Eric Ward Interviewed by Eric Enge
Published: December 22, 2008
Eric Ward founded the Web's first link building and web promotion services, called NetPOST and URLwire, in 1994. Today Eric offers those services as well as training and private consulting to help companies learn how to generate links, publicity and online buzz for their Web content. Eric has developed content linking strategies for PBS.org, WarnerBros, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, The New York Times, TVGuide.com, and Weather.com.
Eric won the 1995 Tenagra Award For Internet Marketing Excellence, and in 1997 was named one of the Web's 100 most influential people by Websight magazine. Eric also writes the LinkWeek column for search industry news site SearchEngineLand.com, and has written for Web Marketing Today, ClickZ, MarketingProfs, and Ad Age Magazine. Depending on the weather, Eric resides in Knoxville, Tennessee or Seagrove Beach Florida.
Eric Enge: Letís talk about some of the challenges inherent in getting links to very large sites that are content rich. How do you, as a link builder, think about a plan to help these people?
Eric Ward: Clients that are content rich are great because they have all of the things they needed to accomplish a terrific inbound link profile. They just want to improve it and they want it to be better. I guess one of the ways I approach it is even though itís a big, successful site, sometimes you can be so big and so successful that you forget how you got to be that way in the first place.
You can almost take things for granted at a certain point. One of the first areas I look at is if they made their content as portable and as linkable as possible for the people who are already on their site. You work so hard to get these people to your site, so we want to know which pages of your site are the most likely and logical to be shared. Ask yourself on any given page of your content, what can a person do while on this page?
I donít necessarily just mean the obvious like bookmark this page, or share this with a friend, or add this to your Google bookmarks which are all fine. Itís almost expected nowadays that you would have some sort of code on your page that allows a person with a mouse in their hand to very quickly take that piece of a page and move it into the bookmarking programs that they use. . Unfortunately, I think web sites emphasize this too much. People think that the thing should be socialized, and no one probably will.
So, with a big site, I just look at it from the standpoint of a user on the site. So if I am on a page that I like, what are the things that I might want to do at this page, and what are the things that they are allowing me to do? And, even without those Chiclets, even without the little buttons if you are a Digg power user, it doesnít mean itís not going to happen.
Who knows what content might have never been famous without Chiclets. Peopleís attentionís spans today are very small. If Iíve got to open a new tab or open a new window, then I could type in Digg.com and openit and sign into my user account. Itís a difference between something that takes five seconds and something that takes a minute. And, I understand that, thatís a deal breaker. So, thatís the first thing I do.
Eric Enge: So letís say somebody puts deli.cio.us, Magnolia, StumbleUpon, and other strictly bookmarking sites chiclets on their page (we will lead Digg and Reddit and social news sites out of it for the time being), whatís your experience with how that kind of bookmarking ultimately helps the linked profile?
Eric Ward: I donít know the answer to that exactly. The fact that it happens I think is meaningless. I think any engine looking to analyze the social links profile has to care about whether or not it can trust the signal itís getting, no matter where it comes from. It has to look for different things from a StumbleUpon.com/user/whomever, and stumbleupon.com/user/eward.
One of those profiles could be extremely useful to Google, whereas another one might have absolutely no value whatsoever. I canít sit here and say that I know every single factor that Google considers, but I think there are some pretty obvious ones. I think that the collection of sites bookmarked start to tell a little bit about a particular user.I could be really vigilant about bookmarking every site devoted to lung cancer that is from the CDC, or the National Library of Medicine, or Harvard Medical School. I could have 300 links from dot govs, dot edus, and then one of them could then be my site for a mesothelioma lawyer.
What I am trying to do with a bookmark account or a StumbleUpon account is make it look as though it is credible. But, I had an agenda with the idea that maybe I can just bookmark so much quality that I can stick my clientís sight in here, and then that will work.
It might possibly work for a while, but unless you are really tending to the garden, thatís all you do. If you are not continuously modifying, updating, and working your StumbleUpon account, then you are starting to send a signal to Google that you really donít care that much about it and Google really shouldnít trust it much.
There will be a trail that will tell things about you, including the frequency with which you update your user profile, or add new content. You could try anything you want to try to do to gain. I guess what I am saying is that I really feel bad for anybody whose inbound link profile is based upon something thatís fake.
Eric Enge: Sure, absolutely. There is a secondary question here which is, is there any sense that people see something in StumpleUpon or deli.cio.us or something like that and later link to it?
Eric Ward: Yes it is certainly possible. I have the toolbar in place myself, and I regularly look though it. As much as I am online, I am not a bookmarker. I donít have time to bookmark cool pages for other people to see. Maybe itís a generational thing, but I just donít care. I also think you have to remember that with the signals that you get, people get really excited about things.
