A lot has changed in the SEO world, especially when it comes to link building for your business. What made Google’s PageRank algorithm so beneficial in the beginning was the importance it placed on links as a form of reputational currency.
As time went on, Google developed more intricate methods of evaluating the quality and importance of links; and as they did, link building became less about sheer volume of links (often obtained via sneaky, black-hat SEO tactics) and more about the quality of these links.
The way Google implemented these changes was a series of updates to their search algorithm. The primary update concerning link building is named Penguin and was first introduced in 2012. Penguin was built to discern links that signal true authorial reputation from those that have an artificially inflated ranking.
According to link building expert, Brian Dean of Backlinko, Google has ramped up its ability to fight link spam (that’s where Google’s Penguin updates come into play). “Like 2014, they’ll continue to twist the knobs on spam detection this year. But they don’t need a wholesale overhaul on the spam front. Most black-hats are already struggling to keep their head above water,” he added.
“It’s the same story with the other part of the algorithm — the part that looks at link quality. That also didn’t change all that much over the last year. And why would it? Google’s results are better than ever. They’ve more or less perfected link analysis. So there’s no need for them to do anything but make slight adjustments to what’s already working well,” said Dean.
Penguin was preceded by Panda and was recently joined by Hummingbird. All of these constantly updated algorithms aim at cutting the legs out from under those who attempt to trick Google into serving up anything but the highest-quality content.
These developments have led many to claim that link-building is no longer a viable tactic. However, that is not really true. Does link-building no longer work? No, it has simply evolved. This is because no matter how many changes Google makes to their algorithm, links lie at the very heart of their core operational logic.
Any changes Google makes to their algorithm are only meant to remove any impediments to accurately judging the reputational currency that inbound links indicate online.
Here’s what to keep in mind when crafting your link building strategies for 2015.
Pursue Relationships With Influencers
Panda was primarily concerned with rewarding sites that had high-quality content and penalizing sites with low-quality content. There are many factors that distinguish the two, 23 of which Google outlined in a very instructive blog post.
I’m sure your site is high-quality, but the quality of your site is not the only thing you need to be concerned with. You also need to be concerned about the quality of the sites that link to you and that you pursue relationships with. This is because having links to your site from poor-quality content is one of the markers Google’s algorithm changes penalize.
Google is increasingly concerned not with how many links there are pointing to your content, but rather with whom those links are coming from. This was one of the reasons that Google tried (albeit, not very successfully) to institute the “authorship” tag.
Although the authorship tag was not successful, the reasoning behind its development and implementation is clear and still matters very much to Google. The idea at the heart of authorship standards was that Google could use these tags to pinpoint not just the authority of publications or sites, but the authority of individual authors.
For example, if for some reason Malcolm Gladwell wrote on a random, poorly established blog, Gladwell’s high authorship ranking would ensure that his reputational currency could be evaluated separately from the relevance of the place for which he was writing.
While the manual authorship tag was plagued with low usage rates and other problems leading to its eventual abandonment, Google’s interest in using authorship reputation to inform search results has remained the same.
In fact, not long after Google announced the end of the authorship tag did it reassure the SEO community that AuthorRank would continue to be an important part of search results. Google is focusing a lot of effort on automating the process of determining authorship because they feel (understandably so) that author reputation is an important marker for content quality.
So, what does this mean for link building moving forward? The short answer is that the future of link building partnerships will almost undoubtedly lie in developing strong relationships with individual influencers.
As authorship begins to play more of a central role in evaluating the quality of content, the most efficient strategy for acquiring those valuable links will be to pursue lasting partnerships with authors. Put simply: Ranking doesn’t matter; authority does.
In the past, when link building was more concerned with quantity and reputation wasn’t evaluated using such a granular approach, partnerships with publishers were typically seen as the most beneficial. However, going forward, partnering with individuals will be a more effective strategy.
Not only will individual authorial reputation begin to play a bigger role in content quality evaluation, but individual authors tend to have a narrower, targeted focus. As we will discuss in a later section, Google is also moving toward valuing contextual appropriateness and having such niche, quality links will be a valuable indicator of the quality of content on your own site.
Build Upon Content That Has Worked
Content marketing has increasingly become a valuable component of a link building strategy. But as it has risen to prominence, many marketers have started taking shortcuts with their content for the sake of getting as many links as possible onto other sites.
Unless you employ spammy tactics, low-quality content will not really garner much outside attention and will therefore not help you build links. The best way to prime your content to be highly linkable and shareable is to ignore linking and just pour your focus into crafting the highest-quality content possible.
