Google just announced a change to how they crawl and evaluate links — adding two new attribute options and evolving how they treat the nofollow attribute. Link builders will need to attribute all paid links as either “nofollow” or “sponsored” to avoid penalties. So is the link building industry dead?
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.
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 (the words that can be clicked) 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.
So What’s the Deal with dofollow, nofollow, ugc and sponsored?
Since 2005, Google has used the rel=”nofollow” tag to identify links within content that the site owner did not want crawled — because they didn’t endorse the linked content or because they simply didn’t want to pass off any authority.
In September 2019, though, Google evolved its use of nofollow tags to no longer serve as a signal to ignore the page, but rather classify it. In an effort to better understand the ways in which websites work (and link), they debuted additional tags. Per Google:
“Today, we’re announcing two new link attributes that provide webmasters with additional ways to identify to Google Search the nature of particular links. These, along with nofollow, are summarized below:
rel=”sponsored”: Use the sponsored attribute to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.
rel=”ugc”: UGC stands for User Generated Content, and the ugc attribute value is recommended for links within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.
rel=”nofollow”: Use this attribute for cases where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.”
As with any Google update, the rollout is slow and it will take months to see substantial changes, if any, to search results.
But as SEOs and link builders forge on, they need to consider the linked content and apply tags accurately. And with Google taking this route to better classify link types, it amplifies the need to ensure the use of authentic, legitimate link-building practices. Google’s working even harder to figure out who’s trying to game the system, purely aiming for links in quantity while only providing low-quality content.
With the switch from “ignore” to “hint,” Google’s clearly looking closer at how we’re linking. But it’s also important to know that Google never actually completely ignored those nofollow tags — it still used them as crawl points to better scour the internet with its bots. So even the new “hint” designation isn’t quite as big of a change as it seems on the surface — they’ve always been looking.
For now, there’s no meaningful change — beyond using the two new tags — to affect the industry. But it hints at Google’s ongoing efforts to better serve search results, so the pressure is greater for link builders to evaluate link opportunities and capitalize on only high-quality content.
Are Links Still Valuable?
With all of this being said you might be tempted to think that links are losing 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.
Earning relevant and authoritative backlinks makes Search Engine Journal’s list of top 7 ranking symbols in 2019. The examples cited are all about adding value for a reader. Links for links sake, won’t get you any points.
In a SEMRush study, they determined that total referring domains and total backlinks are the fifth and sixth most important ranking factors. For context, keywords in the body of your site’s content is in thirteenth place in the same study.
What all the recent studies agree on: quality links are 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 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.
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.