“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” -Mark Twain
Link and link building have had a rather interesting history when studied in terms of site rank.
In the beginning, when SEO was easily manipulated, webmasters created link exchanges, link farms, Twitter feeds, etc. and generated multitudes of backlinks through them. Then, Google smartened up to these tactics and penalized sites for their involvement in link schemes. Sites lost rank or were de-indexed altogether.
As a result, many SEOs grew to fear linking in any form. Others claimed that link building was dead and content marketing was the new link building.
Neither of these situations was truly the case.
What really happened with backlinks
Because many SEOs were manipulating backlinks, Google started investigating those backlinks and if they truly added value to the content or if they were placed there simply to manipulate Page Rank. A backlink was viewed as fake if it exhibited one or more of these characteristics:
It was derived from a link exchange.
In the past (and even now), two or more webmasters would link to each other on the condition of reciprocity. Such agreements, no matter how seemingly “random,” created a link footprint that could be picked up by Google. The result was a penalty.
It was part of a link network.
Blog and other link networks can be discovered via their identical IP addresses, Google Analytics ID, WhoIs owner information or even similar format/design. Blog networks are created for the purpose of generating traffic to participating sites, each of which is a member of the network or pays to obtain those backlinks.
It used overly optimized anchor text.
Many articles on the internet contain anchor text pointing to keywords they wish to be indexed for, but these articles and their associated websites don’t contain the backup content to justify that selected anchor text. Such a tactic is also sought out by Google and penalized.
It contained a low value blog or forum link.
Another common backlink tactic was to post quick and essentially useless comments to high-ranking blogs, forums, etc. and insert one’s site link within those comments. Unless the comment came from a webmaster who regularly participated in those blog or forum discussions, this tactic was viewed as yet another link-gathering tactic and penalized.
The state of link building today
After Google’s crackdown on black hat link building, many webmasters and even SEOs became very hesitant to find and add links. Some individuals have even assumed that Google said no to link building, in any form.
However, link building is still alive and well: at a recent SMX Advanced, Matt Cutts even noted the following:
“No, link building is not dead. And a very small percentage of links on the web are nofollowed. There’s a lot of mileage left in links.”
Having said that, link building going forward is not going to be as easy as it was in the past. In actuality, link building today will require, according to Matt, “sweat plus creativity.” But it’s not an impossible goal.
So, how do you start adding quality backlinks that don’t arouse the ire of Google?
Use trusted sites.
Links that are trustworthy and derived from respected and well-known sites are almost always a safe bet for insertion. One example is Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a service that reporters and bloggers use when looking for quotes from subject matter experts. Using this resource for building backlinks of high quality is a great way to earn Google’s trust.
Invest in some UGC.
Many companies, bloggers and webmasters are putting content creation and linking into their users hands via user generated content or UGC. By asking users to submit photos, articles, etc., these entities are placing a more real-life and less sales-y spin on their websites, social media sites and blogs. The content generators, meanwhile, become more likely to engage with the business and its brands as a result of being directly involved with its content generation.
To learn more about UGC and how to do it effectively, click here.
Build relationships, not links.
If someone already knows you, they are more likely to let you post on their blog or to provide a valuable backlink. The relationship is also more “natural” and not as marketing-focused.
Going forward, you can start nurturing these natural relationships by engaging with blog posts and commenting on them or sharing those posts with your followers. You can also sign up to blogger newsletters and company social media accounts and leave comments or even entire replies. This way, when you finally do ask for something from the person you follow, that person won’t take your solicitation as random spamming. In fact, you might even score a business deal or some other benefit in addition to that valuable backlink.
Disavow or break bad links.
You may already have acquired a few questionable links on your website or blog. You can refresh your memory regarding which sites link to yours by using the search console in your Google Webmaster Tools area. Here, you’ll learn who is linking to your site as well as which pages and/or posts are most popular.
You should look through all the linking sites and even visit them to get a feel of whether they are quality sites or spam. If you don’t particularly like or approve of a linking site, you should write its webmaster and ask that your site be removed. If you get no response back, you can choose a “last resort” method and disavow the link.
Link building is still possible.
As always, link building is just one aspect of a site’s SEO. In the here and now, link building is still possible, but it won’t be as easy as it was in say, 2007. However, there are relevant strategies for obtaining quality links. In some cases, such as in UGC, they may even lead to further developments (e.g., collaborations).