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2016: Manual Link Building & SEO
Can link building truly be replaced by content marketing and "link earning"? Columnist Andrew Dennis doesn't think so. Here's why.
We’re edging ever closer to 2016, and already prediction posts are publishing.
Recently, hoopla around manual link building arose when a 2016-focused post predicted its demise. My fellow columnist Eric Ward shared his thoughts on why manual link building will never be obsolete. I suggest you read his post — he’s experienced, insightful and basically the godfather of link building. If you’re interested in SEO and links, you should be aware of what Ward has to say on the matter.
I agree with Ward that manual link building will continue to play a vital role in SEO — and search as a channel — into 2016 and beyond. Without the intentional, strategic pursuit of links, you’re missing out on search as a channel and leaving marketing opportunities on the table.
Today, I’m going to share my perspective on why manual link acquisition will continue to be important. I work for an agency serving nearly a hundred clients of all sizes, and our primary work is manual link building. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, and I can say with confidence that links are vital in online marketing and shouldn’t be ignored.
The Evolution Of Link Building
The year 2016 isn’t the first year the demise of link building and SEO has been predicted — and it will hardly be the last.
Stated plainly, link acquisition has come a long way from the pre-Penguin era of spam.
Prior to the Penguin algorithm, link building was riddled with spam and automation, and quantity mattered more than quality. Penguin hasn’t eliminated all spam, of course, but the majority of link spam has been penalized or devalued, and this has helped clean up the link building industry.
Google has stated that a new Penguin update (version 4.0) should be released by the end of the year, and the new version will update in real time.
Links have always been an important ranking signal, having famously been the core of Google’s original search algorithm. Algorithmically counting a link as a vote of confidence is what differentiated Google in the first place, making their results better than competing search engines.
Today, links remain powerful, precisely because Google continues to invest in links as a signal. With every Penguin update or manual action from Google’s webspam team, Google makes links a little better as a signal, removing some of the spam — or noise — that was making links less trustworthy.
With the advent of Penguin in 2012, many within the digital marketing sphere began to move away from link building. Some reasons for this included:
- Penguin devalued link spam, making link acquisition more difficult.
- Penguin making link spam “high-risk.”
- Google was vague on the details of what triggered Penguin, which spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (and misinformation) regarding links.
- Clients hit by Penguin became wary of link building, and SEOs and marketers attempted to distance themselves from the term.
- SEOs are a naturally adaptive lot, and content marketing was growing in popularity.
All of these factors created a perfect storm for the conflation of content marketing and link building. Many SEOs viewed content marketing as a replacement for link building and started touting “link earning” through content marketing — a strategy that involved crafting high-quality content that would naturally attract links.
The only problem was that the links never came.
Securing meaningful links still requires manual effort.
Content Marketing Doesn’t Replace Link Building (And This Won’t Change In 2016 Or Beyond)
First, let me state that content marketing is an important aspect of my job. I deeply believe in the value of writing, communication and the role of all “content” in marketing. But I wouldn’t conflate content marketing with SEO and link building.
The theory of “link earning” is based on the assumption that great content will naturally gain links through social engagement and public awareness. However, a recent study done by BuzzSumo and Moz proved otherwise.
The study, which analyzed more than one million articles, showed that there was actually no real correlation between social shares and links. Bear in mind also that BuzzSumo specifically picked highly shared content for the majority of the study, content that had already proven popular. Here are two key points BuzzSumo Director Steve Rayson pulled from the study:
When we looked at a bigger sample of 750,000 well shared posts we found over 50% of these posts still had zero external links. Thus [sic] suggests while many posts acquire shares, and in some cases large numbers of shares, they find it far harder to acquire links.
Across our total sample of 1m posts there was NO overall correlation of shares and links, implying people share and link for different reasons. The correlation of total shares and referring domain links across 750,000 articles was just 0.021.
This study reinforces my own personal experience: securing links requires strategic promotion to the right audience. Links don’t happen by accident, and you’ll never secure the links you deserve without specific, manual effort.
These findings indicate that while some content may be shared widely across social media, that does not naturally translate into links. Creating compelling content is certainly integral to effective digital marketing. But manual link building is needed to take full advantage of link opportunities and get the links great content deserves.
Securing Links Requires Manual Effort & Promotion
Without manual promotion, you’re leaving link equity on the table. You’re letting valuable marketing opportunities slip through your fingers.
Links are still a strong signal within Google’s search algorithm, necessary to ranking within competitive SERPs. Leaving link equity on the table means lost search visibility. Furthermore, links offer marketing value beyond SEO, including:
- Creating new online connections and relationships
- Tapping into new audiences and communities
- Branding value (trust, authority and awareness)
- More access points to your site
- Referral traffic
Links are important online, and missed link opportunities equal a substantial loss of marketing value.
Some links may come without manual effort, but these links are few and far between, and there is always more opportunity. To take full advantage of the link opportunities available, you must strategically and manually pursue links.
Real link building can’t be automated because real, manual link building requires:
- Human creativity
- Strategic promotion
- Human-to-human interaction
- Marketing savvy
- Audience research
- Critical thinking
- Relationship building
Real links require manual promotion and effort. Real links are built by humans for humans, and these are the types of links Google wants to value.
Links Will Continue To Matter In SEO, Search And Online Marketing
Links should be part of the larger marketing cycle, due to their foundational value to the web. As long as you need to market your business, you’ll have a need for manual link building. Other marketing practices will naturally generate link opportunities — and without manual, intentional effort, these opportunities will be missed.
Regardless of how Google or any other search engine alters and tweaks their algorithms, links will continue to be fundamental to the web. Google’s search algorithm is not what makes links valuable — it’s the value links add to the web that make them so worthwhile. Links serve a core function to the internet — without them, the web would be incredibly difficult to navigate.
People use links to navigate the internet, and that’s not going to change in 2016 or beyond. Manual link building will continue to be valuable, and should be a consideration in online marketing.
If you ignore links, you’re missing out in search, and you’re also missing valuable marketing opportunities.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.