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Link Popularity: How to Check it and How to Improve it!

Many Web marketing veterans have long realized the value of improving link popularity. For those of you new to this term, link popularity is how many external links on the Web point to your own Web site. Therefore, if you have 205 Web pages on other Web site domains pointing to your domain, then your link popularity is 205. Your link popularity will vary on each search engine because each engine has a different set of pages in its index.

You can easily check your current link popularity for free at our new service on the MarketPosition Web site:

http://www.marketposition.com/linkpopularity.htm

This service will quickly compare your link popularity across four major search engines. It will also compare your site to up to three other Web sites that you designate. This is a handy feature to see how you stack up against your competition. It's also great to find out who is linking to you. You may be surprised at what you find!

The link service displays colored graphs so that you can visually compare your popularity scores for different search engines or different Web sites. In addition, you can have your link popularity report e-mailed to you weekly, twice a month, or monthly if you wish. I've reviewed other link checking services on the Web, and this one is by far the best one I've seen. Be sure to bookmark it!

So what are the advantages of increasing the number of links to your Web site? There are three primary benefits:

1. The more sites that link to you, the more traffic you can expect to receive to your site. People find nearly as many Web sites by following links from one Web site to another as they do by using the search engines. Some well-placed links to your Web site can be great long-term traffic generators.

2. More and more major search engines will rank your pages higher when you have many links to your Web site (i.e., your link popularity). Higher search rankings, of course, translate into greater traffic.

3. The more links to your site, the more ways search engine spiders have for finding you each week. Therefore, you tend to stay indexed longer and are less frequently dropped from the index.

Link Popularity Tips:

1. The more links you have to your site, the better.
2. Some engines favor links from popular sites. Therefore, a few links from Web sites with a high link popularity score may be given greater importance than a larger number of links from less popular sites.
3. Some engines boost rankings for a keyword when they find links to a site that include the targeted keywords in the linking text.

This question is commonly asked: Is the link popularity based on the number of links to a domain or to a particular page? All the evidence I've seen indicates that it's generally based on the links to a domain rather than to each page. However, the search engines appear to make exceptions to this rule for domains that host many virtual Web sites in subdirectories.

For example, the domain www.geocities.com has extremely high link popularity. However, that doesn't mean that having a Web site at www.geocities.com/mycoolwebsite/ will benefit from this high link popularity. If so, you'd see a great deal more geocities, tripod, compuserve, aol, and other pages at the top of the search results. In fact, we know that on some engines with all other things being equal that many free Web sites or Web sites that share a domain name are ranked lower than sites with their own domain name.

Based on this, I believe the search engines either maintain a list of domains where they choose to ignore link popularity as a factor, and/or they ignore link popularity scores for any submitted URL that includes a sub-directory. Therefore, to fully benefit from link popularity, I recommend you get your own domain name! The cost at $30/yr. at registration pages like

http://www.marketingtips.com/domainname4.html

This is minimal given the numerous benefits you gain. You might also avoid hosting your important doorway pages in subdirectories whenever possible. That way you avoid giving the search engine the impression that you are sharing a domain with a thousand other Web sites.

With that said, the question still remains: How do you improve your link popularity? There are many strategies. I'll discuss each of the major methods so you can choose what's right for you.

Trading Links

This is by far the oldest and best-known method of improving link popularity. Basically you e-mail or contact the Webmaster of a site that is complementary but generally not competitive to your own. You ask them to link to your site while outlining the benefits of doing so. You would generally offer to link back to them in exchange for this courtesy.

The disadvantage to the link trade method is that it's time consuming. You'll also find that far more people will ignore or reject your request versus those that accept it AND follow through by adding the link to you. Many of these people get e-mails every week from people asking to trade links. These Webmasters are also going to be very hesitant about linking to another Web site and potentially sending their own hard-earned traffic away to somebody else. Most people will refuse to link to you unless they're convinced that they'll receive more traffic from you than they'll send away, or that there's some other advantage to them.

Therefore, the problem is that straight link trades are rarely an equal exchange and thereby difficult to accomplish. If you do request a link trade:

a) Be sure you have developed genuine content on your Web site of interest to the trading partner.
b) Explain the advantages to them and to their visitors by providing a link to your content.
c) If you plan to link back to them, consider telling them where the link will be or set the link up in advance with the stipulation that you'll be glad to leave it there if they'll add a link to you in kind.
d) Take the time to look over their site and then suggest where a link to you might be appropriate.
e) Most importantly, personalize your e-mails! You must distinguish yourself from all the spam they receive daily. If the link is particularly important to you, call them personally or write them a letter or send a fax to show them you're serious.

Anytime you do achieve a link to your site, consider submitting the domain or the page the link resides on to ensure that the search engine sees it and updates your popularity score. If the page with your link is never indexed, then your link popularity score will never improve.

