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.

Related Articles

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


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.

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  • Dan Pacifico

    I think that it should be said that its not about links but referrals. Link building should be the process of raising your referral traffic. Referral traffic should be the ultimate goal of a link not to raise your domain authority on a given search term. Link building should have never become a tactic but should been further entrenched in a overall marketing strategy to bring traffic to a website.

  • Scholarship Man

    The reason people get links to raise their Google rankings is because Google made it nearly impossible to rank without them. Therefore people are going to get links to raise their rankings. Once Google stops using links as their de facto form of judging a sites authority – then people will stop using them. It’s a simple as that.

    Don’t blame people for creating links – blame Google for making it impossible to rank without them.

  • hipec

    Your comment about “no one uses Ezine” is very inaccurate. I know several people that have Ezine bookmarked on their Chrome bookmark bar. Back when I used to work for Best Buy I was an in-home service technician and saw Ezine Articles on computers a lot.

    I often do not understand where you “white hat” guys get off saying “which directory is good”, when Ezine is a very popular directory that many real people read. This is why SEO sucks now, because all this “quality link building” nonsense, makes me want to throw up.

    Don’t build links where it’s meant to increase rankings? Load of rubbish, that’s the whole point of building links in the first place. Appealing to an audience is fine and dandy, but is NOTHING close to ranking #1 on a keyword. Anyone who thinks this has never had a real taste of #SERP.

    Sadly, it appears the ultra black hatters have found an exploit that lets them rank #1 on any keyword within only a few days after registering a domain.

    Check out : hxxp://paydayloans-lenders(.)net/

    This guy is ranked #1 on “payday loans online” with 0 backlinks. Not only does he have 0 backlinks, his Citation flow is 62, and Trust flow is 48… That’s insane. That’s approaching SEOMoz and SELand without even a single backlink!

    I guarantee you that guy is making $5k/day at minimum right now, so why can’t we just do what he does and rank anywhere we like? Seems “quality links” have nothing to do with ranking, judging by the black hat results I see everywhere now.

  • victorpan

    Links are like relationships & endorsements, not so different from the social signals delivered by facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, G+, and other sources. While it’s true that links will forever remain the fundamentals of Google’s search, let’s not forget the reason why the algorithm was created in the first place – relevance.

    While some will still see… a link is a link is a link… I too plead to for everyone in the community  (even the much more technical testing-based SEO’s) to remember to always remember the human element behind the work we do.

    A link is not just a link. Not all links carry the same value. Some links may even have negative value. The truly worthwhile links are those that help real people. Relevant links – and that’s some hard stuff.

    Thanks for speaking out Danny!

  • Marcus Miller

    Will be really interesting to see if Google takes on the 30 day link building challenge as Danny laid out. As the options get harder, and the game gets harder, the smaller players can’t play any longer, and that does not really tie in with the ‘levelling the playing field’ which these latest changes are supposed to be focused on. 

  • Danny Sullivan

    Ezine’s not a directory. A directory, in the classic sense, is a place that lists web sites by category.

    Ezine appears to be a collection of articles that anyone can submit. I didn’t say what you quoted me as, but I did say that I don’t know that anyone is actually reading the content there. Certainly the home page isn’t designed for the casual reader coming by. I’ve not seen articles from the site commonly shared in my news stream. I don’t see it being mentioned among the top sites on the web when I review those type of stats. Maybe you consider it “very popular” but it doesn’t seem to be that way from what evidence I’ve observed.

    I’m getting off telling you what directory is good because I remember exactly why search engines first started talking about directories in the first place, because I was there, online and reporting about it when it happened. Were you?

    You are, as I said in the article, perfectly free to dismiss this all as “white hat” rubbish. And you can do whatever that site does if you want, and rank for whatever you like, if you think that’s working that way. For as long as it actually works. Because it probably won’t, not in the long term.

