Throughout a typical day I routinely take a few quick scrolls through my Twitter feed to see if there is any earth-shattering industry news I need to be aware of and nearly every day I see people talking in circles about things as if merely talking about them is more important than actually doing them.
And as vague as search engines are about what they expect from Internet marketers, it inevitably leads to a lot of speculation, for better and worse. These are a few link building industry hot topics that I think we we’ve talked in circles about long enough that we’ve done more harm than good – especially to novice link builders and to small businesses taking our advice and trying to put it in practice on their own.
First of all, this whole “relationship building” thing that is all the buzz within SEO Twitter chats right now – as if the idea that people are more likely to do something for someone they know than they are for a stranger is something new – is weird and, if I’m honest, borders on selfish. If you move into any relationship in your life the way this “tactic” encourages you to approach potential link opportunities (ie, with the idea that they need to “build a relationship” with someone for the sole purpose of getting something out of them) you’re going to end up lonely... and linkless.
Building relationships between yourself (or, let’s face it, the outreach persona you’re using) and a webmaster for the sole purpose of getting a link out of them makes you a jerk. Furthermore, it often doesn’t matter how much trust you build for yourself in the person you’re contacting for a link. If your link truly makes sense (not just “makes sense” as in you have created some kind of weird relevance connection [more on this later] in your head to justify contacting someone for a link) and you are capable of crafting a half-decent email articulating why it makes sense for them to link to you, then they’re going to link to you.
Okay, maybe it’s not always that simple, and a lot of links take a great amount of work to acquire, but at the end of the day there’s only one reason someone (who you’d actually want a link from) will link to you: because it makes sense. Not because you spent a couple days building a fake relationship with them just to ask for a link after you’ve effectively stolen their time, only to never contact them again after you’ve got what you wanted.
That’s not what ethical link building looks like.
Relationship building is something you should be doing because it’s just a good business sense. Building and maintaining good relationships will lead to links, no doubt, but it shouldn’t be thought of solely as a link building strategy. Besides, a solid relationship is infinitely more valuable than any link could ever be. Example: the time Tony Dimmock – and myself to a lesser extent – defended SEMrush against some grumpy guy on Twitter. Oh, and yeah, Tony did just get a link out of that. ;)
And while we’re on the topic of misguided, sensationalized ways to approach link building, I’d like to take a stab at “link earning.” I see this phrase mentioned time and time again: “create great content that will *earn* links for you!”
Okay, that sounds great and it’ll certainly get you a half-dozen retweets in your favorite Twitter chat, but it doesn’t help a single person. Proponents of “link earning” may be touting a noble and perhaps ultra-white-hat approach to link building, but they fall short in the one area they should be focusing on: actually promoting a website. You can’t do a great job at website promotion without manual link building, at least not with any websites that could benefit from it the most (read: small businesses with content no one yet knows about).
Anyone who tells you to put all of your effort into creating “great” content and allowing it to attract links all on its own is advising you to leave a lot on the table. There is absolutely nothing wrong with building links manually. Furthermore, if a particular piece of content is good enough to earn links on its own, it is exactly the type of content you should be promoting manually.
Moz’s Domain Authority is a decent reference point to get a very quick snapshot of a site’s general standing among all other sites on the Internet without diving too deep, but it should not be considered a reliable metric with which one can predict, or measure, a site’s potential to rank and it can’t be used as a means to assign a given link’s actual value to your site.
This is because Domain Authority does not indicate whether or not a site has been penalized and it can not determine what, if any, value Google or any other search engine places on a website. Having a high DA doesn’t automatically equate to a site having a high quality backlink portfolio. Heck, the links that Moz uses to calculate DA aren’t even necessarily the same links that Google uses when determining if a site is worthy of ranking.
That’s not to say DA isn’t incredibly useful in other ways. I do look at the Domain Authority of nearly every site I visit. It helps to give me a very quick and rough estimate of how many links may be pointing to it. For instance, when searching out competitors with backlink profiles that I may want to analyze, I may (but not always) be more likely to ignore a site as a potential link opportunity if it has a very low domain authority.
If I’m reading any facts from a site with a low DA, I’m probably going to be less likely to trust them and am almost certainly going to be double-checking what I have just read on their site. What I’m not going to do is seek out a link based on how much it will increase my client’s Domain Authority.
By all means, use Domain Authority to help yourself determine what competitors or content may be outperforming your own efforts, but don’t rely on it (or any other third party metric) to track your success.
Be careful not to let your idea of relevance pigeonhole you into an area of the Internet where you may not see the results you would with a more broad approach. If you have a website selling business cards, a first instinct might be to obtain a bunch of links from mainly business blogs, but what about the mom who just really loves your product and throws a quick blurb about her new business cards she bought from your site last week into an otherwise irrelevant post?
What about the wedding planner who linked to your Photoshop tutorial in a small section for amateur photographers at the end of an article of hers? What about this example from Julie Joyce (now that’s some A+ link earning!)?
@tonyxrandall I have a link from Right Wing News, just for being a tolerable liberal.
— JulieJoyce (@JulieJoyce) November 27, 2015
Don’t be afraid of “irrelevant” links, because most credible sites have them. In my opinion, it probably looks more like manipulation if you don’t have a few irrelevant links pointing to your site. You should seek only links that make sense to the humans who would see them, but as long as you are not attracting links from malicious websites, don’t worry about whether or not search engines deem all of your backlinks as relevant.
Heck, the fact that websites continue to rank with irrelevant links and spammy techniques is probably a good indicator that the algorithms aren’t very good at determining what is relevant anyways. Furthermore, lots of the best links you could get are from websites that aren’t wholly relevant to yours: large news and media outlets, EDUs, organizations and government agencies, etc.
Similarly, I find it strange when I see SEOs talking about building “natural” links almost in the same breath that they try to condemn anything that appears “unnatural.” Build links without actually looking like you’re building links, right? When I think about these conversations I can’t help but feel that what they’re talking about is at least slightly disingenuous and it’s almost ironic considering that our black-hat spammer counterparts are at least honest about what they’re doing (well, maybe not honest with Google, but they are honest with themselves).
Also, there are a lot of links that are completely natural that would be frowned upon as a current link building tactic – forum signatures, blog comments, etc. – things that real humans on the Internet do without any knowledge or thought towards SEO. I’m not saying we should revert back to such tactics (please don’t). What I am saying is that there are plenty of ways to link to a website completely “naturally” that can be abused.
So, what is a “natural” link anyways? A common definition by members the SEO community is that it is a link that would happen (or appear as though it happened) without any intervention by SEOs. If that’s the case then we’re simultaneously advising our clients to not hire us in the first place. Every link created by a human, whether for SEO purposes or not, is a “natural” link. Focus on building links that aren’t garbage and actually help people, rather than simply appearing natural to search engines. Link responsibly, but also link however you want.
I sincerely hope my ramblings will offer some form of guidance to anyone who seeks it. There are lots of incredibly informative conversations happening constantly about these topics, but it can be hard to discern what is helpful advice and what is just adding to the echo chamber.
Anthony Randall is the head of the link building team at Rizolt Marketing. In his free time he enjoys rocking out, drinking root beer, eating pizza and owning the coolest car. Also his dog, Luna, is the cutest dog on the planet, no contest.