The past 12 months have been brutal for many traditional forms of link building. Techniques that once worked are now penalized. Webmasters wonder what tactic will fall under the hatchet next – infographics, guest post blogging, or something else?
Never fear! In this week’s Whiteboard Friday, we discuss how to future-proof your links from penalties and, at the same time, deliver higher rewards – no matter what tactic you use. Be sure to check out the supplemental links included in the transcription below!
There’s a lot of comments and discussion in the SEO world today about what link strategies work and don’t work. I want to kind of shift the focus away from what works now, because Google keeps changing what works now. I want to shift the focus into what Google is rewarding, to get the most bang for our buck from the links that we’re building.
The last year has been really, really brutal for links. It used to be, prior to 2012, SEOs would say, “Links can’t hurt you.” Google would say, “Links can’t hurt you.” There was no worry about negative SEO or building bad links. They may not work that well, but they wouldn’t have a negative effect.
But then in the last year, in 2012, Google brought the hammer down. I made a list of different link building strategies that people have tried over the years, from good to bad, all the way from paid links and link wheels up to content marketing and user generated content and real company stuff.
In 2012, we saw Google draw a line in the sand. Pretty much after that point if you were using these unnatural, low quality types of links, for the first time, in the history of SEO, bad links could hurt you. It really confused and scared a lot of webmasters.
Google started sending out unnatural link warnings. It’s kind of hard to define what an unnatural link warning is, but they generally have three characteristics. Unnatural links, the kind that Google doesn’t like, are typically scalable. They can be automated somehow sometimes. They create patterns that Google can detect through their algorithms, either over-optimized anchor text or network of blogs or something like that. But they create patterns that aren’t found in the wild. More often than not, they’re the types of links where you, the SEO, the webmaster controls the anchor text. That’s kind of a funny concept, that you’re building links, you’re putting links out there on other people’s sites, but yet you’re the one that controls the anchor text. That’s a pretty defining characteristic of what Google would call an unnatural link.
The high reward link on the other hand, the kind that Google seems to reward with higher rankings, better indexing and crawling are links that aren’t easy to scale. You can’t just pop them into a crawler and scale them out throughout the web or pay somebody to build them for you. There are very few patterns that Google can detect, and more often than not you don’t control the anchor text, which is a completely more natural state if you think about it. If people are linking to you, if it’s an editorial type link, you probably don’t have control over how people are linking to you. Those are the high reward type links that people like.
One of the hardest things that I do as an SEO, people come to me and they ask for consulting, is talking to webmasters that have been building up their site, working hard building up their family business for a year, 5 years, 10 years and doing the things that worked. Then all of a sudden the hammer is laid down and they’re done. Their business has evaporated. They’re laying off people. They don’t know what to do, and they have to start over. Their income is up. That is so hard.
We know from Google statements, from watching Google over the past year, that this line is moving. The threshold for unnatural links keeps getting broader as Google gets better and better at finding these patterns and rooting out these unnatural links. So, as SEOs, we need to stop asking what works now and think about high reward links, because if you’re just working on what works now, this line is going to keep jumping, and we’re going to be left on the other side of that line.
Now some of these tactics on the border, a lot of people are asking, “Well, what about infographics? I hear those are going to be next? What about guest blogging? I hear that’s going away. Or press releases, are those working?”
Well, let me share some startling news with you. It’s already happened. It’s already happened. Now, I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Cyrus, wait, people are using infographics. They’re ranking for it. I’m using guest blogging, and it’s working for me.” Yes, of course, these tactics do work. But the problem is a lot of people are using these techniques the unnatural way. We see this all the time, people spammy guest blogging with those unnatural author profile links or infographics with all the exact same anchor text over 100 blogs, and they aren’t ranking for their terms. But the people who are doing it the right way, using these on the border techniques the natural way, those are going to work every time. They’re not only going to work every time, but they’re high reward, and Google is going to continually encourage this sort of behavior.
But as an SEO, as a webmaster, how do we know if our technique is working or not? Well, Google doesn’t care about the type of link building you do. They care about the implementation. So it’s never a matter of comment spam, because you can make comments on blogs. That doesn’t make it spam. But when you scale it, when you create patterns, when you use unnatural anchor text, it’s the implementation that matters and not the method itself.
There is one rule. I call it the golden rule. How do you know if you’re building high reward links or unnatural links? 80% of the time, the golden rule, you want to pursue links where you do not have control over the anchor text. If you stick to that strategy, 80% to 90% of the time, you’re going to be building links that are high reward, not just what works, because what works may help you a little bit, but high reward links. Not all links are created equal. Different links help you in rankings much more than certain types of links. So we want to focus our link building here, pursuing links where you don’t control the anchor text.
