It’s a common conversation in our line of work. A client will approach us for an SEO strategy, but insists that we focus purely on link building.
“My site is already good. I just want links.”
But here’s the problem with this way of thinking: link building, as part of a well-rounded SEO campaign, is highly valuable. But on its own, it’s more likely to be a detriment to your site.
Focusing your efforts purely on link building is not a good strategy. It’s ineffective – especially if done wrong – and not a good use of budget and time.
Your Link Profile is Important, But…
Don’t get us wrong; building your link profile is absolutely necessary for any effective SEO strategy. It shows Google that your business and brand is trustworthy, a source of authority and has earned the confidence of your audience.
A quality link profile will go a long way to improving your rankings, but the problem is, many businesses are caught up solely in the idea of getting links. Hundreds and thousands of links. Because the more the better, right?
Google will reward diverse, balanced backlink profiles that are built naturally. Obviously there will be some low-quality links – this is unavoidable – but the balance needs to be in favour of high-quality, earned links with a strong domain authority and relevance to your site.
Having thousands of unrelated, spammy and low-authority links will actually negatively impact your site and, sooner or later, you’re going to be hit with a penalty. Bad backlink profiles indicate that you’re trying to get around Google’s quality guidelines, which they actively seek to prevent – and as a result, you’ll be ranked accordingly.
So be warned: if you’re in the mindset that the quantity of your links is more important than the quality, be prepared to pay the price. And the penalty will be very hard to come back from.
Instead, you need to look at link building as just one piece of a multifaceted strategy. And there’s one big reason why.
Let’s Talk About the Algorithm
We’re talking about THE algorithm. The Google search algorithm. The all-important, constantly changing signals and clues that Google relies on to meet its sole objective: to connect people with the information they’re looking for.
This is what the algorithm is designed for, and it’s what decides where your website will rank in SERPs (the Search Engine Results Page).
It’s also not just a single piece of information; it’s made up of many smaller components, each focused on different website factors. They all carry different weights in regards to their overall importance, but to rank well, you need to pay attention to each component of the master algorithm.
Here’s a brief breakdown:
- Hummingbird is the big one; the master algorithm with smaller add-ons that filter search results. It’s focused on semantic search, which means when you type in a search term, Google looks at not only the individual words but the meaning behind them. Implicit factors like your location are taken into account, as well as other variables like synonyms and conversational terms that mean the same thing or are relevant to your search query.
What this means in practice is that if you search for ‘London Underground’ from a desktop in Brisbane, you’ll get general information about it. But if you search for the same phrase from a phone in London, you’ll get timetables and maps.
- Penguin is all about links. This algorithm looks to penalise sites that are spamming search results through black hat link building tactics – in particular, those sites that are buying links or using link farms to boost their backlink profile and their rankings.
It also works to penalise grey hat link profiles, which aren’t necessarily using unethical tactics but are definitely toeing the line when it comes to best practice SEO. This includes links from a large number of unrelated directories or PR sites, paid blog placements and forum posts. While some of these types of links are bound to happen naturally, it’s important that you don’t actively seek them out for the sole purpose of building your link profile. You will not have Google’s approval.
Another point worth noting: we’re expecting another Penguin update very soon. It’s been on the cards since the beginning of the year, but hasn’t happened yet. Penguin doesn’t work in real-time, so it’s only when it updates that it catches and penalises a set of sites – and it remains that way until the next update.
- Panda is the content search filter. It works in real-time to stop sites with poor-quality content – think keyword stuffing, thin content or duplicate pages – from ranking in the top search results.
- RankBrain is Google’s machine-learning, artificial intelligence system that helps filter search results and determine where they are ranked. Essentially, RankBrain is Google’s way of interpreting and understanding search queries the way a human would, and giving results that match.
Now, bear in mind that this isn’t a full list. There are many other minor signals that will affect how you rank (Pigeon, Pirate, Caffeine), but these are just the main ones.
The Big 3
More importantly, the big problem with focusing purely on link building is that you’re only focusing on one out of three essential parts of the algorithm, and ignoring the rest. No SEO strategy can succeed by only building a link profile and disregarding the other (just as important) elements.
Here’s how they all apply:
Links ARE important, don’t get us wrong. A balanced and diverse backlink profile is essential to achieving the results you want, but the catch is that the links must be as natural as possible. In essence, link building should be tied to the real world. The end goal of SEO is to get your website in front of your target market, and if you were to look at it like real-world business, link building is the networking, outreach and building of relationships. It needs to be done carefully and selectively – not something that you outsource.
Think of it this way: Hiring a call centre to get you clients won’t deliver the same quality clients as one dedicated Business Development Manager would. While a call centre is likely to deliver on quantity, they won’t deliver on quality.
It’s exactly the same with link building. Sure, you can use a link network to get you thousands of links in a short amount of time, but those thousands of spammy, irrelevant links won’t stand up to a website with 30 or 40 high-quality links. We’ve seen it for ourselves – a site with 40 quality links can easily outrank one with tens of thousands of poor-quality links.
Content is another vital element of a website’s success. Having valuable, informative and relevant content across your site tells Google that you’re an authoritative source and you know exactly what you’re talking about. And as a result, you’ll rank higher. We’ve seen this in action too: rankings will fluctuate a lot for a site with thin or no content. On the other end of the spectrum, a site with spammy, keyword stuffed and poor-quality content written purely for the sake of SEO and with no value to the user will eventually be penalised with a massive drop in rankings. But regular content updates (fresh, high-quality content, mind you) will lead to ranking improvements across the site.
Google is centred on creating a good user experience; the goal is to match the user with what they’re looking for. So if your site is filled with content that’s informative, relevant, useful and helps the user find what they’re looking for, you’ll be rewarded for it. Something to keep in mind though: the design of your website has a major impact on user experience, and can affect your rankings. Your content needs to be presented in an aesthetically-pleasing, easy-to-read way (not just a wall of text).
And finally, content is essential because it’s a naturally linkable asset. If you can create great content that people will enjoy reading, they’ll be much more likely to authentically link to it, and – voila! – more links for you.
Technical elements are the third major deciding factor. Your site needs to be technically sound to be able to accurately communicate with search engines as well as users, and create the user experience that Google is so determined on.
This means you need to fix things like:
- Broken links
- 404s (Not Found errors from links)
- 301s (Permanent redirects from links)
- Page speed
If these elements aren’t on point, you run the risk of Google seeing your website as nothing more than a blank page. And no one wants to click on that.
Missing the Point
The big takeaway here is that yes, link building is one essential part of a balanced and comprehensive SEO strategy. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. Getting into the mindset of ‘I just want links’ and ignoring the other necessary elements of SEO is completely missing the point of SEO and what you’re trying to achieve with it.
What you want is visibility to your audience; to be found by the right people, and for the right people to be easily able to find you. SEO is about naturally and legitimately providing the user with what they’re looking for – not faking it by trying to beat the system.