December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Free, but not easy

When e-retailers can secure links from other web sites, search engine spiders reward them with higher rankings among search results.

An online retailer of baby gear is offering great deals on strollers, making “strollers” a spot-on-relevant keyword for the retailer to target in optimizing pages for natural search. They’re a popular item among new-mom consumers, and they’re priced right and attractively presented on the site.

Sales are robust-for other online retailers. Because under the term “stroller,” this retailer’s listing shows up at number 29. So what gives?

The problem could be links: not enough outside links pointing to the page, or perhaps not enough of the right kind of links. As a result, listings from competitors that may be as well optimized on-page but that have more and better links from outside are moving to the top of search results.

How those links from other sites can improve a retail web site’s rankings in search listings is one of the least understood aspects of natural search optimization.

“Link-building has always been a part of search engine optimization, but retailers have been more focused on the on-page aspects of SEO because it’s easier for them to get their heads around,” says Stephan Spencer, president of Netconcepts LLC, which helps retailers optimize search engine rankings. “But the link-building factor is just as powerful, if not more so. One link or a handful of links can make the difference between meeting your budget or not.”

While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how outside links affect a retailer’s rankings in natural search results vs. the effect of other optimization elements such as page architecture or keyword-rich text, one way to diagnose link problems is by ruling out other reasons a retailer’s listings aren’t ranking higher.

“When you’ve had your site design fixed for a few months, you can attribute some of the fluctuations in ranking to what you’re doing with link building,” says Josh Greene, director of online marketing for Discovery Communications Inc.

Sniff test

A link, or hyperlink, is a connection by click to a specific area of content on another web page, either within the same web site or to another site. It’s the latter path that figures into how high a retailer’s listing ranks in natural search results under a given keyword. As search engines strive to deliver relevant results, their algorithms take links to a web page from outside the site-from consumers, directories, blogs and other entities-as evidence that the page is relevant to the searched term.

In fact, outside links are such a valuable commodity in boosting a site’s listings in search engine results that online retailers, their advisers and other parties simply looking to profit have come up with a wide variety of tactics for making those links happen.

But here’s a warning to e-retailers out to build links: Search engines resist being gamed. Because their own reputations suffer when they return results searchers don’t find relevant, search engines are ever more adept at protecting themselves by sniffing out when links are contrived without relevancy solely to boost a listing.

Most recently, market leader Google has been working to identify and actually discount links added to a site exclusively for this purpose. “Since the initiation of search there always have been ways to trick the engines, but the engines always wind up winning in the end,” says Khrysti Nazzaro, director of optimized services at search engine marketing company MoreVisibility.com.

This means retailers should look to emerging best practices in link building and sidestep tactics that could backfire under search engines’ increasing scrutiny of link quality. Here’s an example of such a tactic: The PageRank system, part of the Google algorithm, measures the popularity of a web site to determine how high in natural search results a site will appear. It’s possible for a heavily-visited site to elevate the PageRank of a less-visited site just by linking to it, a practice called “passing PageRank.”

Any number of popular media sites sell links for this purpose, according to Spencer. These links are different from paid search ads that link to products. But when Google finds them, it discounts links that a retailer buys merely to “pass PageRank.” “Google doesn’t want you to buy links and pass PageRank if the links are advertisements,” Spencer says.

Masquerade

Spencer adds that search engine algorithms can easily find various forms of link-buying masquerading as link-building. For instance, search engines frown on asking an author to post a link in an old web article or blog post, even if the content is relevant to a retailer’s keywords. Engine algorithms will likely flunk such links as “natural” listings by determining from cached pages that links are suddenly appearing from a web page that has had no updates for years.

Another link-building practice that engines can spot as unnatural is three-way linking, in which a web site asks to link to another site, and in exchange, asks that site to link to a third site that also links back to the original site. “If those sites don’t have any relevance to each other, the engines are able to see those kinds of multiple link relationships,” Nazzaro says.

With search engines increasingly calling the shots on what outside links will or will not help with list rankings, what opportunities are available to online retailers looking to build links while steering clear of algorithmic biases? Plenty, say search engine optimization experts.

For starters, general directories such as the open-source Demoz.org or niche directories such as BabyBusiness.com can provide online retailers with a source of outside links. So does the Yahoo Directory, the still-existing, human-edited, searchable data base of submitted listings that preceded Yahoo’s web-crawling search engine.

The directories span both free and paid options, such as the Yahoo Directory. Though search optimization experts say the best outside links are naturally-occurring-for instance, a web site or blog about parenting might link to a recommended item at an online toy store-paid links aren’t all bad in terms of their ability to help boost a listing in natural search results, says Eric Papczun, director of natural search optimization at DoubleClick Performics Inc.

Not necessarily bad

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