Quality can be pretty subjective, and measures of quality and content-appropriateness largely depend on your audience. Luckily, link building expert Brian Dean has devised a method to address exactly this question that he calls the “skyscraper technique.”
Dean’s method is actually fairly straightforward. His recommendation is essentially to find content that has been highly linked in an area you hope to rank well in and then to identify any gaps in that content and fill them.
While he goes into a fair amount of detail on how to do this (I highly suggest you read the linked article), the central idea behind his technique is simple and effective. The best way to create content that garners attention is to see what has worked and improve upon it.
This not only ensures that your efforts will get the attention of your customer, but having high-quality, linkable content will serve as a clear indicator to Google’s algorithms (specifically Penguin) that the links coming from this content are natural.
The benefits of creating content using this method are clear, but in order for this technique to work the content created needs to be of very high quality. Your organization may not be capable of creating this kind of content. But not to worry, this is where pursuing partnerships with influencers becomes even more beneficial.
Pursue Influencer Partnerships
Working with an established author in your industry not only ensures that they will be able to produce content that fills in the gaps of previously successful content, but it will also lend the additional authorial reputation that Google has begun to weigh more favorably.
One valid approach to pursuing partnerships like these is via content syndication. If you hire an established author with a strong reputation to contribute to your blog, you can fast-track your way to syndication deals with reputable publications. Such a strategy further multiplies the benefits of an influencer partnership and can create a strong link-building lift.
Another equally valid approach is to engage in guest-blogging partnerships in which you have an author write for a publication (preferably one with a highly targeted audience) on your organization’s behalf. While this may not be as immediately beneficial as syndication, it is typically easier for new blogs to pull off and can lead to lasting partnerships with relevant publications within your industry.
Regardless of which strategy you decide to go with, the main considerations to keep in mind are creating hyper-relevant content, maintaining a high standard for quality, and leveraging the authorial reputation of industry influencers.
The synergy between the “skyscraper technique” and influencer partnerships is very strong, and from the perspective of Google’s ultimate goals, this fact makes perfect sense. Google wants to use the reputational currency of links to determine the best-quality content, and having a respected author creating content that is widely shared is a key indicator of quality.
Embrace a Deeper Niche
The last of Google’s big algorithm changes was Hummingbird, and it is perhaps the largest change to the way Google approaches search. Whereas Panda and Penguin were concerned with weeding out spammy links and content, Hummingbird revises the way that Google understands search queries.
Hummingbird takes a much more context-based, semantic approach to determining what searchers are looking for. For example, before Hummingbird the Google search “boat tiger movie” might have turned up search results ranking highly for each of those separate keywords. That search will now show results for “Life of Pi.”
While this new approach to search has not really penalized websites like previous algorithms have, understanding its unique implications can help improve overall link building strategy.
In the context of the previous recommendation, this new context-driven approach to search will begin to reward content that narrows its focus and doesn’t simply pander to the highest-yielding keywords.
Before Hummingbird, if you wanted to rank for “content marketing” the most effective way to do so would be to load your anchor text with those keywords. However, this new semantic method of delivering search results allows you the latitude to not have to worry about loading up on keywords but instead focusing on the key topics of interest to your particular niche.
This goes even further to help the strategy discussed previously, because now you can hyper-target your content and choose to pursue relationships with influencers that have a very niche focus. Finding niche keywords and content and then aiming to produce the best content in that area is a lot easier than employing a similar strategy for a broader keyword.
The semantic intelligence of Hummingbird will mean that more and more searchers will be served up content for niche keywords, because the algorithm takes the broad keywords they might use and strings them into a more complex request.
Understanding the reasoning behind Google’s algorithm changes and their practical implications for link building can help give insight into the best practices for link building moving forward.
Focus on pursuing relationships with established authors, directing your efforts toward improving established content, and employing these strategies in a highly targeted niche.
These are broad overall guidelines and might seem a bit simplistic, but this points to a strange fact about the future of link building. The irony is that as Google’s algorithms for evaluating backlinks become more intricate, the strategies that work the best become simpler.
“You can publish the best content in the world, but if it doesn’t generate links it’s not going to get near the first page of Google,” added Dean. “As long as you focus on building links from quality, relevant sites, link building should be at least part of your search marketing strategy for 2015 (and beyond).”
What’s your organization’s approach to link building look like? Do you have any additional predictions to share about the future of link building and SEO? We’d love your input in the comments below.