Can’t Rank? Link Building Won’t Help You

SMS Text

Some say “SEO is dead”, or dying. In reality SEO as we “used to practice it” is no longer valid. Looking at a history of Google search changes over the years though, we should have seen the  writing on the wall before now. Where link building is concerned, it’s certain old SEO habits have to change – here’s some ideas and reflection – 

Linking strategy broken

Allow me to set the context for this article up front. I recently attended a workshop by Bruce Clay Australia which made me rethink certain assumptions I had made over the years working in SEO. While link building is still an important aspect of SEO, its relationship to other strategies has changed significantly.

As with most activities  people often take different approaches to doing new things before finding what works best for them, most cling to old habits without readily considering other approaches. Old habits are hard to kick, including using link building  predominantly in SEO projects. SEO is all about learning curves too, I guess you could say.

One of my bad habits has been  to put too much focus on links and assume that the more quality links I’d build, the less I’d have to worry about other factors, such as content, social, site architecture and some technical configuration. Deep down I knew this wasn’t a sustainable process, but I was already chasing the next link, so I liked to forget about it.

A short timeline of some of the most noteworthy Google algorithm updates shows how having all your (linking) eggs in one basket can really hurt your rankings.

  • 2003: Cassandra began looking at co-owned domain linking, hidden links and text.
    • This update is kind of a predecessor of the Penguin update. Weeding out low value SEO tactics such as cross-linking all your own websites.
    • Hidden links and text on a site, something we laugh at in 2012, were a problem back in 2003. Google finally figured out how to stop people from gaming the system this way.
  • 2003: Florida is one of the best known updates which went after keyword stuffing. Google also started keyword stemming, meaning that the amount of competition skyrocketed because you’d no longer be the only one ranking for a term such as “gardening” if that was what you were using on your site. Others who were using variations such as: ”garden, gardens, gardening” now were directly competing in the serps.
  • Update Brandy in 2004 focused on content relevancy with LSI and started looking at link neighborhoods. Google upped the ante again.
  • The Nofollow attribute was introduced at the beginning of 2005
    • All of a sudden a lot of links you might have added to your site,  lost the ability to pass link juice.
    • Getting new links that did pass value just got a lot harder.
  • Personalized results started appearing halfway through 2005. Depending on a user’s search history, each might would see different results from other users. If people didn’t already find your site before this update, you now had less of a chance to show up above their favored sites.
  • October 2005 was when Google released Jagger, an update that shook up tactics such as reciprocal linking, link farms and paid links.
  • 2005 also saw Google roll out Big Daddy, an infrastructure change which allowed Google to crawl and index more pages than ever before, thus increasing competition for almost every site. On the other hand, there’s now a supplemental index where all good SPAM sites end up, never to be heard of again.
  • 2007 signaled the end for the traditional 10 SERP page. Universal search adds news, video, local and images.
  • Vince in 2009 wiped a lot of smaller contenders from the SERPs because Google really started to favor big brands.
  • May Day in 2010 made it clear that thin content wasn’t good enough anymore to capture long-tail traffic.
  • At the end of 2010, Google told us that they didn’t ignore social signals when determining ranking.
  • Panda v1 began at the start of 2011. We all know the resultant branding effect on cute bears. Many a webmaster now fears the beast known as Panda, and all its updates. Currently at v4, this update primarily targets low quality and thin content. (theoretically)
  • Google stopped providing an important metric on which a lot of sites got to reply; keyword referrals. We’re all familiar with the [not provided] reference in Google Analytics.
  • This year, Penguin wreaked havoc for link builders, MFA sites got penalized because of the content to ad ratio, and the EMD update has put an end to manipulation of ranking by buying keyword domains.

*sources: seomoz, seroundtable insidesearch

History teaches us that when optimizing a site, we should really pay equal attention to all the aspects of the campaign. Expert SEOs will still explore valid, even novel ways to refine the impact links have. Some good examples of uncommon strategies are in this post by Pratik Dholakiya. I’m NOT suggesting links don’t matter. However, looking at the progression above, it’s clear now that link building, as we once knew it, was on the way out long before Panda or Penguin. Interestingly though, there’s only a limited number of factors that Google can efficiently use to work its ranking magic. Another “problem” Google has, is that in continually fine tuning their system, sometimes unpredictable things can happen. Factors once weighted heavily, become obsolete, and vice versa.

