As much as link building has been shaken up over the past year, many things have remained the same, and they're the same ideas and tactics that also worked years ago. I suspect they'll continue to work, and continue to be argued about.
We all say that content is what builds links, and while it can and does, it isn't always that simplistic a concept. Great content will naturally attract links, and depending upon the strength and visibility of the site where this content is listed, very little promotional effort may be necessary.
But with all the unnatural link warnings, crackdowns on link networks, and Google Penguin targeting link spam, many marketers are a bit lost about what still works. Well, these seven "golden rules" of link building are designed to help you get back to basics about appropriate linking.
Rule 1: Great content on a great site will attract attention, whether it's from actual links, social shares, people talking about it on outside sites or forums, etc.
Honestly, if you have a great site, you can sometimes get away with content that doesn't rock the house. We've all read posts on popular sites where things are usually top notch, yet there's a post that is utter crap, but it still gets attention and may even generate loads of links.
I remember a few times in college where I made zero effort on a paper yet still received a good grade on it, and I'm convinced that it was because I usually got good grades. I had friends who thought that this happened to them as well.
I just recently read a novel called "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith, widely hailed as a brilliant novel, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I bought her newest book. But you know what? Had I not read "White Teeth" and thought she was so amazing, I would've stopped reading the new one early because it wasn't all that good.
Rule 2. Great content on a not-so-great site that no one sees will need help in order to generate buzz.
While I hesitate to call my agency blog "crap" it certainly doesn't have the readership of a site like SEW. I did a crowdsourced piece that included very well-respected participants.
I thought about publishing the post on a site that got more visibility than we do. However, I put it on our site, promoted it, had the benefit of the participants' promoting it, and it did OK, but it didn't do well enough for the effort and names involved.
I think that if I'd written it for a site with much more visibility and credibility, it would have done 10 times better than it did, if not more. If the SEOs mentioned in this piece hadn't helped me promote it, there's no way I could have gotten eyes on it without going overboard to promote it myself.
3. If you're actively going after a link (whether you're asking for it, hinting that you'd like it, sending the webmaster a fat Amazon gift card, or outright giving a webmaster cash), you should make sure that the link is worth your time and effort.
I won't lie and say that every link we build fits this ideal, but it's how we approach a potential link. Will this link be beneficial to the target site? Will someone click on it and thus turn into converted traffic? If so, that's an awesome link.
4. If your only online marketing strategy is link building (or any other single tactic), you're setting yourself up to fail.
It's fine if you have $15,000 a month to use to buy links because it's easier to throw that money at someone and not have to worry about optimizing the site itself or building a community or, at the very least, trying to get some social love for your site.
However, as we've seen from the algorithm updates and crackdowns of the past few years, what works well can easily and suddenly stop working. If all you do is guest post, what happens when guest posts are the latest victim of Google's decision to lessen their power?
5. If you're using link building tactics that are short-sighted and dangerous, you should have a backup plan for when you get caught and penalized.
OK, I'm not juding anyone here. Honestly, I do use risky tactics for certain campaigns, with the sign off of the client who's been heavily warned about the reality of what could happen.
That said, if you're putting all your eggs into one basket and those eggs are from one farm that's about to be shut down for health violations, you may want to, um, get some eggs from different places. Just sayin'.
If you're buying links, for example, make sure you can still get relevant traffic from other places if Google penalizes or deindexes you. Remember the outcry when networks were cracked down on in the spring, and loads of small businesses failed because they'd built their entire online presence on top of those?
6. However, there is a reality that some people have faced, and that is that with many updates, there is collateral damage and you can't plan for when you're accidentally victimized by the latest change.
How many crap exact match domains (EMDs) are still ranking, and ranking better, after the latest EMD crackdown? Loads. I've actually seen some rise into the top 10 when I've never seen them before.
My own site has been deindexed in Google before. Although it was only for about 48 hours, it made me think about the people whose businesses rely so much on being found on Google. My site doesn't at the moment, so I'm lucky. But the frustration of being out of the index when I did nothing to warrant it really made me think about making sure that if it does happen again and it's permanent (or at least longer than two days) I have other ways of moving forward and continuing to keep the doors open.
I also work with a site where they do all the right things, and I mean really, more than anyone I deal with, they do all the right things. Every time there's an update, their rankings fall off.
I see no reason for it as they don't do whatever it is that the latest updates target. Are they just sensitive to algorithmic changes? Maybe, but if a site doing everything right is that sensitive, what about the ones who, for whatever reason, have something not so wonderful in their history or profile?
7. Like it or not, some sites will most likely have to rely on techniques that are frowned upon.
Sometimes you need to just make your own calls and do what you think you have to do. Judge that if you want to, but think about what you'd do if you relied on ranking well in an industry where everyone was buying links, for example. If that was your livelihood and taking a stand against link buying would mean you'd start moving down in the rankings until you lost everything, what would you do?
If you use article syndication and press releases, two tactics that are occasionally trashed yet remain popular and successful methods that aren't a violation of Google's guidelines like buying links is, what will you think when Google does add those to its ever-growing list of "things we don't really like anymore"?
If you're an affiliate who has done well without having to have loads of content and you've never done anything to violate Google's guidelines, what are your thoughts on their new issue with "thin affiliate" sites? Will you automatically bulk up your sites with content bloat, or switch gears even though you're doing just fine?
I suppose that I'm glad to work in an industry where things do change a lot, as it's never boring. It's often frustrating to see the fallout though, and all I can do is try my best to minimize it for the sites I work with.
It can be quite challenging trying to do things the right way, especially since the right way keeps getting adjusted. Links still get blamed when a site tanks though, and it'd be nice if people looked elsewhere and not immediately assume bad links are the cause of nearly every problem, as many times search ranking changes have nothing to do with bad links.
Link builders need to step up and learn more about online marketing and SEO. We used to be generalists, and then many of us moved into specialty niches within the industry. Is it time we branch out into generalism again?