2015 Link Builder Survey: The Deal with Google & Link Building

At Top Draw, we are super creative in how we acquire links and build authority for our clients. Its always great to see how other professionals are approaching it though.

Therefore, with the controversy surrounding Google and links lately, I thought it would be the perfect time to gear up a few questions for some of my top link building colleagues in the SEO industry.

So I asked Julie Joyce, Eric WardAnn Smarty, Christoph Cemper, Debra Mastaler and Neil Patel the following questions:

  1. What do you consider natural link building?
  2. Are links still important? Why or why not?
  3. What should you NOT do when it comes to link building?
  4. According to Google analyst, John Mueller, in general link building should be avoided. What are your opinions on this?
  5. What is your advice for link building in 2015?

Here are their responses, as well as my own thoughts…

Quick FYI: I wasn’t expecting Eric to be overdosing on Red Bull at the time he answered the questions, but I’m happy he was because his responses are super detailed.

Question #1 – What do you consider natural link building?

Julie Joyce: Putting a link in a place where it adds value as a relevant resource. I don’t care if you pay for it, ask for it, tweet a link to it, or get it any other way. If it’s a good addition to someone’s work, it’s a natural link to me.

Eric Ward: I’ll borrow from a column I wrote for Search Engine Land titled “Link Building At The Speed Of Natural“.

“Natural” is ultimately futile. It’s impossible to define within the context of web links. At the core of why I think you can build links and call them natural is a question I ask myself about every link I pursue. That question is:

“What would happen if all content was known to all people”?

There are many answers, but the answer for link builders is this: Certain people would link to certain content that they wouldn’t have linked to before because they didn’t know it existed. After all, you can’t link to that which you are not aware of.

I believe that the best natural link builders are those who understand how to manually speed up the process that slowly happens every day.

People learn about new content, and they link to it. Or they share it. But “natural link building” is a sore spot (oxymoron?) among some in the online marketing community. The general arguments go something like this:

“Any link that comes about because you pursued it cannot be considered natural” or “The very act of seeking links makes any link you obtain unnatural” or “A link is supposed to be validation that your content is of some value”.

Google specifically mentions “natural” in its guidelines, so it’s a safe bet that part of Google’s algorithm is devoted to spotting signals of naturalness.

But the above arguments are all flawed, and here’s just one example to illustrate why:

Imagine your company is a dues-paying member of the National Turtle Addiction Association (NTAA) and has been for 22 years. The NTAA does not have a website and decides it’s about time they did. So they build one, and they choose to create a member page which lists and links to each member’s website. Given that you have been a member for 22 years, naturally, you get a link.

You wouldn’t have received the link had you not been a paying member. But isn’t that a paid link and therefore unnatural? The classic “pay to join a .org association and get a high-trust link” technique? No, it isn’t. You were a member long before the NTAA had a website. You were a member long before there was a Google. So how can any of this be unnatural?

Silly example? Absolutely. But don’t let that get in the way of the point. Links happen in more ways than can be summed up by the single word “natural”.

Here’s an example from a real client project.

I send out an email to the owner of a website that is devoted to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I am contacting him to let him know about a new website launched by a movie studio that’s selling a new collector’s edition DVD boxed set titled, “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock.” I do not ask for a link, I merely tell him about the site. He links to this new site.

Now even if I agreed with you (I don’t) that this is an unnatural link because he linked to it only after I told him about the site, here’s what happened next: the owner of that fan site devoted to the films of Alfred Hitchcock mentioned it to a friend of his who is also an Alfred Hitchcock fan and runs a discussion forum and blog about Alfred Hitchcock. His friend also links to the new DVD boxed set website and sends out a tweet about it. Now, it so happens that one of his twitter followers owns an Alfred Hitchcock collectibles site, and he links to it as well.

Even if I agree with you that the first scenario is an unnaturally obtained link, does that mean any links that come about from that link are also unnatural? Why? Where? At what point during the migration of that URL did it go from unnatural to natural? Thorny? You bet.

The challenge is that the Web is so incredibly large that even someone who is an absolute expert in a given subject cannot possibly keep up with all the content that is related to that subject. This is where the natural link builders find their sweet spot. Building the right kind of links is simply about speeding up that which could happen naturally if all content was known to all people.

Ann Smarty: Natural links are those that come on their own without you directly influencing that decision.

Christoph Cemper: Natural link building means backlinks that you would want to have even if search engines didn’t exist. Webmasters should build backlinks from trustful and relevant websites with a natural anchor text distribution without thinking too much about their power as a priority.

Debra Mastaler: Any link pointing to my site I didn’t ask for.

Neil Patel: I considered “natural” link building when people link to you organically, without you asking for a link. In which you are earning the links by creating good products, services, or even content.

Takeaways:

First of all, I could dedicate an entire post to Eric’s amazing answer. For now though, it seems that everyone agrees that a ‘natural’ link is pretty much one that you had no hand in getting.

