Link building has changed forever as we know it, and it’s time to either adapt to the new relevance, or flounder at the bottom of the SERPS.

When I first started offering search marketing services, I would guarantee a certain number of links per month to clients, because it seemed to me that it was all about volume.

The websites that were at the top of Google for any given phrase typically had the most links, and as you worked your way down the page, the number of inbound links going to each site dropped.

The logical assumption was “he with the most links wins”, and that’s what led to all of the reciprocal linking, link farms, and our ridiculous (but necessary) obsession with buying and obtaining links.

Today, you’ll find that is no longer always true, in fact more often than not, the number one search result will NOT have the most inbound links on the page, yet some people still don’t get it.

A couple of years ago, and perhaps even longer, Google started changing their algorithm to weight the value of some links much more heavily than others. I have no doubt that there is always been some variance, but it became much more apparent, as most of the older methods of link building stopped improving rankings.

It became less important to have thousands of inbound links, and instead more important to have authoritative inbound links, from websites in similar and related industries that also, in turn, had authoritative inbound links themselves.

This has led to a newer philosophy, and although I still believe that diversity is the key to link building, throwing a bunch of links against the wall to see what sticks is not as effective as it used to be.

Diversity is still necessary to a point, and I believe that the low quality links STILL have to come, otherwise things will appear unnatural. However, researching your competitors that are at the top of the rankings and obtaining backlinks from their most important partners became much more important.

Finding authoritative related websites and letting them know that you could offer their visitors something of value became critical for getting the higher profile websites to link to you.What reason can you possibly give me to send one of my readers your way?

Do you have something educational that my audience would be fascinated by, and would appreciate the referral? Then by all means let me know about it. If not, then stop sending those stupid link requests.

As late as mid 2007, we were still building many links the old-fashioned way with both reciprocal methods, and outsourcing our share of crappy links in volume, with the hopes of improving client rankings, and admittedly, it continued to work. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

In August of 2007, I was fortunate enough to attend the San Jose Search Engine Strategies conference, and I had a front row seat to what I still consider to be the single best session I’ve ever seen at a major search marketing conference.

The session featured Matt Cutts from Google. along with Michael Gray, Todd Malicoat, Todd Friesen, Greg Boser and Andy Baio, and the majority of panelists relentlessly pounded Google and pounded Matt Cutts, for trying to tell us all that it was not okay to buy and sell links.

What right do they have to tell us what we can and cannot do on our own websites? Who are they to determine our actual motive behind buying or selling a link, and what gives them the authority to “punish” us?

The reason Google MUST control this selling of links, is because, as Michael Gray pointed out, this is their Achilles’ heel. The majority of their ranking algorithm is based on authoritative inbound links, and they have to take steps to prevent it’s exploitation.

If websites were permitted to sell text links, and Google permitted those links to continue to affect the ranking of websites, then the search engine rankings are effectively “for sale” and the integrity and quality of the search results would change.

The reason Google became the best search engine was because they returned the most relevant results. If top ranking sites for any given phrase were comprised only of sites that could afford to buy the best inks, then loyal users of the Google search engine would no longer find their results to be the best, and they would simply leave.

In the fall of 2007, Google began to penalize sites that it believed were selling links. The penalty came in the form of drops in visible PageRank, and thousands of websites were affected.

This penalty came along with the threat of dropping rankings too, and although there have been few instances of that actually happening, the warning shot was fired, and I expect it to begin happening more regularly.

After Google’s penalty, a domino effect took place, and sites that had been purchasing links from high page rank sites suddenly found their most expensive inbound links to no longer have the same ranking impact that they once did.

Amid cries of “foul” from the search marketing community, Google stuck to their guns, and the purchasing of links for the purpose of gaining search rankings has now been driven largely underground.

In fact, unless you know a lot of people in a close-knit community, some might say it’s more work to buy links than to create something of value that will attract links naturally.

