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The Evolution of Link Building: Web Rings, Spam & Penguin… Oh My

Link building has come a long way from its pre-Google days. Read on to better understand modern link building today, and how we got here.

The Evolution of Link Building

Link building is a constantly and rapidly evolving subspecialty in the SEO world.

Since most of us know that links are an essential part of modern SEO and that this will remain true well into the future, it’s wise to understand not only where we are today, but how we got here.

This gives us a stronger foundation on which to base our decisions, and it helps us to see through the BS when someone pushes a crackpot theory.

Let’s dig into how link building has evolved over the years, from before Google even existed up to today.


When we think about link building, we often think about Google.

Google ushered in link building as a search engine optimization tactic with the invention of their link-based algorithm, Backrub.

But even prior to Google becoming the dominant force they are today, link building did exist – it just didn’t yet play a role in SEO.

At that point in history, link building was used to drive visitors directly to your website rather than for manipulating search results.

Back then, marketers used a tactic called web rings wherein website owners published pages of links to other related websites.

They did this for multiple reasons — to help themselves, others in their industry, and even visitors because frankly, search engines sucked at the time.

People would actually visit these pages specifically looking for other interesting and useful websites to visit.

At the time, there wasn’t really any link building that you would consider spam or black hat.

Not only were there no Webmaster Guidelines, but there was also no incentive to build those types of links because they would have had no impact.

And from a purely technical perspective, it would have been unrealistic anyway because domains and hosting were relatively expensive by today’s standards and websites were coded manually in Notepad. Automation would have been nearly impossible.

People took a user-centric approach because that was all that mattered back then.

Early Link Building for SEO

It seems crazy to think about but once upon a time, Google was just getting started as a research project by two guys in college.

It grew quickly from there and began gobbling up market share to eventually become the behemoth it is today.

Once marketers learned that inbound links influenced ranking in Google, they dove headfirst into building or acquiring them by any and all means possible.

Virtually overnight, link building transformed from being a strategy that had direct long-term benefits into a tactic that in practice, primarily only offered indirect benefits.

And as with any tactic, we abused it.

We found every possible tactic to build links and then exploited those tactics at scale.

Eventually, this led to Google launching their catastrophic Penguin algorithm update, which we’ll discuss later.

For now, let’s break down the early SEO link building tactics.

Reciprocal Links

One of the earliest widespread link building tactics used for SEO purposes was reciprocal link building, which was an adaptation of the older web rings concept.

Initially, website owners would simply publish a page where they would then link to other websites in exchange for those websites linking back to theirs.

It quickly evolved into categorized links and paginated listings – basically a miniature directory.

Specialized software was even developed to manage this tactic, which automated a majority of the workflow.

A website owner would have to first place a link to your site from theirs, then fill out a form on your website asking you to link to them.

On the backend, a bot would parse their submission, check that their website does link to yours, and then send that info into a queue for you to review and publish.

There was even an email component to many of these tools in that you could search for websites on a particular topic and mass-email the owners of those websites asking them to link to your website in exchange for you linking to theirs.

The main difference between web rings and reciprocal links is that web rings are almost always linked to other highly relevant websites, while reciprocal links would often link to any websites willing to link back to them.

This tactic started to become less effective once some website owners started refusing to link out.

They believed that linking out to other websites would diminish their link equity, so they tried to get others to link to their website without linking back to them.

Some did this transparently, simply stating that they wouldn’t link to your website.

Others initially linked out to a link partner’s website only to remove the outbound link some time later.

Directory Links

When I was a kid, we had phone books, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Today we have search engines that can return the correct answer to almost any query in an instant.

In between these two timeframes, we had a period of time where these sources of information were blended.

We had search engines, but they weren’t very good. We also had categorized directories that were similar in many ways to the old school phone books.

Often, both were rolled into one portal, as we saw with Yahoo, AOL, AltaVista, and countless others.

Website owners could submit their website to be included in a directory, or the owner of the directory might even add particular websites simply because they provide great information.

You could perform a search in these portals. Or, if you just wanted to explore, you could navigate to a particular category and start clicking on links.

It wasn’t uncommon to find yourself deep down a rabbit hole at 4 a.m. after browsing around all night.

