Search engine optimization (SEO) has been a historically intriguing and contentious subject, in part because of the misconceptions surrounding the strategy, and in part because of the many ways to approach its execution. One of the most contentious SEO elements I’ve encountered is link building—the process of placing or earning links pointed to your site to build your domain authority.
Is it because link building improperly can lead to a Google penalty? Or because link building used to be a spammy tactic? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know there are many of you out there who may not fully understand link building, and may have questions you don’t know how to ask (or who to ask).
For those of you out there, I’ve collected 10 important questions about link building that I commonly hear from clients—and am answering them to the best of my ability:
1. Why does link building matter? First, let’s tackle the big question; if doing link building “wrong” gets you penalized, why bother risking it in the first place? The simple answer is that links are like votes of confidence that search engines use to evaluate your site’s trustworthiness and authority. They’re known to be one of the strongest ranking factors in the ranking algorithm, consistently proving to be at or near the top in weight. The more links you have, and the more powerful the sources of those links, the more authoritative your website will appear to search engines such as Google, and the higher it’ll rank in search queries. Of course, higher rankings result in higher organic search traffic. On top of that, links pass indefinite referral traffic to your site, which peripherally helps you meet your traffic goals.
2. Is it enough to let links come to your website naturally? Some search optimizers advise producing the best content you can, and allowing the links to come to your content as naturally as possible. If you’re patient and your content is exceptional, this can work, but it’s faster, more reliable, and more efficient to build at least some of your own links. It’s also more pragmatic to work on building links in addition to passively “earning” them; if your competitors are conducting link building campaigns (and if they’re doing well in organic search then they almost certainly are), but you’re sitting on the sidelines, it’s going to be tough to keep pace with them in the rankings.
3. Why can’t you just post links pointing to your site? While I don’t advise taking a passive approach to acquiring inbound links, I also don’t advise you to go out and place links to your website wherever you please. If you post links to your site indiscriminately on external forums, blog comment sections and similar free-for-all type locations, you’ll risk running into several problems. Your links will likely be removed by those site’s editors, your user accounts will probably be banned for spamming, and on top of that, your site could be penalized for breaking Google’s webmaster guidelines.
4. Which links are most valuable? Not all links provide the same benefit to your site, so which ones are the “best” to receive? In general, the more authoritative the site linking to your site, the more valuable the link will be for your own website’s rankings. That means your link building strategy should favor sites that already have a high domain authority—though that also means they’re generally harder to acquire links from. You can measure the authority of a publisher by measuring its domain authority using a tool like Open Site Explorer.
5. Does anchor text still matter? Anchor text refers to the text that contains the link (the clickable part of the text). Prior to the launch of Google’s Penguin algorithm in 2012, there used to be tremendous advantages to embedding links in specific keyword-rich anchor text. Today, this practice will almost certainly result in a warning from Google, as it’s by far the easiest way for Google to spot manipulative links. With that said, it’s still helpful to include relevant anchor text for your links, but super important to vary your anchor text sufficiently.
6. Are nofollow links worthwhile? Nofollow links are links that are specifically coded to pass no PageRank (sometimes known as “link juice”) to your site. They were originally introduced as a way to help blog owners combat comment spam, but today they’re commonly used to prevent Google from assigning PageRank flow to links within body content as well. There have been numerous studies to try to determine whether nofollow links help your rankings or not, and they have differed in their findings, with one author at Search Engine Land going as far as to say that they are, in fact, “central to good SEO.” The debate will continue on, but my official recommendation is to not discriminate between nofollow and non-nofollow links (sometimes referred to informally as “dofollow links”). Even if nofollow links yield less SEO value than “dofollow” links, they have a number of other benefits that make them worthwhile.
7. Why isn’t my link building working?There are many reasons why a link building campaign might appear to not be working, and I covered them in-depth in a recent article that you can find here. With that said, the most common reasons are that 1) you haven’t given it enough time to start noticing the benefits yet, or 2) your website has technical errors that are preventing it from rising in the ranks. Be sure to check out 101 Ways to Improve Your Website’s SEO to ensure your link building campaign isn’t being held back by technical problems.
8. What happens if I build a “bad” link? If you build a spammy, irrelevant, clearly unnatural, or otherwise “bad” link, you might see it removed by an editor. If it isn’t removed, then it’s unlikely to affect your search rankings (ie, it’ll be ignored) unless it’s deemed to be one of too many such links to your website. If you have too many bad links to your website, your website could be penalized by Google. I’ve written a comprehensive guide on Google manual actions and penalties here. As long as you aren’t deliberately spamming people, you’ll probably be fine.
9. Should I avoid building more links on places where I’ve already built links? Building subsequent links on a single source yields diminishing returns, but that doesn’t mean you should explicitly avoid building links in places where you already have links. Remember, you can still generate referral traffic with every link you build. With that said, all else being equal, it’s generally better to get links from new domains on which you don’t already have inbound links. This is because “domain diversity” – the number of unique domains from which you have inbound links, divided by the number of total links you have pointing to your website – appears to be a strong ranking factor.
10. What’s the best way to build lots of good links? I’ve written a long blog post (or a short book, if you choose to look at it that way) covering this topic which you can find here. Essentially, it all boils down to two main strategies: 1) publishing phenomenal content that people love to link to, and 2) building links to your content through your own authorship on external publications. #1 requires a sound content publication & promotion strategy. #2 requires you to become an author at various publications within your industry expertise and publish content that occasionally references your published work on your own website. I covered how to do that in a half-hour video presentation titled “How to Become a Guest Author On Major Media Publications.”
Hopefully, these 10 questions and answers give you a better sense of what modern link building is, and how it can be effective for your SEO campaign. I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic of link building, but it’s impossible to fully explore the subject in the span of a single article.
Do some more research, read up on my latest content, and don’t be afraid to experiment.