Now a link builder that I really admire, Eric Ward, he’s been building links ever since this industry started, 10 year career. He’s one of the most sought after link builders in this industry. I’ll link to him in the post below. He has never been affected by any of this, and he has never had to ask for links removed. How has he done it? When he builds links, he has never once asked for anchor text. Never. He can ask for a link, but he never demands the anchor text. When he stared doing this years ago, that was unheard of. It has rewarded him today, and all of his links have been in this zone. His clients are very happy. He used to have a newsletter. I think if he still does I think it is well worth subscribing to.
The cool thing about this strategy is, though, you don’t have to give up any of your techniques. You can still use the same techniques you’re using, and it applies to any method of link building that you want.
I brought up some examples right here. So you’re doing infographics. You don’t have to give up doing infographics. You can turn these links, which are potentially unnatural, into high value links. The old way of infographic links was you put the widget in. It had the exact match anchor text, and it got spread out to a 100 blogs. But that can trigger Penguin penalties, over-optimization.
So the smart way of doing it and the way I would recommend now, if you want to be more clever about it, is you rotate the anchor text. Mike King, of iAcquire, wrote a great post a few weeks ago about how to rotate anchor text in WordPress, and there’s a WordPress plugin. Sorry, the plugin is for WordPress. Mike King wrote about different implementations. I will link to that in the post below too.
If you really want to future proof your links, keep it in this natural zone. Even rotating anchors can create some patterns. So if you really want to future proof your links, the way you do it is you just simply ask for attribution. You don’t use a widget or a text box. You just simply give the file to someone and say, “Here download this, link to us, and please give us attribution.” Or use Google’s reverse image search to find who’s already posting your infographic and reach out to them and ask for the link. That way the anchor text becomes natural, and you don’t control it anymore. So high value anchors.
Press releases have gotten a lot of bad rap lately. Matt Cutts saying that press release links don’t add a lot of value, because people abused them and people spammed them. You would have exact match anchor text in those press releases going out to dozens of low quality sites. Wham, you’re not going to rank for that phrase.
The smart way to do it now is in your anchor text, in the press release, you just use your URL – Example.com, SEOmoz.org – or you use something branded – SEOmoz. The smart way to do it, the high value way is you’re not using the press release for links at all. That’s what press releases were intended for. Use your press releases to draw attention to some linkable asset on your site, not the press release itself. Then the press release goes out to hundreds of journalists. Hopefully, if your linkable asset is strong enough, say a new tool or a company announcement or stats or a report that you put out, then all these journalists and news organizations start linking to your work. So it’s not the press release you want links from, it’s your linkable asset. If you don’t have a linkable asset, now is the time to start working on one because they earn more links than anything else.
Guest posting is a huge topic. A lot of SEOs are recommending it as one of the number one tactics for 2013 as a way to build links. But guest posting can also get you in trouble. The old way of doing it, you have this over-optimized anchor text in that author profile box. If you look at the type of links targeted by Penguin, targeted by over-optimization penalties, those over-optimized text links get you in trouble. If your text link is “Dental Hygienist Dallas” over and over and over again, across hundreds of blogs, that’s going to get you in trouble.
The smart way to do it . . . Kate Morris wrote an excellent post last week about how to format these links and guest post. Basically, you don’t want to use exact match, money keywords for your anchor text if you’re going to be repeating them over and over and over again. But the really smart way to do it is sort of like the press release, a natural anchor text in the middle of the guest post, that links to your linkable asset. Say you publish a report or you have a new tool or you have an infographic, this is what you should be linking to. If you don’t have that, you should create that first before you write your guest post. Don’t just link to your blog, to your company website. Create something on your company website that is valuable that is related to your guest post that you want.
Finally outreach, general old writing emails asking for links. I learned a lot about this from Rand Fishkin, who is not here today. Rand doesn’t ask for a lot of links, but he’s a very clever link builder. In the old days, people would write outreach letters, and they would just ask for anchor text. “Could you please link to me, and do it this way?”
Today the smart way is you might influence the anchor text. “Hey, check out my blog about SEO tactics,” and you’d link to SEO tactics hoping that they would link to it the same way.
The really smart way of doing outreach in a natural, not controlling anchor text sort of way, is simply don’t ask for a link. Ask for a share instead. When you write an email, say, “Hey, we have this great resource. We want to get the word out. Would you share it with your audience?” If they’re going to, six times out of ten they’ll actually put it on their blog or their website, and you’ll get the link anyway, with that natural anchor text. The other times they’ll share it with their social network on Twitter or Facebook, exposing it to thousands of people, and potentially getting many, many more of these natural anchor texts than you would have received otherwise.
Going forward, you have a choice. You can ride this line and do what works today and risk continually getting bombed and overtaken by Google’s algorithms. But really I want to encourage us to go for the high value, high reward links for higher rankings, safe SEO so we’re happy, wealthy, and sunny.”