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Mea Culpa: How I Failed At Link Building

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It's hard, sometimes, to admit wrongdoing. It's even harder to accept the consequences of the mistake. I've had to do both plenty of times before, but never so publically as this.

My career in search marketing has been pretty long already (and I've still got a ways to go), so I've had plenty of ups, downs, in-betweens, successes, and failures. I've spread the message before about how much I value failure, because it opens up amazing opportunities in character development and growth.

Failure in search engine optimization (SEO) can be a good thing, too. It helps broaden our experience and refine our approach. It helps weed out the high-impact stuff from the wheel spinning.

I've written about the fundamentals of link building, presented on advanced link building tactics at several conferences, and have managed teams of link builders for startups, Fortune 500s, and high-profile online pure plays. I state this only to set your frame of reference, not to be a blowhard.

With so much experience, I surely wouldn't make any stupid mistakes in link building, right? Wrong. One time I made a very poor decision, and it cost me.

I write this article to demonstrate how easy (and what folly) it is to put your principles aside in place of other, less important, motivations. Seeing where others have failed has helped me avoid the same mistakes in the past. Hopefully, my dear reader, taking this to heart will help you avoid my link building mistake.

Securing Links Ain't Easy!

Let's start here: link building is hard. It can be a long, slow road. And yet, it's essential, valuable when done right, and can profoundly impact a site's category relevance, neighborhood, and algorithmic signals.

There are quick ways to build links that are risky, and come with their own consequent dangers. Depending on overall risk aversion or exposure, link builders take different tactics into account and plan their strategies accordingly.

But there are no shortcuts. Good links are simply hard to secure, and come with an associated cost.

Paid Links Are Stinky

I've been on the web for a pretty long time. And I have never believed in paid links. We used to build links in 1996 at MMG (the company that eventually became Outrider) the old fashioned way: by hand, one at a time (backward and barefoot through the snow).

By and large it is still the same game today, but that early exposure to link building has given me a pretty wide perspective on the merits of various types of links over the long term. Manipulative links don't stand the test of time. Only natural links can do that (and websites that don't 404!).

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Paid links aren't an issue for me; I simply avoid them. Yes, I've tested them over the years in different markets and had various levels of success.

But in today's game, paid links aren't a competitive advantage (at least in the markets we focus on) and I'm more paranoid than ever about protecting my clients and shielding them from risk. I'm more concerned with building quality signals than quick rankings at their expense.

I speak only for myself. I don't presume that my principles and ethics should apply to other search marketers.

But on the spectrum of risk, paid links are way over on the right.

What about other types of links that, while they could be deemed "manipulative" are really just exploiting direct link sources out there? I'm talking about links from domains like http://www.ted.com/, and http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/, and http://boxesandarrows.com/.

Links from those types of sites may not seem risky at all, but they do actually introduce an element of risk. Read on to find out why.

Profile links aren't a new tactic. They're as old as the snow (well, maybe not that old).

Ironically, they can work, especially for deep, thinly linked URLs on strong domains. They work because they're direct, followed links from high PageRank domains. Some even allow you to customize the URL according to your profile name, add a photo or two, and add multiple links and text with any anchor text you want.

But while they can work, they aren't a strong signal of quality or a shining example of quality link building. They also won't stand the test of time.

Stupid Decisions

Over the years I've offered several types of service offerings and engagements, under my own consultancy and with my agency. Among them, we've engaged with a handful of large web companies under non-disclosure agreements.

We fulfill SEO consulting work for in-house teams and their internal 'agencies' that work with various business units. We do everything from technical audits, to SEO strategy, to social media oversight and direction, to link building and content creation.

At one point we were approached by a large company that wanted link building for several of its sites, as many as 10 different properties, congruently. It was a demanding campaign and links needed to scale, quickly. They had aggressive goals and wanted to see results.

Being short-sighted at the time, and thinking only of scale, I decided to first leverage easy, direct profile link sources to 'pour the foundation' of the link profiles. With pressure to deliver links each week for many sites at a time, I chose quantity over quality.

I put my instinct and principles aside, and I went the easy route. That turned out to be a big mistake.

Mistakes Are Obvious in Hindsight

To build links quickly for many sites synchronously, I felt our usual approach would be ineffective in the short term. Our approach to link building is worked into social media, partnerships, public relations, and marketing, all areas that can see great engagement and results.

But these take time to pay off.

I was worried we would arrive at the 60- or 90-day mark with very few links, and that wouldn't be good. This company wanted to see results in the short term or the project would be changed, ended, or heavily modified.

So I told my team to push many links I knew were easy to get, while we worked on more long-term and valuable links with outreach, contests, and other high-value link tactics.

Or so I thought.

In time, by pursuing the profile links aggressively, we had forgotten the bigger picture for this client. We were lost in the hazy mist of easy links. And we got called out for it.

You Can't Squeeze Toothpaste Back In The Tube

The sad part of this approach was, it worked pretty well. URLs we focused on consistently saw increased rankings, which produced increases in traffic. But the reports we sent over looked, frankly, like crap.

The links were all profile, easy to secure freebies. They looked like junk.

The truth was, they were junk -- even though they were working. They were junk because these links only served one purpose: to feed the bots. They weren't links meant for human consumption; they weren't a valuable addition to the web.

Regardless of how well they worked, they made us look bad.

In the end, my shortsighted approach cost us our highly valued client. We had gone the easy way. We had put bots ahead of people.

Over the years, I've found that every time I go off the path and focus on quantity or easy tactics, instead of quality and long-term value, I get burned. I end up cheating myself.

There is no easy path to valuable links. Like everything else on the web, securing them simply takes hard work, and it takes patience, vision, and a commitment to excellence.

Growing and Learning

In work and in life, my principles and values trump ambition and personal or financial success. I care more about relationships than dollars.

I care very much about my company's high-quality, boutique approach, that has been built slowly and carefully over the last several years. Our reputation has won us challenging work with clients of the highest caliber, and allowed us to build a team of highly skilled, strategic SEO marketers.

That's the good side of failure. It challenges you to be better if you want to grow.

Mistakes like this one have enabled us to refocus, adjust, and build better processes and services for our clients. And along the way, I've learned some pretty valuable life lessons too.

In links and in life, these are the lessons I've learned:

  1. Don't sacrifice your principles for the sake of something less important.

  2. Don't be lazy. Be efficient and smart.

  3. Be careful with every decision you make. They will come calling for you.

  4. Focus on quality, not quantity. Simplicity is beautiful, and less can be more.

I'm looking forward to learning from you. Please share your war stories in the comments!

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