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Is White Hat Link Building a Myth?

Originally posted May, 2006 and updated July, 2015

Last week’s Link Whore firestorm really has me in deep thought, and that’s always painful.

At what point does a link-building tactic make the leap from acceptable to not? When does white hat become black hat? Or gray hat? Or pink?

And who is to say what is acceptable and what isn’t? What works is what’s acceptable, and vice-versa, right? It’s not your fault blog comment spam got out of control. It’s the other guy. If he’d stop link farming so would I. Ok. Sure. I give.

I think the whole white hat / black hat link-building and SEM argument clouds the larger point. Appropriate link building tactics will be different depending on the site you are seeking links for. This site needs a different approach than this one. Your link pursuits should always be driven by your content, and yes, I agree sometimes your content can even be driven by link opportunities, though that’s a slippery slope.

In its most simplest terms: to me white hat link building means the links you seek are not being sought for organic search rank improvement. This does not mean you can’t improve your search rank via that approach, but that it’s a residual effect, icing on the cake, if you will.

If I can go Miyagi on you for a moment, I would say “high rank is the by-product of content judged well, then well linked”. But this isn’t all. Even non-SEO links can be spam and make the web an uglier place. “Intent” is at the core of the white hat / black hat debate. Why do you want that link? Answer that queston honestly and you’ll see why I wrote last week’s post.

The sad downside of the algorithmic link analysis is that when combined with increased user generated content and links, the intent of the linker can no longer be trusted. So links today are becoming like meta tags 10 years ago. Anything goes as long as it gets me traffic, right?

Nope. Not for me.

So, either I don’t get it, or you don’t.  I’ll bet on myself, and let’s see who ranks for link building expert in a few years.


Teeny Weenie Bikini Linkbait

(In this section of my site I rotate through my older articles for your reading pleasure. For my most current content, subscribe to LinkMoses Private.)

I always get bummed when I don’t clearly state my position on a link building topic and it gets blown out of proportion. I had the pleasure of being a guest on the SEO Rockstars podcast last Friday, where among the topics discussed was linkbait as a link building tactic.  To be funny, I mentioned industrial ball bearings. A listener (well known SEO pro whom I greatly respect ) thought I implied linkbait was not possible for certain sites about certain topics, and went on to blog about me in a way that I feel needs clarification.

Just to be clear, I never said you couldn’t link bait certain types of content. I’d be wrong and that would be silly for me to say, since that’s how I got started in 1994 when I suggested to a local coffee company that they run an online special Christmas offer, which back then was unheard of.  The site is gone, now, but here’s the original post.  A few months later a local boat company (Sea Ray) with a vanilla web site went with the idea of giving 360 degree views of the boats and interiors. That’s linkbait circa 1995. Site gone, but bones remain.

Don’t pin your hopes for business success 
solely on linkbait. Use it as part of a larger strategy…

Like anyone, I can sit here and think up endless types of link bait. Girls in bikinis for ball bearings. Yep, no brainer. That’s sort of what Ridgid tools has done in the offline world forever with those calendars you see in auto shops. They make an unsexy topic sexy.  And by the way, pssst… hey, what are you waiting for?  You are sitting on a vein of linkbait gold and all you give us is this? With no real online linkbait you managed to get quite a few mentions and links. Imagine if you actually tried.

So again, I NEVER said you couldn’t linkbiat any given topic. I said it may not be the best approach for every site, and if you DID do it, remember it’s just one piece of an overall link building strategy. I’m not out to bash anyone or any tactic. But please don’t misunderstand me. Yes, you can link bait for any type of site.

Linkbait Directions:

Step one, create site.
Step two, add bikinis.


Link and share wisely,

Eric Ward

Ten Commandments of Link Building

I – Linkest not just to seek favor from Google*

(*If your site’s success is dependeth on Google alone, it shall destroy you, or worse, be featured in the Knowledge Graph without attribution. The irony…)

II – Those who link in exchange for gold are link whores*
a) Linking in exchange for return link is sometimes kind of slutty
b) Philosophically, I agree that all links are paid in one form or another, but this discussion gives LinkMoses a headache.
c). Offering discounts to students via links on .edu domains has may have jumped the temple. I recently saw one for paternity testing kits. Demographically relevant? Sure, but slimy. Saving 10% on a paternity test is the least of your worries.