    So go ahead. I’m not telling you or anyone that you have to do anything. You’re grown up; make the choices you want. But I am telling you what the search engines want, what they are likely to stamp out, and if you don’t want to make choice that align with that, then please watch that Repo Man clip again.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Yes, blame Google. Oh, wait. I did. So what’s your advice now for someone, just sit around hoping that things are going to change. They’re not, which I also wrote about. Google’s not going to stop using links any time soon. It’s also going to continue to crack down on how much credit it will allow easy links to carry. So do you want to keep going after easy links knowing they’re going to be devalued? It’s as simple as that. 

  • John McDonald

    Sounds great in theory – until you actually look at who is ranking for valuable terms.  Right now, I’m looking at a guy with hundreds of iSnare submissions at the top, followed closely by a guy with hundreds of thousands of site-wide links, and a huge one-page EMD network under that.  Meanwhile, if some unaffiliated third party decides to shoot a few spam blasts at an intermediary, they’re suddenly outranked by scrapers.  

    Anyway, pass the kool-aid.  I could use some right now.

  • Danny Sullivan

    If you assume that those things are going to work in the long-term, you’re welcome to do the same. I was pretty clear that easy links still work, in some cases. Tomorrow, they might not. Some people are happy to take a short term view and get happier if that gamble turns out to have even longer term gains. But some people also clearly have no idea that those types of tactics are short term at all. To them, that is link building in the way they seem to assume that the search engines want. It’s not; it’s being cracked down on, and you can expect that’s just going to get worse. So it’s really down to whatever kool-aid you’re wanting to drink.

  • hipec

    Anyway, pass the kool-aid.  I could use some right now.”

    Lmao… thanks for the laugh.

    Google, in an attempt to de-spam the SERPs, created 100x more spam than was there in the first place… ironic.

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  • Scholarship Man

    Hah – I’m not arguing with your article or any points. I just think it’s funny that Google places such huge emphasis on links to rank websites, and then finds a million and a half ways to discount “certain” links when people start to figure out how much weight links actually have. Your article just brought up that thought, so I’d thought I’d share.

    The average Joe does not understand the difference between a great “earned” link vs a forced link. A link is a link is a link to them. They start getting links, and then get penalized for using links because Google only likes “certain types” of links. 

    I’m not talking about the spam that the average Joe SHOULD recognize as a bad link. I’m talking about the grey area, where Google changes it’s stance on from one year to the next.

    It’s like a father getting angry at his kid because he opened up a lemonade stand on the street corner to earn money – instead of on the other street corner. Poor kid. Either tell us exactly what you want and how, or stop using these signals altogether (right, I know it’s not going to change). Everything else just confuses the hell out of people.

    I just feel like Google is constantly digging a deeper hole because they decided to use a heavily abuse-able method to rank sites from the get-go and is too stubborn to figure something else out. I didn’t get any of my sites penalized in the past few updates, but I’ve seen legitimate quality sites get replaced by crap – all because Google can’t figure out another way to gauge a site’s quality other than “what links point to a site.”

  • GrantMVP

    It all depends on what you want to rank for.  I am very convinced that SEO has moved from the algorithm to manual inspection with the thousands of employees and infinite budget Google has.  This is the reason SEO is dying.  Its not because of Panda or Penguin.  It’s because Google watches the big money terms like a hawk.  It doesn’t matter if you have do-follow links from the home page and the home page, your auto insurance blog is not going to rank for “auto insurance” for very long.  That’s just an example, but that phrase and thousands of others simply have no SEO opportunity in 2012.  Understand what you can and cannot reasonably accomplish as an SEO.  Other than that, good article Danny.

  • AJ Kohn

    It’s great to see this though not on the same day as I blog about it. I’m kidding (sort of.)

    I hope people really listen here and understand that the Internet is no longer a way to short-cut your way to success. Those gold rush days are over and earning trust and authority is now a lot like it is offline, a slow, long effort until you’re an ‘overnight sensation’. 

    Oh, and +42 for referencing Repo Man. 

