Linking Mistakes To AvoidTeacher: Eric Ward
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 about two years ago, when 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 will hurt you. Another area is on discussion boards that only permit a certain length of text per line. Try sending a post to forum board 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.
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) commuity, 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 wont be granted.
Right now, as you read this, you probably have some orphaned URLs you don't know about, collecting dust in the forgotten pile at the bottom of the search engine indexes.
It happens to the best of us. Even me, the self proclaimed Link Mensch, was humbled recently to discover several old URLs in AltaVista's database that no longer physically exist on my web server. Some expert I am.
During the life span of any web site, you create and update and delete and remove URLs on a regular or semi-regular basis. New files go up, old ones come down, or get renamed and archived. Sometimes entire web sites with thousands of pages get re-hosted on new servers using new content management tools. I've even seen cases where every URL on a site changed at once.
What you must remember is that at the same time you have been diligently running your web site, adding, deleting, moving and archiving files and URLs, the search engine crawlers have been carousing the Web, and on occasion, your server, on a hit and run basis for years. Maybe a crawler came across one of your URLs as it crawled a newsgroup post at Deja News a couple years ago. Maybe a newsletter wrote about your site and just as they archived that issue a crawler wandered by and stumbled onto your URL. There are countless ways a crawler could have found your URLs without ever going near your server. In fact, most of the URLs in any search engine's database were found and followed from source other than your own site.
The question that matters most
Of all the URLs your site has ever had in its lifetime, how many of them are still in the database of any given search engine?
Search engines do not know if the URLs they have recorded and indexed are still in existence at any given moment. Thus you may have updated your web site and removed links/URLs that the search engines still think exist. Search results are nothing but placeholders for the actual page on its serverr. Search results are a list of links.
Every URL from your site that no longer exists but which a search engine thinks does still exist is like a lump of coal to be turned into a diamond. With search engines charging for indexing of URLs, it becomes even more important to revive those dead links before the engines find out they are dead and purge them. A purged URL is forever lost.
Nearly every marketer tries get their site fully indexed by the search engines. Most site owners wish they could get more of their sites' pages indexed. If you have old links showing up in search results, count yourself lucky. And get busy making those dead links live again.
Finding them and fixing them
Here's one way to find out how many URLs from your site a search engine has indexed. Go to AltaVista, and in the search box type
(replacing your domain with whatever your domain is, for example host:pbs.org)
Look at the results. What you see is every single file that AltaVista has in its index and thus thinks are active. Peruse the list. Put your mouse cursor over the clickable link but don't click. Look at the bottom of your browser to see the actual filename of the URL you're studying. Are all the filenames you see still in existence? Probably not. Look at the filenames, and if some of them no longer exist on your site, create a new page with EXACTLY the same filename as the old one AltaVista thinks is still around, and get it on your server ASAP.
For example, let's say you used to have a sitemap page named site-map.html, and you see that file among the search results. Now let's say that six months ago you changed that file to map.html, and removed the site-map.html file from your server. The search engine has no idea you removed the URL, and still has it a record of that page and what was on it.
You can also examine your own server logs to find all page requests that result in a 404 file not found server request. This even works if you use custom 404 pages. This is how I discovered that on my site there was a file that had been returning 404 error messages about 30 times a day or almost 1,000 times a month. I created a file that had the same name and content as the one that no longer existed, and bingo, I have recaptured every bit of that lost traffic. You can do the same thing. Start with your server logs and then try some test searches.
If you want to find out what URLs the engines have indexed from your site, Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Watch site has a section just for this at http://searchenginewatch.com/webmasters/checkurl.html
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