Quality backlinks are essential to SEO strategy, but poor quality links can hurt your rank. Are your incoming links a boon or a bust?
Once upon a time, Google guru Matt Cutts said “Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop,” and the SEO community lost its collective mind.
The discussion raged, with experts on both sides of the fence writing posts about the death – or not – of guest blogging and link building strategy.
To add to the confusion, not long after Matt Cutts made his fateful blog post, he videoed the answer to a backlink question and indicated that search results without backlink signals are not workable.
Now that the dust has settled, we know for a fact that backlinks are still important...and controversy still exists. What has changed?
The rules are very different now, for both publishers and bloggers. Here's everything you need to know about safe, ethical link building.
Why Your Website Still Needs Backlinks
Despite the many SEO factors that affect page rank, data from various studies shows clear correlation between the number of quality backlinks to a page and the page rank.
“Despite rumors to the contrary, links continue to show one of the strongest associations with higher rankings out of all the features we studied. While this doesn't prove how Google uses links in its algorithm, this information combined with statements from Google and the observations of many professional marketers leads us to strongly believe that links remain hugely important for SEO.”
Strong findings, right? That seems clear. But wait! Search Ranking Factors 2015 from Search Metrics says:
“While backlinks still show quite high correlations with rankings, the times of unnatural link building and maybe of links in general are or may soon be over. Since the introduction of the disavow tool, it has not been possible to know exactly what links Google weights in its rankings. In general, year-on-year correlations in this category are decreasing and our data suggest that this downward trend is set to continue.”
Ok, so maybe it's not cut and dry. Backlinks are important, and could become less important in the future. Or not, because as the importance of backlinks declines, we will most likely see a rise in social signals, and backlinks = more exposure.
The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly
Not every backlink is good, and some can actively hurt your page rank. Good incoming links point to your site from high-quality sites with real editors and related content.
Bad incoming links might be from sites with unrelated content. For example, if I threw a link to my aunt's coffee shop in Hawaii in this post, it wouldn't hurt her SEO, but it wouldn't help either since Business.com isn't about Hawaii or about coffee.
Ugly backlinks originate from sites loaded with random crap content. Most of those were smacked down pretty hard last year by Google, and many are now offline. The bottom line: if it's easy to get published on a site, and the posts you read are poor quality, don't do it.
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When was the last time you looked at your backlinks? If your backlink profile shows incoming links from low-quality sites and you think it might be hurting your page rank, ask them to take the links down. If the site admin doesn't respond, use the disavow tool to ask Google to ignore the bad links. Spammy, low-quality links were a common practice by shady SEO “experts” in the near past, and plenty of sites are being penalized today due to past efforts to game the SERPs.
As Neil Patel put it, “Ranking used to be an easy thing. All you needed were a not-so-authoritative sites, some keyword-heavy anchors, and presto, ranko! Today, the algorithm is wiser. You can’t do “link building” with the same turn-it-on-and-let-it-go ease.”
Building and Earning Backlinks
With all this in mind, we're going to look at 5 ways you can build valuable backlinks that will not hurt you in the future.
Conduct surveys. Survey your customer or contact list to ask industry related questions, and publish a valuable report. If you ask the questions everyone wants answers to, industry writers will link to your report. The same is true of valuable, evergreen content.
- Produce data-driven reports. Data is the most valuable commodity on the web. Marketing, demographics, web visits, social shares, you name it, people are going to be interested in what's going on behind the scenes. Data reveals trends and validates the findings of others in your industry.
- Claim directory listings. Find the business directory listing sites where your business is (or can be) listed on the web and take ownership of the listing. Keep the listing current and monitor reviews and comments. Don't forget to check global travel sites like TripAdvisor.
- Guest post. Guest posting is still a valuable practice, and while you can't be salesy (in any way) on someone else's site, you can demonstrate your expertise to a new audience by offering valuable information, insight, and advice. Most sites allow you to include a link to your website or profile in your byline.
- Get friendly with influencers. Influencer marketing is a pretty big deal. Bloggers and vloggers are, by nature, social creatures. Start by building a network of targeted followers. One app that makes it easy is Socedo, which uses the conversational and bio keywords of your audience to find valuable leads automatically. Join industry-related hashtag chats, groups, and conversations. Don't ask for anything, at least until you have built solid relationships.
The takeaway here is to connect with influential bloggers. Go where they hang out and be friendly. Visit their blogs and make thoughtful comments. Share what they publish.
SEO Is a Fast-Moving Target
SEO changes all the time. Google makes upwards of 400 minor changes to its search algorithms every year, and rolls out big changes on a pretty regular basis. An experienced SEO agency can help you stay on top of current ranking signals, monitor your link profile and velocity, check the value of anchor text, and generally keep you out of trouble.
The most important thing to remember is that quality always wins in the long run. Gaming the system worked like gangbusters for a while. Spamtastic websites dominated the search results, and it wasn't pretty. With each tweak of the search, Google rooted out the shady practices and returned higher quality results.
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That's where we are today, and it's also where we're headed; to ever more relevant and focused results, with higher quality information. Google semantic search aims to answer not just what the user asks (which might be phrased badly), but what they mean.
Do you have other ideas for earning quality backlinks that won't come back to bite you in the butt? Let me know!