Updated February 1st, 2024 — version 336

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

Chapter Ten, Link Building Chapter Ten
Link Building

Acquiring incoming links from external high-quality websites is of the utmost importance. It's also the most challenging aspect of search engine optimization (SEO).

From where you get them, and how many you need, depends entirely on what websites you're competing with for top rankings. You don't have to be perfect in every sense, just closer to perfect than whoever you're competing with. So, the answer is always relative and it's different in every case.

Although we expect that links will continue to be one of the most influential ranking signals for the foreseeable future, exactly how search engines value links will continue to evolve as developments in social media, profiles, and authorship also continue to evolve in regards to domain authority and domain trust as mentioned in earlier chapters.

Let's start with the basics. Below is an illustration of the simplest and most common link relationship, a one-way link.

one way link

The next illustration is a view of another common type of link relationship, the reciprocal link.

reciprocal link

Both the one-way link and the reciprocal link can pass added PageRank (link juice) to the site being linked to. Because Google and the other search engines base a large part of their ranking algorithms on these two types of link relationships, such links hold the potential to significantly boost your rankings

Sometimes, however, there are link relationships that should be ignored by the search engines in order to avoid wasting PageRank or running contrary to Webmaster Guidelines or Terms of Service (TOS). In such cases the nofollow attribute or robots.txt file can be used to protect your site from diluting its link juice or violating the rules.

Nofollow attribute

The illustration above describes a link relationship, which will be ignored by the search engines but without sacrificing the possibility of the link driving traffic to your site.

You already know that anchor text refers to the text found within a text link. There are several different ways that natural looking anchor text is typically displayed. Some are better than others as such:

  • <a href='http://domain.com/page.html'>Keyword</a>
    Using your keyword as anchor text is the most powerful type of link. However be careful to not overdo this. Too many keyword-optimized anchor text links can make your link profile look unnatural and thereby trigger a penalty. We recommend that you limit this type of incoming link to 20% or LESS of your incoming link profile.
  • <a href='http://domain.com/page.html'>Brand Keyword</a>
    Using a brand name with a keyword as your anchor text is powerful and also safer because Google LOVES brands.
  • <a href='http://domain.com/page.html'>www.domain.com/pages.html</a>
    Using the URL as your anchor text is less powerful but very safe. There should always be a few of these in your incoming link profile to make it look natural.
  • <a href='http://domain.com/page.html'><img src='http://domain.com/widget-keyword.jpg' alt='Keyword'><a>
    Using an image-link as your anchor text is also good as well as very safe — but not as powerful a relevancy factor as a text link. That's why you should always remember to use a relevant keyword as your file name as well as in your Alt tag.
  • <a href='http://domain.com/page.html' rel='nofollow'>Keyword</a>
    Using nofollow means the link will be ignored by search engines.

The general rule of thumb is, if the link is visible it will be taken into account by the search engines unless it is excluded in robots.txt or assigned the nofollow attribute.

Remember also that Google can read, index and will likely count links in all sorts of file types like: .html, .swf, .pdf, .ps, .dwf, .bas, .c, .kml, .gpx, .hwp, .java, .xls, .ppt, .docx, .odp, .ods, .odt, .pl, .py, .rtf, .svg, .txt, .css, .ans, .wml, .wap, .xml.

As you're no doubt seeing, the key to having a natural-looking incoming link profile is to mix it up. You should avoid having a large percentage of exact match keyword anchor text. You should also avoid participating in link schemes. These include the so-called link wheels, link exchanges, text-link networks and anything that might be detected or interpreted as paid links (unless they are nofollowed). You should also avoid getting links from off-topic, irrelevant sites, especially in high numbers.

Link locations matter as well. The illustration below maps out the prime locations for your links.

Link locations matter

As the graphic shows, links found within the Header and the Body Content are assigned more importance than links found in sidebars and footers.

The location of a link within the HTML code of a webpage matters. Specifically, it is ONLY the first link to a site that passes PageRank. The rest of the page's links to the same site, whether they are in a list (as seen below) or scattered throughout the page, usually do not pass PageRank.

