SEO is probably one of the hottest topics in the Internet marketing world. There are literally thousands of blogs, websites, and forums dedicated to teaching you the arcane art of search engine optimization. Within the realm of this complex pseudoscience there lay two main distinctions:
On-page SEO: Manipulating aspects of the content you place on your own website/blog/web property to make it more “appealing” to Google.
Off-page SEO: Pointing positive signals back to your site (most notably links) to demonstrate to Google that your website is deserving of a high ranking. Off-page SEO is based primarily around the concept that Google views inbound links to a website as being a vote of authority and relevancy; the more votes your website receives, the higher it should rank (theoretically).
Of the two, it is off-page SEO/link building that is certainly the most glamorous and popular among webmasters, bloggers, SEO agencies and freelancers, and anyone else interested in getting a website to the top of Google. Link building is the Superbowl of SEO; on-page is basically the Little League.
But is link building really as important as many – often those who just coincidentally happen to be selling you some form of link building training or software – happen to claim?
This article takes a somewhat more theoretical approach to the important topic of link building vis-à-vis Internet marketing, and relates it to a case study based on my brother’s website, www.3dprinterplans.info
I am the first to admit that using a single website for a quasi-case-study isn’t the most accurate or “scientific” method in the world. However, it provides a digestible and effective cornerstone for examining whether link building is in fact a waste of time.
Let the games begin…
The Empirical Evidence Against Link Building
My brother’s website, launched in the first half of 2013, has grown rapidly to average around 350-400 unique visitors daily. He is already making a healthy daily profit from Adsense, as well as seeing fledgling sales through the Amazon Associates program.
Although the 3D printing industry is in its infancy, there is massive mainstream interest (from those who understand the incredible potential that additive manufacturing offers, as well as “establishment” interests who are paranoid about perceived risk from 3D printed guns etc.) This overwhelming interest means that there are already many websites, including established tech/science/politics blogs, which discuss 3D printing at great length.
My younger brother created this website with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of SEO and link building. As far as I am aware, he has never deliberately embarked on any form of manual link building beyond placing profile links on his YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter profiles. However, he does not sit in front of his computer for hours on end creating crappy link wheels, article directory submissions (after all, article syndication sucks), rubbish 20 second slide videos, or any of that traditional link building “crap” that seems to be so popular these days.
Instead, all he does to promote his website is write, and then update social media services about what he has just written.
He creates at least a thousand words of unique content every day, and enriches it with great images and video. And then he just submits it to his site without doing much more than the most rudimental on-page SEO.
The curious case of 3D Printer Plans has therefore made me think long and hard about how link building could actually be a total waste of time for many aspiring webmasters, bloggers, and Internet marketers.
It’s possible to chalk up the growing success of the website to a total fluke or good fortune. After all, it is just a one-off case study. However, the more I look at the everyday realities of SEO and link building (as part of my online marketing career and day job) the more I’m becoming convinced that link building is not the be-all-and-end-all of search ranking success.
My (Embryonic) Link Building Theory
Perhaps I was too hasty to entitle this blog post as I did; I don’t actually think that link building is a complete waste of time.
The problem I do have with the current modus operandi of 99% of link builders, however, is that it is used as a substitute for providing any quality information to the Internet community at large. Most webmasters and Internet marketers are content to dole out any old shite in terms of content, and will instead rely on the power of link building to try and artificially inflate the perceived worth of that content, thereby trying to attain higher rankings and search traffic than is deserved.
Fundamentally, my still-developing theory on link building postulates that if link building is being used as a turd polishing device, then it is a waste of time. Remember that you cannot polish a turd, no matter how hard you try – eventually you will be caught out for good. However, if you are committed primarily to ensuring that you offer valuable, engaging, and unique content to the masses then you should engage in some discrete link building to help share your message with the world.
I have reached this conclusion against the backdrop of Google becoming increasingly effective (or at least dedicated) at determining which sites are naturally good, and which sites are bad but using the SEO equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs to hide the fact.
Consider the cumulative years of Google algorithm changes that have completely changed the web-scape forever. This particular blog post is interested in analysing whether or not Google’s updates have been effective or properly-implemented (I am the first to admit that there has been some awful collateral damage from heavy handed updates such as Panda and Penguin) but simply identifying that as Google increasingly focuses on the quality and relevancy of content being placed in front of its audience, the role of link building will probably have to diminish.