Countless directories sprung up during this time. DMOZ was one of the largest nonprofit directories at the time. They didn’t charge a fee to be listed, but you did have to get approved by a moderator and the queue was ridiculous.

In fact, some people waited years to be listed, and in some cases, moderators would simply ignore any submissions by their competitors.

Yahoo! also had a directory but charged a fee to be reviewed. They didn’t guarantee a listing but did say they would refund your money if you weren’t listed.

Yahoo! DirectoryScreenshot of the Yahoo! Directory home page back when it was still active.

I personally don’t know anyone who was ever rejected, though.

Note: The Yahoo! Directory no longer exists today.

Untold thousands of directories popped up in varying forms. Some were hyper-targeted, focusing on a very small niche, while others were general directories that would link to literally anyone who was willing to pay the fee.

This quickly turned into a self-feeding business model where people launching new directories would then submit their URL to existing directories to increase their link equity – measured by Google’s PageRank, or PR, back then.

Once a directory reached a reasonable PR score, other people with new directories would submit theirs to be included.

Google PageRankGoogle’s now discontinued PageRank toolbar, which displayed a rounded PR score in your browser.

And that was on top of the ordinary business owners who also paid to have their website included.

Guestbook Links

Everything about the internet was a novelty in the early days, so we did a lot of things that people today would probably think are weird.

Guestbooks are one of those things.

As the name suggests, guestbooks were a place where visitors could leave a note to the world that they had visited that site. It was the digital version of scrawling, “Dave was here!” on the side of your school in spray paint.

Visitors filled out a form and their response was published on that website’s guest book for the world to see. It was a fun concept initially but was quickly abused by marketers.

This was one of the first early link building tactics to die off, mainly because it attracted so much garbage.

Paid Link Building

One tactic that has withstood the test of time is paid link building, simply because it works. It’s also significantly more efficient than cold outreach for free links.

It’s also worth noting that today, many websites require a fee to link to your website regardless of how amazing your content may be.

In the early days, people would buy links from other highly relevant websites because their main focus was in drawing in users rather than manipulating ranking.

As time went on, though, they started buying links from any websites based on a high Page Rank score. The higher the score, the higher the price.

Eventually, Google stopped sharing this score publicly, forcing link buyers and sellers to start using scores from tool providers that tried to emulate the Page Rank formula.

While scores from other tool providers are not the same as Page Rank and mean nothing on their own, they do offer a relative metric from which to compare the authority of different websites relative to each other.

Google is obviously opposed to buying links and they’ve been very vocal about it, but the reality is none of that matters in the real world.

While buying links is a clear violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines, so is every other method of link building.

In other words, unless you’re just kneeling by the side of your bed and praying for people to link to your website, literally anything you’re doing to acquire links is a violation of their guidelines.

And despite what it claims, Google is not able to “identify and ignore” paid links on a widespread or consistent basis. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary.

Paid links today take a variety of forms.

Some marketers focus on buying links only from relevant, authoritative websites with high traffic, while others will buy links from any website that seems like it might move the needle from a ranking perspective.

While I personally believe that buying links can be an effective and safe tactic today, there are a couple of caveats here.

First, any links you buy should have the potential to drive real human visitors to your website.

If you’re buying a link just for the purpose of manipulating ranking, you won’t get as much impact out of it.

Second, you have to be selective in where you buy links.

You can immediately throw away any of those stupid emails where some stranger is offering to sell you links because they’re offering that to everyone, so you can be certain that Google knows about them, too.

And you can also ignore any website that seems to link out to a bunch of random sites that don’t make sense contextually.

For example, linking to third-party data that supports a position or statement in an article is perfectly acceptable.

However, talking about a particular topic and randomly link to a company’s home page – even if that company is relevant to the topic — is a sign they are probably selling links on such a scale that they won’t have any positive impact for you.

Comment/Forum Spam

In the early days of the internet, websites were mostly static. Blogs and forums changed that by giving people the ability to engage in real-time.

It also created an opportunity for marketers to build massive quantities of links that, in many cases, went unnoticed by the website owners.

