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Why Link?

Why bother linking?

Links are what makes the Internet go round - without links it wouldn't work. Many sites derive a proportion of their traffic from links, in one form or another.

Of course, links are also the single biggest factor affecting page rank, i.e. the importance search engines attribute to your pages. If lots of other sites - genuine sites, that is, not link farms - link to you, especially if they are within a related field, and the more important they are, and if the links are one-way (you do not link back to them), the higher the value a search engine attaches to your site. This means you should look carefully at this area when search optimising your website - always provide many good reasons why other sites would want to link to yours. Links from your site out to another have much less relevance, and none at all for page rank. Obviously, you could link to any site you liked, or even most of the Internet. It's much harder to get inbound links, especially from important sites.

If the owner of another website thinks yours is a valuable resource that would benefit their visitors, they might link to your site. If many sites linked to yours in this way, one might assume that your site was a useful resource, and therefore worth placing more highly in search results for a given topic than a website with no links at all. This is why inbound links are a primary rating factor used by search engines to determine a website's importance. After all, the BBC and CNN have a lot of links, and are important resources, so the premise seems valid. Naturally, there are many ways in which individual websites (and especially groups of websites) can attempt to alter the natural weighting of this important measurement; and so there is an ongoing contest between those who try to skew the natural search results, and those who are trying to keep the results accurate.

If many sites all seem relevant for a particular term, and rank highly due to their link equity, then other factors come into play such as specific text relevance variables and the overall acceptability of the site defined by various quality measurements. Finally, traffic estimates are then given a weighting, since if one site that seems relevant has traffic of 1,000 visitors a day but another has 10,000 a day, it looks as though people prefer the latter. Search engines all have several ways of measuring this, the most obvious being the click-through rate on their results pages.

Page rank is a term used to indicate the relative importance of a page to a search engine. It is used by several search engines (you can for example determine a site's Yahoo page rank), the most important being Google, who use the specific term PageRank as their registered version.

Inbound link importance outranks keywording, and a site or page can in some cases get to the top of the tree without even a single instance of a keyword on it. As an example, Adobe's Acrobat download page is the highest-ranked page on the net for the term 'click here', which explains the importance of your link anchor text - more on this later. It is one of the highest-ranking on the web, since many thousands of important sites link to it. This page alone puts their whole site rank into the stratosphere, and that explains why they give Acrobat away for free.

The best link, in terms of its value to your site, would be one on a popular (and persistent) page of a busy and important website. For instance, if you received a link from the BBC, from within a page of reference material that has existed on their site for some time, and will continue to do so, then your site would receive inestimable benefit. This is for several good reasons, the most important of which are firstly that a lot of visitors will come your way; and then, that search engines will rightly place a very high value on the vote of confidence that such an important and respected resource has given you. Not only that, but such a link is quite likely to be a one-way link - the BBC are unlikely to need or want you to link to them.

After the one-way link, the best link is from within content on another website; this is called a deep link and has the highest value of normal links. Links also have more value if a percentage of them point to an internal page and not to your index page.

Links in practice

Many links will probably turn out to be reciprocal, as people will mutually agree to provide useful resources for their visitors. Another way to look at this, of course, would be to recognise that websites need links in order to be visible, and so if two sites wished to assist each other to achieve better visibility, in such a public manner, then that is an acceptable way to do so. Since you would be unlikely to link to a website of obviously low quality, or one in an unpleasant business area - even to benefit your own site slightly - then in fact you are upholding and assisting the system by doing this. After all, search engines need links in order to be able to find sites to index; and they need some sort of vote measurement scheme to include as part of their ranking system. Low-quality sites would probably have to link to each other - and this tends to be the case.

One of the first things that Google tell you to do in their TOS (Guidelines), for instance, is:

"When your site is ready:
          - Have other relevant sites link to yours."

How to set up links

There is a right way and a wrong way to set up links. A straightforward URL (a site or page address) is not the best way; neither is a graphic on a links page, for reasons explained later. It is also best not to call your links page by that name. We generally refer to ours as resources that can be visited. This is because a link from a page called 'links', and consisting entirely of links, is deprecated: it does not have as much weight as one on a page with another name, and certainly not as much as one from within relevant (if possible) content.

