A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending SMX Advanced in Seattle. I had an amazing time – meeting other SEOs, attending seminars, even ad hoc joining in on a presentation (albeit briefly). I’d have to say though the absolute cherry on top was seeing Matt Cutts keynote You&A presentation.
I covered the event here and even wrote a quick and dirty analysis. Today I want to talk about the most surprising takeaway I had: what Matt Cutts and I agree about within link building.
Google, and by extension Matt Cutts, has an inordinate level of control over my life. This is something nearly every SEO, and especially link builder, faces. There will always be the need for SEO, as long as search engines continue to control vast amounts of the web’s traffic. However, with the current near-monopoly Google has on search, we’re forced to play by their rules, and their rules alone.
Early this year Matt Cutts decided that guest blogging for SEO is dead – it had become too spammy, and that Google would move to take action. There’s an incredible amount of hubris in that action: one man has the power to call for an end to a credible online activity that’s been around basically since the birth of the net. It’s been in practice in print for even longer.
Sure, Cutts wasn’t saying no more guest blogging, period. But he came perilously close. And then, how do you sort guest blogging for SEO from guest blogging for publicity from guest blogging for marketing from guest blogging as a favor?
The point is, guest blogging isn't solely an SEO activity – only the worst spam offenders would consider it such. And Cutts didn't say “spammy guest blogging for SEO” is dead. He just said guest blogging for SEO. The entire point of guest blogging is that it offers a multitude of benefits, one of which is a very real SEO benefit (links).
Before I further descend into a rant about why declaring guest blogging dead for SEO is ridiculous, let me just say it’s only natural that Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, and I, a self-admitted link builder, are going to have different perspectives.
And that is exactly why I was so surprised to find myself nodding along when Matt Cutts discussed links in his keynote You&A at SMX Advanced.
It’s only natural: as a link builder I want to build real links that really help my client’s business; Matt Cutts wants to keep spam, bad links, and general shortcuts from helping businesses really succeed.
So, let’s talk about what we do agree on.
Agreement #1: Links Remain Vital to the Web and to Search
Matt Cutts has stood strongly behind links this year. He’s answered numerous questions concerning links as a ranking signal (and if they’re losing importance) in numerous Webmaster Videos. Check out this post to read more.
So I wasn’t much surprised when once again Cutts said links will continue to matter. Specifically his talk about links continuing to matter starts at 27:44.
So links continue to be a strong signal that Google relies upon. What about the video where Matt Cutts talked about assessing content quality without links? Danny asks him about the video at 30:50, and once again Cutts confirms it would be extremely difficult to assess content quality without links.
But surely there are other signals Google can use, correct? They don’t need to have such reliance on links. What about things like user engagement signals? Well, Matt Cutts says they’re open to looking at all signals (outside of paid ads), but he’s heavily skeptical: read no. This talk starts at 32:41.
Long story short, Cutts stands strongly behind links in this keynote.
Agreement #2: Link Building is Hard Work, and There Aren’t Any Shortcuts
The painful truth of SEO is that we got away with too much for too long: link spam worked, and it worked like crazy.
Today, Google’s finally caught up. Their ability to detect manipulation and determine low quality links has made building hundreds or even thousands of low quality links not only a waste of time, but potentially toxic. And Google is only getting better with time.
This has resulted in several consequences:
- Link building is now extremely hard work, because the only links left to build are real links (read: editorial votes)
- SEOs are now pushing for a new signal for two reasons:
- We’re a forward thinking group, quick to adapt with a futuristic mindset
- We’re hoping it improves our lives as the crackdown on links has made SEO much more difficult
- A further skewing of an already skewed perception of the net.
These consequences have altered the perception of links within our industry. Because link building has fundamentally changed, people are naturally speculative about the efficacy of links. Links are however still one of the strongest signals concerning the quality of your content, page, and website (again I refer to 30:50 and 32:41).
So, links are still valuable, but you can’t build them as we did in the past (thankfully). That means that the only thing left to build are real links and the best way to do that is through real marketing and promotion. There aren't any shortcuts left – you have to go out and interact with real people, who own real sites, and convince them it’s worth their while to link. That’s no easy task. So what does that mean?
Link building is sweat + creativity.
