Anything that irritates Google’s users is a threat to Google. Any tactic that, en masse, reduces user satisfaction is something that Google would like to algorithmically eliminate. Google hates artificial links, and artificial links leave patterns. If you want to stay successful long term, you’ll need to avoid them. Here’s how.
1. Don’t rely on a single tactic
The easiest way to tell if your link profile is unnatural is to take a look at the kinds of links you are getting. If they all look the same, your profile just isn’t natural.
One of the worst offenders for “white hat” SEO is the guest post. Don’t misunderstand us. Guest posts are extremely powerful, we use them often, and we wrote an advanced guide explaining how to make it work effectively at Moz. If you aren’t guest posting, you’re probably missing out on high quality links that would be very difficult to get otherwise.
That said, if your link strategy is built entirely around guest posts, you just might be setting yourself up for failure.
Especially with the introduction of authorship, guest posts leave clear patterns. Even without them, virtually every one of them has a resource box, most of them use the word “guest post” in or near the title.
Google’s guidelines have made it very clear that any links intended to manipulate PageRank can be considered part of a link scheme. Links from guest posts don’t exactly count as the purely editorial links Google wants in its ideal index.
We believe that guest posts from high authority sites say enough about your genuine influence on the web that they won’t be targeted in the foreseeable future, but where we draw that “quality” line is highly subjective.
If you think guest posts are always safe because there are so many other, more “black hat” tactics, think again. We’ve pointed out before that Panda was released before Penguin, and that was a very deliberate decision on Google’s part. A massive herd of “good enough” content is actually a bigger threat to Google than a much smaller collection of “ultra-spam” sites that turn up only for highly competitive searches.
The fact is, people expect spam when they search for commercial phrases. They don’t expect “meh” content for less commercial phrases, and this is becoming increasingly common once again.
If you’re doing what most link builders are doing, you’re in a precarious position, because most link builders are not promoting super high quality content that makes your jaw drop. They’re promoting “unique, hand written, quality content.” And Google doesn’t want the majority of its search results populated with those kinds of results.
One tactic that gets ignored way too often these days is simple outreach. The kind of outreach that results in a link that has nothing to do with a guest post or a collaborative project. The kind of outreach that results in a link given purely on the merit of the content itself. Those links appear much more natural than guest posts, and in many ways they actually are.
Diversify your link building efforts. You’ll thank me later.
2. Put UI and UX before link building
As soon as your site turns up for a competitive phrase, it is suspect from day one. Just look at what Chris Rempel has to say about the state of affiliate marketing these days. He claims that affiliates can only survive in competitive niches if they take on a churn-and-burn approach. We don’t’ agree with everything he says, but he’s essentially right. If your site looks the part, your link profile hardly matters. You will come up for manual review, and if you don’t meet their standards and their business model, you will be kicked out.
If you want to survive manual review, your site needs to look professional, like it serves a purpose beyond selling, and like it’s something people will actually use.
UI and UX come before link building because if you want a long term business, you need a customer base that would hate to see you go. Conversion rate optimization permanently boosts the value of any traffic source. Earned popularity cements your position in the search engines and creates a sustainable, natural flow of conversions. More on why UI and UX come first here.
We just wrote an in depth post here on UI and UX, so I won’t go into extreme depth in this post. Suffice it to say, if you aren’t doing usability testing, split testing, responsive design, and you aren’t incorporating consumer psychology into your design decisions, you’re going to lose this one. And this is the worst place to lose.
The benefits of superior design and user experience manifest themselves in SEO value as well. I’m not claiming that Google can recognize high quality content; we’re not there yet. But you can submit your site to CSS galleries and earn high quality links that way. You can also expect to earn a much higher proportion of natural links, and expect better success ratios from your outreach, if the UX and UI are taken care of.
3. Produce linkable assets
If you have a linkable asset on your site, everything else gets easier.
What is a linkable asset? Well, we’ve gone in depth on the subject here, but if you’re focusing on things like this, you’re headed in the right direction:
- Tools – A quick look at the Moz top 500 makes it immediately clear that a huge proportion of the most successful sites on the web are tool-centric.
- Crowdsourced activity – Mix this with tools and you can explain pretty much every top site on the web. Whether it’s Facebook, Wikipedia, Blogger, or WordPress, most of the top sites on the web are tools that give people something to do, by creating something of their own and sharing it online.
- Videos – Videos turn up in practically every search result nowadays, and this market is totally under-saturated from a keyword point of view. Add to that the fact that people love to share and embed videos, and you have a recipe for massive link exposure.
- Influencer Interactions – Whether it’s an interview, and top 20 list, a public conversation, or a mention, if you take the time to interact with influencers, links will inevitably follow.
The point is to have something other than “content” on your site. The more your site is about doing rather than absorbing, the more likely it is to be link-worthy. This will simplify absolutely everything else you do.
4. Leverage social media and content
Kristi Hines recently shared her strategy for link building with social networks, and there’s not much we would change:
- Stay active on social networks, especially Google+, and link to your social profiles in your outreach emails
- Use FollowerWonk and keyword searches to find influencers in your niche, offer value, and act like a human
- Taylor content for social networks, like “The Top 50 People Who Tweet About” and so on
- Get social sharing buttons on your pages
- Join social network groups surrounding your subject, like Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and Google+ communities. Share your content, especially if it seems to be encouraged in the group, and the content is widely re-shared
- Look for bloggers who post recaps, curated content, and link resources regularly, and engage with them
- Measure the correlation between social activity and links using tools like CognitiveSEO.
I would add a few things to this strategy:
- Mention influencers, especially medium tier influencers with high quality content, often
- Share other people’s content regularly, and make sure they know about it
- Understand the psychology of viral content, which tends to be emotionally intense, funny, surprising, actionable, positive, and awe inspiring
- Give your audience little missions and keep in mind that they only like to share things if it makes them look good to their peers
- Learn from what’s popular in your social feeds and try to replicate it within your own niche
- Do not forget about channels like Quora and YouTube, which tend to send referral traffic much longer than networks like Facebook and Twitter.
I’d also suggest taking a look at our content marketing guide to get a handle on what makes content take off.
5. Understand modern anchor text strategy
One of the easiest patterns for Google to trace is that of anchor text. An engineered link profile tends to have a very different anchor text distribution compared to a natural one. In the past, we’ve written about this five part anchor text strategy for modern SEO:
- Keyword research is essentially the same.
- While traffic and profit potential are still useful when choosing a title tag, they should be all but ignored when devising an anchor text strategy. Use as many variations on the main keyword phrase as possible, and use them naturally.
- Focus on anchor text that maximizes your click through or conversion rate, use connecting words, and make sure it fits the sentence perfectly.
- Avoid using exact match anchor text for any significant proportion of your link profile. Perhaps even more importantly, avoid building links from sites that have a large number of exact match links pointing from them.
- Use different anchor text every time. Focus on where in the sentence the link is most likely to get clicked on, and concern yourself only with a weak semantic relationship with the target keyword. If the user has a good idea of what’s behind the link, you’re probably sending the right signals.
The real key to a successful anchor text strategy in the modern era is to just avoid over-thinking it. Use synonyms and partial matches, bare URLs, and branded links. Don’t set a goal on any particular anchor text ratios or anything like that. Just use anchor text that maximizes clickthroughs and that makes it clear what users can expect.
If you rely too heavily on one tactic, you’re going to leave patterns. Avoid over-engineered anchor text, embrace social media, build link-worthy tools and resources, and give users a memorable experience and something to do. Keep your strategy diversified, and you can expect to be in this for the long run.
What are you doing to avoid link patterns?
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