Eric Enge and Debra Mastaler Talk about Link Building

Podcast Date: October 20, 2008

Debra Mastaler Picture

The following is a written transcript of the October 20, 2008 podcast between Debra Mastaler of Alliance Link and Eric Enge:

Eric Enge: Hi, this is Eric Enge with Stone Temple Consulting; you can see our website at www.stonetemple.com. I am here today with Debra Mastaler of Alliance-Link. And, you can see her website at www.alliance-link.com. Good morning, Debra.

Debra Mastaler: Hey, good morning Eric. Thanks for having me.

Eric Enge: Absolutely. So, today we are going to talk a little bit about getting links for e-commerce sites. It can be very challenging as weíll explore during the course of the discussion. And, we are lucky to have an expert with us to help us think about how to go about doing that. Why donít we start by talking about why itís difficult to get links to e-commerce sites?

Debra Mastaler: I think link building in general, nobody would disagree that link building in general is difficult. But, link building for e-commerce sites has some added challenges mostly because I think they lack readable content. They have actionable content on them and that they sell products; have information that people want.

But, from a reading standpoint they cannot provide the who, what, when, where and how that a lot of people look for in content, so itís more difficult just to go to someone else and say hey, will you link to this purely e-commerce site, thatís online to make a profit, can you help me? People are very well aware of the value of the link.

I think as SEOs weíve done a pretty good job of educating the public on the value of links and on the value of link building and ranking. People are online so much more now and doing so much business online that itís become imperative that sites rank well in order to see a benefit. And, from an ROI standpoint, nearly everybody understands some aspects of SEO. And, e-commerce sites have a greater challenge in getting links to them just because of that, because they lack some content and sometimes some opportunity to get links coming into them.

Eric Enge: Right. I think one of the key insights that I got over the past few years is that what you are really looking for in a lot of cases is those people who care enough about their visitors that they want to link to great content. Well, they donít think of your e-commerce site as great content; they think of it as commercial, and they donít want to link to you to help you make money. They want to link to you, because they care about their visitors enough to want to give them a superior experience or answer questions that arenít answered on their own site.

Debra Mastaler: Sure, absolutely. Well, if you take yourself offline; if you operate completely online without an offline presence at all, if you go ahead and take yourself offline, you have to ask yourself why would anybody come into my store on Main Street, and what can I do to make myself different and attract attention.

Itís no different online; you have to do the same thing. So, you have to appeal to the people that you need to advertise into those venues and into those people to get into and draw the attention to your store. We get a little hung up sometimes just on the fact that we look for easy ways of doing things, and sometimes we just donít stop and look at the bigger picture and say okay now, I have a challenge, this is a big challenge for me; what am I going to do to overcome the obstacle?

If you were just operating at Main Street, USA, what would you do? And, a lot of times if you answer that question you can start to see opportunities online and offline for drawing attention, which in our case online means links. So, sometimes you have to stop and just say okay, I canít, itís hard and oh well, it was me, because I am an e-commerce site. But, truly in the big picture if there was no Internet what would you do; you will have to do something. So, think about those issues that you would start with offline and start to apply them online.

Eric Enge: Right. What are the kinds of things you can do to help attract links to an e-commerce site?

Debra Mastaler: We always get this question, people kind of hit you up and say what can I do, there are so many things to do; we could be here all day long. But, if you break it down into some manageable compartments if you will, and sit down and say okay, we are going to do step A, step B, step C, and approach it that way instead of being a little overwhelmed; and the same thing with this type of link building and this type of marketing online. This is more about linking; marketing for links and it is for link building.

When you have an e-commerce site, you have to take yourself into that mindset. So, letís look at the one basic thing that everybody has online is a website, everybody has their site. And, e-commerce sites tend to have elements to them; they have perhaps video online, or they are running contests online, or they have employment centers online. They have different elements of their sites that makeup their key overall presence.

Each one of those issues, if you are running articles, if you have employment centers, if you offer downloads of some sort, each one of those elements is potential for you to expose yourself a little bit and there are directories out there that each one of those elements can go into. Normally, when we talk about directories, we talk about the basic directories like Yahoo, and DMOZ, and Best of the Web, those are great, but they have a one-on-one submission ratio.

So, you put your site in there and they represent your entire site. There are about 25, maybe 30 decent; I use that term lightly, directories that are still in the Google Index and that are still showing some value measurement there that you can add your site to. After that they are junk. Add your site of 5,000 directories? Most of them are junk.

