The Death of Link Building and the Rebirth of Link Earning - Whiteboard Friday

Posted on Thursday, October 18th, 2012 and is filed under News, SEO. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Posted by randfish

We've all known someone who got hit by Google's algo updates. Whether you've personally been affected or you know someone who has, it's not fun to bounce back from and can can impact your SEO efforts if not addressed appropriately

This week, Rand discusses the egress of old link building practices and the ingress of new (old) link earning strategies that will help your site stay relevant in the SERPs and drive your traffic with a better user experience.

Video Transcription

"Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I want to talk a little bit, philosophically, about something that's happened with the Web, that's happened as a result of how Google is keeping up with webspam and how their algorithms are evolving.

You've likely seen that this year has been an incredibly active year from Google's Webspam Team, specifically focused on a lot of linking stuff with Penguin, now the exact match domain updates. We saw some other updates that look link related that weren't specifically Penguin, but appear to be penalizing certain types of links. Article marketing, article directories getting hit. A bunch of the directories, like general web directories and pay for submission directories and SEO friendly directories getting hit earlier this year.

And, because of all this, I am really getting the sense that what Google is trying to say is, "Stop link building and start link earning." Literally, I feel like the message coming out of Google is, "If this is a link that you go out onto the Web and acquire as an SEO person trying to build a link in the way that links have classically been built or gotten, we don't want you to have that link, or more likely, we don't want to count that link, and if that's all you do, we might actually be penalizing you through an algorithm filter like Penguin.'

So I'm kind of seeing this as a return, a rebirth of the link earning ways of the Web. Remember, early on in the Web, sort of mid to late '90s, before search engines became huge and link building was a big part of SEO, so you can kind of think like '94 to '97, '98, that kind of thing, it was really about earning links that are going to bring me relevant traffic. That's the only thing that mattered, because search was bringing some valuable stuff, but most of the search engines had some directory bases or it was a lot of keyword stuff.

So getting traffic from those relevant sites that could send me people who would actually convert or do something on my website that I wanted them to do, that was what the game was all about. Then, Google comes out, Alta Vista and some of the other search engines kind of switch over to this link model, and now it's, "Oh, I really want high PageRank links. I'm looking for that little green bar that's filled up all the way. When I see that in the toolbar, I know that if I just get some links on there to my page, I can start ranking for all sorts of stuff."

So Google gets a little smarter, right, and now it's, "Oh, yeah, anchor text." That really started emerging early 2000's. Now as they're getting more sophisticated, it's sort of, "Well, we have to get certain types of authority links with the right balance of anchor text," and these kinds of things. Now, really the last 12 to 18 months, and even more heavily the last 9 months since that first Penguin update, we've been sort of seeing a return to this, "Man, I better get good links that I've earned, rather than acquired or gotten, because if I don't, those acquired, those gotten, those built links seem to be able to hurt me and that's dangerous stuff."

Let's try to imagine this. I want to go link building. These are sort of the old-school link building tactics and their equivalent in a link earning world, a world where we are going out and trying to earn the links that we acquire rather than building them, buying them, getting them, forcing them, pushing them, dropping them, all these kinds of things.

So imagine, like, link exchanges and reciprocal links, which happen a lot. To my mind, the new version of that is the cross promotion, the partnership, where I say essentially, "Oh, you know, SEOmoz has a partnership with Distilled, and so there are lots of links happening back and forth in a very sort of natural, non-manipulatively SEO sense." No one's dropping anchor text. No one is putting links on specific pages. It's, "Where does it make sense, and how can we drive traffic back and forth in the right kinds of ways? If we promote DistilledU and they say,
'This is a really good blog post by one of our consultants,' then great."
That stuff sort of naturally happens, and it's that relevant traffic story.

E-mail blasts, you still get them, sadly. I'll tell you a funny story. Story time. So funny story, we got an e-mail from one of our PR people. We do some PR where we've actually hired a PR company, a company called Barokas here in Seattle, and they sort of do these PR pitches. So they were pitching some people, I think this was for our funding back in April, and the crazy part was that they got back responses from a couple of, I'm not going to name them because I'm not sure if Barokas would be upset with me if I did name them, but a couple of big press outlets that you've definitely heard of here in the United States that said, "We don't write about SEO companies." Oh, okay, don't write about SEO companies.

I think, I'm pretty sure that the reason for that is because they get so many press releases and e-mail blasts that are like, "Oh, write about this latest SEO company. SEO-blahblahblah." Junkie stuff and so they associate it with low quality. The new e-mail blast for links is social sharing for links. I share things socially. I hope that message gets magnified across social and that will lead organically to links. I will earn the links that I get by sharing them socially across my network and across the social platforms. People will see them and hopefully link back to me if that's relevant and interesting.

