By Cory Collins
05 Mar 2014

Are links losing their value? A look into the reputation of link building

Link Building     SEO Strategy

Let’s be honest: link building sometimes has a lousy reputation within the SEO and even online marketing world. Part of me wants to blame this on fools, misinformation, FUD, and Google. Part of me longs to turn this post into a lengthy rant that likely no one would want to read.

Links are at the very core of Google search! Links are still the strongest signal we can give search engines as to our legitimacy, authority, relevance, and expertise. If your official title contains “search engine” and “optimization”, you damn well better be optimizing for links! (/rant)

But to be fair, SEO itself is still struggling to gain a spot at the marketing table, although that’s been improving. The fact is link building is a niche within a niche, and if there’s a general lack of understanding, well then it’s up to those of us who are knowledgeable about link building to share that knowledge.

If we don’t step up and share critical information, facts, philosophies, theories, and case studies, we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves. Right? Right.

This is a core belief we have at Page One Power – we want to share as much link building information as we possibly can.

We hope to turn this very blog into a link building community, where we can gather great SEOs together to intelligently discuss Google, websites, SEO, and links.

Furthermore, we hope to step up our own output of valuable content. To that end, we recently released our first eBook, Link Building: From Beginning to Launch, which was specifically designed to help further link building knowledge and education. Sincerely, I hope it’s a resource to the general community and helps further link building knowledge and education.

Let’s talk about why link building receives a bad rap, where it comes from, and whether links are losing their value.

Link Building & Reputation

Link building has a bad reputation for a few reasons. Really, it’s a complicated issue, but in my mind at least it can be cut down to three reasons:

  1. Link building was too powerful in the past and Google had little control over it. This led to spam link building, which was bad for just about everyone.
  2. Google now has better control over link manipulation, making spammy tactics of the past worthless/toxic, which in turn makes link building harder. Furthermore, Google is vocal about the consequences of bad link building, making the consequences of bad link building more visible the benefits of good link building.
  3. SEOs are by necessity quick to adapt, and many are outspoken. This leads to some infighting within our niche itself – is it link building, link earning, or content marketing?

Note: I just want to quickly note that I don't think content marketing really has anything to do with link building - but many now think that in order to get links, you need to produce content, which leads to people confusing content marketing and link building.

Let’s address each one of these three reasons link building gets a bad rap.

Link Building Past

Mass link building (spam) reigned supreme for rankings far too long. If you engaged in SEO pre-Penguin, there are very heavy odds that you engaged in some questionable link building tactics.

The problem is that it worked, and it worked well. If you wanted to be competitive, and didn’t have a site that accrued links naturally (most sites), then you needed some sort of way to generate links, and likely a lot of them. This left very few options. Options such as:

  • Blog comments
  • Directories
  • Reciprocal links
  • Article marketing
  • Widget links
  • Paid links

There were hosts of services, sites, and companies that sold packages guaranteed to net your site thousands of links at a time. Spammy, unnatural, manipulative links that added no value to the net.

Thankfully Google has finally caught up to these trends and snuffed them out. You can no longer spam a singular link building tactic and expect to rank. Even diverse link spam will be caught eventually - hence churn and burn sites.

So, link building still has a reputation hangover from the days where spammy practices reigned supreme.

And with Google removing the easy link building tactics, link building has been forced to go legitimate. And legitimate has never been easy – leading to the next factor giving link building a bad name: link building difficulty and the stern voice of Google.

Link Building Present

With the release of Penguin, Google made many of the easiest link building tactics worthless, or worse, harmful. Especially the spammier tactics, including mass directory submission, mass blog comments, mass article marketing, etc.

Since then, they’ve been slowly but surely tightening the screws further: first a warning against links from widgets; then no value from press release links; then they warned against links from infographics, particularly if the link was embedded; finally, just recently, Matt Cutts famously said “stick a fork in guest blogging for SEO”.

Let’s face it: building legitimate links is hard work. Really hard work. The type of hard work you can’t do with a crappy site. To build legitimate links, you need legitimately linkworthy sites, pages, resources, and content.

The short cuts are being extinguished by the Matt Cutts (sorry, couldn’t resist). Seriously though, taking short cuts in SEO and particularly link building can and will lead to short-lived sites.

Link builders just can’t deliver mass links as in the past. The game has changed, for the better. But this new difficulty has added to the slightly tarnished reputation of link building.

And to make matters worse, many believe Google is heading towards saying any link built manually is potentially dangerous, and manipulative. It certainly appears that way at times – they’ve addressed and warned against very legitimate online marketing practices that also facilitate link creation.

But what you need to keep in mind is that Google’s examples are always of the worst of these practices. Matt is up to his eyeballs in spam, and sometimes I think he loses sight of where most of SEO really is these days – legitimate practices.

