The Art (or Science) of Building Links

It’s my first post for Search Engine Watch, and I’m thrilled to be joining the great team of bloggers here; some of whom I know personally and some I’m looking forward to getting to know (now that we have something more in common than just our chosen field.)

It happens like that though doesn’t it? I’m referring to growing a professional network.

We tend to build our professional network through a combination of ways: our paths may cross in real life; one may reference the others’ work; we “meet” online, or have a strong common bond. Other times we may seek to establish a connection with a fellow professional, even if we have no first- or second-hand connection.

Other reputation factors have already qualified someone to us and this person is a “brand” in our industry. Such reputation isn’t communicated to us as the result of a single decisive moment but more over time and almost as if by osmosis.

I’m sure there are regional sensitivities and socio-cultural differences from market to market, but if I were trying to fathom the credibility of a fellow professional I’d cast my eye over some of the following:

  • Quality of their contribution.
  • Are they connected to any influential players?
  • Are we in the same business?
  • Have they been around a while?
  • Do we know anyone in common?
  • What can they do for me?
  • How many connections do they have?

As I go through and ponder the findings of the above, I’m all the time making judgments based on my learned experience, retained knowledge, and what I might think of as “gut-feel.” Although some of that might sound like a wishy-washy way to make a quick assessment, the human brain is far more powerful than any super-computer. Consciously and unconsciously I’m forming an opinion based on many variables, some more important to me than others; which will be completely specific to me.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Such criteria are often cited as methods of assessing the quality of a web page, and how such a page may be desirable as a link source.

  • Quality of the content.
  • Quality of external links to that page.
  • Relevance of content (and possible anchor text for my link).
  • Authority — which may have temporal qualities.
  • Common links (checking out the neighborhood).
  • Quality and potential volume of traffic.
  • Number of third party links to that page.

We all know that links are a crucial component of search engine algorithms, particularly Google. We’re also no doubt familiar with the frequently stated messages delivered from Matt Cutts, or most recently Maile Ohye interviewed at SES Toronto, who re-emphasised that content matters most and it is quality more than quantity.

I’m in no doubt that content matters most, but I’m also in no doubt that content is never considered in isolation. After all, most content links are placed by humans, and humans are influenced by all sorts of factors. We’re often impressed by brands, influenced by emotions, and distracted by shiny things.

So, if pressed, I’d say I have a link philosophy, which includes different types of strategies — which at campaign level, are underpinned by research and analysis.

What I want to cover in detail in my future spots here are the details of my approach (or philosophy), which starts with defining and strengthening the core brand. (As part of the process of link-attraction I’d say this was in the art camp.) Next I want to go through strategies; (mostly in the art camp), as I’m predominately a natural, content-driven link builder.

I also plan to run a case study or two using my favorite tools; looking at how we can identify who best to aim our communications at. If you’re interested, at the moment we use a combination of Link Research Tools, InfluenceFinder, and MEDIAgility. Much as this approach is a mixture of different marketing methodologies, I find different link-analysis tasks may require different tools, which I’ll also example.

In summary, while information retrieval and mathematically/algorithmically determined relevancy between documents is a science, attraction marketing, (by which I include brand and content link building) is very much an art form. Which does make for an interesting job!

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