You can’t talk about SEO without hearing about links. In the early days of SEO, keywords and links were all that mattered. Links still matter, but the way you approach them now is vastly different.
Google Algorithm Updates
Google wasn’t always the search engine with the largest market share. Before it became the behemoth it is today, a website’s success in search engines depended on two things: keyword density and the number of links. Over time, this resulted in a jumbled mess with results pages full of irrelevant websites offering no value.
Search engines are businesses too. If this trend of junk results were to continue, search engines would lose users and market share. Google’s algorithm updates were, and still are, about making the search engine better and better for users – and that meant also addressing the widespread spam tactics that were being used to game the system.
Now, success in the search engines is all about relevancy and user experience, which means there is no room for spam. There have been several overhauls of Google’s algorithm throughout the years, but none changed SEO more than Panda and Penguin.
The Panda algorithm update hit websites hard starting in February 2011. It specifically addressed the quality of content. Websites with thin content, duplicate content, low-quality content, and a high ad-to-content ratio were targeted. With so much low-quality content taking over the SERPs (search engine results pages), this update affected several websites.
Panda supercharged the shift in SEO from poorly-written, keyword-stuffed content towards a focus on well-written, high-quality content that is informative and valuable to users. There have been several updates and refreshes over the years, each one meant to improve the quality of websites showing up in the SERPs. Late in 2015, Google stopped releasing specific Panda updates and incorporated it into part of the core algorithm, which means it is continuous and constantly updating.
The Penguin algorithm update launched in April 2012 and delivered another blow to a ton of websites. It specifically targeted websites deemed to be spamming the system. In particular, it targeted spammy links – those obtained through purchase, link networks, or manufactured methods. Before Panda and Penguin, “SEO” consisted of keyword stuffing and link spamming. After these two updates, Google and SEO were changed for the better.
Penguin forced SEOs and website owners to focus on relevancy, quality, and value. In order to survive in this new search environment, businesses had to become brands – and their websites needed to become valuable resources in order to be considered authoritative. As of late 2016, Penguin has also become part of the core Google algorithm.
Links and SEO
Websites that find success in the search engines are authorities in their industry. Their sites are hubs of valuable resources built to serve users and meet their needs. Part of that authority comes from their link profile – more specifically, which websites are linking to them and how much authority they have.
Each link is like a vote of confidence in your website, but not every vote is considered equal. A link from a small relevant website might be great to have, but it is not granted the same weight as an equally relevant link from a huge nationally-recognized brand. At the same time, too many links from the same source can come across as spam or manufactured links. As do too many low-quality links.
Although links are taken into account when search engines determine the relevancy, value, and authority of a website, they are not the only factor. So much more goes into meeting and maintaining SEO best practices than just links. There are an estimated over 200 factors Google takes into account when evaluating a site. Add that to rolling core algorithm updates plus machine learning and you’re looking at an even larger multitude of areas that go into evaluating your website.
Types of Links
When it comes to your link profile, it’s all about balance. Too much on one side or the other can come across looking manufactured instead of natural. It’s a hard balance to get right, and too easy to get wrong. These are a few types of links you’ll see and use:
Internal links are the ones you use to connect pages within your website. For example, your website navigation. However, your website navigation should not be the only place you employ internal links.
A strong internal linking structure provides value to your users and helps them navigate your website easily. This can be particularly useful when you are cross-linking related blog posts or topics. Using internal links correctly can also help create a hierarchy of topics, and authority, for content on your website.
For example, a page of content with a lot of user engagement can be cross-linked with related topics to help increase the authority of those pages and provide opportunities for further user engagement.
External links are links you place on your website that link out to other websites. These can be specific places you named, or articles on other websites that back up your statistics and claims.
Search engines like websites that are active, living entities. When you link out to other websites, especially if they are authoritative, you show search engines that you are an active part of the search community. You also show that you are interested in providing resources to your users, even if they are not your own.
Plus, by linking out to authoritative sites, you help add authority and trust to your own content – especially for users who may not be familiar with your brand.
Backlinks, also known as inbound links, are links from other websites that point to yours. These are considered “votes of confidence”, or recommendations, for your website from others. In the pre-Penguin days of SEO, the websites with the most links won. After Penguin was released, the websites with the most quality links were considered authoritative.