Free For All Links (also called "FFA")

Many FFA (Free for All) programs and services preach the flood of new traffic you'll receive to your site by bulk submitting to thousands of FFA sites. For those of you who have not stumbled onto one of these pages, FFA's are simply pages that link back to the last 50, 100, or some number of Web sites that submitted to their FFA page. You might think of them as pages that consist of links to recently submitted sites.

The problem with these services is that most have so many incoming submissions from thousands of bulk submission products that your link may be bumped off in a matter of days or even hours. Therefore, you must re-submit constantly to have a prayer of staying on these lists.

After looking over a number of FFA services, I decided to test Link-o-matic, one of the better-known services that I've seen on the Web for several years. In our test, I had Adam Norton from our staff submit once a week according to Link-o-matic's recommendations. He's done this once a week since February 2nd, 2000.

Despite claims of FFA sites generating new traffic, we saw NO increase in traffic to our two test domains. The test domains were each receiving 1 or 2 random visits a day prior to the FFA submissions. They still receive just a couple of visits a day. Therefore, I believe the popular wisdom about FFA programs not being useful in generating new traffic is true, unfortunately. This is largely because few people use FFA pages to actually locate and surf to other Web sites. For increasing link popularity, Link-o-matic fared better. After about a month and about four submissions, we saw our link popularity increase from almost zero to 26 links on AltaVista and 39 links on HotBot. On a second domain we tested, the links were only 9 and 13 respectively. Over the course of the next couple of months, the number of links fluctuated from as few as three links to as many as 121 for one of the Web sites on AltaVista over the last two weeks of the test. They've averaged about 10 to 25 links on each domain and engine.

You might wonder why Webmasters set up these FFA pages in the first place? Generally it's a method to gain e-mail addresses to send advertisements to. To submit to them, nearly all require that you give them your e-mail address. I *highly* recommend that you use a fake or expendable e-mail address or you'll get 300-500 spam messages within 48 hours of submitting to a large list of FFA's!

So do I recommend Link-o-matic (www.link-o-matic.com) for improving your link popularity? Not really. You can achieve similar numbers of links using any of several FREE reciprocal link services that I'll discuss later in this article. If you have exhausted those options and still need more links, then Link-o-matic can help.

Bulk Submitters

In my quest to find other ways to increase links, I wondered whether bulk submitters like SubmitWolf would help. Although I've long known that these products rarely bring significant new traffic, a test to see if they'd improve link popularity was worth a try. I also considered striking a referral or link agreement of some kind with them if their product proved valuable to our customers.

Back on February 1st, I submitted two different test domains to SubmitWolf's eighteen hundred or so supported sites. Of them, about eleven hundred actually succeeded. I monitored our traffic logs and link popularity for about a month without seeing a single additional link to our two test sites. The couple of hits a day we were receiving to the domain stayed the same. Hoping that this might simply be a fluke, I re-submitted both domains again about six weeks after my initial submission. However, periodic checks of link popularity and traffic over the past months have still shown no increase. The only thing that increased was the amount of spam mail to the e-mail account I used when I submitted. (372 e-mails within a week!)

In conclusion, this experiment re-affirmed my belief that bulk submitters will not normally increase your traffic unless you're carefully optimizing your pages. Instead, you're better served by focusing on improving your rankings on the major engines. Submitting alone does you no good if people can't find you.

I was disappointed to see that even the many FFA sites that SubmitWolf supported did not maintain the submitted links long enough for the search engines to spider the page. Keep in mind that links to you do not count toward your popularity score if the page with your link is not indexed by the search engine. It's also not counted if your link drops off the page before the search engine spiders it.

Reciprocal Link Services

I've seen at least four reciprocal link services on the Web designed specifically for increasing your link popularity. There are probably more if you looked around. The nice thing about most of these services is that you can join them for free . The effectiveness of each service will vary depending on several factors. One drawback is that you've got to upload a new links page to your Web site generally once or twice a month to maintain your membership. However, this takes only five or ten minutes each time.

The way these services work is fairly simple. Every member agrees to maintain a page on their site that links to every other member of the link network. If you don't update the links page with the new members periodically, then your Web site is dropped from the list in the next update. With some services, you may simply link to a portion of the membership or to a certain category of members.

