Since Google rolled out the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates, numerous sites have been impacted or penalized. Often, companies that incur penalties or experience a drop in rankings don’t have a clue as to what they’ve done wrong — especially small, local businesses. This leads me to a novel proposal: perhaps for local businesses, the best link building is absolutely none at all.

I’ve been approached by many small-to-medium businesses seeking help with various degrees of penalization as a result of these updates over the past year, and some of the commonalities to me are striking — primarily, the degree of ignorance about online marketing behaviors that can result in Google penalizing your website.

The chief “sin” among these behaviors often involves link building. It’s not surprising that this has happened, given the overwhelming number of articles out there advising businesses on how to increase their inlinks in order to improve their rankings in Google, Bing, and Yahoo! search results.

If you’re a newbie, you might not realize that Google’s original PageRank algorithm ranked pages based largely on how many other sites and pages linked to them, taking into account the relative importance of those linking pages. Fast forward to 2013: Google rankings continue to be influenced by links, but there are many additional factors or “signals” by which Google determines the relative popularity — and, therefore, rankings — of webpages.

Warning: Local Link Building

Over the years, I’ve written articles and provided advice about link building, though I’ve always tried to lean heavily toward the conservative side of this practice, recommending methods that should play well with Google’s rules.

Forget Link Building

Even so, it’s become very clear to me that it may be highly counterproductive to try to teach small businesses how to conduct link building. They don’t understand the best practices necessary to perform the development while simultaneously staying on Google’s and Bing’s good side. They take shortcuts. They make novice mistakes. They attempt to blatantly manipulate Google through building a linking scheme of interlinked microsites, purchasing numerous keyword domain names, spamming links onto sites or forums or blog comments, or by purchasing links.

And, more frequently than not, they get into real trouble — resulting in their websites being penalized and their listing getting suppressed or removed from Place Search or Maps.

Frankly, the key problem for SMBs in link building is that Google and Bing don’t want you to do it at all!

The search engines are looking to see sites’ backlink profiles expand primarily via natural growth. For instance, if someone’s writing a blog post and mentions your site/business, that’s when they want a link to appear — as a sort of heartfelt, real endorsement of your site.

Google has become so sophisticated with link analysis that there’s not much point in attempting to “trick” or manipulate them through link development practices (at least for relative novices).

So, this leads me to a simple premise: small-to-medium businesses would be better off simply in focusing on quality and working on good content over time, rather than involving themselves in the arcane practice of “link building.”

Instead Of Link Building…

If you’re an SMB desiring to improve your search engine rankings and attract new customers, what should you be doing instead? I think you should really be ambitiously creating content and involving yourself in social media.

Some people have coined a trendy term for “creating content” — they’re calling it “content marketing,” and the name has been gaining steam over the last year or two. But, there’s nothing new about content marketing. Quite simply, ignore the potentially intimidating phrase and look toward areas where you can be frequently producing content in an ongoing basis, whether it be through writing, posting images, or posting videos.

Quite a few of us have pushed blogging for local businesses for years, as this results in unique and often shareable content that is search engine friendly. It also creates a great basis for Twitter postings and Facebook status updates, along with other social media sites. If your business lends itself to beautiful or interesting visuals, look towards posting stuff on image sharing sites like Flickr and Pinterest.

In terms of social media, simply posting your own stuff all the time really isn’t enough. You need to be working to increase your engagement and influence, since these sorts of nebulous factors are increasingly influential with the search engines as part of the overall ranking mix.

Local businesses still need to have first laid the groundwork for their online presence by getting their business listings to show up in all of the major online business directories (such as Internet Yellow Pages) and local search engines. That can easily be done by tapping a service like Universal Business Listing or Neustar LocalEze to distribute the information to many directories — or you can simply do it manually. (Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board for Universal Business Listing.)

Either way, once the basic listing information has been distributed, the best source for local citations — i.e., “mentions” of your business online in places that search engines may notice — will be through social media work.

