It doesn't matter how much time passes and how many updates Google makes; people still seem to need to have link building explained. Although it is a key aspect of website success, the misinformation and unethical practices that exist don't help. This article will bridge the sometimes impenetrable language used by people who know about this stuff and the rest of the world.
What Is A Link?
Concerning 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 Optimisation (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"
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 using 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.
However, the second item on our list is sometimes confusing. 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, this aspect of links and link building causes the most confusion when people look to have link building explained. 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 to see why they're confused.
Let's go back to what I said earlier. I said that concerning 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.
When Google's search engine software was first developed, it wasn't clever enough to analyse web pages to figure out which was the best. It has become a lot more sophisticated now and tries (at least partially successfully) to figure out if content is high quality and helpful.
But the way Google tried to organise search results and the way it decided which web page to put at No.1 was originally based on links, and links still form part of its (complicated, secret and unfathomable) algorithm. 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.
Incidentally, 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 a web page's popularity? 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 1960s and '70s. 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 results pages, 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, especially the pages sat at positions 1, 2 and 3 and wonder why they are there, 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 with lots of links from other web pages, which are measurably more popular than yours.
So Where Are We?
We've established that Google's search engine software is automated, 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 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, 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 pages 3/4/5 etc., as the sites that bought the bad links rose to the top. Something had to give and give it did. Google fought back.
What Does Google Say?
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.
Here’s what Google says about it, but if you don't want to read the detail, this is a quick overview.
- The very best links are those you earn.
- There are some high-risk link-building techniques you should probably avoid.
- There are some lower-risk techniques which you should probably avoid.
- Link building can work and help your business.
- Link building can damage your brand and ruin 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: 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 your site's authority, 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. The best illustration of this is how 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, this is the way to secure great links from other authority websites, as it's very rare for great websites to link to poor-quality pages. Why would they?
One final comment about passive link building. Using this approach, you may strike lucky and secure links others can only dream of getting. By creating amazing content, your pages can 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 if their content is not great. This is a biggy.
Even if your content is awesome, it needs to be found by the right people, so you may have to work to draw attention to it. That could be generic via the social media channels that are relevant to your audience, or it could be in a very targeted way, using a technique called outreach to ask people with high authority websites if they would consider linking to your content.
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.
Digital PR is a variation on this theme, placing articles in online publications, ideally with a follow link. Even without a link, there is a benefit if the article sends visitors to your website. Digital PR is specialised and time-consuming as you need to research upcoming features and topics, then approach journalists with a well-thought-out pitch that is relevant to their readership, but it can be very effective.
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, an entire industry is cropped up around guest blogging. This involves creating useful and interesting articles such as this. hopefully, only instead of posting the article on 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 your website content creates 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 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; when they do, they vet them closely to ensure they are not being abused purely to secure links.
In some instances, all links in guest posts have no-followed links, 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 costs money, be even more careful. A purchased link may well improve your rankings in the short term but buying links 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 came to link building was Eric Ward. Sadly, Eric is no longer with us, but he long extolled the virtues of pursuing links as if Google didn't exist. This means that instead of looking for links that might bring some ranking value, find links that will bring traffic and customers. Pretend Google doesn't exist, and you get traffic to your site via links from other relevant and related resources.
For example, if you sell diving equipment, links from a dive holiday website that might bring you business, or perhaps traffic from the website of a dive charter boat, you get the idea. Using this criterion will help you decide if the link is valuable or if it will potentially be seen as spammy by Google.
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, if you were looking to have link building explained, you'll now be much clearer in your own mind about this aspect of online marketing. If you're interested in link building, you'll be the person in your organisation responsible for generating leads from your website, hence the need for better rankings.
If that's the case, feel free to request a free review of your website so we can help you identify any issues that are holding you back.