Link Building: No Longer About Manipulation

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Manipulation is no longer a sustainable route to link acquisition.

Links have always been instrumental to the web, and they continue to serve many key functions beyond search. However, the way webmasters acquire links for their sites has shifted and transformed.

Google is becoming increasingly adept at recognizing links built in an attempt to game search engine rankings, and they are discounting the value of those links (sometimes even penalizing sites with large numbers of these “unnatural links”). There simply is no sustainability in trying to manipulate the algorithm.

The question has now become what it always should have been: “How can I improve my authority, relevance, and value online? And how can I ensure that Google recognizes my site’s importance appropriately?”

Rather than as a means for gaming search results, real links offer a means for discovery. This is why links were important before Google, and why they will continue to be important moving forward.

While links are valuable within Google’s search algorithm, it’s important to remember that they were also valuable before Google started using them. Eric Ward, aka Link Moses, was building links before Google came around. There are four main reasons websites link to other websites online:

  • Navigation: Creating pathways to a site.
  • Reference: Further information on a topic, business, person, etc.
  • Citation: Acknowledging the original source of content.
  • Endorsement: Public display of support.

Ward has described how he built links for people back then, rather than search engines. This type of link building strategy rings true today because Google has caught up with manipulative practices, leaving real marketing and promotion as the only sustainable link building options.

In the early days of Google, many sites chose a path of manipulation because it worked. Following is a brief discussion of how link building has evolved since the days before Google’s spam-fighting Penguin algorithm first dropped in April 2012.

Pre-Penguin Era

Google’s use of links within its search algorithm is what set Google apart from other search engines; it also spawned an era of link spam. As Google rose in popularity, manipulation increased.

Ranking highly in Google represented (as it does today) a huge opportunity for traffic, and thusly revenue. Many sites sought to learn how they could improve their rankings in Google and quickly discovered Google’s core use of links to power their results.

As people realized how valuable links were within Google’s algorithm, they began creating artificial links solely intended to influence search results. Websites would sometimes use automated software to generate thousands of spammy links — links that were intended for Google’s web crawlers only, and offered no real value to human users.

In the pre-Penguin era of search, link building was simply a numbers game, quantity over quality. Rather than work to build real links that made sense and contributed to the overall value of the web, site owners discovered they could simply manipulate their way to top rankings with automated link spam.

These manipulative tactics were detrimental to the web as a whole, and particularly damaging to Google’s results. Google’s search results (its chief product, and cash cow) began to suffer as more and more sites manipulated their way to the top. In an effort to combat the rampant outbreak of link spam, Google introduced the Penguin algorithm.

Post-Penguin Link Building

The Penguin algorithm changed the link building landscape dramatically.

Penguin targeted link spam that had been plaguing Google’s search results and punished those who were attempting to game the system. The Penguin algorithm didn’t actually change any of Google’s guidelines, but rather simply improved Google’s ability to detect manipulation.

Penguin is punitive in nature, and since its inception has created a fair amount of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in regards to linking. Because you can only recover from Penguin after the algorithm receives a core update, which only happens once a year or so, being hit by Penguin could legitimately destroy your business, particularly if you’re dependent on search. However, Google has discussed updating Penguin more regularly.

Of course, Penguin can’t catch everything. There are still some black hat SEOs who have found ways to manipulate search results, as well as marketers who simply haven’t yet broken bad linking habits. But these tactics typically only work in the short-term for churn-and-burn sites and are not viable for sustainable results.

For more information on Penguin, you can check out Search Engine Land’s coverage. But the main point is that Penguin has put an end to the majority of manipulative linking practices.

For sustainable link development, the path forward is through real marketing.

Real Links, Real Marketing

Link building is no longer about manipulation.

Google’s ability to detect manipulation in links is only improving. That means the only strategies left are to build the types of links Google wants to count: links that are a genuine vote of confidence; links that are editorial in nature; links that add value to the web.

Although links are given significant weight within Google’s search algorithm, you shouldn’t be building links for Google’s web crawlers. Instead, focus on your target audience when pursuing links, and think like a user.

Approaching link acquisition from an audience-first perspective will be much more effective and help you avoid potential issues with Penguin. Before Google came around, an audience-first mentality was the only method that made sense, and with the evolution of Google’s search algorithm it’s again become the most viable approach.

The types of links Google wants to count in their algorithm are the same types of links the web was founded on. Again, the four main reasons sites link to one another online include:

  • Navigation: Creating pathways to a site.
  • Reference: Further information on a topic, business, person, etc.
  • Citation: Acknowledging the original source of content.
  • Endorsement: Public display of support.

Instead of mass generating manipulative links that are completely useless to human users, you need to engage with real webmasters that have real sites and convince them to link to you. Of course, this requires that your site genuinely offers value.

While it’s possible to earn these links passively, in order to take full advantage of your opportunities you need to manually promote your value. Actively seek out websites that are relevant to your website and audience, and promote yourself.

