You love links. We love links. Build for the right reasons.

From an early stage people are taught that links are important to ranking well in the search engines.  Too many people believe that its quantity over quality. Worse yet, some folks believe success lies in selling, or buying, links.  Everyone agrees getting a good link is hard work and almost everyone has a formula for what they feel will work.

Before I get into the detail in this post, I want to share a quick, recent story.  I was asked to participate in a learning event which followed a search conference earlier this year.  Everyone agreed it would be great to have Bing in the room to talk through ideas with.  And that worked really well, until the topic of link building came up.  A vote was held and I was asked to leave the room while the attendees discussed link building ideas, what worked, what didn’t, etc.  I’d have thought that would be one area you’d want the engine directly involved in. No matter, the vote was respected and Bing left the room.

The point here is that link building is a charged issue, one that makes even the starchiest of white hats squirm when thinking of discussing tactics directly with a search engine. 

Why you want links

Most people will say you want links because they help you rank better.  That’s a very over-simplified view.  While it’s true that relevant links from an already trusted website can help your own website increase in the rankings, that’s but one small part of the entire equation.  Don’t go crazy thinking “He said “small part” – links aren’t that important now?!”  What this means is links are seen in balance across the factors used to rank websites.  A URL which is brand new, but breaking a news story should still rank well.  By the traditional view of how much value links hold, such a new URL would never surface in the results because of a lack of links.  There needs to be a balance.

You want links for a few reasons:

1 – because they alert us to your website when its new, or to new content
2 – because they are a vote of confidence in your site – quality websites tend to link to other quality websites
3 – because those links can send you direct traffic
4 – because over time, they can help establish a footprint that points to your authority on a topic (think guest blogging)

Yes, you want links, but it’s not for the sole purpose of increasing rankings.  In fact, much money has been wasted in the single minded pursuit of “more links”.  More links alone won’t increase your ranking – you still need to produce quality content.

Why we want links

We want to see links mainly because they help us discover content.  They also help us understand value.  If a reputable website places a link to an article on your blog, they trust you enough to deliver a good user experience to the visitors they will send you via that link.  Getting a link in a news article on a major news website has been the demise of many a blogging server under the crush of traffic.  That’s a good problem to have, and from the engine’s point of view, you seem a credible resource if the major news source is willing to link to you.

That same “value prop” applies to links from any website.  All websites receive a ranked value.  The higher that value, the more valuable the site is deemed to be.  Bing’s version of this is called Static Rank, and while we don’t share the figures publically, they help us determine relative values between websites.

As users build links to a website or URL, we see that pattern emerge and can track the time over which links are built.  Fast growth can indicate popularity.  Normally links build in a similar fashion across all websites, with spikes potentially indicating popularity.  When we compare that data against the other signals we track, we get a truer picture of if that popularity is real or not.  Machines can build links quickly, but if we know the source of the links is a common location or service that is “less than organic”, we’ll discount the value of the links.

Where to find them

The best place to find links for your site is on sites which offer related content to your own.  This might be obvious, but if you’ve seen as many attempts to build links from unrelated sites as we have, you’d feel the need to call it out as well.  Clearly a lot of people don’t understand this yet.

Lots of people still profess their love for links from directories.  I’ll state there is nothing wrong with a link from a decent directory.  The Yahoo directory, for example, or even DMOZ – both provide the key ingredients.  The directory itself is well established and fairly trustworthy.  And they see enough users that there’s a chance you’ll get direct traffic from them.  What you shouldn’t be doing is relying on link submissions to directories to boost your rankings.  Most won’t hurt, but the real value is in listing a new website knowing when we crawl the listing we’ll see your new website.

What type of link you want

Plain old organic links.  Links built not by you, but by others, pointing to you.  If your content is unique and compelling, perfect strangers will want to share it enough that they will build links to you.  That is the essence of organic link building.  This type of link can come as a post on a website, via a social media space (which is why it pays to enable social sharing options), as resource links on other websites and from any number of other places.

And for those confused about “anchor text”, you’ll want to try to get a link that uses targeted keywords or a phrase pointed at you.  Links embedded inside content are best, but we realize this won’t always be attainable, so even a link from a “resources” section on a website will help you along.

Are reciprocal links still worthwhile

Yep.  But not because they overtly boost rankings.  Reciprocal links are a staple for starting a new website for most folks.  These types of links can bring in much needed traffic, which will then spin off organic links to you.  Think big picture when building links.  Is every inbound link you have a reciprocal link?  If yes, that pattern will be obvious and we’ll probably lessen the value of the links pointed at you.  A variable percentage of your overall inbound links being reciprocal, however, isn’t anything to panic about.  No, I can’t give you an exact number, as there are so many other factors that determine rank at play, that the actual numbers will always be highly variable.  Not to mention what’s applicable to you may not be applicable to anyone else.

We’re good as seeing patterns, so link triangles, three-way swaps, link farms and other types of auto-generated or generally engineered systems stand out to us as rather obvious .  Avoid link schemes of any kind and spend your money on paid search, etc.  Buying links often generates patterns.  Which we see and thus can easily take action on.

How many links do I need

Not as many as you may think.  Again, as with so many other areas of search optimization, there’s no exact number here.  On popular phrases with lots of query volume, to rank well will require more links from trusted, quality websites to boost your rankings.  Less popular phrases can often require many less links pointed at your site to see the same lift in rankings.  This is where a targeted link building approach can pay off for you.

Don’t forget to give some

Be generous when linking out to other websites from your own.  This enhances the user experience on your own website and as you prove to your visitors that you are a useful resource, they will not only keep coming back, but they’ll build links to you.  Everyone likes to share a winner.

If we can leave you with only a couple take-aways, it’d be these points:

1 – don’t buy links
2 – great content builds great links
3 – prove to users you are a trusted authority and links will follow
4 – social media can help grow links to you – plan for this and execute thoughtfully

Even more information on this topic can be found in our help documents.

In the end, don’t sweat links too much.  Investing time in building quality, unique content and wowing your visitors will go a long way to getting you the links you seek.  Many successful websites started out slowly and developed clout over time as they proved valuable to their visitors.  It was those visitors who helped build the links to the website.  It’s a virtuous cycle that starts with content.

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