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Has link building changed as much we think?

In my capacity as a freelance seo consultant I’m often approached to build links to a company’s website, however word has got round that links aren’t all that they used to be and it’s true that links aren’t what they once were, however I’d argue that not as much has changed as Google or some SEO experts would have you believe.

The fundamental principles that govern Google haven’t changed, the thing that made Google unique was the use of hyperlinks as part of the PageRank algorithm to work out how to rank websites. It would be a huge change to completely get rid of that.

The thing that changed the face of SEO forever was the Penguin update in April of 2012. If you’ve been in the online marketing game for long enough it’s likely you’ll remember where you were when that came out. I remember the countless calls of confusion from people that had dabbled in link building and couldn’t understand what had happened to their website’s rankings which were inevitably dropping off a cliff.

As I’ve been saying for years, if you want to build a sustainable business you are going to want to get links that won’t damage your rankings. In my experience the keys to acquiring links naturally are having something that people want to share, that you’re able to get in front of your target audience and that you’re able to consistently produce with a reasonable amount of velocity, but which doesn’t ramp up the links you’re getting in a extrapolating manner as this will start to trigger penalties.

Most SEOs have already decided that they can’t build the kind of low quality links they used to, I certainly have, and over the last three years my mantra has been: “if a link is easy, it’s not worth it!” Of course if you’re just looking to achieve something in the short term you can certainly build and benefit from spammy links but it’s not the way forward for a real world business. These days seo is about a long term commitment to improving rankings.

So nowadays SEOs use various pieces of content to promote a website in order to create links back to that website. It was definitely the changes that came about following the Penguin update which made me really run with content marketing as an online marketing strategy, although it was something that I’d been advocating for a lot longer, but which hadn’t previously been central focus.

I remember when I started offering SEO as a freelance service, it was a buzzword, people knew about search engine optimisation and believed it could revolutionise their business – often it did in those early days! Nowadays business owners are approaching me about SEO already know they need to be implementing a content marketing campaign as part of their SEO campaign and crucially they know poor quality spammy links won’t get them anywhere, many businesses already having been burnt through poor quality search marketing.

This is the reason that content marketing has vastly overtaken link building in search trends.

But interestingly you’ll also see that as we’re seeing the term content marketing assurgent, we’re also seeing a drop off of the term blogging. For many people content marketing is simply about blogging with a few other types of content added on top and I wonder if there is some confusion about what goes into a content marketing campaign to make it work. Or perhaps it’s an acceptance that there needs to be a more scientific approach to content creation and online marketing.

If you speak to an SEO, even those that profess to be white hat, if you press them enough they’ll admit they used some techniques that were a little grey hat, if not outright black hat – the point is it worked and we needed results.

So in this brave new world the best option you’ve got is content marketing, if it’s done right you’re going to win the kind of links that will help grow the rankings of the site, if you get it wrong you’re going to lose confidence with your boss or client and ultimately probably part ways.

There are of course other ways to build links but it can be bloody hard work and expensive. But it doesn’t have to be all about links there are other signals we need to be thinking about. What about the number of times a brand is mentioned, and when that’s combined with an address you’ve got some strong local signals Google can pick up on.

We used to be reliant on exact match anchor text, but I’ve almost entirely stopped thinking about the anchor text of the links I build other than to make them relevant to the target page or brand orientated.

Couple the tradition signals with machine learning signals and it’s hard for an SEO to work out quite what’s going on, that’s where putting a marketing hat on comes in, if you can think about the type of questions Google “asks” itself, that a customer might, you’re onto the right track. Questions such as “is this site authoritative”, “do I trust this site with my card details”, “are the insights in this blog better than the average blog post?” Google has that much data that they can create an algorithm that will accurately predict the answers to these kinds of questions – reliably. What’s more they’ve been doing this, and getting better at it for years.

And from this, it’s going beyond link building. I remember the days when the first things I did was look at the link profile of the competition compared to a client website and then come up with a plan from there, it’s not that simple anymore and there are plenty of examples of SERPs where the link profiles don’t marry up with the results, but crucially where the results are awesomely relevant for the search query.

Machine learning gives Google a better understanding about what the user wants and it’s these pseudo-user signals, coupled with real user signals that as SEO consultants we’ve got to be thinking about, almost if not just as much as we think about links. And remember, it’s much harder to game these kinds of signals as it is links.

