John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?  Competitive Web & SEO
November 27th, 2010 by john andrews

What is SEO Link Building?

At first it seems pretty obvious what “link building” is… it is the practice of building back links to your site. But in the SEO marketplace, it is NOT clear today what “link building” is. What, exactly are you getting when you hire and pay a link builder? What are reasonable expectations for paid link building?

Today more than any time in the past I can remember, the service of link building lacks clarity in the marketplace. I’ve been doing SEO professionally for 7 years, and SEO was part of my job for almost 6 years before that. I’ve always done link building, but not the way I do it today. So what do professional link builders do for you today?

6 Aspects of Modern Day SEO Link Building

There are 6 obvious aspects to modern SEO link building. Some are integral to SEO, as you will see below, so in effect there are more than 6 aspects but these 6 get us started:

Link Building Foundations

Your content must be “linkable”, which means it has to present itself as something unique on the web. It doesn’t need to be truly unique as in one-of-a-kind, but within its target audience, it must appear unique and thus link worthy. This also means your content must be identified with unique URLs, so linking is possible. The foundations of link building require that your site work properly, be reasonably navigable and recognizable, and be “able to be linked to”.

Link to It, and Build Sites/Pages for Linking

Once your content is “linkable”, link builders link to it. They may adjust your within-site linking, or make use of your existing sub domain published content, your other owned sites, or sites where you have influence, to get links in to your site. A link builder will identify which pages of your site should be supported with links, and what sort of links will bring the most benefit. Link builders may have existing sites that can link to your site, or they may build new sites (or publish content on other sites) to carry more links to your site. Article writers do this, as do social media managers who create profiles on other sites linking to your site.

Link builders may create new sites in order to use them for link building, or may build new sites as extensions of your site, to benefit link building. These methods can be valuable, but care must be taken to align the activities with SEO activities (to protect your brand and your site SEO status).

This is link building at its fundamental core, and surprisingly many site owners have not engaged in this most basic form of link building.

Extending the Foundation with Directories

Professional directories and “listing” sites present opportunities for additional link building. Anywhere your competitors appear, you should consider. Your link builder explores such opportunities, and recognizes the ones that might have the biggest impact. Your link builder should also create links to you, and will want to expense any editorial fees or perhaps management fees associated with such links.

Good link builders know the difference between meaningful, powerful directory links and low-quality, questionable directory links. Oh, and not every “directory” is called a “directory” and this is another area where professional link builders bring value for those who hire them.

Link Building Innovation

Good link builders innovate to cause the marketplace to link to your content. Innovation might be content-based (infographics, interesting and remarkable content) or technology-based (such as new systems that make it easy to “recommend” your content via links), or activity-based (activity on exiting sites such as forums prompts linking to your site from third party locations). There is no limit to innovation, but of course innovation requires creativity, skill, and perseverance.

The best link builders rely on innovation first, and build their strategies out from there to suit your particular site’s needs. The innovative SEO link builder is sort of the opposite of the link builder who has a secret network of sites on Topic X which he will link to your site for a monthly fee. Link building must match your site’s unique positioning and needs, and your link builder should consider everything in the toolbox when forming a link building strategy.

Copy-Cat Link Building

I call this sadly common tactic “copy cat link building” mostly because I get copied a lot and don’t enjoy it. A copy cat link builder simply does what you did to get links for herself, after you already did it.

If you find a webmaster willing to give a link, and convince her to do so, the copy cat follows up with a request for a link to her site, too, sometimes even pointing out your link as rationale for her link. If you publish a list of “10 Favorite Thanksgiving Dinner Table Jokes” that gets a lot of attention in the marketplace, you’ll probably see 4 or 5 copy cats publishing “5 Favorite Thanksgiving Jokes” and similar rip offs shortly after, since your efforts demonstrated such copy cats can be expected to similarly resonate well in the marketplace.

By copying your innovation, creativity, and research, the copy-cat link builder eliminated much of the costs of link building, instead stepping in to steal market share from your link building instead of growing the link building opportunity base. It becomes a race of social media seeding, instead of link building.

Fortunately, Mother Nature built in some natural controls for such cheats and scammers. First, they put competitive pressure on you (the innovator) to be even better than you are. As you get even better, the copy cats have more trouble keeping up. Second,  cheats and scammers generally cheat and scam in everything they do (not just link building). Copy-cats tend to earn poor reputations for themselves over time, which lead to less effective social media networking and this less ability to beat you on execution.

