White Hat Linking

Oct 5


Irina Ponomareva

Irina Ponomareva

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The article explains in details how to approach link building procedures to make sure the linking patterns of the site will be viewed as white hat and ethical by both the humans and the engines.


SEO and link building always go side by side. From the earliest days of SEO,White Hat Linking Articles even before it had a name, people studying the search engines’ behaviour noticed that the number of links pointing to the site improved the rankings of that site very significantly in all search engines. Some engines give the link popularity factor less weight, and others pay more attention to it, but they all use it to some extent in their ranking algorithms.

Naturally, people started looking for ways to drastically increase the number of links pointing to their sites, and to do it quickly. Sure, link building has always been on the scene, as the inbound links have another nice implication: they drive direct traffic to our sites when clicked, so marketing the sites online is impossible without links. But link building for direct traffic and link building for the sake of search engines are very different things, as it now turns out.

Link Mania

Just like everything that can bring us better rankings in the engines, links started being abused by SEOs in many different ways. Link farms and FFA pages were the first and most obvious ways to increase the link popularity of sites, and then people invented pyramids and other complicated schemes. It worked at first, until the engines figured it out and devalued the worthless link rubbish. People started creating multiple sites where a single site would do under normal circumstances, and cross-linking them heavily to increase the link popularity; the engines figured it out, too, and penalised the sites for doing so. Later, everyone started creating general directories looking like identical twins – again, trying to satisfy the same link popularity hunger. All this has made the Net quite messy; in an attempt to clean it up, the engines are now reducing the weight given to link popularity as a ranking factor, and replacing it with other, less easily manipulated, factors.

Back to the future

By definition, the Net can’t live without links. In order to get visibility for our sites, we will have to have them linked from the outside; otherwise, nobody will ever guess they exist. But with the new, very smart and sophisticated SE algorithms working, it’s time to remember the original concepts of the Internet, unless we want our links to be totally devalued by the engines, or worse still, to hurt our rankings.

What are links for? The answer is to be clicked by humans and to take them to a different page. Ideally, the page should be related to the one they are currently viewing, or somehow add value to it. This original philosophy should be the core of our thinking when doing links in a white hat, ethical way.

Good old reciprocal links

When you link to a site and ask for the same favour in return, it is called reciprocal linking. Being the easiest way to acquire links to sites, reciprocal links have been enormously abused, and in most cases their amount crossed all reasonable borders. Consequently, they are almost being equated to spam now, and speculation about reciprocal links having no value with the SEs has become rife across the SEO forum circuit. At the same time, most of the search engine optimisers still practise reciprocal linking. Do you wonder why it works for them? The answer is: they do it the right way.

The first rule when doing reciprocal linking is: ask yourself how many links you wish to acquire. If you are aiming at 15 or 20 link exchanges, one link page will do; if you think you need more, create a categorised mini-directory from the start, and be as niche-specific as possible. For example, if your site is about web design, the “Real Estate” category in your directory will look odd and most likely trigger a red flag of doubt. But an “SEO” category will look fine, because these businesses are complementary.

When writing a link exchange request to the owner of a site you really like and don’t mind sending your visitors to, don’t forget to personalise your email. The person receiving it should see that you really have been on the site. If possible, find the name of the owner on the site. If it doesn’t seem possible (even the whois lookup can give you wrong information in some cases), quote a sentence or two from the site’s linking policies (if applicable in the context), or from an article you especially liked.

Be polite, and never insist that you need a link back. You can say that it would be appreciated, and explain why exactly your site is worth it, but threatening to remove the link if not reciprocated is very bad manners.

Choosing your friends wisely

Which sites are the best to get links from? Obviously, they should belong to the same (or complementary) niche; otherwise they are nearly worthless from both the SEO and the SEM point of view. We need relevant leads, and we need the engines to know exactly where we belong.

The sites should also be authoritative (preferably, old and established, with a good number of incoming links and, ideally, good rankings in all major engines). But occasional links from new and low PR sites are also helpful, because it’s the quality – not the PR – that makes sites worthy of a link.

Avoiding bad neighbourhoods is becoming more critical than ever (even Google now mentions it in the Webmaster Guidelines). You will need to do your best when reviewing your desired link partner for white hat SEO practices; anything looking even remotely grey is a good enough reason to reject the site. View the code, check the cached versions of the most important pages and compare them with what you see in your browser, and look at the linking policies of the sites. There is always a chance you will miss something, but being as careful as possible will keep you safe.

Avoid sites with too long or uncategorised link pages. Such pages exist for the engines only; besides, each link passes only a tiny portion of the overall authority of the page, because it is distributed between all links. If a page contains more than 100 links, it becomes absolutely useless.

The philosophy

Now, we have to choose whether to make our directory purely reciprocal or mixed (that is, combining reciprocal and one-way links).

Most of the niche mini-directories attached to sites are purely reciprocal, and their inclusion policies include the following line: “We only link to sites that already link to us” or “Be sure to link to us before you send a request”. That’s understandable, because each site is interested in links pointing to it. A reciprocal linking agreement is actually a business agreement, where both parties have their responsibilities, such as to maintain the link on the page the other side agreed to have it placed on, to make sure it is easily located on the site and is spiderable, etc. As a business agreement, it still makes sense if we forget for a moment about the engines and the link popularity factor, so, strictly speaking, it can’t be called spam. But should the engines value our site more for having this stuff within it?

