How do we, as search marketing professionals, defeat the legacy of spam? The industry's reputation affects all of us, and the question demands an answer. Before we defeat the legacy, however, we need to look at how the legacy came to be.
Years ago, your link building strategy may have consisted of generating about a thousand spammy links while playing a round of golf. In those days, you could submit a few keywords to certain websites, pay some cash, and head out for the afternoon. By the time you returned, a ton of links had increased your client's search rankings.
You were happy. The client was happy. It was that easy.
Many of us have drastically changed the way we build links since then, but those link building practices were completely normal not so long ago. They were easy and they got results.
We now live in different times, but the way SEO professionals operated just a few years ago has created a powerful legacy in our industry: the legacy of spam.
Every Saga has a Beginning
The legacy of spam didn't build itself. We built it.
In the 10 or so years since the dawn of link building as we know it, we've:
- Engaged in keyword stuffing.
- Spammed blogs with comments.
- Created dummy blogs with robot-generated text.
- Bought plenty of links.
The thing is, those tactics were all effective. Very few people were being outright malicious. They just used these tactics because it was simple and the results were tangible. It was just the way things were.
It wasn't uncommon for SEO professionals to sit down for the day, buy a “link building package” from any number of websites, insert some relevant keywords into a form, and watch the magic happen.
We could also buy entire blog posts – some spun by computer programs; others composed by underpaid writers whose first language wasn't English.
Spam was the unfortunate byproduct of these strategies, but we weren't yet aware of the implications. In fact, back then it was rare for an SEO company to even give a simple link list to its clients. We started the legacy before we knew the consequences.
Google Strikes Back
Looking back on it, we all know we were building bad links. Building good links wasn't normal, and some people in the industry hadn't even considered the difference between good links and bad links.
A good link is natural, relevant, and useful. A good link:
- Enhances a website.
- Isn't intended to solely increase search rankings.
- Isn't one in a series of over-optimized anchor text on irrelevant blogs and forgotten directories.
- Is always built with humans, not web spiders, in mind.
Panda punched spun articles and gibberish content in the head, which was a wake up call. We couldn't rely on those ultra-cheap blog posts anymore – we had to create our own. Penguin kicked spam and anchor text abuse in the knee.
We had to actually think about every link and its accompanying anchor text. We were forced to use our brains to build links, and that's where the legacy of spam started to slow down. We started to think differently.
Caught up in the Legacy
Although the legacy has slowed down, it definitely hasn't disappeared. SEO, the field as a whole, inherited the legacy of spam. The predominant attitude just a few short years ago was, “Why build real links when we can buy them?” and those links rolled in by the thousands.
Good, normal people got slammed by Panda and Penguin. Big brands and mom-and-pop shops alike got beaten down for all of their spammy backlinks. They paid good money for those links, so SEO became a four letter word. The anti-SEO and anti-link building posts started blooming like spring flowers. As the marketing executives pointed fingers, the legacy remained.
A New Legacy
Even though the term SEO and the concept of link building were both tarnished, that didn't stop clients from buying link building services. The damage was done and our tactics had to evolve.
Penguin changed the game – relevant links created by real humans became our focus, but sometimes we had trouble explaining that to clients. What was once a game of 1,000 links a month became 100 links a month, which turned into 10 links a month.
SEO agencies (those who outsource to us for their link building efforts) demanded that the old numbers apply to the new tactics. White hat, relevancy-first tactics don't yield thousands of spammy links, and building a new legacy instead of keeping in line with the old one has taken some real effort.
Clients are coming around to it, though. They appreciate the transparency, the thoughtfulness and the humanity behind a dozen good links, as opposed to the robotic barrage of 1,000 spammy links.
Not long ago, a client told me about a previous experience he had with a link builder. That person supposedly got my client thousands of links but refused to provide a link list because he was building them so fast he couldn't report it. That's where the legacy of spam does us a favor – if we offer transparency and accountability, we're already stepping away from that legacy with a simple link list.
To create a new legacy, we should:
- Only build relevant links on sites that are maintained and read by actual humans.
- Carefully scrutinize every site we approach for a link and then work with the site owner. We should never manipulate a site owner and always provide useful content.
- We should never build links “the easy way,” because those easy links of yesterday have all been discredited. The easy way involves paying for automated tools to build thousands of links for you, but those links aren't useful.
- Focus on sustainable links. They're not easily built, but the extra effort is worth it since they won't be discredited. It takes less time to create a good, sustainable link than it does to restart your entire link building campaign from scratch because your links have been discredited.
- Focus on quality over quantity. We no longer live in the days where thousands of spammy links are effective. Ten solid, relevant links per month is better than 100 questionable links per month. The new legacy is not as much of a numbers game.
It's nearly impossible to fight against a legacy that's already been established, so we have to do our best to approach SEO in a different way. Link building isn't as easy as it once was, and that's OK.
Most of us that have been in the game for longer than two years contributed to that legacy of spam in some way, so we have to forge a new path. We've all found new approaches that work for us – relevancy, transparency, and specialization. Each link requires a human brain to create and the link list is much smaller now at the end of every month, but the links are ethical, sustainable and highly effective.
Those salad days, as fun and easy as they were, are the reason why we're creating a new legacy, entirely separate from the legacy of spam.