Software Review:
Zeus, Reciprocal Link Generator

Zeus is avaliable for a free trial from Cyber-Robotics

Inbound hyper-links to one's site are the rage these days, and rightly so. The constantly changing search engine game can result in big traffic swings; an algorithm changes, a database gets deleted, and suddenly a successful site is scrambling for traffic.

Not only do links to a web site help with link popularity in search engines, they can be traffic generators in their own right. And while most links to a site won't generate as many hits as a #1 ranking in Yahoo, links from popular sites can generate significant traffic; even lower volume sites, in aggregate, can deliver plenty of hits.

Since this traffic is spread out over dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of sites, it tends to be far more stable than traffic from search engines and, of course, does not have a recurring cost like paid advertising or purchased rankings.

The problem with getting other sites to link to yours is that it can be very time consuming. Getting a few links is easy - suppliers, customers, and industry hubs are often easy to persuade. Embarking on a major link generation program is another story.

The process of identifying possible link sites, contacting them, tracking established links, re-contacting others, and so on becomes a major time-sink and a huge record-keeping task. In my experience, the complexity seems to grow exponentially with the number of sites. While it is easy to remember the first few dozen sites one has contacted, and what their status is, as the number of sites viewed gets into the hundreds or thousands, automation is essential.

The other obstacle to getting other sites to link to you is motivating the remote site. While there are many sites that will add almost any link that is suggested to them, most sites do not add links willy-nilly. The most common incentive by far is to offer a "reciprocal link", i.e., each site agrees to link to the other.

Managing these reciprocal links can become a major task, too. If one has at most a few dozen links, a single "links" page is more than adequate. As one develops hundreds or thousands of links, however, an organized structure is essential if the links are to be useful by the visitor and attractive to a potential reciprocal link partner.

Zeus, from Cyber-Robotics, is an impressive software package that tames the linkage monster by automating almost all of the busywork and record keeping. Trying to describe all of the features of this product in detail is beyond the scope of this review. We will, however, try to hit the high points as well as summarize its usability and results.

Link Site Identification.

The first challenge facing the webmaster hoping to obtain links is to find sites that are likely to link to his site. Getting started is easy enough - existing business contacts, and perhaps some keyword searches at directories or search engines, will generate plenty of starting points.

Proceeding from there is where things get complicated in a manual search. Either one must burrow deeply into search results, or examine the relevant sites for links of their own, all the while keeping track of which sites have been previously found. Potentially relevant sites must then be visited to confirm their relevance as well as to find a contact e-mail address.

Zeus makes the site identification process easy by letting its spider search the web on its own. The user simply enters a handful of initial sites and selects appropriate keywords, and Zeus begins the search.

The Zeus spider analyzes each site it visits to see if it is relevant. If, based on an analysis of the first few pages using the selected keywords, the site is not relevant, Zeus exits the site and records the URL so that it is not visited in the future. If the site is found to be relevant, Zeus logs the site as a potential "theme site," keeps looking through the site, and records all hyperlinks found for later visiting.

In my initial trial of the software, Zeus needed little prompting to develop a database of sites. After being seeded with less than a dozen sites, the list of sites to visit grew quickly. After a few days of use, more than a thousand sites had been found, and after several weeks of intermittent use, the list of sites remaining to visit grew above 10,000.

Keyword selection and the popularity of a particular topic will, of course, influence this. If a small number of uncommon keywords is used, or if there are very few sites related to a topic, Zeus can exhaust his backlog of sites and require "reseeding" to continue searching for sites. Adding new keywords and/or feeding Zeus some hyperlink-rich sites will get the search going again.

Keyword selection is a critical part of achieving successful results. Too few keywords will result in valid sites being omitted as possible link partners and the ignoring of potentially good hyperlinks on the skipped sites. Too many or poorly chosen keywords will result in irrelevant sites being identified as possible theme sites.

Zeus lets the user set a degree of uniqueness for various keywords. Words that almost certainly indicate a relevant site can be assigned the highest level of uniqueness; words that may indicate relevance but have other usage can be assigned lower values. Careful keyword selection at the beginning is important.

In my initial experiment, I didn't attempt to think of ALL the unique keywords I could have. Later, I realized that I had omitted some relatively powerful words which probably resulted in some relevant sites being skipped.

Zeus spidering has a few limitations. Zeus won't deep spider frames sites (though it will suggest them as possible theme sites), and won't spider individual web pages (i.e., hyperlinks that don't point at root domains or user sites in "~" directories). The ability to accommodate these types of sites and links would increase the productivity of the software.

The Zeus spider behavior can be customized by the user - relevance scores, number of pages visited, how to determine when to "make the call" as to site relevance, etc. can be adjusted based on user experience. Spidering more pages per site can find more links, but will result in fewer total site visits in the same time period. The Zeus spider algorithm has been designed to identify likely pages with links and with contact e-mail addresses with as few pages visited as possible, and users are encouraged to experiment with reducing their settings.

