Getting external links to your website is considered by most of the top SEO experts to be one of the most important goals for achieving high rankings in search engines like Google. However, how best to handle external linking and what practices you should avoid has evolved dramatically in recent years and continues to be a debated issue.
To help you sort through the conjecture and facts revolving this critical SEO component, I’ve created a guide to help show you how best to handle external linking in 2015 and which link building strategies will serve you best.
What is external linking?
Before diving into best practices, let’s clarify what we mean by external links. Basically external links are hyperlinks from one website that target or point to another website other than the one where the link exists. These external links can help pass along ranking power to the site where they are directed because search engines like Google consider them to be third-party endorsements or votes for that particular web page, suggesting that it is relevant, trustworthy and useful to a search query. While the metrics and nuance of this system has evolved over the years, these are the basics of how Google’s PageRank algorithm determines the value of external links, and in turn where a particular page should rank in search results.
So, how do you best use these external links to help drive traffic to your website and improve your search engine ranking? Well, as you might guess, the answer is not always so straightforward and there are no hard and fast rules. But to help you better determine what practices are considered most effective and what doesn’t work when it comes to external linking, let’s take a closer look at specific types of external links.
Infographic embed links
You’ve probably seen more infographics (aka information graphics) appearing around the web recently, and that’s because these visual representations of information–when used correctly–can help establish your expertise in a given area, promote your business, and expand your online presence. Infographics are a great, eye-catching way for you to share complex data or knowledge in a clear, concise way, while also being used to increase external linking to your site. But when it comes to using Infographic embed links for external linking purposes, Google’s Matt Cutts has cautioned that they are often misused and abused, and their value may even be discounted in the future.
Infographics can be both informative and engaging to look at, which makes them immensely shareable and linkable. When you create a useful, educational and visually appealing infographic, others will be more inclined to want to share it with their audience on their website. An infographic embed code can enable them to do so, while also embedding a link back to your site that their readers can click on if they want to learn more from you, the creator of the infographic. The concerns that Cutts raises is that often times that code may contain keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links that the person embedding the code may not know about. He also says that some infographics may contain information that is of poor quality, misleading or just wrong, all of which is not helpful for search results. So, while infographics are still largely considered great linkable content, the key is to be sure you are creating quality, fact-checked, and informative content and not just a pretty image.
Google’s stance on widget links is similar to that of infographics, and in some ways even more critical of them. A web widget is a small application that can be embedded on a portion of a website to enable users to interact with them in some way. Similar to infographics, widgets can help increase brand exposure, offer something useful to users, and can help drive traffic back to your site with a link.
Until recently, Google’s stance on widget links was broadly discouraging of the practice for many of the spam-potential reasons discussed regarding infographics, and Matt Cutts encouraged widget creators to include rel=”nofollow” to the links to cut traffic back to these sites. However, after inquiry from the SEO community, Cutts revised and clarified the opinion, so that Google’s policy now just discourages “keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links”. The crucial point, once again, to remaining within Google’s guidelines is including only high-quality, relevant links in the code.
Cross website links
Another strategy for external link building that many sites employ is cross-linking, the process of linking between two or more sites, typically operated by the same person or company. While this tactic can be useful for driving traffic and ranking in search engines, it’s important to be smart about when and how you do it. Google’s Matt Cutts cautions against linking multiple domains together that are on a similar topic as this can look spammy to search engines and people. He gives the example of a “cheap-online-casino” that may be using a cross linking scheme to connect 20 domains together. But cross website links can work, if used wisely.
The positive example that Cutts gives is if your business has multiple domain names for localized versions of your site that you are linking to (say in different countries). However, the key is to not link to cram all of these links in your footer as some might do, but to create a drop down menu or a country locator page with flags for each location. This way, both search engines and people can easily find and follow those links without them seeming spammy. You also want to be sure that each site offers unique, original content, don’t include them on every page, and in some cases you may want to host the two sites through different IP addresses to help better distinguish the two for search engine crawlers. Also, take into account best practices for multilingual and multiregional SEO.
Badge links can function in similar ways to widgets and infographics, but they too require a healthy does of caution and savvy. A badge can be an image, in some cases an award, endorsement or some type of affiliation, that other sites can embed on their page that will link back to a page on your site. For example if your company gives your seal of approval to a select group of bloggers or contest winners, they can embed the badge on their site.