The Links page (or whatever it's called) should be accessible with one click from the index page. This will give maximum value to your link partners. Such a page needs to have less than 100 links on it, or its value will probably be reduced further. In many cases, with dynamic sites, this is a particularly hard factor to comply with; but in any case the link number should definitely not exceed 200.

You should have a Sitemap for visitors, with the Links page on it. Both visitors and search engines appreciate this; though ideally each receives a different type. The sitemap for visitors should be simple and clearly laid out (only include the main category pages if your site is large); obviously, it will be an html page or in whatever codebase your site uses. Search engines are happier with a spider map, which is of much more use to them but useless to a visitor.

A straight URL link like this is not the best way:

This form, called 'anchor text + description', is better:

Search Optimising
Search engine optimising, usability development, and websites with search penalties investigated. CMS and ecommerce implementation project management.

...and the high-value type described above, a 'deep' link from within content, is even better.

In an anchor-text link, the URL is linked to the first bit (which results in the underline, where shown), and shows up with mouseover in case anyone is interested. A good rule here is 6 words or less for the anchor, 30 words or less for the description. This forces you to put only the important things in there, and preferably first.

Why the anchor text format is best

A links page following that format is best, for the following reasons:

  • People get the best value from it. It usually describes clearly and concisely what the website specialises in, followed by a wider list of subjects covered.

  • Search Engines pick up the 'anchor text' (the keywords used as the actual link), and also the description that follows. They attach a lot of weight to the initial link text, as we saw for the Acrobat download page, where they are clearly led to believe that particular page is the best in the world for anyone looking for info on 'click heres', whatever they might be...

  • The link has more weight because relevant additional keywords are used.

  • Visitors aren't usually interested anyway in the site name, just what they'll find there (the site URL comes up on hover in any case).

  • And it's certainly better than a graphic for a link, as a bunch of those will slow your page loading right down. A graphic + an HTML object for each link is going to load your page right up; then you have the time input for adding all those graphics.

  • Some sites want you to use a graphic that actually resides on their site. That might save you some bandwidth, but nowadays there are too many exploitations of that arrangement - as html email marketers well know. Graphics also annoy some visitors.

  • Bots can't see graphics; therefore the search engines can't either. The spiders can't see any keywords within a graphic, and if you want them seen, you have to metatag the alt. text attribute and make it a mile long. Graphics are for people - but the best link value comes from search engines.

  • Keep in mind that the principle reason for linking, most of the time, is search optimising - not for visitors.

Making a link look fancy is a waste of everybody's time. If you are genuinely targeting people with the link - then this is probably not the best way to do it in any case. That might be, for instance, to place text links as footnotes to a page; this of course being the traditional method of supplying references in any case.

Link value scale

Any link from a links page is probably only worth about half that of a 'real' or high-value link. Here is a list of link formats, rated for value, from 1 at the top, the best, down to the worst, in terms of search engine weight. These are inbound links from another website, pointing to you.

1. A one-way link deep link from an important website.
2. Other one-way links (in other words non-reciprocal, you don't link back).
3. Deep links - some words linked from within relevant content, using keyword text, and pointing toward an internal page on your site.
4. Anchor-text links, on a links page with an alternative name, and few links.
5. Anchor-text links, on a links page which is called that, with lots of links.
6. Straight URL links on a links page.
7. Graphic links, on a links page with over 100 links.
8. 'Condom' links. These have a 'nofollow' metatag, and are of little use for pure link value.

A small amount of value is still transmitted by a no-followed link (despite denials by search engine representatives). They may have value simply as a mention of your website's name; and perhaps more so if the linking site is extremely busy, if it promotes its link page strongly, and if visitors to that site will be interested in visiting yours immediately.

How many links do you need?

It depends. You'll need some to be seen at all; and the more you have, the stronger your site will be in the search results pages (SERPs).
  • In order for your site to show up in the first place, you will need more than 10 links.