The tactics that work today are the same tactics that helped site owners acquire links before Google existed. The only thing that has changed is the application, or the way we leverage a tactic for links. A specific tactic is not inherently spammy, but if you use it in a manipulative manner it becomes spammy. Tactics such as:

  • Guest posting
  • Resource link building
  • Directory listings
  • Blog/forum commenting

Let’s take a quick look at how each has changed, and some examples of both the good and the bad.

Guest Posting

We all remember when Googler Matt Cutts proclaimed that guest posting for SEO is dead. But this really just signified a shift in guest posting back to the pre-Google era. Shoddy, thin content published on sites nobody reads for the purposes of link building is indeed dead. However, guest posting on relevant sites where your audience is active continues to be a great way to gain exposure and editorial links.

The Good

Guest Post Good Example1

Here is a guest post on The Huffington Post in the Healthy Living section. The topic of the post is relevant to the section it’s housed in, and the author provides genuinely useful information for the site’s audience.

Guest Post Good Example2

We can see at the bottom of the post that the author was credited with a link back to her blog. This link is a clear indication that HuffPo endorses this author, and her site, as a credible source of information.

The Bad

Guest Post Bad Example

Here is an example of a spammy guest post that attempts to stuff a bunch of links (although they appear to be broken) into thin content that doesn’t really offer any value.

Resource Link Building

Again, this comes down to human value and relevance. If you find a relevant site that has a page where your resource would make sense and add value, you should absolutely pursue a link there. The key is that your resource needs to actually provide value to that site’s audience; otherwise nobody will want to link.

The Good

Resource List Moz

Here is a resource list from Moz that provides inbound marketing options for their visitors. The list includes links to the companies’ websites because Moz endorses these businesses and thoroughly vets any additions to their page.

The Bad

Resource List Bad

First off, the fact this site is offering link exchanges should be a red flag. Apart from that, we can quickly look at these first four links which cover topics ranging from poker to tanning beds. Resource pages that feature links from a wide variety of irrelevant categories are typically worth avoiding.

Directory Listings

Directories developed a stigma during the Pre-Penguin era of spam. During that time, many directories were simply link farms that would link out to anyone and everyone; many also allowed for people to publish links without any sort of editorial review.

While such directories are useless today, this does not mean all directories are spammy. The basic criteria for determining if you should acquire a link from a directory is, “Would my audience find my link here?” If the answer is yes, pursue your link.

The Good

Directory Good Example

Here is a directory that lists local painting companies in the Pennsylvania locale. This makes for a great example of a worthwhile directory as it offers two levels of relevance (industry and location). Additionally, as you can see some of these listings include links back to the companies’ websites.

The Bad

Directory Bad Example

The above screenshot is taken from the “Business” section of a directory, but we can see some of the links point to sites about “Equestrian Properties” and “Garage Floor Protector Mats.”

There is clearly no industry-specific relevance here — and judging by how there are links to sites ranging from Canada to Romania, there isn’t any relevance in terms of location, either. The fact that you can sort by PageRank is a red flag as well.

Blog/Forum Commenting

Blog and forum commenting have also been heavily abused in the past as manipulative tactics. In fact, the “nofollow” attribute was originally introduced to combat comment spam (although these days it’s often used incorrectly in response to Google FUD, but that’s another story). However, with the proper application, it’s still possible to build valuable links through commenting, even if the links are rel=nofollow.

If you want to build worthwhile links within a forum or the comment section of a blog, you need to consider two aspects:

  1. Make sure you’re on the right site, forum, community, etc. Relevance is paramount, and you want to engage in discussions involving your industry or product/service (Even better if they’re talking about your brand).
  2. You need to leave a thoughtful comment that actually adds to the current topic, post, discussion, etc. Don’t simply promote yourself, be genuine and try help solve someone’s problem if you can.

The Good

Blog Comment Good Example

Here is an example of my colleague, Nicholas Chimonas, placing a link to Page One Power’s eBook in the comment section of an article on link building. Nicholas was replying to a commenter who wanted further information on link acquisition, and was able to point that person to P1P’s eBook as a helpful resource.

The Bad

Blog Comment Bad Example

Above is a prime example of blog comment spam. The comment is clearly robot-generated and offers no value whatsoever, but rather just a bunch of nonsensical keywords with a link crammed in. These comments are completely useless; even if they sneak through a spam filter, they will either:

  • Be deleted shortly thereafter by a site owner/webmaster, or
  • If they do stay up, it’s a good indication nobody is actively curating that site, which again means they’re worthless

Conclusion

The common theme with all of these tactics is that you must find a way to promote your value and contribute to making the web a better place for human users. Build citations, references, endorsements, and direct navigation which will reflect well on your brand, company, and site.

Link building is no longer about manipulation — it’s about marketing your company appropriately. Link acquisition today puts an emphasis on building links for people, not web crawlers, as a means for discovery and visibility.

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