Agreement #3: Link Building is Sweat Plus Creativity
There are two distinct ways to build links: be extremely excellent and link worthy, or extremely intelligent and persuasive. The best way to build links is to be all of those things.
Even with all of those attributes, if you’re not actively pursuing links, you’re missing out. With the amount of noise online, you need a deliberate and intelligent link acquisition plan. There’s no such thing as if-you-build-it-they-will-come. You need to market your linkable assets, whatever they might be, or you won’t get the links you deserve.
That is one portion where Cutts and I differ in philosophy. But again, I agree that sweat plus creativity is the best way to build links. Check out Cutts’ impassioned speech (starts at 54:20):
I couldn't have said it better myself. You have go right up the middle and earn your visibility with sweat and creativity. Intelligent marketing requires something worth marketing – a unique value, a differentiator. You have to be willing to do the work.
Unless you’re truly willing to walk away from your site, there aren’t any shortcuts left. Anything sneaky runs the very real risk of penalty.
It’s as Cutts says (video starts at 30:00):
“It’s easier to be real, than it is to fake real.” - Matt Cutts
And that brings me to another agreement on links between Cutts and myself: to build links you have to be real, and add real value.
Agreement #4: Link Building Requires a Real Person, Company, Brand or Product Adding Real Value
We’re entering a real era of maturity on the web. Less and less is it possible for a website to be completely divorced from some real world element. People want to deal with real people, companies, products, and brands, even online.
And since links require a vote of confidence, and real links come from real people, you need to be real in order to be link worthy. Without that assurance of quality, care, and belief, links will be fundamentally difficult to build.
It’s already hard to build links if your website is excellent and link worthy, and you’re extremely intelligent, targeted, and persuasive in your outreach. It’s only worse if your site sucks. It’s like Rand said on twitter:
Dear ugly websites with compelling value propositions, This is you: pic.twitter.com/kTHAWSVkAN
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 18, 2014
The only way to build real links in this day and age is to be real, and add real value. Don’t approach link building as if it’s a shortcut to quick and easy rankings. Just don’t.
Agreement #5: SEOs (and Online Marketers) Have a Skewed Perception of the Web
During Matt Cutts defense of links, when he said that links still have a lot of mileage, Cutts specifically said that everyone in the room (SEOs and digital marketers) had a skewed perception of the web (starts at 27:35).
The fact is as digital marketers we’re somewhat jaded to the web as a whole, and the concept that anything can be organic – links, shares, tweets, likes, +1s, etc. etc.
The web (and Google) is still in a good place. Although it’s always smart to plan for the future, we really need to stop with the sky is falling mindset. The web continues to grow and expand, and links continue to be a very real backbone of the web. And that’s unlikely to change – the fact is, links are still the way people traverse the web.
Search for something in Google? Links point you to the desired content (not to mention influence what’s presented).
See something interesting in social media? Click through the link to enjoy (the link is trusted because you trust the sharer – the real person behind it).
On a trusted website and see a link? Follow it through to see what they’re referencing (once again a trusted source).
99% of the time we find new websites, pages, and content via links. Doesn't matter who’s sharing them - a webmaster, a friend on social media, or Google - only that the public still trusts links, and that they’re the main vehicle of transportation online.
We’re not close to seeing the link being dead on the web. The only reason to consider the link dead, or even losing value, is that we’re a jaded, jaded bunch.
Which brings me and Cutts to our last agreement.
Agreement #6: Links, and Link Building, Are Not Dead
This point of agreement was such a no-brainer that I nearly left it out of the post. Of course links, and link building, aren’t dead.
But of course, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So here Cutts is, in all his glory, stating as of 6/11/2014, that links, and link building, are not dead (at 27:26):
So there you have it. Cutts stating perfectly clearly, for the record, that link building isn’t dead.
Matt Cutts and I, a professed link builder, have quite a few shared beliefs. I discovered this at SMX Advanced June 2014, which surprised me. Here’s what we agree on:
- Links remain vital to the web and search
- Link building is hard work, and there aren't any shortcuts
- Link building is sweat plus creativity
- Link building requires realness, not fakery
- SEOs and online marketers have a skewed perception of the web
- Links, and link building, aren’t dead
You should really check out the whole video yourself – it’s worth the entire hour.