  • Frostheim
  • Danny Sullivan

    Grant, it clearly does not watch big money terms like a hawk or many of the embarrassing sites pointed out for ranking on big money terms after the Penguin Updates wouldn’t be there.

    And SEO’s been dying since like 1997, so I’m fairly certain 2012 isn’t going to be the death of it.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I agree. The average person just seems to hear “get links” and isn’t thinking about the quality of the links. I’m hoping this will help enlighten some of those people (though I don’t hold that much hope), and I’m also hoping that Google moves beyond the increasingly bad link signal (though social seems the only easy jump for it to make, and it doesn’t seem to trust those social signals much).

  • CarsonWard

    Thank you, Danny. I happen to believe that you’re looking towards the future and thinking about sustainable business strategy. That makes you neither a grumpy old man nor a sheep. It makes you smart.

    I knew that some people were going to react strongly when I suggested they stop building the “easy” links. What I did NOT expect was for people to harass me in the comments as if I had just told them to stop all possible forms of acquiring links, nor did I expect that people who dismiss it as white-hat evangelism.

    You’re expressing what I’ve learned recently – there’s a large portion of the industry that has no idea what sustainable link acquisition tactics look like. Some people don’t want to hear or admit that they were wrong about anything, and no combination of expert advice/algorithm change will convince them otherwise.

  • George Michie

    A fine article, Danny.  The challenge is that generating quality, link-worthy content is hard.  It’s not just a matter of hard work, it requires having talent and something to say.  Folks who are stuck doing SEO for garbage websites have no quality link options.  Those of us fortunate enough to work for real companies with genuine content possibilities and a quality destination for users can do it the right way.  Sustainable, strategies don’t work for low quality sites, and having a high quality site isn’t an option for a great many people who make money (without providing value to users or advertisers) online.

  • CarsonWard

    [citation needed]

  • GrantMVP

    Awww come on Danny we’ve all had a few good SEO years since 1997 haha!!  As for a few big money terms slipping through the cracks, that’s probably done on purpose so its looks honest, or maybe they haven’t hired an employee yet to watch that phrase.  You can fool them for a week.  Maybe a few months.  But if you don’t “belong” in the top 10 the “algorithm” (cough cough Google employee) will find you.

  • Elaine Ellis

    Great article. About twice a week I get a request that someone would like to guest blog for my current company or have us link to their articles. Our product is technical and nuanced and the average person won’t understand it. We wrote about black market data, and they want to know if we’ll link to their article on black market kidneys. No lie. 

  • Durant Imboden

    Web links were meant to be citations that readers could click on to see the cited sources. I still use links that way, and I’d guess that most other editors, writers, and librarians do, too. (I’m also pretty sure that search engineers want to see links used as citations, and not as a form of currency for the purchase of search rankings.) If we look at links in the “citation” context, it becomes clear that link building as a commercial SEO tool won’t merely get harder in the future; it will become nearly impossible. Why? Because Google and other search engines don’t need to identify paid links and other spam schemes. They can simply become much pickier about the types of links that transfer “link juice” to e-commerce and affiliate sites. (The search engines certainly can apply penalties in extreme cases, but just ignoring whole categories of links that don’t fit the profile of legitimate citations would solve much of the “garbage in, garbage out” problem that afflicts link-driven search results.)

  • David Johnstone

    The problem is this Danny: those “easy links” still work.  All Google have done is make those easy links more risky, because they’re adding negative weight to specific linking patterns that typically those “easy links” can signal. Yes, they’re more risky, but they still work, and Google still rely on those “easy links” as a signal to rank.

    Furthermore, your average SMB owner just doesn’t have the time investment you’re asking them for, to be the journo-entrepreneur and spend hours on content and networking when their expertise is their product/service.  And NO, they can’t afford a truly professional SEO to do if for them,
    and nor should they shell out for such a ancilliary service (from the
    business owner’s perspective) just to patch Google’s weakness for
    ranking-by-content instead of ranking by WHAT PEOPLE WANT in the
    e-commerce verticals – decent products and services. 

