How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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Reblogged 3 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Most Important Link Penalty Removal Tool: Your Mindset

Posted by Eric Enge

Let’s face it. Getting slapped by a manual link penalty, or by the Penguin algorithm, really stinks. Once this has happened to you, your business is in a world of hurt. Worse still is the fact that you can’t get clear information from Google on which of your links are the bad ones. In today’s post, I am going to focus on the number one reason why people fail to get out from under these types of problems, and how to improve your chances of success.

The mindset

Success begins, continues, and ends with the right mindset. A large percentage of people I see who go through a link cleanup process are not aggressive enough about cleaning up their links. They worry about preserving some of that hard-won link juice they obtained over the years.

You have to start by understanding what a link cleanup process looks like, and just how long it can take. Some of the people I have spoken with have gone through a process like this one:

link removal timeline

In this fictitious timeline example, we see someone who spends four months working on trying to recover, and at the end of it all, they have not been successful.
A lot of time and money have been spent, and they have nothing to show for it. Then, the people at Google get frustrated and send them a message that basically tells them they are not getting it. At this point, they have no idea when they will be able to recover. The result is that the complete process might end up taking six months or more.

In contrast, imagine someone who is far more aggressive in removing and disavowing links. They are so aggressive that 20 percent of the links they cut out are actually ones that Google has not currently judged as being bad. They also start on March 9, and by April 30, the penalty has been lifted on their site.

Now they can begin rebuilding their business, five or months sooner than the person who does not take as aggressive an approach. Yes, they cut out some links that Google was not currently penalizing, but this is a small price to pay for getting your penalty cleared five months sooner. In addition, using our mindset-based approach, the 20 percent of links we cut out were probably not links that were helping much anyway, and that Google might also take action on them in the future.

Now that you understand the approach, it’s time to make the commitment. You have to make the decision that you are going to do whatever it takes to get this done, and that getting it done means cutting hard and deep, because that’s what will get you through it the fastest. Once you’ve got your head on straight about what it will take and have summoned the courage to go through with it, then and only then, you’re ready to do the work. Now let’s look at what that work entails.

Obtaining link data

We use four sources of data for links:

  1. Google Webmaster Tools
  2. Open Site Explorer
  3. Majestic SEO
  4. ahrefs

You will want to pull in data from all four of these sources, get them into one list, and then dedupe them to create a master list. Focus only on followed links as well, as nofollowed links are not an issue. The overall process is shown here:

pulling a link set

One other simplification is also possible at this stage. Once you have obtained a list of the followed links, there is another thing you can do to dramatically simplify your life.
You don’t need to look at every single link.

You do need to look at a small sampling of links from every domain that links to you. Chances are that this is a significantly smaller quantity of links to look at than all links. If a domain has 12 links to you, and you look at three of them, and any of those are bad, you will need to disavow the entire domain anyway.

I take the time to emphasize this because I’ve seen people with more than 1 million inbound links from 10,000 linking domains. Evaluating 1 million individual links could take a lifetime. Looking at 10,000 domains is not small, but it’s 100 times smaller than 1 million. But here is where the mindset comes in.
Do examine every domain.

This may be a grinding and brutal process, but there is no shortcut available here. What you don’t look at will hurt you. The sooner you start on the entire list, the sooner you will get the job done.

How to evaluate links

Now that you have a list, you can get to work. This is a key part where having the right mindset is critical. The first part of the process is really quite simple. You need to eliminate each and every one of these types of links:

  1. Article directory links
  2. Links in forum comments, or their related profiles
  3. Links in blog comments, or their related profiles
  4. Links from countries where you don’t operate/sell your products
  5. Links from link sharing schemes such as Link Wheels
  6. Any links you know were paid for

Here is an example of a foreign language link that looks somewhat out of place:

foreign language link

For the most part, you should also remove any links you have from web directories. Sure, if you have a link from DMOZ, Business.com, or BestofTheWeb.com, and the most important one or two directories dedicated to your market space, you can probably keep those.

For a decade I have offered people a rule for these types of directories, which is “no more than seven links from directories.” Even the good ones carry little to no value, and the bad ones can definitely hurt you. So there is absolutely no win to be had running around getting links from a bunch of directories, and there is no win in trying to keep them during a link cleanup process.

Note that I am NOT talking about local business directories such as Yelp, CityPages, YellowPages, SuperPages, etc. Those are a different class of directory that you don’t need to worry about. But general purpose web directories are, generally speaking, a poison.

