Recently a Google spokesperson reportedly said that link building is to be avoided and also stated that "link building could do more harm than good". Yet
the reality still is that Google and other search engines count links to determine rankings.
How to reconcile both truths and acquire links without getting into trouble with Google aggressively policing them?
Do we have to avoid link building?
Google's Webmaster Trends Analyst John Muller gets cited a lot these days for saying "in general, I’d try to avoid [link building]" and "only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps." [sic!]
The last part of that sentence has been transcribed incorrectly. In reality he rather says "than it actually helps". The most important part of his statement most people tend to overlook though is:
"We do use links as part of our algorithm".
Who said that again? Matt Cutts? No, John Mueller. That's a significant difference. Google's former "Head of Webspam" Matt Cutts and his replacement killer Pierre Far also have the task of penalizing websites and putting people out of business by the millions.
"John Mu" as he calls himself is a predominantly helpful person. John Mu does not declare something to be SPAM and the next day millions of sites get penalized. He's part of a completely different team on another continent (Google Switzerland).
John Mu simply attempts to explain common Google policies to the webmaster community.
In this context and given the overall tone of his answer this quote is already far less scary. Let us focus on his words without emphasizing the negative parts too much then. Not only does John Mu confirm that Google is still using links for ranking websites he also initially gives a lot of good advice on how to get those links organically.
John Mu recommends content-driven SEO and improvements of linkability
Let's also take a look at what John Mu recommends. He basically rephrases in his own words what we already know about modern content-driven SEO and suggests onsite techniques many webmasters could use to improve their linkability. Let me cite again or paraphrase where necessary for the sake of simplicity:
- [make] sure that your content … stands on its own
- make it possible for other people … to link to your content
- make linking easy by e.g. adding a "link to this" widget on your page
- make web addresses easy to copy and paste
The only problem arises when you solely focus on link building and ignore the other factors Google takes into account for its ranking algorithm: "only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems".
Yes, in case you just care about link building but have a site without proper content and a bad user experience (one that also hampers or disallows copying and pasting of links to it) you probably won't succeed with Google SEO.
One of the sites that simplify the copy and paste process of their links is Issuu – a service that lets print magazine publishers upload their issues online. You can even link to a particular page within a magazine issue:
Move on, there is nothing to see here!
In case you're into content-driven SEO for a decade like I am there are no real surprises here. At first I also got carried by the impetus of the perceived negativity of the initial reports. Then after researching the original quotes and listening to the actual recordings I became less and less agitated. In fact
what John Mu says here has been published on my blog years ago.
I even remember John Mu giving me a +1 on Google+ for one of such articles back in the days. It was "You Want Link Building? You Need Something Else!" most probably. Why do I even remember this? Well, most of the time Googlers ignore me because I'm too critical of the search giant or simply not important enough. Thus I was surprised to get support from that direction.
So is John Mu just stealing my ideas? Well, not really. I'm sometimes just translating SEO into layman terms in such a way that not only nerds can understand it. John Mu tries to achieve the same thing so no wonder we end up coming up with similar advice.
I won't praise Google and John Mu for the rest of the post though. I'm still pretty disenchanted with the whole Google machinery and how it victimizes webmasters not knowledgeable enough to discern the nuances. So let's focus on the grist here:
one-sided link building can be potentially harmful while encouraging natural links is certainly helpful.
How can you get the positive effect of organic incoming links without the risks of overtly built links only for SEO purposes?
- do not focus solely on links
- don't build links without content
Google needs your content but only some links not others
Remember that Google is "just a glorified link list" as someone once said. They need content to display on their search results but lists of links are basically competing with them. The more you create links the more you compete with Google. It's not just that your links are "artificial" or "unnatural". No links are naturally grown in gardens, they are all technical.
Google wants to be the only link list in town. That's one of the reasons why shopping search engines, directories and link lists have been demoted in recent years. They compete with Google directly.
In case you want to please Google you need to attract those editorial links. Editorial links are links given to you by other people, ideally
of third party sites not associated with you or your company.
It's not that difficult, I do it all the time for me and my clients by simply writing blog posts that are intriguing and unique enough to catch the attention of my audience I have built over the years. Then
my audience decides whether my article is valuable or not and shares or links to it.
Once enough people do share and link other people and their friends notice and ideally such a piece of content becomes popular. That's not the goal though. It's enough to become visible in your niche, industry or country to some extent and to build the said audience first.
People who get used to you and return on a regular basis are far more likely to share your content or link to it. You don't link to strangers usually. You want to know who and what you endorse.
Techniques for attracting links that have worked for me for years
- unique content creation – Each of my articles is one of a kind. I always try to write something new, something I haven't read anywhere else. I do not write "me too" posts that contain standardized keyword phrases or overused headline formulas. I also offer my personal subjective point of view not some generalized fake objectivity.
- linking out to peers – I link out to my "competition" aka my peers in the SEO industry but also other bloggers and social media enthusiasts. I also share their content on a regular basis. This way they notice and remember me as a supportive person. I don't bother with influencer ass kissing too much in contrast. Famous people have more than enough activities of their own. Why should I bother them with mine additionally?
- relationship building – As noted above I start a relationship usually with a positive action, a link, a share, feedback (a comment, social media update). I don't stop there and expect people to reciprocate. I like them for what they are and what they share, write and publish. I follow them and engage and one day they may do something for me too of their own accord. This is the same as in real life. Be friendly online.
- personal branding – While I follow the same people for months or years and communicate with them here and there I also try not to change too much so that they remember who I am. I use the same avatar, nickname/s and website/blog for years so that people can memorize me. Often professionals change jobs or sell companies and it's difficult to stay on top of these changes. Keep some aspects of your online identity stable.
- audience building – I cover the same topics (blogging, social media, search) for years. I also venture into adjacent ones but I always attempt to stay on-topic or rather achieve topical consistency. I try to reach audiences on different sites and using different tools but at the end of the day it's about giving the people what they want regularly so that they get used to you and your high quality of content you share and produce.