A problem facing link building today projects is a disconnect between the goals of link building (more links) and the goals of the company (more sales/leads/ad views). Additionally, there are “other signals” that may be playing a role. This results in link strategies with diminishing effect.
How to Realign Link Building for Success
A few years ago I did a site review session at Affiliate Summit New York. The links pointing to a site I was reviewing were irrelevant and of low quality. The links did not match the high quality of the site itself.
The company had hired an outside link builder. The link builder did what they needed to do to fulfill their contract.
This resulted in links that met agreed upon metrics. Yet despite having an agreement about links, the quality of the links still fell short and the project resulted in no increase in traffic, sales or leads.
There were two reasons that the link building project failed:
- Link building was not coordinated with the content
- The Link building was focused on meeting quotas and metric benchmarks
How to Make Link Building Work
Coordinating Links with Content
A major reason some link building projects fail is the architecture of the project itself. A company outside of the organization or within the organization itself, is tasked with building links independently and disconnected from everything else going on at the company.
Link building projects are typically treated like an exterior painting project: Here is the paint color we want, get it done.
The best link building should have some degree of integration and coordination with a content strategy. It doesn’t make sense to have a team working on content and another team working in isolation doing their mystery mojo link building.
In an ideal world, there is communication between the content and link building sides, even if the link building is outsourced.
What’s planned for content can help juice up the link building side because it gives the link building something to support. Do it like this and the link building returns the favor by juicing up the content, making it more powerful.
Link building is not really about links. Link building is about putting air underneath the wings of the content, helping it gain altitude and fly, which is a metaphor for attracting traffic and links.
In my experience, link building is not about building links in a vacuum. Link building is about supporting the goals of the content, such as traffic, sales and leads.
Gaining awareness for the content can be a goal of link building. That opens up a wide area of outreach for the purpose of gaining awareness, which includes podcasting, video, interviews… the possibilities are almost endless.
The end result is the gold standard of links which are naturally given links that were not asked for.
Another effect can be what John Mueller cryptically referred to as “other signals.”
“So especially if you’re active in an area where people tend not to link a lot… and where we do try to pick up other signals to see like this is actually a pretty good website.”
He’s making reference to signals that indicate that a web page or website is useful. What those signals are is beyond the scope of this article.
But I will propose that getting the word out about a site and making people enthusiastic about it will make itself known via positive mentions, even if without a link. Could those be used as an alternative to links? Could users typing in your domain name and asking for your web pages also be an “other signal?”
Link Quotas and Metrics
The second reason link building projects fail are monthly quotas and performance metrics that the links themselves must pass.
Link Building Quotas
Monthly quotas sets up a path to desperation where the link builder starts sweating about where they’re going to get this month’s links.
Almost inevitably this leads to link buying, scaling (which is a euphemism for email spamming) , and shortcuts that are not in the interest of the client.
I know for a fact that some companies that sell themselves on “genuine outreach” are really just mass spamming in advance to build link inventory that is then purchased from the publisher and sold to the user.
In addition to being in violation of FTC guidance about telling users about paid advertising, it’s also against Google’s guidelines.
When a link building strategy broadens it’s focus beyond links and thinks in terms of awareness building, the kinds of projects available opens up to projects that can result in naturally given links.
For example, an article without a link in it, or with a nofollow link, can help build awareness. It can also create the opportunity where other sites may give a natural link to the author.
Another benefit is that it can cause people to search Google with the company name, thereby providing a signal that people want to see this site in the search results. That, in my opinion, might be a ranking signal and at the very least could serve to help it be found in the Google Suggest results.
Link Building Metrics
Link building metrics have consistently been arbitrary or based on bad SEO information.
For example, when Google used to show a PageRank metric on the Google Toolbar, it was common practice to seek links that were a minimum of PageRank 4.
The reason for this practice is that when you searched Google for backlinks using the link: advanced search operator, Google used to show links from sites that were PageRank 4 and above.
The SEO industry inferred that the reason for this was because PageRank 4 sites were more important.
The reality was that Google never intended to show all backlinks. Google intended to only show a sample of links. When creating the link search operator, the engineers randomly chose the PageRank value of 4.
Google search engineers had no idea that this would cause the SEO industry to wrongly infer importance to the PageRank value of four.
And thus began an erroneous SEO practice, the refusal to accept any link that was less than a PageRank of four. As silly as that might sound, the SEO industry is behaving even worse today than back then.
At least in the past the SEO community was mistaken about an actual Google metric, PageRank, which could be seen on their toolbar.
Today the SEO community is fixated on an arbitrarily chosen Moz Domain Authority metric threshold.
Low PageRank links were always valuable and the most sophisticated black hat spammers along with a few smart SEOs understood the power of quantity and relevance mattered more than the PageRank number.
Those days are over, of course. Ranking with links is significantly harder and more nuanced today than in the past.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is that applying a minimum threshold of Moz Domain Authority or any other metric is a mistake because all links matter.
The first object of a successful link building project is to coordinate link building with content strategy. This is based on how search engines rank pages today.
In the past it was enough to “build” links to the home page and let the PageRank trickle through to the pages below.
Today it is imperative for pages to stand or fall on their own. The more links an individual page receives the more important it will be perceived.
Yet, the content of the page also matters. You can’t just throw thousands of high quality relevant links at content that is not relevant in the way users want it and expect it to rank. The relevance of content to users still matters.
So in my opinion, link building/awareness building and content creation should ideally work together because that’s how Google appears to be ranking pages, increasingly because of the relevance of content to users.