The future of links in SEO was a central point of discussion at Big Digital Adelaide in Australia.
It’s no secret that having some good quality links pointing to our website is a critical factor to our SEO success. There are some very useful tools available to help us assess the quality of our links, such as the SEMrush link audit tool.
Beyond the basic solid practices, I wanted to hear from the best in the industry. What was their take on the future of links, link earning and outreach tactics?
At Big Digital Adelaide 2016, I interviewed speakers from the event. Here are the highlights of these interviews. I was also a speaker at the Big Digital event, so it was great to get that perspective from the other speakers.
In particular, I focused on the discussion around these two questions:
- What is the future of links and how can people avoid penalties?
- Are passive earned links better than actively getting links?
This makes for some fantastic discussion from some of the most recognizable professionals at the top of their game. There were some surprises, too.
Some remarkable responses I got from speakers at the event include:
Gary Illyes - “Google gives out surprisingly few penalties compared to how big the internet is.”
Dan Petrovic - “The future of links; my utopian version of it would be for Google to simply ignore links that are cheating, inorganic links.”
Sha Menz - “I wouldn't ever look at doing outreach because we don't have to. We just do what we do and that’s what gets us links anyway.”
Jennifer Slegg - “SEOs are always trying to keep one step ahead of Google. And Google is always trying to keep one step ahead of the SEOs.”
Woj Kwasi - “The whole organic nature of earned links [is that they] just tend to be better. Because you have produced a reason for them the link to you and that’s been shared around the net.”
Aleyda Solis - “Outreach is needed when the industry is competitive and you're not a big brand or the leader in the industry.”
Here are the perspectives of those with years of experience in the field. I hope you find this as fascinating as I do. So let’s jump right in and go through what the speakers had to say.
Outreach is needed when the industry is competitive and you're not a big brand or the leader in the industry... then you need to make an effort to promote yourself and attract those links. The best links are those that you really need -with the type of authority, relevance and characteristics you're looking for – and most of the time is difficult that you will earn those "spontaneously" if you're not again an established brand. Then you need outreach, promotion, etc. to go get them... at least at the start.
Build them by connecting with your audience: creating content, resources, assets that can be easily promoted and will likely to be shared, endorsed and linked because they're useful, relevant and attractive to your users and community.
There's absolutely loads of great content laying around on the internet, so we are not short of content – it’s everywhere. But you need to raise awareness that that content exists, be it via outreach [or] via sharing that content with authorities. By getting into conversations with authorities and building some relationships with them, then the link comes as a by-product of the relationship if they are delighted with something that you have produced.
I don't think links just arrive of their own, from content, because there’s just loads of other content. Unless it's just absolutely amazing stuff that goes viral and suddenly everybody’s all over it. But even so, the people that are sharing are not always the ones that are capable of linking. They might not actually have a blog, they might not be journalists. So you have obviously the linkerati who are actually in a position to link to you. So they’re not always aware of content until you reach out to them.
If people are reaching out in a manufactured manner, in a prescriptive style, and it looks forced or it’s clearly being done as part of a production line, that kind of link is going to be increasingly devalued.
Links make up the web, obviously within the search engine system there is the link logs. Which look at the link maps that hold everything together. Google is a crawler; it is a link based crawling system. Obviously the anchor maps are there as well, to look at text around the link.
So everything is built around links, maybe over time some of those signals will be dampened a little. As they become more and more sophisticated at building other things into the algorithm to understand relevance.
Links are not going anywhere anytime soon, but great links will stand the test of time. So like natural, powerful, very authoritative links found within an education piece for instance sharing great knowledge. Those are the links that will last.
If you are concentrating on pushing content just for links, then you are not going earn links just because you are writing good content. Even if you create something that you know is going to be a success because it is really relevant to your audience, you will still need to promote and do outreach. So link earning and link building both need outreach which is the most complicated part.
The classic link building tactics still work really well, referred to a conservative link building. Such as monitoring your brand mentions. Every two weeks or so you can reach out to somebody who has mentioned your brand and ask them turn that have cited your brand into a link to your site.
These kind of tactics cannot be considered manipulative. By using brand mention claiming or image claiming tactics we are not paying for links, and it's not a manipulative way of getting links. We are really asking to recognize your own copyright, and proper use of our brand mentions and images. Some activities, such as companies [that] are paying bloggers for product reviews, [should result in] bloggers [placing] a nofollow on the link to the product pages to avoid a penalty.
The whole organic nature of earned links just tend to be better. Because you have produced a reason for them the link to you and that’s been shared around the net. Whereas if you are actively getting links you are kind of fabricating things. Links are a by-product of good work.
Maybe the percentage or the weighting of links might diminish, but it's still quite a heavy weighting. Because it is still a good sign of authority, and it's something that really distinguished Google for being a really good search engine versus all the meta crawlers that were out there at the time.