Eric Enge: Sure.

Debra Mastaler: There are about four or five good ones. So, all of the elements on your site then suddenly become another opportunity. If you are an e-commerce site, you definitely have RSS feeds for example. There are probably 35 or 40 different general directories for RSS feeds; those are links back into your site, they are coupon directories. There are software directories, download directories. Also, there are video directories, and there are article directories.

So, all of a sudden instead of having 35 general directories, you have several hundred specialty directories that take those particular elements of your sites. So, right there your foundational link building has been kind of; you are giving yourself a way to get a handful of base links all pointing into your site.

The greatest thing is that they point to internal pages of the site not just your dotcom, or your dotnet, or your dotorg. So, there is some deep linking thatís involved in there as well. So, basic things like that; use your website first, first and foremost. I think another opportunity that weíd look at with e-commerce sites is the Q&A section.

People when they buy products typically have questions about the products, and we always encourage our customers to go back to their customer service people and ask them to draw up questions that people calling can ask. How does this work, how does that work; how does this discount work, how does that work? And, we compile a huge Q&A or some people call it an FAQ. And then, we promote them; we promote the heck out of them.

We send out press releases, we send out media releases; letting the media know that they are there, just because itís added content onto the site. So, develop all of those questions that you get, that come in through your customer service area and build out those areas on your site to content rich. They can be link embedded; they add again fodder into other elements like the article directories. But, the biggest thing is that they allow you to contact the media, because you have the full element on your site. And, once the media gets hold of it, people trust and believe what they see when they read it in an online publication.

So, the trust factor comes up, but you become top of mind too with the media, and you are the one that they contact and they write about. Interview opportunities at that point become golden. Once you have one media person that does the interview, you can use that and send it out to other media people just to say hey listen, I know that you write about x, y, z products, you can see that weíve been interviewed by this magazine. If youíd like to interview us as well, or in the future we would really appreciate it.

Journalists are a little bit lazy, and I donít say that negatively, but trying to qualify a lead or trying to follow up on sources takes time and journalists are under deadlines. If youíve been interviewed once by a known journalist, youíve kind of have that credibility stamp already on your forehead as well. And, it goes a much, much longer way into helping you get interviews down the road. So, there are a handful of things to get started.

Eric Enge: Right. Well, letís pick up on one of those, for example you mentioned article directories. And, it may even be a couple of years ago when Google first took some steps to; whatís the right way to put it, to clamp down on article directories. So, if you are looking in an article directory just to use that specific example, what kind of things do you look for to give you a comfort that itís something that is a good link?

Debra Mastaler: Yeah, thatís a great question, and itís a great observation about the article directories. A lot of people have questions about those from a duplicate content standpoint, or about the fact that they just donít give a lot of, what we call link juice or link popularity back to a site and those are all elements. You can use the basic general article directories, and again like the general directories itís probably; from my experience anyway from general directory there are probably 10 or 12 of them that are worth it.

People actually use and pull content out of them, and as an e-commerce business you can write about specific things related to your business. One of the issues that we talk about too is accreditation, people donít always credit you back on your site. If you are using articles, be sure that you pull a snippet out of the article and stick it into something like Google Alerts; these are finders that come back and let you know when people have downloaded your content based on the snippet, and make sure that you are getting credit back into your site.

But, there are other things besides just the general directories too if you go into; we use Creative Commons, and I think we have more luck with Creative Commons than anything just because of the fact that they get tens of thousand of views. People are visiting there everyday to download content; also when we use the article directories we come up in the places like Squidoo that we call content generator sites.

We build a presence out on Squidoo for particular term. So, if I had an e-commerce site that sold shoes, I would build out a page on Squidoo say for each one of my types of shoes, running shoes, athletic shoes, whatever, dancing shoes. And, all of the information in the content that we have from our site that we are writing, but also generate into there, that gives you another link into your site and a little bit more exposure. But, article directories are not just the only place to stick content.

If you are an e-commerce business, you probably belong to an association, the better business bureau, your chamber of commerce. All of these websites ask constantly for content; they are looking for information and you can provide content to them to host in their directory sites, which most of them have online. I know here in; where I live in Williamsburg, our chamber of commerce asks for articles from its people all the time and runs them in their newsletters and in their directories. So again, youíve got to kind of focus on that. If I wasnít online and I wanted to utilize some of these factors, how would I do it?

Eric Enge: Right.

Debra Mastaler: And, probably the association and the chamber market is professional organization. Most businesses have a professional or what we call a professional fraternal organization behind them. Really good example of something I worked on not too long ago is Phi Alpha Delta. They are the professional fraternal organization behind lawyers if you will; solicitors if you are in the UK.

Eric Enge: Right.

Debra Mastaler: And, they have 300,000 members and 535 chapters. Well, if I was an attorney and I was hocking my firm, then thatís probably a fraternal organization that I would want to belong to for several reasons. A), I can solicit to the members in there and solicit links from them. B), they have newsletters; they have article directories I can put my material in. They do conferences; you can buy space in the conference handbooks. I am a huge proponent of deriving links from sources of people that already have a propensity to like what it is you sell.

Eric Enge: Sure. And, it also drives relevance in the picture too, right?

Debra Mastaler: Oh, huge. Those four factors; link popularity which is link quantity, quality, anchor text and relevance, it plays under the two key factors involving relevance and anchor text. So, meaning you are getting links from sites that use the same type of verbiage, that use the same type of approach that you do, and thatís huge. So, and itís not just associations, like I said that your chambers, your professional organizations.

Your advocacy groups; different states call them different things, some states call them federations. Some states call them coalitions; these are all groups of people that stand behind a particular cause; sponsorship clubs, even your basic clubs. So, anything that has the demographics that you appeal to, that has a large clustering of people, itís very, very much worth your time to invest and purchasing a membership from, and then work in that particular group of people.

Eric Enge: Right. So, do we have a specific example or two that we can talk about?

Debra Mastaler: Well, for instance when we were talking about the attorneys, that fraternal organization is something that we did purchase membership from for a particular client and went in there. And, this has been several years ago; I havenít done this recently with this particular group. But, he has continued and weíve continued to keep them as a client purchasing space in all of the conferences. 535 chapters generally means that they have each chapter as a state, and then they have city chapters.

And, they all do particular conferences, so thereís a conference handbook thatís online for every one of them. So, if you start to think about buying space, ad space in each one of those for writing articles, you can see that the inbound links would start to grow very, very quickly. I did run something recently in an organization thatís demographically targeted. And, for instance there is an association; and this is not my association that I use, I am just going to give it as an example.

But, if your demographic has a large base of say Latinos, there is an association of Latino-Americans. The Irish in this country are huge and very well organized, if you sell into that marketplace as well. And, we have done that; we have purchased memberships in those associations; approached them and said hey listen, we are brand new to the association, we sell x, y, z. We are located at www.blank, and weíd really love it if you come by and visit us.

The second email that we sent out to them said hey, we are still the new guy, thank you very much. We want to offer you 20% off on any purchase that you make. And hey, oh by the way if you can link to us that would be great, here is the information. Progressively, each time that they emailed, and they did it four times a year, they would send cut and paste text. And, each time they sent it, they picked up links. So, just from a membership standpoint, because of the incentives that they were running, now we started a contest.

We did several contests within the association; again submitted articles into their newsletters which were all HTML newsletters archived on the site. So, you can see again if you use these elements, and then you start to think like a marketer, youíll find a lot of opportunity. And, one opportunity just kind of begets the next one; is that the right word begets, I think it is. One leads to the next.

Eric Enge: And, weíll see if that begets the next question, oh maybe now I am abusing it. So, letís talk about social media. Any place for that for e-commerce site?

Debra Mastaler: Absolutely. My favorite example of this is, there is a company online called InternetBrands.com. And, they have underneath their wing car companies in different areas. But, the ones that I focused in on were Autos.com and CarsDirect.com, so InternetBrands manages those two car portals. One of them gives you quotes on prices of cars and where you can locate them, and the other one is just a car portal in general. What they did is they went and they built out a wiki presence called Wikicars.com.

Wikicars has morphed in the last couple of years to be the premier site for car enthusiasts. So, anybody can come to Wikicars and talk about most things or catalogs or whatever it is that they like. They have found a true following a passion thatís about automobiles. They make no bones about the fact that they are owned by InternetBrands. They are very open about it; they are very transparent. But, people donít seem to care, because theyíve given them the opportunity to come and talk about cars.

Apparently some people are very passionate about their cars. So, this element of social media, this wiki element is, they have used it very, very successfully. People build out places again depending on their demographic. If you are selling into the baby boomers, it doesnít make sense to be on Facebook. I donít care when anybody tells you, it does not make sense to be on Facebook.

But, it might make huge sense to purchase space on Eons.com. LinkedIn might give you some professional kick there as well, but we have found buying ads on those that are more targeted to send people to landing pages, has worked very well for us. We have definitely driven traffic and driven some links because of it. Social media is blogging as well; people are very much still into the blogging area.

The more you can generate participation in social media, I think the more and the greater opportunity you have for generating links. And, you could run the traditional linkbait type things on some of the social media sites like Digg and so forth, and they do work, there is no doubt. But, if you are looking for long term high authority links for e-commerce sites, we tend to focus more on some of that traditional stuff that we are talking about with the association links and with authority links more so then we do with social media. But, social medial is a great exposure point.

Eric Enge: Right. So, when you talk about blogging, you are talking about putting a blog on the site and doing the whole blogger interaction thing?

Debra Mastaler: A lot of people, several years ago that was very much the hot ticket; that was the bandwagon that everybody jumped on. And, what a lot of e-commerce sites find out very quickly is that they are very time and labor intensive to do.

Eric Enge: Yes.

Debra Mastaler: There was no doubt, the blogs were tough. And so, I have a particular client in the food business, they did this 2 years ago. And, we finally came to the realization that he could either pay someone to be a professional blogger about their products in their industry, or he could invite his customer list and ask them to submit content, submit blogposts and so on so forth. And, he was able to whittle it down to about 30 people from the tens and thousands that they have on this list that continually blog for them.

Thatís great, because they all have blogs and link to him, and then in turn their blog will also; again itís this whole beget thing thatís finding the time in the content for those types of blogs as challenging, there is no doubt about it. So, thatís one way you can kind of overcome that challenge if you will as to pull in the people that are using your products and that are your passionate users to have them blog for you. But again, that takes time; that takes a lot of time.

Eric Enge: Yeah. You have to manage them, you have to qualify them.

Debra Mastaler: Oh absolutely.

Eric Enge: And, make sure that they are not nut cases that will do things that will really hurt your brand. And so, a lot of effort there, I agree with you. You would need; there are some companies that are prepared to make the commitment, but you really need to make a real commitment, publish on a regular basis if you are going to go that route.

Debra Mastaler: Well, not everybody is Proctor & Gamble, and there are just a lot of people that are mom and pop. And then, there are some people in between too that are midsize companies. Still the labor issue is a tremendous issue, and time intensive. So, thatís why I think all of those elements are good, and I think people kind of expect it at a certain point. I donít know that if I go to LL Bean that I expect to see a blog, and I am not really sure that I care. I just want to know if I have a question about something, I want to be able to research it online.

From a customer standpoint I just donít know about blogs. From a link building standpoint it makes sense to have, because they do generate links. But, at what cost of your time and energy you kind of have to make that decision. And, sometimes you have to learn to cut and run too, and not focus on those elements just because they are the latest and greatest bandwagon things.

Eric Enge: Right. Yeah, well for a lot of sites when it comes to trying to use content on the site as a weapon, I am much more in favor of having just straight HTML directory of articles rather than publishing it in a blog. It gives you a couple of advantages; one is that you donít have the same commitment to publish on a schedule.

So, you can put up a set of 10 articles, 20 articles, or 100 articles, whatever you have the appetite for, and focus on relevant topics. You also avoid the issues that blogs have with poor distribution of link juice.

Debra Mastaler: Sure, yeah thatís a great point. And, if you are the guy that sells semiconductor parts, blogging is not in your demographic. Itís just not; I am sorry. But, the article writing, especially the technical article writing, and you donít even have to be in a technical area like semiconductors. What happens from that standpoint is if you put 10 articles on your site, you can bundle them into an e-book, or you can bundle them into a package every time you write. And then, you can promote it as an e-book every time you send another package of articles letís say 5 or 10 that make it on the site, you can send another press release that youíve opened another category on your site.

After a while when you have 20 articles or 30 articles and you have people citing those articles, you become an expert on that particular topic. Then there is that whole aspect too that you can offer yourself out to all the expert directories and put yourself into a directory as an expert on radioactive semiconductors letís say, and then the media contacts you. You get a lot of contacts for court cases and so forth, but what we have found is when we build people into these expert directories, the media calls. People call because you are an expert; youíve been published.

