For reasons that still slightly confuse me, link building – and the process of search engine optimization (SEO) in general – is still stigmatized in some circles.
If you’ve spoken to business owners and marketers regularly about the state of online marketing, invariably it’s come up for you as well; you’ll encounter people who believe that SEO is a dangerous, risky strategy, or even a taboo subject to talk about. And if you mention link building, you’ll get looks as if you recommended spam as an advertising tactic.
This isn’t especially common, but it does still exist. So why does it exist? I have my suspicions, but it’s time to end the stigma once and for all.
Origins of the Stigma
I understand the origins of the stigma, because I know the origins of SEO and link building. The simple version is that they were once spammy, unprofessional, borderline unethical strategies that demanded technical tricks and deceptive forms of manipulation to rank higher in search engines.
Over a decade ago, link building was shockingly mechanical; you could build links just about anywhere and in any way to pass authority to your site over time, and people exploited this by spamming links everywhere and stuffing them in places they really didn’t belong.
There was even automated software that could build hundreds or thousands of links at the click of a button. Even then, these were considered “black hat” tactics, but they were relatively common and they helped earn the stigma that SEO and link building still have today (in remnants).
How Link Building Has Changed
Now, let me address how link building has changed. Over the years, Google has released a number of updates designed to fight back against link spam, but one of the most recent and significant has been the Penguin update, which dramatically overhauled the way Google views links.
After these updates, it became practically impossible to build any kind of deceptive or manipulative link without suffering some kind of penalty; Google can now detect whether the links it finds are “natural,” or whether they seem to exist only as a trick to increase a site’s rank. Factors like link appropriateness, contextual position, and overall link profile qualities are taken into consideration.
The Modern State of SEO
Let’s zoom out now and take a high-level look at the modern state of SEO. What are the most important ingredients for SEO success?
I could make this an article by itself, but for these purposes, I want to reduce these ingredients to three main factors:
1. Content quality
First, the quality of content you offer has a massive impact on how Google sees your site. The type of content you provide, across the pages of your site as well as in your blog, helps Google categorize your site and how it fits with user queries, and the quality of your material tells it how trustworthy and/or authoritative your brand is. This is a complicated algorithm, but the bottom line is that Google ranks sites higher when they provide valuable, practical, user-centric content that serves some need.
2. Site performance and user experience
Google also cares about how a site performs, and whether a site is able to appease users. For example, a major factor for modern site success is mobile optimization; most sites end up going with a responsive design for convenience’s sake, but all sites must be able to provide adequate content and site performance regardless of the type of device or browser being used to access it. User experience factors, like time spent on page, may also come into play, though there’s some debate on this.
3. Natural inbound links
Finally, your inbound link profile still matters – but it matters in a much more organic way. It’s far more important to have high-quality links than a great quantity of links, and all your links must be natural (in other words, useful and appropriate) if they’re going to help you in any way.
Compare these to the tactics of old, which almost demanded shady forms of manipulation that led to poor online user experiences – but they worked.
Consequences for Questionable Practices
It’s also worth noting that the consequences for engaging in questionable SEO practices have also increased; it’s harder than ever to get away with engaging in black hat tactics without suffering a penalty of some sort. Google penalties are a bit overblown; only the most egregious offenders are blacklisted from the search engine’s index, and they’re usually given warnings first.
But if you engage in “soft” black hat practices on the regular, you’ll likely suffer a “soft” penalty in the form of drops in your search rankings over time. Still, Google has the safeguards and advanced systems in place to keep these offenders in check – which means even if SEO and link building were still deceptive practices, anyone attempting to engage in them would be put in their place.
So how do we, as an industry, work to move past this stigma? There’s only so much we can do. Most informed marketers and SEO practitioners are already past it because they’re knowledgeable on the latest trends and best practices and aren’t still anchored to the archaic practices of yesteryear.
All we can do is continue providing as much information as possible about the modern state of SEO and link building, and work to increase collective knowledge on the subject. It can only mean good things for the state of the web, user experience, and collective growth.
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.