Interview with Link Building Expert Eric Ward

Written by Nick Stamoulis

Recently I caught up with one of the true white hat natural link building visionaries Eric Ward. Eric Ward has been one of the best white hat link building practitioners since before the SEO industry existed. Some of the best link building advice and strategies I’ve learned have been from the articles and case studies written by Eric Ward.

Eric Ward also now publishes a private newsletter called LinkMoses Private, which is by far one of the BEST linking strategy newsletters I have ever seen. Every issue contains tons of white hat link building resources, articles and actionable strategies. While Eric could charge more than he does, the newsletter is just $8. I highly recommend you subscribe at http://www.ericward.com/lmp

Interview of Link Building Expert Eric Ward

This interview is rather long, but is worth the time to read through all of it! Thanks so much to Eric Ward for spending the time to answer all of my questions! :)

Question: Back in 1992 most people still had no idea what the Internet was. What made it so appealing to you?

Answer from Eric Ward:
My interest originally had nothing to do with the business potential of the Internet. There was no World Wide Web like we know it today. Even the first web browser, LYNX, was a text based browser that would make most people cringe today. Gopher servers ruled back then, and search tools like Veronica, Archie and WAIS. A college professor showed me USENET, and the order and structure of it all fascinated me. It was both a complete mess and totally organized to me. The idea of being able to carry on conversations with people in Australia or Ireland from my little apartment in Knoxville fascinated me. I was hooked.

Question: You essentially created the “web promotion” industry back in 1994. Did you ever anticipate that web promotion (and the web itself) would grow like it has?

Answer from Eric Ward:
Yes. I still remember everything about the day it hit me. It was the day NCSA released the first Mosaic browser in 1993. I was working ORNL (Oak Ridge National Lab) and a guy came around and had a disk with the browser on it, asked if I wanted it installed on my PC. I said sure. At the time, most web sites were nothing but text, since there were no graphical browsers up to that point. Mosaics ability to render images alongside text hit me like a lightning bolt. My background before going back to grad school had been in advertising, public relations, and marketing. So I was viewing this new web phenomena through the prism of a marketing guy, even though I was working at a National Lab and studying Library Science. I felt I was witnessing the birth of a new medium, like radio or television. Yet even though I knew this, I was not savvy enough to know exactly how to turn my excitement into a business. That happened by sheer luck. In the Fall of 2003 I took an evening class about entrepreneurship in the library/information industry. The professor was Carol Tenopir, a very well known name in the Information Science field. A primary objective of the course was for the students to create a fictitious business that in some way involved the information industry, which at the time really did not mean the web, since the web was still pretty new to most people. But I had been spending hours online looking at new web sites, and had come across something known as the NCSA What’s New page, which was the primary place to announce new web sites back then. I’d check out every new site that launched. It was a big day if there were 5 or 6 new sites listed on the what’s new page, and I’d click and check them all out. This is when the idea started forming in my head that web sites were all technically invisible files on a computer somewhere, like any other file, except that if that computer had web server software on it, those files could be accessed by anyone who knew the address, or URL (or URI). I figured if a web site is a bunch of files on a server, it’s invisible until someone knows it exists and has the URL. So I wondered if there was a need or a potential need for a “Web Site Publicist”, or a person who would serve as an online advocate for web content. Someone to help let the right people know about these new web sites that were launching. I drove down to Knoxville’s only ISP, and I asked them if my idea had any merit, and they hired me on the spot as a contractor to “promote” the web sites they were creating for clients. I remember we agreed on a price of $195 per new site for a promotion campaign that consisted of a submissions to the search engines of the day, like Lycos and AltaVista and Webcralwer and WWWWorm, and of course, Yahoo!, which then lived on the Akebono server at Stanford. I’d also look for discussion lists and USENET groups related to the subject matter of the site I was promoting, so that if I was promoting a site for a coffee company, I’d announce it in the rec.coffeee newsgroup. I’d even dial-in to Compuserv and AOL to check for topical forums. Back then people were genuinely excited to learn about a new web site related to their interests. But the truth is the genesis for my business came about because of a class assignment. Then there was a fortuitous meeting and discussion with Jeff Bezos, and 19 years later here I am, still.

Question: You work with Fortune 500 companies all the time, yet you’ve said you prefer working with smaller sites. Why?

Answer from Eric Ward:
In really large organizations, people often view their web sites as entities they have been tasked with managing. They aren’t spending their own money, they are spending a corporate budget. I can tell when I’m talking to someone who has no passion for their job, and no personal investment in the content. It’s almost like the difference between having your own kid versus babysitting someone else’s kid. My favorite large clients are the ones who are willing to accept that they need to be more involved in the web promotion process. Many just want to throw money at it and make it go away. I like helping others to become self sufficient. My goal is to help a company become so good at doing what I do that I become obsolete. That may sound nuts, but there’s so few people who really “GET” what it means to be a content publicist, link marketer, and link builder, that it’s not likely to happen. Google has been very helpful in that respect :) When links and interactions became a proxy for content merit, it meant job security for the link builders who do things the right way.