Still, copy cat link building can be effective for the short term, and can definitely piss you off.

Integrated Link Building / Competitive Web Strategy

This is where modern SEO link builders really shine. Working closely with the web strategist or lead SEO, a good innovative, experienced, and technically skilled link builder can propose a strategy with a high probability of success in a given marketplace. Using existing content (which may need re-positioning or adjusting), or by creating new, complimentary content, the SEO and link builder work together to draw quality inbound links to your site. Nothing gets published until it is “link worthy”. Nothing gets published without additional promotion designed to draw links. No link is built without consideration for how it impacts the site and its SEO status. In short, integrated link building is part of SEO.

A Few Tips for Working with Link Builders

As always, keep your goals and objectives in mind and be transparent about them with your link builder. Ask, “what is my current link profile” before they start. Ask them to qualify it… tell you in writing how it looks. The same qualification will be asked after some months of link building, and the link builder should be held accountable for progress. If you are told your existing links are low quality, as why. Ask which ones are low quality, and how do they know. Use this to judge the quality of new links built.

What about examples of prior work or an outline of what will be done before a contract is signed? This is tough, and if you read the above 6 aspects it might become clear why some link builders balk at such a request.

If they use a “secret network of owned sites” to link to you, they won’t reveal that network or they could put it at risk. You should consider your own risk of working with such a link builder.

If they rely on innovation and strategy, they won’t have the answers before work starts. They won’t know what works for your site and your market until they do the research and perhaps some testing. The link builder can propose broad categories of efforts like quizzes, infographics, surveys, and curated collections (of images, of links), but not specifics. When you pay a good link builder for more than just links from existing sites, you are paying them to answer that question for you.

As with any activity, there is art and science to link building, but no one has yet shown magic to be real in any context.  Don’t pay for magic… pay for performance, results, or link building, and set aside adequate detail in the beginning so you and your link builder can point at the outcomes of efforts and agree on how good or bad they are. And most importantly, remember that link building requires a certain degree of persuasion of the marketplace (those who make links). No link builder can guarantee third parties will freely build links to your site,  but you and your link builder can definitely agree on what represents honest effort, what constitutes a hit or a miss, and how your money will be spent during a link building engagement.

Update: We’re looking for link builders of all styles and capacities. Send email to info at this domain with your pitch or other details. Don’t be shy… if you’re up front with your style/approach/capabilities you are more likely to be considered. I also have a trusted directory of link builders you may want to be in, which I will consider.

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March 7th, 2009 by john andrews

Google Docs: Is 3 Weeks too long to fix a Privacy/Security Issue?

Saturday morning is slow time for viral distribution of news, but if the news sticks the viral component tends to last longer than usual, often re-distributed by the Monday morning back-to-work crowd. “Checkout what happened over the weekend”, such as this Google Docs privacy leak.

First, this is important news. If you used Google Docs, and elected to share some documents with some people, you may have been inadvertently sharing those documents with other people. Not random people (as some have said), but also not just people who have seen the document before (as others have suggested). It was a programming bug, and was documented by Richard DeVries who reported it to Google and watched it get patched over a three week period:

About three weeks ago, we discovered that some fifteen documents and spreadsheets were unintentionally shared with a lot of people, some of whom were outside of our domain. We found out that one of us had been wanting to share these documents with a colleague (within our domain). He selected the documents on the documents list and added one user. Google Docs then shared all these documents with everyone who had access to one of the selected documents…Fortunately, we found this out fairly quickly and were able to revoke the unintentionally granted rights before any damage was done (we think). These documents weren’t ultra-secret, but you can imagine what could go wrong. I decided to try and contact Google about this.

Now Google lovers defend Google, saying this like (actual quotes):

  • You guys are getting way carried away with this. Talking like people had their Docs shared with random people is wrong. These Docs were shared with people that they had previously been shared with.
  • Look what you’ve become, people. Using free service and not being grateful..You should be ashamed, really

While Google haters will jump on this and say things like (paraphrasing):

  • Google can’t be trusted
  • You’re stupid to use Google Docs for your documents
  • the sky is falling

For me, it is obvious that if you use a third-party storage facility and allow that third-party to manage access permissions via a public interface, you have already decided to manage the risk (or ignore it). OF COURSE this is risky behavior. It is generally not a matter of whether or not Google will compromise your security, but WHEN. Unless you believe Google is perfect, you know that your documents are not perfectly secure.