The SEO cosmos are gradually aligning to create a world in which quality, relevancy for real users (as espoused by social signals) and trust are the deal breakers for top Google rankings. This can be seen in the three factors that Google seem to consistently be stressing regarding what constitutes a site being a top contender:
1) Quality & relevancy of on-site content
2) Presentation and accessibility for the visitor
3) Natural inbound signals (links and social signals)
These three factors form the bulk of what is considered a Google-friendly site.
Let’s focus for a moment on point number three. Google has clearly identified that natural inbound links are acceptable. The problem is that all that “killer” link building training you’ve been purchasing, all those mastermind webinars you’ve been watching, and all that software you’ve been buying for pumping out totally whitehat (/sarc) links is the complete opposite of natural. It’s all artificial. And Google can certainly tell the difference between natural and artificial links:
Natural links develop, well, naturally. It is an organic process that involves other people coming to your site, checking out your content, and then deciding to share it with the rest of the world. I would also argue that some elements of manual link building are natural as well. For example, Google is not going to penalize you for adding a link back to your website from your branded Facebook channel, or Google Plus Page, or YouTube Channel. However, this doesn’t give you licence to pay some poor guy a handful of dollars to spam your URL to hundreds of profiles across the web that are totally unrelated to the subject of your website (yes, I’m talking about the infamous profile backlinks craze). I think when it comes to manual link building the secret is to ask yourself whether your links are contextually relevant. A link from your Twitter bio to your blog about golf training is contextually relevant. It will help your readers on Twitter find your site. A link to your blog about golf training from a teenage poetry forum profile is not contextually relevant. You’re only putting it there in the hope of manipulating rankings.
Almost every single link building method, tactic, and “hack” that you are likely to be sold the secrets of in training courses and software probably contravenes Google’s webmaster guidelines anyway. Google has made it explicitly clear here the types of so-called link schemes that it considers unacceptable:
* Mass link exchanges
* Mass article marketing and guest posting with targeted anchor text
* Using software to build links
* Low-quality directory links
* Bookmark site links
* Sitewide links
* Spammy forum signature links
* Mass press releases with excessive anchor text links
* Footer links
Look back through your email inbox on the types of link building training/software offers that are being hyped up as the next big thing. You’ll notice that 99% of them probably fall into one or more of the categories above.
At the most basic level, all you need to do for link building is create top-notch social media profiles (as well as profiles on RELEVANT niche websites). Use these for branded development and inbound links that you generate manually. Next, rely on the awesomeness of your content to get other people talking about your website… and leave the ninja secrets to dominating Google with XYZ link method at home.
A Note On What Constitutes Quality Content
So if you’re gonna give up on the junk link building and switch to the light side of the SEO force – good content – how do you do it?
The quality and relevancy of on-site content is easy enough to understand: If you are offering your visitors what they want when they search in Google, and your content isn’t out dated (unless it is on a truly timeless subject) then you cannot go far wrong. The problem I see a lot is that people tend to misunderstand the true meaning of quality. Unfortunately, quality doesn’t just mean a “unique arrangement of words that don’t really teach or offer anything useful” but rather something crafted with sound research/expert insight, stellar presentation, and which truly delivers on the promise made in the title.
Therefore, if you’re going to jump ship from link building to generating quality content you need to understand that so-called “filler” content is not going to cut the mustard. This means no more filling your website with articles you’ve outsourced for one cent a word, or spun up using some proprietary tool, or traded for a pack of chewing gum or whatever. Filler content still has a role to play on Web 2.0 sites, mini blogs etc IF you are doggedly sure that you want to stick to those kinds of methods (I don’t) but for goodness’ sake avoid it on your main money websites. I don’t care what you say; you cannot outsource a quality article for less than about $5 per 100 words – and even that rate is being generous. For example, I charge approximately double that for all but the closest clients. More if you want academic grade research as well.
And if you’re writing articles yourself as opposed to outsourcing them, then you had better put a great deal of effort into the research phase of your writing. It helps to have your websites and blogs in niches that at least marginally interest you. I know, for example, that I could never commit to writing a blog about deep sea bass fishing as I simply find fishing intolerable (now eating the fish… that’s another story). Trust me when I say that your readers are going to realize sooner rather than later if you’re heart isn’t in the articles that you write, or if you have no great knowledge on the topic. Remember that there are other webmasters in your niche who already don’t care or are ignorant of SEO, and who instead focus only on the writing aspect of their sites and blogs. These guys are now your competition.
