3 Principles Of Future-Focused, No-Surprise Link Building

Link building doesn’t really fit the mold with the rest of the online marketing world. It’s unique and always changing. Even after trying to understand it, most marketers still don’t get it, and many SEO agencies don’t even want to touch it.

That’s because link building is a moving target that you can hit sometimes — only to realize that when you try again, the target has moved, camouflaged itself, shrunk and is half the size it was before.

And, link building is squirrely, always full of surprises. It’s like Odori Don, a dish in Japan that includes a dead, cooked but intact squid. When you pour soy sauce on the squid, sodium causes its neurons react and the tentacles flail wildly (check out Odori Don in action — be warned, this video is not for the faint of heart). Imagine ordering one of those without knowing what you’ve got coming!

Every single link building tactic, strategy, or scheme, no matter how white hat, grey hat or black hat it is, carries with it some degree of diminishing returns. Guest posting, infographic embeds, broken link building — some of these are still very effective, depending on how you use them. But none of them will last forever.

The truth is we don’t need to be surprised when link building tactics and schemes fail. Remember those charts of Web 2.0 and social media bookmark link networks you could buy, starting at just $99? (Believe it or not, some of those are still going strong.) Or maybe you discovered some article spinning software and thought your ship had finally come in? Somewhere deep inside, we all knew the era of easy links was never going to last.

The goal is to build links of the highest quality, using the most future-proof tactics that we can find. Here are three principles to help us stay on that straight and narrow.

Combine & Conquer — Do More With Less!

One of the reasons content marketing-style link building is so powerful is that any piece of content can accomplish a number of goals. A single blog post can provide numerous benefits to a marketing funnel, from building links to long-tail SEO traffic to generating leads to engaging your audience to social shares; and, it can even help you close deals. Carefully crafted, every piece of content can (and should!) work overtime for you.

That goes for the content planning process, too. Having trouble coming up with new content ideas? Ask influencers, a.k.a. your target link partners! Not sure if the post you’re writing hits the mark? Share it with those you hope will link to it later and ask what they think. Does your content strategy need a refresh? Include link partners in ideation, planning, brainstorming, and even strategy discussions.

Remember, class-A leaders love a challenge — they are problem solvers! So, give them what they want, and be sure they see their ideas come to life when you follow their advice. Ask lots of forward-thinking, future-oriented questions (trends, what will the industry look like in 5 years, etc.), be honest about your challenges and successes, and invite them behind the scenes. They’ll love the journey, and they’ll especially like bragging about being a part of what you’re doing — then say “hello” to links!

Realize That You Cannot Outsmart Google

I am amazed that the link building community still spends time talking about the percentage of exact match anchor text links that are “safe” and even “required” for high search rankings.

There are some unmistakable trends happening right now: Google’s algorithm is getting wildly smarter. Google’s PhDs are creating and refining machine learning algorithms that, if we fully understood them, would make every SEO pee in their pants.

Here’s a simple analogy of what the Panda update was all about. Picture the control room of a nuclear power plant. There are hundreds of dials that highly skilled engineers constantly monitor and adjust to ensure that the nuclear reactions taking place in the epicenter of the plant don’t melt down out of control, spewing deadly radiation across the countryside.

nuclear power plant

Image via Shutterstock

Now, picture that same control room, this time controlling Google’s algorithm. There are still hundreds of dials, and each one represents a search ranking factor — social signals, link authenticity, keyword density, site structure, and the list goes on.

Traditionally, Google engineers walked around this control room, adjusting one or two dials at a time, testing how the change impacted search results and user experience before releasing each minor update.

The Panda update was the beginning of something new. It wasn’t a change to a few dials. The Panda algorithm is a new machine learning entity (read “artificial intelligence”) that continuously studies all the dials and, based on various quality indicators, makes adjustments to practically all of them.

Think about it like this: Google has created an incredibly smart cyborg that gets smarter every day by consuming huge volumes of data. This half-human, half-machine does nothing but study all of Google’s ranking factors to make them more effective, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After thinking about how to make Google better for two weeks straight, processing terabytes of information and examining thousands upon thousands of possibilities, the cyborg presents a set of recommended changes to real, human engineers. They then review the cyborg’s recommendations before releasing them to the live Google algorithm. And that’s the next Panda update.

In 2008, you might have been able to out-think and out-maneuver a few Google PhDs with your link scheme mastery. But can you beat the PhDs, the Panda cyborg and his Penguin counterpart?

And now, Panda is going to be integrated into the algorithm in (almost) real time? That’s when we all scream, “I give up!”

Good. Some healthy fear is a good thing. Hold it close. It keeps us sharp, and it makes us work smarter, not harder.

Work Smart: Be Careful What You Ask For

We used to fight hard for very specific links — links from high authority pages, with a specific anchor text. Then we “got smart” and started earning more branded links, and anchor text with partial keywords. The best of us even used formulas to determine exactly how many links we needed and what text each should use.

Is it possible that the safest and potentially most powerful way to build links today is to ask for links… and that’s it? Build relationships, ask for the link, and let link partners decide on their own (as much as possible) how they are going to link to you?

