We’ve had a number of discussions in our office regarding what’s become of linkbuilding, and how that aspect of SEO has radically changed over the past year. Before we go much further, a brief history.
Within the past year or so, Google has launched two significant algorithm updates: Panda and Penguin. While Google’s Panda update and its multiple iterations mainly focused on content issues (scraper sites, duplicate content, “over optimized” or spammy content, sites with high bounce rates, etc.), Google’s Penguin update, first released in April 2012, specifically targeted inbound links. While Google had taken steps in the past to limit the rewards of questionable linkbuilding, it seemed that most sites still managed to prosper using shady techniques. Penguin has proven to be a different story altogether, and unlike its rather endearing namesake, this update has teeth.
(An aside – penguins do not have teeth. They have sharp barbs on their tongues and in their throats that allow them to catch and hold fish. Not being an ornithologist, I looked it up.)
Webmasters/SEOs who’d used grey or black hat linkbuilding techniques saw Google traffic plummet. Forums were (and still are) filled with rants about how Google hates webmasters, hates organic search, is trying to bankrupt anyone who doesn’t participate in paid search, is evil, needs to be stopped, needs to be destroyed by Bing, and so forth.
But what really changed? What is a link supposed to be, supposed to do? What’s Google up to with this?
On the surface, it’s pretty simple. Google has always, I repeat, in caps, ALWAYS said that links should occur naturally as a result of people liking what’s going on on your site. If someone, especially someone who also has a site that many other people like, visits your site and finds it to be an excellent resource, they’ll link to you. Google takes a look at this and says “hey, if a highly-regarded site is linking to this site, they must be a good resource, one that we should serve up when people are searching for this topic.” The more links your site has from quality sites, the more equity your site builds, and the better chance that you’ll show up higher in the search results. That’s it.
Easier said than done, though. Let’s say you’ve just launched a site – do you expect those influencers to find it on their own? How are they going to do that? You’ve just engaged in the web equivalent of opening a store in the middle of nowhere with zero advertising. Good luck.
Prior to Penguin, people could artificially build a great deal of link equity by methods such as buying links from highly regarded sites (which, increasingly, are no longer highly regarded because they sell links), getting a million links posted in directories that were only there for the purpose of increasing rankings, and setting up their own link networks and posting links on multiple sites that, topically, had little to no relation to one another. One could argue that this is a valid form of promotion, but really, when’s the last time you actually used a general web directory? Should a company site that sells home flooring link to a fantasy football site? Of what benefit is that to visitors? Links should help complete a story – if you visit a site that sells home flooring supplies, you may be interested in another site that provides DYI home flooring instruction. You may also be interested in fantasy football, but that’s pretty random, and wouldn’t fit Google logic. Finally, the question you should always ask yourself is whether you’re doing what you’re doing because it makes sense, or because it’s “good for SEO.” If it’s both, good for you! If it’s the latter, don’t do it.
So, what now? Does “linkbuilding,” as a discipline within SEO, even exist anymore?
Kind of. While the road to quick results is always tempting, it’s obviously not sustainable. It shouldn’t be; SEO is a long-haul proposition. What was linkbuilding, then, has evolved into relationship building. It’s not easy, but nothing lasting is. Here are some tips:
- Be a good resource – Seems pretty elementary, but you’d be surprised how many people have a site simply because they’re supposed to have a site, then don’t put any work into it. You aren’t going to get people to link to you if you have nothing to offer. Create solid, compelling content – not only text but whatever else is appropriate (videos, images, etc.) – about your products or services, your place in the industry, what makes you different: why are you doing what you’re doing? Why should people listen to you/buy your products/hire you?
- Research your industry online, and start building connections – I can’t imagine there’s any industry out there that, by now, doesn’t have a solid online community populated with thought leaders. Do your research (via Google searches using relevant industry terms) and find out who’s prominent and has built a following online. Start reading and commenting on blogs (not to get a link in the comment – that’ll out you as a spammer pretty quickly – but to get your name known as someone who knows what they’re talking about), participate in forums, provide advice, help folks out. Once people start seeing you as someone they can turn to, they’ll start looking at your site, and likely linking to it. Also, once you establish yourself as a community member, the chances of writing a guest post increase significantly. More exposure. In addition, when you do reach out, how you reach out is important:
- Be a person – It’s weird how few people do this, which may be why it’s so powerful. When you do make contact, be yourself. Be honest. You’re writing to another person – tell them who you are, why you’re writing, why you like their blog (e.g.), what you like about their blog, and why you think it would make sense to submit a guest post, if they’re interested. No cut and paste form emails. Think of how many impersonal emails you get every day, and how well those work. They don’t, at all. You’re making a personal connection – that’s not going to happen if you don’t make it personal. Take the time to do this right.
- Be generous in your own blog – If you know of a great resource, don’t be afraid to link to it. If it’s a blog post, comment and say “great post! I linked to it from my blog.” Let them know you can provide a link if they’d like to take a look. If not, no big whoop – while outgoing links don’t necessarily help you, they do show the engines that you’re an active participant in a community. Not a bad idea.
- Industry-specific directories – This one of the few cases in which getting links from directories makes sense. If there’s a directory specific to your industry, and that’s useful to people looking for services/products in your industry, and you don’t have to pay for the link, I’d recommend you go for it. Use your best judgement though – if it looks spammy, it probably is.
- Use social media appropriately – It’s not a secret that social media can play a huge role in making connections and getting people to visit your site, but use it wisely. Keep on topic. Follow other people who are relevant to your industry. Pay attention to your mentions, and be gracious. And stay involved – once you’ve started the conversation, don’t just stop posting/tweeting because it’s time consuming. On the other hand, don’t deluge the network with fifty posts a day. It’s a fine line. Also, for the love of everything holy, keep your professional and personal presences separate. There have been several pretty high profile screw-ups lately (here’s a slideshow of some pretty severe missteps for your edification): don’t be that person.
- Think local – This tip obviously only applies to those who are local entities, i.e., have a brick and mortar location or localized services. Local directories are the second situation in which I’d recommend exploring opportunities. Again, use your best judgement. Also, take part in your community. Remember – this is all about relationship building. Attend local meet and greets, then reach out on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Sponsor local events or sports teams – often these entities will have websites and will link to sponsors, and this will help you show up in local search.
Those are just a few ways to begin building relationships (and the resultant link equity) online post-Penguin. I’m sure there are more, and I definitely welcome feedback. The game has definitely changed, but we would argue it’s for the better. SEO has never been easy – that’s why we exist.
Written by Christopher Carlson