III – Thou shalt not link to thine own site from 367 different social media profiles. And don’t get me started on link wheels.

IIIb – Thou shalt not take advantage of Google’s current love-fest with Pinterest (look who ranks#1 for link building infographics even though LinkMoses has never created one), nor will thee send an email to all employees telling them to Plus the corporate homepage.

a) It is acceptable to include a couple of those cute little share, add, tweet, plus, etc., buttons on your own content.  They work nicely. Here, try one Tweet this

b). If you seed YELP with fake reviews, a swarm of locusts will follow you to the next SMX conference. Or worse, you might get sued.

IV – If thou beginest thy link request email “To whometh it may concern”, it shall hastily be deleteth

IVb – Please stop telling LinkMoses “You just came across my site“. No, you didn’t.

V- Thou shalt not refer to content as “link bait”, any more than thou shall refer to your site’s users as “carp”

VI – Thou shalt study or analyze, but not covet, thy neighbor’s links*
(*if thou doest covet them, please try and limit your desires to highest trust TLDs. Links from .info domains are pretty much penguin bait already.  Extra shame is reserved for those who volunteer to be webmaster at child’s school and then secretly add anchor text links back to company site.

VII – Thou shalt never use the name Matt Cutts in vain*
(*at least not where it can be crawled, and be careful with javascript and flash, they can index it now)

VIII – Just because you thinketh MS LIVE! bing search is stupideth does not giveth thee permission to link spameth them

VIIIb – Although if you do so under the guise of “testing”, it’s not a formal violation of this commandment.

IX – If thou has truly reformeth, beg forgiveness via the reconsideration formeth
(If you receive no response, do not hang thine head. Contact LinkMoses and he may be able to deliver a formal scroll documenting your heathenism so it can be cleansed in an attempt at link reformation. LinkMoses does of course charge for this as he has three children who require 15 Happy Meals per week)

X – The link schemer may eat today, but the link earner eateth from a bountiful table for a lifetime*

Link wisely,


Linking Mistakes To Avoid, Part 1: Link Optimization and Short URLs

(In this section of my site I rotate through my older articles for your reading pleasure. For my most current content, subscribe to LinkMoses Private.)

Linking to other web sites has been part of the natural order of things on the web ever since the web began.  Even so, it wasn’t until the search engines started factoring external links into their rankings that people with web sites started getting serious about link building.

I’ve always preached that regardless of what the search engines do, a network of links pointing to your site is the simplest, easiest, and most cost effective method of building traffic there is.  I see evidence every day to prove this sermon correct.  Yet even so, there are many sites that do things that discourage links.  You’ve probably heard of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but what about Linking Optimization (LO)?  Ever heard of that?  Linking Optimization isn’t about content.  Let’s assume you have great linkable content and a strategy to get it linked. If you don’t, contact me.  Link optimization is the process of making your existing great content linkable at the URL level.

The easiest way to make your URLs linkable is to remember one core rule. Shorter URLs are better than long URLs.  Why? First, have you ever received an email message that had a URL is it that wrapped to two lines? Clicking on a wrapped (broken) URL does one thing: sends the clicker to a file not found page.  The moment your email software wraps the URL, that URL is no good unless the reader copies and pastes both lines of the URL into their browser window perfectly and then hits the enter key.  What a hassle, especially for those who aren’t online as much.  Or for anyone who is challenged with a mouse.  I’ve been online for 10 years and I still have problems copying and pasting two line URLs into the browser window easily.

So if given the choice of the two URLs below, in an email message, which would result in getting the reader to the page?


Answer: The second URL, since the first one is broke when it wrapped and now sends clickers to a file-not-found page.

