Run Out of Link Building Ideas? Look at Your Website

[22.365] sphere-itize me, captain
Creative Commons License photo credit: db*photography

One of the most discussed Search Engine Optimisation topics is by far link building. This is partly down to a common belief by newcomers that it is the only thing to look at and partly that each website needs a different approach.

Many Link Building blog posts exist (check out this SEOMoz Link Building Article for a good start) although people are still asking and struggling with the topic.

In this article I am suggesting an alternative way to approach the subject if you have run out of ideas; take a good look at your website.

What does this mean? When I first entered SEO this was a topic I also struggled with link building. Eventually I began to realise that there was not one solution to link building for all the websites I managed – each one needed a different approach and different ideas. I soon modified my techniques to analyse the topic/company, the industry and most importantly the website itself.

My suggestion is basically to flip your mindset and the questions you are asking. Instead of “How can I find links to promote this site?”, try asking “How can I improve this site to get links?”. Instead of “What are my options for link building?”, think “What link building opportunities does the website allow?”.

This is all quite abstract and to help picture this for your website here are some real life examples:

Scenario – Affiliate Site

Typical Approach – Many affiliate sites are following the approach of find a niche, find an affiliate program, create a basic website and get visitors. At the point of link building the website owner might look at “quick fix” solutions such as blog commenting, mass directory submission, social bookmarking etc. and soon realise this won’t work (anymore). They then might possibly look at paid directories (who don’t tend to list affiliate sites), content for link exchanges (the higher quality sites won’t promote a thin affiliate site) and maybe paid links (again high quality sites won’t be interested and your risking the wrath of Google Matt).

Suggested Approach – The real issue here is nobody has a reason to recommend your site. You have created an affiliate site that is potentially thin on information and fat on methods for getting a sale, email address or whatever. Consider changing your approach to the website by primarily offering good information, community benefits or some other value. Improve your site design to ensure you are not dismissed as just another affiliate site (e.g. Get rid of that Associate-O-Matic default template or redesign that horrific one page sales letter). Offer a unique way to access whatever you are promoting (e.g. better filters, aggregated customer reviews, special offers) that really does help the user.

Once these changes have been made your link building opportunities open up – relationships with related websites, better success rates on paid directories, organic links and it will be easier to get better quality websites linking to you (paid, content exchange or just natural).

Scenario – Dry Industry

Typical Approach – You are promoting a website in an uninspiring industry such as a funeral director or a kitchen fitter. There are no big name blogs that you can arrange partnerships with and you seem to have hit a brick wall with ideas for getting links. You are also potentially struggling with finding ways to reach your potential customers.

Suggested Approach – By looking at the website itself you can brainstorm ideas for links and potential new angles at getting customers. Don’t forget that search engine traffic is not the only way to get visitors. For a funeral site an online obituary with simple and creative ways to link and contribute could be implemented – think Facebook applications, blog widgets or simply “tell a friend” functionality. For a Kitchen Fitter find a way to utilise the wealth of experience by forming a relationship with a high profile blog or website – provide regular content in exchange for links or simply run your own blog. Always look for ways to utilise inside information or experience (good quality articles, news on the latest products or technology, industry changes).

Scenario – Underperforming Community Website

Typical Approach – You are running a forum, social networking site or some other kind of website that requires user input to be successful. The visitors aren’t coming and you are stuck in a Chicken or Egg situation – you essentially need visitors to attract visitors. Traditional link building hasn’t brought the contributions you had hoped for and the site is dying a death.

Suggested Approach – Essentially the problem here is nothing to do with link building and requires a look at your website first. Above all don’t be afraid to accept if your idea/niche/approach isn’t working – that tribe about cats living with dogs might have seemed like a good idea at the time but is there enough interest for it to be feasible long term?

