I started doing SEO back in 2005. Looking back in just that short amount of time, it’s interesting how much the Internet marketing industry has progressed since then. I still remember using the Yahoo Keyword Tool to set up ad campaigns in the still-being-rebranded (at that time) Overture service; I remember using keyword density tools to make sure my keywords showed up enough times on the page; I remember the launch of the Microsoft Adcenter; I remember using WebPosition Gold to track rankings in search engines like Infoseek, Ask Jeeves, All The Web and Lycos.
And more to the point of this post, I remember how link building was done–or rather not done. At the time when I got into the Internet marking field, link building was nearly non-existent. People were building links, but it was nowhere near as complex as it is today. We would manually submit to about 10-20 directories per month, exchange links on “Links” or “Resources” pages and submit a press release every couple of months. That was about all we needed to do to rank well. Nowaday, that process is laughable, isn’t it?
I knew that links were helpful, but I had no idea how ridiculously important they would become. That’s the exciting thing about working in Internet marketing – things change so fast, you’ll never get bored trying to keep up. Frustrating? Definitely! Boring? Never!
The Google Penguin Update
One of the biggest algorithm updates in the history of Internet marketing is Google’s recent Penguin update. The update is now devaluing link anchor text and is instead relying on a site’s relevancy of where those links are located. You can learn more about that by reading this post from Microsite Masters which analyzes a large amount of data from sites that have and haven’t been affected by the Google update.
The days of building large amounts of anchor text links are over, which means that a lot of the easy, low quality link building methods aren’t going to work anymore.
The Penguin update has made it clear that quality is a major factor when building links; and as any good link builder knows, earning quality links takes a lot of hard work. As Danny Sullivan said in a recent rant, “Easy links aren’t what you want. It’s the hard links you want.”
500 Do-follow Links for $67 Per Month!
If you’ve been building links for any amount of time, you’ve probably come across dozens of services that offer to build 500+ incoming links to your site for a low price of only $67 per month. When I first started doing SEO, these services were practically worthless, so you can only imagine how much more worthless they are today.
They submit to extremely low quality directories, forums and blogs and are able to build so many links because they use automated software to indiscriminately blast links out to all of the websites in their list. The links come out totally unnatural and on sites that have no relevancy.
If non-relevant links don’t get you in trouble with the search engines, getting 500 links in a short period of time is sure to alert them that you’re trying to game the system. You would be pushing your luck at that point and you’d be risking huge rank penalties.
If Majestic SEO can see unusual backlink patterns, it’s a good bet that Google will see when a site gets 500 links from low quality websites in only a couple of weeks.
Directories haven’t been a high-quality link building tactic for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you should stop using them. Some of the best link builders in the industry, such as Debra Mastaler and Julie Joyce, recommend that if you are going to submit to directories that you submit to niche directories, as opposed to free-for-all general directories. Or at least they did before the Penguin update. I’m not sure what their stance is now.
With the Penguin update, directories have been pushed even further down the totem pole. The Google gods banned directories of all types; and it certainly doesn’t help your site to be listed on one that’s been banned.
Good directories can still be found though, as SEOMoz showed after doing a quality review of their own directory list, and it seems that most of them still seem to be beneficial. SEOmoz has only ever listed the highest quality directories, so it makes sense that most of them are still in good standing. If you are going to submit to directories, make sure you do your own quality review before submitting. Or at the very least, make sure that the page you’re going to be listed on is indexed in Google.
Reciprocal and 3-way links
A reciprocal link is when Site A links to Site B and vice versa. Reciprocal links are very easy for the search engines to discover. In many cases, it’s natural and totally acceptable for reciprocal linking to take place between relevant websites, but if your link profile consists of a large ratio of low quality reciprocal links, you need to work on diversifying your link profile.
Now an extremely outdated tactic, some SEO agencies still link several of their client’s websites together, usually on “links” or “resources” pages. These pages are low quality and do not provide much value to anyone, if any at all. Exchanging quality blog posts would be a better way to go if you want to exchange links between clients.
3-way links occur when Site A links to Site B and then Site B links to a different site that is managed by the owner of Site A. This was a method created to navigate around the unnatural pattern of reciprocal linking, but 3-way links have become much worse because low quality sites and neighborhoods were created for the sole purpose of 3-way linking. You don’t want to get caught in one of these neighborhoods.
Blog Comment and Forum Spam
Blog commenting and forum posting for the sole purpose of getting a link is mostly a waste of time. Most blogs and forums have spam filters that catch the most obvious spam techniques. Blog and forum owners have become so inundated with spam that if you include a link with your comment, no matter how legit and honest your comment is, the blog owner still might not approve it. Even if you do get a link, Google grew wise to comment spam years ago and they’ve greatly devalued these links, spam or not.