So, ditch the link building! Live stress-free! Work on developing interesting stuff and engaging with your customers and with the public. Do that, and the rest will follow… naturally.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Link Building | Local Search Column | Search Marketing: Local Search Marketing | SEO: Local

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.webtraphic.com/ Brian Cox

    Great read and totally agree. Small local businesses really dont need to “build” links. They need to get listed in their local community business sites (think patch.com), chamber of commerce sites, and run a small adwords campaign for their brand and maybe a few keywords that are relevant to their business. Create your google+ page and all the social profiles and just hold normal conversations across those outlets.

  • http://www.drivenmg.com Nathan Driver

    I think it goes beyond that and actually ‘ask’ patrons to rate their service be that on G+, Yelp, or whatever.

  • Bill Sebald

    Not sure I agree here. I have SMBs with a small regional presence focusing on link building. They write what they’re experts in. When it gets picked up, it’s usually picked up by a site that’s not local to their physical location. But it still seems to work just fine, with link equity, citations, etc., all flowing well and good. I include link building into the entire target mix for the SMB.

    Agree that small companies want to swallow the internet whole, but maybe I’m like a dietician for them. Helping them consume the things that matter, so I lead them to smart link building. I

  • Chris Silver Smith

    Bill, I know what you’re saying, but I think you’ve also made my point. Including good links to your own site and content within your blog posts isn’t what I referred-to as link building — that’s exactly the sort of content creation that results in ranking benefit when it gets “picked up”, linked-to or shared via social media by others. :-)

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Right- the title of this article is a bit over the top.

    The real issue is-

    “that there’s not much point in attempting to “trick” or manipulate them through link development practices (at least for relative novices).”

  • Lynk

    Great article. Small-medium size businesses suffer from both inorganic and organic marketing. However, I believe that will change when the new app Lynkout is released. Businesses with be able to sign up their location and end-users will be push notified the businesses location, a video about the business, a discount for purchases, and a map showing them exactly how to get there from the point of the end-user viewing the advertisement. They call it virtual signage. Its a great marketing tool that will help bring back the small business era which built this country. What’s your thoughts on Lynkout?

  • Chris Silver Smith

    If I signed up for Lynkout as a consumer in Dallas, would I be “pushed” notifications about new or existing businesses throughout the Dallas area?!? Ask yourself why a consumer would want such a thing? If I got pushed info about a bunch of businesses, I’d drop the app pretty quickly. Push marketing is usually deemed far too aggressive and intrusive from the viewpoint of consumers. So, color me highly skeptical.

  • Flirty Lingerie

    Just for clarification by small local businesses you mean those businesses that do not engage in business outside of a limited jurisdiction-ie a restaurant in a city that has no desire or intent to engage in business in an area other than their locality. That being so, I would agree that there is not much reason to gain exposure outside of their community in the first place. In those cases the business is simply looking for internet exposure for those who reside or are visiting the town or city and exposure outside of that community is somewhat unnecessary. The reason for clarification is any business that might want local exposure but also wants national or world wide exposure falls outside of the meaning of a small local business.

  • http://naomirochellegarnice.wordpress.com/ Naomi Garnice

    What a great article, Chris. I think it’s important that businesses learn to evolve online with Google. Content Marketing is making the old SEO irrelevant. And that’s a good thing for all parties involved.

  • Abiodun Akintola Lawrence

    I think this is very nice, and I will surely try to start stumbling and tweeting other peoples post from today
    Thanks

  • http://4im.co.uk/ Steve Morris

    Link building is going to die out in the future or be drasticly reduced in its effectiveness. Search engines are constantly searching for ways to better the results and this is done by on and off site signals, at one point links were the signal that mattered. Now there’s over 200 signals taken into account to produce the rankings but if something works even for the short term people are going to do it.

