Never before has link building been more confusing than it is now. Back in the day, SEOs knew they could get penalized for paid links or participating in link farms, while nowadays it has become very hard to tell what link acquisition methods to avoid - everything seems to have the potential to incur Googles wrath.
Are there any link acquisition methods that havent become associated with web spam yet? Thing is, to Google, any action you take to specifically acquire a link is manipulative. At the same time, its hard not to think higher rankings when you know what might help your site rank higher in the SERPs.
A way out? I believe nowadays one should strive to build such links that have both SEO and traffic-generating value. Post-Penguin, more and more SEOs have been talking about how reputation building, link earning and other such things will be a win in the long run. And these are what I'd like to focus on in this post.
Organic Link Building Methods
Just to get it out of the way - there is no such thing as organic link building. Can one build a mountain? No, it is something that is formed naturally. Hence, when one says organic link building, they are probably talking about attracting links in a way that looks natural (=organic) to Google.
Now, there are quite a few articles that talk about different ways to attract natural-looking backlinks. For the most part, they say something like go social, write guest posts, etc. I don't want to repeat what has already been said. Instead, I'd like to go further and see what nuances there are to traffic- and reputation-oriented link building. For instance, did you know that
Google Is Leery Of Social Signals, Says Matt Cutts
It has been believed for a long time that social signals such as the number of tweets, Facebook likes, Google Plus shares, social bookmarks a webpage has are taken into account in Googles ranking algorithm.
However, not long ago at the 2012 SES conference in San Francisco, Matt Cutts said Google had certain difficulties crawling Twitter/Facebook and hence could not tell how reliable a particular signal was. So, Google's famous engineer said that Google was rather leery to use social as a signal.
As you see, Matt Cutts wasn't exactly specific on this, but the takeaway could be that social is not as important as previously thought. Another takeaway could be that Google tries to determine the quality of a social signal, so, such things as one's number of Twitter followers are taken into account as well.
At the same time, there is research that shows that social shares do help increase site rankings. For instance, Branded 3 conducted a study, which demonstrated that tweets have a rather strong effect on a pages position in the SERPs. So, go figure.
My opinion on this is as follows: when using social for SEO, it's best to attract real followers and industry influencers so that you can achieve both goals: drive direct web traffic and boost your rankings via social.
Press Releases Still Work
Similar to the rumors that surround social media marketing are the rumors around press release marketing. On the one hand, we have a one-liner from Matt Cutts who said he wouldn't expect links from press release websites to benefit rankings. On the other hand, we have a study from SEO Consult which implies that links from press releases do have an impact on where a site shows up in the SERPs.
Again, the truth must be somewhere in between. And of course businesses distribute press releases for many purposes other than links or PageRank: branding, publicity, sporting their site on Google/Yahoo news, etc.
Thus, if I were to write press releases for a company I'm promoting, I would try to do my best and create really informative, quality press releases (no gibberish text or keyword stuffing) and use a reputable PR service to distribute them.
Directories Are Not A Matter Of The Past
If you thought that being listed in quality directories was not helping your sites rankings any longer, think again. In a recent interview with James Norquay, an ex-member of Google's search quality team said that good-quality, moderated directories, or niche directories were still worth looking into.
I think it is common sense that one would expect a reputable website like Forbes.com to be listed in Yahoo! Directory, to have a Wikipedia page, etc. The only thing is Yahoo! Directory listing is quite pricey, so, perhaps it makes sense to look for high-quality niche directories that don't cost much as a rule.
By the way, what used to be Google Directory a-la DMOZ, now became just DMOZ aka Open Directory Project, and probably doesn't have the same value any longer.
All in all, when picking directories to submit to, look for well-organized local and/or niche directories that get real human visitors (for example, USA City Link, etc.) Besides, such listings reportedly help one rank websites of brick-and-mortar businesses in local SERPs.
Quality Guest Blogging Never Dies
So, if you're an established writer or an expert on a particular topic, you will always be in a position where you can build awareness for your brand, reputation for yourself as a writer and perhaps a few links to your site as well.
By the way, not to forget about Google Authorship - a project that is likely to let Google rank content by distinguished authors higher in perspective.
So, in my opinion, not only is guest blogging alive and kicking, but it will also remain popular for a very long time. The trick, though, is to be genuine and to write about the topics you have real expertise in. Many SEOs are tempted to guest blog on various topics for the sake of getting links from niche blogs. I believe it is better to outsource the job for these purposes or to work together with the writer from the company youre promoting.
Promotion Through Blog/Forum Comments
Some people underestimate how much forum and blog commenting can help them promote their site. For the most part, blog and forum comments are nofollow and don't have much SEO value (in fact, the nofollow attribute was originally devised to fight comment spam).
In the past, I've tested different approaches to comment marketing. What I've discovered was that it's better to leave fewer and better comments at fewer and better blogs/forums. I had tried to be active at a whole variety of blogs and forums, but when the resource is spammy, inactive or has lower quality content, commenting on it is a complete waste of time.
So, today I only comment on posts that really grab my attention or when I really have something to say to. And my priority is not SEO links, but publicity and possibly links that bring real traffic.
And the best thing about commenting is that it is very much like conversing with people in real life: you're likely to build a relationship that will extend beyond the resource where you had left your first comment.
For instance, this is how I met Dee Kumar, the founder of Venture to the Top - via a comment I left on his site:
Then the relationship evolved into a full-blown review of our SEO tools on Dees website, in which he gave his unbiased opinion on our products.
How To Measure Backlinks And Traffic At Once
Now, when you're trying to kill two birds with one stone and make sure that your backlinks have both SEO and traffic-generating potential, how do you cross-analyze these two metrics in a campaign? Actually, it's all about having the right tool at hand that lets you see traffic statistics side by side with other backlink metrics.
For example, we wrote about how one can do this with the help of SEO SpyGlass in part 5 of our "Must-read SEO guidelines for 2013."
As Matt Cutts often puts it, I have a long answer to your question and a short one. So, this post was my longer, in-depth way to say that, whatever ways of attracting natural links there are nowadays, they will remain as long as you don't engage in these tactics for the sake of links only.
Non-spammy, quality press release distribution, guest blogging, blog and forum commenting, and other techniques will remain and actually work for those who do them right. Think user first and there will always be various link building opportunities open to you.
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