Link building has been one of the most hotly debated issues in the SEO community for the past few years, and now it appears that Google itself is reversing its position on whether the strategy is acceptable as a means of increasing organic search rankings.
The controversy started in the SEO community back in 2012, when the Penguin update was first released.
Until that point, webmasters had built links without much forethought, getting as many links as possible without much regard for quality – it was a well-established one-to-one process.
The Penguin update penalized sites that used such methods, sending the SEO community into chaos with one side arguing that link building now needed to be avoided altogether and the other side arguing that link building simply needed to be reimagined.
“Modern” link building practices then began to tiptoe around Penguin, adhering to the idea that building greater numbers of more authoritative links was always a good idea, but acknowledging that certain specific link building practices should be avoided. Penguin refreshes aside, this remained the generally accepted standard of modern SEO link building, until a handful of comments from Google illuminated what was perceived to be the company’s true stance.
Avoiding Link Building Altogether?
John Mueller’s comments were the first to ignite new resentment toward the practice of link building. When asked by a user whether link building could help improve ranking, Mueller replied that it’s best to avoid any kind of link building altogether, as it is an unnatural strategy. Immediately, some search marketers scaled back or cut off their link building efforts, and SEO blogs began to flood with re-posts and opinion pieces stating that link building should now be considered a dead strategy.
An official Google post on its Portuguese webmaster blog seemed to reinforce John Mueller’s comments. When translated, the article cautioned webmasters not to “buy, sell, exchange, or ask for links.”
Buying and selling links have always been taboo, but exchanging links has always been more of a soft ground – to see it directly chastised here came as a bit of a surprise, but the real surprise came from seeing that even asking for links was not allowed under Google’s guidelines. Taking this post literally meant accepting that any form of link establishment, even if you specifically request permission and the other party does the actual building, you’ll be violating Google’s view of earning “natural links.”
When pressed for comment, Google responded by updating its Portuguese webmaster blog to warn webmasters not to “buy, sell, or ask for links that may violate our linking webmaster guidelines.” You can find more guidelines straight from Google here, but the gist of this clarification is that it’s perfectly permissible to ask for links, as long as you do so in a way that does not violate Google’s golden rules of link building.
Tweet this: Safe #linkbuilding = NO buying, selling, excessive exchanges, keyword stuffing or automated building.
In short: no buying, no selling, no excessive exchanges, no keyword stuffing, and no automated building.
The Necessity of Link Building
To stay on the cautious side, many modern search marketers are straying away from link building as John Mueller originally suggested. Google has come out with many different statements, some of them conflicting, but everyone recognizes that one bad link could earn you a sharp ranking penalty.
Tweet this: Websites will see little to no Google visibility unless there are strong external links present.
The “better safe than sorry” approach would therefore be to spend more effort on alternative ranking strategies, like onsite content publication (in the hopes of attracting natural inbound links on the merits of the quality of the content) and regular social media management (to amplify the reach of the content and cultivate a community).
However, a recent Moz study seems to suggest that while it is possible to rank for non-competitive phrases without links, the vast majority of websites will see little to no Google visibility unless there are strong external links present. Further, it reveals a direct correlation between the number and quality of links and the eventual ranking of the site in question across the board.
This seems to reinforce what you may have already intuitively guessed; even though Google likes to downplay the importance of link building, it’s a vital strategy if you want any hope of competing for top ranks.
Defining “Link Building”
That being said, I’d like to illuminate a possible confusion of terms. When I say link building (and when most search marketers use the phrase), I refer to any tactic or strategy whose goal is to gain one or more external links. It doesn’t necessarily imply that I build the link myself.
For example, if I produce a piece of great, original content and syndicate it with the hopes that others will share it and link back to me, I could consider that a part of my link building strategy; And that scenario is perfectly permissible under Google’s guidelines.
Tweet this: Depending on how you define it, link building can be a safe mainstay for modern SEO.
Others may define link building in stricter terms, such as the direct course of posting a link on an external site, like in the comment section of a blog post. In this context, link building is a risky, unnecessary strategy. However, in the larger, more general context, link building is a safe mainstay for modern SEO, so long as it’s done correctly.
The Best Strategy
If you’re concerned about getting penalized, your best bet is to pursue peripheral link building strategies, like moderate guest posting and the creation and circulation of potentially viral content. If you ignore broader link building altogether, you’ll never gain any serious SEO momentum. If you diversify your strategy, avoid direct infractions (like buying or selling links) and generally try to add value to the online community, there’s nothing you need to worry about.
Tweet this: It’s not worth your time to nitpick the exact wording of Google employees’ comments.
And as an added note, it’s not worth your time to nitpick the exact wording of Google employees’ comments—at the end of the day, they just want to make the Internet a better place, and if you do your part, they’re going to reward you. Perhaps the best word of advice in link building is Google’s own company motto: don’t be evil.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.