Link building, that can be scaled up will naturally get to the point of diminishing returns relatively quickly these days because user signals will become more dominant. I think we’re seeing that already as outreach, which is the only form of non-organic link building I advocate is already prohibitively expensive for most businesses.

We’ve been talking about the role of social media as an SEO factor for years and it’s something that has never quite paid off, it seems to me no matter how much time and effort you put into social media it doesn’t have a huge impact on your rankings, however with Google having just landed a new deal with Twitter, I think we might start to see that relationship coming into play in the search results at some point – there’s just so much data for them to mine.

But remember what I said above about PageRank – this is the foundation of Google, I don’t think they’re going to let it go that easily and the ability for link building to work is going to be there, it’s just Penguin stopped some of the more spammy techniques from working, so SEOs everywhere are now looking at other forms of online marketing because they find it tough to offer a scaling service.

The thing is, if you’re going to get links going back to your website you need there to be a reason for those links to be pointing back to a website and this is where many link building goes wrong, it concentrates on the links and not on the things that are on the website. For example if you’ve got a five page brochure site, why would thousands of links start pointing back at that site? If that fiver page brochure site started to produce great, relevant content why wouldn’t the site start to pick up links?

Promotion is the key though, and making sure you’re getting it out there to the right audience. I use a number of different communities to promote my content and I’m always keeping an eye out for those new referral links driving traffic back to the content. These websites are the really valuable relevant sites, these are the ones that need to be targeted.

The thing is though, the theory that if you create the content the links will come isn’t quite right either. I’ve seen this myself – I’ve created hundreds of pieces of content for a website, generated tens of thousands of relevant referrals and off the back of it got a handful of great links.

This is a long and slow process, however after a while your site will start to build up and audience of its own, they will come back to see what’s new. I think this takes around 12 – 18 months (sounds like a long time doesn’t it?!), however once you get to this point you’ll be getting people looking at your content that haven’t seen it due to your promotional activities.

If you can build up getting relationships in place with other content publishers then you should be able to work with them to get links from relevant pieces as well, just let them know what you’re working on, show them your content plan, find out what their schedule looks like and see if there’s anything you can show them that you’ve produced that relevant to their content – then you’ll get links. In a world of content marketing you’ve got to be smarter than just creating the content and seeing what happens – because every man and their dog is doing that these days!

Another key thing about content marketing is consistency of velocity, that means you’re going to need to create a lot of content to get links back to your site and in the beginning it will feel like its not working. If you’re a fast paced driven entrepreneur trying to make content marketing work you’re not going to like it, because you won’t see the results quickly. Many people give up way too early in their content marketing activities that old rule of fail fast definitely doesn’t apply in content marketing. The thing is everytime you put something out there you will get more audience, more reach, more links and hopefully you will consistently improve your websites rankings, steadily over time in an organic looking manner (because it is organic!).

Content creation should also be a learning experience, you will work out what works for your audience and how to benefit from the places your audience lives online whilst making sure you understand what that audience wants as this is key to getting the right sites linking back to you. Learn from each piece of content and implement that learning in the next piece you produce.

If you get impatient you’re going to want to make it go faster and this will inevitably turn you to the dark side, by that I mean you’re going to start wanting to scale up your activities. If you can scale up your content creation and promotion then great, but this is a costly process and most people can’t justify the burn. If I’m working full time on content creation and promotion I can create and promote around 4 or 5 pieces of content a day, if that’s pretty much all I’m doing. Content creation is expensive considering it’s a long term marketing strategy, if you think that not all of that content can be evergreen content then a lot of it has a very limited shelf life and if it’s not generated links in the first day or so, it’s probably never going to and from a link building perspective is a failure.

For years we’ve been dancing to Google’s tune, back in 2010 we were much more likely to do something that Google would disapprove of. Nowadays we’ve been scared senseless by Penguin into towing their line and I wonder whether sometimes we buying their misinformation a bit too much.

One word of note for anyone completely reliant on content marketing as their main strategy. At some point or another the web will be so overrun with content that Google will look at ways of reducing the amount it costs to process all this content, if they’re not already doing it. How will your content stand head and shoulders above the rest? If it can do that now in preparation for the coming Google Contentgeddon, you will be creating the type of content that will get you links, overcome any machine learning, help you SEO, benefit your rankings, future proofing your business. For now at least!

In short link building isn’t bad, in fact it’s the cornerstone of Google’s whole operation, too much link building which has been scaled up is a risky business. Content marketing is a great way to attract links but it doesn’t need to be the only way you get links.

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