Link Code Location matters

As the screenshot above suggests, PageRank will pass to the page listed in the first link. All of the secondary links are ignored in terms of PageRank unless a hashtag (indicating a specific internal location within a page) is used.

This also means that if you have multiple links to the same page on your site, the first link (from top to bottom in the source code) is the link from which Google will use the anchor text to help determine relevancy when ranking your page.

Based on the various patents that Google and the other engines own, there is every reason to believe that the following list of factors either do or soon will influence the value of outgoing/incoming links in the eyes of the search engines. For instance:

  • Font Size — Normal font size looks right while super-tiny font does not. If any link font-size is considerably smaller than the text surrounding it, that link will probably be discounted.
  • Location — The page location of a link is important. As previously mentioned, links found in headers and body content are viewed with more importance than links found in sidebars and footers.
  • Position of Link (top/bottom) within a list (<li>) — You should expect that links found at the top of a bullet list will be the most valuable. The rest may be ignored in terms of PageRank and anchor text.
  • Font Color as compared to background — If the font color matches the background too closely the link will likely be discounted. This is because the link will be invisible to people and only seen by spiders — a strategy used in the past to spam the search engines.
  • The number of words in anchor text — Stuffing too many words into your anchor text can make it look unnatural and will likely work against you.
  • Actual words in anchor text — Over-optimizing with too many targeted keywords can also work against you.
  • How commercial the anchor text is — Words like Buy, Shop & Cheap tell the search engines that your content is commercial rather than informational and may cause the link to be somewhat devalued.
  • Type of link — Typically a text link will carry more value than an image link.
  • Aspect Ratio of image link — If the aspect ratio (the size of the image) looks suspicious, then the value of the image link will be discounted. An example would include a 1 pixel square image that would effectively be invisible to people and seen only by spiders.
  • Nearby word content and topical cluster associated with the link — The context and topic cluster of the text that the link is associated with can influence the weight given to the link. Topically associated text is good, topically unassociated text is not good.
  • The URL of the linking page — Having the keyword in the URL of the page that is linking to you can boost the importance of that link.
  • Number of links on the page — If a page links to you with their only link out, then your page will benefit from 100% of the available link juice (PageRank) being passed. However, if that page also links out to 10 other pages, then your page will receive only about 10% of the available PageRank. The fewer links on the pages that link to you, the better.
  • Content found in specific places on a page — The content found in the title and headline tags, as well as the body content in the upper portion of the document (i.e., above the fold), helps determine how important an outgoing link will be viewed.
  • User Behavior (Toolbar Data) — Behavior like bookmarking, revisiting, page sharing, etc. influences the importance assigned to a link. And whether or not people actually click the link, matters.
  • Language — can also be a factor insomuch as outgoing/incoming links would be expected to match the language of the page they're pointing toward.
  • Click Rate of Link — As previously indicated, how often people click a specific link matters. The more the link is clicked, the more important the link.
  • Page Authorship & Social Authority — Links coming from well known, registered, and socially networked authors are likely to be given more importance than links coming from unregistered, unknown and/or socially unconnected authors.
  • Link acquisition rate is also an important factor. Google figures that natural link profiles are built gradually, over time.

    Link acquisition rate matters

    If you suddenly acquire a disproportionate number of links, that raises red flags because it signals a possible link buy. As you know, Google frowns on purchased links unless they are nofollowed. Therefore, suddenly acquiring a lot of links can actually work against your ranking efforts.

  • Remember also that your incoming anchor text must vary in ways that make your incoming link profile look natural.

    Natural Link Profile

    Links that point deep into your site's subpages lend the appearance of quality content and help make your incoming link profile look natural.

  • Be sure to focus on Canonical URL consistency.

    The graphic below illustrates how PageRank can be needlessly diluted when using more than one of the many different versions of your home page URL, even though all of them will land a site visitor on what is apparently the same page.

