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Strategic Link Building: Why You Don’t Need To Outrun Lions

by on January 31, 2012

One of my favourite SEO anecdotes goes like this: two men are walking through an African game reserve when they come across a lion, one of the men calmly puts down his backpack and slips on the running shoes he has been carrying.

The other man chuckles and says, “You’ll never outrun a lion.”

To which the other man calmly responds, “I don’t need to outrun the lion; I just need to outrun you.”

SEO, contrary to popular belief, is not about ‘beating Google’ or ‘cracking their enigma code’; it is about beating the competing websites on the keywords that matter to your business. This means SERP analysis and competitor analysis should be key components in shaping your SEO strategy.

I am not advocating creating a carbon copy link profile for your site by building competitor links like for like. This methodology is about learning from their site and link profile in order to close the natural search gap; understand what is working (and to a certain extent, the limits); and then eventually to outmanoeuvre them.

In this post, I am going to explore a number of different eCommerce verticals and identify what I think makes that SERP ‘tick’ as well as the different link building tactics which can be utilised to ensure natural search dominance.

I wholeheartedly believe that when it comes to link building, quality and sustainability are the ‘end game.’ Google will eventually fully understand the true quality of a link. However, different markets have different ‘requirements.’ If you understand what it takes to rank in the market you are trying to target then you can ensure you are working strategically rather than adopting the “throw links at the wall and see what sticks” approach.

I will also be exploring how analysing the counterpart market in a more SEO-advanced country can help you understand the future of your home market.

The Data

Far too often in the world of SEO, sweeping statements and all-encompassing judgements are made with little evidence or data to back it up. This is just a snippet of the research I carried out which helps to underpin the conclusions I make later in this post

SERP 1 – ‘online shopping’ Google.com.au

According to SEOmoz’s Keyword Difficulty tool, this keyword has a 71% difficulty rating.

On the face of it, this would seem like a highly competitive keyword to try and target.

The number 1 result (http://www.oo.com.au) has over 36,000 external links, a high domain authority (59), and a domain mozRank of 4.9. A seemingly challenging keyword target. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be easy; however, if we dig below the surface, we can get a clearer picture of just how OO.com.au is ranking which can help shape our link building strategy.

Link Quantity

Number of external links to the root domain according to OpenSiteExplorer

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 84,683

Anchor Text

Percentage of links with ‘online shopping’ as anchor text

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 7.35%

Link Quality

Percentage of links deemed to be of ‘low power’ by Link Research Tools. Cemper (the makers of Link Research Tools) guard their link power algorithm closely, but they have said that the link power is usually measured by looking at the number of links pointing at that page. A buried page in a rubbish web directory is likely to be considered low power as there will be very few links and certainly very few good quality links pointing at that page.

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 77.01%

Link Target

Percentage of links that point at the homepage according to Link Research T ools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 73.37%

Link Status

Percentage of external followed links according to Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 89.13%

Link Locality

Percentage of links from .au domains according to Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 25.7%

Social Metrics

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 465 Facebook Shares and 10 Google +1s

*Note – with regards to the social metrics, the figures are for social signals pointing at the homepage of the sites and have just been included for comparison purposes.

Analysis – how can we come out on top?

An immediate takeaway from this mini-study is that it would seem social signals aren’t weighted that heavily in this particular SERP.

Despite the furore around social media, this data right here proves that links should be your immediate focus and social should be a part of your SEO strategy in a long term sense. Google will undoubtedly get smarter on the social front; not only that, but also as competing websites become more social, there will be a natural progression towards social signals carrying more weight. No site wants to be left behind when/if this happens. Building links, certainly in this niche, is still the activity which delivers the results right now however.

To rank for this particular keyword, it could be argued that two particular factors appear to be the most pertinent: link volume and anchor text. This would seem to go against common wisdom that link quality is the overriding factor as, in this scenario, and according to Link Research Tools’ automated analysis, the vast majority of links pointing at the websites which rank highly are of ‘low power.’

Whilst some would say, high quality links are what you need to rank; for the keyword “online shopping,” you need to mix high-quality links that deliver longevity and stability with less powerful links that have the right anchor text in relatively large volumes.


In this scenario, suitable link building tactics include:

  • Thematic/ quality article submissions – despite Google’s Panda update, we still notch up good results utilising quality and thematic article submissions as a way of generating volume and anchor text specific links.
  • Guest Posting – a proactive link development campaign which involves content placement on niche and relevant websites in return for a link.
  • Infographic Promotion – developing an engaging linkable asset like an infographic can be a good way to generate high volumes of anchor text links by including an anchor text attribute link at the bottom of the graphic which automatically gets placed when somebody uses the embed code. Obviously, in some situations, this will be removed by a webmaster using the graphic on their website, but we have seen this work successfully.
  • Shopping Directory Listings – numerous submissions to good quality general and shopping directories still provide value in conjunction with other link development tactics.
  • Social Bookmarking – another link building tactic which is seen as low quality, but when used with other methods can deliver the kinds of results you need.