The trick for the optimizer is to be consistent across the board when working on sites. Logic demands that the webmaster who gets this right will come out on top of every single update Google throws out, over the long haul.

Image credit: Broken link – courtesy © pogonici –

Bob Jones

Bob Jones

Director at Visible
A professional Search Engine Consultant from Perth, Australia, Bob Jones likes to surf (the web) when he's not busy winning COD on his 360. During... Read Full Bio
Bob Jones
Get the latest news from Search Engine Journal!
We value your privacy! See our policy here.
  • Ajay Devlabs

    In summary, Your Post implies me only one thing i.e. To be visible in the crowd , we need to communicate with everyone(based on Pratik Dholkiya’s Post ). More we communicate , more we get exposure. one can say, the internet world is just like a hub where ,if you give something you would get a favor of return for that! Thanks Bob!

  • wordpress developer

    Recently I saw that some websites with highly stuffed with keywords and defying the rules of EMD are ranking at number 1. I dont know how google updates works, Either its like running a update once in a quarter or it is active always. If google updates are always active then why such poor sites are ranking up.. try rezeptfrei keyword in and see why that website is on 1?


    • Bob Jones

      Hi Amit,

      The results I see have a site called at the top, who seem to be a band and beating all competitors who seem to be pharma-affiliates. Looking at the top site, it is pretty impressive to me that a simple site like that is getting better positions than the pharma sites, an industry which is notorious for blackhat usage.

      • wordpress developer

        Exactly- Now I am amazed where are Google’s penguin, panda or other updates? They are only suppose to affect sites likes ours who do good seo and such blackhat or unrelated websites are ranking at 1. For me it was not that website on top but it was also similar result.


      • wordpress developer

        Check this for more details what I meant-


  • Nick Stamoulis

    Link building is just one piece of the overall SEO pie. I think a lot of site owners get tunnel vision and over-focus on one aspect of their SEO, which means they have to neglect the other components. When you spend all your time on one aspect you leave your site vulnerable to one or more of those Google updates you listed, plus whatever else is coming down the pipeline.

    • Bob Jones

      You just summed up the idea I was trying to get across in one paragraph Nick 😉

  • Sam Tijani

    Even though I would say keywords are still king, content is queen.

    • wordpress developer

      Hi Sam.. I am not getting your point, how keywords are King? Please clarify…


  • Robert Djakovic

    Offsite SEO activities, at their core, are an unethical business practice. You should never be able to substitute original and substantive content with links or keywords URLs. Link builders have been degrading Google’s and other search engines’ results for years. Thankfully technology is now preventing a small group of people from lowering the quality of search query results.

    Additionally, a new trend shows that Internet users are using social media and mega ecommerce websites such as Amazon to find products and information about products. Thus, reducing the need for search engines.

    • Bob Jones

      Hey Robert,

      I agree to a certain extent. 90% of link building these days seems to consist of “low value-high volume ” links, and that’s definitely the type of crap which degrades the serps. The other 10% however is very viable and I believe that it is important to use outreach in order to attract more attention to certain pieces of content. For example, getting in touch with an editor of a relevant publication after you’ve written a stellar piece of content is the right approach I think. It still depends on their decision to link to you or not.
      Do you have more information about the trend you mentioned? I’d be interested to learn more about it as I haven’t heard anything about it recently.

      • Gail Gardner

        It does not matter how brilliant your site or content if no one ever sees it. It is impossible to get “organic” links until you have at least some indexed pages or visibility somewhere. As Bob Jones mentions, it only makes sense to ensure to do some outreach to influencers who would be interested as they are too busy to happen across what is important to you. Even if you love someone’s work, they need to be sharing what is most important directly with you or you could miss it. The more influential someone is the busier they are because they interact with more people.