Question: You are a committed “white hat” SEO practitioner and can show definitive value for your methods, so why do you think people still try black and grey hat tactics?

Answer from Eric Ward:
Probably for the same reason people still try and count cards at blackjack. The chance to beat the system. To get rich quick. Of course, Google wont break your kneecaps if they catch you, but most shortcuts, whether they break laws or quality guidelines, come with a price attached. Some people still view Google as an ATM. I’ve been on calls where the person told me that if it costs them $25 a month to run a web site pretty much on autopilot and the site makes $100 a month, then do that a thousand times and you’re rich. They don’t care about collateral damage, which in most cases is a poor search experience. That’s the type of client I run from. Some think I’m naive or a sucker to still be doing what I do all these years later, but I can’t complain. The web has been good to me. I don’t like to see it polluted.

Question: You’ve admittedly been building links since before Google existed. What made links so important to you back then?

Answer from Eric Ward:
Back then a link was the only way another human would know a site existed. Nobody advertised URLs in magazines or on TV. I have vivid memories of being on discussion lists with guys like Jim Sterne and John Audette and we’d be making predictions about how the day would come when every print ad would have a URL on it, and others would disagree, and the arguments were all in good spirit and all of us learned from each other. But to your question, let’s say I was announcing a new site for Sea Ray Boats. Who would care about such a site? Well, how about boating enthusiasts, water skiers, fisherman, etc? Where would those people be hanging out on the web? How would you politely get a message (and URL) to them so they could check out Sea Ray’s new web site? None of the process had anything to do with search engines, because search engines did not analyze links back then. There would be no reason to link spam, because there would be no engine to fool, and no benefit in doing so. So I would always have to take the site which I was representing, and identify those nooks and crannies on the web where people could be found that would be inclined to care about the site I was announcing. It was very much like public relations. There was no SEO to it. I’ve never practiced SEO a day in my life, except for a minimal amount on my own site, I know zero about SEO, But links, that I know. When Google came on the scene, I noticed my clients all ranked very high, and that was when I started getting into link analytics. I wanted to better understand what it was that I had been doing that Google liked so much. In other words, by following a subject specific public relations outreach model, I was obtaining links from the exact types of venues Google had trust in. I learned what Google wanted to see in an inbound link profile by accident.

Question: Web promotion/SEO has changed a lot since 1994, plenty of tactics have come and gone, yet you’ve stuck with link building as your core service the whole time. Where does your faith in link building come from?

Answer from Eric Ward:
At the end of the day, there are a trillion web sites. There are a billion search phrases. Yet there are only ten to twenty search results being fought over. That’s a fools game. The sites that thrive and survive will be the sites that find ways to create link profiles that provide them with traffic other than from Google. When people brag about increasing their rankings at Google, I always ask them what happens if those rankings vanish? For me, the perfect link profile is one that does not rely too heavily on Google, one that doesn’t cause you to have a panic attack if your rank drops from 3rd to 9th. My own site is my best example. I want www.EricWard.com to rank highly for only a couple very specific terms. And it does. But of my total traffic Google is responsible for less than 10% of it. The remaining 90% of my traffic comes from tens of thousands of links all over the web. Sites that link to the hundreds of columns I’ve written, conferences I’ve spoken at, presentations I’ve given, etc. Put another way, if Google goes away tomorrow, I still have 90% of my traffic, and that helps me sleep at night. So links are my lifeblood, not Google. I’m completely serious when I say if your business cannot survive without Google, then you have not taken advantage of all the web can do for you, and you need to change course before the next black and white animal drops your rank forever.

Question: Do you think the Penguin update will make website owners pay more serious attention to their link building?

Answer from Eric Ward:
Based only on my consulting and training sessions, yes, but at the same time, there are still those who ask me what the new trick is now that the old tricks don’t work anymore. Some folks simply do not want to invest in their web site. They want to invest in tactics to make the site they have rank high, regardless of the quality of that site. That’s a mistake I see continuing to happen. And even though I call it a mistake, I totally get it. A guy who is an expert at teaching people how to scuba dive and has a simple web site does not want to spend all his time in his office writing a blog about scuba diving. He want to be in the water. His expertise is not writing or content or web sites, his expertise is teaching me how to not die when I’m 50 feet underwater. So I understand the frustration and the realities of those types of sites. But there’s also much that can be done to help those sites without having to hire full time content writers or bloggers. Many times it’s a matter of recognizing what you can do to continue to succeed online, rather than what you can do to rank high at Google.

