Backlinking is a controversial topic, and I’m not claiming to have ‘the definitive answer’ that solves all of your problems. I’ve just found what works for me.
Like many site owners, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find sources for good links, and more money than I’d like to admit outsourcing the task to someone in god-knows-what country to do it for me. For a while I tried testing links and linking strategies strategically, but over the last year or so, however, I finally decided that there was no measurable benefit to doing significant backlinking.
A Quick History of Backlinking
Backlinking used to work.
It’s that simple, really: past tense. To understand why, you have to think about the nature of how the web has expanded since ancient times (the 90s).
The Early Days of Search Algorithms
Search algorithms (the process/formula by which a search engine determines which pages to display to users) used to be really simple. A user types in a term and pages with that term popped up. Search engines didn’t really know how to organize and rank data.
Fun tangent: 90s search algorithms were so poor, in the early days of Ask Jeeves the company actually had a team of real people looking up answers to common questions and putting them in a database to give to users.
Enter Google and Page Rank, yada yada, a brand new way to sort and index pages that included, among other things, the thought that sites were more authoritative if more people shared them. In those days there was no Facebook, so sharing meant linking. Thus a higher number of links became beneficial to search rankings.
Obviously, as soon as this innovation occurred, saavvy individuals figured out how to take advantage of it, and since then there’s been a constant battle between search engines and SEO marketers to find, exploit, and close all the loopholes.
Penguin and Panda
For much of the 2000s, the search engines were losing the battle, since their algorithms were trying to single out sites commonly used for backlinking and penalize them individually. This approach led to the ‘bad-neighborhood’ concept of link building. Think of it like the cops searching for a criminal’s known associates. Basically, if a site received a lot of links from known offenders, it, too, was considered a likely offender.
The implication, however, was that you could still manually generate good links that could still do wonders for SEO.
Everything changed with Penguin and Panda.
Penguin and Panda are the 2011 and 2012 Google search algorithm updates, and really shook things up from an SEO perspective. While the details of the algorithms are insanely complex and obviously classified, the result was simple:
Google got way smarter.
After Penguin and Panda, many previously ‘good’ link sites, like highly ranked article marketing directories, lost a lot of clout. It isn’t that Google is banning these pages or consider them horrible places to have links, it’s that the links that result from these pages don’t mean nearly as much to your search rankings.
I think of it this way: If I can find a site to post a link manually, Google knows I can post a link on that site. If I put the link there, it’s no better than egoistically proclaiming my greatness, so Google won’t listen to me.
Link Building for Today…and Tomorrow
Instead of thinking about ‘link building’ or ‘backlinking,’ I encourage you to think about marketing to the relevant audience. A lot of that involves social, and there are some good reasons why you should still do some minimal backlinking, but in general you should market your site by thinking about your readers.
Over time, if you’re getting your site in front of the right people, backlinks will find their way onto the right pages. Google will index those links, and your SEO will improve as a result.
Finally, I should point out that this process has a name. Today we’re seeing the emergence of the term ‘content marketing.’ Content marketing refers to the act of marketing a site based on the premise of providing strong, interesting content on that site. Content people will actually want to read.
How innovative is that?