Links will need to be earned more and more, and to avoid penalties, don't buy links and don't fabricate the links building process.
Do the basics and make sure you get all your citations, all your NAP references and directories right. So that’s like a way of forcibly getting links, but providing a great user experience to get your content shared
Obviously you should have excellent content which should organically earn you links. So we know in some cases, for example a lawyer website, it is very hard for a lawyer to create good content that someone is going to link to. So in cases like that you do need to buy links.
Purchasing links isn't out of it altogether; it's still important to meet certain requirements to get to the first page. But earning your links is the way to go, and if you've got the capabilities to build really good content, then that’s where you should be focusing on.
People talk about really good quality content. For example, it's more about using what data you have and what insights can you put it into some sort of visualization that’s going to be valuable. That’s the kind of content that’s going to earn you links.
Google’s entire algorithm is based on sort of like a peer review system that you [have] with journalism where you cite other sources that are relevant and important to what you're talking about in your content. So I don't think links are ever going to stop being important, but will continue to be as important.
The methods by which you obtain your links and how you go about that is important. Its very obvious to me and to anyone who is looking at a page, and to Google too, if you are buying links and doing guest posts etc.
The thing that’s going to get you penalized most of all is your exact match anchor text.
If you've got great information, you really do need to be able to boost it, whether that be by relationships or by paid traffic. So again, I think it's a combination. But you have to have something to link to of value and substance to start with. So it's no use having something that’s poor quality and trying to propel that forward, it just won't work.
People have been talking about the death of links for a long time; the death of SEO for a long time. But that hasn't been the case. If anything SEO has become more important. But we have also seen certain platforms and systems that were once accepted are now on the sketchy side. If you are following the guidelines, and follow industry best practice, you are going to be abreast of it all. But as long as things are natural, and if a link is easy to get, then it's easy to get for everyone, so really try and earn the hard links naturally by doing something remarkable.
Be awesome and people will link to you. Also I don't much care about the links, but what I care about is that people get to the rmoove.com site in whatever way they get to it. To me it's more about our brand; it's more about creating something that’s helping people. And actually being helpful, because a lot people are having trouble trying to figure out how the whole links and penalties thing works. I wouldn't ever look at doing outreach because we don't have to. We just do what we do and that’s what gets us links anyway.
As far as the future of links, I don’t think its really ever going to change. There might be a different approach to how search engines want people the handle links, and how to want them to report them.
But fundamentally what Gary Illyes said is they are the building blocks of the internet, they're how we talk about each other, how we connect to each other, how we show others what we like and don't like. I don't think that can ever go away.
Matt & Liz Raad
Do things that attract links – so they are natural links but you've put in effort to make that happen. So you're not buying links, you're not manufacturing links. You're actually doing stuff out in the marketing that makes people want to link.
So if you just sit around waiting for passively earned links you might be waiting for a long time, especially if you're in a competitive market. You may have to help the process along a little.
Obviously Google is programming the algorithm more and more to pick up who’s the quality provider and the authority, who gives people the answer that they are looking for. Google has to protect its brand, they've got to make sure that what they deliver is what people want. So they have to design their algorithms in order to deliver that.
The measure of authority at the moment is still links. Making sure the links are natural, it can't be manufactured, it must be people actually wanting to link to you. You might influence that decision of someone wanting to link to you, because you created great content or you've done some PR.
But it's got to be off the bat of that other person to want to create the link to you. Google is only going to get better at this with Penguin hiding away in the background, waiting to come out again.
I don't think you can passively earn links unless you are a well-established brand; we work with a many SMEs and have no choice but to actively go out and get links. Sitting around waiting for good sites to link to your website is going to be an extremely slow process otherwise.
Don't cheat Google and have a diverse portfolio of good quality, niche and relevant links.
I know that there's this school of thought that says we should be outreaching and looking for broken links and offering content to fix them, and all that kind of stuff. It feels like for me a whole lot of work, so what I do is focus on trying to produce content that’s so awesome that people just naturally link to it.
I am sure there is benefit in pushing for those links, but it just feels to me a bit awkward and not something I’m particularly into doing.
Links will always be an important part of online marketing, not just for the Google juice, but for moving people from one site to the other. It's the very nature of the internet. Take [a] common sense approach, if it feels dodgy then it probably is. If the link maybe a little bit too easy to get, then maybe it wasn't a link worth having.
Who knows what Google’s going to do next, but if you take a common sense approach generally in all things SEO, you will never get burned.
Passive earned links are great, but as most SEO practitioners know, [they're] not always easy to get. I think with the right attitude towards actively obtaining links, outreach can be really beneficial. As long as you are always keeping an eye on your relevance, and focusing on people and not bots, actively seeking links doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
If you can build good relationships with bloggers and other businesses or always be on the lookout for relevant tie-ins, you can build relevant links that can be both valuable to your clients as well as website audiences. Once again relevance and quality [are] key, no links just for a link's sake!
