At this point, the word “change” is pretty much passé in the SEO community. Every year, we proclaim that SEO is changing. Some of those changes don’t play out. Others take us by surprise. Sometimes those changes are overstated. Other times, we find agencies burying their heads in the sand.
We’d like to use this time to take an honest look back, and forward, at the state of SEO. How has this industry really changed? Where is it headed? What can we expect from the twin kings of link building and content marketing?
Let’s dive in.
What is Really and Truly Dead?
It usually takes about five minutes between the time Matt Cutts or somebody from Google says something, and the time a blog post pops up somewhere on the web saying that a particular SEO tactic is “dead.”
In this section of the post, I’m not interested in what is risky or against Google’s terms of service: I’m interested in tactics that are dead as a doornail. By this I mean that in all but a few extreme and short-lived cases, the tactic just doesn’t work in any meaningful way.
This one is completely dead, folks.
For those too young to the industry to remember, article spinning was the process of automatically generating “rewritten” versions of an article and submitting them to as many low quality article directories as possible. It actually worked surprisingly well before Panda, and even for a while after that when done “correctly.”
But as far as I can tell, this one just doesn’t work at all anymore.
After doing a Google image search for “article spinning” and looking at results over the past year, I found exactly one site (SubmitProWith.Us, not giving them a link) that posted any evidence of improved rankings with article spinning. And all of their proof was dated to 2012.
Exact Match Anchor Text
Once again, I failed to find a single site that advocated building exact match anchor text that posted any evidence of it working. All I could find were examples of websites that had been hit by Penguin or a manual penalty, most likely because of the exact match anchor text, at least in part.
What Can Still Work, But isn’t Worth it for Brands?
The whole Interflora fiasco is both proof that buying links can still inflate your rankings, and proof that it isn’t worth if for brands to take the risk.
The fact of the matter is Google’s algorithms just aren’t smart enough to identify link buying in every single circumstance. How could it be? Not even humans are that smart.
The real reason this isn’t worth it for brands is because it’s actually more costly to buy links than to attract them naturally. There are a few reasons for this:
- Link sellers are, understandably, very likely to sell links to others who may not be as discrete as you are.
- The content has to be just as good as if you were doing it completely above-board, or over time it will become obvious that you are buying the links.
- It is more cost-effective to use the money to pay an influencer to write something on your blog than to pay a link dealer, likely with less influence, to host a link on their site.
It’s sad that I have to put this in this category, but unfortunately it is true that sites can still rank by hacking sites and placing links. In July last year, Majestic shared a case study, examining a site that managed to rank, even with zero content, simply by pumping up its link velocity with hacked links.
Needless to say, brands shouldn’t get involved in things like this, and not just because they’re, well, illegal. From this and other case studies, it’s immediately obvious that the results don’t last very long.
Still, I think it’s important to point out studies like this to get a sense for where Google’s algorithm really is in terms of spotting things. It’s certainly gotten smarter about spotting low quality content and links, but pages can slip through the cracks if some of their other ranking factors are out of control.
Private Link Networks
A cleverly designed private link network, made up of several sites you bought up to link to yourself, is more or less invisible to Google at the moment. Black hats seem to love this tactic. Assuming the quality level of the sites is high enough, this is likely to go unnoticed.
However, once again, it simply isn’t worth the effort for brands. The cost of either buying sites with high quality content or creating high quality content to put on cheap sites simply isn’t worth it. This, of course, is why the black hats simply skip this part, and expose themselves to risks that inevitably get them caught.
Smart marketers can learn from private link networks, however. We went in depth on this at our site. Put simply, a totally legitimate twist on this is to buy up blogs, preferably hiring the bloggers who operate them, and move the blog over to your site. This allows you to capture not just the SEO value, but the existing audience of the blogger. This is completely justifiable as inbound marketing, and an incredibly valuable SEO tactic.
What is Potentially Risky?
It turns out that much of the fear surrounding site-wide links was actually a little overblown. They are just too common, and they are still frequently given editorially. The Open Penguin Data Project found that site-wide links had surprisingly little to do with Penguin.
That said, site-wide links often appear spammy to other SEOs, and if anything else about them seems less than editorial, almost anybody else will consider them spammy as well.
My position on site-wide links is that if you earn them naturally, that’s great. Don’t cut value, reduce exposure, and potentially reduce your rankings by asking these people to stop linking to you.
At the same time, unless there are some serious referral traffic opportunities, I wouldn’t recommend seeking out site-wide links during outreach. At best, there really isn’t any additional SEO benefit over a single link within a blog post.
Guest Posting Exclusively for SEO Reasons
Rand Fishkin is predicting that Google will release an update targeting low tier guest posting, badges, and infographics as manipulative link building tactics some time in 2014. We won’t come down hard and say that it’s definitely coming in 2014, but we’ve been warning for quite some time that Google’s own policies on link schemes are very broad:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”
Our response has always been to avoid building links that aren’t worth anything without the direct SEO benefit. (Imagine the link is no-follow, and ask yourself if you would still build it.)
This allows you to draw a pretty clear line between what kinds of guest posts are worth building, and which ones aren’t. If the guest post has legitimate benefits outside of SEO, not only do you know it’s valuable even if the search engines ignore it, you also know that the search engines probably won’t ignore it.
