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How Link Building Changed in 2013

joyce-julie
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Every year, link building gets harder. We rename the process, we struggle to adapt to updates, we beg clients to let us stay as safe as possible, we argue about new factors that may outweigh it in Google's eyes, but still, we keep building links.

Clients keep requesting link building services, and I honestly don't see that much has changed this year in terms of how it all works. Sure, some poor quality tactics have come under fire and you can't get away with everything that worked in 2012, but will people stop building links? No way.

So what changed this year in terms of link building?

Google Updates: The Condensed Version

Panda refreshed a few times until it was announced that it would be rolled into Google's core algorithm, with monthly refreshes that would occur over a period of 10 days. In July many webmasters saw some Panda recoveries. There were Penguin recoveries during Panda updates as well.

Penguin updated in May and then in October, with both updates causing havoc with some sites, except the May update wasn't nearly as bad as the big one in October.

Hummingbird was quietly unleashed as a new core algorithm, with this supposedly meaning that now Google could better understand a query as a whole and not just on a partial level. It was apparently live for weeks before it was confirmed and did we notice? For the most part, nope.

A few non-animal-named (and sometimes unconfirmed) updates were released throughout the year.

  • A Phantom update in early May caused many sites to lose most of their traffic.
  • A domain crowding update, also in May, sought to alleviate the problem of having multiple results from the same sites for a query.
  • A payday loan update hit in June, attempting to curb spam in niches like loans and porn.

There were a few others, but in terms of ones that affected link building, we still mainly had to fear Penguin.

For a full listing of 2013 updates, Moz has a great list.

3 Major Link Building Topics in 2013

Three major topics were discussed all year long:

1. Disavowing Links

Should you disavow? Should you bother trying to clean up links or just disavow them? Would disavowing links hurt you? Would it draw attention to something and you'd be better off keeping quiet? Should you disavow links if you haven't been penalized or lost any traffic and rankings?

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2. Requesting Reconsideration

When should you do it? What should you do before doing it? Would it bring unwanted scrutiny on your site if you had something to hide and really didn't need to be doing it?

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3. Cleaning up Your Links

Was it worth the time and effort when you could potentially just disavow the links? Should you pay a webmaster to remove a link? Was someone harming your site by building bad links to it and if so, what should you do in terms of cleanup?

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More Top Link Building Stories in 2013

Google started giving us more information in Webmaster Tools. Manually penalized? Now you could see a message to that effect! This was a giant step towards better communicating with webmasters who weren't always sure why they were not doing well.

But then Google moved the "submit a reconsideration request" functionality into Manual Actions in Webmaster Tools so that you could only do that if you had a manual action. Naturally that makes sense, as those requests only work for manual actions, but the problem was that you could submit one for any reason before (even if you weren't technically supposed to) but since it was accessible earlier, many webmasters were quite upset about having gone through the process of cleaning up their profiles and disavowing links in hopes of submitting one.

However, after this clarification they did still make sure we knew that disavowing bad links was a good idea, even if we hadn't been hit.

Despite alluding to the idea that we might not see another 2013 PageRank update, we have in fact just seen one. Despite all of us who say PageRank doesn't matter, there sure was a lot of chatter about this in social and in the blogosphere.

Link networks continued to be in the news with a couple being taken down just in recent weeks. Remember when I said not to rely on networks for your rankings? That advice still holds.

Finally, Google updates its definition of "link schemes." On the 2013 chopping block: press releases, advertorials, and guest posts.

Bing!

What about Bing? I turned to Duane Forrester, who manages Bing Webmaster Tools, for this one but in a nutshell, he backed up a lot of sentiment about letting links happen naturally for the best results.

"...the reality is, more now than ever, letting links build naturally is the way forward," he said. " We’ve seen years of people gaming the system, or trying to, at least. And while many think they’re getting ahead, the view from inside an engine is very different. We see what people do, the patterns they make and the trails left behind."

He also spoke to the idea of social becoming more important, and I'd definitely agree on that one. One thing that he said really stood out in my mind, as it's a problem we face constantly, and that is the fact that it's extremely difficult to get a webmaster's attention today. If you rely on email outreach to build links, you're probably going to have to work extra hard to make that happen in 2014.

"Social lets a business amplify the outreach through a network of self-directed fans," Forrester said. "And if you wow them with content, they’ll share far and wide for you, all in an effort to be the first of their peers to share something worthy."

Yandex

Yandex, the Russian search engine, announced plans to ignore links as a ranking factor for commercial queries, with a focus on human interactions with sites.

Will the others follow suit? And will this work? Time will tell but it's an interesting concept.

So far it looks like that change would only affect around 10 percent of their queries, so it leaves room for making further changes if it doesn't work out. Apparently they're considering this since they think that the quality signals from links are much lower than they were years ago. I'd have to agree with that.

So What Changed in the Industry, Really?

  • People talked more about building relationships than building links. This whole concept has been around for ages but in 2013, it really started to get much more attention. Many link builders stopped calling themselves link builders and became outreach specialists, content creators, relationship managers, inbound marketers, or anything besides link builders. Did they stop doing things that had the end result of building links? Somehow I doubt it. People just talked more about how link building shouldn't be a goal but, in many cases, it of course still was a goal.
  • Some webmasters became more afraid to link out. Tales of unfairly penalized sites were everywhere and many webmasters decided to either nofollow all outbound links or just not link at all.

From what I'm seeing, it's still the same game even if it's gotten harder. People are still building spammy links and they're still working in some cases. You can still move a site up in the rankings with just a few good links.

From the perspective of a link building agency, what I'm seeing is that clients still want links. They are still willing to buy them, they're still using networks, and they're still engaging in very risky tactics despite being warned about what can happen. You will still see blatantly paid links on big sites and not be able to pick paid links out on another one, because link builders can be very clever, as can webmasters.

Summary

I've always maintained that links remain incredibly important, and just as I say every year, I really don't see that going away any time soon. Even if Google decided to build a new algorithm that had nothing to do with links, the fact remains that links are how people move around on the web. They're how people find your site, and even if they no longer affect rankings, they'll still be a critical part of your online marketing strategy.


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