Then their life intervenes, they grow up, they decide what they donít need and they no longer feel the need to share every minute of what they do in their blog. They are passionate about this bookmark account, and then they are not so. I mean itís like the world is filled with ghost blogs; the world is filled with ghost bookmarking accounts as well.
Itís just the nature of the web. Itís up to the engines to figure out when they are crawling something that has some value to us. If I am Google, I personally donít feel that there is anything to make me feel as though I should rank aside based on a social media inbound link profile.
That doesnít mean it canít happen, but I donít think that Google wants that to happen, or weíd feel comfortable with the idea that that could happen. So, I think they are all very cool services. There are always people who just immediately ask how this plays into their search ranking. They want to try to understand that maybe there is that group of people who immediately want to abuse it. But, if I am Google, and I donít have a PhD, I donít know anything about algorithms, but I donít consider the social media sites as a factor.
Eric Enge: Alright. So, what are some of the other things to think about then?
Eric Ward: I think social media is one of the ways I may find a passionate influencer or somebody passionate about a subject thatís already there. I am not going to create my own StumbleUpon account just to bookmark a site for a client. What you can do is, if you have a site about fitness training for example, you can look for people with profiles that have a lot of health and fitness sites. Then you can try to contact them and let them know what you have.
This is really back to link building as public relations again, itís just that my influencer here happens to be a heavy duty StumbleUpon user. What influence does that have on your search rankings? Nothing frankly, unless of course, they end up linking to you.
But even if it doesnít, the person you contact might have forty or fifty people sharing his StumbleUpon links with. Or, maybe he also has a deli.cio.us account, or Magnolia, or Reddit, or whatever. But, still what I try to do is look for the person who is already passionate about that topic, because he can carry my message a lot further than I can.
If I have an awesome site about subject x, Iíve got to find people passionate about subject x that are also passionate about the web or about one of those tools, and then get the word out to them. It will either work or it wonít. I think thatís a more honest approach to me, rather than immediately going and creating a bunch of sock puppet accounts just to bookmark this one site. Iíd love to see the statistics on what percentage of social bookmarking accounts are logged into less than one time once a month.
I donít think that there is ever any harm in creating an account just to try to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land within a particular social world, whether itís bookmarking or whatever. I do that myself, because I have to understand. Nothing would be worse to me to just say thatís crap, it doesnít work or thatís a waste of time when I have never even touched it.
So, I want to look at these things, and this is how I came to my belief that Nofollowed or not Wikipedia has got has a tremendous amount of power from a link building standpoint. I donít ignore a Wikipedia because there is no search ranking benefit. My personal opinion is that I do not believe that rankings on any major engine are yet influenced enough where a person working as third party on behalf of content can work their way on to page one just by social media alone. You could probably pay somebody to get to the Digg homepage, and from doing that you get 15,000 visits. And thatís cool because itís totally different than working your way up to Googleís main page just by having a link from the Digg homepage.
Eric Enge: So, letís take a different slice at our large site problem for a moment. Say a site has 10,000 links. One of the things that occurs to me when you look at that is that your strategy is always very dependent on the nature of the content they have and those kinds of things. But, if they have 10,000 links today, one strategy would be to get them similar quality links, in which case I am guessing that they have moved their traffic needle. We are not going to move their traffic needle with 500 more links with the same quality as the 10,000 they already have, right?
Eric Ward: I would agree with that.
Eric Enge: So, I was thinking within terms of if they have 10,000, if we stay with the similar quality approach, Iíd probably need to add 3,000 links. But of course, the other option is to go for higher quality links so that you can be more rifle shot oriented. Does that kind of thinking make sense in your mind?
Eric Ward: Well, itís certainly not easy. I guess one thing you could always do with them is ask which content on their site is the oldest versus the newest. What are the things that have shown the ability to attract links? For example, I have a client thatís in the building supplies industry. Right now the idea of sustainability, all things green is a very hot subject area that lends itself to passionate content creators, vertical engines, vertical guides, librarians devoting massive amounts of resources to subject guides about that.
If you create a page that is something that you legitimately do and do well that can be link worthy, you might want to look at what content is worth investing in as part of a more strenuous link building effort. There are people that want to renovate their house and they donít want to do it with anything thatís going to hurt the environment.
If youíve got content that you can create, you can probably attract a nice collection of links from people who are interested in this type of thing because thatís something that people can get passionate about.
Eric Ward: Sometimes you can do back link analysis just to see where youíre getting nibbles.
