There are a hundred and one tasks in today’s marketing world designed to improve your online visibility: social media, PPC, content marketing, retargeting, blogging, email marketing, on-site and on-page optimization, content strategy, contests, partnerships, etc. etc.
Why bother with link building? Isn’t link building dead?
The fact of the matter is, if you’re working to improve your online visibility in 2014, links should be a consideration.
Here are six important reasons why:
- Link building is still the best way to improve search visibility
- Links aren’t going away anytime soon, and might in fact be the litmus test for future signals
- Building links can increase brand exposure
- Link building naturally goes hand in hand with other online marketing activities
- Link building can help create and propel new relationships
- Links send positive signals to Google, and can help improve a bad backlink profile.
Let’s look at each of them in detail.
1. Link Building Is Still The Best Way To Improve Search Visibility
Links are still the core of Google’s search algorithm.
Multiple sources confirm this:
1. Moz’s industry survey of search engine ranking factors.
2. Matt Cutts, Head of Webspam at Google, refers to backlinks being a “really, really big win in terms of quality for search results” within a recent webmaster video:
3. During an interview with Danny Sullivan at SMX West 2014, Amit Singhal, Google’s unofficial head of search, said, “Links are clearly an important signal about the importance of your content. They’re still very valuable.” (This occurs at around 6:21 in the video below.)
(Note: Notice as well that Amit goes on to say that social signals still aren’t used as a factor in Google’s search algorithm — therefore, social signals can only have an indirect boost to your search visibility. Frankly said, the promise of social signals within SEO has yet to materialize.
That’s not to criticize social — social has great value within online marketing. But for search, social media marketing can only be a benefit by attracting other signals such as links.)
So will all links be beneficial to your search visibility? Of course not — it’s 2014. Google’s ability to detect unnatural links and manipulation is light years ahead of what it was even just a couple years ago in 2012. Link building in 2014 is about promotion, not manipulation. You need to add value in some way, and then promote it to others persuasively to build worthwhile links.
As Cutts said in his 2013 interview with Eric Enge, link building isn’t inherently bad. But links must be pursued only after we’ve created something of value. Otherwise, we’re working backwards, making the links harder to build and potentially manipulative.
No, not all link building is bad. The philosophy that we’ve always had is if you make something that’s compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that’s backwards. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result.
Their goal should really be to make a fantastic website that people love and tell their friends about and link to and want to experience. As a result, your website starts to become stronger and stronger in the rankings.
When we build relevant links to something that is useful and valuable, everybody wins.
Links remain at the core of Google’s search algorithm – they are the most powerful ranking signal within search results. Building more of the right types of links is still the best way to improve search visibility.
2. Links Aren’t Going Away Soon & Might In Fact Be The Litmus Test For Future Signals
SEOs have been conditioned to be fast-moving, agile, ever-evolving creatures. So much of optimization is based upon Google, and Google algorithmically updates their search engine nearly 600 times per year.
Suffice it to say that our world flips upside down with alarming regularity. In light of that, perhaps it’s not so odd that so many of us like to claim that the sky is falling.
But the simple fact is that, even with all the recent changes, links are still extremely important to Google’s search algorithm. And I for one really don’t believe that’s about to change. Let me tell you why:
- Social, long hailed as the next great signal, still isn’t close to being implemented. Google can’t rely on G+ alone, and can’t rely on other social media sites that can ban their crawlers at any time.
- Usability/UX/user happiness metrics can’t be a core signal, because that’s putting the cart before the horse. Sites would need a certain level of traffic before these signals could be weighed and measured. Even then, what’s the threshold? How much data is enough to be sure?
- Author Rank still hasn’t been officially implemented (according to Amit Singhal), and Authorship adoption is low outside of the SEO/tech realm. Same with G+.
- Google tested a version of their search algorithm with links removed (autoplay) and found that despite the noise/spam, links are still a big win in terms of search quality.
More realistic is that links are here to stay. Even if Google were to find another strong signal to use, I believe they would likely use that in conjunction with links. Since Google already uses over 200 signals, they clearly already favor a more-is-better approach. So it’s likely links would still be important even with the introduction of another core signal.
In fact, links could serve as a litmus test for a variety of other signals — and vice versa. For a comprehensive view of both sides of this argument, check out this Whiteboard Friday from Moz.
3. Building Links Can Increase Brand Exposure
Like many online marketing activities, link building often results in brand, product, or business exposure to new and diverse audiences.
This was true before Google, and remains true today. This is the very reason Google used links as the core of their search — because links, when created naturally, are a vote of confidence from one site to another.
And the best places to build those votes are relevant sites serving a community of your target demographic.