Question: What do you think is the most abused link building tactic that people need to let go of?

Answer from Eric Ward:
I am amazed that blog comment link spam continues to rain down. I stopped blogging a few years ago, but left my blog up and commenting available. I moderate all comments. And I still get 20-30 link spam drop attempts every week. It’s funny. I save the most blatant ones and use them in my consulting and training sessions as examples of what not to do.

Question: How do you think content marketing and link building fit together?

Answer from Eric Ward:
I am so glad you asked that question. This is a hot button topic for me right now. I think people are confusing the terms, or maybe a better way to put it is that people are not quite in agreement as to what content marketing means compared to link building. Link building seems to still live on the SEO side of the aisle, whereas content marketing seems to reside over in the marketing department. I also see some very clever content marketing that misses out on the potential for organic link growth due to some silly decision. An example would be tracking URLs. Once a URL is released into the wild, you really can’t control what happens to it, but I see the desire to be able to track something get in the way of common sense with regards to links. I know this is an exaggerated example, but when I receive an email that asks me to please link to a URL like

whateversite.com/index.html?linkingcampaignSep2012

I cringe at the logic and intent I know that URL represents. Bad execution of an even worse linking strategy. Content marketing also encompasses social. The ability to help users of your content move and migrate that content into their own sphere of influence on the web is crucial. If I’m promoting content for Johns Hopkins and I get a medical librarian to that content and she tweets a URL to her followers, I’ve just helped that content get into her sphere of influence, with a tacit endorsement, and that’s a place I could not have gotten without her. And whether or not social shares directly impact organic search should not be the point of content marketing. It’s a side benefit. I could spend a day just on the content marketing/link building topic.

Question: What are some of your favorite link building tools, either paid or free?

Answer from Eric Ward:
I use several, all of which are in wide use by most link builders, but the ones I rely on most of all are my own proprietary linking analytics tools. I also use Link Insight from AdGooroo, a tool I helped design. My single most useful took is really more of a skill. It’s knowing every possible way you can ask a search engine a questions. Back before the web, we’d all have to ask a librarian to search for things for us, because they knew Boolean search syntax. But the search engines have grown up using a sort of quasi-boolean-ish-mishmash syntax that is not very intuitive, but is still learnable by anyone willing to devote the time to it. I do link prospecting screen share training sessions, and record the sessions for the client. The feedback I receive is almost always that the part of the training where they watch me use advanced search queries as a means to surface potential linking targets is the part they use the most. And the part they had not realized was possible. When people ask me what my secret weapon in for ranking higher at Google, I tell them Google and knowing how to use it. Google will tell you what you need to know if you ask it the right way.

Question: What kind of impact has social media had on the way you approach link building?

Answer from Eric Ward:
It has definitely helped people see that link building is a very human activity. Social is by it’s very nature a one to one and one to many environment, and that is very appealing to me as a content publicist. But you have to respect the playing field you are on. Social isn’t a thing. Social is people. Can you incorporate social into your linking strategy? Absolutely. Should you? Maybe. It will depend on your site and your business. Likes and shares and pluses are really not very good metrics for organic search, because there are inherent biases against certain topics. The search engines have to be able to recognize that a site or brand is not popular or unpopular based purely on tweet/plus/like. I know that sounds like heresy, but let me use my standard example. I’m a dad of three kids. Let’s say one of them gets head lice. Now all three of them have head lice, and I’m up to my ears (literally) in R.I.D. Head Lice Remover, and thank the cosmos for creating that awesome product. But am I going to hop on Facebook, tell the world my kids have lice, and “Like” the R.I.D. homepage? No, I’m, not. And if my brother spends a month in rehab kicking his meth habit, am I going to tell the world via twitter how glad I am that GetOffMeth.biz was there to help us? No, I’m not. These are meant as examples. Examples that illustrate human nature dictates what we share on the social web. I know my friends and their families are nothing in person like what I see on their facebook timelines. Apparently everyone is an A student and scores the winning goal. On facebook little Timmy never kicks the shit out of the kid next door and never pulls the fire alarm at school. But we all know it happens. In fact, I may have pulled a fire alarm or two once upon a time on a triple-dog-dare.

Question: Are there any current link building tactics that you see as heading for a Google smack down in future updates?

Answer from Eric Ward:
Yes. I think the days of the large-scale not-so-altruistic “.org annual membership as linking tactic” might get tossed into the ignore bucket. People should quit joining non-profit associations just for the links. At the local level it’s fine, and within your business niche, sure, but when you see a site about women’s business networking in New York is a member of the Appalachian Lumbermen’s Club, somewhere we have lost our way.

Question: You’re the go-to-guy for link building and plenty of people/companies come to you for guidance, but what’s the best piece of advice someone gave you?

