Link Building Means Earning “Hard Links” Not “Easy Links”

Please ignore Spam LinksFor ages, Google has encouraged people to build links in order to rank well. But in the wake of the Google Penguin Update, it’s become painfully clear to me how many people have failed to understand the inherent quality links part of that link building message. Consider this a wake-up call. Yes, you want links, but links that are hard to get, that take effort to obtain, that you’ve somehow earned, not “easy links.”

Yesterday, at our SMX Advanced show, I went on a rant about this. All my frustration recently that so many seem so confused just bubbled out. You can listen to that below, if you like (the picture isn’t of me but rather Jeremy Bencken, who recorded my rant):

Consider this article the tamer, more coherent version of my rant. But the core message is the same. You don’t want links. You want good links. And sadly, I think many people have completely lost track of what a good link is.

You Want Links Meant For Humans, Not Google

A comment last month here on Search Engine Land articles really drove this point home with me. The person, who has since deleted the comment, asked about different types of links and if each type was still worthwhile. I started to respond about each type:

I wouldn’t submit to directories just because they’re directories. I would submit to major directories that have real traffic, because people use them.

I would submit to major social bookmarking sites that are actively used.

If there’s an actual audience you want with a classified site, submit to that.

Comment on blogs if you have something useful to say. Otherwise, speaking as a blog owner, don’t comment. Especially don’t comment to just drop a link.

There were even more types of links listed that I didn’t address. I’d grown tired, at that point, and realized I needed to address the bigger issue:

Avoid any link building activity where the only reason you’re doing the activity is purely to build links for search engine rankings. This goes to your other questions, too.

See, you keep asking about all these places because you’ve learned links are important. But what’s also important is that you need important links. Running around the web getting easy links — anyone can do that. So those links don’t count for as much.

What you want is to be linked from places where there’s an actual audience that might see your link and click on it directly to visit. Do that, and you’re building the type of links the search engines want to reward.

I’ve bolded the key part. You want links from places that link because they think some human being will find the link a way to get more information beyond what’s on the page itself, not because the link may help someone rank better.

I asked the person above where they learned this crazy approach to link building, that it’s just get links, not get links that matter. I was honestly curious, because as I’ve read many comments, forum discussions and looked at site after site complaining that they were hit by Penguin, it’s clear that the basic principle of getting links that matter has either been forgotten or never learned by many people.

Some Old Guy Is Yelling & Why Maybe You Should Listen

Credit: Gran Torino web site

Now I’m going to go all old-man yelling about getting off my lawn here, and feel free to ignore the old man if you think I’m just being naive and am not hip to the hard-hitting realities of the real world.

The old man actually remembers when search engines originally said they wanted links and why they said that, so the old man has a pretty good idea of just how lost many people have gotten.

For example, way back when Google started, it advised people that one of the types of links they might seek would be directory links. This is because, back at that time, there were a handful of major directories that people actually used to locate web sites. Yahoo, the Open Directory and LookSmart were among these. You’d want to find sites about a particular topic, so you’d go to these directories to get a nice, ordered list.

Directories & Barriers To Entry

These directories had human editors, and being included was selective in nature. Not everyone got in. That’s why Google felt these links were a big vote of confidence about a web site. It was an easy way for Google to off-load the effort of deciding if a site was quality or not to someone else. Google could look and see if a site was listed in Yahoo. If so, that link counted in its favor.

What Google never anticipated, and certainly I never expected, is that an entire industry of directories would spring up solely for the purpose of offering site owners after a “directory” links, as if all directories were as important as Yahoo or the Open Directory. When Google talked about directory links, it really meant links from the major directories at the time, not from hundreds of directories that few people have heard of and even fewer actually use to find anything.

SEOmoz recently has a post trying to estimate what percentage of nearly 3,000 directories might have been banned from Google. If you think the 80% deemed safe are somehow passing along great link credit, think again. What’s the criteria for being listed? Can anyone get in, or is it selective? If anyone gets in, it’s like everyone getting a “good effort” sticker no matter how good their effort really was. It’s not a valuable link, in my view.

The madness doesn’t stop with directories. There’s no end of types of links that people are reconsidering, with the aspect of link quality seemingly missing from the conversation.

Can’t See The Link Forest For The Link Trees

Over at SEOmoz, Carson Ward recently itemized 17 types of links to avoid, ranging from blog networks to forum links. At Search Engine Watch, Julie Joyce covered the state of various link types from comment links to guest post links, also touching on types of links needed for a diverse profile in her recent Link Week column here on Search Engine Land. Also in Link Week, Eric Ward covers 15 types of “unnatural links” that people might want to avoid.

All of these authors offer some excellent advice. It’s just sad is that they’re having revisit these tactics that people are confused about, because people don’t understand the broader strategic principle of what makes a good link: you have to earn them, that getting links shouldn’t be easy, if you want links that count for much. If you understand that, you can apply it to any type of specific link building activity.