Blog comment links and forum signature links aren’t entirely useless though. They might distribute at least some link-juice value, but more importantly, if they are relevant to the discussion, they can drive targeted traffic. I’ve had many of my own articles see huge surges in traffic after mentioning them in an on-topic blog comment.
Some sites will charge a fee for placing a link within one of the articles of their website. In most cases, the link will end up on a page with irrelevant or “spun” or duplicate content.
There are also services that sell text links in a more organized way. A customer can pay the service to find a registered blog owner who will write a blog post that contains a link to the customer’s website. The text link service pays the blog owners a percentage of the fee. It’s common to find low-quality sites in services like these and it’s probably not difficult for the search engines to find the sites in these networks.
But paid links aren’t always discoverable by Google. If you purchase links on relevant, high-quality sites and the links are placed so that they look natural, Google might never realize that the link was paid for, but this is a risk that you may regret later.
Not all paid links will get you in trouble, as you can see from Google’s guidelines on paid links. As long as the links you’re purchasing aren’t passing PageRank, you’ll be fine. The links should be clearly labeled as an advertisement or sponsorship and should have a no-follow attribute applied to it.
A link’s original design is to send visitors back and forth between relevant documents online and the link’s ability to actually send real traffic could be a factor in Google’s algorithm. The type of traffic it sends is likely to be a good indication of trust or quality. Google has a variety of ways of tracking users online, including Google Analytics, Chrome, the Google Toolbar, and users logged in to their Google accounts. They have a big sample of data to work with. Thinking about link building in this way will keep you away from the majority of the “bad tactics” out there.
Social Profile Creation
Most social networks and niche communities will allow you to create a profile and add a link to your website. People saw this as an easy way to gain links, which eventually resulted in programs such as “Angelas Links” or “Paul’s Links.” Angela Edwards created a service where she would test a bunch of websites to see where she could get do-follow profile or comment links. Then she’d send out a list of 20 or so of those sites to her customers each month. Her customers could register, drop a link and never visit the site again.
These lists contain sites of all different niches, for example web developer forums and arts and craft social networks. Thousands of people get their hands on these lists and mass-spam these communities with totally irrelevant links. Not only is it a waste of time, but it’s also hell for the site owners trying to manage their communities.
It’s not going to hurt you to place a link in the profiles of the sites where you are an active community member, but don’t waste your time registering to dozens of sites that you’ll never visit again.
Article Directories and Content Spinning
Article directories have long been an easy go-to source for anchor-text links. Write a short article (300-500 words), or pay someone to do it for you, and then submit the article to as many article directories as you have time for. Google’s Panda update put a stop to that. The first iteration of the Panda update was released in February 2011 and was designed to penalize low quality content (duplicate, auto-generated, thin, scraped, lots of ads, keyword stuffed, etc.)
Article directories are a good idea in theory, but most don’t have high quality standards. This has led website owners to purchase cheap content, sometimes barely comprehensible or from authors who don’t speak the native language.
Many article directories also allow submissions of content that has already been posted in other places, and that creates a duplicate content issue. For article directories that do detect duplicate content, some people run their content through article spinners that replace words in an article using a built-in thesaurus program. The content that comes out of these programs are usually complete garbage.
Most of the better article directories have since adopted strict quality guidelines and policies, but it’s been a year since the Panda update and most are still struggling to pull themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into.
WordPress Theme Sponsorship
You can find opportunities for WordPress theme sponsorship in places like the Digital Point Forums. The links go in the footer of the theme, usually next to other links that are not in any way relevant to your own site. The themes are mostly low quality and are created using commonly abused theme creation software such as Artisteer, which leaves easy to detect footprints. Most theme submission sites are able to detect the footprints left by Artisteer and will reject any theme that is built using the software. I would bet that Google is familiar with those footprints too.
It’s not certain yet if Google is penalizing links in the footers of WordPress themes, but you can read more about that here. It’s a hard line for Google to draw, considering that there are many legitimate web designers who create themes that deserve credit for their work. If they really are penalizing people for this, how do they expect site owners to get those links removed? It would be nearly impossible once those themes are distributed and used all over the web.
How to Do Link Building Today
Because of Google’s penguin update, many easy link building tactics are no longer worth your time. Now you’ll need to put in some real work to get useful links.
Since the update, a lot of people have been commenting that there aren’t any more ways to build Google-approved links. Obviously that’s not true. There are still plenty of ways to get links. Here are a few methods.
