Optimising Your Site for Link Building

As SEOs we optimise for many things (clue’s in the job title, right?) – but increasingly it occurs to me that we’re missing a trick or two when it comes to link building.

I don’t want to get into a paid linking debate here – whether you choose to buy links or not is up to you. But the truth is, if no one will link to you unless you pay them, then you have problems.

Big-ass ones.

Here’s a little Smörgåsbord of issues that I frequently see that make sites sub-optimal for link building.


1) Your site is so ugly it makes my eyes bleed…

Yep, I said it. I’m shallow. Human beings are.

Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania studied data from over 10,000 speed daters and found that most people make a decision regarding a person’s attraction within three seconds of meeting.

I’m guessing that post your beautifully personalised, witty and clever outreach email – should you reach first base (in this instance let’s say first base is your lovely link target clicking through to go visit your site) your site has approximately 3 seconds to woo said target.

Now of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As such you may be unable to see quite how ugly your site really is. Alternatively you may be fully aware of just how ugly your site is, it’s just your boss / client doesn’t.

Go get yourself some data:

Do a quick coffee shop test – take your laptop to your coffee house of choice and ask some people to rate the design of your website and your competitors. (NB don’t tell them which site is yours, you may get falsely positive results). Alternatively you could use Feedback Army, or go straight to Mechanical Turk.


But some might cry – Wikipedia is fugly and they get links!

Yes darling, they do. But Wikipedia you are not.


2) Your site content sucks…

Actually sucks is a little flippant. What I really mean is that your site lacks ‘good’ content. ‘Good’ might mean authoritative or trustworthy, or content that’s so damn awesome my head might explode if I don’t get to share it.

Remember linking to something or sharing something (in most instances at least) is still a kind of endorsement. NB there are of course links which are in no way an endorsement. But unless you’re desperate for ‘asshat’ anchor text links I’m guessing we can park those here.

So, perhaps your site is pretty enough to pass the 3 second test and your lovely link target wants to get to know you a little better. But is your site a triumph of style over substance? Is your site like, totally clueless?

“I think that the film Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.” Alicia Silverstone

Don’t be *that* girl website.

The relative suck-worthy-ness of content can be difficult to quantify – but fortunately you don’t have to. Google have already done this for you in the form of their Panda questionnaire. Questions like these might help you understand what other people think of your content:

  • Would you trust information from this website?
  • Is this website written by experts?
  • Do the pages on this site have obvious errors?
  • Does the website provide original content or information?
  • Would you recognise this site as an authority?
  • Does this website contain insightful analysis?
  • Would you consider bookmarking pages on this site?
  • Could pages from this site appear in print?

Here’s an added extra from me:

  • Would you share this site with your friends via social media or email?

Not sure if your site’s content sucks? Well I’d recommend you find out – again coffee shop tests, Feedback Army – pick your poison.


3) Your site is overly-commercial

But I need to sell stuff! Sure you do. But know that your hideous squeeze page is unlikely to yield you tons of links.

Now that might suit you just fine, but if you’re creating lovely link-worthy content you might want to tone down the commercial nature of the page (or indeed pages) where that content sits. Time and time again I see content that’s actually pretty good fail to attract the links that it might have done due to the commercial nature of the page.

If you want to go down the content strategy route (and FYI – it’s a route which I strongly recommend), create a home for that content. Mint.com do this really nicely. Their blog has some information about their products in the header, however when you launch one of their infographics all that information disappears.

Blog post:

Launched infographic:

Nice huh? The commercial content has auto-magically disappeared. I’m guessing they have less issues in persuading people to link when the page looks like this.

But what if you’re a publisher and you make your money via advertising?

Just be sensible, please. Remember this question from the panda questionnaire:

  • Are there excessive adverts on this website?

You know what to do if you’re not sure, right? Yep coffee shop, Feedback Army, blah, blah, blah.


4) Your site has no human face…

Humans like humans. Well, they like some humans in any case.

Now I’m not talking about sticking some horrible stock images of humans on your site, instead I’d prefer if you included some pictures of the people who work there. As a minimum I’d like to see the pictures of the people who write on your blog. Plus of course Google may be putting more weight towards ‘whom’ rather than ‘which site’ is linking to whom – rel-author anyone?

As a minimum I’d like it to be really damn easy to get in contact with you. Email addresses, bricks and mortar addresses, telephone numbers.

