In their latest Webmaster Central blog post, Google has reaffirmed its stance on link building and the requirement it holds for natural, earned links above ‘built’ links.
The post, which can be found here, goes into detail specifically on the topic of creating content with the sole purpose of obtaining links, or using similar content across multiple sites with a view to building links using one core piece.
What are Google’s link building guidelines?
Links have always been compared to ‘votes’, where every vote is a contributor to your website’s perceived authority and therefore rankability, but where not all votes are equal. A ‘vote’ from a high authority, relevant source will be worth a lot more than one from a relatively unknown or low authority site.
That, we know, and have known for a long time.
It makes perfect sense, then, for Google to want to see those ‘votes’ being earned, rather than obtained through payment or exchange. That’s why old school link building techniques like buying links of exchanging them with other sites have long-since been devalued.
What Google is saying in its latest blog is that it is really clamping down on ‘votes’ that are requested rather than ‘earned’. While we can still use outreach to make other webmasters aware of our content, the content to which they are being asked to link should be the star of the show, as opposed to creating content for guest posting with the sole purpose of gaining a link.
As stated in the blog:
“Lately we’ve seen an increase in spammy links contained in articles referred to as contributor posts, guest posts, partner posts, or syndicated posts. These articles are generally written by or in the name of one website, and published on a different one.
“Google does not discourage these types of articles in the cases when they inform users, educate another site’s audience or bring awareness to your cause or company. However, what does violate Google’s guidelines on link schemes is when the main intent is to build links in a large-scale way back to the author’s site.”
What should SEOs be taking from this new advice?
The new advice makes perfect sense when you think of links as votes. With voting being very topical at the moment, it’s easy to comprehend a system that doesn’t allow votes to be unethically sourced, through payment or exchange. In the same way that politicians must gain votes through their policies, webmasters must gain them through great content, thought leading opinions and unique, top of the range advice.
That’s all well and good – in theory. But practically speaking, what does it mean?
Let’s first note that this isn’t new guidance, it’s just an updated way of saying it. So your link building efforts, providing you’ve been doing the ethically, shouldn’t be affected. Broadly speaking, link building falls into two categories:
- Earning links through the creation of great content
- Attracting links by offering something unique and valuable to the linking site
Earning links through the creation of great content
OK, let’s break this down first:
“Great content”. We talk about it a lot – but what do we mean?
For us at Impression, ‘great’ content is something unique, original, forward thinking, comprehensive and communicated in a way that perfectly suits the target audience.
‘Great’ content comes in many forms. We’ve worked with a wide range of clients to help them in their content marketing efforts, creating ‘great’ content that’s designed, complex and detailed – different from anything else out there. Take the History of Interior Design piece we did for Harvey Water Softeners as an example – that attracted links from well over 100 unique domains, purely through the fact it communicated a topic in an engaging, unique manner.
But ‘great’ content needn’t be big design pieces. Our client Company Check benefited from features in international news publications including Forbes, Yahoo News and International Business Times as a result of a simple survey that, through its construction, explored topical and important themes for its audience.
Even the most ‘simple’ of blog posts can be ‘great’ content when it is ell constructed and it offers something of unique value. This post I wrote on the topic of dwell time in SEO still attracts links to this day, purely off the back of the fact that it ranks well organically and offers a more in depth explanation than anything else out there.
The lesson here? Invest in creating ‘great’ content in many formats. But don’t just go ahead and create what you want – look at what’s interesting your audience and craft your content strategy around the topics that are really going to engage them. Some quick tips to help you do this include:
- Keeping up with news stories and articles that appeal to your audience (e.g. for the ‘dwell time’ piece, I was aware dwell time was being discussed as a ranking factor through reading publications like Search Engine Land, and noted that there wasn’t an existing comprehensive guide)
- Using tools like Buzzsumo to identify the content that’s travelled furthest through social media on the websites read by your audience
- Using tools like Keywordtool.io to mine Google Suggest
- Listening to your audience; what are they asking you about, and therefore what can you explore/explain for them in your content?
