The Link Is Dead: Long Live the Link

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I’m not against any particular web marketing tactic.  To each his own – just please keep the spam down. What is troubling to me is that after nearly 14 years of doing online publicity and link building, I see people way too eager to embrace or abandon any given SEM tactic.  Tactics that were once considered perfectly acceptable gradually (or suddenly) lose favor.  New tactics are hailed as the greatest thing since the last greatest thing.

If you have ever attended an Internet industry trade show or conference, you probably have overheard ad-hoc conversations that develop at lunch tables, hotel lobbies, elevators, and everywhere in-between.  It’s wonderful that people are so willing to share what they know or think they know.  Once the show is over, these conversations will then migrate over to the blogs, forums, and discussion lists devoted to online marketing, search engine optimization, search engine marketing, and link building.

One of the topics I hear and read being discussed is whether or not the practice of link building matters anymore.  The general SEO consensus seems to be that the link is dead.  The engines have figured out (or soon will) all the tricks, and thus it no longer makes sense to pin your ranking hopes on tactics related to building links.

Among the related discussion topics being argued…

  • Paid links will get you penalized
  • Reciprocal links are devalued
  • “Links” pages are not effective
  • Personalized search makes SEO obsolete
  • Article marketing works
  • Directory submissions have lost importance
  • Press release links improve search rank
  • Text links with keywords are better than those with no keywords

Rather than refuting or confirming each of the above claims one by one, here’s my personal experience with, and beliefs on, the above and nearly every other claim I’ve encountered.

All of the above are absolutely true, and all of the above are absolutely false.

The fact is you can take any SEM tactic and abuse it, and you can take any SEM tactic and implement it effectively and with great success.  To say that reciprocal links are devalued and/or pointless is simply wrong. Worse than wrong – it is reckless.  However, it is true that an unfocused page full of hundreds of meaningless and unrelated links created just for the sake of getting links is useless.

And “links” pages, reciprocal or not, constitute one of the backbones of the web and will remain helpful for both click traffic and search engines for a long, long time. Probably forever.  Do you know how many librarians around the world have created immensely helpful links pages about very specific topics that help millions of readers every day?  And how many of those same librarians might have named those pages “links.html?”  Try a Google search right now on this phrase:

“public library” “useful links” nutrition site:gov

Are you going to tell me those 623 different library pages are useless?  Hardly.  If I have a client with educational content devoted to nutrition, those 623 sites are golden link targets. Change out the “.gov” to “.us,” and there are 320 more public library nutrition links pages.  That’s about 1,000 total link targets.  Earning links from those librarian-maintained pages won’t be easy.  And that’s exactly why the engines like them.  Links pages are useless?  Not at all.

Directory submission and article marketing also fit into this scenario.  Let’s stick to our nutrition example.  There are hundreds of directories we’ve never heard of that we could submit our nutrition site to, and none of them will help our nutrition site whatsoever.  Linkmonster.com?  No help.  RecipeLink.com?  Sure!  Again, the key is recognizing how to utilize each marketing tactic for the site you are representing.   And while I could submit a nutrition-related article to any number of general article databases, wouldn’t I be better off finding nutrition-related sites and contacting them one by one?

The same can be said about press releases.  Since anyone with a hundred bucks and a keyboard can send a press release out to a million people, just how does this tactic help you differentiate your site from anyone else’s?  Answer? By itself it doesn’t.  And it’s not because your news isn’t important, because it might very well be. It’s because of the volume of other press releases being sent that are not important.  Thousands of press releases are sent every day for no reason other than the hope a search engine might reward the sender with higher rank.

Again, I’m not saying press releases do not work.  But take the time to develop a distribution approach that can help you stand out from the mass press release services that don’t help anyone.  For our nutrition example, why not try a Google search like:

“submit food news”

Or why not take our press release about our nutrition website and send it one by one to each of the editors at each of the sites listed in the search results for this search phrase:

“useful nutrition links”

There were 172 matches, and don’t you think those 172 editors will be more likely to care about your nutrition website than anyone else?  Of course they will.  This doesn’t mean you have to abandon using mainstream press release distribution services like Business Wire or PRweb – just augment them.

A few weeks ago, many SEM folks were frantic over the new personalized search results available from Google.  The primary concern was the best way to counter the search rankings drop they were sure would come as a result of personalized search algorithms.  What a waste of energy.  Likewise, with anchor text, many people will tell you the ultimate way to rank is to have keyword-rich anchor text within the clickable link text on pages linking to you.  I’ve also heard and read that anchor text spam is so rampant that search engines now ignore it.  So which is it? Is anchor text the ultimate tactic or is it ignored?  And when the experts can’t agree, what are you to do?

The ultimate reality is that it all depends. For every site there is a different collection of marketing tactics that can help.  For some sites, article marketing is pointless and will never work. For other sites, articles may lead to page-one rankings.  For some sites, paid links are appropriate; for others, they are not.  And for some sites, it won’t matter if they ever have one single keyword anchor text link.  They will rank first without them.  And even the lowly links page – one-way, reciprocated, or a combination of both – can help some sites improve rankings, but not others.

Your ultimate goal should be to understand which tactics make sense for your site.   What works for one site probably won’t work for another site.  For some sites, the link is dead. For others, the link is alive and thriving. The best online marketers know which ones, why, where, and how to get them.

About the Author

Eric Ward advises clients on link-building strategies and tactics that actually make sense. Eric created the web's first service for building links and publicity for websites, and he continues to offer these services today.

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