Beginner’s Guide to SEO: Best Practices – Part 3/3

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We’ve reached part three of the SEO guide series. So far we’ve looked at:

google logo

Now it’s time to look at link building, which as much as anything will determine where your pages rank for different queries.

We’ll also take a look at analytics so you can understand how your SEO efforts have been working and gain insights into how to improve them. Unless you’re measuring results you’re basically throwing things into the wind and hoping they land where you want. Analytics will let us know which way the wind is blowing and point us to jet streams to so our SEO lands where we want.

Let’s start talking about links and what makes one link more valuable than another.

4. Link Building

Links more than anything will determine where your pages rank. If you build a search friendly site and generate incoming links to your pages you’e going to get search traffic. The two main questions with links are where do you get them and which are the best links to get. Let’s tackle the latter question first.

Which are the best links to get?

Google popularized the idea of links as a ranking factor. Links are at the heart of Google’s PageRank algorithm. At it’s core the idea was that a link counts as a vote or recommendation by one page for another. Over time this has evolved quite a bit, but I think it’s still useful to think about links as votes or recommendations.

Consider the following scenario – You have 2 neighbors. One is the local plumber and the other is Albert Einstein. If you ask each a general question who’s answer do you think you’d be more likely to trust? Odds are you’re going to trust Einstein’s answer because you know he’s a pretty smart guy and probably knows the answer to a lot of things. Einstein likely has more general authority in your eyes than the plumber as a go to guy for answers.

Let’s say instead of a general question you have a very specific question about the pipes running through your kitchen. Now who’s answer are you going to trust? Probably the plumber. Einstein knows a lot, but chances are the plumber knows more about plumbing. The plumber has more topical authority when it comes to answers about plumbing.

Where do you get them?

Now think about the above analogy in terms of links. Some sites and pages have a lot of general authority. Think cnn.com, whitehouse.gov. wikipedia.org. A link from these sites likely carries a lot of general authority. People trust these sites and more importantly search engines trust these sites. What do they specifically know about web design though?

How about sites like smashingmagazine.com, the tutsplus family of sites, or hongkiat.com? These sites have topical authority around web design and web development. You would probably trust advice from them on the topic of design and development over the whitehouse.gov site.

I’ll ask again which links have more value for your site?

Page Rank

PageRank (PR) is Google’s idea of measuring authority, more specifically general authority. The PR of a web page is based on the PR of the pages linking to that page. However PageRank isn’t the end all and be all of search ranking. First the PR you and I see is not the true PR of a web page. We see what’s called toolbar PR (TBPR). Google updates it 3 or 4 times a year so most of the time it’s out of date. It’s also on a different scale than true PageRank and Google’s been known to edit the PR of certain sites for various reasons.

PageRank is still important and it’s still part of what goes into determining where a web page will rank, but know that if you’re chasing PR you’re going about things the wrong way. PR is only one factor among hundreds and it’s also a Google specific metric. It has nothing to do with how well your pages rank at any other search engine. At best it’s a quick and dirty measure of the authority Google sees in a page or site.

So what are the best links to get? Well it depends. It depends on the topic of your site and it depends on the competition around that topic. Links from the Wikipedia and CNN are always going to be good, however the link from the authority in your niche is probably even better.

As a general rule the harder it is to acquire a link the better, because that difficultly reduces the chances of your competition getting the same link and that difficulty likely enhances the authority a search engine sees in the link and consequently your page and site.

As a site note: Page Rank is named after Google co-founder Larry Page. Many people mistakenly believe it’s named after page as in web page and think page rank is the same as where your page ranks in search results. Nope. Page is for Larry Page.

Anchor Text, Nofollow, and Link Diversity

There are three more ideas we should discuss when talking about the quality of links:

  1. The anchor text of the links in question,
  2. Links with the nofollow attribute applies, and
  3. The diversity of where those links come from.

Anchor Text
You probably know that anchor text is the clickable text that becomes the links. Those words and even the words around the link itself give an indication of what the page is voting for. If the anchor text linking to you says “web design” it will likely help you rank better for the keyphrase “web design” than if the anchor text said “click here.” Keywords in anchor text are a good signal for ranking.

Nofollow
nofollow
is essentially a way to link to a web page while at the same time letting search engines know you’re not voting or recommending that page. Links with nofollow applied are not supposed to pass any link juice or link value. They shouldn’t therefore have any benefit in regards to SEO. However any link is still an avenue into your site.

If CNN told me they would link to my home page, but the link would have nofollow applied, I’d still be very happy to have that link. Many eyeballs would see it and hopefully many of them would click through to my site.

