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 Now, most of those expo booths have been replaced by the new trend of link takedown companies, oddly enough with the same folks in the booth as in 2008, 2010 or 2011.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
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 :
Environmentalists / Green Market
Car Collectors & Car Enthusiasts
Pet Lovers (Cats, Dogs, Hamsters …)
Sports Fans (NFL, Baseball, Nascar, Wrestling)
What’s funny is after looking at some of these niches, I’ve worked on campaigns to target these same groups over the past 15 years, even up to today. At the time, I would break down these groups into targets to hit online, finding the kinds of sites that they would gravitate to (no blogs at the time … luckily they came later).
Geocities & Tripod Pages (closest thing we had to blogs at the time)
Newsletters and Email Groups
The last point I list is what I think is very well the most overlooked medium in SEO and content marketing in general, the email newsletter. Email has always been the most dominant force in online marketing in terms of generating traffic, sales and other signals. People sign up for email newsletters and discussion lists for the most relevant and intimate interests they have … and you really cannot get more personal than an email that is received and read by a loyal subscriber.
However, much like demographics, the quest for PageRank in many ways killed the importance of integrating email and other forms of marketing into SEO strategies. Email is the catalyst of viral marketing and content explosiveness, and is typically overlooked. I have seen some of the more incredible content campaigns go viral as a result of well planned email marketing, which introduces your creation to the most targeted audience there is, your fans & customers. In almost every campaign I do, I recommend to clients to include a drop in their email newsletter that highlights their content campaign and the results are typically stellar. Why?
Bloggers and influencers sign up to email -> If you are Zappos, chances are that hundreds or thousands of shoe or fashion Bloggers, Tumblrs and the sorts read and open your mails.
Your most loyal audience -> Your subscribers are the core of your brand and sharing your content with them mobilizes them as brand advocates. Give your core the tools they need to introduce your brand to their perimeter, whether on Facebook, Pintrest or Twitter
Emails get forwarded -> This is simple but true to this day, some of the more viral campaigns out there get forwarded around like chain letters. It only takes a second to Refer a Friend
The REAL Digg Effect -> I have seen links from email newsletters burn up servers and take down sites, just like Digg.com used to. Only difference is the traffic spike from emails can be controlled via time release AND the traffic is actually RELEVANT!
The focus in sites to contact and get involved with was always relevance and audience, and the sum of that powerful equation was always trust and authority.
Building the Link (and Relationship)
Ok, so once the sites were defined and the newsletters subscriber to and everything else, what’s the next step? Nowadays you can subscribe to influencers on Twitter, retweet them, Like them on Facebook …etc. But back in the olden days, the best way to get to know a publisher was to email and start a conversation; and be transparent.
Transparency is really the key to all of this. I cannot explain how much I loathe the fake outreach emails I get on a daily basis from false names and false accounts, pitching a request for a link without info on the site or the company behind it. The whole notion of this really irks me, and publishers are not stupid, they see right through the bogus emails just as well as an SEO does. [see SugarRae's post]
My pitch was always transparent. If I were contacting an NFL fan site or a Green site, I would always be upfront and let them know I was representing the client, and their products that I felt were relevant to the target market and the target website.
Hi, my name is Loren Baker and I’m writing on behalf of my client, __________.
If the site or its audience were dear to me, I would always bring that up or compliment them on their site, newsletter or work. I was also representing the client as their marketer, and not a link buyer, which is a huge difference. The sites knew that there are benefits to working with companies from an integrated marketing perspective. For example, my client also had huge email lists, and highlighting useful sites on the web was something that made perfect sense in those email newsletter blasts to targeted customers and users.
Furthermore, the intent of the emails was to build a long term relationship, and not a temporary link or just to buy an ad. My job was to cultivate the relationship with the influencer because in my mindset, the small site publisher in 1998 would be the TechCrunch of their vertical in 2013. Planting the seed early with the online influencers and publishers would help all of us involved.
Last but not least, I would never ask for exact match anchor text links. Mostly because they did not exist in the late 90’s, but if someone wanted to link to the client with a link in their navigation like “Baltimore Orioles Credit Card” that was always nice because it was a descriptive link of the landing page and the product offering. In my experience once you ask for the exact match link, you kill the trust in the relationship. 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.
Fast Forward to 2013
15 years later I’m not sure if I’m a smarter or wiser man, but what is interesting is that Penguin basically gave marketers a chance to hit the reset button. Cleaning up links and changing the course of an industry that was very set in its ways from 2004 to 2011 was tough on a lot of people and companies, but it’s exciting to get back to integrated marketing.
In many ways the world of link building has boomeranged back to what it was in 1998, with these factors being of most importance :
Relevance – Websites and Content that support your product and service offering, and the niches that you market to
Audience & Engagement – Sites that actually have traffic and onsite/offsite engagement including comments, social votes, email newsletters and other sharing capabilities
Authority & Trust – Sites and authors that have credibility in their networks, proper Authorship and do not compromise their trust and influence for money
Onsite Optimization – Links used to be a short cut to rankings and the inability to make onsite changes. Focus on SEO and autonomous publishing solutions to drive branded links and citations to, then it’s up to you to funnel that equity.
If only I had the head of hair that I had in 1998 :)