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Link for People, Not Search Engines

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”Never let a search engine dictate 100 percent of your linking strategy.”

I made that statement in April of 2003, almost 10 years ago. It was my closing statement in an interview with Ralph Wilson of Web Marketing Today. And it’s as true today as it was then.

With the massive changes we have seen take place at Google over the past few years, to their algorithm, new social initiatives, page scoring, etc., it really is a tough time to rely on Google for the majority of your search traffic. We could say the same for Yahoo or Bing or any search engine really, it’s just that Google has become such a dominant force that most people, when they think search, they think Google.

I wrote my first column for Search Engine Watch over 11 years ago, but this is my first column since March of 2005. Ironically, my last column was titled "Looking for Links In All The Wrong Places". How fitting.

A lot has changed in seven years, but you already know that, so I’ll spend just a little time on what was then, and focus on what is now, and more importantly, what it means and how we as content publicists (I never liked the term link builder) can do about it.

That Was Then...

If you were a link builder in 1994, which was before Google existed, you didn't chase links because you were after improved search engine rankings. None of the pre-Google engines analyzed links, and none of the algorithms or search results were in any way based on any external linking related signals.

You could get a link from the homepage of CNN.com, and it wouldn't have helped your rankings one bit. Your traffic would have soared, and maybe a few other sites might end up linking to you but that’s it. There were no blogs or share or tweet buttons.

You went after links based on the subject matter of your content, looking for people you felt would be most inclined to care about it enough to link to it. Keyword: people. The web’s always been social, we’re just more easily connected than we were. Remember “email this page to a friend”?

After Google came on the scene, some link builders (myself included), were pleasantly surprised to see our clients sites had very high rankings, even though our link building strategies had nothing to do with Google’s algorithm, or anchor text, or page placement. This was when the first serious link analysis and competitive linking analytics tools began to emerge. And this is when I learned, by accident really, how what us early link builders were doing was exactly what was needed in order to appeal to a links based algorithm like Google’s.

A Great Old Case Study

Imagine it’s 1995 and you have to create awareness and links for a new site from Sea Ray Boats. Take a look at this post from the rec.boats.marketplace USENET newsgroup. Yes, USENET. Talk about a link building fossil.

The post announces a new web site for Sea Ray Boats. If you were responsible for increasing awareness of this new website, this was one of the approaches you used. Remember, the search engines aren’t a factor yet in your linking strategy.

The content publicist would think about the content that was available on the Sea Ray web site, and begin looking for online venues where people with an interest in such a site might be found. Sites devoted to boating enthusiasts, yachting, water-skiing, fishing, diving, dealers, parts, marina web sites.

Sea Ray was already a member of many boating industry associations, so those links were simply a matter of alerting the association webmaster that Sea Ray had a website. The process would result in a target list of 75-100 sites link this one or even this one. Then, you’d reach out to them via email and let them know about the new Sea Ray web site.

The result? Links. Plain old vanilla non-optimized links, from sites that were perfectly relevant to Sea Ray Boats, pointing to the Sea Ray boats web site.

Link Building's Brave New World

Flash forward to 1997. Google is live now, and although most people are saying publicly it will never have a chance against Alta Vista, the whispers are saying Google’s results are superior, because they are based on some other sort of metric related to the connections between documents on the web. And there was Sea Ray boats web site ranked number 1 or 2 depending on the search term. This was never my intent, but I was happy to see it, and it also was my first eureka! moment when I understand what Google wanted.

If you read back over the types of target sites I pursued links from (sites devoted to boating enthusiasts, yachting, water-skiing, fishing, diving, dealers, parts, marinas), it becomes pretty clear that Google wanted to see content being linked to by other content that was highly relevant to one another. What’s more relevant to Sea Ray boats than links from 12 different marina websites around the U.S?

While this is an oversimplification of the process I used, what’s more important I what I didn’t do. I didn't:

  • Submit to a bunch of directories with silly names like Link-a-licious. 
  • Submit poorly written articles to article databases. 
  • Swap links with sites that had nothing to do with boating. 
  • Issue a press release imbedded with links.

I matched content with like minded people who also had content in that subject area. The lessons I took from it sent me down a link building path far different than almost everyone else used once Google’s secrets became known.

Link building and content publicity was more related to public relations than SEO. I said this in Industry Standard Magazine in 1999.

But much of my preaching over the years fell on deaf ears, and I got the nickname LinkMoses for my white hat and merit/subject driven approach. SEO experts called my approach boring. Too time consuming. Links became a commodity. Get links in any way possible. The more the better.

A sub-industry of link building services exploded. Lost during this period was the quality, intent and relevancy of the link building process. The art and science of it. In its place grew services promising high rankings with gold, silver and bronze link building packages. Just click the PayPal button!

I decided I would not commoditize my process. You can’t automate genuine relevancy and curation and expect to beat a few hundred computer scientists with PhDs. Not for long, anyway. And the process I use today, while updated for the times, works better than ever as the engines battle an ever-growing sea of spam.

Escape the Google Link Building Trap

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There are hundreds of ways to build links the wrong way, and just as many ways to do it right.

Remember these five words: link for people, not engines. If you’re not sure exactly what that means anymore, don’t feel bad. Most web marketers have fallen into the link building for Google only trap, and now it has come back to haunt them. That’s why I’m back here. I’ll be writing about link building strategies from multiple perspectives, not just search rank. And with social search signals slowly taking over all the engines, the timing is perfect. The days of the cookie cutter search result are gone.

Your goal should be to be able to survive and thrive with or without Google.

Look at the graphic above. It shows the traffic for my site in 2011. I do several million pageviews per year, but the statistics show my site gets less than 10 percent of those pageviews from Google and Bing.

I do rank first or second for terms like link building expert, link building newsletter, and many other linking related terms, so I get search traffic, but if the search engines all went away tomorrow, I’d still have those thousands of links out there, sending me 90 percent of my traffic. And that suits me just fine.

So give some of my ideas a try. I’ll be back in a month with more examples.


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