Rich anchor text

Rich anchor text has been the downfall of many a publisher. Here is one of my favorite examples ever of rich anchor text:

The author wanted the link to say “buy cars,” but was too lazy to fit the two words into the same sentence! Of course, you may have many guest posts that you have written that are not nearly as obvious as this one. One great way to deal with that is to take your list of links that you built and sort them by URL and look at the overall mix of anchor text. You know it’s a problem if it looks anything like this:

overly optimized anchor text

The problem with the distribution in the above image is that the percentage of links that are non “rich” in nature is way too small. In the real world, most people don’t conveniently link to you using one of your key money phrases. Some do, but it’s normally a small percentage.

Other types of bad links

There is no way for me to cover every type of bad link in this post, but here are other types of links, or link scenarios, to be concerned about:

  1. If a large percentage of your links are coming from over on the right rail of sites, or in the footers of sites
  2. If there are sites that give you a site-wide link, or a very large number of links from one domain
  3. Links that come from sites whose IP address is identical in the A block, B block, and C block (read more about what these are here)
  4. Links from crappy sites

The definition of a crappy site may seem subjective, but if a site has not been updated in a while, or its information is of poor quality, or it just seems to have no one who cares about it, you can probably consider it a crappy site. Remember our discussion on mindset. Your objective is to be harsh in cleaning up your links.

In fact, the most important principle in evaluating links is this:
If you can argue that it’s a good link, it’s NOT. You don’t have to argue for good quality links. To put it another way, if they are not obviously good, then out they go!

Quick case study anecdote: I know of someone who really took a major knife to their backlinks. They removed and/or disavowed every link they had that was below a Moz Domain Authority of 70. They did not even try to justify or keep any links with lower DA than that. It worked like a champ. The penalty was lifted. If you are willing to try a hyper-aggressive approach like this one, you can avoid all the work evaluating links I just outlined above. Just get the Domain Authority data for all the links pointing to your site and bring out the hatchet.

No doubt that they ended up cutting out a large number of links that were perfectly fine, but their approach was way faster than doing the complete domain by domain analysis.

Requesting link removals

Why is it that we request link removals? Can’t we just build a
disavow file and submit that to Google? In my experience, for manual link penalties, the answer to this question is no, you can’t. (Note: if you have been hit by Penguin, and not a manual link penalty, you may not need to request link removals.)

Yes, disavowing a link is supposed to tell Google that you don’t want to receive any PageRank, or benefit, from it. However, there is a human element at play here.
Google likes to see that you put some effort into cleaning up the bad links that you have gotten that led to your penalty. The more bad links you have, the more important this becomes.

This does make the process a lot more expensive to get through, but if you approach this with the “whatever it takes” mindset, you dive into the requesting link removal process and go ahead and get it done.

I usually have people go through three rounds of requests asking people to remove links. This can be a very annoying process for those receiving your request, so you need to be aware of that. Don’t start your email with a line like “Your site is causing mine to be penalized …”, as that’s just plain offensive.

I’d be honest, and tell them “Hey, we’ve been hit by a penalty, and as part of our effort to recover we are trying to get many of the links we have gotten to our site removed. We don’t know which sites are causing the problem, but we’d appreciate your help …”

Note that some people will come back to you and ask for money to remove the link. Just ignore them, and put their domains in your disavow file.

Once you are done with the overall removal requests, and had whatever success you have had, take the rest of the domains and disavow them. There is a complete guide to
creating a disavow file here. The one incremental tip I would add is that you should nearly always disavow entire domains, not just the individual links you see.

This is important because even with the four tools we used to get information on as many links as we could, we still only have a subset of the total links. For example, the tools may have only seen one link from a domain, but in fact you have five. If you disavow only the one link, you still have four problem links, and that will torpedo your reconsideration request.

Disavowing the domain is a better-safe-than-sorry step you should take almost every time. As I illustrated at the beginning of this post, adding extra cleanup/reconsideration request loops is very expensive for your business.

The overall process

When all is said and done, the process looks something like this:

link removal process

If you run this process efficiently, and you don’t try to cut corners, you might be able to get out from your penalty in a single pass through the process. If so, congratulations!

What about tools?

There are some fairly well-known tools that are designed to help you with the link cleanup process. These include
Link Detox and Remove’em. In addition, at STC we have developed our own internal tool that we use with our clients.

These tools can be useful in flagging some of your links, but they are not comprehensive—they will help identify some really obvious offenders, but the great majority of links you need to deal with and remove/disavow are not identified. Plan on investing substantial manual time and effort to do the heavy lifting of a comprehensive review of all your links. Remember the “mindset.”

Summary

As I write this post, I have this sense of being heartless because I outline an approach that is often grueling to execute. But consider it tough love. Recovering from link penalties is indeed brutal.
In my experience, the winners are the ones who come with meat cleaver in hand, don’t try to cut corners, and take on the full task from the very start, no matter how extensive an effort it may be.

Does this type of process succeed? You bet. Here is an example of a traffic chart from a successful recovery:

manual penalty recovery graph

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it