Link builders have a horrible reputation for chasing fad tactic after fad tactic, looking to build quick and easy links designed to manipulate search engines, scaling their processes as much as possible to build link after link.
This perception spawns from the link building arms race pre-Penguin, which was hard to avoid within SEO. If you were in a competitive niche, odds are your competitors were engaging in questionable link building tactics during this era. Google was lacking any sort of enforcement for bending or even breaking their Webmaster Guidelines, and only had time to punish the most egregious of offenders. The simple fact is that mass link building worked.
Thankfully today Google's algorithms are better at detecting link spam. As Dan Petrovik said they're not great, but good enough.
Unfortunately this has meant that any tactics heavily used for manipulative purposes has officially been put on Google's "do not touch" list. Recently, Matt Cutts of Google even called guest blogging for SEO "done", citing spammy examples.
My argument is that it's when it comes to link building, it's not the tactic that becomes untouchable, it's the application of those tactics.
To demonstrate what I mean, let's look at five different examples of "spam link building tactics", done right:
- Blog comments
- Press Releases
- Reciprocal Linking
- Guest Posting
Now obviously none of these tactics should be used to scale a link building campaign. I've seen time and time again the power of even a few well-built links – there's no reason to attempt to scale a campaign into a link mill.
Each of these tactics are valuable tools within a natural, intelligently done link building project, with the end goal of raising your online visibility and creating a diversified backlink profile.
1. Blog Comments
Anyone with any semblance of a blog hates blog comment spam with a passion. What better example low-quality link building than spam blog comments? Truly a dark time for the SEO industry, one that we're still seeing the after-effects of today.
It was a natural enough concept: leave a comment on a post and your name will be linked to your website, as a way to show who you are and where you're coming from.
Then we did what we're all so prone to do – attempted to make our lives easier and scale a link building tactic for max efficiency and ease. We quickly learned that enough of these blog comment links translated to Google ranking power. It wasn't long before the tactic was automated and scaled to the mess we see today.
Here's the ultimate spam comment, and one of my personal favorites:
This kind of automated script is the worst kind of abuse, and is a direct result of scaling a link building tactic, poisoning the Internet well.
Blog comment spam became so bad Google specifically introduced the nofollow tag to attempt to reign in its impact and frequency.
But it doesn't have to be this way, does it? In fact, you can build wonderful online visibility with a link by leaving an intelligent, thoughtful, engaging comment on a blog. Will this online visibility be a result of SEO ranking power? Absolutely not – but if you're a niche website trying to gain visibility, what better way than to engage in your online community with a few thoughtful comments on relevant blog posts.
Check out a few examples:
This comment on 12bottlebar, a cocktail blog:
And this comment on Gardenrant:
The point is that comment links on blogs are natural if you're engaging in your community, which is precisely what you should be doing if you're looking to build your online visibility.
Should you be mass building blog comment links? Or exclusively blog comment links? No. Resoundingly, no.
Are blog comment links a natural portion of a healthy backlink profile? Yes.
And that's the point – if you want to build your online visibility, building a natural backlink profile is still one of the most powerful online activities you can do.
Blog comments can accomplish:
- Increased exposure to new audiences
- Influencer attention and engagement
- Diverse, natural links
Let's check out press releases.
2. Press Releases
In July 2013, Google update their Link Schemes page to include the line:
...and another tactic for online visibility involving links lands squarely on the "do not touch" list, according to the frenzied SEO response.
But looking at the example Google listed, it's clearly spam – all the anchor text is keyword rich, repetitive, and shoehorns in the links.
Beyond this example clearly being spam, was it ever a good idea to create press releases exclusively for links, which were created exclusively for rankings? No – once again that's an example of a manipulative practice, solely meant to manipulate rankings. Something Google clearly wants to devalue if not outright punish.
Can press releases still be done with links? Absolutely. Will those links still add SEO value? It depends. Here's common opinion:
- Links from press release exclusive sites will more than likely be ignored or devalued by Google.
- Clear signs of manipulative tactics in press releases can and will be punished.
- Press releases written for their original purpose – publicity – are more likely to gain traction, and if used by other news organizations the links within will add value.
What's the takeaway? Use press releases as they're supposed to be used naturally: as a publicity tool, for real announcements. Don't do it as a tactic solely to build links, meant to manipulate Google's algorithm – it will be caught and punished.
Press releases can accomplish:
- Important publicity for company events.
- Journalist and media attention.
- Promote positive attention to your company's developments.
3. Reciprocal Linking
Reciprocal linking is yet another prime example of a natural online process scaled as a link building tactic until it no longer made sense.
The original concept was based around forming a partnership with another website: both websites benefitted from mutual linking, sending traffic back and forth. Originally it was an editorial link the way Google intended – a vote of confidence.
Unfortunately, once again scale ruined another perfectly acceptable manner of linking. Spam pages with hundreds of links out to other "trusted" companies became the norm, artificially boosting SERP rankings.