    Canonical URL consistency

    The graphic above shows SEVEN URL variations of the same page — all of which others could be using to link to you. The ONLY way to avoid such PageRank dilution is to choose one canonical (preferred) URL and see to it that you and others consistently link only to your canonical URL.

Your BEST Link Building Strategies should include:

  • Trust-rank and Authority. Ideally, you want links coming directly from trusted domains. If that is not (yet) possible, then your goal should be to get your links from sites that have links from trusted domains. The closer a site is, link-wise, to a trusted domain, the better. The further away a site is, the less the link is worth.
  • Links from on-topic (semantically related) Authority sites are highly valuable. If your site sells sewing equipment then you want links from popular sites whose topics include everything related to sewing – sewing instruction, sewing patterns, garment material suppliers, and so forth.
  • Links coming from so-called restricted top level domains (TLDs) tend to carry more trust. These include educational institution (.edu), governmental institution (.gov), and military organization (.mil) domains.
  • Links coming from high PageRank pages will also help your rankings considerably. Remember, however that PageRank is only one of many indicators of a page's importance, trust, and authority.
  • Unique Domains vs. Total Volume. Google favors pages with a fair number of links coming from a wide variety of domains over pages that have lots of links but coming from only a few domains. The more domains that link to you, the higher your site's level of trust.

    It's worth mentioning that Bing, however, is not nearly as advanced as Google. They tend to favor more links regardless of where they come from. So, one could say that Google is more quality oriented while Bing seems more quantity oriented. But since Google is the 800lb gorilla and Bing is the 90lb weakling, we recommend that you focus on creating a link profile that caters to Google over Bing.

  • Deep Link Ratio. As previously indicated, deep links can dramatically improve your site's ability to rank well. It can also help your site get completely indexed. These are links that are NOT to your home page, but rather to the various pages within your site. It's worth noting that highly successful shopping sites are running upwards of 80% deep link ratios. This means that 80% or more of their incoming links are pointed at subpages.
  • Hyperlocal Links. IF your business depends on acquiring local customers within a geographic area, it can be highly beneficial to get links from sites that endorse local businesses. These would include sites like Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau, Local Trade Associations, Local Directories, Schools, Hotels, Restaurants and Community Action Groups.

The Four Biggest Mistakes to Avoid in Your Link Building Efforts

  1. Run-of-site links — Having your incoming link on every page of an external site is BAD! In the eyes of Google, it's a sure sign of a paid-for link. Such run-of-site (ROS) links should be carefully avoided.
  2. Link Farms, Reciprocal Link Networks, Web Rings, Paid Link Networks, and Link Wheels — aka, Link Schemes should be avoided like a leaky boat in a swamp full of alligators.
  3. Linking to low quality sites (aka, bad) sites — examples would include topical sites such as gambling, adult, pharmacy, loan, debt consolidation — any site that promotes controversial topics or products or which uses dubious SEO strategies.
  4. Linking to off-topic sites — is a bad idea since going off-topic is the antithesis of relevancy. If your site is about sewing, you should only link out to sites that are related in some way to the endeavor of sewing. Clothing, garments, patterns, crafts, sewing equipment, sewing lessons, sewing tips and so forth.

    But linking out to your webmaster's design company, your local real estate broker, your brother's vacation rental, or a political action site is a bad idea since all such sites would be considered off-topic in respects to sewing. But, if ever a situation compels you to link to an off-topic site, be sure to nofollow the link.


Boiled down to its essence,

link building is a popularity contest within a popularity contest.

The search engines want to rank the most popular sites at the top of the search results. They also reward the sites that are popular with the most popular sites.

Therefore you must do everything in your power to entice people to LOVE your pages because when they do they will:

  • link to it from other webpages
  • comment about it on blog posts and forums.
  • write reviews, rate products and talk about the brand and product names.
  • Like it, Tweet about it, and post Instagram and Pinterest photos and videos of your products or services.

...and the engines use all of these signals to determine the importance of your website and your pages. Therefore it is critical that you make it easy for search engines to "see" how popular your website's pages are.