Answer from Eric Ward:
Easy one. Jim Sterne once told me to double my rates or he’d stop sending me business. I’d thought that I’d made a business mistake by not branching out and creating a large company/agency like my peers at the time all did. But Jim said I was missing the bigger picture. He said I didn’t recognize my own expertise. All those years I’d devoted to the single art of linking was worth more than I was charging, because nobody had spent as much time at it, and nobody knew what I knew. I listened, but I wasn’t so sure. I was afraid if I raised my rates I’d lose business. And by then I was married and had a baby. But I took his advice, and business boomed. Thank you Jim.

Question:What has been one of your favorite client link bait campaigns so far?

Answer from Eric Ward:
I’d have to divide that into past and present. You know how today on every Windows desktop is a multimedia player called Windows Media Player? It wasn’t always so. There was a time when Microsoft did not have a media player on your PC. And they were trying to promote a new one they called MS NetShow, which would ultimately become Windows Media Player. Evidence of that campaign still exists today. Here’s a link where you can see it. It’s from September 20, 1997.

http://goo.gl/cDOvM

Now, the Silicon Valley Marathon is about running, not technology and not a media player. But Microsoft’s tie-in and live online broadcast of the marathon was ahead of its time, and you had to download the NetShow software to see it. So I guess this means I am partly to blame for Windows Media Player, which is ironic since I can’t watch .wmv files on my iPhone or iPad, neither of which existed back at the time of the promotion.

More recently, I helped the National Park Service when they launched a new site devoted to the Civil War. You can see that one as well at http://www.urlwire.com/news/040412.html This was part of the NPS’s commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. For this site I researched and surfaced target sites that were related to the Civil War. When you have topical content, and there are existing passionate content curators, like this, http://www.heartofthecivilwar.org/info-resources/, then I hesitate to even call it linkbait. It’s more about connecting those who care with those who create.

What is your #1 rule for white hat link building?

Answer from Eric Ward:
When seeking any link, ask yourself if you would still want that link if Google did not exist? If you can say “yes, that link can help me in other ways besides organic search rank”, then pursue it. If the only reason you are after a link is organic rank improvement, you are on a very slippery slope. And my second rule is if you are not willing to spend $8 a month for LinkMoses Private http://www.ericward.com/lmp, please tell me why not so I can make it so you will?

*****

This non-paid interview is designed to give the Brick Marketing audience insights and different perspectives of SEO, link building, social media and web marketing. Past expert interviews include: Ann Handley, Eric Ward, Mike Moran, Andy Beal, and Jordan Kasteler to name a few.

If you would like to be interviewed by the Brick Marketing team please contact Brick Marketing here:
http://www.brickmarketing.com/contact

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"We’ve seen unbelievable success"

“I didn’t realize how much we were missing from not having an online presence until I started working with the SEO firm Brick Marketing. The Brick Marketing team took the time to guide us through the SEO process and helped bring our company into the online world. We’ve seen unbelievable success with our new site and owe much of our online lead generation to Brick Marketing’s efforts.”

- George Athanasiadis Somerset Industries

somerset

"Brick Marketing uses an ethical, strategic approach to SEO"

“We have worked with a few other SEO firms and consultants in the past, but, by far,
Brick Marketing has been our best experience. They are very knowledgeable about the search engine landscape, and help us respond to what seem like constant changes to the algorithms. They have helped our company correct some of the issues created by prior SEO firms, both in terms of on-site optimization and off-site programs. I appreciate the fact that Brick Marketing uses an ethical, strategic approach to SEO that creates a solid, lasting foundation for the future. They are reliable, responsive, and the quality of their deliverables is top-notch. We are happy we chose to work with them, and I would recommend them to anyone looking to engage a new SEO firm.”

- Bob Bennett, Owner/Manager Bennett Awards

bennett-awards

"Brick Marketing is simply the best."

“After struggling for years to find the right SEO firm, it was a breath of fresh air to discover Brick Marketing. On my initial call with Brick Marketing President, Nick Stamoulis, it was immediately obvious that he genuinely cared about helping our company, not just bringing another client on board. Since then, their SEO work with us has been fabulous. Our dedicated SEO Specialist, Shawna Wright takes the time to explain every step of their efforts (and do so in a way that doesn’t leave me buried in a sea of SEO jargon). In addition to SEO, we also chose Brick Marketing to handle our website migration to WordPress, and once again, couldn’t have been happier with our decision to do so. The Brick Marketing Website Developer, Chris Roberts and Shawna Wright made the process easy and painless, and made many helpful suggestions to improve our website that we would have never thought of on our own. Brick Marketing is simply the best.”

- Kristen M. Steele, Director of Marketing & Public Relations Bookmasters

bookmasters-logo
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