It’s not surprising that people think that link building in SEO should be avoided and the entire process is dead. There has been a lot of negative publicity around companies who built links in the past. Much of that negative perception came from major brands who saw their search visibility tank after they were penalized by Google for link building schemes.
Some of the most notable were: JCPenney, which dropped roughly 70 spots for numerous keywords after building spammy links, Overstock, which dropped 60 positions after offering student discounts to colleges and universities in exchange for .edu links, and Expedia, which lost 25% of its visibility for spamming anchor text and purchasing links.
Many of those incidents occurred around the same time, which prompted Google to make a variety of changes to what’s considered acceptable link building and how links contribute to search rank.
It wasn’t long until a link wasn’t always a link, and it certainly wasn’t a guaranteed safe link.
The Evolution of Links and Search
Over the past decade, there have been countless businesses and marketers spamming links in an effort to game the search engines. These tactics weren’t just limited to major brands, but between 2012 and 2015, Google finally started cracking down on all offenders to even the playing field.
It started with the Penguin algorithm update, followed quickly by updates that completely devalued link networks, reduced the visibility of content networks, and even took shots at guest blogging. Those updates created dramatic shifts in the signals used to rank websites.
Moz has compiled a complete timeline of every update to the Google algorithm since 2000 with an explanation of those updates and a link to the media release for each update.
The rules for link building have become so strict that even slight deviations can trigger a penalty for a website.
It’s no surprise that many people now stay away and believe that link building of any kind is a black hat, taboo SEO technique.
However, links still significantly contribute to your search engine rank. That fact hasn’t really changed over the course of the algorithm updates. What has largely changed are the types of links that contribute to site visibility and how Google evaluates those links.
The primary challenge for search algorithms is to decide what’s good, what’s neutral, and what’s bad when it involves links potentially trying to game the system. When Google discovers new links pointing to your website, it makes one of three ranking decisions:
- Mark it as a good link and use it in its ranking algorithm.
- Ignore it and refuse to give it any weight when determining your search rank.
- Flag it as spammy or manipulative and subsequently penalize your rank.
There’s a surprising number of link variations that have zero influence over your search rank. There are also many types of links that can hurt your visibility. The best way to build the right links is to work with a reputable SEO agency and make sure you stay up-to-date on Google’s guidelines for link building.
Carson Ward also provides an excellent list of 17 types of links that you should typically avoid in a comprehensive post for Moz, such as spammy article marketing.
Ranking Without Links
If you’re debating whether or not links still contribute to search visibility, just look at the alternative: trying to rank your website with no links at all. Since Google would rather stop all link building efforts, it’s worth considering if this is even possible.
Moz conducted a detailed study on this dilemma by analyzing the top 50 search results across more than 15,000 keywords. Within the study, Moz compared common characteristics and factors that would contribute to search rank on top of the backlinks held by those sites.
What the study revealed is quite telling:
- There was a strong correlation between links and high rankings
- Over 99% of the sites in the top results had top-level backlinks (at least one, typically more)
- 77% of the top-ranked sites had links pointing to specific pages
Cyrus Shepard, the former Lead SEO at Moz, dug deeper to share some other insights from the study. Most notable were:
- Nearly all of the top-ranked sites for competitive searches were supported by external links
- Internal pages could rank without links as long as the top-level domain had links (though internal pages rank better if they have their own backlinks)
- The quantity of links directly impacts the position in search results
- It is possible to rank without links, but only for highly-specific searches with little to no competition among search queries
Today: Links That Bring the Bacon
It might seem like Google is shutting down link schemes left and right, leaving little room for building links, but there are still plenty of opportunities for professionals and agencies to generate and source quality backlinks for their websites.
Here are a few smart SEO techniques for generating and creating organic, quality backlinks that can contribute to your search rank.
- Submit testimonials on products or services related to your industry or business that will be posted on a company’s website with a branded link pointing back to your website.
- Encourage customer/influencer reviews of your products on blogs that link back to your site or product page.
- Reach out to publishers of “Best Of” content lists to be included in the next update of the list.
- Find relevant content lists for specific topics and scour the article for broken links. If you find a broken link, reach out to the publisher and offer to fill the void with your own relevant content to claim the link.
- Search for brand mentions or product mentions online that aren’t linked yet. Reach out and ask to have your brand or product mention linked back to your site.
- Provide high value guest content to authoritative publications with a link back to your site.
- Promote the content on your blog, encourage shares, reposts, and referrals, as well as citation links that point back to your content.
- Use the Skyscraper Technique to boost traffic and link generation through high value content based on other highly-shared pieces from others.
There are many more ways to create completely valid, quality, organic backlinks for your website. In the recommendations above, you’ll notice a common theme: none of the links are bought or paid for in any form. In virtually every instance, they are natural links based around the value provided. Specifically, the value that you provide to the linking party and/or their audience.
Keep in mind there’s never a guarantee that these will contribute SEO value. The algorithm still ranks links individually and it may choose to ignore or reject value from a new link it discovers. Likewise, if another website marks your link as “nofollow,” then the SEO value is lost.
Which brings me to the other side of the table with building links…
Links with No SEO Value
The debate over whether links provide SEO value is never a black-and-white issue. Some links have value, others don’t. As I mentioned at the end of the section above, it’s possible for a link to be flagged as “nofollow,” which tells the algorithm to ignore the link and cut off its supply of link juice.
Many links that are easily built tend to be flagged in this manner. Here are a few other examples of links that offer no SEO value:
- Links within social media, such as website or article posts and shares
- Most social profile links (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.)
- Content or sites linked to on social bookmarking sites like Reddit
- Links within YouTube video descriptions
Although these links and many others offer zero SEO value, they’re usually still created as part of an overall backlink building campaign.
You might be wondering why you should bother with these types of links if there’s no value to them. This is a common concern among online marketers with little time and energy to spare as it is, but the important distinction here is: despite the lack of immediate SEO value, there is still plenty of other value. Some benefits you should consider include:
Links beget links: A link you include on a guest post or channel like Reddit might be flagged nofollow, but there’s nothing stopping another person from sourcing that content and deciding it’s worthy of their audience. So they share it and provide a link on their own website or blog, which turns out to be a link with considerable SEO value.
Referral traffic: Great content and recommended links can lead to a lot of referral traffic when they come from an authoritative site. Their audience will visit and, if they like what they see, make purchases or share the content, which continues to expand your reach.
Awareness: The audience doesn’t know what links are nofollow and which ones aren’t. All they know is a person or brand is linked to something. This indicates a certain level of underlying trust and presumed value for what is on the other side of that link. Branded nofollow links generate awareness and visibility for your brand, even if they don’t contribute any SEO value.
Create a Long-Term Strategy for Link Building
Without a doubt, links still matter for SEO. In fact, links are still the primary signal among more than 200 signals used for determining rank and relevancy for your website. There’s also a great deal of value in link building beyond mere organic search visibility. Whether you manage your own link building or you work with an SEO agency, the greatest success will come from a robust and long-term strategy that targets organic links as well as those intended to build referral traffic and brand awareness.
What role does link building currently play in your SEO strategy? We’d love to hear how you’re managing links for your business. Share in the comments the tactics you’ve used and what kind of results you’ve seen!