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Inbound Link Optimization: Interview with Guru Eric Ward

Eric Ward is the go-to guy for Link Optimization.

Every time I've spoken with him over the past 18 years, I've come away with new tricks of the trade. So will you when you read highlights of my interview below.

Much thanks to the adept editing job by Sr. Editor Janet Roberts.

Larry Chase: Does it make sense for a company to use Social Media as a link-building strategy to improve their search engine results?

Eric Ward: For those who are in Social Media to help their organic search ranking at Google, my personal opinion is that it's not so much a mistake but short-sighted. We might be way too early in the social graph analytics to put together any kind of strategy that I would have faith in.

Social Media should be less about what impact it will have on a searcher at Google or Bing and more about what effect it will have on the people who will actually see your link being Tweeted, shared, bookmarked or posted on status updates.

The playing field is not level in Social Media because some brands naturally attract that mouse-click. The Lucky Charms Facebook [Interest] page has 46,000-plus "Likes," but how many "Likes" would a fan page for a head-lice shampoo get? Not so many.

The Value of Linkable Assets

LC: Do you think most Fortune 500 firms have a grasp on their link reputations?

EW: No. I think the overwhelming majority of them are going down the wrong path. Personally, I don't like the word "link-building." I prefer "content, publicity, sharing and awareness building."

Corporations are blinded by Social Media. I don't think they understand the concept of "linkable assets." They don't understand the value of the content they're sitting on or that they could create that would engender links from a trustworthy audience.

LC: What do you mean by "linkable assets?"

EW: A lot of companies take the position that because they're the No. 1 ranking company in their industry, people should want to link to them.

No. A linkable asset is not your page about your corporate profile.

Suppose you sell replacement windows to help people be more energy efficient. You've got a library of 57 videos showing your crews installing these windows or tools that measure the temperature around the edges of these windows. These are linkable assets.

Here's another example: Sea Ray Boats. Let's say Sea Ray sells 40 different models of boats. Instead of a website showing people in bathing suits having a great time, why not make the spec sheets for maintenance and repairs downloadable in PDF form for every boat they make?

You could go to the Sea Ray website, download the spec sheet for your boat, and fix a problem. Those downloadable files are linkable assets.

Once this linkable asset is out there on the web, it has a chance to migrate socially.

Companies have to show Google that they have the ability to attract links from a wide variety of source domains, not just a narrow band of domains. If you can pick up a link from a domain you never had before, that's nice.

Tools of the Trade

LC: What tools do you use when you are identifying backlinks to clients?

EW: I have my own proprietary tool, and I use other tools such as Link Insight, Majestic SEO and Open Site Explorer. [See the "Resources" section at the end of this interview.]

LC: Does that get you better results than doing a Google search for "link:domainname.com?"

EW: Yes, because about 5 years ago, Google started closing that faucet.

LC: I noticed that when you do a search for inbound links at Google, you get far fewer results than you do at Yahoo. Is Google holding back this information?

EW: The main reason they're doing it is the overwhelming majority of people are doing the searches to study competitive data in hopes of improving their own rank.

The "link:" operator was not a birthright. Nowadays, you can get it only for your own site if you have verified it with a snippet of code on your own site.

No free service will let you aggregate the inbound link profiles of your competition and your site. Even those that make you pay are not using Google data because they are crawling their own subset of sites.

LC: How do you find authority hub sites?

EW: Each of the tools I mentioned earlier has a built-in feature like a hub or authority finder or, as SEOMoz calls it, a "juicy" link finder.

One thing that online marketers overlook is the incredible power of Google. If you know how to search Google properly, Google will tell you where you need to have links, if you can get them. Go to Google advanced search or search on "Google search cheat sheet."

When I was doing a project for Kelley Blue Book, the automotive price guide, I used this search string: "Consumer resource automotive pricing links guide helpful public library site:.org." That string just tortured Google, but it gave me the exact pages where I needed to go get links.

Anything that comes up on that search is likely to be a curated page by a reference librarian who has a resource page on a number of topics. If there's an automotive topic, then I have a legitimate shot at getting my link there.

LC: Can you give me an insider example of getting an inbound link from a desirable site?

EW: I always do it manually. I look at whether my analysis of the competition identified any easy "link gets." Say my client specializes in squash equipment, and he gives me his seven closest competitors online.

I look at "co-citation:" Who's linking to his competitors but not to him? Why did that happen? I might find out that the Harvard Squash Club links to them but not him because these others sponsor the club. So, I can tell the client he needs to sponsor the club.

LC: What advice do you have for people who want to ask for links?

EW: The more passion and expertise the site owner has for his content, the less likely he will be to divulge his linking strategy. He'll say, "I will link to you if I think you have good content, and in the way I think helps my readers the most. If I give you a link, I will be like the Soup Nazi, and you will shut up and be thankful. You ask for anchor text? No link for you!"

Site Valuation

LC: If you have a site with hundreds of thousands of inbound links, can you value what that site is worth?

EW: If someone is in position No. 2 in search results for "casinos," you probably can name a price that's higher than for a site that ranks No. 2 for "homemade hummingbird feeders."

I don't know that it's as easy to pin a price on a site as it is to evaluate its inbound links profile and give it a quality score as to whether that No. 2 search rank is going to hold or blow up.

You have to study the backlinks. I would never allow an algorithm to tell me which site to write a check for $5 million for. I want someone I have confidence in to tell me which site I should buy and why. I'm coming out with a service that addresses that.

The traditional methods for link-building to improve your search rank are getting blown up because they weren't legit. I can't get to No. 1 by being listed on 5,000 directories nobody ever heard of. I can't do article marketing because [Google] Panda blew that up. Paid links are getting spotted on school newspapers, and article syndication isn't working.

The Power of .edu and .gov Links

LC: Why are .edu and .gov sites more valuable from a linking perspective?

EW: You're far more likely to find content creators based at those domains whose intentions have nothing to do with SEO. You can't make a blanket statement that all .edu links are more useful because there are pockets of .edu links you can pay for, such as those for student newspapers.

Resources:

Eric Ward is founder and president of EricWard.com, a consultancy offering link-optimization strategies and services.

He is publisher of the link strategy newsletter LinkMoses Private (subscription $8 monthly at writing), which provides advice, a reading list and what Eric calls "Link Opportunity Alerts."

Below are three services Eric uses frequently in his client research: