Debra Mastaler‘s link building skills are among the most respected in the online marketing industry, and girl knows her stuff. When she’s not pouring over industry resources to stay up to speed, the President of Virginia-based interactive marketing agency, Alliance-Link, services Fortune 500 companies and top international SEO firms alike, offering custom link-building campaigns and link training. A common-sense approach and breadth of experience make Debra’s two-cents on link building shine.
You’ll find Debra’s insight on link building showcased in guest columns across Search Engine Land, Search Engine Guide and Search Engine Journal, and on the stage at industry events a la Search Engine Strategies. aimClear had the pleasure to share a casual Q&A with Ms. Mastaler a month outside of #SES San Francisco, where she’ll take the stage to tour attendees through the basics of link building. Interview topics ranged from link building best practices (as well as no-nos) to the impact of social signals… even hypothetical Grim-Reaper-awesome-power-type situations. Read on for the full scoop.
| aimClear: Tell us a bit about how you got into the online marketing industry – and specifically, as deep as you are into link building.
Debra Mastaler: When I graduated from high school in 1976 the Internet was little more than a collection of wires between a group of colleges and the military. Even after I graduated from college in 1981 it was a long time before I heard the word “Internet” and understood what it meant. I came into the business without any web design or IT knowledge but with years of valuable corporate marketing and media relations experience. So while I didn’t know how to design a webpage or set up a redirect, I knew how to market both using the same techniques I had been using offline.
After college, I worked Civil Service for a number of years before taking a job in the marketing department of Anheuser-Busch. They are one of the most marketing savvy companies in the world, the experience and education I received in the 15 years I worked there was priceless. After the birth of my second child in 1998, I decided to remain home with the kids and focused on learning how to navigate the Internet. One thing led to another and in 1999 I found myself owning and marketing a directory in the organic foods niche. When the directory started out-ranking some major green sites (like Mother Nature) I started getting emails from green business owners asking me to help them with their search engine results. As I shared my methods, I learned I was practicing something called search engine optimization (SEO). I had never heard about it so I started doing research and one of the resources I found was Jill Whalen and Heather Lloyd-Martin’s newsletter “Rank Write“. The newsletter is gone now but that’s where I started learning about SEO, content and the importance of having something worth linking to.
I quickly realized there was an opportunity to develop my linking skills into a viable niche business so I went to work for Jill for a period of time as a way to gain link building experience on a wide variety of sites. In late 2001 I officially launched Alliance-Link and it’s been a joyride ever since.
In 2002 I attended my first SES in Dallas (this show was subsequently moved to Chicago) and in 2003 Danny Sullivan invited me to speak on the linking panel at SES San Jose. Here’s a photo of that panel, from left to right, Daniel Dulitz from Google (the original GoogleGuy), me, Danny at the podium and Greg Boser to his right. Eric Ward was also on the panel but unfortunately not in this shot.
When we’re all together we often joke about how long we’ve known each other and how things have changed; when we started Greg had hair, Eric’s didn’t have kids (he’s up to three now) and I was 25 pounds lighter. It’s all good!
| aimClear: Well said! Speaking of present times… SEOmoz has observed correlations between social signals (e.g.: Facebook likes) and rankings. Bruce Clay says “likes are the new link” and Google just unrolled its +1 button. What’s your take on the importance of social signals, and have you incorporated these in a typical link building mix?
DM: Yes, I have incorporated social media into our basic and advanced linking campaigns and like Bruce and Rand, feel they have an influence in ranking and traffic streams. From a personal standpoint I’m not a fan of telling the world where I am (Foursquare) or sharing my family’s daily life (Facebook) and not because we’re boring and never go anywhere but because I find it intrusive and time consuming. However, professionally I can’t ignore the potential of these social media sites since millions and millions of people use them daily. How and to what extent are the challenges and I find we’re spending more and more time on certain sites looking for leads.
For example, the Networked Blog area on Facebook is a gold mine when searching for popular blogs. Working the food niche and want to find an influential blogger talking about cilantro? You’ll find one there with a built in following. How great is that? Once you find these hubs it’s only a matter of time before you can tap into their authority and build links.
| aimClear: Picture yourself as the Grim Reaper of bad link building. What’s one avoid-at-all-costs or just poorly understood link building tactic that you’d put out of its misery?
DM: I laughed at the vision that popped into my head after reading the phrase “grim reaper”. I look terrible in black so it wasn’t pretty! If I had to pull a Norman Bates on one tactic it would be automated reciprocal linking. Talk about a time and money suck for little to no return. Here’s why:
A. No one likes getting those stupid, non-personalized, form letters that sound like they’ve been written by a third grader. (No offense to anyone’s child).
