Search engines have been continuously evolving since the beginning of their existence. One significant way search engines have changed: they are much better at understanding what natural behavior patterns and link profiles look like on the web.
Once Google emerged as the clear leader in search, ranking on the web was all about links. At the time, the link based algorithm was the most sophisticated thing out there and drove significant improvements in search quality.
Of course, there will always people who try to take advantage of a situation whenever there's money to be made. Sure enough, a market developed for buying and selling links.
Search engines didn't want people to buy and sell links because their algorithms counted the links as votes. Just as we don't want votes to be purchased in political elections because it would bias the results, purchased links bias the search algorithms.
Eventually the search engines got more sophisticated. They began to look at other signals and then they began to look for different types of patterns. We don't know what those are, but we can speculate, and understand what it means for how we approach the promotion of our website(s).
Balance in link building is important. If you have limited resources to focus on link development this can be hard to do. Perhaps you're considering a wide range of campaigns.
Examples of link building ideas that may come to mind include:
- Guest posts
- Digg home page
- .edu sites
- Affiliate programs
- Content syndication
You may explore all of these ideas and try a few. What happens to many publishers, though, is that they get good at one technique. When that happens, they drive that campaign really hard. In principle this sounds like a good idea, and well, it is. But what might happen is they develop a link profile similar to this one:
You might think, "Great! More than 70 .edu links!" However, there are two problems:
- This is out of balance. This type of distribution is clearly the result of an overly vertical link building campaign.
- Closely related to this is the question of relevance. Assuming that these are real .edu links (not on professor or student pages, but on prominent pages of the educational institution's site), you're still left with the question of whether these links are being put in front of the right audience. If you have a product that is targeted at students and you get on the right high volume page on the .edu site to reach those students, great! Don't fall into the trap of thinking a link is great just because it's on a high authority site.
More importantly, this link distribution sends clear screaming signals that the links are a result of a campaign to gain traffic from search engines instead of a campaign to get your product in front of the right audience. When you focus on audience instead of search engines, you almost never get a link distribution this out of balance.
While I can't say how much of a signal this is, I can tell you with great certainty that search engines really want publishers to focus on their audience, not the search engine.
"Looking natural" is one of the worst phrases in SEO. Consider the following phrase, which says almost the exact same thing: "Implement your manipulative campaign in a way so you don't get caught." Not particularly inspiring, is it?
Instead of looking natural, let's focus on "being natural." Natural businesses would focus on where the audience is. As soon as that happens, you're much more likely to cause buzz. A more natural link distribution will follow.
True link relevance will be high, and the other signals that the search engines may be considering will follow. Metrics, such as brand searches, brand mentions, and user engagement, will have a better chance of moving up together with the growth of your links.
This is where looking natural and being natural overlap. If you find yourself focused on one marketing initiative, even if it's focused on your audience, then consider developing a focus on another area or two. A balanced promotional strategy has almost always been good business, and still is on today's web.