Link Diversity
Earlier I mentioned the concept of a link as a vote. In an election how many votes does one person get. Corruption aside it’s one vote per person. With web pages and websites there is likely a diminishing return when we’re talking about links back to your site. Consider two cases.

  1. 1,000 links pointing into your site all from a single website
  2. 100 links pointing into your site, 5 each from 20 different sites

The latter is probably going to have a greater impact. In the first case there’s no diversity in the links. In the second case there are more sites “voting” for you. Ideally links into your site or page should come from a variety of sources.

SEOmoz Whiteboard Friday – Link Diversity from Scott Willoughby on Vimeo.

Quick Summary of Link Building

  1. Build trust and authority in your site by acquiring links from general and topical trusted and authority sites.
  2. Build trust and authority in a single page on your site by acquiring links from general and topical trusted and authority web pages.
  3. Try to get links with variations of your main keyphrase in the anchor text.
  4. Seek links from a diverse set of sites and pages.
  5. Sometimes it’s simply a numbers game. More links or better more link juice, PR, or whatever you want to call it, is better. Quality though, is usually preferred to quantity.

Internal links (links from one page of your site to another) count as links, but what others say about you means more than what you say about yourself. External links (links from other domains) are better than internal links, but internal links do count. Make sure to link between pages of your site. Internal links are also one place you can guarantee control over the anchor text of the link.

In general the easier a link is to get the less value it likely has. Even if it does have great value your competition will be able to get that same link as easily as you thereby diluting the effect of the link.

Where to Get Links From

Now that we’ve discussed what makes for a better link how and where should we get links? Any page that will link back to one of your pages is a link. Most will help to some degree, but given the above discussion of link quality some links are going to help more.

I’ll point you to a few sources with specific ideas on how and where to get links from and keep the discussion here to a few general thoughts.

Low Quality Links

These
are usually easy to get. Forums, directories, blog comments are a few examples. These links are links and they should pass on raw link juice and value. However, because these links are generally low quality you probably don’t want to spend too much time trying to get them without having other reasons for getting those links.

For example I participate regularly in several forums and each contains links in my forum signature back to my site. I never post though just to get another signature link. I post in order to interact with the communities of those forums. That interaction has directly led to friends and clients and yes even some SEO benefit. Again the goal of post is not the link. That’s simply a nice side benefit.

The same thing applies to blog comments. The value in those comments is that you get to be in front of an audience that may very well be interested in you and your site. If you spend time leaving interesting or entertaining comments on a few blogs on similar topics to your blog you’ll find some of that audience will follow you back to your site and the blog owner may also do the same. If you simply leave a quick and useless comment you’re missing out. The link itself is probably not going to help much. It’s the quality of the comment that matters most. Any SEO benefit is a nice side bonus.

High Quality Links
They are harder to get and will ultimately give you more benefit. It makes more sense to actively work to get these links. Trusted, authority sites probably aren’t going to link to you just because you ask. You’re generally going to need to give them a reason to link to you.

That starts with your own content. The better your content the more likely someone will want to link to it. It’s always going to be easier to get people to link to quality than garbage.

Give to get. You want me to link to you? Why not link to me first? When you help others it makes them want to help you back. Think about how you can help the site you’re hoping will link back to you. One way you can do this is by guest blogging.

Many design and development blogs are actively seeking guest posts. You should get back a short bio which can include a link or two. Also if you have content that further explains some things you’re writing about you can add a link in the text. As long as the link points to page that is relevant to the guest post most bloggers will be fine with you adding it. Just don’t overdo it.

Remember first and foremost the goal is to write the best post you can for that other site.

Build relationships. Network with other designers. We’re all more likely to help friends than we are to help strangers. We’re also more likely to be familiar with the content of people and sites we know making it easier to link to that content.

In the end the best way to generate quality links is to have content worth linking to. Instead of spending all your time chasing after links with dubious benefit spend more time creating content others will find useful. You still need to give your content a push. If you build it they will come only works in the movies.

Resources

The following should generate lots of ideas for where and how you can build links into your site.

5. Analytics

All of the previous discussion on SEO is great, but how do you know if any of it is working? The answer is in analytics. You need to measure what’s happening in order to know if your efforts are successful and leading to a positive return on your investment.

SEO is not a set it and forget it proposition. It’s an iterative process. You try some things, measure how effective they are and learn what you can for the next round of iteration.

There’s no excuse not to have analytics set up on your site. There are many companies that offer solutions at varying costs. Google Analytics, while far from perfect, is free, easy to set up, and most importantly offers some good statistics to help you understand what’s happening with your site.