    To your average small business, their website is like their company brochure – and get this – to their customers, their website is just a brochure – what they (the customers) are interested in is the product or service they offer.  A website with fantastic content is worthless if the product or service sucks. Vice versa, Google has a lot of hate for fantastic products and services if the website that sells those fantastic things that people want – isn’t “hot” enough to win decent links.  The. Way. It. Goes.  We have to deal with reality, not how we want reality to be.  SMB owners are under pressure as it is to keep their businesses going without having to be completely tied-down with somehow teaching themselves to be the skilled 95th percentile internet marketer on top of running a business.

    And so to sum up – those easy links that work (yes they work) – are about the only REALISTIC way an SMB is going to rank.  I love your idealism Danny but you’re seeing things way too much from how you run SEL.  SEL is not a site that is run by a couple of guys that sell nuts and bolts and whose customer base are loyal to them purely for their quality product.  In such a case, Google need to do their job and introduce buyer to seller – END OF STORY.  The buyer doesn’t need to do a song and dance and nor does the seller want to see and hear that song and dance.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Yep, that’s an excellent cartoon.

  • Takeshi Young

    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.

  • Danny Sullivan

    No, the problem isn’t that the easy links still work. The problem is that the easy links might not keep working. When that happens, you have befuddled people going “what happened, I thought search engines like links.” So they’d better understand that what search engines like are quality links, not easy links, and that even if easy links work now, that’s not the trajectory going forward.

    Now, if your average SMB finds the only way to rank is to invest time somehow coming up with an article (that showed up what, out of the blue) or manually submitting to a zillion directories, I’m suggesting they reallocate that time in other ways.

    But wait — you said they don’t have the time, yet those exact things above done to get easy links work. So apparently some of them do have the time, or some of them do have some money they’re spending some place to get easy links, because you just told me the easy links are the only way they can rank now.

    I love your idealism, but the only realistic thing to understand is that those easy links the SMB could barely afford in time or money might not last. So if you have a limited investment that you’re making, do you want them to make it for something in the long-term or in the short-term. 

    I think they should understand there’s a difference in the time of links they’re obtaining, if they’re going out to get them at all, which some of them apparently are, based on what you say. I think they should understand that the easy links may work but that Google just wiped out a bunch of them and that they might continue one. I think they should be looking to the future and understand why they are heading there. That’s being realistic, not idealistic.

  • Alan

    What I dont understand is why any directory is valued in 2012! All they are is a link to another site. They offer no unique content if anything a place like ezine articles has more to offer than DMOZ??? 

    Danny while I agree with most of what you are saying here. There a few things I take issue with. The problem here Danny is that you and me are dinosaurs!! I remember the times when the site that gave you the best search results by far was yahoo and to get to the top of altavista you just had to spam bluewidget in the title tags more times than your competitor. 

    The bit I take issue with is your take on Squidoo. Whilst yes some spammers have gone after easy links from Squidoo. What you have said above has shown your lack of understanding on how Squidoo works. The barriers to entry are higher than you think. In fact to get anywhere in Squidoo you have to do crazy things like quests and gain points and try as hard as you can to move from a squidling to a Mega Squid (or whatever they are called). This community of Squids don’t even care if Google ever visits their lenses (Squidoo talk for blog). They are happy hanging out in their own world. As for tumblr, it is just as spammy or more so than Squidoo and so what if the big O has an account.

