There are plenty of business processes where the development of a set or list of “Best Practices” makes really good sense. But what about link building? Is/are there a core set of link building best practices that really work? Fourteen years of link building for 1,000+ clients indicate to me that the answer is…nope.
I understand the appeal of wanting such a list, since I’m a card-carrying anti-spamming preacher of what not to do. I’ve written many link building guides for clients through the years, across a variety of industries, and my LinkMoses Linking Commandments is chock full of what not to do.
The problem with link building best practices is that if you ask ten link builders to agree on a set of best practices, each of them will be right, and each of them will be wrong, myself included. Your “best practices” may be spam to me, and my best practices may be useless for you and your site. Much like the black hat/white hat SEO debate, there are infinite shades of gray when it comes to link building best practices. If something works, doesn’t that automatically make it a best practice? To some yes, to others, no. If you have a long and successful background in the direct marketing industry, and if experience shows you that for every 10,000 bulk “to whom it may concern” link request emails you send out your best success rate is 11%, then does an 11% success rate become the standard for a future generation of link builders in your industry? Didn’t you just send out a bunch of spam? Spam is never a best practice, right? Then again, who am I to judge? if you only care about new links obtained, then 11% sounds pretty good and you now have your shiny new best practice.
Pick any aspect of the link building process and give me your best practice. How about anchor text? You say it’s best when no more than 10% of your back-links have identical anchor text. Really? Why? And what about PageRank? I received a pitch from a link building firm who wanted me to outsource my link building work to them, and they assured me they followed all link building best practices, including never spamming and (here’s the kicker) never seeking links from sites with a Pagerank below 4. Huh? When did that become a best practice? If the site I’m seeking links for is this one about boating safety, and I find this link target, I should skip it because its Pagerank is 3? Seriously? That’s the very opposite of a best practice. In fact, paying attention to Pagerank at all when you are building links is a mistake, at least in my own book of best practices, which you have every right to disagree with. And I agree with that disagreement. I am wrong at the same time I am right. And so are you.
One size fits all?
For a pure ecommerce site run by a guy trying to feed his family, if he pays a link builder $1,000 a month to build links and he knows every month he does so his site earns him $2,000, then as far as he’s concerned that IS a best practice, and you and I can stick our white hats up our asses. Here’s another real-life example. I share it because the company is no longer in business. A couple years ago during a client meeting I had a heated discussion with an in-house SEO team regarding multiple domain name registrations and duplicate content. They had registered 50+ domains, each with a different ISP, each on a different host, and each with different contact details, all done with the intent of keeping search engines from recognizing them as the controller of the content at all those domains. The SEO team was quite proud of this accomplishment, and went so far as to call it a “best practice” with regards to link building via multiple self-owned domains. Well then. OK. I made the comment that Hannibal Lecter followed a set of “best practices” when he ate a census taker’s liver, and those best practices included Fava beans and a nice Chianti, but having best practices didn’t make him any less insane.
And that’s the crux of the link building best practices dilemma. How to define a useful set of linking best practices that will apply to all web sites all
of the time? Such best practices will depend on so many variables that to try and define them across all industries for all content at the same time is futile. Yet people still want them, and big companies are willing to pay for them. They crave them.
When I am asked if I have a link building guide or manual which summarizes my own personal best practices, I explain that every single site must have its own individual link building best practices guide, which takes into account the subject, industry, and competitive landscape. And even then, the best practices cannot be cast in stone. Some years ago it was considered a best practice to submit your site’s URLs to WebCrawler, Excite, and even Magellan. Who? Not long ago a link from DMOZ was considered a must.
The best practice is that there aren’t any
The link building best practices for every site will also vary depending on the site’s goals. The best practices for achieving near term overall search rank improvement will be different than the best practices for achieving long term long-tail term ranking improvement, which will be different from your best practices within social media environments, etc. And your list of best practices will never align with mine because we are working on behalf of different sites with different histories, futures, and purposes.
The link building industry does not need a set of best practices, and web sites don’t need a set of common link building best practices they can hand out to employees and order them to follow. Web sites, and the companies behind them, need a set of living practices that will work for them, and ONLY them, because they were designed specifically for them, and are re-evaluated regularly.
Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy and private customized link building training. The Link Week column appears on Tuesdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.