But is 3 weeks to long for a problem like this one to be left open?

Richard DeVries obviously likes Google, as his journal is very kind to Google while reporting the security flaw:

I think Google handled the issue admirably. It was solved within two weeks, they un-shared affected documents and notified their owners.

He’s an experienced IT user… he knows that the chances of other companies with similar security problems handling it as Google did are….well… probably not that great. He knows that some companies would never reveal they had a security issue, and some would take months to fix such issues.

But is two or three weeks to long for Google to be fixing such a serious security issue? That question needs to be asked. We trust Google a whole helluvalot more than we trust other companies.  Google responded to Richard DeVries that it was able to reproduce the problem. At that point, while Google scheduled the work to fix the problem, should the offending feature have been turned off? Should a warning have been added to the user interface? This is part of the Google Beta problem… Google leaves products in beta and tells users they are not responsible for glitches, sometimes for many years.

As this news hits inboxes around the world over the weekend, and re-circulates on Monday morning, try and keep the focus. It’s not about liking or hating Google. It’s about holding Google to a standard appropriate for the level of trust it has been granted.  Brilliant employees can create brilliant products which generate brilliant profits for brilliant executives and shareholders. Let’s encourage them to maintain the brilliance when handling our privacy and security as well. We don’t need you to be better than the other companies in this regard, Google. We need you to be freakin’ awesome.

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October 9th, 2008 by john andrews

Google’s Brand Arrogance & Typo Domains Revisited

I can count on one hand the number of SEO consultants I have met who understand Google’s perspective on brands. That’s not a good sign for those of you hiring SEO consultants. And, given Google’s recent public statements about brands, it’s also not good for the majority of the SEO industry still trying to optimize web sites to rank for target keywords via “SEO techniques”.

Google loves brands because brands do all the heavy lifting when it comes to easy money on the web. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Google is a leverage play of massive proportions. Oh sure there are some good people at Google; hard-working innovators with good hearts and good intentions. But the business model is a scheme. As a business, Google seeks maximum profits with minimal effort, always keeping an eye on the long term vision : maximum profits with minimal effort, ad infinitum. Whenever possible, via leverage of other’s work.

Everything Google does has been justified as a means towards that end. Every web service, web app, widget, search feature and acquisition is strategic. Even the illustrious “making the Internet better” is part of the plan to enable more, easier commerce over the web, which leads to higher, less-costly revenues for Google (and its partners) without having to do the work. Everything is about leverage for money, even if the minutia (and the individuals working on implementing the minutia) don’t know it or can’t believe it.

And brands cost a fortune to create and maintain.

Google’s past behavior suggests it will never pay that cost for any brand other than it’s own. In fact, from what I have seen, Google hasn’t even invested much in its own brands (Picasso, UTube, FeedBurner, etc). Google doesn’t forsee an adequate return on the costs of building a brand. Oh sure Google values the Google brand (how could it not?) but if that brand were a pure brand (built not on substance but, well, marketing and branding), the Google Brand would never have been built. The people behind Google would never have justified the costs of building such a brand. On the contrary, they perfectly understand the value of exploiting brands on the web.

Think it through – if Google says the value is in brands, but Google doesn’t invest in building brands, and then Google tells brand builders that their brands are “the answer”, what else could it mean but Google is poised to cash out everyone’s branding efforts?

As with any costly adventure, brand building is a very inefficient process involving large advertising spends. Google hones in on the cash flow associated with such inefficiencies like yellow jackets chase high fructose corn syrup. The yellow jackets are driven by instinct – they can’t help themselves.

Advertising Age is reporting that Google’s Eric Schmidt called the Internet a “cesspool”, noting that brands are the answer to that problem. For the majority of the US population connected to modern sewer systems and unaware of the meaning of “cesspool”, it’s a big hole rich people dig in their back yards to hold what they flush down their toilets. Because they live on large parcels of land outside of town, they would rather place cesspools on their property than pay to connect to the city sewer pipes.

