The problems with SEO link building and what to do instead
Over twenty years ago, Google introduced the game-changing PageRank algorithm. What made PageRank unique was that it looked at hyperlinks directed to a webpage and used this as a measure of that page’s strength and relevancy on the web.
While this innovation was a breakthrough in search engines at the time, it wasn’t long before practitioners in the emerging field of search engine optimisation (SEO) discovered ways to game the algorithm. And the practice of ‘link building’ was born. For many yeas, the web was full of ‘link spam’ and ‘link farms’ – complex webs of useless backlinks, built purely for SEO.
For these link builders, everything changed in 2012. A Google algorithm update targeting link spam, codename ‘Penguin’, rolled out during April and affected approximately 3.1 per cent of all search queries. Some businesses vanished from search results altogether.
Links remain important for SEO. It’s just that now Google’s algorithm is highly sensitive when it comes to detecting to poor quality links. That's why here at Digital360, we think the term ‘link building’ is outdated. These days, attracting links to a website resembles something closer to the practice of publicity than that of traditional link building tactics.
In this interview, our online partnerships expert Don Milne shares the details of his role and his unique perspective on SEO.
Hi, Don. You’re our Strategic Partnerships Manager. Tell us what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Don Milne: I do what we call Network Development. This is creating affiliations and partnerships between two websites. Or to put it another way, I’m building relationships online on behalf of our clients.
This can take the form of sharing an article on a platform or developing a sponsorship arrangement between two parties.
Traditionally speaking, links were acquired purely for an SEO benefit. But we try to look beyond that and set up real commercial or editorial relationships and connections. That’s where the real value lies.
How important are links in search marketing in 2017?
Milne: The thing is, nobody really knows the exact importance of each of the factors that determine Google rankings.
But the thing we do know for sure? A healthy backlink profile always has, and always will be, a big part of ranking in Google search. A backlink profile is your way of showing Google the kinds of business partnerships you have and what kind of businesses you connect with. And the better the quality of partnerships, the better your rankings.
What is ‘link building’ in the traditional sense?
Milne: Link building was a game of quantity. And for a long time, this was important. But these days it’s not the quantity of links to a site that’s important. Network Development is an activity that is far more focused on quality. We know that’s what Google prioritises these days.
So, for example, five high quality, relevant affiliations, will always trump 500 irrelevant low quality links. In fact, those low quality links could be doing more harm than good. When you look at it this way, old school link building doesn’t offer enough value to be worthwhile. It’s a process that can almost be done without human interaction.
How is Network Development different?
Milne: Network Development almost falls under the category of PR. While a PR person connects a business to a journalist, a network developer will connect a business with a website relevant to them. And there is a bit of a networking effect when you develop these partnerships. When you create one, you tend to get introduced to other interested parties.
While we work in the digital space, Network Development needs people skills to work. Human-to-human interaction means there are many elements that can’t be automated. So a network developer not only has to find opportunities, they need to be great communicators too.
Are other SEO practitioners going in this direction?
Milne: Many SEO companies out there still chase link quantity. That’s why link building has such a bad name. Even today, many businesses are getting burned by low-cost SEO providers who spam links and get penalties slapped on their clients’ websites.
As Google continues to refine the way it assesses link quality, it’s going to become more important for businesses to have someone in my role who focusses on quality online partnerships. You can’t do that in an automatic fashion. It takes a human eye and a knack for relationship building to create real value.
"So a network developer not only has to find opportunities, they need to be great communicators too."
Who do you work closely with?
Milne: I mostly work with our Content Strategist, Sam, and our copywriters.
Let’s say I’m reaching out to a publisher as part of a client’s off-site content marketing program. Sam works with the client to develop article ideas that match the client’s brand with the audience of the publisher.
I take these ideas and work with my partners to see how mutual value can be created. That means our client, the publisher and their readers all get value. I’ll then work with one of our copywriters to put together the content and make sure that our partner is happy with the outcome.
The result is valuable content delivered to the reader, expertly-written topics for the publisher, and brand awareness and SEO benefits for our client.
What changes do you see in the space?
Milne: There are a couple I’ve noticed. There are platforms out there who are recognising the value of creating partnerships online and now they’re attempting to monetise it.
It wasn’t that long ago that if you could show value, show how it was a win-win situation, other businesses and platforms were happy to work together.
Now many will attempt to charge money for links, which is actually against Google’s best practice guidelines. It creates the wrong incentives and puts the focus on the link as a transaction, rather than an outcome.
What is one tip you would give a business who needed to boost their presence on search?
Milne: Type your website address into an online tool called Majestic and see what kind of sites are linking back to you.
You’ll be able to recognise the good ones easily. They’ll have great scores and legitimate names. Or you might recognise the business or platform. It’s the gibberish links which are bad and they’re hurting the performance of your website in organic search.
Once you’re done, you can do the same thing for your biggest competitor. This way you can learn from what they’re doing and how they’re building up their presence online. That would be the best place to start.
To find out more about best practice search engine optimisation talk to one of our search marketing specialists.