Partial Match Anchor Text
The number of external domains linking with partial match anchor text ties for the third highest correlated ranking factor according to Moz. At the same time, partial match anchor text was more highly correlated with Penguin penalties than exact match anchor text, according to the Open Penguin Data Project.
This does not mean that partial march anchor text is more dangerous than exact match anchor text. More likely, it’s a consequence of the fact that a large number of SEOs have been told that if they only use partial match anchor text, they will be fine.
I would put this in basically the same area as site-wide backlinks. For the most part, you probably shouldn’t go out of your way to earn partial match anchor text links these days, but if you earn them naturally, don’t waste any time trying to get them removed.
By the same token, I wouldn’t go out of your way to avoid building partial match anchor text links either. Just focus on building links that will pull referral traffic, and that let users know what they’re going to find on the other side of the link.
These days, I typically just write a sentence, and look for the logical place to put the link as a citation. Thinking beyond that doesn’t really add any SEO value, and is more likely to work against you.
We’ve already pointed out that there are examples of sites ranking with literally no content when certain factors, like link velocity, are out of control. We’ve also pointed out that Panda has pretty much obliterated article spinning at this point. Panda’s actual ability to target “mediocre” content isn’t quite as clear, and plenty of limited value content still turns up for certain search queries. At this point, it’s difficult to tell if this is because more valuable content simply doesn’t exist, or if Google isn’t especially good at finding it yet.
That said, Google is currently dead set on ranking pages based on behavioral data, as well as machine learning algorithms that have been trained on datasets of quality content.
Google’s internal quality guidelines seem to indicate that quality content is content that serves a purpose for users, and serves it well.
I suspect that the extremely high correlation between +1s and rankings, which Matt Cutts has clearly said is not a direct relationship, offers yet another hint into how Google is analyzing content itself. By comparing the number of +1s a piece of content earns with other, less visible factors, Google may be building an internal template of what really counts as “good” content.
With this in mind, investing in “decent” content is a risky venture at this point.
Hummingbird is replacing extremely specific queries with more general ones. The strategy of finding untapped keywords and writing decent content about them is gradually losing value as a result.
Even if Google doesn’t get better at spotting mediocre content, it won’t rank without the right link signals. Since “decent” content is unlikely to earn those naturally, you will almost certainly need to take part in risky link building tactics to rank with it. This makes it an inherently risky strategy.
How to Approach Link Building and Content Marketing in the Years Going Forward
Start Redefining Content
The top sites on the web like Facebook, Amazon, and YouTube aren’t what we typically think of as content sites. Yet sites like these completely dominate top-notch content sites like Mashable or the New York Times.
The most successful sites on the web are built on a foundation of applications, tools, and communities. Most people can go without “content” as we currently define it. Most of us can’t go without online tools and communities.
I suspect that content marketing and SEO agencies over the next few years are going to start investing a great deal more in web design and coding. Part of this is because more people are spending time on mobile devices, where they spend most of their time in apps.
At the same time, it’s also because nothing earns press, attention, and precious user behavior metrics the way that an online application does.
Certainly, we can expect more traditional forms of content like blog posts, videos, infographics, eBooks, and whitepapers to continue to play a huge role in content marketing. In fact, these can only be expected to grow over the next several years. Just be warned, it’s going to be harder to shine through.
Interactive experiences, on the other hand, attract attention like nothing else.
New Outreach Techniques
While traditional outreach techniques like guest blogging still have their place, marketers who focus on building business relationships will have the most success.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
- Paying influential writers and bloggers to guest post on your blog. This is, for example, how Social Media Examiner built its audience.
- Working with YouTube “celebrities” to reach a different kind of audience.
- Hiring influential designers, artists, and coders who can help expand your reach.
- Interviewing experts and influencers.
- Taking interviews on podcasts.
“Link begging” has become so commonplace that even if you offer value and try to start real conversations it’s easy to get ignored. Influencers are increasingly deaf to anything without immediate and clear financial benefits for them, and marketers will need to find ways to satisfy this need while staying within Google’s terms of service.
I suspect we will be seeing SEOs and content marketers pulling more stunts like these in order to be newsworthy. In this case, it’s not about things you say, it’s about things you do:
- Abercromie & Fitch offered to pay Mike Sorrentino, from The Jersey Shore, not to wear their clothing, claiming (tongue in cheek) in a press release to be “deeply concerned that [his] association with [their] brand could cause significant damage to [their] image.”
- To promote Anchorman 2, Will Ferrell co-anchored a local North Dakota news broadcast, reading the actual news and staying in the character of Ron Burgundy.
- A Sydney coffee shop, the Metro St James Café, launched the “pay with a kiss” campaign, where coffee drinkers could pay for their drink by kissing their partner.
The point of stunts like these is that they earn news coverage in mainstream publications. These are the kinds of links and the kinds of publicity you can’t earn any other way: not with guest posts or outreach.
SEO and content marketing are still changing. Big surprise, right? A look back over the years reveals that very few shortcut tactics still work. While it’s still fundamentally about earning links and exposure, marketers need to be innovative and bold in order to stay ahead of the competition.
Image created by author.