If Your Link Is In An Article No One Reads, Did It Make A Ranking Sound?

Let me take “article marketing” as an example. As I’ve reviewed many sites hit by Penguin, time and again, I’ve seen them showing up with links from the Ezine Articles site. My assumption is that somewhere along the way, people behind these sites heard somehow that they should submit articles to places, where the articles have links back to their own sites, and that will help. Ezine Articles seems to be one of the places they’ve learned will accept their articles.

The problem is, I don’t know that anyone is actually reading the content from Ezine Articles. Consider what I see when I go to the home page of the site:

The primary call-to-action, the main thing you see as a new visitor, is that this is a site where you can submit articles for “traffic back to your website.”

Can you imagine going to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal as a reader and finding that the home pages don’t show you the top news but rather suggest that you submit news to get visitors to your web site? No one would turn to these sources for news each day. They wouldn’t be important.

If people are reading the Ezine site, then the site would be designed for readers — and it would have readers — and if it has readers, then the links would be of great value. But a site that exists mainly to help other sites just get links? I don’t think those links have long-term value.

I am absolutely not suggesting that by having submitted to Ezine Articles that you might get yourself banned in Google, hurt by Penguin or any nonsense that I fully expect some people will try to read into what I’m writing. I’m not trying to “out” the site. Moreover, the site apparently does distribute content and has a mission to let other sites discover some of the articles they might want to feature. I’ve not done any deep exploration of how the site works; maybe there are gems of great content within it.

I’m simply saying that on the surface, this site seems to have nothing to offer a reader, no compelling reason why someone would come by each day to see the latest articles and, then when reading those articles, perhaps click on links within them to learn more about something covered. Those type of links are the ones that the search engines want to count, links that add value to a reader.

“Article Marketing” The Right Way

Consider that Ezine has a category for technology articles. I have never seen any articles in that category featured by leading technology news site Techmeme. Go check the Techmeme leaderboard. You won’t find Ezine Articles among the top sources.

If you really did want to do “article marketing” right, then you’d look again at that Techmeme leaderboard. It lists some of the top technology news publishers out there, sites with real readership.

Those are the sites you’d want to pitch a high-quality article to, as a guest submission, if they allow it. Those are the sites where, if you’re accepted, you will have jumped some serious barriers to get published, where the links in your article will add to what you’ve written and be more likely to count.

Earned Links, Not Easy Links

Another site I’ve seen constantly coming up, when I look at people who report being hit by Penguin, is Squidoo. Now, the same caveat I gave for Ezine applies. I’m not saying that being in Squidoo gets you banned, gets you hit by Penguin, is necessarily bad. I’m just seeing that it’s something a lot of sites hit by Penguin have gotten links from. They’ve probably done that because Squidoo has no barrier to publishing.

Despite being backed by Seth Godin, revered in some circles for the marketing advice he offers through his blog and his many books, Squidoo really hasn’t seemed to make it big as a reader destination. It’s not spoken of alongside things like Tumblr. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t offering $1 billion for it as with Instagram. President Obama hasn’t decided he needs to have an account on Squidoo as he does on Pinterest, unless I missed that.

So who is getting value out of Squidoo? My guess is that there’s at least a significant constituency of people who turn to it because it’s an easy way to get links.

Easy links aren’t what you want. It’s the hard links you want. That’s especially so because part of Penguin seems to be devaluing some of the credit that the easy links were passing, such as potentially links from Squidoo, Ezine Articles and lots of “directories” from across the web.

Even if you weren’t actually penalized by Penguin (and the picture has gotten cloudier about whether Penguin was a “penalty” or not, expect more to come in a future post from me on that), the easy links that have lost credit probably won’t be coming back. In fact, even more easy links will probably be devalued.

I Blame Google! Google Made Me What I Am…

If you were hit by Penguin, don’t want to be hit by it in the future or are serious about winning with Google in the long-term, it’s crucial to understand that easy links will always be vulnerable. It doesn’t matter if easy links worked in the past. It doesn’t matter if easy links still seem to be working now. It doesn’t matter if you think easy links are now some type of potential negative SEO issue that Google isn’t policing well. None of that, valid or not, is going to help you with the winning game of earning the hard links, the links that will matter.

I can’t stress this enough. I’ve read too many comments where people want to blame Google for the fact that the easy links they got before no longer work as well. I just keeps reminding me of this classic clip from Repo Man. Please spend a minute to watch it:

YouTube Preview Image

You can sit around blaming Google for taking away an easy route to success, but that’s not going to restore the route. The only thing that’s going fix that is if you understand that, as Erin Everhart wrote recently, that link building is a “time-consuming and frustrating job to do” and then get on with doing it.

