In February of 2011, the introduction of the Panda update shook up the search results, altering more than one out of every 10 searches. Content farms were demolished, and some SEOs were left scrambling for new tactics. Then, in April of 2012, the Penguin update hit 3 percent of the search results, knocking out sites with link profiles that looked suspicious.
In the wake of the Panda and Penguin updates, I have dug into the data and found some of the most common patterns in the sites and pages that lost their rankings. Using this information, I have developed methods for recovering from, and preventing these issues from happening.
The search engines are only getting smarter, and link building is being redefined as a result. It’s important to think ahead if you want to stay in the game for the long haul. With that in mind, here are 10 strategies we use to future-proof our efforts.
1. Identify Viable Link Opportunities
The shotgun approach isn’t going to cut it in the years going forward. You need to find and qualify your link opportunities by their authority and relevance. Focus strictly on domains related to your niche, and approach these opportunities strategically. Ask yourself if it’s possible to build a link from the target site in a way that will make sense to a human visitor.
If the human visitors won’t even be there, don’t waste your time. Identifying the right link opportunities is a must before you can start building links.
2. Use the Best Tools
Tools exist to make your job easier, not to replace you. Tools like SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO allow you to spot domains with a lot of authority with the search engines. Use tools like this to identify which sites are most promising, but audit them as a human being. Take a look at the site and use the “common sense test.” Is the site built for users? Is it well researched and/or entertaining? Does it have a decent following?
3. Focus On Sites With Manual Approval
If you can get a link from a site without a human being playing a part in the process, that link is virtually guaranteed to have no value in the long term. Any benefit it offers today will disappear tomorrow, possibly bringing a penalty along with it.
Sites with no manual review process ultimately lose value. Low-quality junk gets posted, sometimes not even written by human beings. These sites are ultimately penalized or hit by an algorithm update, and all the work that went into the links from the site is lost.
4. Win the Content Marketing Game
Before we dive into this one, let me just say that it’s important to start mixing up your medium. Text will always be powerful, and most of the content on the Web will probably always be text, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to do something different and stand out. All of the following count as content. Don’t forget:
- Infographic Creation and Marketing
- Whitepapers, PDFs, and Presentations
- Tools and Widgets
- QA Site activity
- Comment Marketing
- References and Guides
- Microsites and Landing pages
- Guest Blogging
- Blogger Outreach
- Press Releases
- Case Studies
It’s also important to understand a few things about the psychology of what makes things go viral, such as:
- Specific, unique, urgent, useful headlines
- Court controversy (provided it doesn’t hurt your reputation)
- Use lists
- Focus on trending topics
- Be inspirational, funny, and incite emotions
5. Use Balanced Anchor Text
Anchor text just isn’t the signal it used to be. About 70 percent of your links should just mention your brand, URL, or domain name. Only about 10 percent should focus on the exact keywords you are trying to rank for. The remaining 20 percent should use parts of the keyword mixed in with your brand name, broader terms, and other “partial match” anchor text.
Avoid building an excessive number of backlinks with exact match anchor text, or even using similar anchor text repetitively.
6. Don’t Use Mass Link Building Tactics
Almost any technique that can get you thousands of links in a short period of time is going to look suspicious to the algorithms. If it is the result of buying links or automation, there are almost certainly patterns that will be detected by the algorithms of today or the near future. The only legitimate way to get a massive amount of links in a short period of time is if they are the result of viral content, and this is the only case where you will be protected.
7. Social Media is Your Friend
The search engines are using social data to improve their search results. Social sharing activity is an important signal, because it indicates that real human beings are enjoying your content enough to share it with their friends or followers. Approach content and outreach with an understanding of this influence.
At the same time, recognize that people increasingly use social media to communicate, so when you are building relationships for link building purposes, it is a good idea to take advantage of these networks. Ultimately, your goal should be to get as many tweets, likes, shares, and +1s on your target and link building pages as possible.
8. Monitor Your Link Profile
Be sure to periodically review your links in Google Webmaster Tools and Open Site Explorer, and keep a spreadsheet of your intentionally acquired links. You want to keep track of things like where the links are coming from and what the anchor text looks like, in order to avoid crossing any thresholds that could result in a penalty. Even those who are doing everything properly can sometimes take a hit.
Monitoring your links also gives you an opportunity to get in touch with people who are already linking to you and scale those relationships for even better results.
9. Analyze Your Competitor’s Links
While you don’t want to copy everything that your competitors are doing, it is a good idea to take a look at their link profile for ideas. It will also help you get a broad idea of how much work it’s going to take to rank for a specific term, and whether or not it will be worth the effort. Again, don’t just copy your competitors. Think strategically.
10. Build Relationships
Finally, some of the best links are built by personal relationships. This is especially true of relationships that start in the real world. Go to seminars and places where you can expect to find people in your industry with a presence on the Web, and start building up your network. Focus on building real relationships in the beginning, not on the links. Keep business cards on you so that it’s more natural to bring up in a conversation.
Understanding the algorithm is an important part of SEO, but it’s important to recognize that the algorithm will change. Those who achieve the most success from search optimization are the ones who are skilled at building relationships and thinking about the direction of the Web as a whole.
Google will adjust to meet the needs of consumers, so keep the search engine’s business goals in mind as much as your own, and build a solid reputation using strategies that are as future-proof as possible in the changing landscape of the Web.
What’s your take on the future of link building, and what other tactics can we use to scale our visibility without jeopardizing our future? Don’t forget to pass this on if you found it helpful.