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.
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.