Remember, the methods discussed above do not constitute recommendations across the board as they are very much SERP-specific; you will see the need to tailor your tactics as we explore other SERPs.

SERP 2 – ‘online shopping’ Google.co.uk

On to our second SERP. For this one, I have chosen the same keyword; but this time, we’ll look at the UK SERP.

According to SEOmoz’s keyword difficulty tool, this is a terrifying 87% difficulty score. :)

ASOS.com, which ranks #1 in the UK for the term ‘online shopping,’ is similar to OO.com.au in Australia. It’s a real juggernaut of the retail world with over 157,000 external links pointing at the domain; a domain mozRank of 6.26; and domain authority of 85. How on earth do you go about competing in a SERP like that then?

Link building with strategy ensures you are focusing on the SERP-specific metrics that appear to matter.

Link Quantity

Number of external links to the root domain according to OpenSiteExplorer

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 2,678,561 (this is skewed by Amazon.co.uk which has a colossal 15million external followed links).

Anchor Text

Percentage of links with ‘online shopping’ as anchor text

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 0%

In this SERP, anchor text doesn’t appear to be a ranking factor at all. Indeed, to demonstrate this a little further, I continued with my research, and the 16th result had 1.2% links containing the anchor text ‘online shopping.’ Other than this result, the others were 0% anchor text.

This in itself would make building a great deal of anchor text links very suspicious indeed and likely very ineffective if you are looking to target this particular keyword.

Link Quality

Percentage of links deemed to be of ‘low power’ by Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 30.23%

Link Target

Percentage of links that point at the homepage according to Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 61.73%

Link Status

Percentage of external followed links according to Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 91.61%

Link Locality

Percentage of links from .uk domains according to Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 28.46%

Social Metrics

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 1393 Facebook Shares and 73.85 Google +1s

In comparison to its Australian counterpart, this SERP has a much higher average number of Facebook shares and Google +1s.

This bigger social signal sample appears to allow Google to make ranking decisions which are much more closely aligned with what the social signals are telling them rather than weighting link metrics so heavily, as is the case with the Australian SERP we investigated above.

Does this mean social should form more of an integral part of efforts to rank for this term? Almost certainly, but that doesn’t mean link metrics should be forgotten about.

Analysis – how can we come out on top?

On the face of it, this SERP appears very brand heavy with limited options for a website looking to break into the top 10 for this keyword, so what can be done? And what kinds of tactics are likely to be effective?

We would look to deploy combination link development and social tactics in order to help clients rank for this term.

  • Linkable assets – think Evolution of Western Dance Musicwhy witty job titles are all the rage12 awful Christmas presents, and Why Bill Gates is selling nuclear power to China. Linkable assets or linkbait come in all shapes and forms, not just infographics as the above examples demonstrate. Even news stories can be turned into link generation machines with a great title and the right composition.
  • Contests – great competitions and creative contests can generate a great deal of social attention and will usually attract links from blogs, forums, competition directories, and more.
  • Discount codes – a well-planned and properly seeded discount code or saving coupon can have a dramatic impact on the number of links you generate and the social activity you see around your site.
  • Blogger Partnerships – reaching out to bloggers and industry website owners by contributing your content, expertise, or even products for them to try can be a very effective way to build high numbers of good quality links; particularly as many bloggers read other blogs so the feature can very often have a viral effect.
  • Online press – if you have a product that you can create an engaging story around then generating online press is often easier than you might think.

This SERP is also a good example of a fast-paced environment where ongoing activities are vital in order to stay ahead of competing sites.

Referring Domains Discovery

The chart above looks at the number of referring domains linking to some of the top 10 results in the UK SERP for the keyword ‘online shopping.’ It gives a snapshot of the quarterly growth or decline in links from unique referring domains. This helps to give a more accurate reflection of the link profile as number of backlinks can be misleading if, for example, there are multiple links from the same site.

As I am sure you will notice, over the past 5 years, the sites have all followed near enough the same pattern. Only once or twice does a site rise or fall above the general trend: presumably as a site has a promotional push or something happens which causes a reduction in the number of unique referring domains.

This emphasises the importance of on-going link development and SEO campaigns. It also highlights an opportunity, because Google has recognised that there is, in some respects, a fault in their algorithm; there is nearly always a lag time between a page being important and useful enough to mean it should rank and when it has enough links to compete in that SERP.