B. No one likes getting an email from someone in an industry so far removed from yours and then hears it would be a good exchange. Really?
C. No one needs a link sitting on a buried page or a non-indexed page.
D. No one needs to have their website be one of 15,000 links on a page. There’s no algorithmic or branding benefit to being there.
E. No one needs to go against Google and Bing’s terms of service by participating in excessive reciprocal linking. The risk is not worth it since the tactical rewards never amount to much.
That said, swapping links with a couple of sites in your industry won’t hurt you and may be the only way to get a link on certain sites. But keep it to a very small number and only do it if you can control the anchor text, where the link sits and where it points on your site.
| aimClear: What the craziest link building scheme you’ve seen that actually worked? (One you can discuss… you know, legally.)
DM: Probably the ” kid steals credit card to buy s#x” link bait several years ago, it’s a classic case of viral media gone wild. No matter if you dis/liked the campaign or not, it got links, a ton of them. I’ll also say this about successful link bait; good titles are the difference between success and failure. If you don’t have a decent title the piece won’t fly, period. There’s an article by Tucker Cummings that sums up the important points on this issue, she’s spot on with her recommendations.
| aimClear: Fun Fact #235: The Linkspiel was required daily reading for employees in the early years of aimClear. What are some of your favorite ways to train, learn, discover new tactics, and keep up with the latest industry news?
DM: Only in the early years? Ouch! Well I probably deserve that, I don’t get to spend as much time on my little blog like I used to, it’s one of the drawbacks of being a small shop, wearing too many hats, and spending copious amounts of time online looking for sources. On average, I spend six hours a day surfing the web reviewing new sources to add to our databases or use in ongoing campaigns. Over the years we’ve amassed a huge database of sites who have shown they’ll share content; maintaining it and keeping that resource fresh is a lot of work. If I didn’t have multiple alert systems in place (like Google Alerts and Watch That Page), I couldn’t survive. I cull sites in lieu of building networks like a lot of my colleagues; I don’t want more sites to maintain so I need to keep fresh sources coming instead.
For SEO industry news (as in breaking news and information I may not know about) I read Search Engine Land every day, Barry’s SearchCap, Search Engine Watch, SEOByTheSea and Hacker News. (Disclaimer, I am a columnist for SEL). With the exception of SEOByTheSea, I view these sources as online newspapers and often get my first whiff of a new service or issue from them. I included SEOByTheSea because Bill always writes about new patents or papers popping up within a day or two of their launch.
To keep up with insider talk I head to the SEOBook Forum (disclaimer, I am an Admin there), SEODojo, and Webmaster World. And like I said earlier, I set my alerts for key people and terms so I can read and keep up. Truth be told, my IM is faster than anything, it hums all day and keeps me close to people.
| aimClear: On Day 2 of SES San Francisco, you’ll kick off the morning with a solo presentation on the Basics of Link Building. How do you like to jazz up beginners to this facet of optimization? What words of Zen wisdom would you leave with new/young link builders as they begin their journey?
DM: I love doing this session and deliver it classroom style. I break it into four sections, each ties into the next so in the end, the attendee understands the concept of link popularity and how to use it. We also cover link tools, what to avoid and link building tactics. The latter makes up the largest portion of the session, I go over the basics but also kick-it up a notch and cover content, media and technical tactics I use with success.When you leave my session, you’ll have a linking primer you can take home and use the next day. The session is only an hour long with tons of material to cover so I tend to speak quickly, if I can’t cover something in detail I provide links so you can review later. You won’t go home empty handed so come prepared to write fast and listen hard!
About the Zen words of wisdom……if I had to leave you with some it would be these two points:
All links, provided they work, are good links and work toward building your link popularity. Link popularity is not PageRank, it’s a far bigger application with more working parts than just quality factors so don’t ignore a possible link opportunity because they sport a low meter of green. And…
There is no such thing as advanced link building. Why Because it’s not about the link and never has been, it’s all about the page it sits on. There are tactics using spiffy tools which people equate with being “advanced” but those tools are about finding pages and opportunities to link with, not creating some advanced technique. Anchor text has to sit on an indexed page before it will work, sitting on relevant, quality pages makes it work all the better. Before anything can happen, you need to find the pages.
The next time you’re at a show and someone complains they’re not hearing the “secret” or “advanced” techniques, nod your head and agree. And then smile inside and know you have the real secret; it’s not about the how, it’s all about the “where”. See you at SES San Francisco!
| aimClear: Wow, I feel so enlightened! Words of Zen indeed. Thanks for your time today, Debra. Safe travels