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A Link Builder’s Response to John Mueller

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A Link Builder’s Response to John Mueller

When I clocked into work on Monday, February 16, I saw this.

avoidScreenshot taken on February 16, 2015


As I’m sure many of you will understand, I find it harder to “wake up” on Monday mornings. Mondays require me to consume a disproportionately high amount of coffee. This news gave me the requisite jolt however.

You see, I work at a custom link building agency. I’ve worked at this agency for close to three years now, so links and link building are ordinarily on the forefront of my mind.

You would think this kind of headline would strike panic into my heart. The voice of Google is squashing my trade, right?

Wrong. And here’s why.

The Context

On February 13–yes, it was Friday the 13th–John Mueller was part of the Google Webmaster office-hours hangout. This is not unusual. The office-hours hangout is a series hosted on G+ where Google employees like Mueller will address questions from webmasters around the world.

Indeed, Mueller has been known to break important news during these hangouts. He was the first person from Google to confirm Penguin 3.0, even though it turned out later that he was wrong about some crucial details.

At the 55:40 mark of February 13th’s hangout, one webmaster asked of Mueller: “Is link building in any way good for webmasters?”

Mueller answered by saying:

“In general, I’d try to avoid that. So that you are really sure your content kind of stands on its own and make it possible for other people of course to link to your content. Make it easy, maybe, put a little widget on your page, if you like this, this is how you can link to it. Make sure that the URLs on your website are easy to copy and paste. All of those things make it a little bit easier.

We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.”

The Controversy

Mueller said this on a Friday, but the story didn’t really pick up a lot of traction until the following Monday. No one keeps up with the news over the weekend. I didn’t even see a single mention on Twitter.

Monday morning, however, the criticism commenced. If you dug through the comments of the Search Engine Roundtable post, you would find remarks like:

vermontdesignScreenshot taken on February 16, 2015

Link building has been a hotbed for controversy in SEO ever since the Penguin algorithm was first launched in April 2012. This isn’t even close to the first time someone has prematurely issued a death certificate for link building. Just do a search query for “is link building dead?” and you will see a long line of results with practically the same title and, more importantly, varying dates.

islinkbuildingdeadagainScreenshot taken on February 18, 2015

Link building is so often eulogized because Penguin targeted spammy link building aggressively. A large amount of websites that were actively building manipulative links saw tremendous drops in rankings, which unfortunately culminates into a tremendous drop in revenue.

This is undisputed. Here’s the more important question: what is link building, really?

The Comeback

Mick Jagger once wrote a song called, “Old Habits Die Hard.” He released this song in 2004, about 25 years after people stopped listening to The Rolling Stones. I suppose he wanted to prove his own point.

Old habits do die hard. The old brand of instant-submit, spammy link building is alive. THIS is the kind of link building John Mueller doesn’t want to see anymore. This is the kind of link building I don’t want to see anymore either.

In the comments section of the Search Engine Roundtable post, Michael Martinez said:

martinezScreenshot taken on February 18, 2015

It should be mentioned that Mr. Martinez is hardly the biggest proponent of link building, but even he understands the difference between pre-Penguin and post-Penguin link building.

Real, modern link building isn’t submitting a link to a list of low-quality sites that exist only for nefarious link equity purposes. Nor is link building a process of creating infographics with cleverly hidden anchor text.

To me and to many others, link building is another form of promotion.

The overwhelming majority of sites online today don’t have even a morsel of brand recognition. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. It just means that the Internet is a really noisy place. By the time you’re done reading this sentence, there will be a 100+ new blog posts uploaded. And that’s just WordPress.

Modern link building is all about finding relevant sites with audiences that could benefit from your unique value proposition, and persuading those sites to link to you. That’s it.

In order to rank, it’s essential to have quality backlinks in your link profile. Mueller says as much in the video.

Consider this comment from Marcus Krieg:

kriegScreenshot taken on February 18, 2015

How can a newer site expect to rank if they just have to wait for other niche influencers to serendipitously discover them? If you don’t have links in your profile, you’re not going to rank. And if you don’t rank, it’s going to be hard to find you and your linkworthy pages/content. You couldn’t find a more exemplary catch-22 unless you were in the Joseph Heller section of a bookstore.

It’s simply ridiculous for Google to say you can’t promote your site to other sites with links in mind. Links are the backbone of Google, but they are also the backbone of the web in general. Any savvy marketer wants to build links for reasons even beyond the benefits of search.

One thing that’s NOT ridiculous about Mueller’s answer, however, is the last part of it.

“So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.”

Even though I’m a link builder, I couldn’t agree more. Same goes for Nick Stamoulis of Brick Marketing:

stamoulisScreenshot taken on February 18, 2015

When you scale link building to the point where it’s your ONLY exposure strategy, you have two problems.

  1. You’re missing out on other opportunities that have their own set of benefits (social media, PPC, email marketing, etc.)
  2. Google will construe your efforts as manipulation, and rightfully so

But as long as you’re building the kind of links that are relevant to your niche AND better the overall user experience, Google won’t punish this kind of link building. They have a long history of not doing so. The founding father of link building, Eric Ward, left this fantastic comment on Search Engine Roundtable:

ericwarxcScreenshot taken on February 17, 2015

I couldn’t say it any better myself, Eric.


What are your thoughts on John Mueller’s comments?


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Jesse Stoler

Content Marketing Specialist at Page One Power

Jesse Stoler is a Content Specialist at Page One Power, a link building firm based out of Boise, Idaho. He ... [Read full bio]

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