From the birth of search to the present day, links have been a dominant signal for determining website authority and rank. Subsequently link building has dominated SEO focus, with tactics ranging from the dubious to the downright devious. With such a chequered past, is all link building bad?
Well, in a hesitant word, no.
Such a powerful yet flawed signal is open to manipulation and can be bad in the wrong hands. Use it correctly however, and link building can still be an important part of your SEO strategy.
In the beginning
Early on links became an authoritative signal for separating quality content, giving websites with huge back-link profiles the priority position in search results. A page was deemed worthy by the number of inbound links; much like votes, and deserving of a good SERP rank as determined by Google’s PageRank algorithm.
This meant that whilst many hoped to secure a top search page position by having inbound links from a few high quality, authoritative sources such as government websites, there were even more webmasters looking for inbound links from a higher number of sources; albeit of a lesser quality.
Quality was better, but quantity was easier.
It therefore made sense to many to start link building in earnest, as many as possible, by any means necessary.
Black hat tactics
Buying links immediately took off. Websites with high PageRank were able to auction off links to those desperate to boost their own search rank. In a similar scheme, link-building companies used hundreds or even thousands of smaller websites to host their clients’ links on.
For those with less money and arguably lacking morals; hacking vulnerable websites and inserting links has always been an option. Alternatively, with some free time or some software, there are always unsuspecting forum and blog comment sections to spam.
As well as garnering a huge number of inbound links, these methods allowed SEO practitioners and companies to have complete control over anchor text and further influence their PageRank.
So what’s the problem?
Aside from the obvious ethical issues, these practices were, and still are, a one-way ticket to the bottom of search results and a manual action penalty from Google.
Whether it’s plain old spamming or a more calculated deception, Google continues to adapt its algorithm to seek out and penalise crafty black hat tactics. Moreover, Google seemingly takes no prisoners, with companies such as J.C. Penney famously earning the ire of Google back in 2011 after the search engine discovered a large link scheme. A penalty saw them removed from search page results and took months to recover.
The changing world of grey hat tactics
Of course with every new policy change and algorithm adaptation comes more loopholes. Link building tactics that are technically acceptable today might not be tomorrow, resulting in a range of tactics that are considered grey hat.
Some of these are still considered black hat today, with people simply unwilling to let the practices slide. Others are less clear-cut and skirt the edges of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
So what is grey hat?
Building a related network of sites is a seemingly lesser evil to some of the black hat tactics above. Sometimes under the pretence of business expansion or offering a different but related product or service, link builders can create and interlink a network of sites with related content.
This has the benefit of actually linking to sites that are relevant, but unfortunately it still doesn’t fool Google. Today Google can determine when inbound links are from domains owned by the same person or on the same servers. This means they can devalue links and penalise businesses caught using this tactic.
More recently, press release distribution tactics have slipped into the grey and black hat territories. For many years, it was perfectly acceptable and even recommended to use press release or content distribution sites to generate links. As with most link-building tactics, many companies abused this, generating thousands of links through content distribution networks.
Thanks to algorithm changes, these sites now hold little SEO value, and many use the ‘nofollow’ tag on outgoing links to avoid being penalised by Google for spam links. Today legitimate link building in this form is limited to guest blogging, using unique content and anchor text that avoid keyword stuffing tactics.
So, now what’s the problem?
After all, some grey hat tactics are simply walking the edge of the Google Webmaster Guidelines. Maybe they’re a bit risky, but they can be pulled off.
No matter the shade of grey, we never recommend using any of these link building tactics. Google can, and will, change its algorithm at any time. For those unfortunate enough to be relying on any of these tactics now, it’s only a matter of time until they’re uncovered. At best, they will struggle to stabilise plummeting search ranks, and at worst, they can expect some kind of penalty.
Even more importantly, utilising dubious link building tactics only detracts from the real goal of SEO: creating quality content that benefits users and naturally climbs search listings.
There a myriad of other grey hat tactics that, at least in their basic form, are just black hat tactics in disguise. So where does that leave our original question?
Is all link building bad?
You will be forgiven for thinking so, but the original answer still stands.
As dubious tactics are squeezed by Google’s algorithm, such as with the release of Penguin, legitimate white hat tactics are rising to take their place. Additionally, Google increasingly uses a range of superior signals to assess links, with a focus on quality. The development of social media has been one extenuating factor, with social sharing becoming an increasingly important condition for link building.
White hat tactics
The foundation of link building then, is as it's always been, high quality content.
For any business or marketer, this should be a priority and is the best way to engage users. Content that is informative, easy to read and engaging encourages social sharing and hopefully inbound links. The best quality content can hope for inbound links from quality authoritative sources, with a positive impact on organic rankings.
Of course, simply creating and publishing quality content isn’t enough, and even the best content may need a little help.
This starts with simply promoting content through social channels as a part of well thought out social media strategy. Experimenting with tone of voice and incentives will help uncover how best to engage with customers and encourage content sharing. With this in mind, social sharing is still relatively new in terms of its place within link building and search ranking, and is only a small part of a larger process.
Executing a more proactive link building strategy should look beyond just content and social sharing. Outbound content such as guest blogging is frequently used as a way to deliver quality content and gain inbound links from trusted, authoritative websites. Guest blogging and other outbound content also allows for customised anchor text, a key signal for link quality.
Equally, networking and outreach can be a proactive way of encouraging links for your content. This can include friends or acquaintances within your professional network, or reaching out to industry players with relevant content of their own; especially if you have linked to their content in the past. Using link analysis tools on competitors and clients can be one way of discovering quality websites and blogs to contact within your industry, either as a simple outreach strategy or for guest blogging opportunities.
Not only is this a more natural, albeit manual, way of link building, it also simultaneously works to build your own reputation within the industry. Good professional networks can result in links for future content, provided the same quality is maintained.
Finally, it is always worth looking out for charity or other media opportunities. This might mean sponsoring a charity or getting involved with local community events, both of which can result in links and possibly a whole article on the relevant website. Charity sponsorship and events may also lead to local press coverage, again with its own link building opportunities. As well as being great for SEO, these opportunities are always good for brand authority as a whole.
Natural link building, whether straightforward link attraction tactics or manual link building, is a time consuming and labour intensive process. From keyword research and content creation, to the systematic promotion of content, all natural link building relies on the opinion of a third party, whether it’s a customer sharing your content through social media or a respected blogger.
While the lengthy process has and continues to be a slow burn, white hat link building methods provide a sustainable way to improve organic rankings without the risk of falling victim to future Google updates. They also provide additional benefits, such as long lasting industry relationships and positive brand image, which can be immeasurable in their contribution to wider SEO and business efforts.
If you’re interesting in discussing organic link building for your business, or the other ways we can help optimise your SEO strategy, contact one of our team today.