        I agree with Robert Djakovic that search will become less important when people have sites they automatically use to find key information – such as reviews on Amazon (whether you buy from them or not) – and when they can easily ask their social connections and get almost immediate recommendations. Instead of searching on Google to decide what kind of anything to buy, they will ask people they know, or broadcast the question to their chosen social networks, or go directly to NewEgg or Amazon or TheFind or ShopWiki or their favorite product or business review site – whatever sites they find most useful.

        This is common sense and by now someone should have done some market research to determine how quickly alternatives are taking traffic away from search. I haven’t seen any yet, but I am keeping an eye out for it.

  • Wesley Picotte

    Thanks for the post, Bob.

    Totally agree with Nick Stamoulis that inbound is an integrated effort.

    The challenge that the past presents to marketers in the present is that SEO successfully functioned in a silo. In my work with clients, I see SEO owned by IT or similar internal groups vs. Marketing more often than not. SEO decisions are made with virtually no strategic input from Marketing as a consequence, and Marketing trundles along with its content creation with little to know understanding of how to effectively optimize.

    We see now more than an evolution to SEO — Google is driving SEOs to think like marketers and vice versa.

    In the end, this is a good thing for the people using search. In the grand vision of Panda and Penguin, we get more relevant SERPs from sites that provide content that’s quality enough to deliver a great (or at least helpful) experience.

  • Reg NBS SEO

    Hi Bob.
    You said:
    “While link building is still an important aspect of SEO, its relationship to other strategies has changed significantly.”

    I have to disagree.
    All indicators point to link building as having no influence on SERPs.
    Google has stated more than once that PageRank is not a metric that influences search results.

    My article, “A Wholistic Look At Link Building. ” ( looks at the changes in Google’s indexing process in regards to link building.

    I think, if you go back and research the Mayday update you will find that it was a major algo change for PageRank.
    PR went from a strictly mathematical computation to one based on relevance.
    I did an article on it back in 2010.

    I have to agree with Robert Djakovic when he says:
    “Link builders have been degrading Google’s and other search engines’ results for years.”

    • Bob Jones

      Hi Reg,

      Your answer confuses me. What I’m trying to say is that link building is only one part of the equation, and that people shouldn’t forget about all the other factors that come into play when trying to achieve good ranking.
      I agree with pagerank probably not really being a factor when it comes to ranking. however, I never mentioned pagerank in the article though?

      • Reg NBS SEO

        Hi Bob.
        I am of the opinion that link building has been removed from the SERPs equation.
        Links and PageRank are the same thing.
        Google’s PageRank is a computation of a page’s link authority.
        PR (links) has been removed as an influence on SERPs.

    • Bob Jones

      Links and PR are the same thing – interesting thought. I don’t think I can agree with that statement.
      If you think that link building has been removed from the SERP equation, why does Google constantly crack down on linkfarm, link buyers and jsut released the link disavow tool?
      It indicates to me that links are still very important, but that pagerank is one of many layers that Google uses to classify links. Relevancy for example isn’t something that can get measured in pagerank.

      • Reg NBS SEO

        Google is cracking down because every link they follow costs them money in processor time and storage.
        Every valueless link that was placed was (is) a total waste of their resources.

        If you go to Wikipedia’s PageRank page you will now see:
        “In Google’s other search services (such as its primary Web search), PageRank is only used to weight the relevance scores of pages shown in search results.”

        As far back as 2003 research was done in Topic-Sensitive PageRank
        For his experiments on Topic-Sensitive PageRank, Haveliwala has chosen the 16 top-level categories of the Open Directory Project both for the identification of topics and for the intervention in PageRank. More precisely, Haveliwala assigns a higher value E to the pages of those ODP categories for which he calculates PageRank. If, for example, he calculates the PageRank for the topic health, all the ODP pages in the health category receive a relatively higher value E and they pass this value in the form of PageRank on to the pages which are linked from there. (

      • Marti

        “Google is cracking down because every link they follow costs them money in processor time and storage.”

        Sorry but this is a ridiculous view. Google are happy with natural links but not with paid ones because of resources??? What???

