Google launched in 1998 and has grown steadily to become the most popular search engine in the world. Over 2,161 billion searches were run on their engines in 2013, and the company corners a 67% share of the global search market.
As it grows and evolves, Google search is well and truly on its way to becoming humanity’s most treasured “personal assistant,” helping users find answers to their questions, discover solutions to their problems, carry out research and even get feedback, recommendations and suggestions from friends and trusted advisors.
As consumers increasingly use search engines for researching and purchasing goods and services, this presents a massive opportunity for businesses that invest in SEO.
To do its job well, Google must rank content by the value it provides users. They use a number of different factors to determine search engine rankings; but, the largest one (for now) is quality and quantity of inbound links.
Why Google Doesn’t Like Link Building
On the web, links are essentially “votes.” Good, useful and authoritative content gets more links. Genuine links provided by satisfied users and consumers serve as reliable endorsements of quality content. That’s why Google and other search engines value them highly.
But when you, the website or business owner, set out to proactively acquire more “votes” for your website (aka link building), this can be perceived as trying to convince people that you are better than you really are. So Google doesn’t like people who do it… in a certain manner.
There’s a “right” way to do link building, and there’s a “wrong” or “manipulative” way to do it. While links can be useful in gaining a business advantage and help you outrank your competitors, acquiring a ton of links is not the quick and easy way to the top of search rankings. What matters is getting the right kind of links, in the right way.
Link Building Is Like Gaining Muscle
Let’s say you wanted to build some muscle. You could bulk up and add muscle mass quickly by doping yourself with steroids, or you could do it right with regular exercise, weight training and better nutrition.
The first way will give you a quick boost — and then lead to serious bodily harm. The second approach may take longer, but you’ll enjoy the health benefits alongside a better physique for many years.
Link building is similar to building muscle. When you acquire legitimate links from high-value resources over a reasonable period of time, it may seem like hard work. But, the impact these links have on your search rankings can be dramatic and long-lasting.
Shortcuts might help you gain lots of links in a short period of time and scale the SERPs quickly — but you’ll find yourself just as suddenly dropping down, or even being kicked out of the index.
Decide early on that you will not be the Ben Johnson or Lance Armstrong of link building. Do it right, right from the start — or be prepared to be caught with your pants down, like J.C. Penney was when it was penalized by Google for improper link building.
Link Building Is No Longer Simple
There’s another important factor at play. Unlike doping control tests in sport, Google periodically changes the rules or adds new one. Tactics that were once considered legitimate and white hat are now considered spammy (like guest blogging, for example).
As long as any link building method has the potential to become overused and exploited by spammers, search engines will need to continuously reevaluate and change up the kinds of links they consider most valuable for ranking websites.
What this means is that you could experience a loss in rankings for something you’ve done in the past — even if it was perfectly within the rules at the time. Though you might not get hit with a manual penalty, links previously built to your site can still be seriously devalued, leaving you with lost rankings — and lost business.
As a business owner working to improve your website’s SEO, you must navigate safely between the various options and possibilities, making sure that you are being found by your customers — wherever they are, whenever they need you, and from whichever device they are searching.
Tactical Voting Isn’t Natural
Let’s say you decide to build links. By reverse-engineering top websites, you identify what you’ll need to rank higher and gain Google’s trust. But you also understand that Google wants your link building to be natural.
So, here’s a question for you. If you place links in external content and pages — blog posts, infographics and other web content — and link them back to your own site, is that a natural link? Or isn’t it?
Now imagine yourself building a search engine, or setting up a voting process of any kind (such as for a political campaign). Wouldn’t you try hard to create an algorithm that ensures reliable and high-quality information to your users? And wouldn’t you make sure nobody could manipulate the process by casting duplicate fake votes or voting for themselves?
You’d make sure those votes don’t count, right? Or make it impossible (or illegal)? It would be of utmost importance and interest to find ways to ensure that the voting process was secure, and that the results were trustworthy.
That’s what Google is striving for — all the time.
Content Marketing & Guest Blogging: How Effective Will It Be?
Among today’s most popular link-building tactics are content marketing and guest blogging. But step back for a moment and take a hard look at it.
Aren’t you just voting for yourself?
And didn’t we just see how Google’s evolution might remove any benefit from self-linking — or worse, maybe even punish it as a “deceptive” practice in the future?