Let us ask ourselves: does it add value and quality to my site? Making a reciprocal link the main criterion for inclusion definitely affects the average quality of listed resources; we could have linked to a great resource that could be of an enormous value to our visitors, but we don’t, because it is not linked to us. But now and again we link to mediocre sites, just because they are willing to return the link.

Does it all do any good to the Net as a whole? Hardly. Consequently, the engines may (and certainly will one day) think less of sites having purely reciprocal directories within them, and more of those who list great resources freely but accept reciprocal links from those who give them voluntarily.

The second approach won’t become popular soon, and I realise it. The “PR leak” myth is too strong in the majority of SEO-oriented minds; the “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” attitude is even stronger, and to look at things this way, one doesn’t even have to be an SEO. But I strongly believe that this second approach is the right one.

Avoiding link fraud

But still, even if our directory is mixed one, reciprocal link etiquette still stands. If we agreed to actually exchange links, we should never remove our link to our partner without warning. If we need to remove it, a polite apology via an email is a must.

The pages where we place our reciprocal links should not be disallowed from the search engines or use the rel="nofollow" attribute in the link code. As with any other business, we should play fair if our choice is to do reciprocal linking.

If you use link pages

If you use link pages for placing your reciprocal links (you can use your content pages for this purpose, as well), keep them short and sweet (no more than 40 links per page), and take care about their scanability, good navigation and attractiveness. Make it as likely as possible that your link partners will receive actual visitors from those pages, at least from time to time.

Needless to say, the same goes for one-way outbound links.

And remember that sites seldom need too many reciprocal links.

Handling the PR monster

Meaning almost nothing these days in terms of SEO and rankings, this little green monster sitting in the Google toolbar still captures minds and controls the actions of so many supposedly professional SEOs!

“We don’t exchange links with sites that have Google PR lower than 5” or “be sure to place our link on a page with Google PR no lower than 3” – when I read such statements on sites, I leave them and never come back. It’s very hard to believe that people still think their PR will somehow leak from their pages if they link out to another site for free. Even if this were true, the traditional PR has today so little (if any) affect on actual rankings that I wouldn’t worry. But it can’t be true. Because if PR really leaked through links, the DMOZ.org site would have PR0 or maybe PR1, not the proud PR9 they currently have, since they have so many outbound links! Also, if PR really could leak, it would mean Google encouraged dead end sites with no outbound links at all. Google engineers would be crazy to do so, as it would mean the end to the Net and their engine and business.

While calculating the real link authority of the site and its effect on rankings, Google now uses a much more complex algorithm than it uses when calculating PR. That’s why PR and rankings barely correlate – check any SERP you wish, and you will see that sites in that SERP are not ordered by their PR values going in descending order.

So, if you meet a PR-obsessed site owner, walk away. And if you are PR-obsessed yourself, turn the PR indicator off and try to live without it for at least a month. When you are convinced that it is not as important as it seemed to you before, turn it on again, as it can still be useful in certain specific cases.

Safe ways of doing links

Nobody will ever object if you publish good press releases or articles of your own across the Net. Press releases tell the world about your business, so it’s only natural for them to link to your site, and so they do. When you send your article to syndicates for reprint, they give you a link in return, which is a standard copyright practice in such cases. So, if you base your link-building campaign mostly on these methods, you are totally safe. But it will require a lot of work and creativity on your part.

Having an interesting industry-related blog with an RSS feed, or a newsletter regularly reminding your subscribers of your existence, will naturally attract a lot of links from grateful readers to your site. Speak out and spread out, participate in forums and blogs run by your industry leaders, send out nicely written testimonials and look for good business partners around you. In other words, be visible. At the end of the day, it will certainly bring you some good links, but much more importantly, you will develop quality business relationships that will, perhaps, make links far less significant to you.

Still more important will be the friendships you will form in the process.

Directories: to submit or not to submit

Submitting sites to directories is another good way of building links to sites, but it has its own pitfalls one should avoid.

Many directories require a reciprocal link as a payment for the listing. The reality of today is such that strictly reciprocal general directories should better be avoided. Too many directories are getting banned or penalised in the engines for being nothing but link collections adding no real value to the Internet. If you link to directories, the risk of running into a bad neighbourhood becomes much higher than with ordinary sites.

But there is never a reason not to submit to a directory that is free and doesn’t require a link back. Every directory listing brings visitors from time to time, and each visitor can become a client. So, unless the directory looks totally ugly and useless to you, it is worth trying.

Link to a directory only if you are 100% sure it is a good one and you can really recommend it to your visitors. Do so only if it is your voluntary choice, not their requirement.

The conclusion: which links are good ones?

From the white hat point of view, the definition of a good link would be this: a good link is the one that would still make sense if we forgot about the existence of the search engines; the one that has not been added to a site against the site owner’s will; and, finally, the one that makes the Net at least a little bit of a better place.

If you follow these rules when collecting inbound links to your great new resource, you should be fine and safe, but if you have doubts about your intentions and ways, stop here. And remember that a good link building campaign is never quick. Just like everything SEO-related, link building grows in quality only with time and patience.

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