Firstly take the pressure off the community aspect of your site by expanding other areas – run a blog, add an articles section or find some other area of the site depending on your topic. Reduce the size of your forum or community site as necessary to avoid giving the empty impression. Reward loyal users by featuring them in your blog, giving them moderator abilities or perhaps involving them in bigger decisions surrounding the site. Investigate forming relationships with related websites and perhaps offer incentives to other communities for joining your site.

Final Note – in conclusion, the technique I am suggesting is analysing your website and approach to find or make room for link building opportunities. This is simply a change in mindset to the traditional idea of trying all the latest approaches that surface through forums and blogs.

One Google Mail Account for Multiple Websites

If you are anything like me you will own multiple domains and answer emails from them all. You may even answer emails on behalf of other companies as a freelancer or you might want to manage multiple online personalities for website promotion.

It can look unprofessional to reply from only one address but trying to keep on top of multiple different mailboxes can be a hassle, especially if you want an online solution that you can access anywhere.

So the way I solved this was by using Google Mail. As well as having the tools to manage email from multiple domains I consider it head and shoulders above the competition. Primarily the power of the search within Google Mail finally convinced me to break the old time wasting habit of sorting emails into folders and sub-folders. I now just archive every email and have never had a problem finding anything in the three years I have been a user.

As mentioned previously, Google Mail is an online solution but I often feel that some people underestimate how useful this is. Many companies will lavish massive budgets on an “enterprise” email solution such as Microsoft Exchange so they can access all email from anywhere, yet Google Mail will do this for free and doesn’t require an expert on the payroll. Companies interested in this might want to look further into Google Apps For Domains which provides email, calendar, documents and more.

With danger of painting myself as a Google Mail Fanboy, the Labs (regularly updated tools and features), virtually unlimited data storage, labels (alternative to folders), filters and more made using Google Mail irresistible to me.

But I digress. How do you use it to manage multiple websites?

The first step involves your hosting/domain administration. Forward all email going to any address on the domain to your Google Mail address. While some paranoid people might believe this will invite a torrent of spam, trust me when I say it doesn’t (either that or the spam filters are doing a great job).

Quick hint: In Dreamhost (and maybe other hosts) you cannot forward all email to an external address for security reasons. Get around this by forwarding all the email to a single address on the same domain, then forward that single address to your GMail address (e.g. *@domain.com to contact@domain.com, then contact@domain.com to frogsoup@googlemail.com).

Do this for every domain and then you should be receiving all your email to one place. If you have single addresses to forward (e.g. yourname@a-company-you-freelance-for.com) or you have multiple people answering email on that website, modify above.

Now that you are getting all email into your Google Mail account, you need to setup each address you want to be able to “Send Mail As”. Simply go to settings and click the option “Send mail from another address”. You will receive a confirmation email for each one and then you are good to go.

When you compose or reply to an email, you will be able to select which address to send from. The default address can be set from within options and you can choose to “Reply from the same address to which the message was sent”.

Important Warning: Your Google Mail address is still sent in the “sender” field on your email header. Generally this shouldn’t cause a problem but unfortunately some old versions of Outlook incorrectly display something like “From you@googlemail.com on behalf of email@yourdomain.com” – nice one Microsoft. Read more here. I have had clients bring this up so it does happen, but I would recommend just using a clean @googlemail.com address (e.g. your name or company name) in case it does.

In essence this is it, although there are more tips below for making the most of this functionality.

A useful Labs tool is Canned Responses (by Chad P). This allows you to record default messages and quickly choose from them when composing an email or replying. I use this for having different signatures for different addresses and also for stock messages for specific websites I run. A big time saver.

The filters tool on Google Mail is as comprehensive as any I have used. You can perform many actions on email and here are some suggestions:

  • Delete email coming to a certain address. Useful if a specific address gets overloaded with spam.
  • Apply labels depending on website. You can have a label for each website, allowing you to view only that websites email. This can be setup using the “to” address.
  • Auto archive email. If you are getting notifications that are useful to keep but you don’t need to read (perhaps debug info?) auto archive it.
  • Flag as important. If emails coming to a certain address need dealing with first, give it a star or important flag.