At the simplest level you can pay attention to how much traffic you’re receiving from search engines and other sources. Ideally your traffic will continue to grow, but if it doesn’t or if you notice you’ve suddenly lost a lot of traffic you can begin to look deeper to understand why.

A few easy things you can do.

  • See what keywords are currently bringing traffic and expand. For example if your site currently brings traffic for “san diego real estate,” “san francisco real estate,” and “los angeles real estate” it’s a good indication you can compete for real estate in other California cities and even the more general “california real estate.”
  • Track keyword rankings or at least what page in the results your page ranks
  • Discover which content on your site does best. Which content is getting the most views, which content is attracting the most links, which content are people landing on most often. Can you create more content on the same or similar content?
  • Find out which sites are sending the best traffic. Say you write guest posts for 5 different sites. Which site or site led to the most traffic? Did the traffic from one site stick around on your site longer? Did one lead to more people subscribing to your blog? Knowing which sites provide the best traffic lets you know where better to focus your efforts.
  • Learn who visits your site. What browser and operating system do they use? Where are they located? The more you know about the people who spend time with your site, the better you can craft new content to keep them coming back and bring more people like them to the site.
  • Identify what you do and don’t do well. Are you getting a lot of search traffic, but little referral traffic? Are people spending time on one page, but not clicking to others? Are people visiting lots of pages, but not spending time on any of them? How sticky is your site?

There are many things you can do with analytics, but before you can do any of them you need to have analytics set up. You need to understand what is happening on your site, what is and isn’t working, in order to know how to improve your site in the next iteration.

Summary

Way back at the start of this short series of posts I mentioned that SEO is a complex subject. We’ve really only touched upon the surface of search engine optimization in this series. No single post or series of posts could hope to explain all the nuances of search, especially when search engines work so hard to protect their algorithms and often change very quickly.

The aim of this series has been to help give you a foundation so you’re better prepared to separate good information from bad in your further research. While these posts won’t make you an SEO expert there are a few takeaways I hope you’ll carry with you.

  • Search Engine Optimization is only one part of marketing. You don’t want to ignore all the other ways to market your site. Search traffic can be very good traffic, but it’s far from the only traffic you can get. Be realistic and make your SEO efforts a part, albeit an important part, of your overall marketing efforts.
  • The latest and greatest SEO tips are often worthless. If you knew a secret that could bring you millions of visitors from search engines would you tell everyone and give away your competitive advantage? Probably not. Neither does anyone else. That’s not to say all SEO advice is bad. Far from it. But if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone promises you easy fixes like changing a single word on your site so all your pages will rank #1 be very skeptical.
  • It’s important to understand how people use words, their intent in using those words, and how they are likely to search for you, your information, your products, or your services. The obvious keywords are not always best and success is often in getting small amounts of traffic to many pages across your site instead of focusing all your efforts on a single page or two.
  • When building a site or writing content for a site, always think about real people first. When you make sites usable and accessible you also help search spiders crawl and index your site. When you write content naturally real people will respond better. It’s a good idea to understand what search engines like to see in sites and pages and make decisions accordingly, but always keep the real people using your site at the forefront.
  • Links play a very large part in how well pages and sites rank in search engines. Not all links are created equal. Some are better than others. Generally the harder it is to get a link, the more likely that single link will benefit you. Low quality links are easy to get and so everyone gets them. High quality links are what separates you from the competition in most cases. Great content and creativity is the backbone for getting others to link to you.
  • When you’re confused about a particular piece of SEO advice it sometimes helps to think like an engineer working at a search engine. Search is often a cat and mouse game between SEOs and search engineers. Search engines place value on a meta tag, people begin to abuse the tag, search engineers place less weight and then no weight on meta tags. If you imagine you’re a search engineer fighting spam you can sometimes tell what is and isn’t likely to work now or work in the future.

Resources

The following are some of my favorite blogs in the SEO community. If you follow the links in their posts you can easily build a pretty large list of SEO feeds in a short amount of time. SEO by the Sea has an extensive blogroll in the right sidebar to make building that list even quicker. I’ve also tried to link to a variety of sources throughout this series of posts.

Finally here are some free general SEO guides guides, checklists, and useful articles. They should cover much of what we’ve talked about in this series, albeit in slightly greater detail. I hope they help in your SEO learning.

Have you read the previous 2?

This SEO guide for beginners comes in a series of 3 articles, if you ‘ve missed the previous Part I and Part II, here are the direct links to them:

Author:

Steven is a web designer and WordPress developer who moved to Boulder, Colorado to be near the mountains. He blogs at Van SEO Design; and owns and operates a small business forum to help people learn how to run and market their business better.

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