Eric Enge: Well, I think one of the things that you talked about before that was important was the notion of making it easy for people. When you have a site that gets 10,000 links already, you want to make it easy for those people to link to you if thatís what they are interested in doing. So, if you have an information rich site and itís been getting a lot of its revenue from AdSense, for example, you probably donít want the AdSense ad to be the first occupy all the space above the fold.
I spend time thinking about quantity oriented tactics and quality oriented tactics. What should I try to do to get many hundreds or thousands of links, versus what I might do to get very high quality links. If there is a way to persuade significant pages on the MIT website (a PR10 domain) to link to you that are very high quality links, and itís probably worth a lot of individual attention.
Eric Ward: Right. Iíd agree with that completely.
Eric Enge: Right. And then, on the quantity side, if I am trying to get thousands of links, I am clearly not going to do that by hand emailing everyone.
Eric Ward: When people ask me about getting clean links too fast, I tell them that itís impossible. If you are getting legitimate links, you are not going to get them too fast.
Eric Enge: There are general approaches like implementing a PR campaigns. Or if you can manage to get into a major magazine somehow, then you might get a bunch of links fast. Or if youíre using Digg and have content that is suitable for those audiences, maybe something gets hot there, and can produce a pile of links. Or, maybe a widget strategy would work also, as a way of syndicating your content.
Eric Ward: Oh sure, yes. I think the greatest value is recognizing when you are dealing with a client who has content for which something like a widget is even worth discussing or not. Letís say you have no links, a brand new site, the best content ever about whatever the subject is, and you want links fast. First of all you have to make sure that the people you are about to try to attract to your site could take it and run with it. You have to give them the ability to help you meet your goal of attracting links.
Certainly if press and publicity works for you, go out with that. Youíve got to try to reach the masses if your goal is mass links. But at the same time thatís going on, you canít just assume that people most likely to be passionate about your content are going to come across it because youíve sent out a press release out or youíve enabled it to be bookmarkable. In my opinion, someone still has to go out there and find those people most likely to care and contact them.
You will know fairly quickly if they think you have great content. If youíve got really good content, it really shouldnít be that hard. In my opinion if you do it properly you will get the links that you deserve to get. Itís not like you should have to pull teeth and beg for links. If you do then something is wrong with your content.
I find the biggest challenge for me is getting to the people who can make a decision as link building is becoming more popular, and people are getting hammered with requests for stuff thatís just off topic and not relevant. Itís getting tougher and tougher to get the highest and most trustworthy links.
Eric Enge: One of the things that youíve touched upon here thatís worth expanding on is the role of content. I mean you can have a site that has really good solid content, but itís not remarkable. You can get links to a site like that, but itís challenging.
Eric Ward: Say a dentist has a website, and he is a good dentist and he loves dentistry and he cares about what he does. He has a nice website and he really cares about your root canal. And, he wants you to know everything about your root canal and he has written some awesome content about your root canal, but so have 17,000 other dentists.
What you have to do sometimes is realign expectations and ask yourself why people are visiting your site. What you really care about is dental health in Knoxville, Tennessee or the best dentists in Knoxville? In other words, helping them to realize that they donít need 5,000 links, what they need is 17 links from the right people in the region that they are trying to appeal to.
I mean no matter how passionate you are about a subject, you are going to reach a person that with something they care about. Itís like the fine folks that make Compound W, the wart remover; can they do everything they possibly can do to create a website devoted to the art and science of wart removal, but you have to think about who is going to link to that type of content.
Itís about not being afraid to tell the client what they face; the client that thinks that just because he is a good dentist, his site should be in the top five needs a dose of reality.
Itís not easy to have to explain to the client that itís not because he has done anything wrong.
Eric Enge There has to be something unique and different if you are trying to reach the top in a very competitive area. On the other hands, Poughkeepsie root canal is probably not that competitive of a term, and you can probably accomplish what you want without having to be quite so remarkable.
Eric Ward: Right, I totally agree. In fact you might not need to be remarkable at all. For companies who are good at what they do, but, for no fault of their own, just donít have a particular truly differentiating content message, it is going to be hard. You are basically always going to be looking for some sort of trick, or you are going to be hoping that you understand a little bit more about how Google works than the next guy
Ultimately there is nothing different enough about your site to send a true signal to Google. So, really all you can do is hope to get in the flow of what Google is looking for. So, when someone does a search on Root Canal Poughkeepsie it looks like there are these seven places where the site showing up has got reviews. Well, I need to encourage reviews then.