    What I think you have highlighted better than anything in this article is just how 90′s backlinks are. Google like you and ME, Danny is a dinosaur! Amongst the kidlies out there it is losing relevance! If you asked me would this be possible 10 years ago? I would have said you are mad! however we live in a different world. For example, There are few people I know who are under 25 who have google as their home page anymore, the homepage is now Facebook, even my wife who is a few years younger than me has Facebook as her homepage although she is considering shifting this to Pinterest. Yes Google is still at the for front of marketers minds and yes it is still the goto place for hardcore researching of a topic and is still the biggest store front  in the world. We are all running around worrying about links and Good content, hoping to get those older buying web surfers and forgetting that the up and coming future really don’t give a S#$T about big G. yes they still use it but try and avoid it as much as possible because they prefer hanging out elsewhere. Forget Facebooks IPO slump as I have said before all they have to do is make it so the masses don’t leave to do a GOOD websearch and the stock price will double. Then they just need to cannibalize Googles other money earners (adwords/adsense) and the sky is the limit. They don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

    Personally I think googles focus on the dollar is the cause of their woes (I know people will be reading this and asking “woes” what woes?). If you believe Google has no woes, then you aren’t looking far enough into the future. They are so focused on the bottom line that they don’t realize they are turning the kids off. These days Google’s above the fold experience is just outright embarrassing. I can’t help thinking that in a few years time we will be looking back at Googles above the fold efforts and think how terrible it looked. Kind of like those flashy nineties sites that are so embarrassing to come across these days.

  • AJ Kohn

    I’ll call a spade a spade here. Many SMBs aren’t going to survive. In fact, the numbers on SMBs (even the rosy ones) are pretty grim.

    The most frequent stat is that 80% of all SMBs fail within five years. The biggest reason they fail is, you guessed it, marketing. They don’t understand it, they don’t budget for it and they don’t invest in it. 

    Those that do survive actually do pay attention to marketing. Think about how it works in meatspace. You open up a litte shop and you get to know the neighborhood. You do good work. You get references. You build a reputation. Maybe you sponsor the little-league team. It’s the day-to-day grind of both building your business and doing the work. Those people win!
    Why is it different online? Because Google had these massive loop holes for so long there’s a sense of entitlement that every SMB should be able to rank and get gobs of free traffic from Google. That sense of entitlement needs to stop.

    It’s hard out there for a … SMB. But that’s the way it is. That’s reality. The ways to get links aren’t outlandish for SMBs, they’re just hard. It IS a time-suck. 

    So I agree “We have to deal with reality, not how we want reality to be.” 

  • Matthew Barker

    My agency specialises in travel and we have a pretty well established content production & distribution process, basically a system for *quality* guest posting. Proper travel journalism shared with proper travel publications. It works great, and I think that’s because my background is in travel journalism and PR, not internet marketing & SEO.

    I wonder about SEO agencies that work with clients across multiple verticals. Surely it’s not feasible or scalable to develop the breadth of expertise necessary to do “good” link building in multiple niches? How are you supposed to have the time/energy/knowledge to conduct meaningful outreach with influential websites in multiple verticals: business tech, lifestyle, retail, auto, etc? It just cannot be possible. Does that mean the end of the SEO agency?

  • CommunitySEO

    I can’t agree enough.

    This is probably the best article I have read from you Danny. Admittedly, I have not read them all.

  • Maurine W. Sigmund

    that you’ve somehow earned, not “easy links.

  • Chuck Brown

    I realize that your post is meant to be mainly forward-looking, and I think you’ve struck the right tone overall. But I’m still going to complain about Google some more. ;-)

    I have about 40 sites…mostly *not* info-sites designed to pick up a few clicks here and there from Google. Most have legit value, and generally, have enjoyed decent rankings. Of course, I have engaged in “easy link-building” on an ongoing basis…just to stay in the game. But I’ve never gone crazy with it. Just considered it to be a basic part of having a site and letting people know.

    With a few exceptions, these are not sites that are content-heavy and that will elicit a lot of natural links…so I’m sure the majority are “easy” links.

