Linkophobia: Fear of Link-Building

The link-building debate never seems to end. A small part of me hopes that my organic search competitors buy into the “link-building is dead” hype, but of course, anyone who ignores link-building in 2015 does so at their own peril.

Google spokespeople are masters at the art of fear, uncertainty and doubt. The search giant’s webmaster trends analyst John Mueller is no exception.

“We do use links as a part of our algorithms, but we use lots and lots of other factors, as well,” Mueller said during a Google+ hangout a few months back. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than it actually helps.”

The takeaway for many observers is to avoid link-building. But over the years, I have learned how to properly parse these messages out. Sure, Google has “lots and lots of factors” built into its algorithm, but they are weighted very differently. In fact, only two factors have an additional and independent algorithm dedicated to them, one of those being links (Penguin).

The query posed to Mueller at 55:40 in the Google+ hangout was, “Is link-building in any way good for webmasters?” The short answer is an unequivocal yes.

Why the Mixed Message?

Mueller heads up Google’s Webmaster Central Help Forum, which is dedicated to crawling, indexing, and ranking. I took a lot of heat in the comments of this post from the mods in that forum after chastising them for giving out erroneous advice, specifically “Building followed links is against guidelines.” (It’s not).

I think the moderators do their best to help an endless stream of webmasters get their bearings straight. I don’t think anyone is intentionally trying to mislead webmasters. That said, many of the people seeking help in the forum are not seasoned SEOs and don’t understand the nuance between link-building and link-scheming. Coming from that frame of reference, the mods often respond to link building queries with a stock link-scheming answer: just don’t do it.

Back to that “Nuance” Thing

In the world of SEO, there are really only two kinds of links: those that conform to Google Webmaster Guidelines and links that don’t.

According to Google, the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

When Mueller says link-building is problematic, he’s refering to some common link-building schemes:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link. This is probably the fastest path to both rankings and a manual penalty. Exact match anchor text on powerful pages still drive rankings.
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking. The important point of distinction here is “excessive.” I would also emphasize that any link exchanges should be limited to related sites that only link to other high-quality and related websites.
  • Large-scale article marketing with keyword-rich anchor text links. There’s no value in article marketing in 2015. Guest posting the right way is now more about PR than links, but still a great way to drive traffic.
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site. This is akin to spam on steroids. There is no legit application for programs like SEnuke; be equally wary of cheap link-building services on Fiverr. If I can spot a “Fiverr Pattern,” so can Google.

Additionally, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of Google guidelines. Here are a few common examples:

  • Text advertisements that pass PageRank
  • Advertorials or native advertising where a payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
  • Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites
  • Widely-distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites
  • Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature

Will Backlinks Ever Lose Their Importance?

Though Matt Cutts said that “backlinks still have many many years left in them,” I suspect their weight in the algorithm will diminish over time as technology like Knowledge Based Trust evolves. Google’s ranking algorithm may utilize “lots and lots” of factors, but the right combination of website architecture and optimization, web content and backlinks still rules the SERPs.

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