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LinksManager One-On-One

Upright Communications Allison Kulage: It's called the World Wide Web for a reason

In the world of purebred dogs, a century is a short pedigree. The Pekingese has remained essentially unchanged in looks and temperament for approximately 2,000 years. Images of the Chow can be found on pottery produced in the first century B.C.  A true legal beagle whose evidence is admissible in the courts of numerous state, the bloodhound is a relative newcomer to the canine circle -- the breed was developed barely 1,000 years ago.  

The search engine universe is different. Almighty Google, the Sultan of Search incarnate, is going on 11 years old. Yahoo launched in 1995,  Microsoft Bing will celebrate its third anniversary, if you mark anniversaries in months rather than years, in, oh, about 30 or 40 days.

Most top-tier search-engine optimization specialists, the ones who make the hits keep coming for companies that can afford the best, have similarly short histories. But not Upright Communications. Upright has been toiling in the search engine mines and delivering return-position gold to its blue-ribbon clients for more than 13 years.

Hard as it is to believe, Upright was helping webmasters spread their sites' messages throughout the web when ranking on such long-forgotten engines as Infoseek and Magellan mattered. Today its Get Found™ service is a gold-standard ethical SEO program.

Not all of us -- not even most of us -- can afford to hire a top-cabin SEO and website marketing specialist like Upright to imbue our sites with aphrodisiacs and pheromones that will drive Googlebot bonkers with lust. But we can all, even novice e-commerce do-it-your-selfers new to site creation and linking, learn from Upright's experience.

To facilitate our education we asked Upright SEO Director Allison Kulage, a  veteran of, in her words, ten years of "testing and testing and testing," to tell us a few secret and not-so-secret things about real world search-engine optimization and linking.

Note: LinksManager and its subsidiaries are neither clients of, or have any relationship with Upright Communications;  Upright does not subscribe to LinksManager or any of its related services.

LinksManager: It's always seemed  to me that stripped of all jargon and pretense search engine optimization is really about trying to reconcile machine logic -- particularly, these days, Google logic -- with human logic. Is that really possible?

Allison Kulage: It's a constant struggle. We're constantly trying to second guess the search engines and they're constantly trying equally hard to keep from tipping us off to anything.

Sometimes it helps to look at semantics. Take a word like "apple." It's a fruit, a computer, a music player, a cell phone. Some people think that if they just say "apple" enough times it will improve their ranking, but it doesn't work that way.  Googlebot has to know whether you're talking about computers and phones or oranges and lemons.

What we usually say to clients is "let's look at your keywords, your market, what your competitors are using as common phrases and then build your site around a set of themes."

LM: How is that different from other approaches?

Allison Kulage:We advocate building a network of internal pages and linked pages with similar keywords, phrases and themes as opposed to trying to optimize a single page on a site to return well for one specific keyword or phrase. This thematic SEO approach seems to be pretty effective for improving returns.

I can only speculate,  but maybe the optimization being tightly integrated throughout the entire site and all its key elements appeals to the machine mind's rigid sense of logic.

LM: You mentioned building a network of linked pages as part of a successful optimization effort. Some self-proclaimed experts say the only links that matter are back links. Are reciprocal links still important?

Allison Kulage:Definitely. It's called the World Wide Web for a reason. The basic idea is that no single site is expert on every aspect of their subject. They need to link out to enable their end users to get to that next level of information and the search engines know that.

I believe Google has even stated, either officially or through something like Matt Cutts'  blog, that it may consider sites without outbound links spam sites.

 You can actually be penalized for having only inbound links and no outbound links. I've personally worked with several sites that came to us with no outbound links and mediocre rankings. We said "let's work some good links onto your site" and the rankings started to come up a little.

LM: Would it be fair to say that forward and reciprocal links that, to use your phrase, "enable end users to get to the next level of information" help webmasters follow the Google Webmaster Guideline's recommendation to "make pages primarily for users, not for search engines?"

Allison Kulage:Absolutely. If you link to really good sites you're showing the search engines that you're actually trying to facilitate the flow of information, that you're proactively helping the Web do its job.

LM: That said, what makes a good linking strategy?

Allison Kulage: The very first thing you should consider is "will this link bring me any traffic?" Because if it's not going to be there for traffic, why is it there? If I own a hair salon and you sell industrial parts washers why should we link to each other?

