Link building – what you need to know


Head of Marketing

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Is it still important? Is it still possible? Does it improve rankings? Does domain authority even matter? Will it get you penalised?

These are questions that ripple around the SEO community frequently. In this blog we will look at the current state of link building, some very hard truths and the future of link building importance in Google’s eyes.

A quick intro and some useful definitions before we get started:

Link building – Link building is known to be a key element in SEO to help sites rank well in Google search. It basically involves building links to your domain.

Link building and domain authority are elements many business owners know they want but it is important to analyse why and what value they bring.

Link building has long been a factor looked at by Google to determine which sites should rank in the top of search and so it is deemed highly important.

Domain authority – an SEO metric created by MOZ (not Google just Moz) which looks at the power of your domain.

Domain power and reputation is a ranking factor for Google algorithms, which is why you often see older domains ranking better than you would expect, based on their current level of optimisation.

Domain authority is thought to be affected heavily by backlinks to your site. It is actually calculated by MOZ based on the age of the domain, size and popularity. Link counts are most certainly included as a measurement for popularity by MOZ.

Why is link building hard? – The current state of link building

Why is something as simple as building links to your site so difficult? Enter Google. Google is in many ways God to the SEO clan but sometimes our greatest obstacle. Google wants people to use their search engine and they have achieved this. They want searchers to have a great experience and to do this they need to show them the information they are looking for quickly.

Google decides which sites are most relevant to a query or keyword using a host of algorithms. They look at the content of your site and the number of links to your site has remained an important factor. The idea is that more links to your site means your site is well respected and an authority in the industry that others would recommend and cite.

This makes sense but as SEOs grew to understand this they learnt to manipulate the algorithms.  This resulted in a lot of low quality sites that were focused more rankings than user experience. This is when Google cracked down on spammy behaviour and deemed quality content more important than keyword stuffing and all link schemes were deemed evil. A link scheme is where you pursue links for the sake of your rankings.

Using decent, appropriate keyword placement in your tags and content while maintaining high quality, relevant content is still very doable. In fact Google’s firmness has improved SEO, making  CRO (conversion rate optimisation), digital marketing, user experience enhancement, social marketing and content marketing all part of an SEO’s job.

However, Google seems to take a harsher view of links.  All link building schemes were deemed bad practice so why even pursue links?  Well, because Google’s own algorithms still use it as a ranking factor. You’re not wrong in seeing hypocrisy there.

So how do you build links in a non spammy way when people are reluctant to give away links? Why would anyone give a link?  Link building is still possible and still part of Google’s algorithm but it is a much harder battle ground and getting harder all the time.

Some hard truths about link building you should know

So, we know link building is hard but that’s not the only thing you have to worry about. Two big concerns are whether it actually works to improve rankings and if you will get penalised for pursuing them.

  1. Backlinks don’t equal automatic success. The world of search rankings is so competitive you can have an amazing backlink profile, amazing on page SEO, an incredible social marketing and content marketing approach and still be outranked by competitors. SEO is a tough and subtle game and its not as straight forward as you think. You can tick all the right boxes and still not be number one.

  3. Even quality, relevant link building is not risk free. The fact is Google doesn’t like link schemes so no matter how careful you are no link is risk free. Google has changed its stance many times and its algorithms are always changing. What was once acceptable is no longer acceptable and so nothing is 100% risk free. That means pretty much any scenario where you asked for a link rather than it being given freely is a link scheme. Does this mean we are just supposed to blindly get lucky and acquire links according to Google? You would not be blamed for thinking this notion unfairly discriminates against small businesses.

  5. You can be unfairly penalised. Yes, even if you obey all Google rules and don’t even do link building or SEO you could be penalised. Real fans of your brand could give you genuine links to refer people to your business. This is the best kind of link. Yet if you gain many links and the site they came from got caught for spammy techniques, unconnected to you or your links, you could still be punished as a result.

  7. Anyone can be penalised. Any site belonging to any person or business can be penalised. It doesn’t matter if you are a massive, international brand or a teeny tiny local business in a small town your site is still subject to the same rules.

  9. No matter how well behaved you are you may still not succeed. Despite admitting link building is hard and doesn’t always work we are not advocating giving up on link building. The frustrating truth is even if you are as good as gold in Google’s eyes and follow the rules it doesn’t mean you will rank well.

