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Requiem for a Link Builder

Insights July 13, 2012

In early June, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land lit up the room at SMX Advanced in Seattle with his extended soliloquy of a rant that could have been titled A Link Builders Lament. Though few of us in the room possessed the same ability to express our frustrations the way that Danny was able to, nearly all of us have bore the burden of creative ways to continue obtaining high-quality links to our sites and we knew exactly how he felt.

There was a time when this all was simpler, of course. SEO was a puzzle with fewer pieces, a machine with less moving parts, and was largely the unpatrolled Wild West when it came to enforcement of best practices. When it became clear that Google engineer Amit Singhal’s search algorithm was centered on inbound links to your site, SEOs abandoned marketing and became artists of coercion, trickery, smoke, and mirrors.

Link building was a zero-sum game of acquisition and a race to the top. Obtain more links to your site than your competitors, at all costs, and you would rank higher. Anything was fair game, as optimization became a dirty word among traditional marketers who viewed SEO practitioners as masters of the dark arts.

Certainly, link spam became a commonplace, if not inherently unsustainable SEO practice, that was not so much driven by people with bad intentions as it was by those with limited resources for white hat search engine marketing. Link brokerage became the bottom feeding level of the SEO ecosystem.

Even so, “white hat” link acquisition wasn’t exactly holistically intentioned or natural. It wasn’t so much about adding quality, authoritative, and relationship-worthy backlinks to your site as it was a one-night stand with webmasters. We would beg them to put up our link. We would court them with false praise of how great their website was and paint illusions of grandeur about the value of our link for their visitors, but really all we wanted to do was see a do-follow keyword link to our site so we could slip out of the bedroom before the sun came up on what they did.

‘A link’s a link’…Until it Wasn’t

Later we realized that while many of these links acquired via our white-hat approach weren’t actually passing the value we thought we were inheriting from them. We were proud to pad our link portfolio numbers with these types of links but the relationship was baseless and shallow. We weren’t going on second dates and certainly not bringing them home to meet the parents. We were looking for love in all the wrong places.

In hindsight, there were few of us in this industry who actually believed mass link spamming or one-to-one link building were sustainable or scalable SEO strategies. Penguin was a bit of a wake-up call for those engaged in egregious acts of spam, but it was more of an improvement in enforcement than it was a philosophical shift reflected in their algorithm. Google and other search engines have been pretty clear in indicating webmasters should refocus their SEO efforts into the quality of the their content. Curate enough quality content and the links will come naturally.

Google wants the act of putting up a link to mean more than an act of coding. It wants a link to represent tacit endorsement of content quality, rather than simply bridging one URL to another. There’s a person and a message on each side of a linking relationship and Google wants to know who that person is and what message they’re sending. You can feel free to build your bridge, but the foundations on each side better be solid or the relationship is compromised. Quality sites link to other quality sites. Spam sites tend to promote lower quality sites.

Panda was implemented as a reset on content quality and Penguin was meant to clean up the remainder of backlinks that didn’t represent true implications of endorsement.

Not to Beat a Dead Horse but…

You could be excused for calling SEOs dense, but for as many times as we arrive at the conclusion that it all comes down to content quality, it’s in their nature to try and find a work-around. As Sullivan articulated well during his rant, links and resource pages were not born out of SEO and will exist long after SEO dies. Attempting to obtain value by beating down webmasters doors to list your site on their resource page is defeating, exhausting, and increasingly ineffective. Good old-fashioned link spam isn’t even a real option anymore because of Penguin. If you’ve been doing SEO for any significant length of time, you’ve hit this wall many times over.

Many have given up, of course. This is the point where many link building 1.0 professionals become professionals in something else. They go back to school and become social workers. They pursue hobbies like carpentry. Some learn how to cook and become pastry chefs. The low hanging fruit has all been picked and some SEOs just aren’t capable of reaching the higher branches. With evolution there is inevitably attrition.

If links represent real people and real messages, and search engines are growing more sophisticated in identifying who those people are along with what they’re saying, then link building now and in the future should be about expressing identity and amplification of voice. Unique and innovative content will garner links, but link building now is turbo-charging the awareness of that content in such a way that reflects positively upon a brand and domain. Little brands become big brands by doing big things and telling people about them.

An Organizational Shift

Perhaps foreshadowing the multi-dimensional shift in tactics across SEO, Terakeet has stopped hiring link builders. We’re now a team of conversation-starters, discussion-generators, influencers, and content marketing strategists. We still measure ourselves by our ability to create meaningful, citation-worthy backlinks for our client, but we do so within the context of greater visibility campaigns fed by multiple digital channels.

Enterprise SEO is now about deciding where your business lives online, finding or establishing key influencers, creating engagement, and driving a conversation home. Links will come, just as they always have for brands and personalities who distinguish themselves.

The Rankings Interview?


If link profiles are a bit like college degrees, Google awards their rankings a bit like jobs. Just as your degree represents the sweat equity you put forth towards your education, your backlink profile is a reflection of all the great things you and your brand have exhibited along the way. While every candidate for a job might have the same degree, those hired generally distinguish themselves by the methods and ways they were able to achieve that degree. There are people, places, and human experiences behind every backlink profile and it would seem Google is getting better at their own interview process.

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