Yes, the diversity and quantity of backlinks to your site makes a difference. However, the quality, and relevancy, of those backlinks matters far more than the quantity.
You can’t rely solely on backlinks. Yes, they matter; however, you have to make sure the structure, content, and user experience of your website all works together to make it a valuable resource.
When all aspects of your website work together as they should, the cycle works a bit like this:
In general, the more high-quality, authoritative sources linking to your website, the more authoritative your website is to search engines. As your website becomes more authoritative for topics in your industry, the more likely it is to gain visibility for search queries related to those topics.
Link Building Best Practices
Though your efforts to gain links are considered link building, you are technically “earning links”. This means you need to do something, or have something, worthy of earning those little votes of confidence from other websites.
Reclaiming links is a great way to improve the experience on your site and boost your link profile. In a nutshell, link reclamation is finding and fixing broken links, both on your website and on external websites linking back to you. It can range anywhere from fixing 404 errors to outreach for unlinked mentions.
Fixing 404 errors on your own website improves the internal link profile in addition to improving user experience. Doing so ensures users can navigate smoothly through pages and find what they’re looking for.
Fixing 404 errors on other websites requires a little bit more effort. If the link to your website on an external site is broken, the best approach is to contact the external site to update the link. A direct link carries more value than a redirect, but this is not always possible to achieve with external sites.
If outreach doesn’t fix the link, you can set up a 301 redirect to direct traffic from the broken URL to a live page on your website. The redirect will still pass authority, and both search engines and human users will be able to follow the link and access a relevant page on your website.
Unlinked brand mentions, any appearance of your brand name on the internet, can be a great opportunity to gain backlinks. These can be from your own website, like recently published blog posts or social media posts. They can also be mentions of your brand in content from other websites, like a roundup, interview, or article.
Some publishers will link out to the websites of brands they mention, and some won’t. When you discover an unlinked brand mention from a quality, relevant external source, do some research and reach out to see if the writer/publisher would be willing to add a link. If so, you’ve gained a good backlink. If not, it’s still a good mention for your brand.
Focus on Value
Content can be a great tool for you to use in link building efforts. Whether through a guest post on an authoritative site in your industry, an infographic, or other type of content, valuable content can help you.
First, focus on quality content for your own website. Content you’ve published to your own blog can earn links from other sources if it’s valuable and considered “linkworthy” by those who see it. Then, you can promote it across social media, to your email subscribers, and through individual outreach to sources who might find it useful.
Do Your Research
It’s important to do your research with any link building efforts. This will help you identify opportunities, and build out information to use in content promotion and outreach.
Analyze Your Competitors
Competitor research can provide a goldmine of useful information. By examining competitors’ backlink profiles, you can identify sources and opportunities that make sense for your website, like relevant industry award shows, conferences, guest post opportunities, and more.
While doing your research, you may also identify content gaps in your industry – topics no one else has covered yet. Not only will you be able to provide useful industry information with a unique perspective, but you’ll get the opportunity to gain some valuable links as well.
Preemptively Identify Sources
Beyond competitors, you can also research sources for receiving backlinks. Find out what content their readers find valuable and what helps their publication the most. Then, you can build content to fill that gap. Research who you need to contact and reach out personally to provide value.
When it comes to outreach, promotion, and placement, link building is all about building relationships. It seems like everyone is doing outreach. You can bet that the source you’re reaching out to has likely received several outreach emails already.
The only way you’re going to stand out is if you make an effort and build a relationship with them. Personalize your message and offer value before asking anything of them. They still may not share your content or give you a link, but you’ll have a higher chance of succeeding. You’ll leave a much bigger impression with a little extra effort.
Track and Evaluate
It’s important to track and evaluate your efforts, especially with outreach. As you continue to do more and more research and outreach, you’ll start to discover ways to improve. By keeping track of what works and what doesn’t, your link building efforts will become more effective over time. Plus, you’ll ensure that the results you’re getting are up to your standards and making a difference.
Though they may not have as much impact as in previous years, links do still matter. When done right, link building helps your site. When done wrong, it hurts you. With this guide, you’re on the way to doing it right.
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