I recently did the SMX East 2011 Link Clinic with Rae Hoffman-Dolan and beforehand, this being my first time speaking at an event, I wanted some advice. One thing she said really hit home, and that was not to turn the session into an SEO clinic. I would have done just that actually.
To me, SEO and link building are inextricably linked. However, Rae’s advice was dead on because she pointed out that we were indeed charged with discussing just link building, not SEO, and there was an SEO site clinic as well. The most difficult part of the session, for me, was in staying on task with the links and ignoring all the glaring SEO errors that I saw, and that I see with sites every day.
Link building can definitely help rank a site, provided there’s enough time, money and resources. However, it’s just not enough to sustain a site.
You may be No. 1, but your site is horribly unfriendly to users, thereby losing conversions left and right. You may have been hit by recent algorithmic updates and consequently built links like crazy, only to see no results. It’s just not enough on its own anymore.
Here are the top five issues that have continually come up and affected our link building efforts:
1. Failure to properly institute server redirects
You’d be surprised to see how many websites still don’t 301 one version of their site (whether www or non-www) to the other version. This causes issues with indexation and link juice.
If you run both www and non-www versions without a 301, you’re essentially splitting the link juice, as people will link to you using both non-www and www paths. If you 301 one version and people link to the nonpreferred URL, you’re still getting the link juice benefit through the 301, so make sure you pick one or the other.
2. Internal link structure
From not using good anchors internally to wasting nav space on lower-quality pages, suboptimal internal link structure is one of the most common problems I encounter when reviewing a site. It’s a rare site that actually needs to link to 100 equally important pages from the homepage, but you wouldn’t know it to look at some sites.
I’ve seen that especially with e-commerce sites that sell niche items. It’s great that you have 100 types of products, but there’s a better way to get a user there than by having them all in a leftnav.
Additionally, I see lots of people wasting opportunities for good anchor text internally. If you’re linking to your metal posters page with the anchor “Ripped!” then you’re also potentially confusing users and squandering conversions.
3. Not making additional important features obvious to users
If you have a Twitter account, list it on the home page. The same goes for Facebook. I’ve looked at several sites recently and while they do have social media accounts, you’d never know it unless you happened to search for it.
The same holds true for a company blog, a YouTube channel, or anything else that will flesh out your online presence and give users more content and more opportunities to interact with you in different ways. Let people know where else you hang out.
4. Not using 404s properly
Different people like to handle 404s in different way. My agency just sends any page-not-found request back to the home page. Hey, so does The Onion!!
I thought this was the easiest route to take, but my preference would probably be a custom 404 scenario that did the whole “were you maybe looking for this instead?” list of URLs based on a semantic analysis of what was typed, along with a handy site search box and all old pages/potentially-mistyped-paths 301′d. I can dream can’t I?
Some people use very creative 404 pages. Some people 301 the heck out of every possible error URL you could dream up. The key is, indeed, to handle 404s and not just leave a user hanging.
If you have any links going to pages that are no longer found on your website and you aren’t handling this, that’s obviously a bad user experience — which leads to fewer conversions — so ideally you should make sure you 301 any old URLs that have inbound links.
If you only do a pretty 404 page, make sure that it contains a link to your home page at the very least, so you’ll still provide a better user experience.
For more about how to handle this, last week’s Link Week column on how to capture broken inbound links is a fantastic resource.
5. Robots.txt issues
Some sites have loads of PDFs, Excel files, etc., and they don’t really need to be polluting the SERPs. Before you block those pages though, see if they rank! If they’re driving relevant traffic to your site, I wouldn’t block them. If they don’t rank and aren’t anything you’d like a user to click on without first going through the site, add them to the robots.txt file.
Obviously there are additional instances where you’ll have something else wrong, SEO-wise or user-wise, with your site, causing issues with rankings and conversions, but this is a good start to help you figure out what to look for, as these are definitely the most common problems that I’m seeing with the sites that I analyze.
Just remember this: Any link building campaign that doesn’t take SEO and usability into account is not a link building campaign that will withstand the test of time. You may still rank, but you won’t close the deal.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.