Why? It’s a trust thing. Sites with no contact details and no obvious clue as to who’s behind the operation look shady. And people don’t like linking to places that look shady – unless they’re using asshat as anchor text. ‘Nuff said.


5) Your domain name reeks of spamtastic porky-ness…

This one is tough to solve.

But nevertheless I think it warrants mention here. Most of what I’ve been talking about within this post is about your potential link target’s perceptions of your site. If you’re trying to build links for a very obviously commercial domain (I think we all know what they look like) then you will struggle.

How do you solve this?

I’d be inclined in this instance to (at least think about) getting a less spamtastic domain and starting to build that up now. I know exact match domains still work well in lots of niches. However, you might like to think of it as a back up plan for when / if exact match domains are devalued in the SERPs. Of course this may not be an appropriate solution for all business models – but for some it might be worthwhile.



Are you still here?

Well done, you made it to the end :)

To sum up – I recognise that what I’m suggesting here is in no way an easy fix. These sorts of changes can be really difficult to push through whether you work in house or for an agency. But there are added benefits if you do manage to get some of this stuff through. Not only will your link building efforts reap higher rewards, but there are really great reasons for sorting out this stuff outside of link building. For one you might be able to dodge that pesky panda.

If you are planning to gather a little feedback on your site I’d also strongly recommend including the following question (yep it’s from the panda questionnaire):

  • Would you give this site your credit card details?

If lots of people are saying ‘no’ chances are the website you’re working on is missing out on a whole lot more than links.

Just sayin’ :)



Image credits:



Hat tip to Phil Nottingham who has to tolerate my ranting and raving on this subject more than any human should and who suggested I write this post. Also a further hat tip to Will who came up with replicating the Panda Questionnaire originally.


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9 Responses to “Optimising Your Site for Link Building”

  1. Ben Spak says:

    Glad someone is finally calling SEOs out for poor design!

  2. Kyle Byers says:

    Thanks for telling it like it is. I’ve never used Feedback Army, but it looks awesome. In my experience, usertesting.com has been pretty great for usability testing with video feedback… but it is more expensive, too.

  3. Jon Cooper says:

    The funny thing is that the first two couldn’t be more true.

    Here’s a fun, tangible example. I started my blog in March of 2011, and up until January 2012, I didn’t get a single natural link (in this case, a link I didn’t actively pursue). Honestly, not one.

    Then in early January I completely redesigned & relaunched my blog. I spent weeks on the design, and another week or two prepping some completely & totally awesome content.

    After about 2 weeks, I got my first natural link, but after that, they started pouring in. I think somewhere in there is where #4 came into play. People got to know me after seeing my content & my design, and after that, links built themselves.

    Not trying to be self promotional, just wanted to give a little testimonial to the fact that this stuff actually works. I know we’re in a link-happy community (there’s no denying it), so it’s hard to say you’ll get similar results, but even if you get just 2-3 natural links a month from doing these things, then trust me, it’s worth it.

    Great post Hannah!! :)

  4. Hannah Smith says:

    @Ben – Agreed – although it’s not just SEOs who are guilty of that, right? :)

    @Kyle – Not tried usertesting.com – thanks for the recommendation!

    @Jon – thanks for sharing your experience – really great to hear others have seen positive results when making these sorts of changes to their sites.

  5. Christine says:

    Love this blog. It did make me a little self conscious though, i went to make my website extra pretty now!!!!

  6. Vasko says:

    Great post Hannah!
    Two thumbs up for 4)
    Brands should embrace more humanization efforts.

  7. Daniel says:

    The article is very good and I learned many useful and interesting Nea who until now did not know. I follow your site often and loving much. Always there are many useful things for beginners.

  8. Enjoyed your post Hannah (actually, enjoying the site – I just came across it for the first time, so I’m having a good time reading the posts with a cuppa!)
    As someone who’s just recently started being more mindful of trying to do seo the right way – as well as giving my readers interesting content too, I’m glad you’ve reminded me that the visual appeal and overall trustworthyness of how a site looks matters!
    Like one of the other commenters said – it can be a bit scary asking for feedback on your site – but worth it I’m sure. I’ll start with some tame peeps first perhaps!

  9. matt says:

    Having terrible content and poor design is a death wish when it comes to SEO.

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