Is Link Building Dead?

Is link building dead? You might think so, after listening to the discussions going on in the SEO community lately. Google employee John Mueller made a comment in a hangout that implied that we should not be building links. And SEOs reacted…

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It was this last tweet by Julie Joyce, a link builder whom I really respect, that gave me the idea to write about this topic. Are you going against Google’s guidelines if you ask a webmaster to link to content that you have created?

What John Mueller Said

I think that John Mueller has a difficult job. He answers webmasters’ questions on the fly in these hangouts and then we, as SEOs hang on every word so that we can find something newsworthy to proclaim. The question that sparked this controversial discussion on link-building was the following:

“Moz.com gives advice on some good and bad linking techniques. My understanding is that this blog post on link-building would be to get a high rank, but given the fact that ranking is not a metric, should I completely avoid link-building? Not use it at all? Is link-building in any way good for webmasters?”

In John’s answer, he says, “In general, I try to avoid that,” as well as, “only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than it actually helps.”

The SEO community took these words and many interpreted them as “GOOGLE SAYS DO NOT EVER BUILD LINKS!”

So let’s look at some other things that John Mueller has said in past webmaster hangouts.

In this hangout, John was asked, “Is asking for a link unnatural link-building?” The question was about a business that wanted to reach out to people who had linked to their competitors and suggest that perhaps they link to them as well. John said, “In some cases I think that that definitely makes sense. But it probably makes sense also to look at the bigger picture to see who else is linking at your website. If all of the links are only links that you essentially badgered a webmaster to actually get, then that might be something where our algorithms say that this kind of link probably isn’t the most relevant. But in general, reaching out to people who are providing relevant content where you think your content might be useful for them as well, that’s something that’s possible to d…If you’re bringing this content to a webmaster and they think it’s good content, then generally that’s OK.”

My interpretation: It is perfectly acceptable to Google if you contact site owners and ask them to link to content of yours that might be relevant to them. However, if this is the only kind of link that your site is able to get, then perhaps those links may not be too helpful.

Here is another time when John was asked whether it was OK to provide a site owner with html code and ask them to link to your site. His response was, “If you’re making it easy for other people to link to your site, then that’s absolutely fine. On the other hand if you’re trying to trick people into linking to your site or doing some kind of link scheme like, ‘You link to me and I’ll link to you,’ then that’s something that we treat as an unnatural link.”

My interpretation: You can ask someone to link to you and you can even say, “Here is some html that you can use to make this link.” But, be careful that you are not obviously trying to manipulate Google. For example, if you provided an infographic to a site and the embed code had a hidden link back to your site, then this is not good. Or, if you asked 100 webmasters to link to you and told them all to link using the anchor text “Best Plumber in Orlando,” then this is going to look like a linking scheme. Also, if the only links you can get are reciprocal links, then you may not see much benefit from these.

Here is a hangout where I asked John whether I could ask people who use my images to link to me when they use my image. He said, “That’s kind of a tricky question in the sense that sometimes that does make sense, but at the same time if linking to your site is essentially a requirement to use this image, then that’s almost like paying for that image. I think you’d generally want to leave it up to the webmaster how they’d want to credit you…If they decide to link to your site and you make it really easy for them to link to your site, then that’s great.” He emphasized again that you should not make it a requirement to link to you in order to use the image, but rather that you’re giving the webmaster the choice on whether or not to link.

He also mentioned that you might want to think about how it would look if someone from the webspam team were to look at your link profile.

My interpretation: It’s OK to ask people for a link in exchange for something like an image. But, it has to be up to the webmaster whether they include the link. It can’t be a requirement. Also, as before, if you are controlling the anchor text and those link anchors are there primarily to manipulate Google, then you are risking a manual penalty should the webspam team look at your site.

Circling back to Julie’s question about whether or not it is OK to email sites that link out to resources and suggest your resource, this question was asked of John as well. He said, “I’m not going to make any general statement to say that this is always good or this is always bad. I can see that it definitely makes sense to draw attention to something fantastic that you’re doing…but if you’re essentially just emailing random people to ask for links, then that sounds pretty…I don’t know…”

My interpretation: If you’ve got a fantastic piece of content and you want to point it out to other site owners and suggest it as a good resource, that is OK. But, be careful that you’re not spamming the Web by emailing as many people as you can with the hopes that a certain percentage of those will actually link. We’ve all received those emails where we know that someone has just scraped the Web looking for thousands of sites to bombard with link requests. I find it hilarious when I get an email from someone who says, “I loved your article on guest posting and wondered if you would allow me to guest blog on your site.” That article that I wrote was all about how guest blogging was not a good link-building technique and we should not be using this as a main source of getting links.

How to Ask for Links and Not Break the Quality Guidelines

I do not believe that John Mueller was advising that all types of link-building are against Google’s guidelines. Reaching out to relevant websites and suggesting your site as a link target is not against the rules. Here are some guidelines that I like to follow when advising site owners who are trying to build links by asking webmasters for a link:

  • Does it truly make sense for this site to be linking to you?
  • Would you still want this link even if it were a nofollowed link?
  • Do you have a variety of types of links pointing to your site? (If all of your links come from one source, such as resource pages that appear to link out to anyone who asks, then there could be a problem.)
  • Is the site owner really wanting to link to you, or have you managed to trick them into placing that link?

Is link-building dead? I believe that some forms of link-building are dead. Gone are the days where any link you could make would be helpful to you. In the past, many sites could rank well by syndicating articles and making a boatload of bookmark and low-quality directory links. If this is your definition of link-building then, yep, I would consider these tactics dead… or for the Princess Bride fans out there…mostly dead, as there still are some smart spammers out there that are able to churn and burn their way around the Penguin algorithm. But, if you are building great resources and creating useful content and then reaching out to webmasters to suggest that they link to it…keep up the good work!

What do you think? Is it OK to ask other webmasters to link to your content?

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