In response to this, Google developed ‘Query Deserves Freshness’ or QDF which means a page doesn’t need as many links as the incumbent sites that rank if the page is generating a good number of fresh links. Google, logically, has determined that fresh links might indicate a more relevant page than thousands or even hundreds of thousands of stale links.

The internet is a dynamic place so it makes sense that a link profile should be constantly developing.

So in this particular scenario, we would also look at link building tactics that deliver fresh links in great numbers as an attempt to beat the incumbent sites on velocity rather than volume.

This makes tactics like contests and linkable assets such as infographics highly suited to ranking for keywords like this. It also makes it that much more important to coordinate your efforts to ensure maximum link and social impact.

SERP 3 – ‘online shopping’ Google.com

The final SERP we will take a look at is ‘online shopping’ in the US which, according to SEOmoz’s Keyword Difficulty Tool, is extremely competitive and more challenging than any of the others we have looked at.

The top result, Overstock.com, has a domain authority of 90; a domain mozRank of 6.52; and nearly 300,000 external followed links, so this certainly looks the most challenging SERP to conquer.

As a side note, you might have seen the spot of bother Overstock.com got themselves into early on in 2011; it was encouraging links from college websites. Anyway, it cleaned up its act to the satisfaction of Google who released the retailer from the “sin bin” in late April 2011.

Link Quantity

Number of external links to the root domain according to OpenSiteExplorer

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 6,860,105 (this result is skewed by Ebay.com’s nearly 30million links)

Anchor Text

Percentage of links with ‘online shopping’ as anchor text

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 0%

Link Quality

Percentage of links deemed to be of ‘low power’ by Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 3.75%

Link Target

Percentage of links that point at the homepage according to Link Research T ools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 48.4%

Link Status

Percentage of external followed links according to Link Research Tools

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results =65.81%

Link Locality

Analysing the locality of the links is a little more challenging with US SERPs because of the worldwide nature of the .com domain. We don’t know whether the link originates from the USA or elsewhere in the world.

Social Metrics

*The average of the remaining 7 top 10 results = 19,708 Facebook Shares and 1441 Google +1s

Links over time

Similarly as we analysed the UK SERP of ‘online shopping’ for ongoing activity over time, below is a graph showing the non-cumulative view of referring domains pointing at the top 5 search results. You will note that Overstock.com and WalMart.com have largely mirrored each other in terms of link profile growth and decline over the past 5 years, and it could be argued, therefore, that they have been tussling in a competitive sense — vying for the top search engine positions.

Referring Domains Discovery

This graph once again highlights the need for on-going activities to maintain and enhance positions as competitors react to your SEO. That isn’t to say that you need the same or even a greater volume of links in relation to your competitors. For example, Forever21.com ranks better than WalMart.com, but has fewer domains linking to it. But as the graph highlights, there is a need to be building or encouraging links on an ongoing basis. Overstock.com, at the start of 2011, acquired links with greater velocity than competing sites like Forever21.com and HSN.com, which likely contributed to their #1 position for this competitive keyword.

Analysis – how can we come out on top?

To come out on top in the US SERP – natural or certainly a natural appearance is the name of the game.

Link quality is paramount in order to rank for this keyword. There are next to no ‘low power’ links apparently contributing to the rankings of the top 10 results. This is different to the other SERPs we have analysed, because in the case of the UK and Australian SERPs, there are sites that are still very much enjoying prominent positions helped by low quality links.

Social is an equally important factor as we can see the top results have a much higher average Facebook share and Google +1 count — in terms of the remaining 7 top 10 results — than the other SERPs we looked at.

Also, in comparison to the other SERPs we have looked at, the distribution of links is also an important factor; it is natural for a website, particularly an eCommerce website, to have links to various sections and categories of the site rather than the majority of inbound links pointing at the homepage. Given this and the fact that Google is stepping up its efforts on unnatural linking patterns and communicating these warnings to site owners, I would think that HSN.com, which has a very high percentage of links to the homepage, is at least inviting a manual review from a Googler.

It could well be argued that the US SERP is the guinea-pig-lab-experiment for Google. This would seem to align with the way they roll out new features, e.g. US English Speaking Countries Rest of the world. If this is the case, the US SERP is probably the UK SERP of the future and so on.

It is also easier for Google to work more legitimate signals like social into the ranking algorithm and tuning down others in a Google.com SERP because there are more data points which would make the results more consistent with their quality expectations. In the Australian SERPs, there are sub-1000 social shares in most cases; whereas in the US SERPs, there are in most cases many thousands. Google, at this point, could not tune down link factors too much in the Australian SERPs because it would likely send the search results crazy as most sites that deserve to rank haven’t got the social signals in place to react to a switch of that kind.

