Link Building Now: 5 Key Points You Need To Know

Why links are important for improving your site's organic search visibility.

By Kristine Schachinger

Organic Search

Link building helps make your site visible to consumers who use search engines to find whatever product you offer. This means more traffic (if done correctly). And more traffic means you will hit your conversion goal (whatever that might be) harder and better than your competitors that aren't doing link building, or aren't doing it well.

You may have read a few articles or heard about the “evils” or “dangers” of link building. Even this week, a Google representative came forward and warned people against link building, saying it could “cause more problems … than it actually helps.”

But is this really true? Let’s look at what link building means now, and why it’s important.

1. What is Link Building Now?

Link building is the art of creating links to a site that appear to be natural, but are not.

Natural Links

A natural link is one that is earned simply by publishing content. For example, your brand publishes an article. People see it, like it, and link to it from their own website. This link says to the digital world, “Hey, this is something you need to know about!”

Over time, as more and more websites link to your brand’s website, Google takes notice and decides it is a popular, authoritative, or informative site. If you garner enough of these links, your site will receive more visibility in Google’s search results and earn more traffic, and because you rank well, more people will find you and link to you, further strengthening your website’s visibility.

For newer or smaller brands, the problem is you likely won’t earn enough proper links naturally position for much of anything – especially not really important traffic-driving, site-converting, money-producing search terms (keywords).

Types of Link Building

First let’s talk about what link building is not. Link building is not hiring a company, agency, or consultant to buy links to your site with secret methods they won’t tell you about.

Google loudly discourages link buying. Though some can do it well, few get it right. When link buying goes wrong, your site can suffer extreme penalties that bury you so deep in the search results that people won’t be able to find you when they’re searching for you. People lose jobs.

Link creation typically falls into the following categories:

  • Editorial Links (natural): Create great content and people link to you. These are mostly natural and acquired through content development, marketing, and promotion.
  • Manual Links (link building): These are added by reaching out to other websites, editors, or relationships your SEO has with other content providers. You provide value to them, though you don’t do a link exchange. Think viral marketing, content creation on other sites in topic niches, and influencer marketing.
  • Self-Created (spammy link creation or link buying): This is the category you must be extremely careful about. In the past, you could use this method to create profiles in blogs with links to your site, add to directories, submit to article sites, or add a paid blog post on someone else’s domain. Buyer beware: these tactics aren’t 100 percent dead. When not done well, these links will hurt your site.

2. How Does Link Building Work Now?

Search engine algorithms, and the role links play in those algorithms, are quite complex. Think of it this way:

You go to a networking event. When you arrive, you see a large group of people surrounding a man in the middle of the room. The people are hanging on his every word.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the room you see a man alone. Quiet. Nobody seems to know who he is.

Which person are you most likely to want to talk to?

From a purely business perspective, you want to find out why everyone is so enamored with the man surrounded by so many interested people.

That is the essence of how a search engine sees links to your site. Websites link to your site because they like your brand, what you have to say, or what your site offers. It is a sort of popularity vote, so Google sees this and says that must be a quality site.

Now, what if you go over to the middle of the room and start asking people why they are so engaged with this individual. The first person tells you, “Oh, I don’t actually care. He just wanted people to think he was important, so he paid me.”

What is your perception of that individual’s value now? It’s probably lower now, right?

Then you ask more and more people and you find out everyone there is paid. So now you realize this person doesn’t have the business value you thought he did and you will likely seek out other, more trustworthy people.

The search engines, especially Google, are the same way. If you’re naturally popular, they see you as having value. If they found out you bought your friends (links) then they are likely to question your value or even punish you for faking it.

3. Link Building – Why Content Isn’t Enough

You may have heard or been told that all you need is great content. This is a myth. Yes, you need great content, but you can’t rely completely on great content to reach consumers.

Great, linkable, sharable content is necessary. But without the links to support your site’s visibility, you’ll be alone in a dark corner of a party, and no one will say hello because they can’t see you.

For Google to see your content as valuable, others have to “tell” Google that it is valuable. One of the most important ways Google understands value is by looking at and evaluating links.

Now, consider that 90 percent of the people who use Google search never go past Page 1 when looking for something online, who will know you are there? And if no one can see you because Google has not seen people link to you, then how will you get people to link to you?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? Google is a mighty big forest.

4. Link Builders: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

One of the most important aspects of link building is making sure you hire someone who knows all the ins and outs of acquiring links that appear to be natural. This is not just in terms of link type, but how fast you acquire the links, the anchor text, and the quantity. Don’t overstep in any of those areas because Google aggressively penalizes those that break their rules.

There are some quick ways to figure out what your link person has in the works for you. Note: None of these are 100 percent true, but they can help you separate a skilled, professional link builder from snake oil peddlers.

The Good

A link builder who is educated on how to properly acquire links to your site won’t be cheap. This is one of the most important lessons for anyone purchasing these services to learn. Expensive doesn’t always mean good, but cheap will almost always mean bad.

Why? If you are properly link building, it means you have established relationships, sought out sites where you can place a link and not trigger the Google algorithm or a manual penalty. It means you don’t use blog networks, article directories, and guest posting (unless that guest post is on a quality site, such as The Huffington Post or Time).

While there are exceptions to every rule, if someone tells you their plan is only to place links in multiple paid directories, forum postings, and purchased guest posts – run. These tactics may have worked two years ago, they are only suited for sites where the goal is to make money for as long as they can. It is never appropriate for your brand domain.

The Bad

Here’s a sample list of some techniques to stay away from.

  • Forum postings.
  • Article directories.
  • PR sites (PR is OK, but using their site for links is not).
  • Paid guest blog posts.
  • Placement on sites that are not relevant to your industry/topic(s).
  • Directories in general (unless they are reviewed and hand edited).

The Ugly

The ugly side of link acquisition is the spammy link buy. These links are often cheap, maybe even a few hundred dollars.

You probably won’t notice any issues at first. All the new links will probably give you a nice boost to start. But once Google figures out that you bought bad links, your organic traffic will most likely fall off a cliff.

Recovery is always expensive and there are some who never recover. Never purchase quantity over quality. Google knows about every widely-used shortcut. Don’t be penny wise and pound-foolish.

5. What Link Building Can’t Do For Your Brand

As powerful as link building is, it can’t be your entire SEO plan. A full SEO strategy also must address technical SEO as well as on-page and off-page optimization.

Even a site that has more natural links than you could hope for won’t be easily found in Google search if, for example, the site is slow, the meta tags aren’t optimized, or their page design keeps Google from indexing them properly.

Even if your link strategy is perfect, there are many reasons you site won’t achieve its full potential, so do not overlook this. However, one thing is sure: no matter how good those other components are handled, if you don’t have links, it’s likely that you’ll be nowhere to be found at those critical moments when people are looking for you.

Is link building part of your SEO plan? Why or why not?