Blog Comments

While you don’t see them quite as often these days, most blogs used to have a comment section where visitors could post their thoughts at the bottom of a post.

Today, most blogs don’t allow comments because it’s simply not worth the effort to combat spam comments and angry trolls.

This tactic started when marketers realized they could easily acquire a link by simply posting a comment on a blog post.

In most cases, the form for comments includes fields for a name, email, and URL. When the comment published, the name became the anchor text which linked to the URL from that field.

Blog comment.This is a screenshot of a blog comment form with standard fields.

But manually identifying enough blogs and then submitting enough comments on them to impact ranking was a monumental task and not cost-effective. Smart people who wanted to be more productive developed software to automate the process.

This software enabled marketers to build massive quantities of links quickly by submitting spun comments on thousands of blogs in a single day. (I’ll talk more about spinning in the section on article submissions a bit later in the article.)

There was a period of time when this was incredibly effective – right up until Google released its Penguin update. Later, Google screwed up their algorithm and this became effective again.

I’ll talk more about this facet a little later in this article because it’s a critical piece of information you’ll need to know if you want to truly understand modern link building.

Forum Links

Before social media was as prominent as it is today, people congregated on forums to share updates, ask questions, network, and debate.

Forums as a link building channel came in two styles.

Forum Links Style #1

The first and most obvious style was to post links within the forum. The key here was to leverage a certain degree of social engineering into these posts.

Shortsighted link builders would take a drive-by approach, simply dropping their link and running.

Forum spam.Here’s an example of drive-by spam links on a forum.

These would predictably be deleted almost instantly on any relatively active forum.

Smarter link builders would craft their posts in such a way that it made it not only logical, but often, necessary to include a link. These tended to stick around for a while, if not forever.

Forum Links Style #2

The more subtle style was to create an account on a forum, add a URL to your profile, and move on. Since most forum owners didn’t have time to look at every new user, this typically went unnoticed.

Unsurprisingly, software was developed to automate this at scale, which meant link builders didn’t have to actually spend time on these forums – the software would handle 99% of the work.

Both styles were incredibly effective at the time, but as social media has replaced the role that forums once played, there are significantly fewer forums and it has become less effective today.

Guest Posting

I always loved this tactic because it’s a solid, holistic marketing tactic.

It’s been around since the earliest days of the internet. More importantly, guest posting is still around today because it’s still an incredibly effective tactic.

By sharing your knowledge on a larger platform that already has an established audience, you’re not only building awareness for your brand but also earning valuable links to your website.

Sometimes these links are in your bio at the bottom of the article, and sometimes even in the body of the article.

There is a natural barrier to entry here because in order to effectively use this tactic, you had to write well and have decent people skills in order to pitch your topic to the website owner or editor.

In reality, it’s a lot more like traditional public relations than link building.

The key is to identify websites that have consistent traffic and are relevant to your products or services, and pitch them on you writing about a topic their audience would be interested in reading.

Now when I say relevant here, I don’t mean loosely relevant. It’s not enough to say, “Their website is about vehicles and mine is about vehicles.” In fact, it’s not even enough to say, “Their website is about cars and mine is about cars.”

You have to get more specific.

If their website is about traditional muscle cars and yours is about small import cars, it’s unlikely their audience will give a damn about your article titled “9 Reasons the Honda Civic is the Best Car Ever.”

In fact, they would probably hate it and the website owner would likely be blasted by their audience for even publishing it.

In order for guest posting to be effective, the content published had to be well-written, highly engaging, and most importantly – relevant to their audience.

When those criteria were met, guest posting became a powerful tool in not only building high-quality links, but also exposure, a strong personal brand, and, in many, cases a strong company brand.

But many marketers thought if a little of this is good, then a lot must be better.

This led to the proliferation of article directories.

Article Directories

As marketers realized how effective guest posting was, the next logical step was to scale the tactic.

This is how article directories were born. They went on to become one of the most disruptive and impactful link building tactics ever.

In fact, the impact of this tactic was so great that it finally pushed Google over the edge to take unprecedented action against link building with their Penguin update.

Think of building links via article directories like a more robust form of building links via blog comments. Instead of just posting a comment on someone else’s blog, though, you’re posting an entire article.