Why The Continued Obsession With Linking Then?
If you haven’t already clicked the back button in derision at my heretic theory, then thanks for reading so far. At this stage I feel it’s appropriate to address the question of why link building training, software, and other such resources continue to be peddled to the masses at such a high volume, despite the growing weight of evidence to suggest that you can get by just fine creating awesome content that people want to read.
The answer is simple – it’s all about the dollar dollar bills.
The massive guru industry that pervades the Internet marketing sphere loves anything that can be compartmentalized, hyped, and pitched mercilessly over a short period of time. Link building and off-page SEO in general fulfils the aforementioned requirement perfectly. Because there are so many different sources of links and inbound signals – and new ones are always coming ripe for plunder – this facilitates a practically limitless continuance of the “fungal” nature of guru-style training products and software.
By fungal, I mean the manner in which a new host (i.e. link building opportunity) is infected and rapidly swamped with growth, before it dies off and the whole entourage disperses to the next available method. We have all seen it before; a new opportunity for developing links and traffic arises – think Pinterest a few years ago – and once a few wise SEOs/gurus/marketers realize the potential of the source, it is quickly flooded by growing numbers of people all seeking to stake their claim to a slice of the pie. Eventually the host must become “exhausted”, and the trend-setters up and move to the next fertile opportunity, thereby starting the whole lifecycle once more.
It is this inherent cyclical nature of mass-market link building that ensures its continued dominance as the marketing method du jour, because it enables the trendsetters to profit off teaching the latecomers how to exploit that particular link source.
My first experience with this was with Ezine Articles, way back in the heyday of article directory marketing. Some clever people discovered that by submitting keyword optimized articles to Ezine Articles (and other directories) you could very quickly rank in the top pages of Google and generate a great deal of referral traffic to one’s websites and blogs. Many of the earlier articles submitted to Ezine Articles were of great quality and highly informative. Word soon spread of this oasis of traffic and profit, and it wasn’t long before email inboxes across the globe were filling with promises from gurus and other such information-peddlers of “killer results”, “Google-proof rankings”, and “tidal waves of red-hot buyer traffic” from Ezine Articles. Just hand over a nominal sum, and all shall be revealed. We all know how the story goes… Soon EZA was festooned with people submitting poorly spun or rehashed, often meaningless content that was designed only to generate quick links and easy resource box clicks. This was repeated all over the web on other directories as well. Dime a dozen content became the norm, and many were complicit in selling training, software, and services that facilitated the rape and pillage of this oasis of traffic and links. The management of EZA were, of course, content with this new status quo anyway because it meant more visitors to the site and more ad revenue for them.
But then Google caught wind of these content farms. You couldn’t search anything long-tail related (especially in popular niches like weight loss, dating, and insurance) without sifting through an endless sea of garbage articles designed only to artificially generate traffic and links – rather than inform. In early 2011 the death knell sounded, and Google Panda basically wiped these content farms off the face of the map forever (if you have no idea what I’m talking about by the way, then read here, here, and finally here).
Almost as soon as this happened, the trendsetters and gurus discovered that YouTube videos were red hot for Google rankings and click through traffic. This opened the floodgates to masses of Warrior Special Offers, hatchet-job Clickbank products, and tedious guru webinars that basically taught all and sundry to find a bunch of profitable keywords, and then spam those keywords with twenty second screen captured Powerpoint slides. Some even went so far as to suggest just downloading and editing other peoples’ videos, saving even more time. Then YouTube started banning people and shutting down many accounts involved in this kind of activity (which was probably sold to those doing it as being “totally Google proof man” or something along those lines). And so the whole caravan moved to Pinterest – anyone else remember those autopinning programs that were all the rage? Now it’s probably Kindle or something that’s being touted as the hot SEO technique; I mean everyone totally has the skills to write a book and sell it. By the way, I haven’t even mentioned the hype about Web 2.0, social media, and all the other strategies that have been subjected to mass looting.
Anyone who has been involved in the SEO or Internet marketing field will have seen the pattern emerge. A new form of link building is espoused by those in the know, who are at the right end of the bell curve. Saturation point is reached when the info products and training emails start flying, and then it’s off to the next thing.
