Ever since Google's advent back in 1998, link building has been an important part of the search landscape. Links remain critical to success today.
This year's SEOmoz survey of 72 top SEOs concluded that links still represented about 67 percent of what drives rankings:
Google vs. Spam
As soon as Google's algorithm was understood, spammers were quick to get involved with link building. The buying and selling of links became popular. So did massive swapping of links among sites. At one point in time it seemed that half the sites on the web were replicating the Yahoo directory on their own sites to support their massive link swapping programs.
The problem with both of these methods was that they had a tendency to break the Google algorithm. This algorithm was based on links being academic citations. The site that garnered the most citations was probably the best site, not the one that bought or swapped for the most links.
As a result, Google began to actively fight link spam, making steady progress against the spammers. Today, various spammy techniques for obtaining links are getting harder to come by, and require more effort to execute. It's often easier to get clean links (citations) than to get them by cheating.
We Don't Buy Links
I saw this coming back in 2007 and documented it in my February 2008 post, "I Don't Buy Links." Many other pundits have followed since then, coming to the conclusion that buying links is a more difficult road to pursue today.
One result is that today's link building has become a cross between old-fashioned PR and business development.
Link Building & Public Relations
Some of the PR-like ways of building links include:
- Submitting articles to social news sites like Digg, Reddit, and Propeller.
- Participating in communities, such as those found on Facebook or Twitter, to build a large following to which you can broadcast messages.
- Implementing a news feed and submitting it to Google News.
- Direct pursuit of relationships with media.
These all seem like PR activities to me. The first three are like PR because they involve an indirect approach, and you don't know where you're going to get the links from.
The last one, direct media outreach, has been a big part of PR all along. This has evolved as the definition of media now includes bloggers, but it's still PR.
Link Building & Business Development
In contrast, here are some of the business development-like ways of doing link building.
- Reaching out directly to publishers to request links.
- Syndicating content or tools to third-party web sites in return for links.
- Using Facebook or Twitter to directly contact potential linkers as a substitute for e-mail (which might be spam filtered).
Because these focus on building business relationships, they are like business development. The contact is direct, and you're likely to know where a resulting link will be placed. The probability of getting such a link is enhanced by the level of trust in the relationship.
Future of Web Marketing
Over time, web marketing should increasingly look like old school marketing. SEO, PPC, and social media will simply be different channels to use in the overall marketing process. Smart businesses will get an advantage based on what they do with the opportunities that each of these present, but, ultimately, web marketing through these channels will look more like marketing used to 20 years ago.