The number one mistake SEO’s have made surrounding link building is assuming that the Google search algorithm is linear – action A leads to result B. In this case the assumption might be that lots of links (action A) leads to better ranking (result B). The algorithm is far more complex than that. It has become very hard to see direct causation now.
Lot’s of links are good for a site, but the quality is extremely important too. This is why the practice of buying thousands of links is just about guaranteed to get you into hot water.
The number two mistake is to forget that the algorithm undergoes hundreds of tweaks and changes a year – most of them minor, but changes none the less. Why is this a big mistake? Well, it means that you can never fully rely on past information. For instance, if I was to do a search and find that the link anchor text (the text you actually click on) can help you rank for that keyword I might build tons of links with my top keywords only to find that I’m penalised for the very keywords that are most important to me. Is there a safe percentage of links that you can use keywords in? No. I’ve seen absolutely no studies that come up with a specific figure. Why is that? Because, as with the number one mistake, that would be linear thinking. You can’t take a single ranking factor on it’s own and arrive with good data anymore. Should I avoid keywords in anchor text completely? Again, No. Just be very very careful and don’t build them all from one or two types of sources eg. blog posts or micro-sites.
- Authority of linking pages. Link sellers mainly used pagerank as a score for this. “Links from PR 5-8 sites or higher!” Pagerank is no longer front facing and therefore completely unreliable. Turn off your link building brain and think like a normal internet user. Is the page / site you are getting a link from any good? Would you give them your credit card information happily? Do they rank for any of the keywords they are targeting themselves?
- The relevance of the linking page to your linked page. Not only the page, but the site as a whole. Is the page the link is on about the same topic. Does your page offer more insight for readers of the original page with the link? Does anybody actually click the link and visit your site?
- Follow vs nofollow. A link with a nofollow tag effectively says to Google “This page does not stand over / endorse the content on the linked page”. Does that make a nofollow link bad? I would argue that it doesn’t if it sends you meaningful traffic anyway. Some software and sites nofollow their external links by default. You won’t get much of a ranking boost, but the traffic may be worthwhile, and maybe some of that traffic will link to you.
- Link placement on the page. A link in the main body is better than a link in a sidebar or the footer. However, it does depend on the surrounding text too!
- Link anchor text. “Click Here” v’s “Great apple pie recipe”. The latter can help a page rank for the keywords, BUT overdo it and you get penalised for it instead!
- The number of visits a link sends? The question mark is there because this seems probably, rather than proved. It’s based on the “a click on a link is a vote” theory. That is an extension of the “A link is a vote” theory which has been used by search engines since the 90’s. Also, what a user does when they reach your page through a link is important. How much interaction do they have with your site when they arrive through a link? Do they have a quick glance and then leave? Do they visit other pages on your site? How much does the type of content affect how that should be measured? Is the content a funny picture worth a few seconds or a word-heavy document giving deeper analysis into a subject?
- Social media links. They are nearly always nofollowed, but the SEO community places the importance of social media very highly. What gives? Get rid of linear thinking! The link in itself may not be important to your ranking, but what happens if you share some content you created and it goes viral? People start talking about it, they start linking from other sources and you are getting traffic from multiple sources. Your content becomes important. What if it doesn’t go viral? Well, if it doesn’t spread far then it won’t have much impact. What are you measuring against though? Are you trying to compare your guest house blog post with Gangnam style? You are in a different space. 10 shares in one industry can be the same as 10,000 shares in another in a manner of speaking. Compare yourself to others in your industry. Not the internet as a whole.
- Number of links. Read the last two sentences of the last point again! If your competitors all have 1,000 to 10,000 inbound links and you have 1,000,000 you stick out like a sore thumb. Now it could be that you are just a whole lot better at your inbound marketing than they are, but mostly it’s down to dodgy link building in my experience. If I see this with a client I start looking at the links and often then for penalised keywords resulting from them.
- Outbound links. Old school thinking says that you should link out as little as possible. This is because of the concept of “link juice”. Picture your site as a plastic bowl. Inbound links are like pouring orange juice (or whatever you like) into that bowl. The more juice your site holds, the better it will rank. Outbound links are like poking holes in that bowl so that the juice leaks out to other peoples bowls. The more outbound links, the more juice you lose.
In 2015 that’s not the case. Outbound links to good information that adds to the topic you are talking about increases the credibility of your own page and leads to a better user experience. On top of that it is much closer to how the internet should work, with everything interlinked. The old thinking actually damaged that, meaning a greater reliance on just search engines and a poorer user experience of the wonderful web. Linking out works. Again, do it where appropriate, not as a standalone tactic.
Good link building practice in 2015
The doomsayers would give you a list of places you can’t get links anymore. Directories are bad, Article sites are bad, blog networks are bad, micro-sites are bad, pyramids and circles are bad etc. What are they really saying? They are saying that the old ways of cheating don’t work anymore. They’ve been stung and it’s all Google’s fault!
All that is actually wrong is how they went about abusing those link building strategies. It’s not wrong to be in a directory or 10. It’s not a great idea to be in 10,000 directories, particularly if they exist for no particular purpose.
It’s not wrong to share articles. It is wrong to spin useless articles just for the purpose of link building.
It’s not bad to have a blog, or even a few. It’s bad if they solely exist to help another site rank. They must be of good quality. Micro sites were so often ill-maintained and spammy that it’s no surprise that they are seen as bad by a lot of SEO’s.
The same goes for exact match domains eg. buyredshoesonline.com. EMD’s have been targeted by Google because they were abused, but they still work with less spammy titles, just not as well as they used to.
What has changed since Penguin? You have to build links using hard work rather than quick systems if you want to do it well.