If you’re guest blogging only for links, it’s time to reconsider that strategy. It might work better in the long term if you built quality content that people want to link to themselves because it is helpful, solves their problems and fulfills their needs, or delivers overwhelming value.
It’s another instance of how blindly following the herd and repeating what someone else says or does might have limited SEO shelf life, potentially harming your business and brand down the line.
Make something unique. Something that stands out. Invest the time to do it right, even if it means taking a lot of time. That’s what will pay off in the long run, and that’s what will make your SEO and link building future-proof.
Don’t obsess over writing content that will get traction or “go viral.” Instead, focus on how you can best help your prospective buyers. How will they benefit from your planned post? How can you provide them with genuine value?
To create great content, you must understand what goes on in your ideal customer’s mind. You must determine “user intent” correctly.
- Identify their problems and desires
- Think of solutions that can help them
- Position yourself as trustworthy, honest and professional
- Gain their trust and become known as the go-to person or company when they need your product or service
In adopting an SEO strategy centered around creating high quality content, your brand will grow and gain visibility naturally. You’ll increase your chances of being mentioned in newspapers, magazines and authoritative blogs or websites in your niche. You’ll make it on to “Top 10″ lists and “Recommend Resource” collections, giving you access to a wider base of targeted customers.
The best part is, you’ll achieve this without doing any “marketing.” What you’re really doing here is:
- Offering solutions
- Providing valuable content
- Being helpful
- Fostering trust
Remember, no one will mention or link to you unless they trust you. Trust is king. If getting links is your only aim, don’t do it. If better rankings for a destination website is your only win, it will be short-lived. That’s not a good strategic move.
If you’re blogging on other sites where you might meet your ideal customers and people you want to connect with — that is, if the links you generate from guest blogging are secondary to other benefits like better brand awareness, wider recognition, greater trust and more referral traffic — then guest blogging makes a lot of sense, even if it’s no longer considered a strong link.
Content For Links? Your Time Is Up!
So, what if you offer content, but insist that others would have to link to you in exchange… is that a natural link?
How about a link from your own forum signature?
Or in the resource box of an article you wrote and submitted elsewhere?
What about press releases?
Without drawing any dogmatic conclusions, can we just agree that all of these practices might generate quite a bit of “noise,” adding to the difficulty search engines like Google are facing when trying to determine the value of an inbound link?
Google must filter out this noise.
As the first step in this direction, initiatives like Google Authorship and the Google+ platform are helping add a quality layer to the search results. Let’s assume Google is working toward a future where your own links will lose value, along with other useless linking methods involving pictures of cute kittens or laughing babies (even when they gain traction on social networks).
What’s left, then? The natural links. From people who trusted you, “voted” for you, and actually serve as your “marketing department” to send you more traffic and leads through their links. And it won’t even matter that they are “no follow” links, because they have relevant context.
So think about this before you dive headlong into securing more links.
The Dark Side Of SEO & Link Building
We know that:
- People trust Google – which is why they use Google to decide which products to buy and whom to buy it from
- Higher search rankings mean an increase in relevant traffic and sales
- It’s currently possible for businesses and website owners to influence their own rankings (and cheat their way to the top)
It’s true that breaking Google’s guidelines is not illegal. It’s not a crime. And the stakes are high. A lot of money can be made through manipulating search rankings. This is what attracts “quick-fixers,” “gurus,” and people seeking shortcuts to make more money.
But look at it from Google’s perspective. People are using Google before they buy a product or a service. What they find listed on SERPs affects their behavior.
Google is aware that it plays an important role in people’s decision making. The smart engineers tweaking search algorithms know that it is possible to engage in sneaky tactics to affect rank for specific keywords and search terms. They are watching how business owners manipulate their search engine rankings — and, sooner or later, they will identify and devalue these spammy link building tactics.
So, Is All Link Building “Bad”?
I’ll leave it to you to decide. I believe it’s not, but much depends on what you hope to achieve when building a link.
As things stand today, there are many ways to trick Google into counting self-votes and reviews. That skews the algorithms and, to an extent, adversely impacts the quality of search results. Bill Slawski writes a great blog post about the problems in fighting such online impersonation.
That’s the reason why Google is always working to refine its algorithm, determining ways to shut out the noise. For your business and website to be positioned to benefit from this change, your SEO and link building efforts must be optimized — starting today. Doing it in consultation with an experienced SEO consultant will be your most efficient way forwards.
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Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.