Link building is at the heart of any search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, and it has been for more than a decade.
But over the course of the past 20 years, the role of link building in SEO has changed. In fact, it’s changed so much that “link building” today is practically unrecognizable to old-school practitioners.
If you want to succeed in climbing the rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs), you need to understand how link building works today—and how it’s different than the link building of yesteryear.
So how exactly has link building changed? And what should you do with this information?
Table of Contents
The Big Picture: SEO Link Building in a Nutshell
Let’s start with a basic overview of what link building is, and its role in SEO.
SEO is all about ranking higher in search engines like Google. The goal is to make your website more visible and more attractive to search users looking for a company like yours. The higher you rank, the more easily you’ll be seen, the more traffic you’ll generate, and the more your brand reputation will grow.
How do you rank higher in search engines?
Despite all the changes that Google has gone through over the years, the basic formula remains the same. Google wants to give users the best possible results for their searches. Part of that means identifying relevant content—the content that most closely aligns with the user’s search query. This is why keyword research and keyword optimization is so important.
But Google also needs to consider the trustworthiness of webpages. Assuming 100 pages are relevant to the user’s search query, Google wants the most authoritative page to be at the top.
Google calculates the “authority” of a website (and individual pages within that website) based on a number of ranking factors, but most importantly—links.
The exact formula is unknown, but generally speaking, the more links you have, and the better those links are, the more your authority will rise. Getting links from high-authority sources will pass more authority to your site, while low-authority sources will pass less authority.
Link building is the practice of establishing more links to your site, in an effort to boost your authority and rank higher.
Old-School Link Building
Back when Google was relatively new and people were just figuring out the basics of SEO, link building was easy—for lack of a better word.
You could build any link in any way you wanted, and practically guarantee that your site would benefit from it. You could post random forum comments with nothing more than your link, with fully optimized anchor text. You could buy links directly from certain sites. You could build links over and over again on the same sources, or create a link network to regularly pass links between multiple sites.
It was easy for optimizers, but obviously, it was also deeply problematic.
Building links in this way isn’t good for web users. It also doesn’t help your brand’s reputation. People who encounter these spammed links in the wild generally find themselves frustrated; the links don’t add any content, context, or value to the conversation.
It didn’t take long for Google to figure out that people were manipulating their search engine rankings with links like this. And of course, they wanted to take action.
How Links Have Evolved in SEO
Some search optimizers feel like Google is a schemer, out to sabotage their efforts or make their life difficult. In reality, Google just wants search users to have the best possible experience.
Over the years, Google has issued a number of algorithm updates designed to improve the average user’s experience. These include updates to make the algorithm more efficient and more accurate, with better aesthetics in SERPs, but most of the updates are designed to stop abusive practices and do a better job of finding high-quality web content.
There was a smattering of link-focused updates in the early years of Google, from around 2003 to 2010. For example, the Cassandra update of 2003 issued penalties to sites that relied heavily on co-owned domains linking to each other, as well as links that were hidden from view.
However, the biggest game changing update of the past decade was the Penguin update of 2012.
Issued in April 2012, the Penguin update majorly overhauled the way Google evaluates link quality and spam. As with most Google updates, we don’t know the exact mechanics of Penguin—we just know that link quality standards sharply increased.
Many smaller updates followed Penguin, sometimes referred to as Penguin 1.1, 1.2, 2.0, etc., but they were generally in line with the intentions of the original Penguin.
Obviously, search optimizers have had to update their practices to accommodate these new evaluative criteria.
Important Ways That Link Building Has Changed
So how, exactly, did link building change?
How have search optimizers adjusted their strategies, and how is modern link building different from link building in the 2000s?
- It’s not only about SEO. For starters, building links is no longer only about SEO. Historically, links were used only as a tool to increase domain authority and help websites rank higher. But remember, links also serve an important purpose for users: connecting them with other sites on the web. If harnessed properly, link building can function well as an independent marketing strategy. If you build links on a high-profile publisher that gets a lot of traffic, you may generate a significant stream of referral traffic directly to your site. We’re talking thousands of referral visitors. At that point, the SEO benefits of earning the link become secondary—an added bonus, rather than the sole reason for the link’s existence. At the very least, most optimizers attempt to build links that can yield many different benefits simultaneously.
- The penalties are steeper. Nobody likes the idea of getting a Google penalty. Google penalties have existed since the earliest days of Google, used as a tool to discourage problematic website management behavior and to clean up the web. “Real” Google penalties are manual actions taken by Google officials; if you commit an egregious offense, Google may delist your website from the index entirely. You can usually petition them to remove this penalty if you fix the problem. More commonly, people call out “Google penalties” when they fall significantly in SERP rankings; this happens when you engage in low-quality or spammy practices. These days, the penalties—both manual actions and falls in rankings—are much steeper than they were before. A single spammy link could seriously hurt you.
- Bad links get flagged immediately. In the 2000s, you could conceivably build “bad” links regularly, calling on low-quality sources and following your instincts. You might build dozens, or even hundreds of links without ever getting noticed. Sooner or later, Google would issue a manual penalty or submit a new algorithm update and penalize you for these actions—but it would take a while. Today, Google’s index is updated continuously and its link evaluation process is largely automated. In other words, after publishing a questionable link, you could see the consequences almost immediately.
