Everything I Know About Link Building I Learned in 1998

When you think back to how the world of SEO and link building has changed over the past 2 years, it’s absolutely amazing. Before the rollout of the original Penguin update and all of the webmaster warnings, link building was kind of a Wild West, with SEO managers throwing budget of whatever worked at the time (or was rumored as working) and piling fragile strategies on top of fragile strategies.

I think one of the more powerful visualizations of the link farming drought was looking at the booths at search marketing conferences, and comparing the link oriented businesses that had set up in 2011 vs. 2012. There used to be almost every type of linking vendor you were looking for; from sponsored blog post companies to link rental companies … from link wheels to social bookmarking companies.

For a good while there it seemed that everyone was a linking expert … or at least knew how to repackage and resell the same kind of junk. Now, most of those expo booths have been replaced by the new trend of link takedown companies, oddly enough with the same folks in the booth as in 2008, 2010 or 2011.

What I’m getting at is that there is no quick fix or short cut for your company’s online marketing, and the one thing that Penguin did show us last year is that Google has a very long memory. The average link reconsideration request is like a cleansing of sorts, going back over time to look at decisions we may have made (or others did in our companies) and thinking … how the hell did I sign off on that (or how did I convince my CEO!)?

Enough about the recent past however, let’s look towards the future — but not before looking into the deep past.

Link Building Circa 1998

Bill and Ted's Dialup Adventure

When I tell the story of the importance of content & audience in linking, I typically go back to my first days in SEO and Internet marketing .. back to the late 90’s. Why? Well, part of it has to do with me being an old man and one of the signs of aging is the need to tell stories. But first and foremost, I honestly believe that I was lucky to start where and when I did in this industry, and learned a lot in 1998 & 1999 that I still apply to my process and thinking today. And after the Penguin smackdown on fake links / fake blog posts / fake authors / fake blogs … the approach that I’ve always taken to linking helped lead my clients through the valley of darkness during those tough times, and emerge stronger than ever.

One of my first projects in online marketing was managing the online profile for a banking company. The company specialized in marketing their products in partnerships with affinity groups (think of a debit card branded as your favorite NFL team). My job was to manage the banner ad campaigns, the Goto.com campaigns (this was pre-AdWords mind you), on-site SEO and usuability, along with building relationships with sites that targeted these affinity groups.

The last point here is the most important : building relationships with sites that targeted these affinity groups.

Why so important? Because at the time there was no Google PageRank and links were kind of an afterthought in the world of SEO. I would list the clients in Yahoo Directory & DMOZ, along with lots of other niche directories in an effort to build visibility and traffic. But there was no attempt to build links in an effort to trick the search engines.

Instead the goal was to build links in an effort to build traffic to my client, and get their site featured where their audience and potential customers bought online … whether on a website, in an email or in an article.

So at the end of the day, this was not link building in the sense of SEO goals, it was link building to enhance the clients’ Authority, Trust and Relevance while also getting the client in front of the right Audience.

Breaking Down Niches and Demographics

Like I said before, I was very lucky to start out with the clients I had in the 90’s for a number of reasons, one very much being the targeting of several groups of core demographics. Google PageRank killed demographic targeting in SEO for a good amount of years, which is ironic because your audience is a key component to building trust and relevancy. Luckily, social networks brought back the importance of reaching your core audience and where they live online, and Bing has always done a good job focusing on demographics and other non-link data.

Here are some of the affinity groups that I targeted in some of my first online marketing campaigns :

Loren Baker
Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing strategy & development agency.
Loren Baker

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7 thoughts on “Everything I Know About Link Building I Learned in 1998

  1. Truly fantastic piece. It’s funny how some things go full circle in a relatively short amount of time.

    I was particularly delighted to read this part:

    “…I would never ask for exact match anchor text links …Once you ask for that much of a favor (I’d rather not even have those types of links anymore) then the discussion turns into payment and money and that’s not what I want. I’d also rather have a branded link any day of the week and then take care of the SEO on the client side to make sure we’re harnessing all of the juice we can out of that authority.”

    Now if I could only get clients to understand that exact match anchor text links are self-defeating in the long run, and that the targeting of the long-tail keywords is best done on-site, not through anchor text links.

  2. I absolutely agree – I’m so glad we’re back to the good old days, not because I’m nostalgic, but because I can’t stand deceptive marketing, and the days of black hat SEO and link buying are examples of deceptive marketing. SEO has to be about being genuine – it’s the only long term strategy in SEO, and it’s the only long term strategy in business.

  3. I absolutely agree – I’m so glad we’re back to the good old days, not because I’m nostalgic, but because I can’t stand deceptive marketing, and the days of black hat SEO and link buying are examples of deceptive marketing. SEO has to be about being genuine – it’s the only long term strategy in SEO, and it’s the only long term strategy in business.

  4. Thanks for a great article. I am perpetually reminding my clients that online success is contingent on publishing quality content on a regular basis. There is no magic bullet for success with the search engines. A steady, consistent approach is best.

  5. A great read! My favorite sentence: ” Give your core the tools they need to introduce your brand to their perimeter, whether on Facebook, Pintrest or Twitter” — still far too many businesses not understanding the value of social shares.

  6. I really like the message here and the simplicity. There are some new tricks but approaching SEO with quality in mind as the primary factor really does make a difference. Being authentic in your SEO as just another branch of your marketing and driving traffic with your link building process, instead of just link building for the sake of SEO. It’s like the advice: “They aren’t buying your product, they are buying you.”