Zeus performs this spidering with no human intervention once started. Common user practice is to let Zeus run all night, and then review results, send e-mail, etc., during the work day.

Selecting Theme Sites.

Once Zeus has identified potentially relevant sites, the user must confirm these selections to add them to the "theme site" database. This is done using the "theme site viewer" window, a complex-looking control panel that includes a browser window.The viewer displays the page title, description, e-mail addresses that it found, along with site scores and a wealth of other information.

To confirm a site as a theme site, the user must select a theme category (more on this later) that is appropriate for the site, and can also select an e-mail address from those found on the site. The browser window can be used to view the home page for the site as well as navigate around the site. One can select a menu option to open the site using the system default browser if desired.

One of the productivity aids that is integral to Zeus is its e-mail address gathering feature. It gathers the addresses it finds on the site, sorting them into two groups - domain addresses (those addresses with the same domain name as the site) and others. It is almost always possible to select an appropriate address without paging through the site, a major time-saver.

In my experiment, I found that about a quarter of the time no address was found. Most often, the site lacked any visible e-mail address. Sometimes, an e-mail address could be found on a page that Zeus didn't visit or in a frameset page not seen by Zeus.

Setting Up Theme Categories.

While a single "links" page may satisfy some site owners, the serious webmaster will find categorization of links essential. Zeus lets the user set up categories to reflect specific topics. The user can select the most appropriate category for a site, or set up a new category if none exists.

The current version of Zeus (at time of writing) supports only a single level of category; the next version, according the developer, will allow a multi-tiered directory structure (like Yahoo, for example) to make navigation easier.

Some planning at the beginning is essential. Like any indexing or categorization process, the Zeus theme categories should be set up with the number of sites you will have in a particular category.

For example, a site about hobbies might have a single theme category for "astronomy." A site about astronomy, on the other hand, might have detailed categories like "Telescope Manufacturers," "Observatories in Canada," and so on. While sites can always be assigned to new theme categories if you change your structure, it is much easier to assign them to their long-term category in the first place.

Contacting Sites and Reciprocal Linkage.

One of the tedious activities in any link program is contacting the sites you would like to link with. Zeus includes a variety of powerful built-in e-mail features to make the contact process as easy as possible. Templates for standard link requests, follow-up requests, link confirmations, etc. are built in.

The templates allow certain form field information to be included in the body of the e-mail, making the communication more personal. In addition, a personal message can be added to any e-mail for further personalization. E-mail can be sent individually, or through a highly efficient mail-merge process.

The "carrot" for your potential link partners is an enhanced listing on your site. If they establish a link to you and let you know, flagging their site as a "Link Partner" in the Zeus database will give them a listing at the top of the page in larger type. For sites that would like to exchange a banner or graphic link, Zeus lets you add the appropriate file location. As you receive replies, you can easily flag a site as a link partner, as well as adjust the title and description that will appear in your link directory if needed.

Publishing your Link Directory.

Another process automated by Zeus is the maintenance of your link pages. A page of links for each theme category is created on your local drive and uploaded to your website by Zeus's built-in FTP. Each page includes your own text and graphics, a directory of theme categories, and the links for the topic of that page.

In the past, there was a great similarity between all Zeus-created directory pages. Newly introduced templates, however, give users control over most of the HTML on the link pages. This allows each user to make the link directory pages match other pages on the site and also appear completely different than Zeus pages on other sites.

Link partner sites are automatically placed at the top of the list with appropriate enhancements. All listings include a title and description which, unless edited manually, are obtained automatically when the site is spidered. Once the templates are set up, publishing revised links pages is literally a one-click operation.

Learning Curve.

On one hand, Zeus operation is fairly intuitive and each function can be set up and learned reasonably quickly. On the other hand, there are so many features built into Zeus that the neophyte user may well be intimidated.

The Cyber-Robotics website offers plenty of help, including extensive FAQ sections (frequently asked questions), pre-action checklists for important functions, and a support bulletin board. The support board seems to attract mostly new-user questions, and response time is almost always very fast.

Based on my own experience, the new user might be well advised to do a "test topic" first, just to get used to the interface and to understand how Zeus scores sites, etc.

My initial evaluation run probably was less efficient than it could have been due to less than stellar keyword selection, and also inappropriate deletion of some theme sites. (A site that is relevant to your theme but which you don't want to include in your link directory, like a competitor site, should be flagged as "no e-mail" in Zeus and not deleted; this will retain links found on their site for spidering by Zeus but keep them off your pages.)

Results.

A review of Zeus link directories that have been established for a while suggests that roughly ten to fifteen percent of listed sites become link partners. This will clearly depend on the types of sites contacted as well as the skill and persistence of the partnering effort.