The same holds true for linking by another web site.  Which of the above URLs would a webmaster be more inclined to link to?  It’s human nature to take the easiest path, and in this case the easiest path is the shorter URL.  Having conducted linking campaigns for several Fortune 500 companies, I have experienced first hand the problems with getting links for long URLs.  I’ve had to apologize for long URLs, put directions for copying and pasting, send shorter redirect URLs, etc.  It’s no fun to go link seeking and have to apologize for your links in your link request Email.

URL wrapping in email is just one area where long links can hurt you.  Other areas are social bookmarking sites and discussion boards that only permit a certain length of text per line.  Try sending a post to forum with a long URL in it, and watch is it is rendered useless from a clicking standpoint.  I promise you that this one seemingly small glitch is enough to keep people from coming to your site.  It takes a split second to click a good URL, it takes 15 or twenty seconds to try and scrape it with a mouse off two lines and paste it back into the browser.  That annoyance is plenty to keep readers from even trying.  The wrapped URL is the silent deal breaker of clicking.

URL wrapping in email is just one area
where long links can hurt you

Many deep content sites have database generated content that results in long URLS.  If this describes your site, one workaround is to use redirects for linking.  I’m  doing some linking work for WARNER BROS right now and using short static redirect URLs that send the clicker to the URL where WARNER needs them to go.  In my Email link request, I explain that I have sent them a short URL so as not to cause them to have to deal with a wrapped (broken) URL.  While some webmasters don’t like to link to redirects, if there is a legitimate reason why it has to be done, most will link to the URL you ask them to link to, even if it’s a redirect. Likewise with forum boards.  I post the short URLs, or in some cases, both the long and short URLs, explaining that if the long one isn’t clickable, use the short one.

Thus while redirects are scorned in the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) community, they are accepted and often necessary in the Linking Optimization (LO) field.  If the primary objective is to simplify things for the person you are sending the URL to, then of course it’s completely acceptable to send a shorter URL that redirects.  But to be on the safe side always explain to the reader of your link request message or forum post why you are redirecting them, as otherwise your linking motives might be questioned and the link won’t be granted.

Link well my friend,

Eric Ward

About the Author Eric Ward founded the Web’s very first service for announcing, linking, and building awareness for Web sites, back in 1994. Ward is best known as the person behind the publicity and linking campaigns for,, The Link Exchange,,, and His services won the 1995 Award for Internet Marketing Excellence, and he was selected as one of the Web’s 100 most influential people by Websight magazine. In 2009 Eric was one of 25 people profiled in the book Online Marketing Heroes. In 2013 Eric wrote The Ultimate Guide To Link Building for Entrepreneur Press. Eric has spoken at over 100 industry conferences. Today, Eric publishes LinkMoses Private, a subscription based linking strategy newsletter read by people in over 20 countries. He also consults and trains others on how to maximize their online presence. Eric has written linking strategy and advice columns for SearchEngineLand, MarketingProfs, ClickZ, Search Marketing Standard, SearchEngineGuide, Web Marketing Today, and Ad Age magazine. Learn more about Eric and his content publicity services at|Contact Eric

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What Makes a Web Site Link-Worthy?

What Makes a Web Site Link-Worthy?
Original July 2002, updated July 2009, April, 2014

What is the motivation for one web site owner to link to another web site?

The fundamental principle of the web is to allow any document to link to and to be linked from any other document. This is how Tim Berners-Lee intended it when he first proposed the hypertext protocol in March of 1989, before most of us had ever heard of the Internet. Tim actually originally named his creation “Mesh”. Tim stated,  “I decided on “World Wide Web” when writing the code in 1990.”

I sort of like World Wide Mesh.

Initially developed due to concerns about management of general information about particle accelerators and experiments at CERN, Mesh discussed the problems of loss of information, and creation of a solution based on a distributed hypertext system as a way to help researchers interlink related documents from different computers.

The “Mesh Web” was soon discovered by those more interested in commerce, and a few million spam sites later, here we are.

It’s interesting to me that nearly every commercially related web marketing invention since Tim created it has been in some way related to the link (that is, an attempt to find new ways for one site to be linked to another, or URLs to be shared). Buttons, badges and banners are, at their core, just a link from one site to another.  So are text links, whether paid for or earned or both, whether on web sites, in a tweet, a newsletter or email message.  Buttons, badges, banners are all just another form of link. A PPC listing or a Tweeted URL or a list of search results are nothing more than links. Your Yahoo! directory listing, BBB member page listing, even that cool widget you created — if I can click on it and arrive somewhere else, no matter how you spin it — it’s all links.

