Link building has changed. Over the past several years, a shift has taken place that has removed much of the meritocratic, or natural reward, of high-quality content with quantities of high-quality links. This self-guided sharing by website owners is becoming rare. Competition and noise on the web, combined with financial incentive surrounding links, has made it hard for great content to get noticed on its own. Today, great content needs help to get noticed—sometimes a lot of it.
There are really two primary types of link graphs on the web: the natural link graph and the commercial link graph. The two are completely intertwined and interdependent and almost indistinguishable, but they are clearly opposed in intent.
A brief history of links
The adoption and spread of blogging initially caused a tremendous spike in the distribution of links across the web. However, with blogs and links came the advent of nofollow which massively disrupted the web’s link graph. Then, with the rise of social media (especially over the last two years), the concept of link building further evolved. URL shorteners and sites like Twitter and Facebook have made linking in many cases superfluous. Publishers with unique content are having to work twice as hard to earn fewer links in this link-starved (for publishers), but link-saturated (for social sites), environment.
There is no limit to the type and quantity of tremendous content isolated on islands in the middle of the internet. No one’s visiting it, no one knows about it, and no one even cares.
In 2001 the adage was, “if you build it, they will come.” In 2010 it is, “if you build it, they might not care.” Valuable, unique, even remarkable items will not magically garner links on their own merit. They need a shepherd, an advocate, a promoter, a platform, or a bankroll to push them into the spotlight. Sometimes they need to age, to spread slowly and naturally. Sometimes they need to be pushed heavily and quickly. Different types of content will require different tactics.
In this new age of the web, I am proposing the following five paradigms as a framework for conceptualizing link building:
1. Great content does not guarantee links. Quality content will not necessarily attract links based on its own merit. Period. If you build it, no one will care, unless you provide such stunning, remarkable contributions that people simply can’t ignore you.
2. Links are not necessarily attached to value. The quantity of links a page, or even an entire site, has is not an indication of its quality, trust, or authority. Properties and resources with many links, which may even be ranking quite high, do not necessarily have to be high-quality. Paid links have deteriorated the quality levels of content online and have even pushed low-quality into the forefront of natural search.
Another way of saying this: crappy content can rank well and get lots of links.
3. Links often reflect money. With such an implicit financial incentive, why shouldn’t links reflect money? The fact is, they do, quite often. That is not a statement of morality (make your own judgments there), only of pragmatism and an open commercial marketplace.
4. Meritocracy is a myth. Natural, meritocratic link relationships, with website owners sharing links freely and even innocently, are becoming more scarce. This is partly because of the rise of social media sites like Twitter, which has disintermediated blog publishers (if you share it socially, do you really need to blog it?); and it’s partly due to nofollow F.U.D. by good-meaning but misguided site owners; and it’s partly due to a general increase in awareness of the value of links. Why give something away that you can sell for a buck?
5. Links have become commoditized. Paid links have lowered overall quality on the web, combined with churn and burn content (the most recent player being Demand Media), and quite honestly with widespread blogging. As noise increases and drowns out the signal, gaining competitive advantage becomes a fight in the whitewater: grab for something to pull yourself above the froth. Paid links are a life vest for many sites right now, sites that may in fact drown without them.
The competitive advantage of natural links
Building links naturally and intelligently is a long, slow process. But that doesn’t settle well with the web (and prevalent social) mythos of “I want it yesterday.” This is another reason many sites have made, in my opinion, the mistaken decision to engage in extensive paid link strategies. But action on paid links is not always equitable, and there are wider business ramifications at work in many cases. It is not a level playing field. As in the offline world, the larger the brand the more leverage it has to push the risk envelope.
That’s not to say you can’t build links in 2010. Far from it. We are experiencing greater success with link building than any time over the past few years. There are more options than ever out there! The web is filled with an endless supply of potential links, if you know where to look.
In this climate natural links have become a distinct competitive advantage. Google, as the most sophisticated search engine the world has yet seen, knows most everything it needs to about your link profile. It knows every link you have, and there is a record for every decision you’ve made. Keep that in mind as you build link strategies.
In discussions of link building with clients, I often share three governing principles to consider:
Know the consequences. Every action a website takes has potential consequences.
Measure your risk tolerance. Buying paid links will increase your risk. Know your risk tolerance and calculate the reward of doing something that is clearly against the interests of search engines.
Think long term. Your link profile is a living record of the choices you’ve made along the way.
In 2001 it was about building great resources. In 2007 it was about creating influence. In 2010 it’s about creating great resources, creating influence, and intelligently promoting the hell out of your great content.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.