Definition of "natural"

 

Does this mean that bringing your products/services/talents/assets to the attention of the right people (i.e. people who will care and take action), isn’t natural? That’s basic human nature, right?

When I reach out to (for example) a gardening site, in the hopes that they will mention the unique gardening post I published on my gardening blog, why would that be considered unnatural? Here’s what Google says on the subject:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

Remember, Google’s main goal is to serve up the absolute best SERPs possible and it can’t do that when people are trying to game it’s system. They’re telling us that our content should speak for itself. They’re saying that, if my content was good and warranted attention, then my network would share it and that big gardening blog would take notice and link to my site all on their own.

Maybe so. But usually not. Unless your content is amazing. And even then, can you create amazing content consistently, day after day, week after week? Enough to warrant top rankings and being able to compete with the big sites so your business can be profitable? It’s a crap shoot.

One thing we DO know for sure, is that link building has most definitely become a very thorny area in 2015.

Question #2 – Are links still important? Why or why not?

Julie Joyce: Absolutely. I think they are even more important now since bad ones can harm you so easily so the good ones are quite important. I don’t think they hold more weight or anything, but I do think they’re critical if you want to rank well unless you’re a huge and well-known brand already. It’s very hard to do well without links. Links are how people find you.

Eric Ward: Links are the single most important part of any online marketing strategy. Without a link present to click or tap, someone must type in a URL by hand. The key is understanding there are so many different types of links. Editorial, paid, PPC, banner, referral, blogroll, reciprocal, widget, powered by, theme by, niche guides, subject expert directories, library “best of” curated collections, and on and on and on. Anything you can click or tap that takes you from one place to another is by definition a link. So unless we expect all navigation in the future to happen by typing in URLs by hand or speaking them into a mic, links will remain the very foundation of everything that happens online.

Ann Smarty: Yes, links are still the most powerful Google ranking factor. Plus links bring referral traffic.

Christoph Cemper: Quality and relevant backlinks are and will always be the most important reference for any website. SEO is a very dynamic industry, but the only thing that really changes are quality standards.

Debra Mastaler: Absolutely, they continue to be important because they are used as part of the ranking process to help identify affiliations between pages.

Neil Patel: Yes. Without links it’s hard to obtain good rankings. It’s still a large part of Google’s algorithm.

Takeaways:

So basically, hell YES links are still important. Possibly even the MOST important factor of online marketing. Links are how people find sites and content. They are the roads of the Internet. Without them it’s hard to get around and go where you need to go.

Link builders know that backlinks are important. We work with them everyday and we see with our own eyes the effect they have on rankings, traffic and conversions.

For the average site owner though, who has no experience to refer to, consider this;

The fact that Google is making such a big deal out of natural vs unnatural links, should be a huge indication that Google still values links. Very much so.

Question #3 – What should you NOT do when it comes to link building?

Julie Joyce: Ignore your link profile. That’s dangerous for anyone but after spending the last year dealing with penalized site owners who had no idea of the awful links in their profile, I think everyone should do a serious audit. You also should not think that just because a link is free and editorially given, it’s a good link.

Eric Ward: It will depend on your tolerance for risk. I don’t believe in taking a moral position about links. That may sound strange since my industry given nickname is “LinkMoses” and I preach nothing but ethical linking. I have my own methods and beliefs, and I see them work every day. If my methods weren’t effective I wouldn’t still be in business 20 years after my first client linking campaign. I stay within Google’s Guidelines by choice, and since I won’t rely on trickery, it means I spend hundreds of hours creating strategies that do no harm. But…I also appreciate that a person’s gotta eat. If no laws are broken and you can accept the consequences of your actions, then go after links however you want.

Ann Smarty: You should not target exact-match anchor text links.

Christoph Cemper: Link building must be natural and relevant. If your backlinks are not, it could lead to a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Worst case scenario is a Google penalty. SEO is not a one-shot process, so try to be patient and success will come.

Debra Mastaler: Don’t engage in automated tactics such as mass directory submissions and comment drops unless you don’t care about the domain. Stay out of footer and sponsored areas, if it walks like a duck etc. Don’t ignore “bad” links pointing to your site, get rid of them by outreach or disavow.

Neil Patel: You should not buy links or try to build links from spammy/irrelevant sites. In addition to that you should avoid rich anchor text links.

Takeaways:

When it comes to link building, it seems the majority are saying don’t ignore or avoid it (i.e. it’s still needed), but don’t take risks either, unless you’re cool with a penalty.

Some of the risks you shouldn’t be taking are; don’t buy obviously paid links, don’t pursue irrelevant links, don’t over use anchor text and don’t send all links to the same page… because Google is always watching and looking for unnatural signals.

How do you know if the link building you’re doing is “risky”? Unfortunately, you don’t (unless you’re blatantly link scheming your butt off). Until you get caught and Google tells you via Webmaster Tools.