So let’s simplify and agree that anything you can touch with your finger (or stylus) or click with a mouse, or even via voice command (Happy now Siri?) if that action takes you from one piece of content to another, it is nothing more than a link.

Why does this matter?

Because the development of all form and fashion of linking and sharing methods does not change one universal truth: the less useful your content, the less likely you are to ever receive a link to it.

“The less useful your content, the less 
likely you are to ever receive a link to it

If we think of the word “useful” as a continuum, then the most useful sites are those that provide rich, quality content on a specific subject on which the editor or provider is an authority. Think of the U.S. Government’s CancerNet site, aka NCI – The National Cancer Institute. Now there’s the ultimate example of content on the right side of the continuum — 300,000 pages on every facet of cancer, all free, all generated by experts in the field.

In fact, with little marketing the domain has over 2 million links pointing to it from other sites around the world. It’s one of my standard sermons: Useful content gets linked.

When CancerNet asked me to do some linking and publicity work for them, there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do. It took me less than a month to augment and improve what was already in place — a great collection of inbound links.  My impact was minimal, if any.

But the harsh reality is we can’t all be The National Cancer Institute. Most sites simply do not have the kind of content that engenders millions of links.

So what do you?

What if you are simply trying to sell a few widgets and don’t have any reference to quality content? If your site lands on the left side of the useful continuum, you accept that you are not going to get many links or shares. And those links you do get you will probably have to pay for. And those links you pay for are not likely to help your rankings, and might even hurt them.

If you don’t want to accept this reality and truly want to earn links to your site, you have one (and only one) other option available to you. Make it linkworthy.

What is a linkworthy site? Let’s imagine you have an online magic store that caters to professional and amateur magicians. On your site, you sell tricks, supplies, hats, capes, and wands, even the saw-the-person-in-half gag.

If your content were nothing more than an online store, why would anyone link to it? You might get a few links on any magic site web guides and link lists. But then what? If you are an online store with nothing but products as your content, then you MUST look to associate/affiliate programs as a means of generating links. Basically, paying for them.

But maybe there is something more you CAN do, if you are willing to roll up your sleeves.

What if, along with your products, you create a searchable database of information on magic. What if you had complete biographies of thousands of magicians? What if you had a section devoted to magical world records, or a glossary of magical terms, or a directory of magicians on the Internet?

This would then be an excellent example of how a niche shopping site can add rich, relevant content, i.e. usefulness, to its web site, as well as sell merchandise. Such a site would be written about, linked to, and shared by just about anyone who cares about magic. Any magic fan with a web site and a curated list of hand picked links would be likely to link to it.

The above is not just a pie-in-the-sky scenario. It exists at

I know from experience it’s difficult to find high trust online venues and curator/site reviewers willing to link to sales sites. The more a site offers deep information on a certain subject, databases, community, guides, forums, reviews, etc., the more likely the editors are to want to cover it. Whether it’s a business or consumer site, the more content rich the better, especially if the site’s mission is sales. A site designed to sell a product is far different than a true reference site with hundreds and hundreds of pages of free information on a particular subject.

CancerNet/NCI and could not be more different, yet but they do have one incredibly important thing in common.  Both have topic specific content written by passionate experts.

The best analogy I can think of to explain a sales-focused web site is a public library. A library is, first and foremost, about content. But libraries sell stuff. Many have snack shops, vending areas, even restaurants. You can buy copies of books, maps, digital images, rent meeting rooms. Some libraries have video rental services and some even offer consulting services. Money definitely changes hands at a library.

But nobody would confuse this commerce with a library’s true mission: being content curators and helping patrons find that content.

In like manner, a web site also needs to be a library of information on whatever its focus might be. Add great content to your product site.

Why bother?

Because useful content gets linked. Products don’t.

Link well my friend,

Eric Ward