Generally speaking, optimizing your digital marketing is relatively straightforward. Find best practices, apply them to your individual business and audience, and watch your online success take off.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. Enter link building, a crucial part of search engine optimization that’s anything but straightforward. Depending on which experts you listen to, having a large number of links direct to your site can either elevate or significantly harm your SEO.
So which is it? Keep reading to find out more about the true nature of link building, its impact on your SEO, and how you can build a database of links that help rather than harm your digital exposure.
The Origin of Link Building
When Google first entered the national consciousness, its goal was as simple as it is today: to provide users search results that were as relevant and credible as possible. The search algorithm that would accomplish that feat was called “PageRank,” first developed by Stanford computer scientists (and future Google founders) Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996.
PageRank used complex mathematical formulas to accomplish its goal of ranking both relevance and credibility of individual web pages. And as it turns out, link building played a crucial part in determining the latter.
The idea was simple: the more pages from other domains link to your website, the more credible your site must be. After all, how could an unreliable website amass a long list of others willing to put their own credibility on the line by linking to it? But more on that later. PageRank and its unqualified emphasis on external links was a core part of SEO for years, until Google finally stepped.
Exploiting the System
Any marketer’s goal is to provide their brand with as much exposure as possible. Unfortunately, given Google’s increasingly well-known ranking mechanisms, the early 2000s saw some professionals willing to cross lines take advantage of their knowledge. If external links could help your rankings, and Google dominated the web as the most popular website worldwide, they had to be acquired – at all costs.
Questionable tactics like spamming links on blog comments, buying thousands of links from a so-called ‘link farm,’ and so-called linkbaiting (the process of using misleading headlines to get others to link to them) increased in popularity. The age of black-hat SEO, improving page rankings at all costs while gaming Google’s algorithms, was in full swing.
Naturally, Google had to do something. That something was Penguin, a major algorithm update released in 2012. It actively penalized websites that included external links from questionable sources. In the four years since, Google has released a large number of additional algorithm updates specifically designed to crack down on link building and other black-hat SEO tactics.
The State of Link Building Today
Thanks to Google’s extensive updates, link building as we know it is bad. That much is clear; one of Google’s own experts on the subject answered a Q&A on how to build links last year with the following:
In general, I’d try to avoid that… Only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.
That statement seems to provide a clear answer to the question of whether you should still try to get others to link your website: it’s a bad idea, and it will hurt your SEO. But in fact, that statement is also deceptive.
As it turns out, external links still play a major role in helping Google determine the credibility of your website. The only difference to the pre-Penguin age is that it also performs a quality check on every website that links to yours, which is the determining factor on whether a link helps or hurts your rankings.
High quality links to your site have a significant positive impact on your site. Low quality links, however can land you in search engine purgatory and actually decrease your rankings.
Building Links in the Age of Penguin
Building high quality links, of course, is a complex task. How do you ensure that all links to your page come from credible websites? A number of steps help you accomplish that feat. Of course, the first is to not engage in any black hat tactics like buying links. The others, though, require more explanation.
1. If You Build It, They Will Come
If your website includes highly relevant content that others don’t, other credible websites will find it and begin linking to it. Especially if your organization is known to be a thought leader in its industry, the links will come without active efforts on your behalf.
Take Forbes.com for example, an established leader in its field. The website knows that the better its content is, the more external sources will link to it. The more links it receives, the higher it will rise in organic search results – resulting in even more people discovering its content, and linking to it.
Of course, not every organization is Forbes. Especially as a smaller business, you may need to help your content along by promoting it on social media or via email. But your strategy should revolve around high-quality content: if it is good enough, your readers will want to share it organically, and build your link profile that way.
2. Don’t Follow Me, Please
Another option that many marketers have taken is to spread the word about their website on other sites. Via guest posts or blog comments, you can make potential readers aware of the content and hopefully increase your link profile.
But you also run into a significant problem: how do you know that the website from which you link to your own is one Google deems credible? There is no way to find out. Fortunately, Google recognized that fact as well, and included nofollow links as an option for digital marketers looking to spread their content.
Simply adding the tag rel=”nofollow” to your link tells search engines like Google that they should not use the link as part of your SEO evaluation. While it may seem counterintuitive to do so at first, it helps you ensure that links on potentially untrusted sites do not hurt your website’s SEO value. It allows you to share your content and drive visitors, but without the worry that your efforts actually play a part in penalizing you.
3. Disavowing Backlinks
Unfortunately, even the above two steps do not ensure that your link profile of external links to your site is completely clean. Every website has a couple of ‘bad apples’ that hurt their rankings. Every website, that is, that doesn’t regularly disavow their backlinks.
Recognizing that marketers do not have full control over which sites link to them, Google enabled webmasters to check their link profile, and remove suspicious-seeming sources from the pool the search engine uses for evaluation. It involves downloading a txt file of all links to your site, manually removing the domains you deem suspicious, and re-upload the file to Google. This tutorial explains the process of disavowing backlinks in more detail.
Using this process depends largely on your judgment, and you should be judicious on which links you remove from your link profile. Some will be obvious spam domains, but others may be on the edge – in which case, you may want to leave them in until you see your search performance drop.
Google recommends disavowing backlinks once a month to keep your profile clean. It’s an involved process, but one that is necessary to make sure that your website stays on the search engine’s good side.
Link building is a complex process, thanks to its wide variance of potential positive and negative effects. Do it right, and your SEO results will improve significantly. Disregard Google’s rules, and you might find yourself in search engine purgatory. If you need help on how to build links responsibly and reliably, contact us.