People inherently trust links. As SEOs and online marketers, we tend to forget this — we become so jaded that we see every link, website, tweet, share, post, message, whatever, as a form of marketing. But the truth is that the average person, when observing a natural link from a trusted source, makes positive associations with that link — particularly if the website on the other end proves valuable upon scrutiny.
And that’s the truth of link building: people link to people — not websites, bots, or algorithms.
So manual link building will always be about finding targeted websites and communities, and promoting your own sites, pages, resources, or content in the hopes of receiving a link. That link will increase positive communication and conversations, improving your brand, business, and ultimately website’s exposure to new audiences.
With the amount of noise on the internet today, it’s sheer hubris to adopt the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Worse is assuming all those who might find value in your business should already know about it. This is why we turn to online marketing in the first place — we understand the need for greater visibility.
With the power links represent online, any online campaign should have at least one person involved who can intelligently determine and acquire natural links and link opportunities.
4. Link Building Naturally Complements Other Online Marketing Activities
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: link building isn’t a singular online marketing activity that is done in a vacuum.
If those words are hauntingly representative of your online marketing activities, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Link building is hard work. It requires experience, persuasiveness, interpersonal social skills, and an ability to learn and adapt.
But even with all these skills, a link builder can’t always be successful without a linkable asset: something worth linking to.
This can be a few things:
- Strong content valuable to their customers or niche/industry
- A unique tool or resource valuable to their customers or industry
- Unique business value that meets a core customer need
- A strong brand presence within their industry
- A social buzz/presence
- Strong industry relationships
It’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t always require content to build links.
The goal of any link builder should be natural links that you would want even if Google wasn’t going to reward them. These links create a user-centric mindset, and can realistically result in referral traffic.
If there’s another online marketing activity taking place — be it social media, content marketing, reputation building, contests, blogging, partnerships, etc. — there will be more opportunities for natural links.
What’s more is that link building in turn will help propel these other activities. A great example of this is content marketing: you’re already working hard to build valuable content, but that content is worthless if it’s not visible to your target audience. Why go to all that effort to create content that no one will see? If you’re going to invest in great content, you need to also invest in visibility.
Link builders are experts at outreach and will be able to find a large list of sites worth reaching out to and notifying about said content. Furthermore, any link they build will increase the content’s visibility in search, in turn increasing your content marketing’s overall reach.
If you’re already working to increase your site’s online visibility, but haven’t consulted with someone on how you can optimize on backlink opportunities, you’re likely leaving link equity on the table.
5. Link Building Can Help Create & Propel New Relationships
Relationship building and link building are far from mutually exclusive. Not only can links result from relationships, but relationships can result from link building.
Link building is an online marketing activity. A good link builder is very conscious of the fact that they’re representing a company, website, or individual, and can speak to the value of their client. Because links truly are a vote of confidence, the last thing we want to do is create a negative impression or misrepresent a client.
The days of automating link building activities are long since past. Outreach and communication are fundamental to any link building campaign, involving real people who are potentially interested in your products, company, and insights.
The best links are mutually beneficial: they add value to the website linking out, their audience, and the website linked. As you can see, this is a natural beginning to a relationship.
I’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand relationships formed through link building efforts. Because strong representation and persuasiveness are so fundamental to good link building, I’ve found link builders are the type who will naturally want to further the relationship if at all possible. This is something I heavily encourage — anytime we can further a client’s business value beyond just links is a great win.
6. Good Links Create Positive Signals To Google & Can Help Improve A Bad Backlink Profile
If you were engaged in SEO pre-Penguin, there is a very high likelihood that you’ve built less than savory links. Link building circa 2012 and before was about building links quickly and efficiently.
The simple truth is that Google didn’t have a solid system to decipher between good links and bad links. Therefore, quantity was better than quality.
Matt Cutts publicly recommended link removal/disavow before being penalized, particularly if you’re aware you have “lots”:
@sugarrae only thing I’d add is if it’s 1-2 links, may not be a big deal. The more it gets close to “lots,” the more worthwhile it may be.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) March 13, 2014
As I’ve previously written, I certainly agree with this advice. If you’re aware of bad backlinks, a gradual clean up is certainly in order. Furthermore, because you’ll likely be removing links that were still providing value to your site (but might have been a time bomb waiting to blow), I recommend working to replace those links with legitimate and relevant links that make sense.
Not only will this keep your site from plummeting in search visibility as you remove old spammy links, but you’ll also be creating positive signals to Google.
Even though link building has changed a lot in recent years, it’s not dead. The practice remains an important part of a comprehensive online marketing strategy. If you’re not investing in link building, you could be leaving valuable link equity on the table.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.