If that sounds crazy, let me ask you something: are you trying to build a natural link profile for your website? How much more “natural” can you get than letting people choose — on their own — how (and if) they are going to link to you?

When you’re done going crazy over that statement, add a comment below. I’d love to hear just how much you disagree (or agree) with it.

In several cases, I have found that the less we try to “control” the links we build, the more high-value organic traffic seems to come to our clients’ sites. Coincidence? Maybe, but I think any SEO would agree that Google is becoming more and more sensitive to all forms of “unnatural” links.

Get Ahead & Stay Ahead

Any “link building tactic” the SEO community gets excited about will be extinct in 2-12 months, so never put all your eggs in one basket. Think ahead of the curve and ask yourself, “What links might in fact help my site rank forever?” That means doing a lot more of what Matt Cutts told us all along: create great content that leads to — you guessed it — natural links.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building | Link Week Column


About The Author: is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. As CEO and founder of SEOperks, Nate has driven revenue improvement campaigns for companies large and small with a focus on high-quality link building and future-oriented SEO.

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  • Jacqui Cooper

    I absolutely agree with you but what advice do you give to small local start ups who know that they need a web presence and to be visible (as opposed to rank). They have to start somewhere and even setting up a G + page is a created link. So is inclusion in directories and social networking platforms, yet offline there would be no penalty for this as it’s standard business practice. It wouldn’t be so bad if Google’s SERP’s were good but I now use Bing when I want to find something, results are less spammy, for me anyway.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    If you can find a way to beat the Google algorithm I am sure they will pay you handsomely to come work for them! I agree that healthy fear makes you work smarter because you realize the potential for failure and fallout is not worth the miniscule gains you might (emphasis on might) earn with tricky link building tactics.

  • http://4im.co.uk/ Steve Morris

    Jacqui I agree all seo is about getting better rankings. As part of that, if you get better ranking by having links than your going to get links any way you can. Google and the other search engines caused this fixation within the SEO industry by making links so powerful. You are never going to be able to stop people trying to game the engines. If links stop being a ranking factor what would be next, social, citations If there was a direct correlation between hopping on one leg and rankings,how many people would be hopping all day

  • Jacqui Cooper

    Very true Steve. It’s always problematical though when those you work for don’t understand that building 500 bookmark links in 24 hours to content that’s not new or newsworthy, not only isn’t natural in the way Google wants, it’s unbelievable too. My new definition of SEO is “doing artificially what google wants to happen naturally” now if only one could know on a daily basis what google wants…………

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    Hey Nick, “…the potential for failure and fallout is not worth the miniscule gains you might (emphasis on might) earn with tricky link building tactics.” Well said – but not something clients always want to hear! ;) Thanks for the comment.

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    Not sure what you’ve seen Jacqui but I’ve never seen penalties as a result of basics such as setting up G+ Local, Yelp etc. profiles. Sure those are “links” but they’re much more than that – social profiles and reviews etc. “Link building” in the article above was more referring to more aggressive link building tactics… Things like G+ and Facebook are critical for a small company’s online presence for sure.

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    The best SEO inspires the natural spread and love that Google wants – and that takes a lot more than just “SEO” =)

  • http://4im.co.uk/ Steve Morris

    You hit the nail on the head , If your a company that makes the latest and greatest gadget link building is easy as there’s all ready buzz. but if you make waste bins its a different story not many people get excited about bins. I did pose this question to someone else who was saying that link building via content was the way to go and they said about the bin analogy that they would write content on how the worlds rubbish was causing major problems. OK that’s great but there’s only so much content you can create around bins. All SEO is search engine manipulation. A lot less content would be written if getting links to that content was not a factor

  • Jacqui Cooper

    Sorry if I misled you Nate, no I haven’t seen any evidence that penalties are applied for these sort of links – yet. As they can be manipulated though, one has to wonder where it will end. Good content is always required but for a small new business this takes time to develop. I get constantly asked how they can compete if they can’t ‘do linking’. I guess you could say that while I understand Google’s need to combat spam it does seem that ethical methods, if they can be misused run the risk of causing damage to legitimate businesses.

  • Jacqui Cooper

    Very true – convince clients of that tho’ :)

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    Ethical methods shouldn’t cause damage – what does it look like to ethical build profiles? Add full content, unique description, photos, etc. That’s going to look natural and valuable to search engines and be a valuable link (relatively) because of it.

    When working with small businesses you need to ask yourself, and them, what’s the ROI? If there’s a pile of SEO traffic to earn, the investment of quality SEO strategy and link building should pay off. If the business is hyper-local or otherwise is not positioned to win big from organic traffic, maybe they should consider different strategies.

    Car washes probably shouldn’t spend precious resources on link building ;)…

  • jfcarr

    I’ll worry about AI when it says “By your command”, “Are you alive?” or “I’ll be back”.

    Humans, though, especially those with a multi-billion dollar business to protect and driven by an anti-small business political philosophy, are trouble right now.

