When someone asks me how they can increase their website’s visibility in Google’s search results, my knee-jerk reaction is to suggest link building.
Links are one of Google’s strongest ranking signals, after all. Links are still at the core of Google’s algorithm. And they’re not going away anytime soon. There’s no denying that you need links to your site in order for it to rank.
But link building doesn’t always work.
When someone asks me about ranking in Google, I should ask them if I can see their site first.
My brother Jon has said it before, and I need to say it again: It's Frickin Hard to Build Links if Your Site Sucks. If your site sucks, link building is really like trying to polish a turd. Link building is powerful, but it isn’t the magical solution to all of your internet marketing woes.
If your site is outdated, slow, underdeveloped, spammy, or lacking content or resources, your woes would be best addressed by dealing with your site itself first-- not the links that lead to it.
Link building will be a waste of your time and money if you don’t invest in building a site that adds value to the lives of your visitors.
My favorite recent internet discovery is that Space Jam’s original website still exists on Warner Brother’s site, frameset and all:
This site is easy to find, as it ranks #1 for “Space Jam,” while IMDB pages usually top the results for other movies that came out in 1996. This is likely because this site was intentionally preserved as an artifact from the age of early web design, thus adding value to the internet.
Alas, other gems from the GeoCities era are hard to find unless you’re hunting for them with equally as outdated terminology, such as “fan page”:
If we were to investigate these results further, we’re left with a beautiful hypothetical site for this post: an Angelfire page selling Beanie Babies:
As you can (sort of) see, this website is out-of-date. It’s design is kind of ugly, even for 1996 standards. Yet as far as I can tell, Beanie Babies Fan(atic)’s Home Page sells Beanies in 2014, and the webmaster could, hypothetically, want to build links to her site so that it ranks for “beanie babies” or “discount beanie babies.”
But would link building help this site? Well, no. The “Angelfire” domain doesn’t help. We can’t even generate keyword information for the site:
Sites as old as this one are also likely to have slow loading times, and don’t have content that can be linked to.
This site doesn’t offer the highest quality result for the search. It would look fishy if it were to appear in the search results for “beanie babies,” a term that is searched for about 40,500 times a year (by people who are trying to figure out where to offload the hundreds of beanies stockpiled in their basements.)
If a link building campaign were to increase this site’s visibility in Google, it would be short lived, and wouldn’t do much for the webmaster because people might visit the site, but they certainly wouldn’t buy anything, making the visit worthless to the visitor, the webmaster, and Google.
I’m not saying that a better marketing campaign couldn’t make Beanie Babies popular again, what I’m saying is that link building alone won’t get them there. If this woman were to want to continue to sell Beanie Babies, she should spring for a new site with a new domain name before she considers link building.
Of course, if our Beanie Baby Saleslady simply migrates her current content to a new site with a fresh HTML5 veneer, it will still be underdeveloped, and therefore not worth building links to. Google frowns upon sites that are updated infrequently, or are updated with poor, out-of-date, or keyword stuffed content.
It’s not worth it to build links to a site that is a Panda penalty waiting to happen. If your site has thin content, it’s underdeveloped. If your site is only a list of products or is only product pages that fail to inform the consumer about what you’re selling, it’s underdeveloped. If you haven’t updated your site since 1996 (or last year), it’s underdeveloped. If your website is still a “coming soon!” homepage, it’s underdeveloped.
It’s not worth it to build links to a site that’s not up-and-running yet, or that isn’t up-and-running anymore. These kinds of sites don’t provide the current content that users search for, and like slow, old sites, they don’t deserve to rank for their keywords and will quickly be docked in the results if they try to.
If anything, building links to your underdeveloped site will draw unfavorable attention to it instead of the kind of attention that attracts customers or repeat visitors.