Buying links directly. Yeah, that's dumb. Just don't do that. You shouldn't have done that for many years. That's been gone for a long time. But I think the new way to do this is earn links directly with content. You can earn links very, very directly if you create the kind of content that you know someone wants to share, wants to link to, would embed, would write about or blog about or include in their press or their research or in something that says something nice about them. Yeah. That testimonial, right? All that kind of stuff can be directly earned with content. That's the new buy directly with dollars.

Submitting to directories. Yeah, well, that also hasn't been smart for a little while now, and Penguin has made that situation much worse. There was an interesting interview - you'll find it on inbound.org - with an ex-
member of the Webspam Team, the team that Matt Cutts is head of at Google. This guy is in Australia now, working on a new site, new project. There was an interview of him by an SEO guy, and he asked some questions about this. He said, "Yeah, you know, there's this myth that directories are entirely dead. If it's a curated list, where someone is maintaining a resource and something is included there, I still think those are very valuable."

I would agree, if you can get on to those curated lists. So think of, like, the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Companies in the US list or the Better Business Bureau directory in your area or Yelp's list of "Thai restaurants in Seattle." Those are curated lists and portals. That's a great place to get onto.

The article directories and article marketing. So this was never a particularly excellent idea, but it did work. Tragically, it totally worked for a while. Now it's actively hurting people like many of these other link building techniques. I think the link earning way to do that is to get a guest post featured on picky sites and blogs. This is very important. When I say "picky," what I mean is, people who care a tremendous amount about what's being put on their sites as opposed to those who accept nearly every type of guest post or guest article. That's really the article directories/article marketing world, and it's dangerous, bad stuff. They got hit by Panda first, then they got hit by Penguin later and just ugly. You don't want to mess around with that. But, if you can get your stuff featured on picky sites and blogs, what's beautiful is one link from a great blog in your industry or a news site in your industry, this is worth a hundred, maybe a thousand of these, even back in the day.

Old-school, super old-school link building tactic was leaving links on guestbooks, forums, open comments, do follow blogs, do follow links, all that kind of stuff. Obviously, you can see the results of that today, which are not good. I think the new version of that is participating in communities like these that are active and authentic and have real participation and real membership, in such a way that members of those networks, of those communities will notice you and then link to you organically. They'll find your stuff. They'll be like, "Oh, this Randfish person looks interesting. I'm going to check out his content. His content looks interesting too. I could use some of this stuff, or I'm going to reference this or I'm going to write about something, and I'll pull in a reference to something, a citation of something that he's made in the past." Great. That's terrific. But you better be authentically participating, or they'll think you're spam, and you better have that great content to back it up or you're not going to be earning those links.

Mining competitor's backlinks. I would not say, "Don't do this anymore." I still think this is valuable stuff, but if you just go through your competitor's backlinks and you try and get all of those links, a lot of the time, particularly in SEO heavy sorts of industries, you're going to see a ton of the rest of this stuff. A lot of people have a lot of these links from the classic days when these sorts of things were how people got links.

Now, the new thing that I always think about is going to Open Site Explorer or Topsy and looking at, "What is the content that's gotten the most links from my competitors or from people who are competitive in my field?" They don't necessarily need to be directly overlapping businesses. Looking at Topsy and seeing what's the most socially shared content, what's getting hot from this site, this blog, this research, this market leader, whoever it is, and then doing it better, oh, that's beautiful. When you do this, then I think it pays to go look at, "Hey, who was it that was linking to the interesting content that that site produced?" So mining in that fashion is valuable.

There used to be this practice where people would build up private networks of websites that could be called link farms sometimes. Or they built up public networks that were called link rings and link circuses and blog carnivals. I remember blog carnivals, which weren't always spammy, but then got used in very spammy ways for SEO. Those network links of sites, the new way to do that is to build a social network, building a social network that is actually made up of influencers, of people who can link to you, the linkerati, the people who own websites and who have a presence in Twitter, Google+, Facebook that can influence other people, that will get people paying attention to you. If you build this up, you'll accomplish far more than what this would do for you today.

So I am not saying that all of the link building tactics of yore are gone. There are certainly some that still exist. I mean, directory stuff, there could be some curated lists that still make sense. But, by and large, Google is trying to end the practice of link building and renew the practice of link earning. I think that's why you see so many SEOs embracing content marketing, and I think this shift is going to happen even more heavily over the next 6 to 12 months. So if you get ahead of the curve now, you're going to be in a good place next year.

All right everyone. I hope you've enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday. See you again next week and take care."

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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