5 New Paradigms For Link Building Success

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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is the Chief Knowledge Officer at RKG, where he blogs regularly. You'll find him speaking at conferences around the world when he's not riding down mountains on something fast. Follow Adam on Twitter as @audette.

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  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    Adam, you know I respect you and weve known each other for ages, so no offense intended. Your column certainly contains some insightful and though provoking ideas. However, there are some link builders, like myself and many others, who never fell for the many link building fringe services that did not genuinely reflect content merit, but rather were created merely to fool google. Some of us actually DO work the natural link side of the street only. And it’s not a paradox or oxymoron to call a pursued link unnatural just becasue it was pursued. When PBS launches a site about the Civil War, and I ask for a link to that site from the Library of Congress’s online libraian for Civil War resources/links, is that in any way unnatural? I say no. It’s a matter of introducing meritorious content to the exact person who curates links to that type of content.

    What I’m getting at is the only link buiders for whom there are new paradigms are those link builders who were using pretty weak techniques in the first place.

    A couple of your comments really resonated…

    “That’s not to say you can’t build links in 2010. ”

    Absolutely. I do it every day. Slow and steady wins the race for merit based content.

    “In this climate natural links have become a distinct competitive advantage.”

    Amen brother. And those of us link builders that have focused 100% of the natural link side of the street are noow reaping the rewards of smarter algos.

    “Your link profile is a living record of the choices you’ve made along the way.”

    Yep. Like a college transcript of rap-sheet.

    The one comment I must wholeheartedly disagree with is where you state

    “Meritocracy is a myth”

    This may be true for web users at large, but within verticals where key influencers hang out, merit based linking and link sharing thrives more than ever before. I’m originally a librarian by trade, and I have a few hundred libraian colleagues I share links with on a weekly basis. Those shared links end up on library based web pages. And it’s natural, earned, merit based. And they help rank.

    So while I have great respect for you and your skills, I wanted to make a stand that for those of us who stuck with earned natural link strategies and never opted for the low hanging fruit link building tactics, life (and business) is very very good.

  • http://www.audettemedia.com Adam Audette

    Thanks Eric, I appreciate your honesty and very much respect your input here. You may be right about my #4, “Meritocracy is a Myth.” Actually you *are* right… as you say you live it and do it every day. So I can’t argue with that. I think the web at large could learn a lot from the kind of link building you do, which in essence is exactly the same as it has been since the ’90s! Slow, steady and solid, and nothing risky or irrelevant.

    I can’t argue with your approach, experience or results. Thanks a ton for taking the time to share.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi Adam-

    Great article on link building. And great follow-up post by Eric.

    Many people do not realize that link building existed long before Google came around. Remember when Multimedia Marketing Group (MMG) had their Top 100? That was link building. The players change but link building principles still exist and are stronger than ever.

    I didn’t know that Eric has a library science background, like yours truly. Hmmm…maybe something that people should know — librarians have great knowledge and insight into various aspects of SEO. Librarians should realize it, and I think SEOs should, too.

    Nice work!

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    Shari – my biz was actually the result of a Info Science course about Entrepenuership in the Informoation Industry. This was 1993. It was supposed to be my class project. It ended up being my career. :) Hit this link

    librarians eric ward – Google Search http://bit.ly/bV43C9

    and you’ll see how often over the years I hint at the underappreciated and crucial role librarians play in the search quality. There are roughly 500,000 librarians around the world. They are trained at “finding the good”, regardless of the medium, Web sites included. I would love to see a search engine where the only sites crawled were those discovered on the millions of library based vetted/curated web resource pages.


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