Legitimate practices, centered around building good links that make sense through added value. Links that serve the user, the website linking, and the website linked all at once. Links that serve a purpose beyond Google, links that are relevant and useful and add value to the web.

Take some time and go back through Matt Cutts videos, blog posts, or comments regarding SEO. He’s always focused on the spammiest of practices – practices the majority of the web has stopped using a long, long time ago.

If you were approaching link building from the perspective of someone outside the industry, likely these messages from Google would scare you off. If Google is going to the effort to warn against link building tactics (and seemingly legitimate ones, at that), can it really be done safely?

Even more worrisome is that there’s an internal debate within SEO about link building – leading to our third factor into the bruised reputation of link building: SEOs themselves.

SEO Infighting about Link Building

It doesn’t take a trained observer to notice that SEO is having a bit of identity crisis these days. There are constant shifts within the SEO community. What’s currently important? Link building? Link Earning? Content marketing? Content strategy?

And what about inbound marketing? Should we even be focusing on SEO?

The simple fact of the matter is that by necessity we’ve become a very quick-adapting group. We work to help clients’ visibility within search. Google, the leader in search, does not work hand-in-hand with us. They’re constantly updating their algorithm, policies, and best practices.

We’re not any more forewarned about these changes of events than anyone else. We’re only able to keep ahead by observing closely, discussing, and speculating. Still we’re often caught by surprise. That means our only remedy is to learn to adapt and evolve, and quickly.

This logically leads to SEOs splitting off in different directions, based on differing observations, opinions, skills, and ideas.

Is one more correct than the other? Sometimes. Are they always comparable? No.

And yet from an outside perspective, it’s very easy to think that an older, more established SEO strategy (link building) is out of date. Even from the inside, being an SEO, it could be tempting to believe that. Especially if you’re looking to the future.

Just check out this article:

This speculating, always-looking-ahead, SEO infighting is the third factor leading to a less than desirable reputation for link building.

Don’t get me wrong: that’s a great post, featuring many prominent SEOs and their opinions about PageRank and the power of links. They featured SEOs on both sides of the issue, and it was a great read.

But infighting, speculation, and doubt further casts a bad shadow on link building.

Are links losing their value? Is Link Building Viable?

Now obviously I’m biased. Not only do I work for a link building firm, but I’m writing for a link building blog.

I have first-hand seen the power of good links that make sense. And I’m not talking about hundreds of links – in some cases, depending upon the niche and the website, it takes very few. Certainly more than ten, but definitely less than one hundred.

I want to address both sides of the issue. Many of the SEOs in the Wordstream blog cited the potential diminishing value of a link to a few issues:

  • More and more links are being devalued
  • The web is changing and evolving, opening up new ranking signals for Google beyond links
  • Google has always been user-centric, and they could rework the algorithm to include more user based signals
  • Links have become a very manipulable signal, and all are now suspect/not a great signal to be using.

Russ Jones of Virante gave a fantastic answer, addressing most of these points in his comment on the post. He does a fantastic job – probably better than I could myself – and goes into quite a bit of depth. It’s worth your time to read his response.

To recap his points, and include a bit of my own thoughts:

  • More links being devalued is a good thing. There were too many spammy links improving rankings. This helps counteract spam and mass link building strategies, once again making legitimate link building a reality. Individual links now have more power, not less.
  • These “new signals” are typically a reference to social. Google can’t reliably depend on social signals. They can’t design their algorithm to incorporate these signals and then suddenly lose their ability to crawl and detect them – it would leave their search quality at risk. Furthermore, social is every bit as manipulable as links, if not more so. And finally, they’ve built an entire algorithm around the link index. It would be an extremely, extremely drastic move to toss that all aside. What’s more likely is they’ll use these new signals on top of links, which will at worst only slightly lower the value of links (if not increase their value as a baseline measure).
  • Creating an algorithm based around user-centric metrics (time on site, bounce rate, engagement levels, etc.) is extremely difficult and putting the cart before the horse. They should at most be a signal, not the core.
  • Only an SEO would raise this argument. Let’s face it: we’re jaded. In reality there’s plenty of non-manipulative links being formed every day, and the majority of links on the web had nothing to do with SEO. As Russ said, they’re a non-finite signal. Links will continue to expand with the web.

Much of this discussion was spawned from this video:

But the fact of the matter is that Google tried removing backlinks as a relevance/ranking signal, and found that they’re still a “really, really big win in terms of quality for search results”.

It turns out backlinks, even though there's some noise, and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality for search results. - Matt Cutts 2/19/2014

So yes, link building is still viable, and that’s not likely to change for a long while. Links continue to be a large part of Google’s search algorithm, and will continue to remain valuable – despite their somewhat bruised reputation.

Cory Collins

Cory Collins is the Business Development Manager at Page One Power and has been with the agency since 2012. Cory is an SEO strategist, writer, runner, and outdoor enthusiast residing in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, daughter, and (too) many pets.