Is link building dead?
The question was top-of-mind at the recent Search Marketing Expo West (SMX) in San Jose, Calif. Links were a hot topic at the conference, thanks in no small part to the numerous changes Google made to its search engine algorithm during the past three years -- changes that raised the questions of what still works in SEO practices and what can get you into trouble.
"Link building is where we see people getting hurt the most" from Google penalties, said Rhea Drysdale, CEO of online reputation branding firm Outspoken Media.
"Most of what you've been doing [for link building] doesn't work anymore," said Kaila Strong, director of client strategy for Vertical Measures. "Reciprocal links, exact-match anchor text, guest blogging, blogroll links, blog post comment links, links in forums -- they aren't sustainable and can get you into trouble."
Among Google's big changes was an initiative nicknamed "Penguin," which first rolled out in April 2012 and has been subsequently updated. Penguin was designed to push down search engine rankings for websites that artificially increased their Google positions through black-hat link acquisition.
Two recent high-profile examples discussed at the conference illustrate what can happen when websites engage in questionable link-building practices.
Google rapped online song-lyric website Rap Genius on the knuckles in late 2013, for openly "soliciting links for promotional tweets and writing a blog post about their bad link building decisions," according to Search Engine Watch.
Google's Web-spam watchdog Matt Cutts learned of Rap Genius's tweets and post, and within 24 hours Rap Genius "was no longer ranking for the many lyrics they previously ranked for, nor did they even rank for their Rap Genius brand name," wrote Search Engine Watch blogger Jennifer Slegg. Rap Genius subsequently cleaned up its act in order to get back into Google's good graces and wrote a blog post explaining how it accomplished the feat.
In January 2014, travel website Expedia's search visibility suddenly dropped 25 percent for many of its most important keywords. Though neither Expedia nor Google commented, the penalty was apparently the result of an "unnatural link penalty," such as possible paid links on article sites, according to Search Engine Land.
Are Links Still Important?
During the SMX keynote, Google Senior Vice President and Fellow Amit Singhal, who heads up the search giant's ranking team, reiterated that links are still an important signal for Google to consider when ranking content against relevant search queries.
Separately, some conference speakers and attendees wondered if Google might move away from using links as a ranking signal in the future. The talk was spurred by a February Webmaster video with Google's Cutts in which he said Google already experimented with excluding the use of links as a ranking signal.
Cutts said not using links as a signal resulted in result-ranking accuracy that "looks much much worse" than what Google users see today. It seems safe to assume, then, that Google's use of links as a ranking signal will remain part of the algorithm for the foreseeable future.
So what should search marketers do? The safest strategy is to "build the links you'd want to your site even if Google didn't exist," said Vertical Measures' Strong, who paraphrased noted link strategist Eric Ward.
In other words, if Google stops using links as a ranking signal, sites with lots of links from other high-quality, high-traffic sites will still get traffic directed to their content because of those links.
Should You Pursue Links Today?
"I don't actively seek links at all anymore," said Samuel Scott, director of digital marketing and SEO for The Cline Group. "If you do things the right way, the links will come. And because you aren't doing anything to get links, you won't have to worry about being penalized for them later."
"Links should be the result of what you do, not the goal," said Eric Enge, CEO of digital marketing agency Stone Temple Consulting.
SEO experts agree that earning links is, and always has been, the safest way to acquire them. When another site links to yours voluntarily, without the promise of a link exchange, payment or other dubious payoff, you've "earned" that link.
For example, if an online news site publishes an article with a mention of your company and a link to your site, that's an earned link -- the best kind you can get. Google is likely to see that link as a vote for your site's authority and trustworthiness.
The more earned links you acquire from websites that Google trusts, the more trustworthy the site appears to Google. Trust and authority are among the search engine's most important signals used to rank Web content.
How to Earn Links
Earning links isn't always easy. Here are some strategies from SMX conference speakers.
Give websites a compelling reason to link to you.Content marketing continues to be an important focus these days, because compelling and useful content often earns valuable links, said Mark Munroe, director of SEO for real estate site Trulia. You "ask" for links by creating a site, content and features that will "organically generate links," he added.
It's OK to ask for links -- if you do it the right way. It can still be worthwhile to request a link to your site, according to Strong. When you make your request, though, don't come right out and ask for a link. Instead, ask if the site might provide a mention of your site and provide the URL you want as the link.
"Add some personalization to your correspondence, too," Strong said, to help ensure your email will be read and acted upon. "Be genuine and keep it simple."
Be careful with anchor text links. Anchor text is the highlighted text in Web content that, when clicked, takes you to another Web page. For instance, some sites use the anchor text phrase "click here" to direct the reader to another page for more information or to download content or apps.
Many marketers put important keyword phrases in anchor text to help the linked content rank well for those specific phrases. But Google is cracking down on the practice because it's been abused, Munroe said.
Anchor text abuse "signals to Google your reputation is not earned," according to Munroe. If you ask for a link, Munroe recommends leaving the anchor text up to the linking site as opposed to suggesting your own keyword-rich phrase.
You should also strive to have diversity in the anchor text used to link to your content, because an overreliance on one anchor text phrase can negatively impact your rankings for that phrase.
Know your audience. Monique Pouget, director of content strategy for Thunder SEO, says you should have a clear understanding of your target audience's interests. Get a sense of what your audience tends to share over social media, such as blog posts, lists, infographics and videos.
Pouget recommended Topsy, socialmention, twtrland, Quora,Open Site Explorer and boardreader. These tools can help you create the most link-worthy content and target it to those who are most likely to share it over social media.
Do something newsworthy. "This is the most important thing to do, but it's also the hardest way to earn links," said The Cline Group's Scott.
Google considers links in press releases "paid links," rather than earned links. Press releases are still important, but they're more useful for spreading the word about something important your company did -- such as hiring a noted executive, releasing a new product or embarking on a charitable endeavor. Journalists and bloggers who receive the release may write about your company and include a link to your site in their articles, which is how press releases help you earn links.
"Never send out press releases just to get links," Scott said. "The goal of a release is to get coverage, which will then get you links."
Embed 'SEO intelligence.' Get everyone in your company involved in SEO, said Munroe. Work closely with team members in other departments, and explain the company's SEO goals and how they're aligned with business goals. Explain what you're doing to improve the company's Google rankings and why.
"Over-communicate at every step," Munroe said. "Explain why something is important. Over time, they'll start to learn," and they can be your allies. "Set aggressive linking goals across each organization. Do periodic reviews of goals and performance. When everyone works together, the progress can be staggering."
The Most Important Thing You Can Do to Earn Links
Many SEO experts agree that you ultimately earn links by knowing your audience; producing content that solves their problems and answers their questions; and promoting the content through social media and other channels.
"Get to know your audience," said Stone Temple Consulting's Enge. "Have a strong understanding of what they're looking for and deliver it." Following this strategy will keep you in Google's good graces, and it can be good for your business.
Read more about search engines in CIO's Search engines Drilldown.