As is clear to anyone working in the field of search marketing, links are still the main SEO currency and remain the over-riding factor in getting a site to rank in a competitive niche. In Google's Webmaster Tools guidelines, Google states the importance of inbound links:
So, they start with a nice active statement 'make sure that other sites link to yours', then follow it up with the passive statement : 'natural links to your site develop as part of the dynamic nature of the web when other sites find your content valuable.'
So we need to 'make sure' that links naturally develop on their own. Ok, glad that is clear.
We Must 'Build' Links
Ever since Larry & Sergey revolutionised the search landscape with their PageRank algorithm, webmasters have sought to improve their search rankings with incoming links. 'Link building' has become an accepted phrase although it sounds at odds with the GWT guidelines.
Due to SEO firms and webmasters seeing very solid results from active link building campaigns billions of pages of content have been made with the sole purpose of 'gaming' the Google algorithm. If an alien species were to evaluate the internet and the content on it they would probably move on to the next civilisation and not bother making contact. Why would they stop after they happen upon the swathes of worthless directory sites that provide a resource to no-one, or read millions of pages of gobbledegook that sits on article sites cluttering up the internet with rubbish?
In fairness to Google, the recent Panda and Penguin updates seem to have helped promote good quality content and have stopped the majority of these practices but the question remains 'what are natural links and how do we get them?'
'Create Great Content'
So we all know that the solution is to create great content right? Make content on your website that is sufficiently resourceful, informative, useful, funny or controversial, and people will 'naturally' link to it.
Working for a small UK B2B company we work very hard trying to make content that people may want to link to, but it is simply not that straightforward. Just producing great content is not enough, you still have to go out there and get people to link to it.
Producing amazing content obviously works great for sites that already have a massive audience: they make something awesome, their community shares it and it generates plenty of natural links. But unless you have an audience already, you have to go out and pitch your content, hoping it gets you some links.
Is this really the natural development of links? Surely a natural link is one that you did not 'build' yourself? Is it only natural if you don't have to ask for it?
Fortunately this can remain a semantics issue that we need not resolve as Google hasn't found a way to determine the intent of a piece of content; if it is made for users or simply as linkbait. Like it or not, most of the creative content that webmasters and SEO agencies are building these days is in order to attract links -- and here are some of the ones that could be considered natural:
We recently published an interactive infographic about the Olympic sponsorship outrage. We offer people an embed code so they can put it on their site, and hope that they link back to us, then email hundreds of webmasters and ask them to share it. I know this is not 'natural', but until we develop a decent community, we won't be getting any links from it at all.
Infographics have come under scrutiny recently as Matt Cutts has mentioned that Google may look at devaluing infographic links, and Justin Briggs has done a neat evaluation of how and why this may be implemented.
At the moment, so long as an infographic is not massively off-topic, and you don't play fast and loose with your anchor text, infographics remain a great way to build brand links.
For e-commerce websites, sending bloggers products to review can be a neat way to get exposure for your products and links at the same time. Most people love getting things for free, and if all they have to do is a short write-up on their blog you can generally get a good response rate from pitches.
However, is this merely the equivalent of a paid link? Morally, it probably is, but as long as the anchor text does not look manipulative then it should at least appear natural.
Embeddable games or widgets can be a great way to generate links - people love games, and won't want to mess with the embed code for fear of breaking the game. Probably my favourite example is the Traveler IQ Challenge by Travel Pod (don't play it, you'll lose hours of your day...)
There have been some fairly well publicised cases of widgets gaining penalties from Google, but often this is due to highly manipulative tactics. Again you should be ok if you avoid manipulative/off-topic anchor text in your embed codes.
Guest blogging can be a great way to publicise your company particularly, if thought leadership is your bag. You can expose yourself or your brand to different audiences, and even generate plenty of leads if you feature on particularly well-read and highly targeted blogs.
Unfortunately I feel that blogs could very well go the way of article repositories in the not too distant future. Since guest blogging is currently considered a nice white-hat tactic to generate quality, provable links, SEOs will exploit it. If an SEO company can satisfy a client with a monthly report that shows all the guest posts they've had placed, this tactic will be scaled by outsourcing and ultimately, reduce the overall quality of blog content on the web.
We have experimented with video marketing in the past. So long as you pick the right niche, people will embed your video and give you a nice branded link back to your website. If your video advertises a product, you can also get links back to your product pages, however it can be difficult to get the balance right between creating commercial content and making it sufficiently sharable.
The downside with videos is that the video hosting sites are only interested in promoting the video on their webpage, rather than yours, so all their social sharing buttons will link to the page on their site. As such videos require a great deal of manual outreach if you expect to generate links from them, but at least they would be editorially granted, and therefore, entirely natural.
Unfortunately, all of the techniques covered above can and will be abused by SEO companies looking to make a fast buck. As we are seeing, Google is increasingly clamping down on what it considers to be manipulative tactics. In each example above, the 'better safe than sorry' tactic involves sticking almost exclusively to brand links, and avoiding anchor text entirely. Why so?
Anchor Text isn't Natural
Anchor text has long been known as a key relevance factor for ranking in a competitive niche. If you have plenty of unique incoming links with the anchor text 'red widgets', it was a fair shout that you could rank for 'red widgets'. Although this seems to have been dampened down recently, it is clearly still a factor.
But keyword-rich anchor text is not a natural phenomenon, and only exists because Google made it a ranking factor. Natural anchor text looks like this:
That is how most people, with no eduction in blogging practices or SEO, would 'naturally' link to something. Maybe Google should implement this as a key indicator that links have been developed naturally...
Social Media Shares - The New Links?
The whole debate about natural/unnatural links has been brought sharply into focus by Google recently sending thousands of webmasters emails about unnatural links. The general consensus seems to be that, if these warnings coincide with a drop in rankings, you should try to remove as many of the unnatural links as you possibly can.
This situation highlights one of the reasons that links will remain a significant ranking factor - because of their permanence. Imagine if the emails were instead warnings of 'unnatural tweets', and you had to try and get thousands of users to sift through months worth of tweets and delete the offending ones? It just wouldn't happen.
But social media has affected the way that content is cited. Whereas only webmasters or website owners can put a link up for you, anyone can tweet or like a webpage. People will like things to share them with their friends, brands will tweet useful resources to their followers - surely this is the most 'natural' way for content to be shared?
I would like to see linking factors combined with social factors, rather than as 2 independent triggers. In this day and age, if a piece of content is high quality, it is very unlikely that it would only be linked to, with no social shares whatsoever. Consider the much vaunted ac.uk/edu-links, which are often achieved by sneaky SEOs paying students for links on University blogs. In a natural environment, if a University website found a resource so useful they would link to it, they would very likely also share it socially to their follower-base, as they would very likely be the same audience that might read the webpage.
For most of the web, Google's concept that 'natural links to your site develop' is incredibly naive, and practically negligent advice to give to newbies in the world of search marketing. Their earlier statement, 'make sure that other sites link to yours', is more on the money, just make sure you try and make it look natural.
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