 #20 Miami Life Coach 2011-03-07 05:05
Pretty good list -- thanks! I think the tips you provide are a good reminder that the objective is to create visibility and generate traffic /sales. Very often the focus is purely on "link building" that it is easy to miss the broader big picture of why it is being done in the first place. If only we could remind ourselves constantly that link building and SEO are only the means to an end and not the end in itself....good job!

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