  11. Your competitors could be spammy, rank well and never be caught. The frustrating thing is watching sites you know are low quality or engaged in spammy link building schemes that rank well and never seem to be punished. This does happen, people slip through the net but we would never suggest being spammy and engaging in high risk tactics. It’s simply not worth it. As Google gets smarter those irritating spammers will soon be caught.

  13. Greed has ruined link building. Potential profits can make anyone spammy. Greed is a natural part of life. So, if you know SEOs and business owners are desperate for links what do you do? You charge them of course. Some people make their whole living from charging for links and often Google can’t tell. If they are subtle and not getting caught why would they stop? This means while you are trying to only build high quality, free links with great informative content to relevant  industry sites, you can be hit with the  ‘sorry we love your content but you only get a link if you pay’ spiel.

  15. Google can’t always tell how a link was gained. There is hypocrisy in Google’s current stance. While it is using backlinks as a ranking factor it openly criticises link building and even punishes people for using it. The problem is that Google isn’t perfect. SEOs will continue to regard link building as necessary while Google uses them and while it can’t actually tell how you acquired a link. Think about links you have seen, some are obviously paid, some look spammy but others look natural.  Can you be sure? You have no idea what conversation took place to motivate that link and as Google isn’t a mind reader quite yet neither can they.

    With Penguin 4.0 the approach is fairer.  Individual pages are regarded for spam factor and punished individually rather than the whole site but you could still be penalised for widespread poor link building.

    Links may not matter to rankings or making your business money as much as you’d hoped

    The tactic lately has been that great content will naturally gain links and link building should be abandoned in favour of content marketing. The truth remains that link building won’t die because good content doesn’t mean it will go viral and get links. Not everything can be a unicorn.

    However, some interesting research has been carried out by Moz recently (November 2016) which suggested a great backlink profile generated from amazing content may not benefit your SEO, in fact it may not even drive conversions for you.

    They analysed several large companies who invested in great SEO and digital marketing tactics across different industries. They looked at a number of different cases where great content had been used to successfully deliver some fabulous backlinks. The case studies covered sites like Amplifon who gained nearly 700 links from over 200 domains thanks to amazing creative content marketing and some content marketing by Hungry Tech Giants which gained nearly 600 links from well over a hundred domains using more relevant keyword targeting content.

    The report covers several more case studies as well, all with incredible backlinks. We highly recommend any SEO, business owner or digital marketer interested in the question of whether backlinks and viral content work read the full MOZ report here.

    For those with less time the shocking conclusion was that the links didn’t help their SEO rankings or conversions much at all. Some saw no increase in traffic to money driving product pages and  others saw a slight increase in overall search visibility temporarily but their SEO rankings did not improve for any money making keywords (terms actually relevant to their services)

    Moz looked at many sites with great links thanks to their viral content and the resounding conclusion was that there is not necessarily an improvement in rankings.  They also concluded that links built up over a short period of time might yield less SEO value to your best keywords.

    Of course there has been contrary research in the past where SEO organisations determined link building did matter because they analysed the top ranking domains of big companies and found them to have good backlinks.  However, the fact remains that you can have a great backlink profile and not rank or a low number of backlinks and rank well even in quite competitive industries.

    If Google uses links as an indicator why are we seeing these contrary findings? What does it mean?

    Link building is already starting to matter less and this trend looks set to grow

    It could mean that google is trying to move away from using links as a primary ranking factor.

    We know Google is looking into rank brain and other more intelligent algorithms that look at conversational and query based speech to find results even for totally new searches with no traffic volume.

    In December 2016 industry giant Search Engine Land featured a report by Searchmetrics that measured the top 20 search results for 10,000 keywords on Google.  Apparently, it revealed that content relevance is continuing to gain more importance with Google whereas backlinks are declining.  It is a slight downturn and they still matter right now but this move towards less importance shows a clear message from Google  – a desire to practise what they preach.  The report also looked at other rankings factors and how they have changed over the last few years. Well worth a read: Search Engine Land’s report on Searchmetrics research.

    So the truth is…..

    Links still matter for now and it is worth pursuing them but if you are link building because ‘that’s what SEOs do and we’ve been told outreach matters’ then this isn’t a great approach anymore. Build links slowly and with a focus on quality and sharability and remember content relevance matters most.