Friday, February 10, 2012

How To Link To Other Websites From Your Tea Website - And How Not To

This post continues my series on best practices for tea company websites. This page is about how to link to other websites from your tea company's website. My guidelines are as follows:

  • Link to a broad array of websites, picking the ones most relevant and informative; do not make your site a "dead-end" on the web.

  • Link to coverage of your company in news media and reviews of your teas or business on third-party sites, including blogs, RateTea, Steepster, Teaviews, Tea Review Blog, and the like. Link to reliable, independent websites that make your business look good.

  • Avoid having a "links" page, and absolutely avoid link schemes. Distribute links naturally throughout your site, where they will be most useful to your visitors, and, if you make pages that are lists or collections of links, keep them topic-focused and hand-picked for usefulness, never dependent on whether or not webmasters have linked to your site.

Link to informational websites when relevant:

One web design philosophy which I've encountered among some people, and seen manifested in some websites, is to minimize the amount of outbound links from your company's website to other websites. I do not think this is a beneficial approach. People often cite two reasons for this approach: outbound links can cause visitors to leave your site, and outbound links "cause pagerank to flow out of your website". The first rationale, in my opinion, is a valid concern, but the second is not. And the first point of concern is limited: if someone really likes your site, they are going to open links in a new window and keep your site open, or come back or bookmark it, and these are the visitors that really matter...the transient visitors who you'd lose by an outbound link are probably less valuable than the visitors who you will impress by relevant outbound links.

No one understands Google's algorithms fully. However, Google has published numerous explanations and recommendations for webmasters about how they recommend using outbound links. I recommend reading Linking out: Often it's just applying common sense for a full explanation straight from the horse's mouth.

For a brief summary, this page recommends to add thoughtful, relevant outbound links, and to choose links that show evidence of research and expertise, linking to the best resources related to your site. And, as both a webmaster and web browser/user, I agree wholeheartedly with these recommendations. I tend to trust, like, re-visit, share, and link to websites that have abundant outbound links of high-quality more than ones that have few or no outbound links, or ones that have sloppy outbound links.

Similarly, I have found that the pages on which I have put substantial effort into selecting and adding relevant outbound links tend to receive a lot of traffic, including traffic from search engines. My own data has given me a strong intuition that outbound links are likely to directly influence search rankings, and that pages with relevant, high-quality outbound links tend to rank more highly than pages with few or low-quality outbound links.

Link to third-party coverage of your company and its teas:

A large number of tea companies have on-site ratings and reviews of their teas, written by customers. Although these reviews can sometimes be helpful to repeat customers looking for information on new teas to order, they are unlikely to impress new customers. Why? For the simple reason that they are hosted on your website, so they cannot be trusted in the same way reviews hosted on third party websites like blogs, RateTea, or Steepster can be.

You may be a completely trustworthy person, and your business may be a pillar of integrity in the tea world, but your new potential customers do not know this. When they visit your website for the first time, they are likely looking for ways to assess the legitimacy of your company. To this end, anything you say about your company and your teas is going to be taken by these customers with a grain of salt. Potential customers do not know whether you are screening your reviews to only post favorable ones, or worse, posting fake reviews. Even if you're not doing anything deliberately dishonest, the reviews posted on your site are likely to come from people who already like your company, and as different people have different tastes, people are right to be cautious about giving weight to opinions presented on your own website.

Information published in third-party sources, on the other hand, is perceived as more reliable. When a tea blogger shows an established history of reviewing teas from a number of different companies, sometimes giving rave reviews, but other times, feeling more indifferent or even negative, and your company has a number of positive reviews, this counts for a lot. Similarly, when you have a blend like Rishi Tea's Masala Chai, which has three reviews on RateTea claiming that it is the person's favorite Masala Chai blend, and numerous favorable Steepster reviews, this counts for a lot.

Rishi Tea's Masala Chai has favorable ratings both on RateTea and Steepster. Both sites have multiple users claiming in the written review that it is their favorite Masala chai blend. These sorts of reviews are much more likely to convince someone to buy your tea than a review written by a customer and hosted on your own site.

Avoid having a "links" page, and absolutely avoid link schemes.

Above, I discussed the importance of having high-quality outbound links. What, then, is the problem with a dedicated links page? A generic "links" page is a sort of aimless, purposeless page. That's not to say that pages that consist mostly of lists or collections of links are not useful. For example, Tea Guy Speaks maintains a very useful tea blog list, and on RateTea there are numerous lists, such as our list of tea brands, and the page for each brand links then to the relevant company website. Usually, I only click "links" pages for one purpose--to judge or evaluate the website's legitimacy by checking to see if they are actually putting any effort into choosing their links.

A links page that shows evidence of a link scheme sends up red flags to me, and makes me highly unlikely to link to the company website. The following page is from a tea company I learned about recently, one whose teas have received glowing reviews on a number of tea blogs:

The page above, with numerous links to unrelated, low-quality websites, and no links to the high-quality, authoritative websites in the area of tea, made such a bad impression on me that it made me highly reluctant to link to the tea company website that this page is hosted on. I sincerely hope this company takes down their links page soon, because I would like to link to their page from RateTea, but am reluctant to link to websites engaging in this sort of scheme.

What is a link scheme?

A link scheme is a system or setup which intends to manipulate ranking in search engines through creating links to a certain website or collection of websites. There is a fine line of what constitutes a link scheme vs. what constitutes legitimate networking between webmasters in related areas, but I think Google explains how and where to draw the line pretty clearly in their page on Link schemes, in the Google Webmaster Tools Content Guidelines. In particular, Google identifies anything as a link scheme that can be characterized as follows:

Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")

Sometimes link schemes can get more complex, like the tea blog "award" scam I wrote about a while back. But either way, link schemes are best avoided, for several compelling reasons:

  • Link schemes can result in search engines penalizing your website, causing it to drop in rankings, and in some cases, causing it to be banned or removed from search results entirely.

  • Even if your site is not banned or penalized, link schemes, especially those that demonstrate an overt "link to us and we'll link to you" mentality, make a bad impression on webmasters, and will result in many of the most authoritative and high-traffic websites not linking to you.

  • Because only low-quality websites tend to engage in link schemes, you are unlikely to get any truly valuable links by participating in them. I experimented with link schemes back when I did not know any better, and I did not once receive any quality traffic from a website that had a "link to us and we'll link to you" policy.

Rather than getting too stuck on what not to do, I want to re-emphasize the best way to include outbound links. I recommend to link to the best and most relevant tea websites, link to media coverage and websites or blogs that review or write about your company's teas, and link to relevant pages on related topics. For example, if you have pages about the health benefits of tea, you will do well to link to studies on tea, or authoritative websites that can be reliable sources backing up claims about tea and health. Distribute your links naturally throughout your website, where they will be most relevant to readers.

What do you think?

Do you think this advice given here is solid, or do you have any quibbles with it or points that you think you could improve on? Have you ever engaged in any link schemes, and if so, did they pay off in any way, or did you find any evidence that they actually harmed you? Do you react similarly to how I do when you see a link scheme? How would you handle the dilemmas that I face often, where I want to link to a company from RateTea but am reluctant to link to the site because it shows an overt link scheme?

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