Ever since Google made getting a decent search ranking the equivalent of winning the same type of popularity games we thought we’d escaped in high school, SEOs and businesses everywhere have made an art and science out of building links to increase the popularity of their websites.
Some have tried dark arts and shady sciences but link building has become an industry unto itself. We exchanged them with other website owners. We spun our articles for syndication. We blogged and commented and guest posted. And then we got in trouble for all of that.
I’ve got a rant brewing on this topic, so come back in a few days… but for now, suffice it to say that links still matter – it’s just that Google is making it harder and harder to get them in a way that will help and not harm your site in the search rankings.
With updates like Penguin and Panda – and their continued resurfacing, website owners need to proceed with extreme caution. Tactics that worked a year or two ago or even a month or two ago can get you into hot water today.
So how do you go about managing your link profile and making it count without triggering any alarm bells?
Here are some tips that can help.
Write Linkable Content
Google has made blogging all but essential. With their “create great content” mantra, it’s unlikely that a static informational website will get too far in the current paradigm.
If you’re not already blogging, it’s time to get out your writing hat and seriously consider it. Even if you are blogging, it may behoove you to reconsider what you think of as “great content”.
The hard truth is that linkable content is not always great content – and vice versa.
Great content may have depth, be heartfelt, well-formed, intellectually brilliant – but this is the internet, and newborn infants can focus on the shiny red ball for longer than grown people can focus on a web page.
So while I’m not saying that you should abandon your deepest most dazzling content for the more digestibly shallow, I do believe that there’s merit in thinking smaller.
Think “top ten lists”. I know, we love to hate them and call them cliché and overdone. But they get shared and linked.
Think “how much does this cost”. I can’t think of a bigger driving factor behind much of the research we do online.
The single most trafficked, shared and linked post on this blog is one I wrote about how much a website should cost. Start writing your posts around how much an antique car/coaching session/window installation/salon package/[insert your product or service here] should cost and you’ve got link power built in.
Try being contrary or having a strong opinion. People do like a good rant.
Take a look at what other people are sharing and linking to. Emulate what’s working. It may not be “great” but it’ll be good enough. And when it gets links you’ll probably forgive it.
I’ll add a disclaimer that I’m not advocating mediocrity. I’m stating a reality here, that simple content can sometimes be better. So stop wracking your brain for that epic topic and POV every time because sometimes you can accomplish more with less.
Think Beyond Guest Posts
We were told that guest posting is a great way to get ourselves out there, bring people back to our sites and build links along the way.
Welcome to Google’s playground, where guest posting can now fall into the category of spam.
In Google-algorithm-speak, it makes sense. When you guest post, you get an author’s bio and a link back to your site. The same author’s bio with the same link back to your site on every single guest post. Can you imagine how that repetition appears to Google?
So that link may count as a link, but there is a diminishing return. After ten, twenty or more of the same exact link, Google yawns and moves on. If you’re guest posting for exposure, credibility and possibly even traffic, that’s one thing. But if you’re doing it for the links, you may want to reconsider your efforts.
When you do guest post, aim for sites where you’re considered a contributor (more credible in Google’s eyes) and you don’t get labeled as “guest”. If possible, add links in your content that go to a relevant page on your site as opposed to just the link in your author’s bio. And if you get the chance, switch up your bio and the links in it to keep it fresh across sites.
Forget The “Links” Section
The “links” page is a pretty archaic way of approaching link building. Back in the day, one website owner would say to another “want to trade links?” and they’d add a link to each other’s site on the ubiquitous links page.
The problem with that approach is that many of those links were unrelated. It didn’t matter who you were linking to as long as the site wasn’t objectionable and they linked back to you.
Nowadays, Google will pretty much ignore any page that’s just links, so put a lid on this practice totally and unless you have a links page with truly essential resources, get rid of it altogether.
While you’re at it, get rid of any links you’ve exchanged in your “blogroll” or sidebar. They don’t look any more natural to Google and will be ignored.
If you haven’t applied for Google authorship yet, do it now.
It’s not difficult to do and it means that you have credibility in the Googleverse. Your authorship will follow you around and be attached to everything you write. And you’ll get the added perk of having your photo appear beside your listing in search results.
You can use your authorship when you guest post, too – link to your Google+ profile in your bio and add the rel=author tag so that Google specifically associates your content with you.
If you haven’t done this yet, hop to it! You may not be approved for authorship overnight. From the time I applied, it took nearly a year to get the confirmation from Google.