Google cracked down on reciprocal links in 2005 with update Jagger. Google link schemes now includes excessive use of reciprocal links:
Once again, pay attention to the language – particularly "excessive" and "exclusively". Google absolutely doesn't want you to use manipulative tactics that are only designed to increase your rankings in search results. Instead, you need more natural, business-centric goals when creating such reciprocal links.
Partnering with other websites is a fantastic way to increase your online visibility, and shouldn't be limited to a link building tactic. However, if you're creating a partnership of real value, why wouldn't you pursue the link?
Check out a few pages that highlight the power of partnerships and reciprocal linking:
- California's Department of Parks and Recreation
- Idaho Nonprofit Center's list of Current Nonprofit Members
- First Fruits Foundation
- Moz's Member Perks Page
Nearly every business has online (and offline) partnership opportunities. Partnerships go well beyond just building links, so don't make that your only goal. Think about how you can further your company as a business, and then make sure you're building links as appropriate.
What reciprocal links can accomplish:
- Establish important business relationships
- Further your own authority
- Build trust across the web
Directories actually existed before search engines – they were the original way to find relevant information and trusted websites around the web.
Of course, when Google became the dominant search engine and Google's reliance on links as a ranking signal became well known, directories became much, much more common.
It wasn't long before directories were created solely as link farms, with paid inclusions, lack of theme or relevance, and anyone was allowed to join as long as they've paid. Traffic, users, and business value went out the window – once again the tactic became something meant only to manipulate search results.
Notice a theme yet? Google doesn't want to reward questionable tactics, and certainly wants to punish outright manipulation. Yet for who-knows-what-reason, some SEO folks seem intent to scale link building tactics until the only possible benefit is for search results – clearly against Google's guidelines.
There's respectable ways to pursue directories, which can actually have a positive value to your business, including links. Generally speaking, there are two types of worthwhile directories to pursue:
- Niche specific directories
- Local directories
Niche specific directories still have power – but only if they serve as a branding opportunity (beyond a simple link), and have the opportunity to drive referral traffic. The concept is to create signs of external engagement, which showcases your brand.
The directory needs to be relevant and specific to your industry, user centric, and serve an actual purpose beyond simply influencing search result rankings.
Local directories are extremely important for companies trying to establish or improve their online presence within a community.
There are numerous local directories any business looking to improve their online visibility should consider, including:
- Google Places
- Yahoo Local
- Bing Local
- Angie's List
- Etc. etc.
It's extremely important to be involved in these local business sites if you're looking to be found by local users, customers, or clients.
These directories/listings still have real power for search, but once again should be treated as a branding opportunity – not to mention as a source of potential customers. Keep a business-first mindset, and acquire links as possible, applicable, and appropriate.
You should attempt to build these link as if Google doesn't exist – or as if Google was staring over your shoulder.
5. Guest Posting
Cutts' latest proclamation to "stick a fork in guest posting" had many an SEO scrambling. I wrote in-depth about it here, but to summarize:
- Guest blogging is more than just an SEO tactic – it has many legitimate roles online tied to marketing, business, authorship, and speech. Google couldn't declare guest blogging "done" if they wanted to.
- Nofollowing all links within a guest post is forcing a complicated issue on the masses who are ill prepared to deal with such technical issues. Even if Google does get widespread adoption, they're compromising natural, editorial links for the sake of removing any potential manipulation.
- There's a world of difference between quality guest blogging and the spam guest blogging that Cutts pointed out.
- Google isn't about to ignore good content simply because it's from a guest contributor – likely they won't ignore the links, either.
So let's take a look at an example of low quality guest blogging:
And the "bio":
What makes this "guest post" bad:
- Poor grammar, word usage, formatting.
- Weak writing, lack of real or new information, regurgitated content.
- Lack of authority, lack of substance.
- The "bio" contains no biographical information, clearly made solely for the keyword anchor link.
The fact is this is clearly a guest post written solely for the link. This is actually a decent example of what happens when you try to scale guest blogging links – there are much more heinous, unreadable examples that involve spun content, irrelevance, stuffed links, and misinformation.
So what does a quality "guest post" look like? Hopefully, you're reading one now.
After having to look back I found that within this post I linked to one other article I wrote for this same publication, using the anchor text "here". Beyond that, I link out about 15 other times to cite an example or provide further information. My bio, which is hosted on my author page, gives specific information about who I am, my company (with a link), and what my company does.
This article was designed not as a form of advertisement for myself or my business, but instead to share a critical philosophy I believe to be important and overlooked: the importance of using diverse, business-focused, link building tactics – even tactics that have been added to Google's "do not use for SEO" list.
If you want to build a diverse, natural, powerful backlink profile, the simple fact is that you need to build links as if Google doesn't exist. The only way to coexist (and even thrive) with Google is to build the sort of links they value – links with a purpose, links that make sense, and links that add value to your business.
So, the next time you go to build links, remember:
- Don't attempt to scale a fad link building tactic because it's currently "powerful."
- Find a way to build links that add value to the web, the site, their users, and your own business.
- Don't be afraid to build links that traditionally pass little SEO value – don't focus exclusively on these, but don't be afraid to include them as a natural part of your link building activities.
- Please, please, think application – not tactic.