Another year has come and gone. For link builders, 2012 may well be remembered as the year that link building truly changed forever.
There have been hints over the years that the engines were getting wise to certain questionable linking tactics, but nothing quite as dramatic as what took place in 2012. Several techniques that had worked for years stopped working.
Link networks discovered and devalued, site after site vanishing from rankings. Warnings from the engines themselves about "unnatural" links. New services promising link profile cleansing and webmasters being given the opportunity to disavow the very links they so eagerly went after (and perhaps paid for) not long ago. And these are just some of the linking related events that took place.
Indeed, 2012 was the year link building changed. Forever.
We can argue about the details. I've been petty vocal that nothing changed at all other than the engines getting smarter, and this single change then caused a domino effect that impacted sites and services that some would say had no business being in business in the first place.
Maybe the larger truth is that for some, link building changed forever while for others (who never ventured down darker alleys) not much changed at all. I know from my own perspective of 18+ years on link building's front line, nothing much changed at all for me.
The techniques and tactics I've used since 1994 are absolutely as effective today as they were then, with the added advantage that we now have even more methods to help URLs migrate and be pushed along and throughout the web. If you know what you're doing, the reality is it's actually easier today than it was back then to get attention and links for truly outstanding content.
So let's be candid. The primary thing that's happened is it's gotten harder to get crappy content to rank high. And for this, we should all be thankful. I will now duck so the arrows hopefully miss me.
But enough about 2012.
Where are things headed in 2013 from a link building perspective? Let's take a look at several aspects of the linking ecosphere and I'll go out on some limbs and give you my best guesses as to what you might see in 2013, and what to do about it if you so choose.
Tactics and Topics
In no particular order...
Gold, silver and bronze (or something similar) link building packages that can be purchased at a set price by any site about any topic.
These types of services really never should have worked, that is if they ever truly did. While you shouldn't expect companies to quit selling them, I can say with a high degree of confidence that your site's success (or failure) won't be determined by any one-size-fits-all linking service. Earl's House of Hubcaps and Dr. Scholl's Bunion Reliever don't need the same links, and why am I still having to say this?
Analytics, that is, the analyzing of every possible aspect of every possible link so that we know every possible thing about the links that link (or don't link) to us or to our competitors, or to whatever site we're curious about.
While currently dominated by big names like SEOmoz and Majestic, and in niches by specialists like Blekko and AdGooroo's Link Insight, I expect more players to enter this niche.
The challenge is not so much in analyzing the data. The challenge is in correctly selecting the right data to analyze, and then correctly selecting the strategies and tactics that will help you the most. Anchor text, I'm looking at you.
How many people incorrectly pursued anchor text strategies based on competitive linking analysis and then saw their rankings implode in 2012.
Sometimes data is a dangerous thing.
Bonus prediction: there will be a surprise player emerge in 2013 that will dramatically impact the link analysis niche. Don't say LinkMoses didn't tell you. It's coming.
Infographics as link bait.
People make this one much harder than they need to. It's simple. Bad infographics are bad for link attraction, while great infographics that help take complex statistical data and make it understandable will always be a great way to attract links and traffic.
One caveat: funny infographics don't have to be complex to be effective. See here for an example of this.
Directories. All 700 million of them.
This is more of a hope than a prediction, but my hope is that all people recognize what is and isn't a truly viable and useful directory versus someone's attempt to capitalize on the link seeking frenzy.
Yahoo and DMOZ have proven that two completely different approaches to cataloging the web failed. It's too big and it's not really the web anymore. It's everything from a massive site like Wikipedia to a single tweet to a Facebook wall post to a G+ update to a mobile app to a PDF document to a YouTube channel. It can't be tamed nor catalogued en masse.
The directories that matter will be specialist. Curated. Topical. Purposeful. And not be able to be manipulated.
Sponsorships. By sponsorships I mean the technique of paying to be a sponsor of an event or organization just for the opportunity to get a link in return. Usually from a .org, this is the not-a-paid-link-wink-wink tactic.
The engines will be looking for footprints in this content, and while I don't expect penalties, don't be surprised to see vast numbers of links ignored. What I'd suggest is that you only sponsor an organization or event that you feel strongly enough about to do so regardless of the potential for improved ranking.