    But many of my best, most vital sites got completely raped by the Penguin. Some examples:

    site 1 – #11 (April 24th) dropped to #99 (April 25th) dropped to #313 (May 8th)
    site 2 – #10 (March 13th) dropped out of the top 300 (April 26th)
    site 3 – #9 (April 24th) dropped out of the top 400 (April 25th)

    Assuming that what I’ve read is true regarding percentage of anchor text links being one of the key factors, I’m left with one choice to undo this penalty: build a whole bunch more weak links with the naked URL or just the name of the site as the anchor text…to try to lessen the overall percentage of anchor text (over-optimized) links.

    Yes, of course…this is a stupid idea. Yes, of course…if I could just set the reset button and have all the “easy links” not count anymore and let the sites survive solely on the value of their content, I would. Yes, of course, I would love to take a one-time amnesty for my sites in exchange for a promise never to build another “easy link” (it’s not like I ever wanted to go that route in the first place!). But I’m not offered that option, am I?

    I am not an SEO guy or a professional link builder. I don’t have the time or money to go hunt down and request removal of “easy links”. 

    Worst of all…every single minute or hour I spend worrying about THIS kind of crap is another minute or hour I’m NOT creating value for my site visitors.

    In much the same way that Google didn’t anticipate the gaming of the AdSense system…which left it a shell of the model it was apparently intended to be…so this “citation-based” ranking scheme has left us all with quite a mess to mop up.

    Matt Cutts seems like a good guy. I seriously wish he’d take that 30-day challenge…and that it might help to expose the flaws in Google’s basic ranking philosophy. I wouldn’t care that he came back and reported to us about it. I’d just like to see the internal dialog at Google change…so they can start making serious movement toward a more reasonable model.

  • Matthew Rooks

    I believe social signals protected some sites from the Penguin update.  Google turned a blind eye to sites with a certain level of social ‘buzz’.

  • Ruth Herman Wells

    Not a word about sites who have been killed by Penguin while the sites that stole their content are in #1 in rankings. Not a word about the dozens of crappy backlinks sent by those spam sites back to the source site. Not a word about how DMCA-removed sites are back up under different URLs within days. Not a word about how there can be hundreds of spam sites featuring the stolen content of a single website.

    See for yourself the dramatic situation that was not discussed. Search for “classroom behavior change posters” and in the #1 position is a spam site that is composed of the text of my site’s ( menu. That spam site was removed by my DMCA complaint when it was called and was back within days with a slightly different URL but still featuring my content. I used to rank #1 for those keywords but now I am lost in the results while this spam site is king.

    For many searches for “my” keywords, you will see DMCA removal notice one after the other. That shows you how rampant this wholesale content theft is.I won’t live long enough to file enough DMCA complaints against the 100s of sites featuring my writing.

    Please explain why it is okay that Google permits this spam site that has no quality inbound links to be #1 while the content owner has vanished. As I have said to you before, I really wish you or someone would address this with Google because I am edging closer and closer to losing my life’s work while the thief sites featuring my words flourish at the top of the rankings. I am desperate to find some way to get Google to understand this.

  • Alan

    What I do not understand about a situation like yours Chuck is that you believe and most of the top notch SEO’s would agree that it is your bad links that are causing you your problems! Then they will turn around and say you can’t affect a competitors site with bad links? I can’t understand this reasoning. If I can make bad links to my site and get penalized for it, what stops my competitor doing the same thing? Does Google some how magically know who built these links to my site? I really wish someone could give me a definitive answer to this. I understand that it could be just a case of the links no longer count. However Mr Cutt’s seems to be deliberately not answering this question. he is leaving it up in the air.

    has anyone got a definitive answer to this?

  • Jim Hodson

    Excellent article as always Danny. 

    I’m not sure social signals are going to be the answer or any more reliable than links.  My guess is that once people know Google is looking at social as a primary factor like links always have been, they will figure out a million different ways to “work the [social] system” as well.  Then Google will have to spend the next 5 years writing algorithms to detect and filter/penalize (take “manual action” as Matt likes to say) against those or write new “Penguin” and “Panda” type filtering updates.