Much like link directories, article directories quickly became an entirely new industry.

Dedicated software enabled site owners to launch their own article directory with minimal time or effort. New WordPress plugins allowed them to add this capability to an existing website.

It didn’t take long for a massive network of article directories to spring up that other link builders were eager to submit tons of content to.

And submit they did.

Having run my own network, I say this from a firsthand perspective.

I ran hundreds of these directories and every morning, I would wake up to find hundreds of new articles that had been submitted to each one. The volume of fresh content was astounding.

Now, I will say that I’m using the phrase “fresh content” a little loosely here.

The content was technically fresh, in that it would pass a Copyscape test, but it wasn’t truly original content.

What marketers would do is write an article on a particular topic and then use spintax to spin that content into an infinite number of other articles so they could submit a “unique” article to each directory.

Specialized software read this spintax, randomly selected variables, and produced a technically unique piece of content.

So your original sentence might look like this:

Most SEOs who claim to be “white hat” are either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.

And your new sentence with spintax might look like this:

{Many|Nearly all|Most} {SEO professionals|SEO pros|SEO practitioners|SEOs} who {say they are|say they’re|claim they’re|claim to be} “white hat” are either {not telling the truth|being untruthful|lying} or don’t {have any {significant|real} experience|{understand|know} what they’re {saying|talking about}}.

Here are a few sentences that spintax created:

  • Nearly all SEOs who say they’re “white hat” are either not telling the truth or don’t have any significant experience.
  • Most SEO professionals who claim to be “white hat” are either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.
  • Many SEO pros who claim to be “white hat” are either being untruthful or don’t understand what they’re talking about.
  • Nearly all SEO professionals who say they are “white hat” are either lying or don’t know what they’re saying.
  • Many SEOs who claim they’re “white hat” are either lying or don’t have any real experience.

It doesn’t take much to see how this was a powerful tool.

Invest a little money in having a decent article written, then add the appropriate spintax throughout the entire article, and you can now submit a unique article to hundreds or thousands of other websites — with each article linking to your website!

And just as software was developed to run these article directories, software was also developed to submit your articles to them.

It would create your accounts, spin the articles, and submit them to the directories. All you had to do was supply the article, add the spintax, and then run the software.

I personally leveraged both sides of this equation.

I used this link building tactic by submitting spun articles linking to my own websites on a massive scale, but also ran my own network of article directories.

These directories earned ad revenue, collected email addresses, and even became valuable assets I could link out to my own websites from.

They essentially became a new revenue stream, a new marketing channel, and my own giant PBN consisting of hundreds of sites that were viewed favorably by Google.

Until they weren’t.

Technically, this was considered black hat by Google, which was quietly preparing a massive algorithm update behind the scenes to combat what they viewed as manipulative linking practices.

Before we talk about that, I want to take a minute to explain what is considered black hat link building.

Black Hat Link Building

Most SEO professionals like to place themselves into either the white hat or black hat category, but most of the people who claim to fall into the white hat category are either lying or wrong.

So what is the difference between white hat and black hat?

Supposedly, white hat means that you’re adhering to all of the search engines’ webmaster guidelines, while black hat means you’re not.

It seems pretty straightforward, right?

I believe it is.

This will be an unpopular opinion, but this means that literally anything you do to acquire links to your website puts you solidly in the black hat category.

According to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, “participating in link schemes” is the second bullet point listed as a technique to avoid.

So how does Google define a link scheme?

Google defines a “link scheme” as:

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. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

In other words – literally anything you do to acquire links.

Blog comment and forum spam? Yes. We all can agree on that.

But what about a PR campaign? Surely that’s organic because your brand is being featured based on the merits of something it’s doing or has done, right?

Well, did you ask the journalist to link to your site, or even just send them your URL hoping they would?

Then you violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by manipulating links to your site and you’re now officially a black hat.

Welcome to the club. We have t-shirts and meet on Thursdays.