Of course, if you want to have your content linked to by other people, you need to ensure it’s visible to them. People can’t link if they don’t know it’s there! For the ‘dwell time’ piece, it ranks highly in the SERPs for phrases like ‘how to increase dwell time’, which means people are finding it organically and therefore able to link to it.
For the History of Interior Design piece, we reached out to bloggers, shared the content through social media and submitted it to awards sites. This gave the piece its first boost of visibility and it travelled from there.
For the Company Check piece, we were able to generate 48 press releases from the survey data, which helped us to spread the word.
In more recent times, there have been suggestions that paid advertising plays a key role in this initial visibility building too. Think of paid advertising like a rubber ring for your content; throw your content into the water and it might float, but give it a rubber ring, and it’s got a much better chance!
It’s all about creating something unique and better than anything else out there; worth checking out Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Friday on “10x content” for more inspiration.
Attracting links by offering something unique and valuable to the linking site
This is where your thinking might change a little. It’s fairly commonplace practice to create great content and promote it to give it visibility, as described above (where the KPIs should include reach as well as links). It’s less common for SEOs to focus on creating unique content specifically for one destination site.
We attended a talk from a local PR agency a couple of weeks ago, where they said that in order to pitch successfully to a publication, you need to read it first. According to that agency, a story which fits The Sun, for example, is very different to one that fits The Telegraph (credit to Tank PR).
In the same vein, those seeking to obtain links shouldn’t expect to do so when pitching the same content to multiple destinations. It may seem like a great idea (and it makes you feel like you’ve done a lot more work!) but pitching to too many people can be detrimental to your efforts.
Instead, identify the target publications/sites on which you’d like to feature and then spend the time getting to know them and their audience. Follow their content, engage them on social media and really get into the crux of what makes them unique. Then, and only then, can you even start to think about the content you could create to appeal to them and encourage them to feature you.
Note how I say ‘feature you’ rather than ‘link to you’, here. Google’s guidelines specifically say that link building should never be the end goal, so ensure that the places you seek to be featured are those where the increased awareness of your brand to that audience will result in benefits too.
In this way, link building becomes much more of a service to the destination site, where you identify a gap or an opportunity for them to better engage or inform their audience, and you provide them the vehicle to do so.
Are links really that important?
This is the part of the blog where I get a bit controversial. But stick with me…
The bottom line is that links are essential. Links are the way that Google crawls the web and the way that it understands how websites are related to one another. Without links, Google has no understanding of your digital ‘neighbourhood’ and little context to understand your website’s value.
Plus, links are votes, and we need those votes to boost our rankings. Fact.
But, links aren’t the only goal. Achieving coverage in a national press publications like The Times, for example, won’t result in a link (national press rarely link out). But no one’s going to refuse a mention in The Times just because it doesn’t come with a link – so be sure to measure other KPIs like referral traffic or an increase in direct traffic as a result of that mention.
There’s also the small matter of Patent US8682892 B1. This patent, published in 2014, states that:
“Links for the group can include express links, implied links, or both. An express link, e.g., a hyperlink, is a link that is included in a source resource that a user can follow to navigate to a target resource. An implied link is a reference to a target resource, e.g., a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource. Thus, a resource in the group can be the target of an implied link without a user being able to navigate to the resource by following the implied link.”
What I take from this is that an implied link still holds value. In practical terms, this will be challenging to quantify (for example, a mention of ‘Impression’ could mean our agency, or it could be something completely different, so context will be hugely important). But, it does show that Google is looking ahead to a time where express links aren’t the only kind of ‘linking’ that matters.
To ‘future proof’ your link building efforts, essentially you need to stop thinking about ‘links’ and start thinking about ‘features’ and ‘content’. Create great content to earn links naturally. Invest in relationship building to gain features that lead to links and improved awareness.
What do you think to Google’s latest update? Let us know in the comment below!