Stop Controlling Anchor Text
In the beginning, we all inserted the phrase “click here!” on our sites and linked those words to some other page on our site.
Then Google made a big deal out of not using generic words like “click” and using keywords instead. If we wanted people to click through to a great page about installing a gas fireplace, we no longer made a link that said “click here to read the instructions”, we now added a link that said “install a gas fireplace”.
And Google saw that it was good.
Until, presumably, everyone started doing it, and it wasn’t so good anymore.
The text that’s in the link is called the anchor text – and while you can still use keywords in it, you can’t use them repeatedly.
For example, if someone links to my blog with the anchor text “marketing blog” (pretty nice keywords to be found for, don’t you think?) but another person uses the same text… and another uses it… and another… and hundreds…
That looks like spam.
We all tried for a long time to get people to link to us using our best keywords instead of generic “click here” or “read more” terms. And that’s come back to haunt us.
The bad news is that it’s impossible to find, account for and change every bit of anchor text on every site everywhere that links to you. But when you are proactively building links, guest posting, creating bios and otherwise getting your website out there, that’s your chance to switch it up and make sure you’re not repeating the same words in your anchor text over and over.
Aim For Purposeful Variety
You may have a great relationship with a particular blogger who lets you guest post regularly. But ten links from that site are not going to be as valuable as one from a different site.
Google values diversity when it comes to links. So if you’re making the effort to write for other blogs or publications, get interviews, get featured, linked… broaden your horizons and don’t worry about spreading yourself too thin here. The more links from the more different places, the better off you’ll be.
But a word of caution: variety does not mean “get a link from any and every site possible”. If you’re a florist and you start getting links from chiropractors’ websites, Google is going to raise an eyebrow. That’s why I said purposeful variety. Stick with your industry and sites that are relevant and complementary to your own content.
Stay Inside Your Own Box
Links within your own content are also important. While you’re out there trying to get those coveted inbound links, don’t overlook the plethora of linking opportunities right in front of you.
Link to and from pages within your website and blog so that there is a rich network for search engines to crawl. Google likes sites with inline links so as you construct your pages, consider how you can cross-link them for maximum benefit.
For instance, I linked to another article on this blog from within this post. In fact, I should even be linking to more! It takes very little extra effort and the content is there, so do it.
Disavow Bad Links
Google’s Webmaster Tools gives you the opportunity to disavow links that you don’t want “counted” as an inbound link.
The good news is that if you’ve got spammers and scammers linking to your site, you can tell Google “No way, I didn’t set that junk up!”
The bad news is that it can take some time to do this, and it’s something you’ll have to do on an ongoing basis.
But considering the importance of links, it’s a task worth adding to your schedule. Make sure that Google knows those 200 ugly, identically anchor-texted links from some irrelevant and poor quality site are definitely not something you want counted against you.
Be The Tortoise
If there’s one thing Google hates it’s thinking that someone, somewhere, is circumventing it’s perfect little world of rules and algorithms.
And one surefire way of irritating those algorithms is by building a bunch of links quickly.
It may seem like a good idea. You wouldn’t stop people from liking your Facebook page or joining your email list because they’re just growing too fast. But links are a whole different story.
The more and faster you build links, the more it starts to look like spam and Google will slam the brakes on. So instead of getting a bunch of guest posts published this month, get one published every month for a year. It’s the long game, but it won’t backfire with penalties and bad rankings.
There’s much debate over whether social signals play a role in ranking. How many Facebook shares or retweets or +1s…
And while the jury is out, there’s no harm in building strong social signals anyway. We’re just not sure where Google is taking its social network – or any other – so while we’re busy not knowing, we could be busy sharing and growing our communities.
The links may count one day. And even if they don’t, we’ll have strong networks that share and help propagate our content so we’re a little less reliant on building link popularity and a little further along building real popularity (which may even turn into more links – win-win!)
Link building is far from a linear game and in spite of all the “best practices” and tips, nobody has a list of the perfect rules. We know a bit more about what we shouldn’t do, but all you have to do is listen briefly to the frustrations of website owners everywhere to realize that “build a good website” (via the infamous Matt Cutts himself) is hardly the useful and actionable advice we wanted.
The best advice I can give you is tread carefully. Go slowly. Keep creating content and focus on building your credibility, authority and trust-factor. Links may or may not follow – but if you’re good enough at what you do, it may or may not matter.
Do you have any other link-building questions? Any thoughts on where we’re heading? Let me know!