The issue is that, like widgets and infographics, these badges have been abused and become overly spammy in recent years, and search engines like Google are particularly wary of them and in some cases penalized companies for misusing them. Some encourage including rel=”nofollow”, but if you do create and share badges, you want to make to keep a few things in mind: avoid using keyword rich anchor text, give users the option to not include a link, and only links directly to a page of high quality, relevant content.
Editorial links in content
Placing digital content that promotes your brand or content on non-affiliated publications or other websites can be an incredibly effective tool for SEO and generating traffic. While this approach requires a fair amount of effort and time, the value that this type of external linking can provide can be tremendous, especially if it is coming from a particularly authoritative site.
It’s important to make a distinction between an editorial link–one that is not paid for, asked for or traded for–and an acquired link, which is achieved by way of payment, distribution and other means. Editorial links are considered to be more valuable overall (and within Google guidelines) and are generated when a website organically attracts attention by producing great, useful content and smart marketing. There are a variety of ways to attract this type of written coverage, including creating excellent content (whitepapers, blogs), find a newsworthy angle to pitch your brand story, and by building relationships with writers.
Guest Author Links
The practice of guest authoring–writing as a contributor on another site–has evolved dramatically over recent years with respect to SEO, but still stands as useful tool. Unfortunately, too much spammy and low-quality guest blogging over the years diluted the pool and raised Google’s ire and disapproval. These days, the key to approaching guest blogging is to consider it more for branding, exposure and community-building purposes rather than specifically link building.
As a guest author you want to create high-quality, unique and original content that adds value to the community. You also want to target high profile and reputable sites for guest authoring. They may be more difficult to attain, but the return will be worthwhile. You also want to limit your linking to including only a link in the bio to your company or personal profile, while links within the guest post should be for reference purposes and non-promotional.
Local Directory Submission Links
Utilizing local directories to generate inbound links is another practice that has changed dramatically–especially after the release of Google’s Penguin 2.0– but submitting to them can still be an effective external link building method and SEO tool. What’s important these days is to focus on getting listed on reputable, relevant local directories. Most people use services such as Moz Local or Yext.
General directory submission links
Many of the same rules and advice follow for general directory submissions as for local directories: the key is targeting relevant, reputable and legitimate directories for your business. Again, you always want to consider the source of the external link, and determine if it is professionally run and relevant. You also want to take a close look at the directory to determine if they accept every submission or do they screen out low-quality or spammy submissions or if they have already been penalized or banned by Google. You also don’t want to automate your directory submissions, so that you can vary your anchor text and your descriptions listed on the directory to avoid looking spammy.
Scholarship .edu links
Links from .edu and .gov websites are considered by many in the SEO world to be some of the most powerful backlinks to your site that you can garner. The reason for this is that most .edu sites (U.S.- affiliated institutes of higher education) are often long-standing and authoritative sites with many high-quality and trusted sites linking to them. While there are a number of ways to build powerful .edu backlinks, including local links, offering discounts to faculty and staff, providing a career/jobs page, or other useful resources, one of the most popular approaches is creating a scholarship.
By offering a basic scholarship program, you may be listed on the scholarship directory of a high-ranking, reputable school and generate powerful .edu links. To do so, it’s important to find schools that link out to commercial sites (as opposed to only non-profits), contact the right person involved with making scholarship decisions, and create criteria to attain your scholarship. You also want to focus on schools and programs that are particularly relevant to your industry. The question then becomes, is this a good method for link building? John Mueller from Google was asked about this in Google hangout on November 4, 2014. He basically said, it should not be done to just get links. Also, he said that Google may be able to pick up on this strategy as a link building strategy if this is dominate amount of links pointing at the site. His final advice was to disavow these type of links if they were unnatural. You can read the full article on this discussion here. I won’t comment on this further, although I do have my own stance on this issue and the others.
Press release links
Press release links are another long-standing SEO tactic that has shifted dramatically in recent years, particularly in response to how Google views them. While links from press releases, including releases distributed on press release sites, had been used to generate inbound links, you now must use rel=”nofollow” for the links if they are optimized anchor text, according to Google.
Fortunately, there are still many ways to utilize press releases to drive people to your business and ways that you can optimize press releases for SEO, while avoiding Google penalties. You can still use a link to your website in the “about” section of the press release to direct people to more information, but the key is to use the releases as tools of discovery. Use them to share newsworthy information, spark a story idea, connect with media outlets and bloggers, and broaden your brand reach, all of which will help generate organic inbound traffic. Also, if you have a link in the release to important information on the topic that is generally OK.