The chance for trendsetters, gurus, and “wannabe gurus” to profit from their SEO teachings and software would be massively reduced if people came to realize that delivering quality content was more important than delivering anything resembling content, and then plastering over the gaps with link building. After all, providing quality content is fundamentally as simple as determining what it is your audience wants, and then providing it to them in a manner that suits their tastes and needs. Beyond the technical aspects of content delivery (such as writing in an engaging manner and so on – the type of thing that would be too labour intensive for the average fly-by-night info product seller to bother teaching) there is little room for manoeuvring.
However, by promising untold traffic, rankings, and ultimately riches through link building it becomes possible to sell a great deal more information to the same people time and time again. Rather than just saying “consistently deliver what your audience will love and eventually you will be rewarded” it is much more profitable to the so-called guru brigade to endlessly claim to hold the key to unlocking the latest hot link building method, for some arbitrary price that always ends in a seven.
In a sense one could argue that link building therefore offers a convenient aspect of built-in obsolescence for the people who profit most from it. In a given period of time that “hot” linking method will fall by the wayside as Google either reduces its effectiveness (such as what happened to article directories in the Panda debacle) or it becomes so saturated that its utility inexorably declines in a sort of Tragedy of the Commons-style downfall. By this stage the trendsetters have already found the next big thing, and have already started selling the “fool-proof methods” to gurus and the like, who then repackage that information for the consumption of their own customer networks who suddenly find themselves needing a new linking method to replace the decaying old one.
Conclusion – The Pen Is Mightier Than The Link
I’m sure that this blog post will raise eyebrows and irritate a great many people. That is entirely my intention, as I think it is important that this topic enters popular discourse to a greater extent. I, for one, am growing tired of seeing so many aspiring newbies (and even more experienced Internet marketers) have their aspirations of online success quashed by trying to build links at the expense of offering useful content. So what if those overhyped link building methods work? All the traffic they deliver is of little use in the event that a website has content that is of an insufficient standard to maintain visitor interest and convert those prospects into sales.
Even in the past few years I get the feeling that the average web user has become increasingly savvy and adverse to substandard content. A quick and unscientific canvassing of some of my peers revealed that all of them will leave a website all-but-immediately if it does not offer precisely what they were looking for. Furthermore, the majority of them only recourse to websites they have already determined offer great information/content on any given subject. I also do this myself; for example I enjoy keeping abreast of developments in computer hardware and consumer electronics, and I have about five websites on the subject that I bookmark to read daily. I NEVER search in Google for anything related to this topic unless I absolutely have to, simply as I hate wasting my time when I wind up clicking on a listing only to discover thinly-veiled affiliate copy or filler content. Keeping this in mind, it should be of little wonder to you why – in the event that you have focused on using off-page SEO to boost rankings at the expense of nurturing quality content – you might not be making as much as you would have hoped from your burgeoning traffic base. Perhaps your visitors were expecting more value from their time input into your site?
As an aside, I believe this is why Google continues to place great importance on brands (and in turn encourages brand building as best practice). Authoritatively-branded websites tend to offer a holistic experience that encourages repeat visits and builds trust. For example, I trust Toms Hardware for information about the latest video cards for my computer, because they deliver on-point articles that keep me reading for hours. Conversely, I am unlikely to peruse “top10videocards2013.com” that has poorly-written and highly-promotional articles. You catch my drift. Brands deliver a consistent experience that customers crave in this day and age.
So perhaps it is time for you to consider that the pen (or more specifically the keyboard) is mightier than the link. You see link building is increasingly becoming a waste of your time and a poor investment of energy if you are using it only to artificially inflate the ranking of content that doesn’t actually deliver what the target audience wants. Sure, if you cast your net wide enough will eventually hit some sales, but I’m sure you will agree that the “spray and pray” methodology is flawed when compared to targeting with pinpoint, laser-guided precision.
In light of the above, I strongly suggest that you spend some time ensuring that your website content is absolutely top notch. Ditch the overpriced link building manuals and software for a while (or at least stick to ethical and long-term-minded options) and instead focus on delivering a holistically superb experience to your readers.
My brother does this fantastically with his 3D printing website, which I used as a case study at the start of this piece. He puts his heart and soul into what he writes – even his news pieces take a lot of effort – and this shows from his growing traffic. I’m sure he would benefit from link building in terms of ranking even higher in Google, but only now have I suggested this to him as he as his house squarely in order already.
Instead of polishing digital turds, try giving people what they really want up-front. The results might take longer to arrive in some instances, but they will surely be more consistent and reliable in the long run.