Make no mistake, earning quality links is hard. That’s one reason why I challenged Matt Cutts for him and others at Google to spend 30 days actually building links for small, non-profit web sites. I think for all their advice that sites just need to get links, they need some real world wake-up calls of their own of what’s its like to do it. I sincerely hope they accept that challenge (stay tuned).

The Incredible Suckiness Of Building Links

Believe me, I know that quality link building is hard. Back in the day, those years ago, I used to do it. I still occasionally do it for Search Engine Land or Marketing Land, if I see an important place where I think we should be listed. That leads to one example I shared yesterday at SMX Advanced, which could be titled, “The Incredible Suckiness That Google Wants Links.”

I’ve known John Battelle for years. He’s one of the smartest commentators on search, technology and marketing out there. He’s written an essential book about search engines called “The Search.” As part of producing that book, he launched his own blog, Searchblog.

For some time, John had a list of search resources in the sidebar on his blog. My old site, Search Engine Watch, was listed. When I started afresh with Search Engine Land, I eventually asked John if he’d link to it. No problem, was his response. It got passed to his tech person. And nothing happened.

That’s not uncommon. Tech folks are busy. I gave it some time and asked again. John was again positive, passed it to the tech person, and the link eventually appeared. But it appeared as a nofollow link. The tech person decided, for whatever, reason, that all the links in the resources area should be nofollow links.

For those not familiar, a nofollow link means that a link doesn’t pass credit to help with rankings. Here, I’d managed to get a hard link, a link earned because a respected authority in search thought his readers would like to learn more from other resources. But that trust carried no weight with Google, despite this being exactly the type of link it would want to count.

The Broken Link Democracy

Yes, Google’s system of depending on links sucks. Bing’s too, for that matter. I’m somewhat amazed, actually, that neither Google nor Bing are talking up the potential of using social signals more. I’ve spoken to all of them recently about it, and whether link signals can last, and they’ve all still been pretty pro-link. Stay tuned — I’ll be coming back to this.

I’m not pro-link. I don’t think links represent a solid “democracy” of the web these days. I keep joking that if you think counting links is democratic, then that’s like saying the United States was democratic when, initially, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote.

I explain much more about this in my past post, When Everyone Gets The Vote: Social Shares As The New Link Building. I still think social offers some hope in a world where earning quality links seems harder than ever.

Working The Broken System The Right Way

But however sucky it can be that search engines want links — earned links — despite all the problems in getting them, that’s still the reality now. It’s what they want. I could sit around crying that when I finally got a link from John’s site, it didn’t count with Google and blame everyone. Or, I can pick up and move on to earn links in other ways.

And I do, by the way, even from John. If I write something significant, he’ll link to to it, just as I link or share his content to my readers. Similarly, we have an huge readership here that tunes in for our content and naturally links to us. We generate our own linking weather.

But beyond that, if there was some type of article that John didn’t cover, that I really felt his readers should know about, I could email him and ask if he’d spotlight it, and I have a fairly high confidence he would. That’s because we have a relationship. I’m not some unknown source, pitching across some idea that if he links to me, and I link to him, we all win in the search world. It’s about the value to his readers.

Not a news site, with neither your own link weather nor compelling content that people might want to link to? Earning links, good links, isn’t impossible. I watched Casie Gillette of Grasshopper, which she describes being in the boring industry of offering a virtual phone system, share tons of ideas on gaining authoritative links.

She was speaking as part of the “Authority Building Versus Link Building In A Search Meets Social World” session we had at SMX Advanced, and you can read a live blog of the session at Managing Greatness.

Break The Easy Link Mindset

We did that session to try and break the easy link mindset. Do infographics, do viral videos — sure, these are seemingly easy ways to earn large numbers of links. Seemingly easy, because there’s actually hard work that goes behind some of these efforts. But even as focus grows on these types of tactics, the bigger issue of building relationships, of proving your worth and earning links that way is more important than ever.

In much of life, the most valuable things are the things you have to work hardest to get. It’s no different with links. If you find an easy route to obtaining them, there’s an excellent chance you’ve found an easy route to obtaining links that either have, or will have, little to no value. The higher the frustration factor, the harder it is to earn a link, the more likely that link is one that will help you with Google.

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Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Link Building | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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



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  • Darren Kingman

    Here’s an idea for Google (please credit me if you use it!!). They should place more emphasis on links that people actually click on. The only way they could do it without asking every website in the world to let them know more about their websites than Analytics currently does, is to see people who have related queries. So if someone was on an SEO site, and later searched for link building, they could deduce that the information placed on the link for link building from the SEO site actually added value to that visitor.

    There’s a ton of kinks in there, but it starts to at least build on the idea (slowly dying idea) of links and starts to add real value to them.

    Just a thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thinhphan89it Thinh Phan

    The site you mention doesn’t have 0 backlinks. Looks at it in MajesticSEO. They have some invisible links hidden away on some pretty high authority websites.http://khuonmatdep.com/

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