If you’ve been on hiatus for a considerable period of time, focus on making your content current and adding relevant resources to your site before building links to it. Take the time to make your site the kind of place that your visitors will want to engage with right now, or if you don’t have the skills to make something snappy, hire someone to do it. Design, content, and onsite SEO matter.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in the “build it and they will come” mindset. I do think it’s far wiser to build something first, then build roads to it. Links to underdeveloped sites are like roads to nowhere.
The Case of the Missing Product Pages
So say our beanie babies saleslady builds a new site on a new domain with updated information and some consideration of onsite SEO . This site still won’t be worth linking to unless it includes content and product pages that are useful to her visitors. Her current “product page” just won’t do:
Without individual product pages, photos, or content of any kind, the site doesn’t offer anything to the viewer besides a trip down memory lane, even if it’s a well-optimized one. There’s really nothing to link to that would add value to a site relevant to Beanie Babies, which is where we would want to build links.
I favor a loose interpretation of “adding value.” Mostly anything has the potential to inform, entertain, or persuade if it strives to do so, even Beanie Babies. But the website needs to strive to do these things by delivering content to visitors. Again, appearing at the top of the search results would be empty if you’re not offering anything. You won’t last there for long because if you don’t deserve to be there, Google will knock you out of the results. Short cuts lead to short-lived sites.
If our fresh, new Beanie Babies website is going to be worthy of ranking, we will want product pages for each individual beanie. Each of these pages should have a logical URL that contains at least one keyword.
It also wouldn’t hurt the site to include other content, like the history of Beanie Babies, or the history of collecting Beanie Babies, or photos of collections of Beanie Babies. This content will be a relevant resource that might interest those who have followed a link to your site.
I can’t imagine Google arguing with high-quality, relevant links to a site that both makes it simple to purchase a product while intelligently contextualizing the culture that surrounds that product. In fact, this content could move customers to consider Beanie Babies again. Building links to this content can only help to amplify it.
Without this content, Beanie Babies will be doomed to remain a relic on a turquoise list from 1996.
You sell what flavor of spam?
This one may seem self-evident, but I feel compelled to repeat it: building links to your spammy site will not legitimize it or make it not spammy.
Unless you know of a site that claims Beanie Babies will cure cancer, I’m going to have to drop that example.
What is a spammy site? Really, I’m referring to a range of sites, anything from poorly-designed sites that feature irrelevant content that links out to irrelevant sites, to those that scam customers, peddling anything from mystery meat to discount pet psychic services. These sites are united by a fondness for questionable promotion tactics like buying links or leaving their URL in blog comments.
At Page One Power, we refer to the ability to detect spam as “the smell test.” When you look at enough websites, you’ll be able to tell when something is spam and that you shouldn’t waste your time building links to it. Of course, a blog in another language from its website (and all of its keyword-rich anchor text) is a clear giveaway:
If you run a spammy website but are looking for increased visibility, I would have to recommend getting out of the spamming business and devote your time and energy into developing something legitimate that’s worth linking to and linking from. Any link builder worth their salt won’t build a link on your site for fear of penalties from Google, and those who have built links there will disavow you.
When working with spam, the only attention you can possibly attract from Google (and 67% of the web’s searches) is negative attention, which could lead to essentially not existing at all.
If you run a spammy site, please don’t pollute the internet with links to it. You may think you’re being clever, but Google does try to provide the best results possible, and your activities invite the potential for collateral damage.
While writing this post, I couldn’t get the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders out of my head (or, more specifically, the Sunday School tune that’s based on it.) The wise man builds his house upon the rock, while the foolish man builds his house upon the sand. While this parable is referring to having faith, it can also be applied to building your website.
Wise webmasters build their websites “upon the rock”-- something that can weather the storms of a fast-changing, fickle internet. They build something that people will want to visit, something that is worth building roads--links-- to.
Foolish webmaster build their websites “upon the sand.” Their websites are not sturdy, or substantial, and will wash away in the storm no matter how many roads are built to them.
Invest in your house-- your website-- first. Otherwise, building links to it will be a waste of your time and money. Without fresh, high-quality content that adds value to the lives of internet users, your unanchored site might as well just wash away.