Archive for March 24th, 2011


10 Step SEO # 6: External links

Time for everybody’s favorite SEO topic! That’s right, Number 6! External links! W00t!

Link acquisition is such an important topic that I’m going to spend two weeks on it. Today we’ll talk about the history of backlinks. Next Thursday we’ll get into the mechanics and mysteries of the arcane art of link building.

First, you should know (or be reminded) that Google’s claim to fame, their reason to be, and the key to their success as a search engine is the concept of backlinks.  Google founders invented the system of ranking search results based on the notion that the more links pointed to a site, the more authoritative it was likely to be, and thence the more relevant, and thence the more likely to be what you were searching for. The theory was brilliant. Worked like a charm and made those two guys rich beyond your wildest imagination. But(and you know there’s always a “but”)—the system could be gamed.

Long ago, back in the dark ages of the early Naughty Aughties, back when search engines could be played like a cheap fiddle, back when anybody with the will and knowledge could get #1 ranks for any keyword they wanted without breaking a sweat, the very first thing an SEO would do for any site was submit it to every directory they could find. Well, every free directory, anyway. And the first directory to move on was always a modest little web catalog called DMOZ.

DMOZ was a noble project. They aimed to categorize the entire internet, weeding through all the crap with an army of volunteer editors who took to their responsibilities with an almost religious zeal. Each editor had control over a topic space. Every submission that came to them was reviewed, approved or denied, and posted in the DMOZ index, usually within a few days. And for several years, getting a link from a DMOZ listing was absolute, unbelievably effective, search rank GOLD.

All the other directories tried to emulate them, only many with a “value-add” like fast-track indexing, or bolded listings, or whatever which was really only about wrestling a revenue stream out of what DMOZ was giving away for free.

At one point, there were thousands of directories, all offering you a backlink and pretending to be a useful source of visits. Of course, with the possible exception of Yahoo and DMOZ, almost none of them ever actually sent any traffic at all. Have you ever used, say, CrazyMoTheDirectoryMonkey to find a decent dentist? Why would you when any search engine does the job better? The answer is the directories never really thought of themselves as traffic generators. They were just big old piles of backlinks.

All of which made backlink acquisition easy-peasy lemon-squeezy.  First, you’d submit your site to DMOZ, then to as many other directories as you could find.

The only other tactic most people used was the much more time-consuming process of identifying prospective link buddies and then sending them emails requesting a link exchange. This was (and still is, no doubt) absolutely mind-bogglingly tiresome and inefficient. But it was what we did. And after a fashion, the two strategies together worked pretty well.

Until everybody started using them, of course.

That’s when Google and some of the other engines decided that maybe the whole backlink thing was a bit too easy to game. So they tweaked.

  • Devalued reciprocal links (links exchanged between two or more sites)
  • Devalued links from pages that were deemed irrelevant
  • Devalued links from known “link farms” (which is what almost all the directories turned out to be)
  • Devalued links from pages that were dominated by out-bound links
  • Devalued links from “bad neighborhoods” or sites that were known to be sketchy in some way—like selling porn, or selling weapons of mass destruction, or selling links
  • Introduced the “no-follow” tag which allowed webmasters to link to you in a way that gave you no link benefit (or “link juice” as the kids say today)
  • And etc., etc., etc.

In essence, they took all the fun out link building. And made it really really really hard to do effectively.  Bringing us around to these modern times. Where the rules of backlinking are as easy-to-understand as they are cruel.

  1. Link acquisition is not easy
  2. If it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong
  3. Link building is not fast
  4. If it’s fast, you’re doing it wrong

And so, gentle reader, we conclude the first half of Step 6. Stay tuned. Next week we’ll figure out what the hell are we supposed to do now?