My theory is that the difference in SERPs isn’t just down to a Google whim; it’s also the market as a whole.

What can we take-away from all this?

There is a trade-off that needs analysing…

Studying each of these SERPs as we have certainly raises the question of strategy.

As an SEO, you have to be strategic with your budget and resource allocation. Depending on your market and how ‘SEO-advanced’ it is, these factors will impact how and what you need to do to rank now and also continue to rank into the future.

It is a case of balancing appropriate financial investment, short term results, long term stability, and mitigating risks. Identifying not shortcuts, but fast and safe routes to the top is what any good SEO does.

Clients and agencies are fearful of low-quality link building; but as the data above suggests, in some markets, this is still a very effective tactic.

Although you don’t need me to tell you, only a fool is still freewheeling off the back of low-quality links alone.

From the above, we can deduce that in the US market — arguably a more ‘SEO advanced’ market — lower quality links are starting to wane in terms of effectiveness as the social signal dial gets turned up a little. So for anyone reading this in Australia, you could say that the US is our canary down the mine; and therefore, learning from what is working there and balancing it with what works here presently is the smartest strategy to adopt.

However, Wil Reynolds argued a strong case that — even in markets like the US – links are still the dominant factor and not necessarily good quality links either; in fact quality and social signals don’t appear to impact rankings as much as you might think.

Balance your link building tactic portfolio – adopting a combination approach

You are likely familiar with the Boston Matrix, which is an established tool for analysing the product or service portfolio of a business.

Below is an adapted version of the Boston Matrix, which should help you to visualise and more effectively plan your link building efforts. Thus, ensuring you are getting the results you seek now whilst being mindful of future developments.

A balanced ‘portfolio’ is essential. Too much in one area can be hampering short-term success; too much in another area could be jeopardising long-term stability.

It is a balancing act, and what might seem like extra ‘paperwork’ is actually a quick and effective planning tool that can also help clients to better understand your approach.

How to use the matrix

  1. Understand the segments (see below).
  2. Categorise your tactics (depending upon your market).
  3. Assign a percentage of your budget to each one (understand your own or your client’s objectives and expectations and then assign accordingly).
  4. Monitor regularly (SEO is a constantly changing environment, and as such tactics will likely move through all stages of the matrix at some point).
  • New recipes

This is the ‘development kitchen’ for your link building efforts – where you explore new tactics which might or might not be providing value.

By new tactics, I am not specifically talking about ‘unheard of in the industry,’ but perhaps just new to your market or your site. Some verticals still have very few infographics, for example.

  • Consume in moderation

This segment is for tactics which offer medium to long-term value, but little in the way of short-term gains. So it should be consumed in moderation if you are looking to maximise return on investment.

  • Staple diet

This is the bread and butter segment and likely to be where most resources are allocated. You know these tactics work, and they provide short-term gain without compromising medium to long-term stability.

  • Fruitless

The graveyard of link building tactics. Obviously, it is up to you when you feel that a certain tactic is no longer pulling its weight. It can be an idea to keep a track of the ‘fruitless’ tactics and perhaps a note as to why; then if things should change, you have the option of pulling it back into your portfolio via the ‘new recipes’ section.

Furthermore, Google’s crackdown on unnatural link patterns means that now is definitely the time to be varying your anchor text to ensure your site’s profile is as natural looking as it possibly can be.

Overall conclusion

The overall conclusion we can draw is that link building is certainly not a one size fits all approach. Different SERPs, keywords, and markets require very different strategies.

You also need to be thinking SERP-specific when it comes to link building tactics. Certainly, there are other ways to view link building, but this is just the way I look at it so as to make it more tactical. Some would argue that by looking at what competitors are doing, you are always going to be chasing their tail. I would say this isn’t the case; as with my proposed methodology outlined above, you are learning from their successes and their mistakes. Then you are executing, using your own well thought out tactics, which should close the natural search gap and then outpace the competition over time.

An interesting point, up for discussion and testing, would be whether a company can leap-frog the lower-end link building and overcompensate with the more legitimate tactics and get this recognised and rewarded by Google. My instincts and research tell me no, but I would love to hear from you in the comments if you have any data or experiences that would go against this.

By David Klein, Founder and Director of Orange Line – SEO and online marketing specialists based in Sydney, Australia. Visit us for more information about our link building services and methodology.

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/seomoz/~3/NJKf7foTe94/strategic-link-building-why-you-dont-need-to-outrun-lions

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