If you’re not focusing on providing the best content you possibly can though, then according to Google, you’re already doing it wrong.

Question #4 – According to Google analyst, John Mueller, in general link building should be avoided. What are your opinions on this? 

Julie Joyce: I think it’s asinine to say that and that it’s going to confuse a lot of webmasters who will think that they can’t link out or that if you link to them they’re going to get penalized. I think it’s a convenient way to scare people into not building links. Links are how people move around the web, so the whole idea that you shouldn’t build them is insane to me.

Eric Ward: I have commented in public about John’s statement and will try to summarize here so as not to duplicate. All of us need to think things through and not accept every Google statement at face value. Parse parse parse. Read between the lines. For me what John didn’t say was much more important than the few words he did say. The thing John doesn’t say, but which Matt Cutts and others have said all along is you can approach link building the right way or the wrong way, and “in general”, most people approach it the wrong way. Many types of link building tactics should be avoided if you are expecting Google to send you traffic.That said, Google is not the only path to success online, and if you think you can launch an awesome piece of content and slap share buttons all over it or buy a Super Bowl ad with your URL in it, and go away, you’re mistaken. Somewhere along the line, earned links must appear, or you’re not going to last.

Ann Smarty: Seeking backlinks is the most natural goal a website owner should be achieving. Backlinks connect your site to the web: You can’t exist without being linked. Links bring traffic and leads. Linking is the whole essence of the web. So recommending website owners avoid links is unnatural.

Christoph Cemper: For Google, it is not just that backlinks should look natural. For Google backlinks must be natural. Therefore, it is normal that he gave this recommendation. Another problem is the fact that link building became very hard and advanced. Because of that, many webmasters could do more harm (doing it the wrong, “old and simple” way) than good working on it.

Debra Mastaler: I don’t believe Mr. Mueller meant webmasters should do nothing when it comes to site promotion, I took his comments to mean don’t use tactics that will get you penalized.

Neil Patel: Building links is still effective, but you are better off focusing your energy on building a good product or service. Or better yet, writing exceptionally good content. All of those things helps you build links naturally.

Takeaways:

You can read exactly what Mr. Mueller said about link building here.

Again, Google wants you to promise to only EARN and ATTRACT your links, so they don’t have to try and figure out if you actually belong where you ended up in the SERPs.

But hasn’t Google always told us to focus on high-quality content? Create, publish, rinse and repeat. If bringing your content to people’s attention is now considered unnatural, where does promotion come in then?

The common theme here is that links are still very important and necessary, but Google doesn’t want you to TRY to get them.

Question #5 – What is your advice for link building in 2015?

Julie Joyce: Build better links! Build fewer of them, but build better ones.

Eric Ward:

  1. Would I still want that link even if I didn’t get any search rank improvement from it? The answer needs to be yes.
  2. If Google didn’t exist would I still want this link? The answer needs to be yes.

Ann Smarty: Build content that deserves being linked to. Build connections in your industry for your content to get noticed. Build authority to get cited and linked!

Christoph Cemper: Even before Penguin, the only backlinks that could actually improve your rankings, were high-quality links. Low-quality links didn´t pass link juice.  Today, it’s not just that they don´t pass link juice, they can harm you as well. Sometimes, it is hard to decide what a good place to put your backlink is. That´s why every company or SEO agency should use proper tools for this job, tools that will find great link building opportunities, but also, tools that will detect potential risks.

Debra Mastaler: Write your anchors more conversationally than contrived,  brand names are good but use too many and all you’ve done is left another set of  footprints.

Neil Patel: Focus on content creation. Content marketing is the new SEO. It’s much more effective than manually building links.

Takeaways:

When it comes to backlinks; get them but be selective, don’t link specifically for Google, create better content and connections, utilize tools and don’t leave footprints.

So much has changed since the days of spammy page titles, stuffed keyword tags and tricky hidden text. A lot has remained the same though. Getting exposure in Google still takes a lot of effort and links are still important. It seems quality really does trump quantity in 2015 though.

Its not that certain link tactics don’t work anymore, they still do to a degree, however if you’re trying to build a legitimate brand and you plan to be around for long-term online success, then you’re going to have to do it by Google’s rules.

Which is why my personal advice for link building in 2015 is this;

Pursue links where it makes sense for your business and create opportunities where ever you can. In other words, don’t let Google (or misinformed SEOs for that matter) scare you into believing that links aren’t important anymore to the success of your online business. They most certainly are, and will probably always be.

P.S. I didn’t promise anyone a link from this survey and none of the interviewees asked me for one (which must have been hard lol). The links were freely given so readers can a) visit their sites, b) find out more about them and c) possibly connect (with some of the smartest authority builders in the entire SEO industry).

P.S.S. Huge “thank you!” to the amazing participants.