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The spring of 2009 marks the beginning of my fifteenth year as a link builder. It’s scary to think that when I began, Google didn’t even exist. But then again neither did Ask or Live Search, and Yahoo! didn’t have a crawler. In other words, the links I was building had nothing to do with SEO whatsoever. The arrival of Google validated what some link builders already knew – certain links have meaning far beyond the click.
Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed every major and minor development related to content publicity and link building. I can’t begin to count the tools, tactics, schemes, and scams I’ve come across, been asked to test, write about, or promote. I have had the chance to speak at conferences, contribute to online and print publications (thanks Andrey!), do interviews, and teach others my linking strategies. It has been an amazing ride, and yet I’m just getting started. Our industry is still taking its baby steps.
I still actively practice link building. Fish got to swim; I got to link. But I don’t and never have actively engaged in many of the commonly used link-building strategies. People call my approach “different,” but I don’t think it is. It’s what I’ve always done – adapted to the venue. Just as it wasn’t appropriate to link drop in USENET in the early 1990s, you don’t link drop in certain places today. Link drop to your Twitter followers? Sure. Set up link drops to your corporate site on 40 fake StumbleUpon accounts? I don’t think so.
In reviewing a decade-plus worth of material, I found three core link-building themes common to the hundreds of articles, blog posts, commentaries, and conference presentations I have authored. Indulge me in a cliché. As much as things have changed, they remain the same. The three themes that make up my link-building ethos still resonate loudly today. I didn’t set out to be different, but when your approach is rooted in pre-PageRank days, you notice things about link history that nobody else does, especially when compared to the pure rank-chasing link building used today.
Three Themes Of Merit-Based Linking
1. At the highest levels, link building is nearly indistinguishable from public relations. — When businesses began operating online, most public relations professionals did not fully appreciate this crucial fact. Consequently, SEOs staked a claim to link-building activities, especially once links had a direct impact on search rank. The public relations professionals were happy to have SEO experts to call for help, and a new industry grew — link building driven by search rank goals. As long as links were the province of the SEO community, most PR folks stuck to what they did best, and left the heavy-lifting link building to contracted SEO firms. Even in companies large enough to have in-house public relations departments, SEO and link building were often handled by a separate department. The unintended consequence? If you regard links as purely an SEO function, link-building initiatives may end up creating an unnatural — if not silly — inbound link profile. A classic example is an SEO who only pursues links when he or she gets full control over anchor text.
You can fix this by working toward more cooperation between the public relations, marketing, sales, and SEO teams. This means more than just sticking keyword anchors all over your press releases or adding a site-wide keyword nav bar. It means sitting down together and learning more about your content’s true linking potential. Don’t be afraid to admit you may be too close to one particular tree to see the forest. Social media linking is not creating 200 company-owned profiles somewhere, or hiring an SEO firm to push your content towards Digg’s homepage. The challenge is to “Be Different — Invite Everyone.”
2. Be honest when a client has a site with no true distinguishing content compared to their 20 competitors. — I would rather tell a client what they are up against and why than give them false hope and make a few bucks submitting their site to 300 directories with names like links-o-plenty.com. Some clients are perfectly willing to do what they need to stand out, whether that means adding content, resources, tools, or even refocusing on a narrower vertical approach. Others are not.
You need to be an advisor to your client as well as a link builder. By this time tomorrow there will probably be another ten sites launched by people selling the exact same products sourced from the exact same manufacturer, processed through the exact same back-end, with the only difference being the domains they registered — Dirt-Cheap-Ballons.com versus Even-Cheaper-Ballons.com.
Sure, you could provide link-building services for such sites. You could submit here, bookmark there, press release here, buy links there. You may even be able to sneak a link into the Wikipedia entry for “balloons” for a couple of days. But have you truly helped your client establish a viable entity, or have you just helped yourself? Maybe you should jokingly tell them to consider a different approach — sell red, white, and blue balloons on a site called PatrioticBallons.com, and then seek links from hundreds of vertically relevant patriotism-specific target sites? Maybe I’m not joking. The challenge is to “Be Different — Be Honest With The Client About Their Content.”
3. It’s not the link builder who gets the links. It’s your client’s content that must earn the links. — Put another way, the easier it is to get the link, the less value that link is likely to have as an algorithmic sign of trust. If any site about any topic of any quality can get the same link with the same ease — well, you do that math. This is why we now have a web where the overwhelming majority of content is created by people solely to see if they can make a few dollars. Websites are inexpensive and easy to make. Blogs are free and even easier. Cover them with your ad code, and a revolving door of millions of pages of uninspired content is the result, each chasing any link they can get. The challenge is to “Be Different — Be Humble As You Seek Links.”
I have one final challenge. Don’t oversell your content. Whether link building for high-end content from a site as big as TVguide.com or for a site as small as StormwaterAuthority.org , I am quick to point out to the client that my success is not due to me alone The same goes for all of us. Our approaches to link building only truly work if we have content that merits links in the first place. Even then, links are never an entitlement from the most-trusted targets. We are messengers sharing news about sites with the exact people we identify as being most likely to care about those sites, whether that person is a blogger, an editor, a librarian, an enthusiast, or someone else. If we do our research carefully, and reach out properly, links for both clicks and rank are the natural result.
One final thought on the nature of difference on the web. One of the unique aspects of backlink analysis is the picture it paints about the sites being linked to. Take the top sites ranking for a generic phrase like “discount golf clubs” or “cheap concert tickets.” We all know we can buy such things from hundreds of different sites, most of which seem painfully similar. Yet the engines still have to rank them. Someone is first, someone is last. Google may like site A the most, while Yahoo! likes site C the most. Why?
In some cases, the differences will be minute. In other cases, the differences may be obvious. It’s tempting to believe that the answer is always to get more links. If you can just get this link or that link, it will make all the difference. This is rarely true, and when it does happen, it can be temporary at best. As an example, a few years ago I was in a panic because I no longer ranked first for a phrase I really coveted. The site above me came from nowhere, and I was baffled. How did they do that? A couple of days later, that site vanished from the rankings, and I haven’t seen them since. The lesson? Being different works both ways.