A typical cesspool lasts 20 years or so before either filling beyond capacity or failing to “absorb” any more “solid waste“. At that time most cesspool owners like Eric either pay a pump trunk to come and suck their solid waste out of the cesspool (carting it away to .. well I don’t know, actually, but certainly off their property) or they dig new ones as necessary and leave the old ones buried out of view. Anyway, Eric’s (Google’s) view of the Internet is that it is a big hole filled with liquid crap ‘n stuff (a cesspool). And at a meeting of magazine executives at Google’s campus, Eric Schmidt encouraged the brands to jump into the cesspool with him and help make it better.

It’s been obvious over the years how much Google benefits from brands, and it’s become painfully obvious over the past year how much Google relies on brands to measure relevance in SEO. Trademarks are brand protections. All of the trademark issues associated with Google, including AdSense and AdWords trademark exploits including arbitrage, trademark SEO efforts, keyword stuffing and typo squatting on trademark domains, and certain so-called “Quality Score” initiatives, demonstrate how Google makes tons of money off of brands. It makes great sense that, now that intellectual property protection efforts are picking up steam world wide, Google would try and “make friends” with brands. But in typical brand-stupid and Google-arrogant fashion, Eric Scmidt suggests that those brands jump into a cesspool with him.

In the process Eric Schmidt gets quoted saying things like “If you’re going to criticize us, criticize us correctly” and “We don’t actually want you to be successful“. I know these are probably taken out of context, but if they are accurate quotes then they demonstrate brand-stupidity and arrogance nonetheless. According to Google, Google is right, and everyone else needs to catch up. Yet, as most of us can plainly see, as brands go, Google is the bad guy. If Google is in denial on that issue, who then is right and who needs to “catch up”?

If you are in the SEO game, you need to understand how Google treats brands on the web, and how branding fits into Google’s value perspective. I’m not going to teach that here, because I make a living implementing my understanding of Google’s determination of relevance in search. Contact me if you know of a way we might work together. And if you work in search but not at Google, I suggest you think through the eventual outcome of Google further exploiting brand value on the web, with or without cooperation from the brand builders. There is opportunity in there, and we desperately need someone to pursue it.

The very worst thing we have on the Internet today is an arrogant Google unrestrained by competitive pressures. As our society suffers the current Google monopoly, our core productivity is threatened. The various avenues we have had for exchanging work for revenue are being eliminated by Google, as it degrades them in favor of more lucrative stored-value assets like established brands. But if it is merely aiming to cash out those brands, as it has demonstrated repeatedly with it’s AdWords/AdSense trademark practices and its evident lust for the revenues associated with trading on such marks, what will be left in the future?

Even Google’s new Chrome web browser threatens brands by eliminating the location bar and thus the domain name from the consumers toolbox. In our economic ecosystem, Google is a massive consumer, eating our producers and starving our decomposers. Life according to the modern Google is simply not sustainable.

Established brands are in a rare position. Google is becoming a brandivore, a carnivore feeding on brands. Now Google wants to cash in on your brand investment. It is starting to look like Google needs your cooperation to do that. Will you allow it? Or can you resist, and see what other value might be available in exchange? Or better yet, are their other options for earning honest value from your established brands, without feeding them to an insatiable Google middleman?

I suggest you take a look at domaining with a new perspective. Mont Blanc is one of the greatest brands in the world. Every visitor to,,, etc. is a targeted, interested consumer Mont Blanc has already reached through its considerable investment in branding. Why not serve those customers? Is it possible to develop (perhaps with the help of the expert SEOs and domainers) all of those potential traffic magnets, instead of trusting Google as a middle man to all consumer traffic?

If Google is suggesting that brands are the solution to Eric Schmidt’s cesspool problems, can you see opportunity in the very trademark domains you have been harboring to “protect” your brand? Is it wise to allow Google to eliminate type-in traffic for your brands, via elimination of domains as URLs and the imposition of Google search as the sole conduit for consumer traffic to your web site? Is Google really a trustworthy partner for your brand?

There’s plenty of opportunity for innovation in this Internet space, and the major brands are in a unique position to investigate without significant downside risk. I’m an Internet consultant, active in the domaining world and competitive search engine optimization for longer than Google has been alive. If you, like me, see potential for thinking more about this, drop me a note. I’m interested in taking things to the next level.

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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John




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