When it comes to building links to your website, things have changed. A few shifts have been gradual; others have been immediate, drastic, and revolutionary. In its quest to produce highly relevant results through a variety of algorithms, Google has been changing the link-building demographic online… and that, in turn, has affected the way we go about building links.
We’ve moved from directories to guest blogging and other new approaches, so it’s discouraging to observe some SEO people who still pursue many of the old tactics. And it’s not just about a few outdated techniques; it’s also about how a new method should be applied because that affects the way Google understands and ranks your website for the keywords you target.
At its core, links still power the rankings. That much is clear, and it’s going to stay that way for a long time.
How you build links is what is going to matter. That’s why we need to make sure we know the blaring differences between the old-school and the new techniques of link building.
1: The philosophy of anchor text and keyword phrases
In the past, anchor texts that were going to link back to your website were mostly keyword phrases that you were targeting. If you were looking to rank your website at the top for something like “budget seo seattle,” you sought links from a variety of websites, and the anchor text on every one was going to be “budget seo seattle.”
That was an easy way to game the system, so Google put a bullet through it. We now know that if your keyword phrase is used as the anchor text in a lot of different places, you’re going to trigger a flag for unnatural links in the algorithm, and your rankings will likely fall.
This doesn’t mean this old tactic has to go out the window. You’ve got to vary the anchor text while keeping it relevant. The optimal percentage for a particular keyword phrase as anchor text is unknown, and is probably a moving target. But I’d recommend no more than 2% of your total inbound link profile having the same keyword-rich anchor text.
2: Quantity / quality of the backlink
Google’s link tracking algorithm started out as a simple, yet smart tool to assess the importance of a website. Count the number of links pointing to this source; if it’s high, this means the website is recommended, credible, and trustworthy.
Again, this was an easy thing to game. Despite having made several changes to the algorithms, it still remained a burning point that the quantity of backlinks matters. At this point, it still does.
But what matters far more is the quality of each of the links you earn. This has been a fact of the algorithm for a good while, but it’s only now — in response to things like AuthorRank and Panda updates for content analysis — that the quality of the links is being analyzed more strongly.
3: Context [or lack of it]
Until recently, you could publish 40 articles on Ezinearticles or any other reputed article directory, and in the next few hours, your ranking would shoot up. Google has fixed that to make sure that kind of gaming doesn’t happen. That has caused the decline of article directories, but the deeper message here is context.
If you run a flower shop website, it makes sense that you would naturally get mentioned on websites that address flowers and flower shops. If you are also able to secure links from a real estate company that ranks high for a lot of real estate-related keywords, that shouldn’t make your website an authority.
This lack of context was once the rule, and people were able to use this lapse to secure high-quality backlinks and rank high for no good reason. That has changed. Google has built smarter tools to value links that come up from related, contextual websites rather than those from an unrelated niche website.
4: Artificial /unnatural links
Google’s Penguin updates almost killed paid links. The artificiality of paid links is one of the main reasons such tactics don’t survive very long.
An artificial link is a backlink you’ll get on websites that do link exchanges. A natural link, on the other hand, is one that crops up in a piece of content that the website publishes. Incidentally, people do try to buy links and make them natural (and this is what the subsequent algorithm updates will be looking to fix).
But for the moment, it’s clear that Google values links that appear amid rich content — in other words, natural links.
5: Using the brand
When referring to Google+, Eric Schmidt once quipped that anonymity is not really good in the world of search and social features (like Author Rank, for instance). The idea applies to your brand too, especially when you are linking back to your website from a variety of places.
Google is also looking for brand names as anchor text so they can figure out who’s the actual authority being mentioned. In the past, this really didn’t matter, but today, if your link-building strategy doesn’t include ways to procure valuable links that contain your brand’s name, you could get yourself in trouble for unnatural or manipulative link building.
This point resonates with #2, but when speaking about quality, what truly matters is the authority of a website that has a link pointing to yours. Quality of the linking website has always mattered, but now it matters more.
What’s even more important is the authority it has in a particular niche. While this has something to do with quality, we do see a lot of websites with comparatively thin content and low value enjoying the status of a niche authority. It can be strategic to take these authority websites into account with your link building strategy.
7: [Lack of a] social angle
In the past, social was regarded as useful for nothing more than a potential viral hit or for namesakes. Things have changed so much recently that Google and other search engines are now acknowledging that social is a strong measurement for a variety of values like authority, popularity, relevance, and most important, quality.
If your link building strategy doesn’t leverage things like retweets, shares, mentions, and the general social angle, it probably won’t negatively affect you, but it does mean you’ll be missing opportunities to rank higher. In competitive niches, this could mean the difference between winning and losing.
8: Less is more
Older algorithms that dealt with links didn’t usually discount spam links, but Google has since come down harshly on these links. In the past, link builders only had to worry about bringing in as many quality links as possible; today, you’ve got to be very careful about who links back to you. Spam links can get you banned even though you might not have generated those links at all.
Tools like the Link Disavow Tool have been introduced to give you a strong defense against spam links and spam link-building practices. No one really thought it would come to this, but it’s a blaring difference between old and new link building strategies. “Less is more” is definitely the philosophy to adopt when you’re building quality links.
9: PageRank means relevancy
It’s not entirely clear how important PageRank is these days, especially since there’s been a lot of chatter about PageRank facing retirement in the near future. And in this context, while SEO experts used to look at PageRank to judge whether it was worth getting a link back from a particular website, that attitude has completely changed. (If you’re still doing it, now’s the time to switch.)
Since the focus is now on quality and authority, along with social signals, the traditional PageRank approach to link building can be a waste of time. Today it’s more useful to look at the authority and the community around a website before zeroing in on it to “earn” link-backs.
10: Building versus earning
Perhaps the most conclusive comment would be what Rand Fishkin said about today’s link-building practices. It’s no longer a matter of link “building”; that sounds artificial and forced. Today’s link-building techniques are link-“earning” techniques: there’s more of a natural flavor to the activity as opposed to the older, artificial methods.
Basically, you can sum this up in two concepts:
1) produce something really, really useful; and
2) embrace the community of users, consumers, competitors, and other players in your niche
This way, you’ll earn links naturally, and find your brand mentioned in articles, reviews, and elsewhere.