But when most logical people (who don’t work as spokespeople for Google) think of black hat link building, they’re usually thinking of tactics like:

  • Blog comment links.
  • Forum links.
  • Profile links.
  • Reciprocal links.
  • Private blog networks (PBNs).
  • Hacked website links.
  • Guest posting with spun content.
  • Buying links.
  • Web 2.0 link wheels.
  • Widget links.
  • Free theme links.

Generally, they’re talking about low-quality, easily automated links.

The reality is that what most logical people consider black hat and what Google considers black hat are two very different things.

Ultimately, this decision is fully in Google’s hands and it’s up to the rest of us to determine where we stand in regards to the risk vs. reward ratio.

If you want to fully abide by their guidelines, then you have to give up link building entirely.

Just know that in doing so, you’re giving your competitors a tremendous advantage over you.

If you’re willing to take some risk and play in the gray area, you have to do so knowing that Google’s response may one day destroy your business.

This is what business owners and marketers learned in 2012 when Google released their Penguin update.

Hell Hath No Fury Like Google Scorned

In 2012, Google took massive action to combat link building tactics it considered manipulative.

With the release of their Penguin algorithm update, Google effectively destroyed countless thousands of businesses overnight.

This was a “burn the crops and salt the earth” kind of update.

Not only was the penalty harsh – many companies were not even showing up in searches for their own name — but it was also often unfounded because the algorithm was prone to false positives.

In most cases, when caught in the Penguin crossfire, there was nothing for a business owner to do but start over with a brand new domain.

Many people learned this the hard way once hit by the penalty.

While they could throw a bunch of money at trying to get the offending links removed, that was no guarantee of reinclusion in the SERPs.

And even if you were, you’d be starting over from zero.

Countless business owners did exactly that, only to sit waiting (sometimes for years) with no change. No feedback. Not even a response.

Then over the next few years, Google destroyed their own algorithm when they pushed the nofollow initiative.

This is simply an HTML attribute that enables website owners to tell search engines to ignore any links tagged with the attribute.

It was supposed to be used to help Google identify and ignore non-editorially-placed links.

In other words, it was a signal for Google and other search engines not to use a link tagged with the attribute to positively influence ranking of the site being linked to.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Almost immediately, most blog, forum, and other web-based platforms implemented the nofollow attribute into their codebase, rendering many black hat tactics useless.

But then publishers, from tiny blogs all the way up to tier one media like The Wall Street Journal, started applying it to literally all outbound links.

While the nofollow attribute killed the effectiveness of certain spammy link building tactics, it also effectively destroyed Google’s ability to understand contextual links, as well.

This created an entirely new problem that had to be quietly fixed behind the scenes.

So how did Google do that?

They did it by ignoring the nofollow attribute.

This put us right back where we were before the Penguin update, only this time most people had no clue that virtually every black hat link building tactic was back in play again.

Now, you may have heard some SEO professionals and even Google employees claim that these kinds of tactics don’t work today.

Maybe their claims sound credible.

But the truth is that they are completely wrong.

Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

The SEO professionals who claim these tactics don’t work make these claims for one of two reasons, and I’m not sure which reason is worse.

One reason is that they genuinely have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to this topic. I believe this reason applies to most people making that claim.

The other reason is that they know these tactics work and they use them, but pretend to be “white hats” so they continue parroting Google’s talking points. I believe this reason applies to a very small percentage of people making that claim.

I learned this a few years ago when I started running experiments using blog comments to build links to established websites. In addition to that, I intentionally created every kind of footprint you could imagine.

For each website, I used exact match anchor text, building nearly 300,000 links – all to the home page, in the span of less than one week from a random collection of blogs.

Many of these blogs were not relevant to the test site, were pure spam, or contained mainly non-English content.

Everything that Google claims would trigger red flags leading to an algorithmic or manual penalty was there on a massive scale.

So did any of these sites receive either an algorithmic or manual penalty?


But surely, Google must have simply ignored these spam links, right?

Also no.

Instead, these websites all saw a massive spike in ranking and organic traffic.

Now you might be thinking, “Hah! But how long did that last, Jeremy?”

Well, we’re going on two years now and the ranking and traffic are still holding steady!

Blog comment spam.Does this look like a tactic that doesn’t work?

Is Link Building Dead?

