The Rules of Link Building – Whiteboard Friday
Posted by Cyrus-Shepard
Much of marketing, especially SEO, has shifted from a game with very few rules to a game that Google is fairly strictly refereeing. With their old tactics eliciting penalties, many marketers are simply throwing in the towel.
In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Cyrus Shepard calls a time-out and shows us the new strategy we need to come out on top.
For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!
Howdy, Moz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. My name is Cyrus. Today we’re going to be talking about the rules of link building. Now this is really important because we see a lot of people out there in the marketing world getting scared of link building, past actions coming back to haunt them, people saying that link building is dead, links losing value in Google’s algorithm. Rand did
a great Whiteboard Friday a few weeks ago about that.
But what’s really disturbing is some people are giving up completely on link building when it’s still a really huge part of Google’s algorithm, and they’re giving up because they don’t know the rules. They don’t understand that when you play by the rules, for the most part, you can really win. What we see, I like to think about this like a basketball game, going back to the days of the ancient Aztecs when they started playing and there weren’t a lot of rules. What’s happening now is we have Google, the referee in the black and white striped shirt. They’re coming down and they’re saying, “Hey guys, this isn’t working. We need to install some order here.”
So they start giving out fouls and penalties to people.
Some of these people are getting frustrated, and they’re leaving the game. But the people who aren’t getting fouled, who aren’t getting the penalties, they are winning the score. That’s where we want to be. We want to be the people who are still playing the game instead of walking off the court, because these people aren’t going to win. So if we understand what the rules are, and these rules I see get violated all the time, even people trying to do what they can get away with, it’s not worth it. So playing by the rules is something that we want to strive for.
One thing I’ve heard internet marketers talk about for years is the idea of doing what works. For a long time, there was no referee on the court. Google was just absent, and people were doing whatever they wanted. People would say, “You know, I don’t really care what the rules are because I’m going to do what works today for my client.” People like Rand Fishkin and Wil Reynolds, they were saying, “Guys, you’ve got to follow the rules because the rules are coming. Don’t do what works today, do what works tomorrow.” That’s the advice.
These rules are based not only on what works today, but what works tomorrow. Not only that you win today’s game, but that you keep winning game after game after game and you win that NCAA tournament. All right.
Beware links you control
First of all, I want to start off with some things that we want to avoid when link building. If we look at what Google has been targeting, there are usually two common factors in links that they target. They are, first of all, links that you control. When we see Google crack down on guest blogging networks, on widget links, signature profile links, they all have that one element in common: that you control the anchor text. That’s exactly what Google is looking for. I predict any new link penalties that happen in the future will also follow this pattern. It will be links where you control the anchor text.
We’re always going to have situations where we do control the anchor text, but beware and be very careful with those links because those are the links that are subject to devaluation and penalization.
Be cautious with links that scale
The same thing goes for links that scale. Again, we’re talking about widget links, author bio boxes. When you combine these two together, those are exactly the kind of links that you need to be extra special careful with and not scale, not do too much anchor text manipulation because they will always be subject to those penalties.
Don’t ask for anchor text
One rule that I’ve been following for years, I got this from Eric Ward, the very famous link builder: Never ask for anchor text. When you’re doing outreach, when you’re talking to other people, when you’re guest posting, asking for the anchor text is going to raise a lot of red flags. That’s what kills it for you, because when you start asking for anchor text, your brain starts working. You think, “Well, I need this keyword. I need this keyword.” You create patterns. You create over-optimization. No matter what the temptation is, if you don’t ask for anchor text, you’re going to get a much more natural link profile.
In all of the years that I’ve been doing link building, I have never asked for anchor text once. Whoever is linking to me can link to me however they want. Sometimes it’s a no-followed link. Sometimes it’s not exactly what I want. But it’s natural, and it comes off so much more natural.
Don’t link externally in the footer
A couple of other rules that I see people violate all the time that Google has made painfully clear in the past few months: Don’t link externally in the footer. Just don’t. I’m not going to go into the reasons. Just don’t do that.
Avoid site-wide links
By the same token, except for navigation, avoid site-wide links. This is something that we’ve known for years. If someone links to you externally, site-wide, in the side bar, that’s ripe for Penguin-style links.
Again, these are best practices. There are always exceptions to the rules. But, generally, following these rules is going to help you out even if you have to break them sometimes.
Addendum: In many cases, footer links and site-wides are perfectly acceptable. The three reasons I recommend folks avoid them for link building purposes are:
- We often associate external site-wide and footer links with Penguin-style actions. Not always, but it’s something we look for.
- Optimized, site-wide anchor text may trigger over-optimization filters.
- The value of a sidebar or footer link is often considerably less valuable than a truly editorial link found in the main body text.
Keep doing link building!
On the “do” side of things, one thing that I want to emphasize is do link building. Don’t give up just because Google is imposing these rules and penalizing people. We still need the people who are actively out there building links. They still have a huge opportunity to win. So don’t give up on this as a part of your practice.
Focus on distribution
One thing I would emphasize doing is shifting from actively building links to more of a focus on distribution, because the more eyeballs that are on your content, the more natural links you’re going to earn.
That’s something we do here at Moz; we have a huge emphasis on social distribution, distribution through our partners. We just want to get the eyeballs on the content because that’s the end goal anyway. There is a huge correlation between getting eyeballs on good content and link building. It’s one of the best kinds of link building you can do. It’s just getting your content out there on the right eyeballs.
Do some outreach
Along those same lines, outreach is still okay. Writing those emails, finding those influencers. Our friends at BuzzStream just wrote
a really excellent guide on how to do outreach. Really worth a read. The idea is, along with distribution, you want to get the right eyeballs on your content so that they have those opportunities to build those natural links that you don’t control the anchor text, where it’s not scalable. It’s a real human being putting a real link in their content and endorsing you.
Link value = traffic quality
One thing to always keep in mind that when we’re looking at links and how we judge them, the value of the link equals the quality of the traffic that it can drive you. Meaning that this is kind of how Google judges links. It’s not necessarily the quantity of the traffic that the link can drive you, but the quality. If you run a mechanic shop and you want good leads from those links, you would want other mechanic shops or auto part stores to link to you. A link from an SEO blog probably doesn’t have a lot of value because it’s not very relevant.
When you build links, one of the golden rules is look at the quality of the traffic that it’s going to drive you. That’s going to help you a lot in those relevancy signals that Google is looking at.
Embrace the nofollow
Finally, in this new age of link building, we need to start embracing the nofollow and not be as scared of it as we have been, because those links that we are considering no following probably weren’t helping you that much anyway, and so embracing them sort of cuts those signals off that Google doesn’t want those to pass PageRank. They don’t want them to pass anchor text. But keep in mind that even no followed links, Google still looks at those. We have evidence that Google uses nofollowed links for crawling and discovery purposes. There is some evidence that Google may use nofollowed links for signals other than that. Not every link has to pass page rank or anchor text to be valuable.
One final thought that I want to leave with, to keep in mind, when you practice these good do’s, these good link building practices, you start to take your marketing to a higher level. At its best, good link building is indistinguishable from good marketing. When you’re doing link building right, you don’t even need the links because you’re doing good marketing. You’re pushing your content out there, you’re talking to those influencers, you’re getting traffic to your site, and those just happen to be the signals that Google wants to reward.
Let’s do that. Let’s win the link building game. Happy Friday everybody. Thank you.
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