As a side benefit to this type of setup, you can now use any address at your domain as a throwaway email. For example, use forumname@mydomain.com to sign up at a forum and if they sell your email address then you can apply a filter above. The bonus is you don’t have to do anything to setup these emails – just use them.

What are your experiences with this? Have you solved it a different way or can you improve on this? Add your comments below.

Using the Google Analytics Cookies

In this article I will be looking at the raw data that Google Analytics records, picking apart the Google cookies and showing some examples of how to extract and use that data.

I personally find Google Analytics a great free tool and use it as default on most of my sites. There is of course the old privacy accusations that follow Google around (I have some insight and warnings for a future post) but generally I don’t let this keep me up at night.

On a project I found myself wanting access to certain Google Analytics data from within my own custom admin dashboard. I had looked at recording my own information but consider it bad practice to duplicate in this way. Another option I considered was exporting )data using the Google Analytics API but unfortunately the quota limits of 10000 requests per 24 hours (more API limits detailed here) meant I couldn’t have the real time statistics I wanted.

Eventually I decided to take a look at using the Google Analytics cookies themselves and recording the data locally. This also gave the benefit of being able to link website actions (in this case adding a product to cart, removing it etc.) to a specific Google Analytics user and therefore giving me a bigger picture of my user habits.

So as an overview, this is how I did it:
1) The page loads with the Google Analytics javascript, creating the cookie and sending data to Google
2) After the Google Analytics javascript, an Ajax request is fired passing along any local website actions (e.g. adding to cart)
3) The code run by the Ajax request deciphers the Google Analytics cookies and records all the information locally

There is a good reason for using an Ajax request. With PHP (or indeed any server side language) the Cookie details are accurate to the point of the initial page request. If this is a new visitor the Google Analytics Cookies will not yet exist as the Javascript has not been executed, therefore the script must fire after the Google Analytics Javascript has run.

Using Ajax also ensures that the details of the final page request are recorded.

Picking Apart the Google Analytics Cookies

The part that required the most figuring out was what the data within the Google Analytics cookies meant. There are actually three Cookies placed by Google Analytics:

__utma – A “long term” cookie containing the main details of the user
__utmb – A “current session” cookie containing details about the current website visit
__utmc – A “no expiration” cookie which is used only to determine if the user has closed their browser (therefore initiating a new session when they next visit)
__utmz – A “current session” cookie containing referral details about the current visit

Each cookie contains data seperated by a period (.), with the __utmz cookie further seperating details with a pipe (|). The cookies break down as follows (the segments represent the data in the order as they appear in the string):

__utma
Segment 1: Unique number identifying the user. Useful for keeping track of return visits and as a primary key for storing locally.
Segment 2: Unix timestamp of this visitors first ever visit to the website.
Segment 3: Unix timestamp of this visitors previous visit to the website.
Segment 4: Unix timestamp of this visitors current visit to the website (the start of the current session).
Segment 5: Total number of sessions.

__utmb
Segment 1: Pages viewed in the current session
Segment 2: Unknown (My notes say Responses…)

__utmz
Segment 2: Referral Count
Segment 3: Source Count
Segment 4: This segment contains all the information about where the visitor came from. It is seperated by pipes and then the label/value is seperated again by an equals sign. An example for this segment: “utmcsr=google|utmccn=(organic)|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=keywords”. The information is as follows:
utmcsr: Source
utmcmd: Medium (e.g. for google it can be organic or adwords)
utmctr: The keywords used
utmcct: Campaign content. Adwords information.
utmccn: Campaign name. Adwords information.
utmgclid: Click ID from Adwords.

Some other cookies you may also see are __utmv and __utmx which are related to customer user segments and the Website Optimizer respectively.

If you have any questions on this leave a comment and I will update the article so everyone can benefit. You may also be able to glean some information from (although they don’t spec the cookies in detail):

http://code.google.com/apis/analytics/docs/concepts/gaConceptsCookies.html