Every few years, we hear someone declare link building is dead. And despite these claims, link building continues on just as strong as ever.

I understand that many of these people make these ridiculous claims purely for the publicity factor. That’s PR 101—say something shocking or controversial and people will talk about it.

You don’t have to look far to find thousands of examples of that, both in the SEO industry and in general.

But there’s another side of this coin that is far more insidious, in my opinion: crackpot theories about how link building will evolve.

One in particular (which I will fully dismantle in a future article) is the notion that search engines will soon somehow magically infer meaning from a piece of content and use that as a ranking factor instead of actual links.

This idea, floated by Rand Fishkin, is exactly the kind of nonsense that leads to SEO myths being created and repeated by inexperienced SEO practitioners and small business owners.

Link building is far from dead, and most experts agree.

While consensus doesn’t necessarily make a particular position a fact, I can confidently say that link building is unlikely to die in our lifetime if for no other reason than because the fundamentals of usability on the web make links necessary. Links are the only logical way to infer a “vote” for a particular page.

Enter Digital PR

The kind of link building that’s the most effective from a holistic perspective, in that it provides the most long-term value, is digital PR.

This is the future of link building because it’s not gameable and it’s not scalable through automated methods.

Even Google’s John Muller is onboard. (For now.)

Think about it like this: Let’s say you have an amazing product and you pitch a blogger or journalist to write about it. They agree and write up a feature on your product, your company, and you.

Now, their readers will see that article and learn about your product, your company, and you.

The article will likely have at least one link, possibly more, and it may even secure a position in the search results for your brand name.

As a result of this successful pitch, you now have achieved/earned:

  • Brand recognition.
  • Exposure.
  • Trust through implied endorsement.
  • One or more links.
  • A position in the SERPs for your brand.
  • Increased branded search.

But that’s not a one-time impact!

This will continue delivering results for months or even years to come, and it will create a snowball effect where the more coverage you earn, the more that will come to you.

Once you build enough momentum and begin to be seen as the authority in your industry, PR becomes a self-feeding machine to some degree. But that doesn’t mean you should take your foot off the gas when it happens.

There will always be someone who wants to eat your lunch, so no matter how dominant a position you think you have it’s critical to keep pushing.

This can be somewhat of a zero-sum game because if a publication writes about your business, they probably won’t write about one of your competitors for a while.

The media coverage and resulting links you miss out on today could very well be the ones that enable your competitors to overtake you in the future.

The first and most important factor is that you must have a story worth telling. Most people don’t, and many of those who do frankly suck at telling their story.

In telling your story, you have to understand both your audience and the audience of the publication you’re pitching. Understanding the audience is critical to getting your story picked up and for getting it to resonate with people.

From there, you have to build relationships with journalists, bloggers, editors, producers, and others responsible for publishing content online.

Yes, you can achieve results from a cold pitch, but it’s rare and difficult. When you’re reaching out to someone you communicate with on a somewhat regular basis, your messages get top priority.

Here’s a perfect example…

I recently hosted a Clubhouse room with a number of media professionals, and many of the people in the room were friends of mine. After that room concluded, another publicist who was in the room reached out to one of the television anchors and pitched a story for one of their clients.

It went nowhere.

Now, it’s worth noting that this publicist, who happens to be a very close friend of mine, is highly experienced and capable, so I know the pitch was expertly crafted and delivered.

As a favor to this publicist, I pitched the story on their behalf.

I got a yes within minutes.

Same pitch. Same story. Same timeframe. Same television anchor.

The only difference was my relationship.

This demonstrates the importance of relationships in this model, and also shows that PR, unlike traditional link building, cannot be easily gamed or automated.

This won’t be the end of the evolution of link building, but I believe this most recent major evolution will be the primary link building tactic for the coming years.

Link building is going to evolve with or without you.

Are you evolving or getting left behind?

More Resources:

Image Credits

Screenshots and featured image created by author, April 2021 


Category SEO Link Building
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Jeremy Knauff CEO at Spartan Media

Jeremy Knauff is the founder of Spartan Media, and brings nearly two decades of experience to the table. His Tampa-based ...

The Evolution of Link Building: Web Rings, Spam & Penguin… Oh My

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