    I mean, people have been doing it for social for some time already just preparing for the day that social signals carry similar weight in their algo as does links… People use tools for queing up submitting tweets and FB posts.  They dig through their archives and schedule so many archived article tweets per day or week in advanced.  They use tools to find all types of “stuff” they think readers my find interesting and queue them up.  There are tools that “Follow” masses of people and then check later to see if they were followed back (and if not unfollow them). 

    There is nothing “natural” about a large percentage of “social links” or “social brand mentions”.  Those links or signals are often time just as “unnatural” and “manufactured” as links obtained through directory submissions, forum sigs, blog commenting, etc.  If that is already the case to some extent, imagine what would happen once everyone learns Google and/or Bing switched to social signals as the primary method of ranking.

    It’s just a guess, but Google is probably thinking that dealing with bad links is a relatively “known” evil that they’ve been dealing with for a long time.  It’s getting harder and harder for spammers and blackhats to come up with methods (it’s a mature link scheme/unnatural link building “market”). The search engines have a lot built into their algorithms, processes (even human processes), etc. to 1) detect such bad links and 2) filtering or penalizing those determined to be guilty.  Like it or not, Google IS doing a better job at dealing with them IMO.  Are they perfect? No.  Will they every be? No.  But they are MUCH better at finding and dealing with manufactured links than even 2 years ago. 

    I mean your entire post essentially says, “If you’re using linking schemes or other unnatural ‘easy’ link building techniques (directory submission, forum submission, article submission, blog commenting, etc.) then your game is over or will soon be over.”  If you’re writing a post with that message then Google has definitely made some serious progress against web spammers and dealing with the problem.

    If Google were to suddenly switch to “social links”, “social mentions” and other social signals, think about it…  It would be the WILD, WILD West all over again.  Rewind 5-10 years.  There would be so many new ideas for ways that people would try to “work the [social] system”, and Google would have little if any infrastructure built into their crawlers, indexers, ranking algorithms, processs (including human processes), etc.  Unlike links, social is not “mature”, so there are way more unknowns with social.

    Sticking with links, like it or not, is probably the safest route for them to take at this point.

  • searchengineman

    Thank you for that Posted on Google+, 

  • searchengineman

    The comments in this thread should be graduated, to an article.  I too shake my head.  My main bread and butter is PPC, but the SEO racket is $%$#% hard.  I am not ashamed to tell my clients that I’m also lost in the SEO woods!  The only difference is I know which paths not to take! 

    I follow best practices. . But literally right next door to me..I kid you not.. is the Black Hat Dude (Not our company). Who taunts me, to partake his Koolaid… …The latest antics he uses for his clients, so he claims. I would like to believe in my heart that the day of reckoning will come, with some Google Update.  But I’m losing faith.  I’ve even heard that some industries/verticles can’t be targeted by Penguin..because they are so saturated with bought/spammy links.  (Gambling comes to mind) The remaining results would be even worse!.If your business model can’t survive without Google.  Then you ain’t got a business model.  To be an SEO today requires understanding of so many different fields.  Its getting more expensive, and the model is certainly not scalable -or it would be easy. My faint future hope of Social signals being used to determine rankings sounds like a great idea.  But fake Google+ accounts are being sold as we speak.  Heaven help us when a Google+ API is made available.I too would like to see Matt Cutts take the 30 day link building challenge.  I certainly couldn’t do it!.  PS: I think the comment/pic from Frostheim is certainly appropriate on the state of linking.  

  • Codex Meridian

    This is b*llsh*t. I looked at most link profiles from quality tutorial and how-to blogs and all links are coming from big forums of the related niche, Yahoo answers and even eHOW. This is where people have problems and users offer solutions to the problem by citing the blog post as an answer. Some of them are nofollowed (Yahoo answers and eHow for example) while some forums are not.
    Now Danny, is this what you call EASY LINKS? You certainly believe its all easy to build links in sites like this but people are actually citing blog post and linking it for REAL! Now this is a real vote that does not COUNT? Bear in mind that most quality blogs are still earning links like this yet they are not counted because its looks TOO easy to build. –face palm–

  • Declan Kerin

    Slow clap. Hilarious rant, Danny.

