Off-Page SEO Factors – External Linking

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Finding Existing Links

One of the first things you should do is determine what pages are currently linking to your site. You can find your links by using Yahoo! Site Explorer and Google Webmaster Tools.

In order to utilize Google Webmaster Tools, you will have to verify ownership of the site you are evaluating. We do not recommend putting any stock in the Google link: command. That particular command will return only a small percentage of the links that Google knows about.

After you verify ownership and log in to the Webmaster Tools console, you can find your external links by clicking on the "Your site on the web" link in the left navigation and then selecting "Links to your site". You will then have the option to export the link data as a spreadsheet. It will show all the pages linking to your site, which page on your site they link to, and the last time each link was found by Google.

Unlike Google, Yahoo! Site Explorer does not require you to verify ownership. You can get the number of pages indexed and Inlinks data for any domain that you choose. After you put a URL into the tool, you will want to click on the tab labeled "Inlinks". There will be a dropdown menu next to the text that reads "Show Inlinks:". By default the Inlinks page will show links from "All Pages". You should select "Except from this domain" in the pulldown to limit the Site Explorer results to external links. You will only be able to view (or export) up to 1,000 results. If you have more than 1,000 external links, then you will have to rely on Google Webmaster Tools for a complete data set.

Optimizing Existing Links

Once you have a complete list of links to your site you will want to seek out the pages that are the most relevant for your targeted keywords. In Yahoo! Site Explorer, you should view the Title tags of the linking pages to get an idea of their content. With Google Webmaster Tools data, you will have to look at page URLs in order to guess the content of the linking pages.

You should then determine if there is some way to influence the anchor text of the inbound link or content of the linking pages. More often than not you will be unable to change the pages. However, there are some scenarios where you can have some influence on a linking site. For instance, you may have a partnership or affiliation with a theme relevant site or you may own the linking site in question. You will want to maximize the link relevancy of any links from such controllable sites by tweaking Title/Meta tags, body content, and/or anchor text.

By far the most important thing to do when evaluating your external inbound links is to make sure that the link benefit is going somewhere. It is not uncommon for a site to be completely redeveloped with brand new URLs. In those instances, you can lose a significant amount of external link SEO value if 301 redirects are not implemented when the URLs change. That is of course assuming that there are links to the interior pages that are moved. If there was a link to a URL and it was not redirected, then the value of the link would disappear once the search engines spidered it again and received a 404 error.

We have found that Google Webmaster Tools may not return external links that are going to 404 pages. To identify these links, you should view the "Not found" errors that Google reports in the "Crawl errors" section under Diagnostics. If you are certain that an error being reported is not internal, then it could be due to an external link. You can verify this by clicking on the "Linked From" column for each error or by downloading the sources of all errors on the site, which is available at the bottom of the page.

When implementing redirects to capture link benefit, you should 301 redirect the 404 page to the page that will maximize link relevancy. Redirecting such a link to the home page might be better than doing nothing. However, you may get even more SEO benefit by redirecting the link to the page on your site that is most relevant for keywords used on the linking page.

Researching Competition

If you are trying to increase your search engine rankings for a particular keyword, you should closely scrutinize the external links going to the top ranking sites for that keyword. We recommend focusing on the best Google ranked sites rather than sites that rank well only in the other engines.

You will have to use Yahoo! Site Explorer to research your competition since you cannot verify ownership of sites you do not own. You should view the Site Explorer results for as many competitors as you can, but the top 5 sites would be a good start.

As we suggested you do when viewing the links to your site, you should focus on the linking pages that have the most relevance for the keyword phrase you are researching. Visit highly relevant pages and determine if obtaining a link from them is possible. You should consider doing anything you can to get a link from a page that could pass a significant amount of SEO value. Contact site owners directly to determine if an arrangement can be made.

Even though obtaining external links is often a necessity for optimal search engine rankings, you have to remember that quality is infinitely more important than quantity. Ten high-quality links could improve rankings much more than 1,000 low-quality links. Also, large quantities of links popping up quickly is very likely to get you into trouble with the search engines.

The following guidelines should be used when developing external links:

  • Obtain no more than one link from any particular domain
  • Only obtain links from sites that share a common theme or use your keywords
  • Vary the anchor text as much as possible so that one keyword does not make up a large percentage of your inbound anchor text
  • Obtain links gradually if you can control the pace

These guidelines will help you maximize the SEO value of any links you obtain while keeping you out of trouble with the search engines. They will also prevent you from inadvertently doing more harm than good by triggering a filter.

Key Takeaways – External Linking

To sum up, here are some key things to remember in regards to building external links for search engine optimization:

  • Evaluate your current external inbound links. Determine if there is a way to increase their benefit.
  • Make special note of any external links that are going to old pages that now return a 404 status. Implement 301 redirects from the old URL to the most appropriate landing page.
  • Research the external links going to the top 5 sites in Google for your targeted keyword. Identify the most relevant links and contact the site owners to see if an arrangement can be made for the link you want in the exact format you want.
  • Follow the guidelines laid out above to avoid getting into trouble with the search engines.
  • And finally, remember that you should always focus on link quality, not quantity.

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