Look at if from your customers perspective
It’s basic marketing and sales. Who are your customers? What are they interested in and where do they hang out online?
Link Acquisition v’s Link Building
What’s the difference? Building is aggressive and focussed solely on getting those links. Acquisition is passive and focussed on encouraging links. We need to use a mix but with much more emphasis on acquisition in 2015.
Lets take an imaginary art supply company as an example – Inkblot Art Supplies. They sell brushes, canvases, paints, pencils etc. Their customers are artists, school art departments etc. Those people are interested in art. They are part of art groups that exist both on and offline. They like to show their art and many of them have blogs where they write about their craft and show pictures of it.
How do we get links for Inkblot?
1. We start out like we always did, looking at competitors links, getting both ideas for link building and finding places where we can get easy links. We are careful not to emulate what we consider poor or dodgy links.
2. We go to our own suppliers and look for links from them. After all, the more they can help us rank, the more we can sell for them and the more income they’ll have from us.
3. We can carefully add ourselves to directories that are useful. These are either local or industry based directories.
4. We can start our own blog showcasing art from our target market. We can ask artists to demonstrate techniques using our supplies. A quick how to video on your site is useful content that is likely to garner links. Get that content out into the community. Share it through groups and forums, through industry sites as well if you can. The starring artist is bound to share it too on their blog reaching their audience of other people who are interested in art and potential clients.
Promote great useful content through paid advertising – AdWords, Suggested posts on Facebook etc. Put it out on your own social media streams. Before long, if the content is good you will have extended your reach considerably.
The point is that we are no longer solely going out specifically to build links. We are going out to reach and engage with our customers, and as a result of that we will find that we acquire links. More than that we start building a community of loyal customers. We are branding, informing and ultimately selling. An good SEO can no longer think purely from a search engines perspective. They have to think like a marketer and just as importantly a sales person. Above all they have to think like the customer and understand them.
Instead of concentrating on cheating our way to the top of Google we are becoming more customer focussed – providing good, useful information to our customers. That has to be a good thing surely.
5. We could go further than our blog. We could create an entire site, complete with forums. An idea exchange for artists. A social outlet, a welcoming haven, full of like-minded people thanks to those wonderful people at inkblot art supplies.
What else can we do to get links for our art supply company.
6. We can use offline media too. We can issue press releases, we can offer our expertise to radio and TV shows. We are slowly but steadily making ourselves a voice for Art in our region, a source for information. When we achieve this then we are potentially gaining links from papers, from radio and tv station websites.
7. What about schools and colleges? A special offer or a competition could get links from them too. Here online and offline cross over. Can we become the preferred supplier? How can we help the school / college. Are there new products that will improve their teaching, new techniques that we can demonstrate, or have the teacher demonstrate on our site?
8. Can we host an event? Perhaps an art exhibition or even a trade show. All of these things offer promotional promise and as a result, they also hold link acquisition promise.
All the time we are building connections and relationships. Not just online. True SEO is no longer confined to online in terms of thought process. It is an integral part of the marketing mix. But goes further because it’s responsible for the actual sales transaction too where that occurs online.
I’m drawing a distinction between sales and marketing that has existed offline for many years. Marketing was traditionally a tool to promote a product / brand, and the sales function was to get that product sold and take in the money. E-commerce cuts out the salesperson. This is something that is often not taken into account by online sellers. A salesperson can handle an objection to make the sale, a website has to preempt the objection and handle it. But I digress…
9. Guest blogging / article writing on another site. This has been abused but it still is a valid way of building links. Just be careful of where you do your guest blogging and make sure the site is relevant to your own subject matter. Above all don’t rely on guest blogging as your only link building tactic. This goes for any strategy really. Putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea.
10. Forums. Some of you will be thinking I’ve lost my mind saying that, but hear me out. Forums hate spam. Forum users hate spam. Any worthwhile forum will have rules against promoting our ink company so how can it possibly be useful?
If you’re thinking like that then you’re thinking in a linear fashion again – don’t feel bad, we all do it! What you can do on a forum is become an active member who people trust and who gives good advice. You never mention your own company (other than to declare potential bias in a post) or your specific products other than in a general way.
Why declare bias I caught one of you saying. Well, how else are people to know who you represent? Sure, you can put it in your profile – and people will find it there, but it does no harm to very occasionally mention “I prefer to use x brushes but I have to add a disclaimer because I work for Inkblot, the sole distributor. However, I only became the distributor because they were my favourite and I couldn’t get them at a reasonable price. I like them because…., My partner prefers y brushes because.”
It’s hard for a moderator to remove a post like that unless you do it too often. If you’re a useful member of the community you shouldn’t have a problem.
Earlier in this article I mentioned that outbound links can help your ranking. They can also do the opposite depending on where you link to.
I needed to mention outbound links as a link building practice because of reciprocal links ( I’ll link to you if you link to me ). These are mostly of low or no value. Again, go back to the top of this article and assess where the link is coming from on the linking site and how likely you are going to be to get actual traffic from that link. Also assess how you can put the return link on your site in such a way that it is a useful resource for your visitors. If you can’t meet these basics then don’t bother with the link exchange. A link on a page of links on both sites is a waste of time entirely in my experience – of course there will always be exceptions.
I thought I should finish on this note. There is no such thing as guaranteed safe. The algorithm could change radically again at any time. However, the above techniques should be relatively safe. What matters is how you build links in comparison to your competitors. You need to at least match what they are doing and do a better job of it.
Always, always, if you are creating useful content on a strong, well structured platform and not abusing any link building technique, then you are in a stronger position than if you take short cuts and try to get away without doing the hard work – or having an agency do the hard work for you.