Many of those who pursue link building have had a tough year. Google's verbal and physical assault on link building practices has been unrelenting.
You may be wondering if link building is illegal now. The answer is yes and no. Why? Let's explore the "yes" and "no" of link building to try and help make some sense of what it is that you can and can't do.
Recounting the Body Blows
1. The latest major hit took place January 20 when Google's Matt Cutts wrote a blog post titled The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO. In it he wrote:
Okay, I'm calling it: if you're using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it's become a more and more spammy practice, and if you're doing a lot of guest blogging then you're hanging out with really bad company.
He also wrote:
So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it's just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn't recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn't recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a linkbuilding strategy.
2. On August 12, 2013 Matt Cutts recorded a video where he talked about widgets and infographics. Here's what he said:
I would not rely on widgets and infographics as your primary way to gather links. I would recommend putting a nofollow, especially on widgets because most people when they copy and paste a segment of code, they don't realize what all is going with that, and it is usually not as much of an editorial choice because they may not see the links that are embedded within that widget.
Depending on the scale of the stuff you are doing with infographics you might consider putting a rel=nofollow on infographics links as well. The value of those things might be branding, they might be to drive traffic, they might be to let people know that your site or service exists but I wouldn't expect the link from a widget to carry the same weight as an editorial link freely given where someone is recommending something and talking about it in a blog post
3. On July 26th, 2013 Google updated the Link Schemes section of their Webmaster Guidelines to talk about Press Releases. You can see this listed in the following image in the 2nd red rectangle in this image (the first and third red rectangles relate to guest posting and widget):
4. Going further back, I published an interview on July 9, 2012 called Matt Cutts and Eric Talk About What Makes a Quality Site. In a moment of inspiration, I asked him the following question:
It dawned on me recently that link building is an interesting phrase that has misled people. It's a bit of a cart before the horse thing. It has led people to think about links as something they get from the "dark corners of the web". Places where no one ever goes, so it does not matter what you do there. So by thinking of it this way, as link building, you are off on the wrong foot even before you get started.
Here is what he said in reply to my question:
That's right. It segments you into a mindset, and people get focused on the wrong things. It leads them to think about links as the end goal. It's important to think about producing something excellent first. If you have an outstanding product, world class content, or something else that sets you apart, then you can step back and start thinking about how to promote it.
I remember the response to this interview very well. It currently has 168 comments.
There was a raging discussion about the discussion on content. There was a lot made about the comments on infographics (he also said this in the interview: "I would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree.").
But, no one talked about his comment on link building being a fundamental problem in their write-ups of the interview. I knew right then and there that it was the most important comment in the entire interview. The future was already laid bare.
Dangers of Link Building
There is certainly a type of approach to link building that Google is trying to kill off, but there are hints in Cutts' language as to what they still think of as OK. So let's make some sense of this.
First, let's talk about how to get hurt by link building:
- Algorithmic Detection: There are many things Google can't easily algorithmically detect. Unless you're far out there, this isn't a main source of exposure, but you can't discount it.
- You Get Reported to Google: Someone might report you to Google, and they might take a look at it. Once they do, any and all of these areas will rapidly get revealed. In short, cross any of these lines and a manual review will torch you.
- Someone Public: A blogger somewhere might figure out what you have done and write about it. Google's hand gets forced and they take a look at you. This is the worst. You will be publicly exposed and you will get hit by Google to boot.
There is a very important secondary algorithmic danger.
Imagine that you do a lot of work to get links using one particular method. Let's say that Google tests a new algorithm, and they see that devaluing all sites that use this method improves their search results without causing any significant false positives (i.e., no major brand gets torched) – they are going to release that algorithm.
My point is that if you aren't a major brand, even if you're "unjustified collateral damage", Google will push the algorithm out. For Google, it isn't about you, it's about the average satisfaction of their users. They measure this on a massive scale, and your site is less than a decimal point in the grand scheme of things.
This is exactly how Panda and Penguin work. They are large-scale algorithms that improved Google's search results, but that also caused lots of innocent businesses to suffer (and others prospered too). This isn't because the Google engineers are bad people, they are just trying to make their product better.
This is the reality of small to medium businesses and SEO. As a long time friend of mine used to say, "if you don't like it, you should have become a dentist."
So let's start with a statement of what your objective should be: Don't just obey the letter of the law, but learn how avoid the net. In other words, you need to learn how to stay away from the types of practices that may cause you to get lumped together with the great mass of truly bad actors. So let's talk about how.
Building Links the Right Way
Fear not, there is a right way to go about things, but it may require a mental mindset change.
If you're focused on link building for link building's sake, then you need to see these words again from Cutts on link building in my 2012 interview: "It segments you into a mindset, and people get focused on the wrong things". OK, let's get to the work on the task of getting our heads in the right spot.
First, let's clear something up. Cutts isn't saying you can't promote your website. He knows that you need to do marketing. We talked about ways to approach link building in detail in my July 10, 2013 interview, Link Building is Not Illegal.
If you read the interview carefully, you'll see that it's a blueprint for content marketing. Basically, it lays out the components of how you can create great content on and off your site, promote it with strong social media presences, press releases, and other tactics to build a great brand online.
And there it is – the b-word: Brand. This is what your link building efforts should all be about.
Everywhere you go online building your brand and reputation should be the goal. If you strictly abide by this one principle, you should be in good shape, and you will probably be getting links that Google wants to value.
However, making the mental shift can be hard, so let's review some additional guidelines that can help you keep the right focus. I published some guidelines on April 7, 2013 in an article which I boldly titled Penguin 2.0 Forewarning: The Google Perspective on Links, and Matt Cutts tweeted the following in response to the article:
Here are the four guidelines from that article:
- Would you build the link if Google and Bing did not exist?
- If you have 2 minutes with a customer, and the law required that you show a random sampling of your links to customer prospects, would you happily show the link to a target customer? Or would it embarrass you?
- Did the person giving you the link intend it as a genuine endorsement? This is where widget and infographic links fail.
- Do you have to make an argument to justify that it's a good link? Still my favorite – truly good links require no justification.
I have a fifth one to add to that list. When you get a link back to your site, be it the result of a guest post, a direct link request, or any direct activity, you should also ask yourself this question: "Would someone seeing your link on that page have a decent chance of wanting to click through an attribution link to learn more about your company and perhaps become a customer"?
Now that's a acid test if there ever was one. Think about it.
Get branding front and center in your online marketing, stay SEO smart, play the game the way Google wants you to play it, and your risk of being whipsawed in some future Google algorithm update, or hit by a manual action, go way down. Not to zero, as any SEO plan has inherent risk because of the way that Google manages its business, but lowering your risk as much as possible seems like a great idea to me!