Over the last few days, I've read a few articles about link building and it seems some people are STILL confused about this key aspect of website success. If that's you this article will provide the bridge between the sometimes impenetrable language used by people who know about this stuff and the rest of the world.
What Is A Link?
With respect to website success, or in other words getting your website to appear in Google search results, a link or hyperlink is a piece of text that when clicked takes people TO a page on your website FROM a page on another. You can also use images and other media but to keep things simple let's stick to text links.
For example, if this article was about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and I wanted to reference something that explained SEO I might link to WikiPedia, like this - "for an in-depth overview of SEO check out this great SEO explainer on WikiPedia"
As an aside, if you really are confused about SEO then our own SEO explained page might be just what you're looking for.
A link achieves a couple of things.
- It provides a simple mechanism for a web page author to reference supporting material. In the example above it's a WikiPedia entry.
- It tells Google that a web page is popular. A link is like a vote or an endorsement.
Now for most people the first thing, the referencing, is pretty obvious. Most people get the fact that web pages can link to other web pages by means of text links or hyperlinks. The most obvious use of links is menu items on web pages.
In fact, hyperlinking was the main reason Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the web. He wanted a simple way for himself and his fellow academics to link to other academic papers. Please hold this thought.
The second item in our list, however, is sometimes a source of confusion. The whole 'voting for' or 'endorsing' thing is a concept some people don't get. After all, you might want to link to something from a web page and you're definitely not voting for it or endorsing it! Say for example you were writing a blog post about how much you disliked a particular brand, you might link to their website to reference them, but you sure don't want Google to think you actually like them.
Thankfully there's a mechanism for linking without endorsing, it's called a nofollow link and it's explained here. See what I did there?
Recap - The Two Things a Link Achieves
So now you should be clear that a link achieves two things. It provides a mechanism to reference other web pages and it suggests to Google a web page is popular unless the link is no-followed as explained above.
Why The Endorsement?
So now you may be wondering about this whole voting/endorsing thing. Is it important and should you care? Indeed, it's this aspect of links and link building that causes the most confusion. When I speak to people and mention links they often say something like "you mean the websites our site links to?" and it's easy so see why they're confused.
Let's go back to what I said earlier. I said that with respect to search engine success a link TO a page on your website FROM a page on another website is a good thing. But why? Well, because those links are the main thing Google measures to figure out the good from the bad.
Google's search engine software isn't clever enough to analyse web pages to figure out which is the best. No, the way Google tries to organise search results and the way it decides which web page to put at No.1 is based on links and it goes back to the original reason for hyperlinking, it goes all the way back to Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
A Potted History of Google
In their paper called "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine" delivered at WWW7 in Brisbane Australia in 1998 Google founders Lawrence Page and Sergey Brin provided a solution to the problem of indexing lots of web pages and making them searchable by using hypertext information, in other words links in web pages.
Incidently I was at this conference delivering my paper on Delivering computer assisted learning across the WWW. I haven't enjoyed quite the same success as Sergey and Larry...
The Google founders, themselves academics like Sir Tim, figured that a good way to organise web pages was to measure their popularity. So far so good but how can you measure how popular a web page is? Simple! Count the number of other web pages that have links FROM them TO the page you want to analyse.
A Simple Example
Google knows about and has indexed, 37500 pages on the subject of Norton Commando spare parts. A Norton Commando is a British motorcycle built in the 1960's and 70's. So, somebody like me who owns one of these bikes might type into Google the search phrase "norton commando spare parts" to find components for the refurbishment work I'm doing.
In the blink of an eye, Google throws up many pages of results and I cast my eye over them to decide which one to click. This part most people get, but if you were the owner of a spare parts company and your website was on the fourth or fifth page of these search results where virtually nobody looks, you'd be annoyed and confused.
You might look at the pages on page one of the results and especially at the pages sat at positions 1, 2 and 3 and wonder why they are there and not you. You might look at those pages and establish your pages are nicer to look at, have better information and indeed better prices. You might conclude that Google is being unfair!
But wait, Google's just a 'dumb' machine. How can it possibly know your content is better? After all, no other web pages link to your web pages so they are clearly not popular and therefore not very good. They certainly shouldn't be ranked above the pages that have lots of links from other web pages, the pages that are measurably more popular than yours.
So Where Are We?
We've established Google's search engine software is automated, we've established it measures popularity by looking at links and we've looked at where this idea came from. From here it might seem that the answer is simple, we just need to 'get' links to shoot up the rankings and reap the rewards. Well yes, in simple terms that is all we have to do but before you rush off, consider this. Not all links are equal.
Good Links v Bad Links
Once people figured out how Google ranked sites using its link-based calculations an industry was born. An industry that has plagued the internet filling up servers with garbage and clogging up Google's search results with millions of pages nobody would ever want to read.
In simple terms the link building industry created thousands of fake websites full of meaningless content, often machine-generated gibberish, with the sole purpose of selling links buried in this content to make other web pages look important. In short this industry helped people fake popularity.
These are bad links.
The problem was that up until about 2012 these bad links were enough to get your web pages to the top of Google with all the commercial rewards this could bring. Companies were built on and prospered, using these links.
Those who relied on creating useful content and securing merit based links, good links, suffered. Their websites were buried on page 3/4/5 etc as the sites who bought the bad links rose to the top. Something had to give, and give it did. Google fought back.