Maybe I need to offer some incentive. Maybe I need to give every client that walks out my door a little appointment card with a little note that says, want to receive 10% off your next cleaning? Go to ratemydoc.com and type in my name and my address, and enter a review of what you think about me and print out your page. And if you come in with that next time you get 10% off or a free cleaning or something like that.
You could argue thatís a paid link, and thatís fine. And so, this is now more to marketing than link building, and itís not even public relations. There itís more about taking whatís not necessarily remarkable, but recognizing what it is that Google is looking for.
Eric Ward: Ask yourself if there is a way that you can get in that trust flow. If you have great content already you donít need to focus on content. Then you just have to decide whatís the best way you can rank without having to use pay per click.
You could invest all your time and effort on that and have 57 reviews, and see your site actually show up in the top ten reviews and be very proud of yourself. And then, the following Monday is when Google decides that in general for Poughkeepsie dentists, they are not going to show that box anymore.
So youíve got to hope that those individual sites, ratemydoc, or ratemydent, or rootcanaldocs, are doing a great job of getting in front of users. All the work that you did to get in there hoping to influence Googleís results is gone now. You may have to explain these types of challenges to your client and tell them, youíve got an awesome site, I am not arguing that with you, but so do 1500 other dentists in this county.
Therefore, here is how we need to approach this. If we are going to rank well organically, and if we have nothing thatís going to separate us from anybody else content wise, what other choices do we have if we donít want to pay for pay per click? We can go local. We can try the social media angle and hope that Google might give us a little more credit for having a bunch of social links. But, how many people at StumbleUpon are just waiting to link to Poughkeepsie dentist? None.
So, now you are back to creating a sock puppet account, or asking all of your clients to go click. You are giving them something that says reviewme and rateadoc, and also telling them to create a StumbleUpon account and bookmark me.
Pretty soon you are going to have to start paying your customer. So, I am not meaning to make fun of it; itís just part of the frustration that people face. People think that there is some sort of a secret. People think that they are doing something wrong, or that a competitor knows something that they donít.
In reality, the problem for so many is that the overwhelming majority of businesses that have a web presence have no true discernable content quality signals that will engender the kind of links to give Google any sort of confidence that one is any better than the other. I donít know that you can ever move the needle once you get to that point without deciding you want to be something that you might not want to be with your website.
Eric Enge: Letís get back to the scenario where we are dealing with the site that has a lot of content. What are your thoughts on packaging up the content in some form and syndicating articles in order to get links?
Eric Ward: I would not say that I am against it. I think the question you always have to ask yourself about this particular tactic is if there is anything about it that will preclude your competitor from being able to employ the exact same tactic. If so itís simply a matter of who is going to do it first, and who can stay ahead of the game. You have to ask yourself, what is it about this tactic that in anyway differentiates you from anybody else?
I am not saying article marketing itself is bad. I just think that itís one of those things that itís the same exact problem looked at a little differently, which is creating content. I am more tempted to say donít create articles for other sites if you are creating content. So, if you are going to go to that extent, create your own article database and make them sharable. And, if you want to submit them someplace thatís fine, but have them show date of birth and first existence on your site first.
If you want to try to do something with them thatís fine. But, donít let the tail wag the dog here, just because you are not passionate about creating that content to begin with. I donít think itís going to ever end up mattering, but ask yourself the same question about the Poughkeepsie dentist, and what long term edge is gained if you have 10 dentists all doing article marketing. I hate to say it, but itís such a fruitless pursuit in some ways in the online world, because anything you do also leaves trails that a savvy competitor can identify.
If your content ultimately doesnít have anything about it that canít be replicated by a competitor, then all you can really hope for is enough of a lead that you can move on to the next thing. Your competitors can figure out what you did with that last thing, and they are going to be right on your doorstep again. There is no time for resting on your laurels with generic link building.
Link building of this type isnít driven by truly meritorious content. If you hire some kid thatís going to get his masters degree in journalism to write 25 articles about the care and feeding about dental health, just so you can try to push these articles to somewhere else, youíve done nothing that canít be replicated by some other dentists hiring some other journalist or journalism student to write some other articles that you havenít yet written about.
here really isnít anything different. You have to make that hard decision to either accept that you canít differentiate and decide not to play, or to take all that budget and just do pay per click. Or you have to ask yourself, what can I do that nobody else could do? And, for any different given website, or subject, or business, itís going to be different. Perhaps you are the only dentist in town that deals with little kids. Sometimes itís a hard question to ask as the person may say well nothing. But it really is the question you need to answer.
Eric Enge: Thanks Eric!
Eric Ward: Thank you!
Have comments or want to discuss? You can comment on the Eric Ward interview here.
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About the Author
Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.