What kind of links can you safely build for SEO benefit?

So it’s been about 6 years since I’ve posted on this blog.  Wow!  Well I’ve been busy running a growing agency and had other priorities.  Hence the default WP template here and lack of general direction and purpose.  Anyhow, I’ve recently (mid-2013) sold my ownership in the agency and will be serving as an advisor/consultant moving forward, which means I have more free time in my day-to-day to provide verbal discourse such as the below.  Enjoy!  :)

Question:  What kind of links can you safely build for SEO benefit in 2014 and beyond?

Simply put, none.

It’s depressing to say that, and I think just a bit “unfair” too, but just because I don’t like the situation doesn’t make it less true.

Earlier today, Google announced that they penalized another guest blogging network.  In this case, my understanding is that MyBlogGuest wasn’t even so much a network as a meeting place for people interested in guest posting (writing vs. accepting) to meet up.  To some extent, penalizing MyBlogGuest is akin to penalizing the telephone or email.  It’s not a network.  It’s not a tactic.  It’s a means of communication.

If it so happens that 99% of posts that were arranged through that network were crap, then penalize or ignore those posts.  But if there were a few high-quality posts on high-quality sites that were arranged using that service, I don’t see why those should be penalized too.  It’s sort of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which Google said they were not looking to do.

Now an argument has been made that MBG required publishers who picked up the articles to follow any links in the author byline, and that requirement was taking the endorsement out of the hands of the publisher and thus resembled a “quid pro quo” and that’s where it would have violated Google’s guidelines.  The counter-argument here is that the publisher can simply not publish anything they don’t wish to endorse with a followed link.

But all of this discussion is just details of the day and is really beside the point.

In general, Google doesn’t want webmasters “building links”.  Even though guest posting was thought of as a higher quality form of building links as compared to reciprocal links, directories, etc., it’s still about a website trying to build links to their own site in a proactive manner, rather than trying to earn links in a passive manner by creating compelling, link-worthy content.

At the end of the day, ANY proactive form of building links to your own site is outside of what Google wants.

Most of these tactics started out with good intentions, and in their early days most were done in a legitimate manner, with discretion and thought.  Over time though, competition (and greed) results in more and more websites utilizing these tactics, and the quest for quantity in order to outrank a competitor causes many webmasters to sacrifice quality and go for scale instead.  The result is that the average quality of the tactic is degraded and eventually Google penalizes the tactic and/or popular networks or services associated with the tactic.

By penalizing networks they can clean up a good percentage of the links in one swoop, but more importantly Google can make a PR (as in public relations, not PageRank) statement that then in turn changes the behavior in the SEO community.

As a guy who has run an SEO agency for the past 10 years (until recently) I know how our own tactics were shaped by Google’s evolving guidelines and public statements, and even more significantly I have seen the tactics of other agencies each time we take on a new client who hired us to replace their prior firm.  In general, the industry has really changed quite a bit over the past 12-18 months.  It’s rare to see an agency nowadays using a blog network, whereas that was common place among many even mid-tier agencies not long ago.

In fact, it’s to the point now where I know several agencies that have guest posting as their ONLY link building activity.  That’s especially scary for them, given today’s announcement.

So what should you do moving forward?

Simply put, shift your “link building” resources (to include any focus on guest blogging) instead to content creation for your own website, and towards advertising, PR and promotion (social media, networking, etc.).  If you want to increase your site’s inbound links in today’s world, and be Google-compliant, your only choice is to create link-worthy content and then get the word out.

Note that they “get the word out” has nothing to do with building links.  It’s about getting exposure for your content, and then standing on the strength of your content Instead, it’s focus should be on getting eyeballs of people who have the means to link to your site.

For an agency or for an in-house SEO team, my response to today’s announcement – and more accurately the course of action over the past 12 months – would be as follows:

1)   Increase:

  • On-site content creation that is high-quality and “link worthy”
  • Social Media & Public Relations efforts as well as networking with influencers in the space
  • Advertising that is aimed at bringing traffic to your link-worthy content (to reach a critical mass of eyeballs)

2)   Decrease:

  • Any copywriting and/or outreach efforts that are specifically focused on guest blogging – save for the ultra-high end type (that typically requires an existing relationship) and ongoing contributorships or recurring columns.

This probably means you need more (and better) researchers and writers.  And less outreach or “link building” staff.

So in short I’m singing the “content marketing” song here.  Am I singing it b/c it’s trendy?  Not at all.  I’m singing that song b/c it’s the only song worth singing at this point, given the current environment and my expectations of Google’s stance and direction moving forward.

As a bonus, effective content marketing will also help generate brand awareness, social engagement, establish your brand as a thought-leader, and all sorts of other benefits too.  These will all further help with “link earning” (for SEO) as well as diversify your traffic.  Many sites are too dependent on organic SEO traffic from Google, and as such a diversification of traffic sources is probably smart business, especially given Google’s tendency to push for more above-the-fold screen real estate for paid search ads.

It’s time to start talking more about content marketing and less about SEO specifically.