A 10-Year Evaluation
Link building remains one of the most effective SEO strategies to help rank content organically and increase a website’s referral traffic as backlinks remain an important part of Google’s main algorithm, essentially providing credibility for your content.
Backlinks pass authority from one domain to another. Acquiring a backlink to your website from a highly ranked domain, particularly in similar fields, will pass that website’s authority through to your own. Authoritative backlinks are much harder to acquire, but could result in higher organic rank for your website due to an increased Page and Domain Authority.
Most experts agree that the two best methods for acquiring external links to your website are off-site link building and on-site content production.
The safest way to acquire backlinks is producing evergreen content that websites can source for their content. But there are two problems with this approach:
- You need an established audience to gain exposure to get backlinks
- You need to conduct off-site marketing or link building to establish that audience
This Catch 22 led many SEO experts to conduct low-quality, black-hat link building schemes in the past. Fortunately, with Google’s Penguin update acceptable practices for link building changed and the methods for off-site link acquisition was forever altered. Here are the 5 biggest ways link building has changed over the past 10 years.
The Stakes are Higher
Building exposure through low-quality links used to be the gold-standard. Unless you were engaging in manifest link building schemes you were safe. Links were not always equal, but they still served as a signal to Google in one way or another.
Webmasters frequently inserted backlinks to their homepages in random forums, spam comments sections, and community blog posts. Some webmasters (even to this day) paid people to simply create keyword-rich anchor text backlinks on low-authority directories to rank their webpages for these keywords (i.e. a link building scheme).
Google’s Penguin update in 2012 changed all of this and link building schemes suddenly had to be disavowed or endure the Wrath of Penguin. For one, Penguin came equipped with harsh penalties that could immediately devalue your website rank for possessing too many spammy links. Acquiring spammy links resulted in algorithmic or manual penalties that set some campaigns back months and even years.
Building low-authority backlinks still works as a short term strategy, but it’s imperative to scale your link building campaign. For long-term sustainability, your backlink portfolio will need to include some authoritative backlinks.
Fortunately, Google’s latest penguin update resulted in real-time backlink analyses. This entailed that any website penalized by Penguin previously could see immediate improvements in rank and search signals after correcting an issue. Google’s machine learning technology could also immediately neutralize the authoritative value of any perceived spammy link.
The Signals are Weighed Differently
Google’s first Penguin update came with the onset of machine learning in search. Non-contextual links and even too keyword-rich anchor text could be spotted as manipulative by Google. Google was better able to evaluate the trust of a backlink and assess the quality of the website hosting the link.
Without actually revealing how its algorithm worked, Google published an article that revealed how it used machine learning to interpret a website’s trustworthiness. They revealed a series of questions and statements it used to manually review a website’s trustworthiness. Two examples included:
- Is this article written by an expert, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Are the articles written with user experience in mind or was it written to rank well in a search engine?
With Google’s recent Hummingbird update, machine learning was better able to match content to user intent. This meant that link relevance began to play a much more important role over link authority. While link authority is still a major ranking factor, webpages could begin to rank by being relevant to a user search, without containing high-authority backlinks.
User signals, such as click-through rates and dwell time, began to devalue the weight backlinks had over content rank. Of course, link building still provides a major qualitative signal for evaluating content rank. But the rise of machine learning has also improved Google’s ability to evaluate content quality on its own, regardless of any backlink authority.
There’s a Greater Emphasis on Content
According to Google Trends, interest in link building peaked in 2011. To this day, content marketing has not significantly peaked in interest and continues to climb each year. It’s estimated that 75% of marketers will increase their investment in content marketing this year.
These are amazing statistics considering the state SEO was in ten years ago. Content was being spun for guest blogs to acquire backlink. Keyword stuffing also infected content all across the web and it worked. Amazingly, Penguin may have inadvertently led to the steep rise of content marketing’s importance to link building.
Google values customer experience a lot so they inevitably moved to pair user searches with the best quality content available. The rise of RankBrain into its core algorithm made content quality a much greater ranking factor, as well as content relevance to user intent. The introduction of featured snippets further encouraged websites to create quality content for an increased click-through-rate (CTR) and rank.
The integration of content marketing into link building has completely changed the face of the industry. More than ever, link builders are relying on content marketers to produce evergreen content that can be placed off-site. With the increased deterrence Penguin provides for website publishers, producing quality content has become more critical than ever to place that much desired backlink.
Link Building Strategies are Different
The core principles of link building are mostly the same. In fact, many experts argue that link building is easier because producing quality content will get your website indexed at a higher rate. This allows your webpages to rank higher for relevant searches and gain more exposure for backlinks.
Unfortunately, Penguin penalties have made acceptable linking practices a lot more difficult to dance around. Shakeups in Google’s algorithm have resulted in drastic penalties for black-hat link builders and Google has publicly come out against creating content for backlink acquisition. Google has also warned against websites that publish content for the purpose of link acquisition.
Google has also disavowed many previously popular backlink channels over the past few years. For example:
- Press releases are almost irrelevant
- Guest blog links are not authoritative
- Citation and directory links hold no authority
While these links may possess no authority they still expand your audience reach and drive relevant traffic to your website.
In order to earn links in the post-Penguin era it’s key to create content that is evergreen, consistent, and shareable. But it’s difficult to control the scale of your backlink portfolio through purely on-site content production. Webmasters can’t influence which sites link to their website, how many links they can acquire over time, and how many people who read their articles will actually link back to it.
When optimizing your backlink portfolio, it’s important to acquire natural backlinks from multiple sources. Penguin is tricky in two ways:
- Acquiring backlinks from the same domain diminishes their return over time
- Acquiring backlinks from too many low-authority domains could be perceived as manipulative
It’s important to evaluate your backlinks and discover any low-relevance or spammy backlinks pointing to your website. Ask the webmaster to insert a “nofollow” tag to the link. If you believe your website is hosting spammy links, you could submit a “rel=canonical’ tag to your URL and disavow all passing link juice on that page.
Anchor Text is Riskier
Finally, the rise of machine learning has made Googlebot more able to spot anchor text manipulation. Anchor text is important to internal and external links because it represents keyword phrases links can rank for in a search query.
Years ago, it used to be easy to submit content with an exact-commercial-match keyword in the anchor text and rank that webpage for that keyword. Fortunately, Google caught on to this practice and possessing suspicious, exact-match anchor text could penalize your website.
The penalty results from two factors:
- The content was produced solely for link acquisition
- The link is unnatural and disrupts reading flow
You most likely won’t have any control over your backlink anchor text, unless you’re performing off-site link acquisition. It’s important to keep your anchor text natural to the context of the content. Don’t be afraid to acquire a few branded anchor text links on guest blog sites.
No field in SEO has grown perhaps as much as link building. Once the keystone of any SEO campaign, webmasters could simply turn to the link building black market and purchase link acquisitions for easy exposure. But the law of the land prevailed and Google’s Penguin update demanded a greater emphasis on content quality and white-hat link building practices for websites to acquire trust and authority. Unfortunately, the stakes grew higher and most webmasters were only lucky that Google didn’t hold mandatory minimum penalties for breaking its rules.