Forum Posting/Blog Comments. I lump these together because even though they are quite different is many ways, they are quite similar in that they attract link spam like flies.
There are close to zero scenarios where I can see a link drop in a forum or blog comment as having any signal value to a search engine. The only viable scenario is a heavily moderated venue within a vertical where the parent site has shown consistent historical attraction of links from credible sources.
A continued increase in spam, and more blogs eliminating comments altogether.
Social link building. I could devote a few hundred pages to social link building, but for this column, I'm zeroing in on one key aspect of the social graph. It's biased based on human nature, and the metrics are not able to account for this yet.
What I mean by this is best illustrated by an example. I am much more likely to become a fan of or "like", or tweet a link to, or +1 a page/site about the band Maroon 5 then I am for the brand site for Tinactin jock itch spray.
There are certain aspects of our lives that we just don't feel the need to engage with in an online social manner. So from a search rank perspective, how does a search engine account for the fact that a brand might be absolutely fabulous but have very little to show for itself in the social graph?
The activity that takes place in what's called the social graph is obviously way too important for the search engines to ignore. But human nature will always skew the social graph in ways that aren't algorithmically easy to identify.
Skittles has 80 trillion likes while RID Head Lice Remover has 3? The engines are going to have to hire psychologists to decipher what the social link graph really means.
But forget the engines for a minute. Social has huge implications for link spreading and click traffic, and marketers who understand this and how to take advantage of it are going to be stars. Call me insane, but social is not about search.
Guest posting. Guest posting on a blog in and of itself is nothing special. In many ways it's no different than article marketing or press releases.
The end goal is the same: content containing a link to your site is placed on another site. But all guest posting opportunities are not created equal, and that's the key here.
The A-list blogs will be highly coveted destinations and pursued for guest post placement, while those who are not as selective about what they allow on their blogs will nose-dive.
What's an A-list blog? It's a blog that has been around a while, has attracted an audience and credible links, shows up on the social graph, and doesn't allow anyone who asks to be a guest blogger.
Another form of curation is developing here. Not just the curation of credible blogs, but the curation of credible guest bloggers. Selectivity is crucial to success.
Press releases. I would love to see data showing the change in numbers of embedded links in press releases from 1996 to today.
In some ways I'd argue that not having any links in your press release makes it more credible. But then how would the engines know about your site? And there's the problem.
Most people today issue press releases not to announce something truly newsworthy, but rather because it's another way to shove a link or two or three, anchor text included, down the search engines throats. I think I'm going to issue a press release filled with links that says press release links don't work.
The secret to effective use of press releases is in where your place them and in formatting the version that's on your own site differently the one you send out via a wire service. If you aren't putting your press releases about your company on your own site, that's a mistake and a huge opportunity lost.
What content would you trust more, content you find on 7million-press-releases.com, or the press release you place on your own site which has its own existing and credible link profile?
Mobile. There's many ways to play mobile. You could create an app, a mobile version of your site, both, or partner with an existing app.
I absolutely love mobile from a link building perspective, but some marketers are missing many easy gets.
You can implement mobile linking strategies for clients who don't have a mobile site or an app or a webcast. You just have to be creative and aware. One example: any restaurant that takes reservations can pursue inclusion in already existing restaurant finder/reservation apps.
Those who don't take the time to learn the potential and available mobile opportunities will be left behind. Having a website is fine, and thinking of your site as the mother ship of your online presence is fine as well, but in 2013 the mother ship by herself is lonely. She needs to make sure she has plenty of smaller ships orbiting around her, some quite independently, but all still contributing to a common end game.
I know this will sound like heresy, but I hope in 2013 people might finally stop calling what I and others like me do "link building". My business card says I'm an online content publicist, and has always said that. I'm only called a link builder because that's the industry term that stuck. I've never felt it properly described or encompassed what we do.
The purpose of the online content publicist is to help content get discovered, and not just via a search result. That discovery can take place in any number of ways, and today, more than ever, it's less about links and more about discovery. Recognizing the growing number of ways your content, your company, your product, your services can be discovered, found, and shared.