Link Building vs. Link Earning

When speaking to my clients and colleagues, I often compare Google’s SEO announcements to the infamous “FedSpeak” that Federal Reserve Chairman, Allen Greenspan used in the 1990’s to explain US monetary policy:

“Taking steps to increase our national savings through fiscal action to lower federal budget deficits would help diminish the risks that a further reduction in the rate of purchase of dollar asset by foreign investors, could severely crimp the business investment that is crucial for our long term growth.”   

This single sentence, with numerous possible interpretations, is just one of the many announcements that confused amateur investors and financial gurus for months on end. In recent years, Matt Cutts, John Meuller, and the other Webspam bigwigs at Google have adopted the same kind of ambiguous double-speak techniques that the legendary Fed Chairman used to annoy his own audience. Luckily, Google’s latest statements concerning link building for SEO haven’t been quite as cryptic as Greenspan’s, and with a little analysis we can decipher exactly what Google wants us to do, and proceed with confidence in our SEO efforts.

Google’s most recent statement in question occurred during a G+ Hangout with John Meuller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google. While responding to a question about the value of link-building for SEO, Meuller suggested that the practice can actually do more harm than good for a website, and should generally be avoided by webmasters. In the same breath, Meuller admitted that links still play a large role in Google’s ranking algorithm, and are a necessary ingredient to rank for competitive keywords.

So what gives? If links are necessary to rank, why shouldn’t webmasters build them? The answer requires a little bit of semantic deciphering, but at the end of the day the message coming from Google is consistent.

The key word to avoid here is “building.” Think of things that are built, houses or a website for example, the process requires significant effort no doubt, but all the effort is performed by the individual or group doing the building. There is no external contribution required to complete the building of a website or a house. On the other hand, getting links from outside domains is the definition of external contribution. Like citations in an academic paper or journal, each external backlink is counted as a vote of trustworthiness and authority by specific subject matter experts. Therefore, “building” links on external domains is equally disingenuous as begging for citations in an academic publication.

Let’s continue this analogy further for a moment. Let’s assume you are attempting to beg for, or even (gasp!) pay for inclusion in the footnotes of academic publications. Which publishers are most likely to comply? It’s hard to imagine Harvard Business Journal risking their reputation and readership on an unproven or ill-founded research study, even if someone asked nicely, or attempted to bribe them with a few measly bucks. It simply would not be worth the risk.

The journal editors who would comply, would clearly need to have lower publication standards, and therefore a much less impressive reputation in the industry. The same applies to websites providing backlinks. The sites who are willing to provide a backlink on the merits (or price tag) of your outreach efforts alone will, by definition, have lower publication standards than those choosing purely on the basis of content quality and relevance. So those webmasters focused on “building” links will eventually skew their link-profile towards lower quality sites with minimal publication standards. It doesn’t take an SEO guru to tell you this will eventually do more harm than good for any website.

So if links are good, but building them is bad- then how does one acquire the valuable high-quality links required to rank on competitive keywords? Like traditional public relations before it, search marketing has been dubbed earned media (as opposed to paid or owned) meaning that we must rely on our wits and the newsworthiness of our message to earn exposure. Instead of focusing time and effort on pitching poor quality, one-size-fits-all content in hopes that it’s published, webmasters should focus on creating the content that publishers already want, make that content easy to find, and easily shareable.

If you’re rolling your eyes right now, because this sounds like the same old “just make great content” line that Google has been pushing for years, fear not. Let’s look at a few simple, actionable, and effective strategies that anyone can use to earn safe and high-quality links to their domain without begging or paying.

Data driven content creation

We all brainstorm our content ideas to determine the best way to approach any given subject- but what is the next step? Many of us are guilty of calling it quits once we get to an idea that “seems cool” or after finding an article that got a lot of backlinks for some other domain. But in our current climate of spammy content and “me too” copy-cats, marketers need to do something that sets themselves apart from the crowd. Taking a more complete picture of the overall landscape, we can examine which content already exists in the space and determine which formats worked and which didn’t. What are the conversations that people are currently having in regards to that topic or industry? Marketers can utilize social-listening tools, SEO analytics, and good old fashioned research to start getting a more complete understanding of how and why other players in the industry are able to earn powerful backlinks and ways to replicate that success. But don’t just copy what they did, improve it in some way- providing readers with updated information, a more user-friendly format, or increased depth of research are all great ways to help disseminate your content across the web.

Make content shareable

Let’s face it, users are lazy. The more thought and effort required to share (or link) to your content, the fewer visitors will do so. There are some simple, easy ways to encourage users to share content with their friends and acquaintances; translating to a greater audience reach, and eventually valuable links across the web. Streamlining your site’s social sharing capabilities are a great way to amplify your content. While most webmasters are familiar with social sharing buttons, there are other great ways to encourage social sharing. One of the best ways is to pre-populate the title, photo, and description of social media posts using Open Graph tags. Open Graph markup is part of the HTML code of each webpage, and allows the webmaster to suggest how each user describes the post they are sharing. While this can be a great way to increase social engagement through more compelling titles and photos, it’s also a great way to encourage the initial reader to share by making them appear funny or clever in front of their peers, with no effort required.

Make content linkable

For something simple, like a blog post, creating linkable content is a pretty simple endeavor. But with other types of content like widgets, infographics, and videos, it can be difficult for some webmasters to share the content with their audience in a meaningful way without disrupting the user experience they’ve worked so hard to build. Misized graphics, overly large media files, and videos without standard formatting all present unneeded hurdles to get past before editors can link to your content. While pre-optimizing each item for sharing is not a simple task, neither is ideating or creating that content in the first place. So get the most from the efforts that you’ve already invested in producing content by making the sharing process as easy as possible.

Google wants marketers to honestly earn the links to their website, but it’s not just the way links are supposed to be acquired, it’s the only way to get the high quality links that a competitive site requires. Content that succeeds in earning links becomes a validation that your strategy is working. And while not all content assets you create will instantly get powerful backlinks, you can learn as much from the losers as you can from the winners. Consider which pieces worked well for which audiences, and try changing the content that didn’t work well.

Nobody said this would be easy. As online marketers we are constantly required to adapt, innovate, and explore in order to gain a competitive advantage for our clients. If that’s not something you enjoy doing, you may want to reconsider your career path. The easy, scalable, effort-free methods will always be mimicked ad nauseam, and will never set a domain apart or get the results you want. So while Matt Cutts may enjoy the thought that goes into his cryptic announcements- this one is actually quite clear: produce high-quality, accessible content, and the links will follow.

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