Another disadvantage of these services is that you're normally required to display a visible link or logo on your home page or other page that goes to your list of links. Therefore, you risk visitors clicking onto this page of links and potentially clicking away to some other site. You can minimize this risk by burying the link in a difficult to find location, or using a hidden link if the service allows it. For more information on hidden links see:

http://www.webposition.com/hiddenlinks.htm

When shopping around for a good reciprocal link service, look for the following features:

a) The service requires each member to post links to other member sites. If they fail to do so, their site should be removed from the next update to the links page.

b) They have at least a couple hundred members in their network. The more members they have, the greater the number of links you could get to your Web site. However, if they have 1000 members, don't count on actually seeing your link popularity score increase by the same number since the search engines are inconsistent about how many pages they'll index.

c) The service requires that each member submit his or her links page to the major search engines. Ideally the service will do this automatically rather than relying on the members to do it.

d) The service requires a link to the member links page from their home page. That way search engine spiders can more easily find the page so these link pages stay indexed over the long term. This is the major advantage over FFA links where the links only stay up until you get bumped off the list by other incoming submissions.

e) Ideally each list of links page will have a different page name and title on each host Web site to avoid the pages being dropped as "duplicate content" or spam. Randomizing or re-ordering the links for each site is also preferred. Unfortunately, this is where some of the services I saw fall down. Every page is often exactly the same which risks it being ignored or in the case of AltaVista, banned.

TIP #1: If the service allows you to enter a title for your Web site, be sure to include your best keywords in the title rather than just your Web site name. Many search engines will boost your rankings when it finds sites linking to you that include your keywords in the linking text.

TIP #2: Because of AltaVista's recent policies of banning Web sites that have content that is duplicated on another domain, you should consider changing the links page before posting it to your own Web site. For example, you might change the title, the text at the top of the page, and the over-all file size. To quickly change the file size, you can add a bunch of spaces in the HTML itself between the BODY and HTML end tag. E-mail the reciprocal link service first though and make sure you're allowed to change these things without messing up their own verification spider.

TIP #3: You can get a realistic idea of how well any reciprocal link service works by doing a link popularity check on member sites and then drilling down to see how many of those links appear to be generated by the service. If you can't find any links related to the service, or very few, then their system probably does not work very well.

The only service I had time to fully test was LinkMe.com. After about six weeks we've received about a dozen extra links on AltaVista and a few less on the other engines. Not terribly impressive, but since it didn't cost anything, it was not a bad deal. I suspect the number of links will increase over time.

I then checked the link popularity scores of LinksToYou.com members and found that many of their members had literally hundreds of links from other LinksToYou members! (Be sure to click the "Details" link when you check their link popularity at www.marketposition.com to see how many are related to the link service and how many are from other types of links). In general, the longer the member had been in the network, the more links they appeared to have.. However, even some of the newer members (generally those farther down the list) had a lot of links. In any case, expect your mileage to vary with any of these services:

LinksToYou:
http://www.linkstoyou.com

LinkMe:
http://www.linkme.com

Buddy Links:
http://www.searchengineworld.com/links/

Note: There's various banner exchange networks out there that have a network of linked sites. However, I have my doubts that they would improve your link popularity scores since they don't link to your site directly. They generally link to their own Web site and then redirect to the intended destination in order to record the click through or impression. These links often contain CGI parameters which many search engines refuse to follow at all. Therefore, don't expect your link popularity score to improve with those types of link exchange services.

License your Content in Exchange for a Link

A very effective strategy to gain quality links as well as traffic is to license content from your site for free in exchange for a link back to you. For example, we encourage anyone to post individual articles or the entire MarketPosition newsletter on their own Web sites so long as they properly credit us for the material and link back to www.webposition.com or www.marketposition.com. If you think your own visitors would be interested in this newsletter, showcase it on your Web site! However, the content is copyrighted, so we require that you include the following citation above or below the article or newsletter:

The following article is Copyright 2000 by FirstPlace Software, Inc. FirstPlace Software produces WebPosition Gold, the first software product to monitor & to help you improve your search engine rankings. You may download a FREE trial copy of WebPosition Gold from: http://www.webposition.com

For a subscription to their FREE MarketPosition Newsletter send a blank e-mail to: subscribe@webposition.com


You may post different wording if you have it approved first. The point is you get to add free, valuable content to your Web site, and we get some free advertising and another link back to our Web site. Therefore, if you have content of your own that you can license in exchange for links, I'd encourage you to do so! In fact, clearly advertise the opportunity on your Web site to increase your response.

TIP FOR CATCHING BAD GUYS: Unfortunately, some people may steal content without your permission and without crediting the author (you). If you post a copyright notice on your page then you are legally protected in most countries and can sue people who violate your copyright.

However, to enforce compliance and catch the "bad guys" who steal your work, you can schedule a mission in the WebPosition Reporter to run weekly or monthly. Setup searches for unique phrases from your various materials. Surround the phrases in quotation marks to perform an exact search across all the major search engines. WebPosition will then list out all sites that are currently hosting your content on the Detail Report. Scan through these listings for sites that do not have your permission or do not include the required author credits and the link to your site. If you catch anyone in violation of your copyright, contact them in writing and warn them of the problem. If they refuse to correct the situation, contact your lawyer.