    @disqus_E9uN9UmmnJ:disqus I Would disagree that people dont need to build links if your in a vertical where other companies have links and are out ranking you, you have to do what they are doing or die. A large part is dependent on what your competition is doing

  • Lynk

    Chris, thanks for posting. The great thing about Lynkout is that you have complete control. The app allows you to set your own parameters. Whether you want to receive notifications and how far of a radius you finish to receive information. For example, a consumer could pull up to their favorite mall, enter the mall, turn Lynkout on and watch passing store discounts stream savings to them as they walk around. Also, Lynkout provides information which is associated to your likes. For instance, if your into volunteering Lynkout would provide you surrounding area events in which you could volunteer at plus provide you with directions on how to get plus content on the event. Also, that’s just one way to experience the benefits of Lynkout you should checkout the disaster rescue piece. However, the app is completely controllable by the end-user. The purpose of the app is to provide consumers with the convenience of having an app that services their needs and wants. Plus it a really fun app to play around with and its free.

  • Doug Walker

    I’m currently helping a local client do just what you have outlined –
    build a great site with relevant, useful content. Sure links will come,
    but it is amazing how many of the sites in the top 10 results of Google
    have a complete garbage link profile (clearly the link building methods
    of the past) and little content yet still rank where they do.
    Eventually, we will win those sites out, but I don’t think it will be
    without a little proactive link acquisition in addition to our other
    efforts.

  • http://dagmarmarketing.com/ Chris Gregory

    With Penguin 2.0 it almost is feels like the local business that didn’t do any link building over the last 2 years is winning which I think is the mindset you wrote this post. However, I don’t think you can correlate that into saying Local businesses shouldn’t build links. It’s more a direct result of local small businesses going the cheap route and buying low quality, spammy, keyword rich anchor text links. A large section of local businesses did this and it’s coming back to haunt them. However, I still think that if you want to win long term you need a good link building strategy which doesn’t come cheap and is very time consuming.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    Jimmy, there’s quite a bit of online benefit associated with various traditional promotion activities. Sponsoring softball teams and other charities can result in links and mentions, for instance. Some other creative ideas can involve offering special rewards for Tweeting, Facebooking and checking-in on Foursquare. For more ideas, read my article, “10 Unorthodox Ideas for Local Citations & Links”: http://searchengineland.com/10-unorthodox-ideas-for-local-citations-links-77468

  • Chris Silver Smith

    Good point! “Thin content” or poor/uninteresting content is less likely to get shared via social media, too, and Google is already paying attention to such signals when determining the ranking weight given to such content.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    I’m saying that local businesses probably don’t have to purposefully “build links” now, if they’re doing various other promotional activities — particularly in terms of building good content and engaging in social media. Considering that, why should they take the risk of doing something that Google and Bing don’t really want them to be doing at all? Most local businesses have no ability to determine whether an agency would be good-vs-risky at doing link building for them, and most local businesses also don’t have the sophistication necessary to do it effectively for themselves. So, for the majority out there, I think this is good guidance.

    Beyond that, I think that links in of themselves are somewhat declining in effectiveness compared to other signals such as citations and social media mentions. So, for long term I think it’s even less necessary and less advisable.

  • Jacqui Cooper

    All of the above and many comments below makes sense. But it gets much more difficult to do this for niches where there’s not a lot of visual excitement, keywords are component numbers and the potential customers aren’t already posting, tweeting, pinning or in other ways interacting with the product, no matter where it comes from.

    All good advice and while content may still be king, competing with companies that have deep enough pockets to create scripted well researched video campaigns or meme images is difficult for small businesses. Blendtec is often quoted as how to do it, quirky idea that shows off the product. But trying to do the same for every business is not possible. While deep pockets do not always guarantee success, they do allow you to buy the best writing talent and the ability to advertise your ideas where small local businesses don’t.

  • Chris Ratchford

    Chris, my only gripe with this article is that you didn’t write it earlier ;-) Unfortunately I just found out the hard way that link building and local seo don’t mix.