Who you link to can affect your return position. You can help yourself by linking to good sites and mess yourself up by linking to bad ones. You have absolute control over that and you have to exercise that control wisely.

LM: If you were a football player with ten years in the NFL instead of an SEO expert, the TV play-by-play announcers would be referring to you as a "wily old veteran."  As someone who's been practicing what many believe to be a black art since the dawn of Google Time, are there any SEO linking secrets you can share with us?

Allison Kulage: How's this one? Sometimes the beneficial effect of a back link from an authority site can be improved a bit if that link is reciprocated.

LM: Would you consider the word "duh" an adequate follow up question?

Allison Kulage: Let's say you go and get a link from the Yahoo Directory. Then you put a link to them on your site because you think it's a great directory. Though it's totally undocumented anywhere, empirical evidence indicates that link from Yahoo might help you a tiny bit more after you reciprocate it than it did before.

LM: Just for fun, how about a visit to Fantasyland? Here's a hypothetical question. Steve Ballmer comes to you, open checkbook in hand, and says "for ten years Google's refusal to put Microsoft anywhere in the first hundred or two hundred returns for the keywords 'computer software'  has been thrashing my delta brainwaves and rapid eye movements night after night after night.

"The sleep deprivation has gotten so bad that I can barely shout loud enough for Paul Allen to hear me in his owner's box when I scream at him from my Quest Field nosebleed seats every time the Seahawks blow another lead.  What can you do to get Microsoft in the Google Top Ten?"

Allison Kulage: Wow. The first thing I'd say is that I'd have to do some research. Because we have a strict code of ethics and I'm not going to tell anyone  -- not even Steve Ballmer -- "I'll take your check ... I'll do that for you" without finding out what's going on first.

I'd also ask if his site talks about what he wants to rank for. If the back links to his site use the term "computer software" in their anchor text.

LM: I just did a bit of that research for you. The word "software" does not appear anywhere on the Microsoft.com home page. Could that be why the solar system's largest software developer and vendor doesn't return well for "computer software?"

Allison Kulage: If the page only deals with the products Microsoft makes and doesn't talk about what Microsoft is, that could be a big part of the problem.

LM: Microsoft's monthly hit total is probably about the size of the national debt. Why should Steve Ballmer care where it returns when someone Googles "computer software?"  (Note: This is, as noted above, all hypothetical, there is no evidence that he does care.)

Allison Kulage:A lot of people are  overly hung up on vanity keywords, a word or phrase that everyone wants to be ranked number one for. We try to explain that "yes, this is an important keyword, but there's a long tail of keywords and sometimes a hundred keywords that bring you a few hits here and there can actually generate a lot more traffic than one high-ranking vanity keyword.

LM: Yeah. Probably keywords like Windows, Office, Word, IE, and Blue Screen of Death do bring Microsoft a "few hits here and there."

Getting back to reality ... If you were to give one piece of advice to everyone who's trying to SEO their own site. Something that would apply universally regardless of site type or size or topic, what would it be?

Allison Kulage:Have patience.

LM: By which you mean?

Allison Kulage:Getting the results you want can't be done over night, or in a week , or in a month.

In one case, it took us a year-and-a-half to get the client's main keyword on the first return page.  I felt so bad for him, for the frustration of it all. But he stuck with it and when he finally got his ranking the response overwhelmed his host and crashed his site

Now he's been at or near the top of the results for six or seven variations of his main keywords for three years and he's a very happy man. But it took a year and a half to build a new site, get links naturally and perfect it.

LM: Being at or near the top for six or seven keyword variations for three consecutive years is almost unheard of. How did you structure his link-building campaign?

Allison Kulage: We took it a little bit at the time, adding a few links a month based on type. One month we targeted organizations like local Chambers of  Commerce, the next month we went after links with sites focused on applications his products were used in, the month after that we gathered links from companies in one of the specific industries his products were part of, and so on.

LM: Allison, I can't thank you enough for sharing some of what it's taken you ten years of nose-to-the-SEO grindstone to learn. Before I let you go, here's a quickie about that hypothetical client we discussed.  

Ethical issues aside, could you really help as ubiquitous a company as Microsoft improve its search engine returns?

 LM: Since nobody really knows what the search engines think or require, there's never a guarantee with SEO. But I have very, very rarely encountered a situation where someone wants to rank higher on something and I have to say  "you're already doing everything right."


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