Once upon a time publishing short articles on article directories was used as an external link building technique, but times have changed. By uploading these articles with links back to your website, others might find your content and publish it on their own site to add content, thereby potentially sending links back to your site. But now that most of these directories have become overwhelmed by low-quality and spammy content, Google now discourages the practice and stopped counting links from the sites long ago.
Leaving comments on blogs and websites that includes a link to your website has long been used as a way to generate external linking, but like everything we’ve covered so far, there are smart ways to do it. For starters you want to find blogs and sites that are related to your industry (not direct competitors though) and the comment should be interesting or useful to the readers. Matt Cutts also recommends that comments (which he also leaves), should generally be written by a person, as opposed to using a company name or keyword-rich created name. He also recommends that comment links should not be a primary focus of your link building strategy, but rather part of an organic way of engaging with your community and generating relevant dialogue.
Social profile links
While you likely have created social media profiles on most of the major platforms, you want to be sure that your also including links back to your website in your social profiles. While many of the major social platforms are nofollow, meaning they won’t carry direct SEO value, they are still useful for driving traffic and increasing exposure. You also want to be sure that all of the information in your social profiles is filled out accurately and maintains a cohesive brand across platforms. You can now also specify your social profiles to Google, so that your information will be listed on the Google Knowledge panel in search results.
Link Bait Links
Link bait may sound like a problematic approach to external linking, suggesting trickery or deceit, but done correctly and smartly, link bait can help generate natural traffic and positive SEO value. The bottom line for creating link bait that generates links is developing amazing content that people want to click on and share (on social media, blogs, etc.), and hopefully goes viral. This is, of course, easier said than done, but by following in the footsteps of some effective examples and approaches it can be done. Some of the most time-tested link bait topics include: breaking news, timeless content that is always relevant, games and quizzes, images and infographics, whitepapers and eBooks, video content and contests. Keep in mind that your goal should first and foremost to create exciting and useful content, not just something that is designed solely for links.
Contest and promotional links
Hosting contests can be a great way to increase engagement, gain visibility, and drive traffic through external linking, especially if you boost their sharing potential through social media. Contests and promotions require a significant amount of effort to create and manage, but doing so can lead to great results if done well. There are various types of contests that you can run to build links, including giveaways, coupon codes, free services, and product promotions.
To create an effective contest or promotion that drives links, you want to first be clear about who your target audience is, what you can offer them that is meaningful and memorable to create incentive, and develop a plan for spreading the word about the contest or promotion. You also want to remain within FTC regulations on contests. And, of course, you want to be sure that you incorporate a way for them to share the URL to your site’s contest page to drive traffic.
Social media links
There are plenty of ways to use social media to generate external linking, the key is using your time on the various platforms wisely and effectively. As with many of the other approaches discussed above, your social media efforts should focus on providing original content that adds value, contributes to the social conversation, and avoids spammy tactics. From optimizing your tweets on Twitter, to utilizing Facebook ads, to building links through Pinterest, each social media platform offers a variety of ways to create external links to your website and each requires its own strategy. While most social media platforms add a “nofollow” attribute to any links within user generated content to avoid spam, this links still have powerful indirect SEO value as they can drive visitors to discover and explore your content, which can lead to further linking.
We’ve covered quite a lot of ground for external linking in 2015, but hopefully this guide will help you sort out the many ways you can drive traffic and conversions, while still remaining within Google’s guidelines. As I mentioned throughout the article, by offering high quality, original content that people will find useful is paramount to driving links and to avoid getting penalized.
What gets tricky about this conversation is that Google says don’t do certain things, but in many cases they clearly work to boost rankings. Much like an investment portfolio, it all comes down to your risk tolerance. Ours is very low here at Ignite Visibility. We know that if we follow the rules we will win the long run and won’t have to worry about Google penalties.
What are some of the effective ways you have found to handle external linking? Share your experiences in the comment section below.
- “What is an external link?” (Moz)
- “Search Engine Ranking factors” (Moz)
- “Webmaster Guidelines” (Google)
- “What’s the state of link building for SEO in 2015 and beyond” (Search Engine Land)
- “What everyone needs to know about good, bad and bland links” (Search Engine Land)
- “10 Ways to Increase the odds of getting editorial links” (Search Engine Watch)
- “18 types of backlinks violating Googles guidelines” (Monitor Backlinks)