Private deals can of course still be made with webmasters and businesses, but the networks of text link brokers have been rendered largely irrelevant. Businesses spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars annually purchasing links suddenly found themselves with the daunting task of retaining their rankings legitimately.

Today, in mid-2008, it’s more important than ever to have what I call a “linkworthy” website. Business owners have to get much more creative in order to attract attention of other authoritative sites in the hopes of gaining inbound link.

Last week I attended the Elite Retreat, and nearly every speaker continued to drive home the point of creativity, originality, quality, and engaging your audience at their level as becoming more important than ever. Writing content that THESE communities will eat up and vote for is the key.

Social networking master Neil Patel has a lightning quick imagination, and I used my one-on-one time with him to get some ideas for a few industries.

One example he came up with that I’ll share was when I told him I needed an idea for a dull and boring website that dealt with identity theft. Yawn…

Other than the horror stories and preventative measures, which we’ve beaten to death already, how can something compelling be created that will generate buzz?

Neil’s answer came in a heartbeat – Create a step by step document about “How to Steal Someone’s Identity”. Simple, yet brilliant, and dead on point.

By thinking completely out of the box, you should be able to find something you can do creatively that will not only benefit your readers, but will in turn generate buzz, and ultimately some inbound links.

Back in 2006, I wrote an article called “Link building tipsWhat will do the trick?” and it’s now even more relevant than ever. The goal of that article was to stimulate creativity in the minds of site owners and advertising executives to create something truly linkworthy on their websites or elsewhere.

Now however, with dozens hundreds of social networking and bookmarking sites that can also host content, your ideas can spread faster than ever, and be seen by an even wider audience.

There’s an opportunity to create something ever so loosely related to your main website, and by hosting that content elsewhere, you have much more more freedom to be imaginative.

An identity theft protection service certainly cannot put “How to Steal Someone’s Identity” on their own website, but they can write that article and put it elsewhere. Do you think that might get a few Diggs?

At the bottom of the article, you can have an author biography box that talks about being an expert in the field of identity theft, with a link back to your site, and maybe even have a banner ad on the page.

An even better option might be writing that article with a pen name, then leaving the FIRST comment with your real name, adding a counterpoint or argument, putting your backlink there, to your real business, which is PREVENTING identity theft.

You can even show outrage at the author for providing such dangerous and irresponsible information. Then you’ve disassociated your business from writing “How to Steal Someones Identity”, but you’ve still got your link on that page.

Is that ethical? Is it right? Well that’s up to you, and this example is only here for illustrative purposes, and personally, I’d never do that… Nor would I write “10 ways to get Away with Arson” for a fire extinguisher company, or “How to Get Away with Cheating on Your Spouse” for a private detective. – 😉

The high volume of community users can cause your idea or content to spread like wildfire, and your own site is going to benefit in both traffic and backlinks, as your information spreads virally.

Some marketers got this concept as far back as 2005, and many of the rest of us have come to our senses over the past couple of years.

Create something newsworthy, something funny, something valuable, something controversial, something helpful, or something shocking, but above all, create something genuine, and “think outside the link”.

Scott Hendison is a founding board member of SEMpdx, and is the CEO of Search Commander, Inc.

27 thoughts on “Think Outside the Link

  1. Scott this is a great overview of where the state of link building is. It seems to be a confusing time. I constantly get requests to link with other sites, but I’m to the point where I feel like I’m cheapening my site. Although it takes more work and imagination I think a compelling article is more productive in the long run. To develop links and reputation.

  2. Thanks for this review Scott. Professionally I implement technical solutions for others – more than once I’ve been asked to do some crazy and what I felt was inappropriate link building because of the “more is better” theory. I will certainly be sharing this article!

  3. I could not agree with you more. The only success I have had was due to something wacky and original that people linked to.

    As a user of the internet, I don’t really want to see one more ad. I want to be educated and entertained, and then when I get it, I will buy!

    Much Love,

    dk

  4. We’ve been hammering home the concept of creating great content but it often falls on deaf ears. It’s also annoying just how often rubbish links still seem to help a site.