  • To achieve a minimum level of Google PageRank, you would be at PR1, and this requires around 30 links.

  • You may only need 100 links to place well in the SERPs in a weak market area.

  • Normally, in order to place well in search results, you will need more than 200 - but this depends on market strength and the search engine you are talking about.

  • A good number to aim for is 500, as this will allow you to compete in many market areas.

Places not to link to

You would be well advised not to link to some sites, even if they grovel admirably (or pay). Here are some of those you might avoid:

  • Link farms - these are free-for-all link sites that anyone can link with anytime; or similar places that clearly advertise such a facility. Easily identified by large numbers of adverts; requests for money; or obvious ease of successful application.
  • Paid link sites - a division of the link farm class. They just go straight for the cash; pay up and you're linked. Blatant requests for money are their trademark.
  • Bid directories - here, you pay for the best link spots. Not considered a good idea now, as many have been heavily penalised.
  • Cheap directories - again, a money-for-links operation of any kind is not recommended. However, there is a line here between quality and quantity; it is very hard indeed to quantify precisely where that line is, and which types of directory are acceptable, and which are not, since in general expensive directories are acceptable. The obvious examples at the far end of the scale, at each end, are simple to recognise.
  • Low quality websites of any type.
  • Websites in the gambl*ng, p*rn or cheap pharm*ceuticals areas.

Directories - Yes or No?

Search engines don't like link farms, which are any site that automatically provides other sites with a link. Those sites are penalised, and any one linking to them is affected. In some cases a link farm is obvious; in other cases it is hard to tell if a site or directory is a safe home for your link.

Expensive directories that reject some applicants are a safe choice for inclusion, purely for link purposes rather than visitor referrals, perhaps. In these cases it does not matter that money - and a substantial amount - has changed hands, because there are other factors that mean this is not simply a cash-for-links operation.

Generally, if you think Roll-Royce would be likely to apply for inclusion, then the directory would probably pass the quality test. A bit extreme, perhaps - but this points to how we should measure them. At some point there is a line which it is inadvisable to cross. If you can't recognise where that is, then back off, and play safe.

Niche directories are a safer choice, because - by their very nature - they reject a great many applicants. Any directory that obviously has a quality policy is probably going to be a safe choice, even if they are quite clear that they charge for inclusion. A 'quality' policy means that sites must be reviewed by human editors, and some must be rejected on quality or non-compliance grounds.

This process is entirely acceptable because in order to utilise editorial reviews, it is reasonable to charge for the service. If people want to find a website in a specialist area, then one way to do so would be to search a directory that only lists relevant sites that have passed a quality test. This of course is a prime requirement of any enquirer.

It is much harder to run a general web directory on these terms, and requires a much greater number of editors. Policing the editors then becomes an increasingly important factor.

Any connection between money and links is something to avoid - unless it is done with class and style, of course, and an expensive price tag; but that's life, so there's no point in complaining. We don't intend to moralise on this issue because as far as we can see, looking at the big picture, the system works. There is nothing wrong with commercial market pressures as long as they are visible and balance out; which if the system is large enough, and includes enough checks and balances, they generally do. It is when the system is controlled by invisible and unaccountable forces that it becomes corrupt.

With the larger pay-for-inclusion directories, the cost, obstacles, and benefits are all out in the open, so the process is basically valid. An end-value metric can be placed on the result, by any interested party. If the cost is lower and there seem to be no obstacles to inclusion, this may indicate a less safe home for your listing. Listings (e.g. links), even when clearly paid for, are allowable if there is a quality process in force that means some are excluded. One way of looking at this is to compare it to the normal and natural inter-website linking process: you wouldn't link to just anyone. Again, links are necessary in order for the Internet to work correctly; but linking should not be an automatic process without controls.When there is no apparent cost but the benefits are high, then it may be worth looking to see if the system is working correctly.

Links are vital both for the Net and for your site's success. Just be choosy where you link to, in both directions.

Web Business Managers