Ever since the first Google Penguin algorithm update started penalizing websites for having unnatural backlink profiles in April of 2012, there’s been a rising chorus of people worried that the show’s over for link building and that it is too much of a risk to invest in anymore.
But is that the truth? Is link building still worthwhile?
To get the answers to these questions, let’s start with a quick refresher.
What Is Link Building?
At the core, link building is the process of deliberately going out to find places that will link to your content. Moz’s “Beginner’s Guide to Link Building” calls it “the process of acquiring hyperlinks from other websites to your own.
From the very beginning links have been a confirmed and powerful ranking signal inside Google’s algorithm. They were always seen as a means of determining a site’s popularity and credibility. They are the core of what separated Google from all of the other search engines that came before it. Links helped Google determine which websites were more popular, thus giving them an easy way to give searchers what they wanted.
It’s only natural that webmasters did whatever they could to try and earn more of them — including taking every short cut they could think of. Being at the top of Google has made many webmasters and business owners very wealthy.
For a long time, just about every type of link building worked — and worked very well.
Link Building’s Got a Bit of a Wild Past
In the early days, link building was a veritable Wild West, where anything was on the table and virtually everything worked.
Link acquisition was virtually all manual in the beginning, with webmasters striking agreements to link to each other and early SEOs hunting down directories they could submit their links to.
As time went on, people figured out that links could be easily placed into blog posts, forums, guest books, and comment sections. Anchor text was discovered to be an enormous (almost obscenely so) ranking factor. Automation made things very fast and scalable, while overseas labor made bulk link building both cheap and effective. Links could be easily bought and sold, with little repercussions.
Link networks became prominent, with thousands (perhaps even millions) of directories, blogs, and dummy sites all being built to farm links and game the search engines.
But eventually Google started to crack down on manipulative linking and put out the word that they expected webmasters to create great content and earn links naturally.
In turn, tactics like link-baiting (writing content targeted at people very likely to link), broken link building (reaching out to sites with broken links on their pages and asking them to replace them with yours), and content-based link building (like guest posts and infographics) started coming to the forefront.
When the Penguin update arrived, it hammered the point home: Overly manipulative linking was going to be punished ; thousands of sites that had engaged in poorly executed tactics were hit hard.
Google was getting better at knowing when to trust a link, whether a link was editorially given, and whether or not it was relevant.
Google has put in a lot of effort into detecting and penalizing webmasters who aggressively pursue unnatural links. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can easily get yourself into trouble.
Are Links Still Valuable?
With all of this being said you might be tempted to think that links have lost their value.
Both the numbers and the pros agree that links and link building don’t just still matter — they’re critical for anyone who wants to succeed online. They are more valuable than they have ever been. They are just harder to build now.
In 2013, numerous link-based metrics were at the very top of Moz’s search engine rankings correlation study, including the number of unique c-blocks/IP addresses linking to a page and the number of unique domains linking to a page.
These link metrics beat out others like “body text similarity to keyword” by a massive margin.
Searchmetrics’ more recent 2014 Ranking Factors Study showed backlinks haven’t lost an ounce of importance. In fact, they say they’ve actually increased as a ranking signal:
“Our results yielded a need for greater emphasis on high-quality, relevant content, technological features, backlinks, and social signals. For the first time, we have analyzed the most important user signals as well.
Also important is that backlinks remain one of the most highly correlated metrics with strong rankings.
[…] The quantity and quality of backlinks remains crucial as there are many new features introduced this year that have been revised to improve the quality of the results.”
But let’s pull apart that statement a bit: Both quantity AND quality remains crucial.
Quality is more important than ever. When we talk about quality, there are a few criteria we can consider to decide whether or not a link is worthwhile:
- A trusted source. Is the link from a credible website? In general, you want to avoid getting links from spammy, manipulative domains, including domains that have been penalized or break Google’s terms of service in some other way.
- A relevant source. Is the site linking to yours from the same niche? Does the content surrounding the link have to do with your business or the kinds of things you offer? In general, you want to be linked to from highly relevant sites, not just anywhere.
- Number of other links on the page. In general, the fewer the number of links on the page linking to your site, the more value will be placed on your link. It’s better to be included as the feature of a page, for example, than as one of 50 links on a directory site.
- Sends traffic. The ideal link not only passes ranking value from one site to another, but also sends relevant, targeted traffic to your site as well.
A few other criteria include whether or not the link has been “no followed” (marked up with code that tells Google not to follow or pass PageRank to the linked-to page), whether the link is reciprocal (it’s better if it’s not) and, in general the harder a link is to acquire, the higher quality it tends to be (links you can just submit on your own tend to be worth much less).
“Quantity” is a little easier to wrap your head around: The more quality links you have, the better. It’s not always the case that the most links win, but if you can maintain quality and grow your link numbers, you’re on the right track.
