The process has already started, and as a publisher you need to make sure you are adapting your marketing strategy to line up, or get left behind.
Google made the link building algorithm popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a revolution in its time because it provided search engines with a method for identifying the most important web pages for a given topic. However, as has been well documented, spammers have assaulted the algorithm with a wide variety of methods for buying links or creating them in other ways that don't work for the algorithms.
Even if you generate all your links in a pure white hat way, through reaching out to site owners and requesting them without compensation, or are doing high quality guest posts, you aren't necessarily generating the best possible signal for search engines. Certainly this type of link building done properly would not be a violation of the Webmaster Guidelines, but from the perspective of the search engines it also doesn't represent a groundswell of opinion raving about your product. It still means something, but it is brute force driven through your efforts, rather than resulting from the enthusiasm of your audience.
I don't believe that search engines will penalize people who link build this way, but I think they will value the link profile that is manually built less than one that obtains unsolicited endorsements from the web.
Prior to the emergence of Google, links weren't a ranking factor in a significant search engine. At that time, any unpaid links were implemented solely based on merit, because the publisher had no other reason to link to someone else's page. Even paid ads were based on the advertiser valuing the traffic from the target site enough to be willing to pay for it, since there was no other benefit - so these too went to highly relevant pages as a rule.
Short and simple: links were a better quality signal when the world didn't know that they were a signal. But, those days are gone.
What the Search Engines are Doing
The search engines are constantly in search of additional signals to help provide better data on the best results to return for a given query, and to make it harder for spammers to succeed in ranking lower quality sites (lower quality than others that are available on the web). The increase in the use of social signals by the engines has been a part of that effort.
However, social signals are relatively noisy. As I documented in "Social Signals and SEO: Focus on Authority," the number of people on the major social sites that are actively recommending sites/content is still a relatively small percentage of the population.
That same article also documented how using social media's "wisdom of the crowd" (showing the most liked articles) was something that Bing tried, but then later removed. I believe that this happened because using social media mentions as votes in the same way that links were used did not really work, even in the limited fashion that Bing tried it.
I expect that for many categories of searches search engines will weight sites that show multiple types of signals more than those that show only one. Back in July I wrote about "The Dangers of a One Dimensional Link Building Plan." However, in addition to not doing one type of link building, you should also be careful to not use old-fashioned link building as your only method for promoting the site. Find a way to get the web to generate other signals about what you are doing!
The first key is to focus on where your audience is (what sites they visit, what videos they watch, whose columns they read, ...). Think like a pre-Internet marketer would when trying to decide how to spend their ad dollars. Ranking signals can be generated by both your potential customers and the publishers of the content on the web that they visit.
Potential customers can create signals by:
- Talking about you in social media.
- Visiting your site.
- Searching on your brand name.
- Doing a search for products or services like yours and clicking on your search result.
- Discussing you in comments on blogs or forums.
There are a lot more methods than these few!
Publishers of the content that your audience consumes can generate signals as well, in the form of good old-fashioned links. So what are the ways to encourage the generation these types of signals?
As per my recent columns, you should certainly focus on authority, and seek to become an authority. Even if you aren't yet an authority yourself, you can do things to get your name out there to start getting exposure to authorities and to build visibility with others. Here are a few specific ideas on how you can do that:
- Start a blog: But only do this if you can produce unique, high quality content on a regular basis. It is a real time commitment. However, don't emphasize volume over quality. Two great articles a month will do far more for you than 4 decent ones a month, or 10 crappy ones
- Start a social media campaign: Become an active community member. Read the Become an Authority article for more tips on how to do that effectively. Note that it is better to execute extremely well at one social media site than it is to do an OK job in several.
- Participate in communities: If you can't start a blog or drive a highly active social media campaign, you can still participate in communities. Comment on blogs, forums, videos, or whatever medium your potential customers consume. In other words, as a fallback to Becoming an Authority, work at becoming known. Drive interactions that take place in front of your target audience. Go to conferences and engage in dialogues. Be the person that asks a great question of one of the speakers during the Q&A.
- Generate press releases: Issue press releases from time to time, but only when there is something worth talking about on the web.
- Generate news: Do something newsworthy that someone else would be interested in writing about.
- Advertise on web sites where your target audience goes: Not for the purposes of buying links, but for exposure to your target audience, and to the people that publish content that your audience consumes.
- Advertise in search engines: More great exposure!
- Advertise on Facebook: For the same reasons, but only use this one if you can reach your potential customers here
Regardless of where you are in the process of building your own authority, do some things to attract positive attention to your website. Participating in discussions online is a great place to start. Participating in offline discussions that you can use to help drive online interactions is also a great thing to do.
The key is to create great signals in addition to the links that your site attracts.
The past couple of years have made us all aware of the growing importance of social media, and Google's Panda update made it common knowledge that other types of user behavior could be a factor in search engine rankings. Expect this trend to continue, and possibly even accelerate. What it means for you as a publisher is that you need to do more than old-fashioned link building.
While this type of link building can and should be a part of your marketing mix, doing it in isolation will send unbalanced signals to search engines. You can imagine a search engine thinking to itself: "Gee - if the link profile of this site is so hot, how come no one is talking about it online of searching for it"?
Search engines will continue to strive to understand how people evaluate the value of a particular website. Their goal is to get as close to that human evaluation as possible.
The process has already started. As a publisher you need to make sure you adapt your marketing strategy to line up. Otherwise, you'll get left behind.