  • Jacqui Cooper

    All true Nate and I have let clients go who can’t or won’t be patient while we build what is in effect a very natural profile. I don’t advise clients to do anything that they wouldn’t want to do in the office of Matt Cuts with him watching their every move. But these small businesses are where the majority of jobs come from and where the economic recovery will start.
    They need to be able to kickstart their campaigns. Which once could have been done by reaching out to webmasters and requesting links etc. Yes, you still can do that but competition is fierce and it’s very time consuming.
    So now, apart from local and social profiles, posting, commenting on social platforms and networking in the pre-digital fashion but doing it on and off line is a way to go. Content though to encourage links will always be critical, because links will always be critical. Therein lies the problem, no, maybe the local car wash doesn’t want to spend time and money on link building but with many of their competitors on line and ranked what else are they supposed to do?
    Curate content is now the thing being touted, don’t try and re-invent the wheel but gather together all of the best content already listed and ranked in Google. Then make a comment on it, write an opinion piece or do something else really different.
    Once again the small business has to compete with companies with deeper pockets. Businesses that can spend the time required to actually make content curation meaningful, like SEL for example. :)
    Or Techcrunch, Technorati, Mashable and the list goes on. Building links in an unnatural way may be frowned on by Google, but if you had a million links all bringing in one visitor a year, you’d still get a million visitors. While they may not be good prospects for your business, they’d certainly help you sell adverts :)

  • Jacqui Cooper

    Agreed! It does seem that more and more the tactics needed to succeed are anti the small business.

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    True true… AI is one thing. Teaching machines to teach themselves to perform better at one finite task (awesome search results) is another…

  • kp456

    “That means doing a lot more of what Matt Cutts told us all along:
    create great content that leads to — you guessed it — natural links.”

    Told us all along, as in before social signals?

    This one makes me scratch my head. Natural links? 99% of users on the internet are consumers without their own websites and few places they could post a link.

  • http://www.acsius.com/ Stefi Jain

    Truly Said Nate Google want work according to that principle otherwise our website will be punished

  • http://justdotit.in/ Vamsi

    You really gave the google’s eye, a link building strategy that google wants. So its not acting its live in acting, making you link building act as natural as possible.

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    Indeed, thanks Stefi!

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    Sometimes it’s easier to think about what natural links are NOT… Comment spam, link farms, paid advertising, etc.

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    That’s it exactly…..

  • http://www.insegment.com/ inSegment Internet Marketing

    The best links are those that add value to the post and in turn build credibility and trust with your consumers and peers. ‘Natural’ link building is more time consuming, but it builds a solid group of links to relevant sites that will hopefully last a few years. We have also seen great results with using social media for link building, such as using blog content to provide useful information to which other writers can link.

  • http://www.seoperks.com/ Nate Dame

    Well said – agreed!

  • Gabriel Spradlin

    It wasn’t NASA it was Lockheed Martin and the vast majority of the engineers that worked on it were not PhDs. The only real reason that’s important is that Lockheed has had a number of design issues over the past couple of decades and NASA engineers shouldn’t take the rap for Lockheed’s poor management.

    These kinds of problems should be caught on Lockheed’s side but their review process is inadequate and they are clearly working their people too many hours. Aerospace engineering is discipline that requires a lot of concentration and the ability to remember and compare dozens of numbers/facts simultaneously. When you are working your 10th hour of the day very few engineers are really able to still maintain the necessary level of concentration.

    That said, the limitations of Google’s algo apply whether they use AI or not. The main limitation is that they need to analyze trillions of pages. So taking 0.1 seconds per page is at least 1000 times too long. When you are analyzing a trillion pages the difference in average processing time of pages between 0.0001 and 0.00009 is huge. So Google engineers have to continuously work to make the algo accurate, robust to page errors, robust to temporary server problems, robust to spamming, robust to … all while being lightning quick and minimal in memory requirements. And all on a massively parallel scale with lots and lots of redundancy.

    I think the issue most link builders have had in the past is that they either don’t understand these limitations or are just plain lazy. Honestly, how hard is it to study the natural links on any given site category – social bookmarking, blogspot/wordpress blogs, facebook, twitter, etc – and determine a few metrics for your software to use? It isn’t hard at all. Yet most software I came across for link building prior to 2012 didn’t even bother to spin the anchor text. And some software today still seems create 1000 links with only a handful of variations. How is this hard for a machine or person to spot?

    With 11 years as an Aerospace Engineer, 2 engineering degrees, and some previous work (playing around for myself) in AI I have some educated guesses about what types of AI Google would likely use. I’m sure their PhDs know a lot more about AI than I do but there a few AI algos that are very very stable, very well understood, and highly optimized after decades of research. The first that comes to mind would be clustering algorithms where the computer would analyze several factors – anchor text, link URL, position on page, … – then compare those factors against all other links on the web (or maybe just against known good links like the ones on Wikipedia). This can be done efficiently and quickly with only 1 number per factor per category (SPAM/Not SPAM). If your link is closer to SPAM than Not SPAM then it is likely ignored. If it falls in the heart of SPAM-land then it is likely used to penalize your site. So do a little homework and make your links look close enough to real links that Google’s algo can’t determine it is SPAM in 0.000001 seconds and you should be OK.


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