- Publishers yield diminishing returns. High-quality sources tend to pass a lot of authority if you can earn a link from them. And if you can earn one link, you can probably earn several—especially if you get a gig as a recurring guest author. However, in the modern era, additional links on a single referring domain tend to yield diminishing returns. The first link might pass a ton of authority your way, but the second link will only pass a bit of authority. By the time you build a sixth or seventh link, you’ll be getting almost nothing. Granted, you can still get the benefits of link building like generating referral traffic and improving brand visibility, but the domain authority benefit will eventually fall to nothing.
- Certain types of links have fallen in value. Some types of links have dramatically fallen in value, due to Google’s changing expectations. Getting a link in a forum comment, for example, could potentially be helpful—but it’s nowhere near as valuable as it used to be. Similarly, one of the most popular link building strategies of the 2000s and early 2010s was syndicating press releases; these days, press release links are far less valuable. So what types of links have increased in value?
- It’s all about guest posting. Modern link building revolves around guest posting—the process of submitting high-quality content to offsite publishers. This strategy allows you to build natural, high-quality links that exist in high-quality content. It’s extremely reliable, since most publishers are eager to publish new content from new contributors. It can be used repeatedly to build your authority, and help you find even more authoritative publishers. It’s also scalable, since there’s no limit to the amount of content you can publish offsite. It’s the perfect strategy, if you can master it.
- Content expectations are higher (from all sides). For many years, content has been the most important ingredient in any SEO campaign. In fact, it still is. But the saturation of circulating content and the awareness that content marketing is a common tactic have yielded a noteworthy effect: content standards are higher. Google evaluates content quality (and link quality) with a stricter eye. Publishers are pickier, and less willing to accept mediocre posts. Even average web users are demanding more from the content they read and the links they encounter. It’s harder than ever to make an impact in this environment. And, when something is more difficult, it generally means it costs more.
- Anchor text isn’t what it used to be. Anchor text is the text that “houses” your link. Early in the development of SEO, anchor text was easy to exploit. You could include specific keywords and phrases in your anchor text, and increase your likelihood of ranking for these terms. These days, Google is wise to the game. Optimizing anchor text is still important, and can play a role in your keyword optimization strategy, but it’s much more important to ensure your anchor text is natural—that it doesn’t stand out as spammy or manipulative. Additionally, thanks to the Hummingbird update (and semantic search with it), exact match keywords are nowhere near as effective as they once were. In fact, some niches were hit harder than others. Law firm SEO was one such area where exact match anchors for things like “New York personal injury attorney” no longer appear natural.
- Sometimes, the passive approach is better. Some optimizers like to play things safe, and avoid intentional link building altogether. After all, a single low-quality link or ranking penalty could disrupt your entire campaign. The passive approach, link earning, instead relies on other people to naturally build links to your site. You’ll create the best possible content for your website (such as original research), and market it to earn more links. This approach is certainly safer, but it’s much less consistent and less reliable. The most successful SEO strategies incorporate both link building and link earning, to capitalize on the advantages of both.
- Getting started is crazy hard. Preserving your link building momentum is time consuming, but simple. Starting that momentum, on the other hand, is very challenging. If you’re following the guest posting approach, you won’t have much of a reputation to start with, and you’ll need to develop it from the ground up. If you have no experience submitting pitches, writing guest content, or establishing natural links, it’s going to be even tougher. That’s why many companies, even experienced ones, turn to a link building agency for help.
How to Manage an Effective Link Building Campaign Today
So what does it take to manage an effective link building campaign today?
That’s a complex topic, and one we explore in several other blog posts, but we’ll summarize the basics here:
- Devise a high-level strategy. Link building requires you to have a high-level strategy in place. You need to understand your target keywords, your level of competition, and your path to success. Also, keep in mind that link building is just a portion of what you need for a successful SEO strategy.
- Understand what makes a “good” link. “Good” links are natural. They’re unique. They have natural anchor text. They’re included in context, in a high-quality piece of content. And of course, the higher the authority of the referring domain, the better. The best way to get all these qualities at once is to practice guest posting, though link earning and some other link building strategies can also be effective.
- Begin guest posting. When you have a strategy in place, you can begin guest posting. Choose a publisher, make a pitch, and write the best-quality piece that you can. Appeal to the publisher’s audience and include a strong link to a good piece of content of your own site. After a while, you’ll get a feel for what types of content work best.
- Start with lower authority sources and work your way up. High-authority sources are the most valuable for link building and generating authority of your own, but there’s a drawback—they tend to be much more discerning with the content they publish. For most link builders, it’s better to start with lower authority sources and work your way up as you develop a better author reputation, and more writing skill.
- Gradually scale your efforts. Building too many links too quickly can earn you a penalty. It’s tempting to push everything into your strategy, to see benefits quickly, but it can end up backfiring. Instead, scale your efforts gradually; slowly add new links and new publishers.
- Find broken link building opportunities. Use Moz or Ahrefs to source broken link building opportunities. Broken links are a perfectly white-hat approach to garnering quality backlinks.
- Measure and analyze your results. You can’t know whether your link building tactics are working unless you measure your results. Analyze your backlink profile regularly, monitor your search engine rankings, and consistently measure your incoming traffic. Then, draw conclusions and update your strategy as needed.
Ready to get started with a modern, effective link building campaign of your own? Everything starts with a free audit of your strategy and your current efforts. Contact SEO.co today for more information!
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