    It’s good to know that yourself and other SEO greats are drumming this one home, perhaps there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.

    Thanks

    d

  5. Just be careful that you know all of your publishing laws regarding slander, privacy invasion, copyright infringement, etc. It seems to me that the link bait concept makes me want to get too close to the lines of legality sometimes so, to protect myself, I borrowed and read a book on Writer’s Law from the Mult. County Library.

  6. It looks like you need to be very careful these day’s with linking…especially when seeing Matthew’s post on SEOmoz about widgets&linkbait.

    Social media sites are a great thing but it’s not working for each maraket..

    And this is indeed one of the better articles I’ve seen on linkbuilding 😮

    Dave

  7. Thanks for the compliment Dave, I appreciate it 😉

    Yeah, I saw that –
    (this )

    In my opinion, that post is a perfect example of the way things SHOULD be working at Google… – right up to the point where it says that he when he fixed it, he was told “this is just the same scheme on a different domain…” and he was forced to change his link text again, which is too bad for him (and the rest of us).

    In my opinion, he shouldn’t be PENALIZED, and instead the links should just be devalued. There’s a big difference, and that seems to point to an algo weakness.

    Google owns the game, the field, the stadium, and the bats and balls too, apparently.

    Manual editing / human review is going to become more and more important at Google, and that leaves the door open for abuse from corruption to bad moods and personality conflicts.

    The lesson learned for widget developers from that SEOmoz post?

    Name your company after your keyphrase, because that may be the only way you’ll be allowed to link as you wish without a potential penalty.

  8. Very interesting way of looking at the current status of link building Scott. It really is down to being creative and looking at different methods of finding quality links. Quality from what I can see is a key element nowadays. Thanks again for the great article.

  9. ha!

    Yeah, I was surprised… This has become the most popular post since the SEMpdx blog launched, driving more traffic than any other page on the site all of 2008 😉

  10. I am not surprised you are getting so much traffic for this article, its really amazing! You have changed the way I think about linking. I am not focused on getting links one at a time anymore, I am focusing on doing what you did here, heck I even gave you a link from my blog.

  11. I think one reason this post gets so much traffic is that people are revisiting it. I know I’ve come back to it again because I was having trouble developing a number of links to their site. This post reminded me that its better to see how I can make them an authority in their field. And given their background, this seems possible.

  12. Natural, natural, natural – should be the mantra.

    Your link building should be as natural as possible – do not always choose “dofollow” blogs, lots of one-way links from directories or article directories, high PR only links, social marking every page with the same web 2.0 sites, same links to your index page, etc….

    Do not raise your head above the parapet and flag that you are doing something unnatural. Have the complete mix for link building.

    SEO Editors last blog post..Seo Adviser: Top Ranking achieved

  13. I think the policy at Google towards inbound links will change dramatically the next couple of years.

    At this moment the anchor text is considered to be one of the most important factors for the rankings, combined with the trust of that link. But they know that 99% of those anchor texts have been written by an SEO guy, so what’s the real value of a link if they are placed by the owner?

    I would not be surprised to see a devaluation of anchor texts over the next couple of years.

    1. good point, Paulus – and thats exactly why they’re also taking into account the location of the link on the page, devaluing certain areas that are common for “bought links” to appear.

      With the Artificial Intelligence improving so rapidly, and LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) coming nto play, they’re also evaluating the subject / relevance of the surrounding text, and (I’m guessing here..) even the context in which the phrase its used as their AI gets better and better.

  14. I’m not so sure about the position thing since more and more sites are working with div’s & css and the position in the source can be totaly different than what visitors see on the actual page.

    Dave

  15. Submitting to web directories is a vital part of every successful link building strategy. Apart from driving traffic to your website through direct referrals, web directories provide static, one-way links to your site, boosting your link popularity and improving your rankings on the major search engines like Google and Yahoo.

    Internet Marketing Networks last blog post..mark farrell added a blog post

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