“Natural link building” has long been a sore spot (some would call it an oxymoron) among many in the online marketing community. The general argument goes something like this:
“Any link that comes about because you pursued it cannot be considered natural.”
“The very act of seeking links makes any link you obtain unnatural.”
“A link is supposed to be validation that your content is of some value.”
The above arguments are all flawed, and I’ll include several examples to illustrate why later in this column.
The “natural/not natural” argument is the link builders’ version of the larger white hat/black hat SEO argument, and it obscures many, far-more important points.
I realize my opinion ultimately doesn’t matter, and that the fact I call myself a “natural linking strategist” could make me a liar, a hypocrite, clueless, or some combination thereof. But, there’s more at stake here than opinion and semantics. Fortunes are being won and lost based on an algorithm that we are told wants to find “naturalness” among the signals it discovers across the vast sea of code that its bots canvass every day, week, month and year. (After year!)
The algorithm adjusts, continually seeking to improve its ability to identify that which cannot be trusted among that which can be. Marketers devise techniques and tactics to try to appear natural. Some succeed; some fail. The algorithms adjust again.
It’s a cycle that repeats, with the machines getting smarter over the long-term even if sometimes during the short-term they get it completely wrong. (Weren’t those live tweets in the Google results fun? You could drop an F-bomb for the world to see instantly.) Google specifically mentions “natural” in its guidelines, so it’s a safe bet that part of Google’s algorithm is devoted to spotting signals of naturalness.
Natural Linking Strategist is not my title as much as it is an ethos — guiding beliefs that characterize an ideology. I know I just went all LinkMoses, but I’m prone to do that because I’m passionate about what I do and even more passionate about how I go about doing it.
Speeding Up Naturalness
At the core of why I think you can build links and call them natural is a question I ask myself about every link I pursue. That question is:
What would happen if all content was known to all people?
There are many answers, but the one which is most important to link builders is this: Certain people would link to certain content that they wouldn’t have linked to before because they didn’t know it existed. After all, you can’t link to that which you are not aware of.
I believe that the best natural link builders are those who understand how to manually speed up the process that slowly happens every day. People learn about new content, and they link to it. Or they share it.
The challenge is that the Web is so incredibly large that even someone who is an absolute expert in a given subject cannot possibly keep up with all the content that is related to that subject. This is where the natural link builders find their sweet spot. This is where I have lived for 19 years now, helping speed a linking process that could happen naturally if allowed to, but perhaps not in our lifetimes.
The Web is forever, while those of us in charge of its URLs are nothing more than fruit flies with keyboards. We won’t be here for long, but the Web will. A librarian maintaining a curated list of links to Web content about volcanoes may retire (or die) before she ever discovers that amazing Pompeii animation content for teachers over on The History Channel’s website, and that would be completely natural, given that we can’t all know about every piece of content that exists.
It would also be perfectly natural for me to discover that librarian’s list of curated volcano resources and links and then contact her to introduce her to the content I just mentioned. She might just link to it — or she might not, depending on her criteria and judgment. And I believe this is natural.
If you disagree, please think back to my question: What would happen if all content was known to all people?
The answer is that she either would or wouldn’t link to the content once she found out about it. And if this doesn’t happen now, or next year, or in the next decade, it will happen. People with expertise and passion about a subject will be helped to discover the resources that they can pick and choose from for their collection.
It would be easy to dismiss this as nothing more than a corollary to the “infinite monkey theorem,” which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Except that humans with expertise are able to discern and distinguish, whereas monkeys (and bots) cannot.
Examples Of Natural Link Building
Here are those examples of unnatural natural links that aren’t unnatural promised earlier:
1. .Org Link — Your company is a dues-paying member of the National Poodle Fungus Association (NPFA) and has been for 22 years. The NPFA does not have a website and decides it’s about time they did. So they build one, and they choose to create a member page which lists and links to each member’s website. Given that you have been a member for 22 years, naturally, you get a link.
You wouldn’t have received the link had you not been a paying member. But isn’t that a paid link and therefore unnatural? The classic “pay to join a .org association and get a high-trust link” technique? No, it isn’t. You were a member long before the NPFA had a website. You were a member long before there was a Google. So how can any of this be unnatural?
Silly example? Absolutely. But don’t let that get in the way of the point. Links happen in more ways than can be summed up by the single word “natural.”
2. Requested Link — I send out an email to the owner of a website that is devoted to the films of John Wayne. I am contacting him to let him know about a new website launched by a major movie studio that sells a new collector’s edition DVD boxed set called, “The Films of John Wayne.” I ask him to include a link to the new John Wayne site. He does so.
Now, even if I begrudgingly agree with you that this is an unnatural link because he linked to it only after I asked him to, here’s what happened next: the owner of that fan site devoted to the films of John Wayne mentions it to a friend of his who is also a John Wayne fan and runs a discussion forum and blog about John Wayne. His friend also links to the DVD site. It so happens that one of the participants on the discussion forum owns a John Wayne collectibles site, and he links to it as well.
Even if I agree with you that the first scenario is an unnaturally obtained link, does that mean any links that come about from that link are also unnatural? I don’t think so.
3. .Edu Link — Ed Smith is a financial planner who specializes in estate planning. He gives free seminars at the local community college once a month for people who want to learn more about estate planning. Ed has to pay a few bucks to rent a room and projector, and he run ads in the local papers inviting people to his free seminars. Ed wants clients, and these seminars are a good way for him to get new clients.
Because he is doing his seminar on a college campus, his seminar is listed on the college’s website in the upcoming events section. Within the description of his seminar, there is a link to his company’s website. This was not an “editorially earned” link. It’s a link he got because he was giving a presentation on a college campus that happened to have an online event calendar which allowed for the inclusion of URLs/links. In fact, Ed has no clue how Google works and no understanding that the link he just picked up might also help his local organic search rank. From a link building perspective, Ed is clueless. But this link is unnatural since it wasn’t editorially granted, right? I disagree.
The takeaway here is that “natural” is ultimately futile. Impossible to define. Our linking strategies should not be classified as unnatural simply because we pursued them. Your activity and actions on the Web result in further activity and actions on the Web by others. At the end of the day, building the right kind of links is simply about speeding up that which could happen naturally if all content was known to all people.
(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.