The Uncertainty Of Link Building

Alert! Nerd story!!

No this is not Julie Joyce, thanks

No this is not Julie Joyce, thanks

I was taking a discrete mathematics class in college (insert snickering) and enjoying it immensely (louder snickering), as it all made such perfect sense to me that I thought I was destined for discrete math stardom. Our poor professor was so ready to retire, and so burned out, and so riddled with students who failed to understand why a scientific calculator wasn’t really needed for the class that he actually gave us a copy of the final exam. It contained one proof, and alongside this proof was the SOLUTION. He said something akin to “just memorize this and try to get it right next week please.” Having aced every other exam in the class, being a Mathlete, I was so certain that I could do the proof blindfolded that I ended up totally freezing on exam day, sitting there paralyzed with thoughts of failing the class, being thrown out of school, disappointing my parents/grandmothers/brother/dogs and being able to trace my full-on career failure to nothing grander than overconfidence. I thought I knew it, and I didn’t even consider that I might not. Luckily, this story has a happy ending, as most of the class still managed to cock up the exam and he just gave us all high grades, and probably tried to strangle himself the minute he got home, loudly cursing Fibonacci, like we all do.

The moral of this highly lengthy and somewhat boring anecdote (can an anecdote actually have a moral?) is that just when you think you know it all, you realize that you really, really just don’t. Now, to relate this to link building, like I’m supposed to be doing here…

There is one fundamental principle of link building that you need to keep in mind, and that is this: a link is a way into your site from somewhere else. Whether it’s another site or a boost in the rankings that causes a user to click on your site, this is what a link really is. A link can send you traffic, and it can help your site look more authoritative. Therefore, a link isn’t something to be taken lightly.

There are other not-so-fundamental principles of link building, which are those grey and tricky areas that make people yell and insult each other. Some people (raises hand) don’t think that paying for links is bad, while some people would rather read all the Dan Brown books over one weekend than buy links. Some believe that quality content and effective promotion is enough to build up a link profile in a competitive niche, while some like to butter up site owners with cash and Amazon gift cards so that they’ll stick a link somewhere subtle enough to pass a hand check. There are issues of quality (what makes a site high vs. low quality?) and relevancy (as many people including myself have pointed out, relevancy can easily be manipulated) and worries of “bad” links and what these will do to you. Link noise is discussed, link research tools, whether anchor text should be dictated, are image links ok? I’m getting another headache, and it’s not the Malbec.

No matter what you think about link building, more than likely, you’re going to be proven wrong, or semi-wrong, at some point in the future. With algorithm changes and Google’s desire to reduce the ability of site owners to manipulate Page Rank through link buys, the landscape of link building will change. Perhaps being ultra rigid will be more of a detriment than you think…

Blogs, Sitewides, and “Click Here”s Oh My!

Blogs, for example, routinely elicit questions from our clients when they receive their link reports. They want to know if blog links are any good, if they’ll be devalued, whether or not they pass any decent juice or can be potentials for good traffic. Considering the changes that you sometimes don’t see coming with the algorithms, I can’t say for sure. I can tell them my thoughts for now, but I know I might be revising them a few months down the road. I used to think sitewide links were awesome. Now, keep in mind the whole buying links bit…they were easy, they seemed to work well, and they did seem good for traffic. Then we started noticing that they weren’t working so well. Now, I’d not seek them out. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have liked to get a link with the anchor text “Click Here” at ALL. I would have been so mad I’ve had made a freight train take a dirt road and yes, I AM mixing my metaphors. Now, however, even though most clients don’t like those, I do, and I’d advise people to try and get them.

Where Does This Uncertainty Leave Us?

It leaves us with the idea that link building isn’t discrete. Considering what all goes into a “natural link profile” it’s not hard to find a way to fit just about any type of link into a link building campaign. Considering that naturally loads of people are not overly educated on the process of linking out to sites, not to the extent that those of us in the online marketing fields are, what constitutes a natural link profile will evolve. It will be different in 6 months than it is today, I imagine. That being said, there are things you can do that probably won’t change…like writing clean code, optimizing for users instead of engines, and creating great content.