The future of links is making sure you’re always focused on your audience and intent on providing value and an excellent user experience. [As long as you do this,] I don't think search engines will be penalizing you for your links. Instead of thinking of it as Search Engine Optimization I like to think of it as user experience optimization.
I look at it from the perspective of passive or active, and how hard is the link to replicate. If anyone can go and get it, weather its passive or active, if someone can just go and pay for it, or change it. I actually don't think that matters. But what matters is can it be replicated easily or not. So like, in Australia getting a link on abc.net.au is quite hard.
To avoid links, don't do sketchy stuff or you will get penalized. You may think you are sneakily getting away with it and nobody can see what you are doing, but Google can see you. Google just gets smarter and smarter. And you are not going to make money from it.
Instead, the future of links is about building unique functionality and great content that Google can't put in its little answer box. People will link to you for this kind of content, and you will have gone past the noise of the internet, and get some great links.
Passive earned links are ideal because that scales in the sense that if you can build and audience and people that actually genuinely care about your content and they naturally link to it, that’s ideal.
But I don't think that people should stop doing link building, because there's still a lot of value in getting high domain authority links. Especially if it's more from a PR perspective, [ask] yourself:
- Could I get in front of a new audience with this link?
- Does this link have other value besides just passing domain authority?
If it does, there's a really powerful impact from actively doing PR as outgoing link building.
I wouldn't worry about penalties unless you are doing things that theoretically you already know internally are wrong. So in other words, doing a really great interview with Forbes and getting a link from them is never going to hurt you.
But at the same time if you go on Fiverr and you buy 20,000 links, and know that it is probably being manipulative, then you might get penalized.
As long as you're just asking yourself: am I being non-manipulative? Then there’s no real way of getting into trouble.
If you have a good reputation in the industry that you're in, and you're regularly getting people that are linking to you and using you as their source of new perspectives and opinions, then you are in a good position to get those passive links.
If you're someone who doesn't have naturally really solid links, you might be running PR campaigns to get awareness, because you don't have many people who are referencing you as a reputable thought leader. It’s a good idea to use a PR agency to get the word out and find all those good connections.
I imagine that because of Google's algorithm, and the way that they are working on more natural ways of search, they will be looking to more and more accurately identify the difference between a paid links and an organically reached link.
So if you are a strong enough thought leader and are able to induce natural links going out from other people, then that is the better option in the end.
Google is a link-based engine; there is no question there. Look at the companies that are crushing it. They have a strategy and they do outreach. But if you can communicate in such as way that you have people responding without being poked and prodded and actively requesting. That’s the logical way to go.
We talk a lot about building a brand, or again a lot of jargon. But what it comes down to is if you want to get links, you ultimately need both, passively and to actively seek them out. But you can also plan your content and your communication in such a way so that you can ease the burden. So you don't always have to actively be getting links.
Google can only get better and we know they've got Penguin in the works. Some people want to believe that links are going away, kind of a meritocracy and give site the ranking they “deserve” without assessing links. But I don't believe that, I don't think links are going anywhere.
Were only going to see the restrictions get tighter and [Google] clamping down. Were going to see more manual actions. And were going to see more companies leaning away from explicitly focusing on just links, and treating them as a by-product as opposed to the one all important thing.
The kind of outreach I would recommend is to find brand mentions that don't have a link to your site and just reach out and ask for a link. There are other kinds on non-intrusive ways to ask for links. Such as to have awesome content, or a brilliant tool that is really worth linking to. This way the outreach tone changes away from the idea of asking for a link but rather informing people of the link opportunity, and giving the instructions on how they can be involved in such a great thing.
The future of links is almost the same as it was all those years ago when the internet was first created. But there will be more variety, coming from mobile apps and other emerging tech. We need links, it's how documents are connected. However the way the algorithm gives weight to those links could change, and for the better.
I see no problem linking naturally to a document using the appropriate anchor text, but because links have been abused in such as way, it's likely we will see more penalties to reduce the unnatural links that are often being created. This is the direction Google is taking and I see no indication that says they will become softer or weaker on webspam anytime soon.
You can acquire links just by getting earned links, but you can also manually reach out to sites and acquire branded links. There is an opportunity out there to do some outreach, and to ask questions to acquire links. Because at the end of the day if you're an SMB or an medium size business, you can't just sit around and wait for the links to come in, because they aren't going to.
If you're a larger business, you probably will get a lot of natural links coming in, because large businesses do have the ability to secure those natural links.
If you are building a large amount of generic low quality links you probably need to cease doing those types of strategies. But if you are building high quality links or getting a lot of natural press placement etc. you will probably avoid penalties. The thing is you need to be focussing on quality not quantity.