And that’s exactly what today’s link building is about. But in case you need more convincing…
Even Google Admits Links are Extremely Important for Delivering Quality Search Results!
You read that right. Matt Cutts has confirmed multiple times that link building is neither bad nor dead.
In an interview on July 10, 2013, he had this to say:
“No, not all link building is bad. The philosophy that we’ve always had is if you make something that’s compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it.”
Then, at the SMX Advanced conference on June 11, 2014, he followed this statement up with an unequivocal denial of the demise of link building:
“No, link building is not dead, and a very small percentage of links on the Web are nofollowed. There’s a lot of mileage left in links.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that — but Google also ran an experiment where they tried factoring out links as a ranking factor. According to Matt Cutts, it was an unmitigated failure:
“We don’t have a version [that excludes links] exposed to the public, but we have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much, much worse. It turns out backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality for search results.”
Amit Singhal, Google’s unofficial head of search, agrees. In an interview with Danny Sullivan at SMX West 2014, Amit had this to say:
“Links are clearly an important signal about the importance of your content. They’re still very valuable.”
Thought Leaders and Experts Don’t Think Link Building Is Dead, Either
Outside of Google’s walls, leaders in the SEO industry continue to chime in on the fact that link building is far from a dead tactic.
Paddy Moogan, a well-respected speaker and thought leader (as well as the author of Moz’s “Beginner’s Guide to Link Building”) had this to say about the future of link building in a piece on Moz:
“Building the types of links that help grow your online business and organic search traffic is getting harder. It used to be fairly straightforward back before Google worked out how to treat links with different levels of quality and trust. However, the fact that it’s getting harder doesn’t mean that it’s dead.
“What this means for the future is that the links valued by Google will be the ones you get as a result of having a great product and great marketing. Essentially, links will be symptomatic of amazing marketing.”
It seems businesses themselves don’t even believe link building to be dead. James Agate of Skyrocket SEO conducted a link building survey in 2014 that revealed across 315 respondents, more that 47 percent of companies surveyed devoted 51 to 75 percent of their SEO budgets to link building, with another 27 percent saying they invested 26 to 50 percent.
Eighty-one percent of respondents said their budget toward link building increased over the past 12 months.
From the data, James drew this conclusion:
“The fact is the links still form the backbone of the Internet and of Google’s algorithm, and that isn’t going to change for a very long time.”
For his part, Jon Cooper of Point Blank SEO, another highly active voice in the link building space, draws a distinction between “link building,” which he says is more deliberate, and “link earning,” which is more passive:
“Yes, links can be earned, but by no means is the active pursuit of acquiring links dead. If you think link building is dead, you aren’t in the trenches. Link earning does exist, and it’s definitely growing as a practice (Who knew offering value could win you something?), but link earning is still separate and different; they simply coexist.”
If the stats, correlations, and professionals don’t think link building is dead, that ought to tell you something. So if link building is alive and well, what’s it like today?
What Does Modern Link Building Look Like?
Perhaps Jon Ball summed it up best when he said what link building isn’t:
“Link building is no longer just submitting poorly written content to dozens of link farms that no one ever sees outside of a web crawler. Link building is no longer hiding keyword-rich anchor text underneath an infographic. Google keeps getting smarter and they keep fine-tuning their algorithm to stave off attempts at manipulation.”
Matt Cutts calls it “sweat plus creativity.”
Link building is a proven marketing tactic and a valid form of promotion.
Today, link building is about deliberately seeking out and following up on opportunities to get your content and your website in front of an audience who cares. It’s about acting as an ambassador for your content and taking it where it will find success.
To succeed, you need to have built something worth linking to — and that brings the “create great content” element of content marketing into focus. No webmaster wants to link to you unless he or she feels your content offers something of value to his or her visitors.
But link building is more than building and waiting: It’s tactful, targeted promotion of your content to an audience who would have never otherwise encountered it, with a pitch that they simply cannot ignore (and wouldn’t want to).
Where link building was once automated and faceless, it’s now deeply personal. It’s no longer about cheating the system, but looking for places to make a connection, engage an audience, and build a relationship that benefits everyone involved.
A link is still a vote of confidence, and earning someone’s confidence is a skill any successful business will need to master.
Link building tactics are still as clever as ever: researching your competitors, seeking out broken links to replace, contributing content to topically relevant sites, sparking conversations with communities who care and, yes, even hunting out human-edited niche directories.
So avoid the naysayers. Link building isn’t dead — it just evolved, and as a business, you can’t afford to write it off.
Like an animal in the wild, search engine marketing practices must adapt or they will face certain extinction. Link building is a perfect example and thankfully it doesn’t need to succumb to the same fate as the Saber-toothed tiger or dodo.