Alert! Nerd story!!
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.