The Case Against Link Building
A majority of my SEO experience has been in the B2B and healthcare industry verticals, exclusively on the agency side. In these environments, I’ve seen the same thing time and again: companies that don’t have a clue how authoritative their websites already are. Strong toolbar PageRank marks, a healthy non-spam backlink profile, plenty of anchor link keyword diversity, and a strong thematic focus are all often present. A lack of applied SEO smarts is the missing ingredient.
Not to trivialize the importance of those missing pieces, but in more cases than not a strong SEO foundation exists. For any SEO worth his salt, these are the opportunities to dream of. And there are plenty of these examples in the wild.
There’s also a seedier side of link building that adds to my distaste for the practice: spam. I am of the firm belief that link building, when it takes the form of requesting that a Webmaster link to your site(s) purely for SEO gains, is by definition unnatural. It’s an artificial manipulation of a site’s backlink profile. In theory, the best and most-useful content and experiences will naturally accrue hyperlinks and social mentions. Asking for that type of attention to influence search rankings feels deceptive, if not outright spammy.
I recall (now with fondness) the good old days of link building. When I was just cutting my SEO teeth, one of my first assignments was to use an application called Zeus Internet Marketing Robot in order to “build some links” for a new client. That program would scour the Web for potential reciprocal link partners, after the user would enter keywords and competitor domains. Part of the crawling process would extract webmaster email addresses, and the application would even help you develop a “link partners” page to publish on your site.
“Link to me, buddy, and I’ll link to you. Dumb old Google.” Like every other spam-like tactic, that practice too was eventually quashed and those who had over-relied on its effectiveness found themselves out of luck, and out of the SERPs.
My anti-link building stance is one that I’ve largely kept close to my vest, for fear of public backlash from those who specialize in link building or evangelize it as a best-practice tactic. With the advents of both Panda and Penguin, Google algorithm enhancements aimed at down-ranking poor quality sites and ones with unnatural backlink profiles, I feel it’s safe to come out. And just this week I received very timely validation in the latest Rimm-Kaufman Group newsletter, “The Dossier” (which was very well done, btw), which referenced the firm’s focus on quality content creation and marketing in lieu of legacy link building tactics.
So there, I’ve said it. I don’t believe in link building. I believe instead in optimizing the user experience through content, and engagement through social mechanisms and platforms.
That belief will be tested over the next few weeks, too. My team and I are responding to new SEO client opportunities where link building is clearly identified as necessary elements. Our collective response will be: Why bother?