  • Contentrix

    I think the average person understands it pretty well, but doesn’t want to do the work required to get those links. You don’t need a Masters degree to figure out that submitting to crappy directories or participating in link exchanges is not the same as earning links from quality sources. So if people want to hide behind the excuse they just didn’t understand, blame the people.

  • Alan

    The problem is Google will have to one day anyway. The kiddies are all going Social now. If Google doesn’t then they will miss the ocean liner.

  • Jaspal Kalsi

    Well written and a nice Rant too.  I agree that things were a bit too ‘Pro Links’ till the Penguin arrived .. in fact its been this way ever singe Google came into being and educated everyone of how they based their rankings from links which were somehow counted as votes.  Not blaming Google as they are doing what they are to clean their results from webspam.  However, I still believe that transparency at Google has to increase in terms of letting webmasters know what and why has adversely affected their site.  Not only will this allow webmasters to act against elements of negative seo, but also educate spammy link-builders that old-school link building tactics just wont work anymore.

  • Injury Lawyer

    The Ezine example is good.  I am so glad I did not put all my eggs in one basket.  My problem is many of my articles got picked up, ostensibly because people liked em, and now I have all this “exact match” anchor text that clobbered my rankings.  So while my good links go bad due to age and lack of freshness, I am trying to find ways of getting my anchor weight compliant with Penguin.  Ya know, junk, and branded anchors? This is really unfair to punish guys who did everything Cutts said to do.  No he says you may have to scrap your crusty old site.  WTF?  I am a Google stockholder, and think that is unfair.

    Anyways, we did not lose everything. In fact, traffic went up, but for worthless KW that did not generate anything real. And PPC has only generated calls from SEO people asking us if we want to “rank better”….  Or Ip addresses of suspected click farms, or competitors clicking from different computers (And no, Google does not automatically NOT charge you, they fight you on it all the way) It is clear that Penguin is designed to allow people who never ranked, and with pretty boring sites, but with a “better” “anchor weight”, to outrank the more dominant and BETTER sites.  And the theory that this will be good for PPC, may be true.  But the new results are terrible.  I started using Bing for organic search.  For example, when I do a search for “personal injury attorney”, Google displays their own products like Wikipedia, or Youtube as a first result.  That is a bad result. On Bing you would have to type: “What is a personal injury attorney”? to get that query result.  Get it?

  • Danny Sullivan

    I think that as you start to deal with whatever problems you have with Penguin, you might begin by using either your actual name or the name of your law firm rather than “Injury Lawyer” when commenting.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I don’t understand what you’re saying. You believe nofollowed links, which don’t carry ranking credit, are now a problem?

    I think you’re saying that these places are naturally linking to good sites because the authors there believe those sites have earned a link. If so, we don’t disagree. Those are good links, and they aren’t easy to get, because you have to have quality content in order to earn them.

    Unfortunately, the sad thing is that they are nofollowed, so they are the type of links Google wants and yet doesn’t count. And if you go back and read my post, you’ll see that I share the same frustration about this.

  • Danny Sullivan

    That’s probably why they are sticking with links for the time being. They feel perhaps they have a better handle on spam there. But you also have to understand with social, you’re dealing with links that come from a known account that you can assign trust to more easily than with a web site — and you can nix more easily than dropping a site from the rankings. In addition, you can use the social signals as part of personalization. There is great promise there, especially in terms of using social alongside other signals to corroborate things. 

  • Danny Sullivan

    I’ve covered that in other articles, Ruth, and it’s been raised with Google in general repeatedly. But it’s a separate issue from link building that I’m addressing in this article. And no, I haven’t forgotten your site.

  • Danny Sullivan

    It’s certainly possible, because if you have lots of links but no social signals, then that’s a sign that a site isn’t as popular or respected as the links alone might suggest.

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