Small private sites with link pages are most often very willing to oblige, while large commercial sites may eschew the use of outbound links altogether. Popular sites may be more difficult to sign up, but are often worth some extra effort due to their traffic and search engine "importance".

Using a conservative ten percent rule of thumb, a Zeus link directory of 1000 websites will probably generate over 100 inbound links. Actually, the number of links may be somewhat greater - not all sites that set up links bother to send an e-mail notification of their action, thus missing out on link partner status.

If the user has chosen theme categories relevant to the host website, these inbound links will probably generate a bit of direct traffic as well as boost the site in those search engines that consider relevant link popularity in their rankings. Spidering of the site by search engine robots may also be improved by virtue of links to the site popping up all over the web.

There is no fixed limit to the size of your link directory, so as long as you keep finding relevant sites, you can keep expanding your listings, and, presumably, your inbound links.

User Content Value.

One aspect of Zeus performance that our evaluation didn't establish was the "content value" of the link pages. That is, will users find the link pages a valuable tool, bookmark their favorites, and return frequently?

This question is easy to answer - users find topical link lists quite valuable. Sites that I work with often receive significant traffic from individually maintained resource sites. Of course, the majority of links pages get very little traffic. They key is having a well organized and comprehensive link resource - if it is useful, people will come back. On the other hand, if it is a semi-random assortment of sites assembled solely for the purpose of boosting link popularity, users won't visit more than once.

Often, successful link pages and directories are accompanied by discussion groups, chat forums, classified ads, etc. - all devices that keep the site visible, fresh, and encourage visitors to come back frequently.

Search Engine Content Value.

Our evaluation period was too short to establish how well link directory pages might perform in search engines. Instead, we looked at one well-publicized and successful (in terms of site traffic) Zeus user site and evaluated its performance in related searches.

We found that the site, and, in fact, the link page itself tended to perform well in some search engines for non-competitive word combinations. Google, Excite, and FAST seemed to rank these pages highest; performance in other engines was very spotty, with relatively few top-ten positions either for the relevant link page or any other page on the site.

The site achieved no high rankings for the single word searches we tested nor for even slightly competitive searches. It should be noted that the site itself has minimal optimization evident, and claims to achieve most of its high traffic numbers from links and bookmarks.

While we would hesitate to place too much weight on this admittedly limited analysis, it would appear that creating a directory of links with Zeus is no panacea for poor search engine performance. On the other hand, by employing optimization techniques both to the site as a whole and, to the extent possible, to the Zeus-created pages, high positions should be possible.

Rankings in search engines that analyze link-popularity and vertical theme rating, (such as Google and Altavista) should benefit disproportionately.

Level of Commitment.

Compared to a manual link generation effort, Zeus is at least an order of magnitude more productive. On the other hand, significant user effort is needed to achieve solid results. A period of a few of days will be needed to set up the software, learn its functions, design the link page templates, etc., though this time may be spread out over a week or more.

Once the user is past the learning curve stage, it is likely that a minimum of an hour a day will be needed if Zeus is allowed to run each night. Each day, new sites must be reviewed, e-mail sent, directories updated, etc.

For maximum efficiency, sites found by Zeus should be reviewed daily. That way you can delete irrelevant sites to prevent wasted visits by Zeus to check out links from those sites.

Some responses to link requests will have to be answered with a manual e-mail because they ask questions or want non-standard information. Periodic category adjustments will be needed.

The number of sites that need to be reviewed each day will depend on Zeus settings and the speed of the internet connection. (Cyber-Robotics estimates a typical daily catch of 50 - 75 theme sites.) A faster connection means more theme sites found but also more human effort to review and categorize them. A webmaster planning an aggressive Zeus effort should expect to devote time each day to the process.

Abuse Potential.

Like other software tools, Zeus presents the user with the opportunity for abuse. By harvesting large numbers of sites and e-mail addresses, using poorly designed theme categories and link pages, and sending poorly worded or inadequately personalized e-mails, a user could appear to be a spammer.

A large number of 'spammy' users might make it difficult for legitimate Zeus users to solicit links. The Cyber-Robotics website contains advice on how to avoid the appearance of spam; one can only hope that users follow it.

Summary.

Zeus is a unique and powerful tool for reciprocal link management. While it may appear to be complex to new users, it is fairly easy to once the user is down the learning curve. Although it requires a commitment of time on the part of the webmaster for it to work properly, it is far more productive than attempting to organize reciprocal links manually.

System Requirements.

Zeus runs on a Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0 (minimum Service Pack 3), or 2000 PC and requires a dial-up or network Internet connection. Minimum hardware specifications were not available at press time.

Purchase Information.

Zeus comes available for a free trial to evaluate the potential of the product in the best possible context - practical application to your own needs. For pricing information click here.

 
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