Over the past three years, my link builders have built close to 10k links. Each one has been tediously researched and acquired through various methods (and hopefully there are many more that we haven't measured, ones that came about through indirect/passive methods.) While I'd never claim to be a link building expert, I think I can safely say that 10k links is enough to say that we indeed know what works. That being said, let's go through what I think are the top 3 myths about link building.
Myth 1: All Paid Links Suck
Let's start with that most vilified of all types of links: the paid link. Usually written off as spammy nonsense, paid links are so poorly thought of by many people that the very idea of them makes people shake with rage. They're viewed as a means of cheating and polluting the web, but here's the thing…they still work. They work when done poorly (sadly) but they work very well when done properly. If you think you can spot every paid link, let me assure you that you cannot. You can spot the crappy ones, but you can't always spot the well-done ones because, of course, they are well done. They're acquired in the same way that a non-paid link is, except money is exchanged. They aren't all rented and they aren't all part of link networks that can be quickly devalued by Google. In many cases, they're much better than any other type of link. Webmasters know the game and know that they can indeed command decent prices for link space, unfortunately, so while you'll find some great free links many times, in ultra-competitive niches, you'll find fewer of them as it becomes a set practice to sell your approval, not give it away.
Myth 2: Automation Is Necessary
I'd love to automate everything that my link builders do because honestly, sometimes the way we do things gives me a massive headache that lasts for days, but I haven't so far because I do truly believe it's easier and safer to build links without using patterns determined by a machine. Machines are logical, and people are not. I have no problem with people who automate parts of their link building efforts but in talking with some of them, we're getting the same results that they are. We may be making less money, but I'm ok with that because I think it's more sustainable this way. You can speed things up and send ten times the amount of emails we do if you automate that portion of the process, for example, but automating the negotiation? Good luck with that.
Myth 3: You Need Fancy Tools To Build Links
Seriously, other than some sort of software to help you organize your efforts and results, I don't think that anything other than a browser is necessary for building links. My staff and I all use a variety of link tools in order to give us link and site metrics, but we don't use them for discovery. I do confess that when Google Toolbar Page Rank has a hiccup, many of my link builders get a bit antsy, but that is because some of our pricing does depend upon that due to client requests. However, all things considered, we can go after and secure great links without relying upon anything other than manual search.
So what isn't all hype? I'll err on the side of equality and give you 3 of what I consider to be the essentials for link building.
Fact 1: Diversity Of A Link (And Online Marketing) Profile
Diversity is one of the keys to sustainable link building. With every Google update you see sites who have relied upon one main tactic falling off the radar (and some being unnecessarily penalized, of course.) I think that some of this is dictated by your niche from what I've seen, even though nothing is black and white in search. Whenever I do a link analysis, I always look at diversity for both my site and those of a few competitors. If it's standard to have 75% money anchors, then I might pursue those more, but if the norm is to have 25% money anchors and the rest made up of brand/url and noise, I'd be more careful. That being said, even if 95% money anchors was indeed the norm for my niche, I'd feel more comfortable spreading things out a bit better. What happens when the algorithm changes to better rank sites with heavier brand/url anchors? Get image links, and nofollows, a few sitewides where they make sense, some directory listings…don't ever put all of your eggs into one basket. If something bad happens, it's way too hard to fix it quickly if you're so heavily reliant upon something. This applies to more than just links, too. If you have zero social media presence and all your competitors do, you're losing out. If you aren't updating your blog regularly and everyone else in your niche is, this latest freshness update could be the kind of thing that sinks you.
Fact 2: Continual Forward Movement
Everyone else is keeping up with the latest and greatest so if you aren't, you'll soon be left behind. Social media platforms are great to use for link building in many different ways so while your competitor has amassed a responsive community on the newest Twitter-esque site, you may not only be losing potential links (and traffic, and conversions) to him but you'll also be failing to move forward while your target audience is doing just that. Once today's web users get used to doing things a certain way, it's hard to continue to be a Luddite. Also consider the link graph of your site. A useful, popular site should show a steady upward trend or, at the very least, look stable. If your site remains relevant, the idea is that people continue to link to it, so when that isn't happening for whatever reason, it appears that your site is no longer the authority it once was.
Fact 3: Link For Traffic, Not Just Rankings
Otherwise you're conducting an exceptionally short-sighted campaign. You certainly can't control who links to you all the time of course, but if you are going after links in whatever active fashion you choose, you should be going after ones that will generate clicks and convert for you. Why not take full advantage of a link if you're taking the time to pursue it? Yes, a great link from an authority site can give you a boost in rankings but does that mean you'll gain more traffic? Not always.
In the end, while there are many right and wrong approaches in all of online marketing, there are few absolutes that can stand up over time. You can indeed rank well with spammy tactics even though they aren't advised. You can do everything the "right" way and go nowhere. Much of what we do online is dependent upon a large variety of factors, so when you're building links, do your research, see what works for others in your industry, read everything you can that's written about link building, but keep a level head about the whole thing.
See also Julie Joyce's Link Building series: