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Start With The First Link

John Doherty —  December 19, 2012
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I work on a lot of large websites in my job at Distilled – ecommerce, publishers, other revenue-oriented websites. Often, I am working with sites who have hundreds of thousands if not millions of links pointing to them, but they’re often top-heavy (ie a lot of links to the homepage).

Rand Fishkin wrote a post called The First 500 Links, which talks about the first links to a brand new site and the risks (or lack thereof) of different types of links. These are the links he points out:

Let’s not forget the first steps though.

What’s the first link? We can often look at a graph and go “Wow, we need about 50 links in order to be competitive for this term.” This can lead us down one of two roads:

1) How do we get 50 links as quick as possible?
2) How can we get one good first link?

I’ve recently started thinking in terms of the second, because the first is what got us into this Penguin update mess in the first place. Needing a lot of links quickly, because you’re under pressure from your client or boss, set us up for failure.

Your First Link

Your first link, on an already established site, is going to vary by your needs. Your first link to a deep page may be a directory. It may be an editorially placed link to a piece of content that you were able to create and place on the site (though on large sites, this can be as easy as giving a kitten a bath).

The way I think about links is “What links do my competitors have to their pages that are ranking over me? Are these tactics risky? Do these links pass my ethical intuition, or do I need to figure out a different way to get links?”

I always start with Tom Anthony’s Link Profile Google Docs Tool, which will give you the normalized link profile of your site and your competitor sites:

Of course, balance this against the correlation for rankings:

Now, you can start putting together your link strategy. In this case, if the site in red (Caffe Palermo in NYC (don’t click that link, the site plays awful auto-play music)) were to get a couple of links in the DA 50-70 category (shoot, the link from this site may even help them), they will probably rank better for the query [gelato shops] done from a New York IP.

I also recommend, of course, using LinkDetective to segment your competitor’s links. Then you can figure out a) what links of theirs are most likely working, b) if they may be potentially risky in the future, and c) where you can get better links from. Don’t copy their link profile, of course, but knowing their standing is powerful information.


What first links do you need to think about?

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

6 responses to Start With The First Link

  1. Thank you for this post John! I do sometimes find myself wondering who to start with lnk building for small businesses. I have more experience dealing with BIG companies for whom link building is really not what they need.

    These tools will come in handy soon, I’m sure!

  2. I’ve been analyzing our competitors links and seen that approximately 95% of them have generated links from some blackhat technique. It’s hard not to feel pressured to do something similar to boost your sites ranking in the short-term. If most of your competitors (80%) are listed in a the same 10 directories is it a good idea to submit your website to these directories? Should you get the 1 great link (high DA) before submitting to these directories?

  3. John,

    This is a GREAT post and made me take a step back and think. I talk a lot about scalability, but I often forget about that one great first link. The issue with scaling is that it doesn’t leave much room for relationships. I’ve found that truly meaningful links transcend the world of SEO. For instance, they can bring new business and make great introductions. Sometimes, we need to back up off the scalability and focus in on quality with benefits that transcend SEO. Thanks for sharing.

  4. That’s exactly right, John-Henry! That’s what I was getting at – sometimes we need to back off the scalability (which I’m sometimes not sure is a good way to think about it) and focus on the quality.

    Scalable like graphics are good in the right amount, but they can become used too much. Sometimes, we need to get back to the basics, as you say.

  5. Great insight into the links and analysis to find best possible way of getting links for the sake of ranking well.

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