Contrarian Perspectives On Link Building
Today’s column is not easy for me to write. I’ve resisted writing it because I don’t want to come across as a preaching. smug, I-told-you-so-LinkMoses. Then again, plenty of people already think that, so what the heck. Here goes.
The overwhelming majority of websites have no business whatsoever being on the web at all.
Which sites? Any site with a business model predicated on search engines being their primary driver of traffic. If your business plan sounds something like this “We will launch a site about XYZ, buy a bunch of links, put out a bunch of press releases, outsource our link building, hire a bunch of content creators to push articles with anchor text all over the web, get high rankings, monetize with paid ads, and then wait for the buyout offers.
You might make it for a little while, and congrats if you lasted long enough to find an idiot to buy your house of cards website while it still ranked, but the fact of the matter is any web marketing and linking strategy that bases its fortunes on being able to confuse, fool, or deceive algorithms is folly.
I have a unique perspective. In 16 years, I have created linking strategies for some of the most famous web brands of all time, as well as sites you have never heard of. From Amazon to Zillow, from Abercrombie to Communication Arts, from Art Nexus to PBS to TV Guide to National Geographic to Disney to hundreds of mom & pop sites doing just fine in their niches. Many of those linking strategies were created and executed long before Google existed.
When I was creating linking strategies in a world where those links had no impact on search rank, it gave me an incredible insight into what the engines wanted to see when Google came on the scene. Why? I saw my client’s sites all sitting pretty in top positions. That was never my intent, since I had no idea Google was coming on the scene at all.
So, that’s when I started studying links day and night. It was a decade ago. I wanted to know just what it was that I had done that ended up appealing to Google to the extent that my clients were ranking without ranking being my primary goal.
Since I am not a programmer, I had to hire people to help me. This is the first time I have written publicly about how I did this, but it’s important to share it to give you a foundation for where I’m coming from.
I had a friend at the University of Tennessee write me a series of perl scripts that pulled the top 100 results for any given search term from a multitude of different engines, and I had a second script written that would pull back links found pointing at all those sites.
A third script looked for citations (URLs included in text but not contained within <a href> tags. Because I did not sell my scripts, and because I only used them for private client work, and because they ran from an .edu box via telnet (yes, telnet), and because nobody was doing back link analysis yet, I lived in my own private linking data lab for years.
Most of the core things I learned then are still true today, and the most remarkable thing I learned was just how wrong all the link building service companies were, and still are. The fact that this week alone, I have already received more email spam than ever offering article marketing and directory submission and press release distribution services just drives that point home deeper. The last gasps of dying services. They know the end is coming. So long and good riddance.
Back to what I learned.
First, as I have mentioned before, during then 16 years I have performed linking campaigns, I have never once used any of the following so-called link building tactics:
- Mass Press Releases
- Article syndication via article databases
- General Directory submissions
- Blog commenting
- Paid reviews
- Link swaps
- Link networks
Why don’t I use these tactics? Because the data I compiled and studied indicated the sites that ranked highest did not use those tactics, while the sites that did use those tactics often saw a brief spike up the ladder and a permanent retreat.
The links I pursued were from non-spam, legit sites within the same subject matter as my client’s sites. Nowadays, my process continues to be perfected with the launch of Qbot2.0. Take a look at Qbot’s findings, it’s brilliant in its forehead slapping logic.
The Great Big Rub
Everyone has a right to launch a web business and seek their share of web riches. Everyone has a right to use whatever tactics they feel they need to use to compete and succeed. The rub is the millions of sites that launched did so with no unique compelling reasons for other sites to link to them. This spawned a multitude of services claiming to be able to help them overcome this obstacle. But the underlying problem still existed.
There are only so many ways you can produce unique content about golf clubs or steak houses or Prozac. And then you are right back where you were. Your site now has some marginal quality content that is indistinguishable from the 400 other sites that are doing the same thing.
How many different ways are there to describe a sand wedge anyway? Add a video? Why? I can too. You are not addressing the fundamental content problems you face. The search engines know your site is no different or better than the other 400 sites doing the same thing, so all your efforts to try and prove you are better are doomed.
A Couple Of Contrarian Findings
Let me also state right up front that these are based on my own study of hundreds of thousands of URLs, not some formula that can provide concrete evidence I am right. There isn’t one. (I hope that made Michael Martinez happy:)
Smaller Can Be Better
The sites that have the greatest potential to help your organic search rank are almost always sites that will send you little direct referral traffic. To restate that, a site that sends you no visitors can end up dramatically improving your rank. How? I’ll save that for next column, but here’s a hint:
Why does this site rank #1 for used car prices? Because of a plentiful collection of links from sites like Cape Cod Classics Car Club and other links from smaller, subject-specific legitimate organizations with websites that exist not for SEO reasons, but for sharing information about highly specific topics for a specific and highly interested audience. I’ll bet that kbb.com link on the Cape Cod site is clicked a couple times a month, tops. It isn’t about clicks, it’s about the credibility and intent of the linking site and the credibility of it’s own inbound links.
Get Away From Google
Then more you design your linking strategies to increase your Google SERP traffic, the more risk you create over time if you succeed, or if you fail. Why? Because you have devoted resources, time and money to a single traffic source with no concrete evidence it will work, work for how long, or work at all.
I’m not saying ignore Google, but with Google getting ever more aggressive in how it values signals, you’d better be developing a counterpart linking strategy that does not depend on Google for traffic at all. That’s a hard concept to get your head around in a Google-centric world, but the less you depend on any engine for your success, the greater the likelihood you will succeed.
I’ve asked this question before, but it’s worth asking again: If all the search engines shut down tomorrow, would you survive, and if so, how would you change your linking strategy?
The great contrarian takeaway here is that by worrying less about Google, I’ve ended up ranking higher at Google for the terms I care about most, one of which is custom linking strategies, and of course, link building expert. Have a look. Not once in my life have I pursued links on other sites in any form or fashion that were designed to rank for those terms. But, and here’s the real win, I get less than 15% of my traffic from Google anyway, and I like it that way.
While many SEOs and agencies high five and party when they see their sites higher in the rankings, for me, a perfect traffic scenario would be a site sees its traffic and leads increasing while at the same time sees the percentage of that traffic coming from search engines decreasing.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Stock Image from Shutterstock, used under license.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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