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19 Jan 2011

Expert Link Building Interview with Wil Reynolds

Wil Reynolds PhotoThis installment of Expert Interviews focuses once again on the discipline of link building. This week, I had the opportunity to speak with Wil Reynolds, the founder and CEO of SEER Interactive, a Philadelphia based SEO firm. He has dedicated himself to doing two things well: driving traffic to sites from search engines and analyzing the impact that traffic has on the bottom line of companies. He and his organization are also focused on giving back to the community. SEER Interactive requires that every team member participate in philanthropic activity in order to share their success with others. Wil currently sits on the advisory board of Convenant House, an organization that works with runaway youth in the Philadelphia area. He has also volunteered with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, helping to raise awareness for childhood cancer issues.

Elise Redlin-Cook: How has link building changed since you first got into the industry?

Wil Reynolds: Oh goodness! Link building didn’t even matter when I first started.  It wasn’t a factor at all, my first two years in SEO mostly everything I did was based on keyword density and IP delivery of your pages, with Fantomasters tool to make sure your competitors couldn’t figure out what density you used.  The other thing I think shocks the heck out of people about the “old days” is that there were legitimately 10 search engines all vying for market share.  Sure Yahoo and Altavista were dominant, but they were not so dominant that you could ignore Lycos, Hotbot, Excite, and others.  So we used the script to also do IP delivery for each engine, so each one got served a page based on what we thought they liked.  It was crazy.  Back then we wouldn’t even use a client’s main domain to rank well, that is how little domain history mattered in ’99 through mid 2000.

Not until Google came on the scene did we have to really worry about link building.  When Google did come on the scene, we all did the basic big directories, right, Yahoo, Dmoz, etc.  And then you mostly did reciprocal linking, and voila you have rankings.

Today you really have to be a creative marketer, as well a technical pro to be a good link builder.  For instance, you have to have the wit to see link building opportunities in things others do not. That is a marketing mind, right?  But the technical mind needs to understand how to create advanced queries and the like to find opportunities.  The people who are too creative are not good for link building, because creativity doesn’t scale without the technical know how to build queries, high level Excel sheets w/ macros, etc etc.

I’ve always been overweighted at SEER on marketing talent over technical talent. I mean no one on our team could code a web page from notepad for our first six years of existence, but we knew how to connect with people, and how to develop resources that people would care about. That is the marketing mind.

Today I’d also say that link building is so complicated that without some kind of tool to help you reverse engineer the link graph, you are going to be a sitting duck, in anything remotely competitive.  Google has challenged all of us to actually develop content that people will actually want to talk about, share, etc if you want long-term rankings. Sure some unscrupulous stuff will always work, but if you want to build long-term rankings that can drive a business for the long haul you have to consider balancing aggressive tactics that work today with building links that Google will always value.

Elise: So, Wil what’s your take on paid links?

Wil: My take on paid links is simple, don’t over do it.  First, try to actually succeed without them.  In so many industries, I watch people buy links, putting themselves or their clients at risk unnecessarily. Don’t start off taking the easy way out, I’d say for any project you should never start off using paid links, you may not need them to be successful, so why take the risk?

Second, you never want to be the most aggressive in your space.  I say look at 2-3 sites that are outranking you, look at how they are doing it and make sure you are a lot less aggressive than they are. Let them be the “canary in the mine” so to speak, who catches the Google smackdown first. NEVER be the most aggressive.  Also never use a network, create your own relationships.

Third, What I try to do (and it is very hard) is when you see someone paying for links to be successful, look at the crap links they are paying for and find a way to do it white hat. I recently had a link broker call me about buying .edu links (ummmm no thank you!). But as he shared the network with me it got me thinking…why wouldn’t our clients who can speak to different college groups, not be willing to offer discounts, promos, scholarships, etc in exchange for promotion.  Which could be a logo, or it could be a text link, either way this is how the world has worked for ages for regular old marketing.  Now I have a link that might actually be valuable for the members of a group, which means the traffic alone is worth it, and the extra boost for search engine rankings is gravy.

Today you really have to be a creative marketer, as well a technical pro to be a good link builder. For instance, you have to have the wit to see link building opportunities in things others do not. That is a marketing mind, right?

Elise: Fantastic advice! Well, I’ve often heard that a great link mixes high PR/domain strength with relevance. If you could only choose high PR or relevance, which would it be?

Wil: For now I’d choose neither one of them, I’d choose anchor text.  One of the things I have been preaching at conferences I am attending is a lesson I learned the hard way.  We had a client targeting one of the most competitive words I have ever targeted, it is definitely more competitive than trying to get ringtones on the first page of Google was two years ago (yeah we went after ringtones for a client two years ago, and they are still on page 1 for the singular even though we haven’t worked with them in two years – that’s long-term quality link building.).

Anyway, what I learned with this competitive space for this client was that the links they got from the New York Times, Shape magazine, Cosmo, Oprah magazine, Men’s Health, and every other major magazine about health in about a six month period did nothing to lift their rankings.  It was a gut punch to me and my team. We followed all the rules and did not get rewarded.  So we started building relationships with bloggers, running contests, one of our team members even went as far as creating a national day for the client.  The national day was picked up on several radio stations and many relevant sites in their space…today they rank between 5-7, back when they got all these links from  these major magazines they did not improve, they stayed in the low 20′s.

It was disappointing to see that in a space littered with spam on page 1 that getting into highly reputable magazines did not serve as signal to Google that we were a legit site doing things right, instead they continued to reward the spammers.  Very often sites with very high PR archive horribly, so what ends up happening is that no real juice flows down to the link you have, rendering it not very valuable – that is my take at least on print publications with online sites.  They are notorious ball hogs, who don’t link out too.

We probably went over budget by about 2x the hours for that project, but it was one of our biggest successes as a company.  And we learned a lot about what really works in the search engines.

Elise: Wow! That’s a great point. So, can you tell us a story of a time you acquired a link in a creative manner.

Wil: I think throughout this interview I have been giving examples of how we acquire links in a creative manner, but one of the things that totally changed the way we did link building happened while visiting a client in San Francisco.  They have two dogs in the office, and in passing someone mentioned that the dogs are on Twitter and sometimes tweet on the company’s behalf.

Hearing that (this is where the creative side helps) I googled dogs who tweet, cats who tweet, etc. Found tons of lists, and even a USA Today article, that linked to the accounts of animals who tweet, which led me to look for sites that talked about dogs in the office and how it is managed, which created opportunities for interviews for the client, along with ending up in lists.

Elise: Hmmm. So how do you see link building changing?

Wil: Ummmm, well with Matt Cutts announcing that Google is going to be working hard on spam this year I expect it to be a very fun year for link building.  I would expect that this is the year that Google gets it right and realizes that getting anchor text is difficult, so hopefully the days of begging people to link to you with anchor text ends this year.  I’m not holding my breath, but I am hopeful.  Then I can build on topic links, and let the relevancy count as my “anchor text”.  Right now 80-90% of the anchor text links people get don’t include anchor text naturally, but if you go build a bunch of relevant links without anchor text you will lose in the short term, your clients will leave you, and your reputation as an SEO will be tarnished. Even though you are doing what is right and following Google’s rules, you know?

I really am looking forward to that day.

I think most link builders would second Wil’s sentiment and are long awaiting the day that relevance beats out anchor text in the game of value in Google’s eyes. Aren’t you?