        Link building clearly still has an affect and there is plenty of evidence to prove that but they are cracking down on the quality and relevance of the links that they take notice of. And as Bob and Nick were saying, this is just a small part of the SEO pie.

        And please don’t get confused… Links and Page Rank are not the same thing. That’s like saying a speedometer is the same as petrol!

      • Reg NBS SEO

        Google uses a two prong system to evaluate and list webpages.
        One is the actual text and it’s semantics and the 2nd is PageRank.

        PageRank is calculated from the amount and relevance of the pages that are linked to the landing page.

        PageRank is Google’s system to judge and apply an authority number to each page indexed.
        PageRank has been made a stand alone metric without influence on search results.
        In Google’s words regarding it’s influence on SERPs, a “non-actionable metric”.

    • Bob Jones

      So if what you say is true, and they are trying to reduce operating costs in their crawler department, aren’t there better ways of doing this? For example, they could simply choose to let Googlebot only crawl internal pages of a domain and ignore all outbound links by default. They could use the nofollow attribute to actually not follow those links, but we can assume that they still do. We know they are capable of discovering new pages and sites without the help of inbound links.
      I guess it’d be an interesting experiment to create two pages in a relatively competing niche and only build links to one of them. I’m sure this has been done by someone already, somewhere 🙂

      • Gail Gardner

        Links still matter. (Just ask anyone who actually tests what works.)

        PageRank and serp position are separate. Sometimes Google takes away traffic but leaves PR unchanged and other times they take away PageRank and leave traffic unchanged. Primarily, Google churns results and marches toward their idea that only big brands count and that they want to “clean up” the Internet “cesspool” (see Aaron Wall’s post on SeoBook for the quote from Google’s CEO and details at and my comment in that post).

        Eventually Google will use Chrome block data, page load times, disavow tools data and anything else they can think of to get rid of everyone except their big brand buddies. I do hope people see the hand writing on the wall and work on building other sources of traffic and income.

        When search results don’t make sense use some common sense and realize that they can and do change what is on page one. Look at the keywords that send you traffic and the bounce rates. Notice when your usually steady conversion rate drops to nothing and then recovers because of distribution fraud. Stop believing what they say and believe what they DO.

  • Damien Town

    Hi Bob – In your opinion what % do you estimate back links are worth in comparison to on page seo work? I have as far as a can tell optimised my own site in terms of on page and my 616 back links that have accumulated over the last 9 months still cant get me into the top 100 on Google.

    • Expert SEO Consultant


      In short; off-page SEO should occur “naturally” – so if & when you create an offpage SEO strategy, you should take this into consideration.

      To answer your question (even though I’m not Bob), I believe that 70% of your time should be spent onpage, & 30% offpage.

    • Bob Jones

      Damien, no two links are alike. It really doesn’t depend on the quantity of links. What you need are authoritative, trusted and relevant links.
      An answer to your % question; how long is a piece of string?
      If the site you’re referring to is the one that’s linked from your username, there’s a few things you might want to look at – your onpage isn’t quite there yet.
      I’d try and separate all the services you list under your Marketing Services and give each service it’s own page, That way you can also refine the title and header for example.

    • Reg NBS SEO

      I would agree with Bob about your SEO.
      Your semantic hierarchy is not organized in either the markup or in the visual presentation.
      Hint: Your h1 and h4 tags are identical in font size.

      You are probably also getting a top heavy penalty as it is necessary to scroll past your ads to read the copy.

  • Traci

    This is an excellent article and I completely agree. It has definitely made me step my game up a bit and learning tough lessons are all a part of keeping things more useful, but what I don’t understand is in my particular niche, the main keyword I used to rank for(I was knocked down a few notches but still rank high) is now showing some obvious spam results high up in the results. I don’t understand this and I don’t understand some the new ranking overall. I liked the update earlier in the year, thought that provided better search results, but these latest updates seem to provide some really horrible results.

  • George

    I started doing seo in 2006, so the Google algorithm update list was a pleasant surprise. We’ve seen some serious updates within the last few years, I think that we will always be able to make some sense of it all for as long as we will be able to examine the linking profiles of the top ranked websites.