Panda's, Penguins and Other Animals
You may have heard of Google's Panda and Penguin updates. If you haven't don't worry. In short, Google updated its software to help it to recognise bad links. When it found them it discounted their value and when it found sites using them it sometimes punished the sites by removing them from its index. Think about that for a moment.
Friday evening you leave work and your website is sat at number one in Google for some valuable search phrases and the orders are flooding in. Monday morning you go to work and your site doesn't appear anywhere in Google and the orders have dried up. For many businesses this was a reality and they went bust. The takeaway is that playing with links can be like playing with fire, they can seriously damage your business.
Enough History and Background, How Can I Get Links?
Hopefully you've now got the low down on why links are important and you're convinced that cheating isn't the way to go. So what's the best way to secure links?
Link building can be split into two broad groups those being active link building and passive link building. I'll deal with passive link building first.
Passive Link Building
Passive link building is what happens when you create fabulous content that other people love. As the name suggests you acquire links passively, not by asking for them. Passive link building should be foremost in your mind when you're creating your content strategy; that is, thinking about the kind of content your market and potential clients need.
For example as part of your business to business lead generation you will put together a strategy that creates content that provides answers to your potential clients problems. You'll develop an understanding of your client's pain points, figure out what they search for to solve those problems and create content that shows them you're the go-to company with the solutions to their problem.
If you get this right you'll get links, especially if you get your content in front of the right people using social media etc. In time, this will increase the authority of your site making it easier to rank and get more content in front of people. It's a virtuous circle.
Having said that it's not easy. Creating fabulous content is time-consuming and requires a range of skills including writing, design and creativity. If you haven't got the skills in-house you might need to consider hiring an inbound marketing company. Attracting prospects in this way is called inbound marketing, but the return on this investment can be both significant and (more) importantly measurable; a rare thing in the marketing world!
Get passive link building right through your content creation and promotion activity and you'll build a powerhouse of a website making ranking easier over time. Strong websites have more ranking potential than weak ones and the best illustration of this is the way Amazon pages rank without having any links to them simply because the website domain has overall strength and authority.
Taking this route requires some luck, you need to hit the sweet spot with your content, and lots of effort. Good content doesn't come easy and it's a VERY noisy marketplace out there. However on balance, this is the way to secure great links, links from other authority websites, as it's very very rare for great websites to link to poor quality pages, why would they?
One final thing about passive link building. Using this approach you will secure links others can only dream of getting. By creating amazing content your pages will attract links simply not available to those who pursue active link building. Sure they will use one of the many discovery tools to find all your links but no amount of outreach will help them to snag those links for themselves, it's just not going to happen. This is a biggy.
Active Link Building
The opposite of passive link building is unsurprisingly called active link building. This involves actively looking for or 'creating' links to your website from other websites. Popular tactics include commenting on other people's blogs leaving a link in your comment, participating in forums, again adding links to the information you post, posting links to your website in popular and relevant directories and so on.
Further to these tactics there's an entire industry that's cropped up around guest blogging. This involves creating useful and interesting articles, such as this hopefully, only instead of posting the article in your own blog you guest post it on someone else's. If you're wondering why you would do this think about it. By adding links in your blog post to content on your own website you're creating those all important external votes and endorsements, but beware.
Where guest posting is concerned there are a few things to consider. Firstly Google is more than aware that people guest post to get links. If your guest post has clearly been created, and it's not hard to tell, for links you could find the links are ignored or worse, your site is penalised. As a rough rule of thumb, if you're paying for the privilege of guest posting chances are you're on the wrong side of this argument. Quality blogs rarely publish guest posts and when they do they vet them closely to make sure they are not being abused purely to secure links.
In some instances all links in guest posts have their links no-followed meaning the links won't pass any value at all, so why bother? Well, even if the links in a post don't pass any ranking value they may still send you traffic and herein lies the best advice if you're pursuing active link building tactics.
In summary, be very careful when begging, borrowing or 'stealing' links. As a rule if a link is easy to get it might cause more harm than good and if the link cost money be even more careful. A purchased link may well improve your rankings in the short term but buying links in order to manipulate Google's rankings will put you in contravention of their rules as outlined in their Quality Guidelines. Be careful!
Would I Want This Link If Google Didn't Exist?
The grand master when it comes to link building is Eric Ward. Eric has long extolled the virtues of pursuing links as if Google didn't exist. What this means is instead of looking for links that might bring some ranking value, find links that will bring traffic and customers. Simply pretend Google doesn't exist and the only way you get traffic to your site is via links from other relevant and related resources.
For example, if you sell diving equipment links from a dive holiday website might bring you business, or perhaps traffic from the website of a dive charter boat, you get the idea.
This kind of link building is labour intensive as you need to look for relevant pages, contact the page owner and put forward a compelling case for them to link to you. As you can imagine the failure rate is very high. For me I much prefer passive link building and generally it's served us well.
We Hope This Was Useful!
First off thanks for sticking with me on this journey through the history of link building, why it's important and my take on how to do it. Hopefully you'll now be much clearer in your own mind about this aspect of online marketing. The chances are that if you're interested in link building you'll be the person in your organisation who is responsible for generating leads from your website, hence the need for better rankings which links are a crucial part of.
If that's the case feel free to click the link below to request a free SEO review of your site. If not thanks for reading and good luck with your link building efforts!