- Internal Linking
- Guest Posts
- Trust Bait / Link Bait / Great Content
Internal linking has a huge impact on rankings. When I see a page on one of my client’s websites that I’d really like to push up in the search results, one of the first things I do is an internal link audit to identify pages that are already linking to the page where anchor text can be modified. I also look for pages where it makes sense to add a link and I look for other linking opportunities in places like the navigation.
In every case I’ve done this I’ve seen traffic improvements in as quickly as a month. Be careful not to stuff your pages with unnatural links and vary the anchor text whenever possible. Only a couple links are needed to see a benefit.
Guests posting is great because you can usually get a nice link out of it and additional traffic if you’re posting on relevant sites that have an audience that’s interested in your topic. It’s typical to get a link from a byline in a guest post, but it’s even better to link to a useful page on your site from within the guest post content. The link should be something that visitors will consider useful—not just some crappy service/product page.
There are a variety of ways to find guest post opportunities. Start by searching Google using queries like “guest post” “Your Keyword” or “guest author” “Your Keyword” and so on. I like to set these up in Google Alerts so that I catch as many opportunities as possible.
Try services like MyBlogGuest and BloggerLinkUp. Both services allow you to either seek guest blogging opportunities on sites you’re interested in writing for or, if you already have an original article written, you can put it up for grabs and you can choose from interested parties on who gets it.
You can also use a service like Ontolo’s Link Building Tools. Add your keywords and the Ontolo Toolset will do all of the prospecting for you. Ontolo uses what they believe to be the most useful search queries and puts the results into a database that can be easily searched, based on various quality factors, which means you can always contact the best guest posting opportunities available. We love this tool here at seOverflow.
When looking for guest post opportunities, a little creativity and resourcefulness can go a long way. Think about the people you know in the industry — friends, acquaintances, clients/customers, etc. to see if they will let you post on their websites. If you present at conferences or meet-ups, find out if the clubs or businesses have a website where you can do a follow up post.
Sponsorships and Advertising
Sponsorships are great because they show support for the organizations that you believe in. Just like with guest post opportunities, the paid Ontolo toolset can help find sponsorships and advertising opportunities. You can also search Google using queries such as keyword inurl:sponsors or keyword intitle:sponsors.
If you’re looking for paid advertising opportunities, try the Google Adwords Placement Tool, which can be found in your Google Adwords account under the “Tools and Analysis” drop-down menu. If you don’t have an Adwords account, you can set one up for free.
Infographics are a big topic in recent Internet marketing news after Matt Cutts discussed their value in an interview with Eric Enge. He was quoted as saying “I would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree.”
It’s more likely that Google will instead devalue the links leading to the infographic, such as from infographic directories and low quality websites. But if the infographic is getting a lot of embeds from top-quality sites, why should those links be discounted? Unless you’re using anchor-text rich links in your embed code, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
But for now, I still think infographics are a good link building method. And if you want to use infographic directories to help seed your infographic, check out this excellent quality review of infographic submission sites from Adam Melson at SEER.
If you’re not much of a designer, you can try some of these free services.
Or if you have an original design in mind and want to hire a professional designer, we use an awesome graphic designer here in Denver to create infographics for our clients. Kandra does awesome work and she has an affordable rate.
Link Bait, Trust Bait and Great Content
To get good links, your site needs content that people want to link to from their sites. You can build low quality links forever, but great content will lead to awesome, organic links.
Link bait is content designed to attract links. Most people think of link bait as articles that go by titles like “47 Ways to Increase Your IQ” or “The 19 Most Disgusting Things People Have Ever Eaten.” Link bait is hit-and-miss because you never know if the topic you’ve chosen will go viral, but if it hits, traffic and links will explode A strong social presence will also increase the chances of getting content noticed..
Trust bait is a tactic that I’ve discussed before. The general idea is to create educational content. This is the kind of stuff that most people would find boring, but not to the people that it’s created for. I look for ideas by researching a topic on .edu and .gov sites. Then I look for link opportunities and create content for whichever idea has the most promise. It’s best to get your client to write the content, but otherwise you might consider using Copypress or hiring a student with experience in your industry. The great thing about trust bait is that it’s almost guaranteed to result in getting links because you should already have a list of websites to contact before you even create the content.
In this interview with Fraser Cain, the owner of Universe Today, you’ll see how adding content regularly to your site can lead to enormous traffic boosts and natural links. And just because it took him 10 years, that doesn’t mean it’s going to take you just as long. If you write about what people are interested in, you’ll get traffic.
“White Hat” Link Building Is The Only Option
It’s easy to see the direction that the search engines are forcing internet marketers to take. Black hat and grey hat marketing is on the way out. Gone are the days of the “quick and dirty” link.
The only way to protect your business is by building a high-quality link profile. If you’re taking risks to try to “game” the search engines, it’s only a matter of time before it catches up to you.