Let me state right up front that this month's column is an opinion piece and I could be way off. I don't have a source at the Googleplex that meets me in underground garages like some people claim (like I'd admit it if I did).
My supporting data is 18 years as a link builder and linking strategist for over 1,000 sites, and what I've learned looking through a few million rows of backlink URLs in spreadsheets. That's it.
A Plausibly Deniable Link Profile
Those of us in this industry who help others with their link building are facing a strange time. Most of us work with sites we didn't build, which have been worked on by multiple parties, and which we don't know much about other than what we can find via third party linking analytics tools. Likewise, those who work in-house are probably working on behalf of a site that was around before they were.
The only sites we have complete historical SEO confidence about are our own personal sites, blogs, etc., and although I've maintained my own site since day one, it does have backlinks I'm not thrilled about. Nothing worth apologizing over, but I've certainly been an opportunistic link seeker. I still am.
When sites like Businessweek and American Express give you the opportunity to create profiles and participate in the discussion, with links coming along for the ride, you take them. That is far different than having links from 870 unique linking domains all sitting on a file named links.php
Or is it? I'm starting to question myself.
Few people can say with complete confidence that they know every single SEO and link building tactic that has been used since the day a site first launched. And even if they think they do, they wont likely say it publicly because, well, one just never knows where a paid link may be hiding like a land mine...
Add a few Pandas and Penguins to the mix, throw in a few Webmaster warnings, and we have entered a new stage in the link building process: Having a plausibly deniable link profile.
A plausibly deniable link profile is when the worst of your bad links are found in places where you can claim (with a straight face), you had no idea existed, and no idea who put them there or why.
Wiggle Room In Your Link Profile
The reason (we think) a plausibly deniable link profile may matter is because...
- If our link profile is plausibly deniable, then...
- the search engines can't rightfully penalize us because...
- we didn't do it...
- so someone else must have and...
- you can't hold something that wasn't our fault against us.
Or so we hope. A slightly more honest variant of this is "our SEO firm did that without our permission", which is usually followed up with "every site has some junky links". We say this with earnest sincerity not because we know it to be fact, but because if we say it enough we might believe it, and make it be true. It isn't true.
Plenty of sites have pristine link profiles. I've seen them. It can be done.
Where is This Going?
I believe the overwhelming majority of people know good and well exactly what they have been doing, if not at the tactical keyboard level, then at the strategic "rank high at Google" level. You may not know the specifics, but you know what you were after.
Having someone to blame is apparently now just part of the overall linking strategy. I'm not above criticism here. Part of what I do does in fact have to do with search rank. I admit it.
To me, the difference between ethical and unethical has to do with me pushing the client to create content as excellent and useful as possible, beyond what they may want to create. To not let them settle for being crappy. To help them see what is possible, and then help them get it. And to know when it's time to quit because the client isn't willing to go there.
I know we all have to earn a living but I wonder if we, as the builders of the links and linking strategies, are where the solution will be found, when we stop doing what we know is wrong, and start doing what we know is right, for our clients, and the web.