It’s really a mix depending on where you are with your overall SEO strategy. If you're a brand new site, obviously you're going to have to do a lot more outreach. Once you're established, then the links are going to come a lot easier. So you don't have to be constantly be thinking about going out and finding them.
SEOs are always trying to keep one step ahead of Google. And Google is always trying to keep one step ahead of the SEOs. We seen many, many times over the years, things like guest blogging for example was a fabulous way to get links. It worked for quite a few years until Google finally put a crackdown on it because people were using it for really spammy purposes.
There is always going to be an evolution of how things are developing in the industry. Some tactics that were A-OK a few years ago are bad now. I am sure there tactics used today that in two or three years time are going to be horrible. So that’s just the evolution of search industry really.
Google is usually pretty good, and they will make comments, for example when it was all about guest blogging. To kind of warn us, Matt Cutts did a blog post about the death of guest blogging. And so often when it comes to these tactics, the writing's on the wall. We can tell when Google is starting to take notice or frowning upon something we're doing like that. Definitely pay attention to what's happening in the industry. And know that it’s very likely that some of the things that we're doing now, will not be A-OK a few years from now.
Posting a piece of content and thinking everyone’s going to love it and share it just because you posted it means you either have no clue about what really happens, or you know you are really, really good.
Our job as marketers is to create the awesome piece of content and then give it the best chance to succeed by pushing it.
Outreach is absolutely necessary and I wouldn't dream of creating a great piece of content and letting it sit on the shelf. I would put all my effort into promoting it; making sure it's visible. This doesn't have to [mean] going around begging people to link to it.
This includes involving people in the engagement of the creation of that content, giving feedback afterwards or simply advertising to people about the piece of content. For example, [use] Taboola or Outbrain to make it visible. Then if it's good enough, then of course it will take off.
Google is a link-based search engine; everything they do is based on the calculation of reputation based on links and connections. It's going to be a while until they steer away from that, if ever they do. I think links are always going to be one of the signals because it's so valuable and so simple and elegant.
The future of links; my utopian version of it would be for Google to simply ignore links that are cheating, inorganic links. So that they just don't work. So once people realize that their link spamming no longer actually works, they would stop doing it.
I think it is important for Google to keep improving the algorithm to a point where spammy inorganic links just don't do the job.
We already know they can ignore footer links, and detect if links are in the content or in the boilerplate elements of the site wide template. So if they distinguish these kinds of links, then in the future they should be able to distinguish a commercially motivated link versus a nice editorial link, which is what they are wanting to see.
You can reach a state where you don't have to worry about links anymore. Links will just come naturally for your site. But of course it's very hard to start off your site and to reach that state. So you will probably need to figure out how to reach a state where links will naturally flow. Active link building is perfectly fine if you are mindful about what you are doing.
If you are buying links then it suddenly becomes really bad. If you are just pointing out to a news site for example that they are writing about you but they never linked to you, and that you do have a great page where their users can find more information, then I don't see a problem with that.
Google gives out surprisingly few penalties compared to how big the Internet is. You do have to have to do something really nasty to get a penalty for links. For example, buying lots of links from casino sites that sell Viagra without a prescription, it is likely that you will get a manual action.
But if you are mindful about how you get the links, then it shouldn't be a problem.
Key Takeaways About Links
While awesome content does produce links, in many cases it is not possible to just naturally get links by simply producing good content, and then waiting for people to link to it. In some cases, it is possible to have such great content that links will naturally occur. But this is usually after such momentum has already begun as the result of some pushing out via social networks or other mechanism for content promotion.
When building links, it’s important to create branded links and use solid brand building tactics Refrain from placing crafted anchor text or asking people for certain text in the links. Once you start doing this, you risk creating a footprint that is unnatural and could result in a penalty. For finding brand mentions to link to your site, use SEMrush Brand Monitoring.
To actively promote your content, so you can spread your brand message and increase visibility, and thus naturally occurring links you could a paid service such as Outbrain.com. But it is also likely that those who are capable of linking to you, may need to be reached out to, so they also know your content exists.
Summary: Big Digital Adelaide 2016 Event and Speakers
This was the first year for the Big Digital Adelaide conference, and the word is it was a huge success. I was very pleased to be a speaker at the event, and I found to be a great pleasure to be able to offer my knowledge and experience to the audience. The lineup of international and Australian speakers was second to none, and topics covered a wide range of all things in the Digital Marketing space.
Unfortunately, I could not include all the speakers here in this article. However, I am very much looking forward to continuing on with the relationships which started in Adelaide. I am sure all attendees feel this way. There was a great community spirit and one which we are very hopeful will spill over into the next years event too, when I hope to get another update about the future of links.
What do you think is the future of links?