Thatís the whole thing with the e-book. So, you get links from having e-books, you can put them in the e-book directories. People buy the e-book and link to it on your site, or you can give it away. Contact the media after 10 articles; you can legitimately say you have a new section over your site, right? 10 articles is like, I mean thatís pretty topic intensive.

Then, you build your expert; pick somebody in the company and build them as the expert on that topic, and put them out there for trade as well. And, there are many, many, many of those expert areas that you can put your bios into.

Eric Enge: Yeah, there is an important point there too which is you could put the information out there as a dry corporate resource without an individuals byline on it. But, it seems to me that if there is an identified person who writes the articles, they are more likely to get that call from the media asking for that specific expert to help them with something.

Debra Mastaler: Oh absolutely. I donít know if you all have noticed, but the cost of press releases has gone up recently. Itís several hundred dollars, if you are using the tracking device that the companies use, that the press release distribution companies, some of them will track for you and they will tell you who picks them up and where they are linked to and so forth. You have to pay a couple of hundred bucks to get that service. And, if you are running press releases 2 times or 3 times a month, you can blow through $1,000 pretty quick.

This way too you can cultivate your own databases of media specialists, which we stick up our hands and wave in any meeting right away. Thatís the very first and foremost thing that you need to do. You need to find those people who are writing about your topics. And, sometimes, you know what, we go down the Barnes & Noble; stand in front of the magazine rack, and pull out all of the magazines that are in that particular topic or even close to it. And, we sit down and we see who all these people are. Magazines are really great for disclosing who works for them in the front part of the magazine.

It has phone numbers, it gives addresses; all you have to do is pull it out. And then, when you call the magazine, or when you call the newspaper, they are very helpful. They are very forthcoming about who that person is that covers that particular week. But then, you can even ask them for an email address, and you can build your own database list, and thatís how you start to become known in that industry. And, itís not just mainstream journalists; I mean there especially in the B2B areas, there are journals, trade journals, trade magazines, the association magazines.

There are just tons and tons of publications; your good old fashioned library will give you a list of every publication that has an ISBN number on them, they are in those books. So, itís just the ISBN publications book I think is what itís called or some variation, the librarian will definitely know what I am talking about. Find out what all the publications are.

Eric Enge: One other thing you touched base on a little earlier was notion of LinkedIn. If you use LinkedIn and you enable your profile to show the websites that you are involved in, which is sort of default to being in your private profile that you enable them to be shown in the public profile, those are good links as well, right?

Debra Mastaler: They are, and thatís a terrific tactic. The other tactic that we find that drives a lot of eventual link juice and traffic out of LinkedIn is the Q&A portion of it from a referral standpoint. So, recently I use myself as an example. Somebody asked a question in LinkedIn about some link building service, and one of my former clients bless her heart, totally on her own gave me a glowing recommendation.

From that we have gotten three additional pieces of business. So, I take that LinkedIn testimonial and use it from time to time just as a traffic generator. Not all links have to be used for juice; a lot of them, if you are driving that kind of traffic then all of a sudden it really helps your ROI. Those are definitely links you want to look at as well.

Eric Enge: Absolutely, so any other last tips for our audience before we wrap up?

Debra Mastaler: Gosh, I canít believe how much weíve gone through here. Let me look at my list, because I put a little list together. One of the things you and I were talking about earlier about the articles, something we both should remember is all of your articles can be turned into audio versions.

Eric Enge: Yeah.

Debra Mastaler: Some people call them MP3 versions, and they can also be distributed. I know I love to listen to things in the car; I spend a tremendous amount of time in the car with kids going from place-to-place or whatever. And, being able to listen to all of that is a real Godsend, but again there you can convert all of your articles into podcasts.

Video right now is huge with this whole issue with universal search, so e-commerce folks should really be looking at that especially for their; maybe they can show how to assemble something, or how to clean something. Donít forget that you can upload videos to your local listings if you have brick and mortar locations, and get a local listing say in Google Local and Google Local Maps.

You can upload up to 3 videos on your listing. So, if somebody finds you; if they are looking for you and youíve got a video on there, it will say the title of the video, how to cleanup, you can show the video. Those little things all help attract attention which eventually all attracts links and exposure into the media.

Eric Enge: Right. So, thatís great stuff, and thanks so much for joining us today.

Debra Mastaler: Well, thanks for asking me Eric, I really appreciate it.

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.

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