  • http://discover-your-customers.com/ Beth Browning

    I loved this article and think it’s spot on. It makes me a little nuts when I hear people advising small businesses not to create content because they don’t have anything “interesting to write about” if they own a “boring” business like a local flooring company.

    IMO, owners of these types of businesses have a great opportunity for creating content that addresses the questions people have while researching topics and as you said if they “engage” in social networks, people will share their content and the links will be built naturally.

  • http://www.vacationsalabama.com/ Vacations Alabama

    Great tips and we agree. Really the best thing you can do is add your site to lot of business profile sites to get your brand out! Plus the social networks…But overall if you live in smaller town, getting to the top of Google may be easy anyway.

  • http://www.pengeinfo.dk/ Jørgen Christensen

    Hi I’m representing Small Business in a Small Country. I totally agree with You. And what a pleasure not be stressed ;-)

  • Randy Zlobec

    First, great job on the article! The strategy I’m using has proved to be most effective since the panda/penguin updates. I’ve had increases up to 500% on one client’s site alone. however, the average for all clients is a consistant 75-170% depending on the industry.. I have eliminated 90% of the link building efforts and focused on co-citations coupled with relevant content using the social sites to build up signals… I truly haven’t seen this much success in several years..

  • http://www.devieyehospital.in/ Santosh Pawar

    very nice blog it helps to seo’s this tells seo’s to reduce effort. link building is such a long process http://www.devieyehospital.in

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/chrissanfilippo Chris Sanfilippo

    Hey Bill, great comment about “epic stuff”. I agree. I have created some truely epic content that I thought would produce hundreds of natural links. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any interest in it. and I had to abandon the project. In the end it was a big waste of time and money. Looking back, sure there were more tactics I should have used, but the main point is that it still takes good content AND outreach AND luck.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/chrissanfilippo Chris Sanfilippo

    I don’t see the benefit as a user of this app. If the only benefit is coupons, this probably will not work.

  • Lynk

    Chris,

    Thanks for you friend back. However, there are many features of the app that go beyond just providing discounts. Those discounts are just an extra bonus for Lynkout users. Lynkout members can also share streamed video, images plus this generated content can be displayed on their own members page for all to see. For instance, if you have a band and you’re playing at a local place you could stream your event on your landing page. When individuals passed by with the app they would see your bands video streaming. This would cause more individuals to see your live performance. Once they viewed that video Lynkout they would be allowed to comment or ask for direction to the event. It will also allow individuals to view the bands website. The viewers will also be able to see the other peoples comments and shared images of the band on that same live video streaming view. So Lynkout allows users to share live content. This is just one feature of many ideas end-users will experience. The band will also have analytics options to chose from on viewers of their video or landing page.

    Another fun thing about Lynkout is an end-user could create a photo or video, like a happy birthday card or video and create a responsive location for their partner to see. For instance, Chris you could create a video for your girlfriend or wife wishing her a happy birthday, place the locator pin right at your girlfriends parking spot at work. Once she went to park she would see your surprise photo or video you left for her. This is only one of the many fun features of the app. You could even prank your friends in the same fashion by leaving them a joke photo or video but just make sure its ethical :-)

    These are just the basic features of the Lynkout app. We feel very confident your experience will be great. Also as users share video and photos to friends and family they will receive rewards like Lynkout memorabilia and free stuff. Who does not like free stuff right!

    Thanks again for posting and we hope you enjoy chance Lynkout this fall !!

  • Sean Doggendorf

    They sometimes still need to ask for those links though, since they’re not always just given out. I agree that the community outreach aspect will definitely help and takes priority, but the links don’t always build themselves.

  • Chris Koszo

    @chrissilversmith:disqus, I think it depends how competitive your market is. There is local SEO, and there is local SEO. Aggressive citation building is key, and whitehat links done right are deadly. (edit: for your competition)

 

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