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12 Responses to “The Uncertainty Of Link Building”

  1. Great advice Julie, and ties in with what we were discussing at the weekend about how no follow links shouldn’t be discounted just because Google isn’t looking at them now, because at some point in the future Google may have to start taking them into account. That goes for natural link profiles too.

    I think the hardest thing about link building is making something manipulated look natural, sometimes that’s a harder skill then getting the links in the first place.

  2. Alan says:

    I wonder how long it will be before google considers all links to be manipulated? Is there ever really a true natural link which comes from someone genuinely trying to refer to a good product or site? I say this because I think most natural links are gained though link bating and again i say this is not a natural link!!

  3. I’m wondering if the picture is Sarah Palin (Julie are you a fan?), but then she would never be standing at chalkboard with mathematical equations.

  4. Julie Joyce says:

    She could be standing there in shock and horror that math exists, maybe. No, no it’s not her. Damn it. Every time I put on my glasses and have my hair up I want to hunt moose though.

  5. I agree with Alan that all links are probably manipulated at some level, just like there is no genuinely selfless good deed. But how will Google rank pages at that point?

  6. Julie Joyce says:

    If all links are manipulated potentially, I’d imagine they could just discount them completely, or ignore them in the algorithm. I don’t think that’s likely considering the history…but maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.

  7. Diane says:

    All links are done for a reason and it’s only a matter of time before google switches it’s rules again and penalises someone else for something new.
    A UK voucher website openly asks it’s readers for links in return for entry to a prize draw. Is that the sort of thing google should be punishing?

  8. Good post Julie, although I think you could have delved further into this problem by defining exactly what you would describe as a ‘natural’ link profile and what you would class as ‘unnatural’.

    Your average internet user has no idea how a search engine works (how it discovers, indexes and returns content to you) let alone how interlinking affects this process – so you’ve got to wonder if there would even be enough for search engines to go on if all link profiles were ‘natural’ in this sense (i.e. created by uninformed random linking using URLs).

  9. Julie Joyce says:

    Hey Stuart, and yes I could have delved further in, had I not been dying whilst writing this post haha! That’s a damned good idea for my next blog post actually…

  10. TallTroll says:

    Eh, Google doesn’t know what it wants. I’ve long maintained that G engineers are great at Information Retrieval, and RUBBISH at search. They don’t have a clue. Because in the nicest possible way, they are a bunch of self-selecting geeks, who don’t understand people. Gee, wonder how that happened?

    I feel sorry for Matt. I heard stories about him, and I suspect some days he goes home and cries.

  11. Sincerely doubt links will fall out of the current algo’s, Google’s algo itself PageRank is based on link equity, etc among other things.

    A link, or should we say a “vote” from a website it not bad, nor should we worry about being seen as manipulating links, what makes common sense usually works 99% of the time. Heck, i’ll take a no follow link from a decent website anytime, depends on what i want out of the link :)

    Openly asking for links is not bad, selling links for the sole intention of manipulating the algo, i.e. Buy TBPR 5 links here, is something that Google is taking a closer look at @Dianne.

    So that falls right in line with what Stuart mentions, if the average non power user or mom and pop site does not understand what we SEM folks know about links, should they be at all punished?

    What probably makes a big difference, is the fact that you take the time to actually think about links and what you want to achieve, whereas some simply grab a mass submission tool of some sorts and randomly submit garbage to no avail.

    My 2 cents, i think the fuss about manipulation and looking natural is much about nothing (let alone is they truly understand it) and simply confuses people reading about it, sending them off in a direction they don’t really need to go.

  12. Jaron says:

    Great post! I agree that each link “isn’t something to be taken lightly.” Especially when sometimes we work so hard to get them. Or, as you mentioned, even pay to get them. Then after you’ve received the link, who’s to say that it stays live on the site months down the road?

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