Start Your Own Referral or Affiliate Program

Well, I saved the best for last. What is THE #1 way to improve your link popularity? Start your own referral or affiliate network. You've probably seen them on other Web sites: "Earn cash simply by linking to us." The concept is that you give them a link with their unique affiliate ID in it. The affiliate software tracks the referrals and then pays them for any referred sales (or visitors if that's how you want to do it).

Do a link popularity check for www.webposition.com. You'll find that we have as many as 26,000 links to our site just on Lycos. Where do most of those links come from? Our referral program! Instead of begging people to link to you, pay them! They'll be much more responsive. The best part is you pay them only when they produce results. Some sites pay for each visitor, others, like us, pay a percentage of the sales. With regular advertising like banner ads, you take a gamble on whether you'll generate enough sales to pay for the cost of the ads. This is not so with affiliates. You pay a percentage (that you define) of the referred sales, so your costs are fixed. You eliminate the inherent risks of traditional advertising.

How well does it work? Nearly half our sales are now generated by affiliates and resellers! We also get comments from people that say they bought our product after seeing our name everywhere they went. In marketing, this is called "branding" and can be a very effective marketing tool.

The big difference between a referral program and a reciprocal link or FFA service is that referral links not only increase your link popularity, but more importantly they send real traffic to your Web site. The site linking to you has a financial incentive to put that link in a highly visible area rather than burying it deep in the site.

We started our referral program back in June 1997. The system is now self-sustaining. We get so much traffic from our referral links that we end up signing up hundreds of new referral partners (affiliates) each month. These referral partners then send more traffic, which signs up more referral partners, and then things snowball from there!

The only stumbling block with referral programs is you must sign up members to make it work. To sign up new members, you have to have an existing traffic flow to your Web site. Therefore, setup your referral program and display it prominently throughout your site as early in your marketing plan as you can. Then plan on doing some advertising, optimizing your search engine rankings, etc. to build traffic. If you can continue building your membership until you reach what I call a "critical mass," then you'll really start seeing your traffic and your sales begin to soar.

We get a number of inquiries each month asking what referral software we use. In our case, we custom developed it before there were any good commercial systems available. Since it takes care of a lot of specialized features for our affiliates, we've stuck with it.

However, developing your own turnkey system can cost you thousands of dollars. Therefore, try one of the commercial packages available now. One such system I'm familiar with is AssocTrac from the Internet Marketing Center. The nice thing is that they've got around 50 pages of information about associate programs, how to make them successful, features to look for, etc. at:

http://www.marketingtips.com/assoctrac/

Although I've not setup their tracking software on our own site, we've been an affiliate for them for quite awhile. I've used their online reporting system, seen it send us computer generated checks, etc. all without a hitch. The system appears to have plenty of options for customizing it. Their techies will also install the software on your server (or that of your hosting service) and make sure everything is setup as required.

Another advantage of AssocTrac is that you can use referral links to track all your advertising methods. If you've ever wished you knew how many sales dollars were generated from a banner advertising campaign, a magazine ad, or from other sources, then this software can track them for you. We have used a similar system for years to drop advertising that just does not pay for itself and to keep the advertising that does work. This has literally saved us thousands of dollars. You'd be surprised at how many advertising campaigns were generating great click-through percentages and large numbers of visitors, but were not converting to sales! The key to successful marketing is to know exactly what is making you money and what is not.

In conclusion, if there's one piece of technology that has been the key to our marketing success, it is the referral program. Back in 1997 I read about how Amazon.com had been so successful with their affiliate network that I decided that would be one of our primary marketing strategies when we introduced WebPosition. I'm happy to say it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

For more details on referral/affiliate programs see:

http://www.marketingtips.com/assoctrac/

If you don't like Internet Marketing Center's AssocTrac system, then find one you do like. The key is to buy a really good one and consider it one of the best investments you can make for your online business. There's a reason all the big boys like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBS, etc. along with thousands of small guys already have affiliate programs. They work! The best part is that they work without risk. Except for the cost for the referral software, you pay only for the results they deliver.

Caution: I have seen some affiliate systems where you pay the vendor a percentage of the commissions you pay all your affiliates. These plans sometimes have a lower upfront cost but you may kick yourself later for paying a hundred fold in ongoing commissions to the vendor over what you could have bought a similar system outright for. Once you start your affiliate program, you're pretty much locked into that tracking system. So watch the fine print for whether they take a percentage of the commissions you pay out as continuing fees.


If you've not already done so, give WebPosition Gold a serious look at: http://www.webposition.divtech.net

(c) copyright 2000 FirstPlace Software, Inc.




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