To Link or Not to Link? That is the Question

Today a prospect told me she went to a seminar on Search Engine Optimization, and that one speaker said building back links was important, while another said it wasn't. Then, she asked me exactly what a back link is, and do they matter?

First of all, a back link is a link from another website to yours. Sometimes, they are also referred to as inbound links. This is different from internal links which are links from one page to another within your own website.

According to current Webmaster resources published by Google, links are still a vital part of the SEO equation. A link counts as a “vote” for a page on your website. All things being equal, Google will put pages with more quality inbound links higher in search results. In fact, this was a key component of their original search patent.

Building links is an ongoing, time consuming process. In theory, Google is looking to reward pages that people link to, because they are truly recommending the content on the page. In practice, a cottage industry has sprouted up to help you generate links quickly. The seminar speaker who cautioned against link building probably meant that you should resist the temptation to go out and “buy” links in bulk from these organizations, or do anything else that would artificially increase the number of links to your site. While I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule, in our experience, most of the links these players secure for you are of dubious quality and sometimes from “bad” neighborhoods, so you are just wasting your money.

The same person then asked, “What is a ‘bad’ neighborhood, and will these links from them actually hurt me?” A “bad” neighborhood is a website that in some way aids and abets the acquisition of artificial links. Some sites have been set up for the exclusive purpose of selling links, while others are directories with little content. Some are sites with lots of content that Google has identified as “content farms,” which are sites with lots of low quality content that are optimized to generate inbound search traffic and then support themselves through Google AdSense or other advertising vehicles. Although there is rumbling that links from “bad” neighborhoods can hurt you, I am not of that opinion. The people at Google are very smart, and know that any competitor can finance an inbound link campaign to ambush a competitor's site. So while I think Google doesn't credit you for links from these dubious sites, I don't think they hurt you either.

The moral of the story is to try and build links, but to do it the right way. First, make sure to claim your online Yellow Pages listings and add a web link. Second, add interesting and relevant content to your website. Third, set up social networking pages and create regular updates that link back to your blog or other content on your website. Fourth, look for linking opportunities from natural business partners that include suppliers, customers, trade associations, and business affiliates.

Long story short, go forth and get links. But do it the right way.

How Search Engines View Subdomains

We've been getting questions about the potential search engine optimization (SEO) impact of putting blogs in a subdomain (e.g. blog.mysite.com) vs. a subfolder (e.g. mysite.com/blog). We've also had questions about how search engines (Google) treat subdomains that are on different IP addresses. Unfortunately, Google doesn't have an official statement about these issues, but here are our latest thoughts on the matter.

 

Subdomains link additional pages on your site.

Years ago, spammers figured out that they could set up subdomains and generate inbound links by linking from pages on the subdomains back to pages on the main domain. Google figured this out and plugged that hole in late 2007. Matt Cutts confirms this change in a blog post in December 2007, which also states that it's a “wash” whether you use folders or subdomains. The original post is here: www.mattcutts.com/blog/subdomains-and-subdirectories.

Of course, this is information from 25 years ago in search engine years, but a modern day test confirms that this still holds true. Look at the first page search results for apartments.com—it's all subdomains. It seems reasonable to conclude those results wouldn't be there if Google thought those pages were part of another site.

 

It's okay if your blog subdomain is located on a server with a different IP address.

The next question to tackle is, is it okay for a blog to be hosted separately from the main website. I was able to find absolutely nothing that directly addresses this from Matt Cutts or any other reliable Google authority. But again, a Google search for ardmorecourtapts.com, for example, supports an educated guess. Results include pages from the blog subdomain even though it is hosted at a different location— Yardi hosts the main site while the blog is hosted on a server run by the community's property management company, Trinity Property Consultants.

It makes sense that Google shouldn't care if you have a blog or any functionality running on a separate subdomain. Platform companies—companies that provide Internet solutions for hundreds or thousands of companies through one code base—can't always keep up with end user demand for new functionality, and sometimes it isn’t practical to deploy a solution on a client server (e.g. online rent payment solutions). Even Google makes use of different subdomains for different parts of its business (e.g. maps.google.com, docs.google.com) and they point to separate IP addresses.

So, if you are looking to add a blog or any other technology, and your goal is to maximize SEO for your website, it seems reasonable to conclude that you can host it on a subdomain and on an outside server. However, if you are looking to maximize overall traffic, it's unclear whether you are better off hosting your blog on a separate domain—but that's for another discussion.