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A Step Towards Ethical Link Building—What Happened and What Now?

A Step Towards Ethical Link Building—What Happened and What Now?

By Pat Flynn on

Editor’s Note: My recommended backlinking strategy changes frequently in order to keep up with Google’s evolving search algorithm. You can find the most up-to-date backlinking strategy here. (Updated 10/2015)

“Natural link building by itself isn’t good enough. When your competitors are using every trick and tool in the bag to build lots of high quality links to their sites, you’re basically non-existent unless you’re using every trick and tool in the bag too.”

I heard this quote in an info-product I purchased about six months ago, and the scary part is that it was true…especially when it came to building niche sites.

Of course, there are several “tricks and tools” in the bag one could choose from—some more whitehat and ethical than others, but for the most part in order to have a fighting chance in the search engines you can’t just build an amazing site and write amazing, unique or even the best content about that topic—you have to somehow build quality links to your website, or else it’s virtually non-existent.

It makes sense that the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to a website play a major role in its rankings, but the fact that you almost have to pay for those links just to compete, doesn’t.

Unfortunately, that’s just the state of SEO and where the past has led us.

Recently, however, Google has been making some major changes to address this issue. One move that happened last week affected tons of people and sent a clear message to everyone who is optimizing a website for search engine rankings.

What Happened?

Of all the “tricks and tools” for link building, one of the more popular ways to build links was to utilize a private blog network—a paid service that guaranteed high-quality, one-way links to your website by allowing you to publish a short article (100-200 words in length, with a backlink included) to one of several hundred or even thousand high-quality blogs owned and controlled by that company.

Blog networks were extremely popular because they were easy to use and they worked really, really well.

So well, in fact, that Google has pulled the plug on several private blog networks by de-indexing all of the blogs in their system.

This means that all of the sites in their networks can no longer be found in the search engines, and as a result, all of the backlinks coming from those sites become worthless.

Even BuildMyRank (BMR), which was always careful to accept and publish only unique, well-written content, announced the de-indexing of their sites and closure of their service last Wednesday on their blog.

Not all blog networks have been shut down yet—but they are on Google’s radar.

My Thoughts…

It was really only a matter of time.

I know a lot of people are upset because backlinks (that people paid for) disappeared overnight, as did rankings and earnings, but personally I feel that anything that makes ranking in the search engines more about the quality of the content on the site and less about paying for backlinks, the better—and that is what Google is working towards.

I say this, even as a customer of BMR who saw results.

Too many websites are sitting at the top of Google that don’t deserve to be there, and although this move doesn’t solve the problem in its entirely (and some may argue it doesn’t even put a dent in it) at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Getting rid of blog networks levels the playing field just a little bit, and with the content focused niche websites that I build, I feel like there’s a better chance for my websites to rank higher without having to use tools like blog networks just to give myself a chance.

The question is: is content ALONE good enough to rank a target keyword in the search engines?

Not yet.

Smart and diverse backlinking still needs to be performed and we all should pay close attention to how we build links and the risks behind those strategies.

How Does This Affect The Backlinking Strategy I Use?

As I mentioned before, I did use BMR (and before that, another network called Blog Blueprint) as part of The Backlinking Strategy that Works, but blog networks were just a small part of a diversified, two-tiered backlinking setup. As a result, almost all of my (current) 11 niche websites held up, and a few of them actually climbed higher because competitors (probably using blog networks alone) were knocked out.

The blog network part of the strategy was a “boost”—it created high quality backlinks in a relatively short period of time to speed up the ranking process, but now that those are gone the strategy is essentially the same, it’ll just take a little longer to see results, depending on the niche and existing competition:

Backlinking Strategy Update

Does this strategy still work?

Based on the results of my own niche sites, and several others who are posting their results in the comment section of The Backlinking Strategy that Works and on other sites too, the two-tiered strategy is still holding strong.

The good thing is that the main site is protected by the anchor layer, made up of article directories (which did get hit in the 1st Google Panda update, but article marketing is still a proven strategy and links coming from those sites still help), and blogs and web 2.0 sites that we have control over. All of the “heavy lifting” is done on the second, indirect layer.

The thing to worry about is that the second layer relies heavily on mass article directory submission using tools like Unique Article Wizard (UAW) and Article Marketing Robot (AMR). The main difference between these tools and blog networks, however, is they are simply tools that are meant to accelerate the article directory submission process—they don’t own the sites that they are linking to, and those sites are changing all of the time. There’s room for argument, but I don’t think sites that are connected to these tools will be punished—although I may be wrong.

So, asking the question again: does this strategy still work?

For now, yes—but I’d recommend even more diversification, if possible.

OTHER Techniques to Diversify Your Backlinking Strategy

Relying on just one strategy (and especially just one particular service) is dangerous, so diversification is key.

There are several things you can do, some more whitehat and ethical than others, and I’d advise you to really think about the kinds of links you’re building and how they really prove to Google that your site is worth a top spot in the results pages.

Google isn’t perfect, but they are working towards getting rid of sites and links that shouldn’t be there, and they obviously have the ability to change what works and what doesn’t at anytime.

1. Forum Profiles

I put this strategy here first because it’s the one I’d be most worried about, based on the latest trends.

Be cautious.

This strategy involves adding links that point back to your site (with the appropriate anchor text) on profiles of accounts in authoritative forums.

Like with blog networks, this strategy works way too well (I’ve tried it myself) and doesn’t add any value to anything whatsoever. At least with article marketing and the tools related to it, you’re publishing articles on sites that have visitors that could read those articles and benefit by learning more from your niche site.

Forum profiles are just spammy, “hidden” links.

I remember reading an SEO research article by Glen Allsop where he inspected the links pointing to some of the top websites in some of the most profitable niches.

His conclusion: spammy profile links work.

Glen followed up by saying, “I think this is a real shame because there are sites which deserve to rank above these, but the Google algorithm is still very easy to manipulate.”

I agree, although if I were Google, these kinds of links would be the next to go.

I’m not going to tell you what to do—but remember, Google is on the prowl and you should think about how the links you’re building prove that your site is worth ranking.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend doing any of this from this point forward.

2. Blog Commenting

Blog comments for SEO is typically associated with spam, but that’s because most people abuse it and use tools to automate the process.

Although comments from blogs are less powerful than they used to be, leaving comments that are helpful and add value to the post that you’ve read can be great both for link diversification and also for getting direct traffic too.

A link in the “website url” field is all one would need, and as far as nofollow vs. dofollow, to me—it doesn’t matter—it’s natural to have both.

3. Guest Posting

Guest posting is considered an “old school” form of link building, but it’s still one of the most powerful and more ethical methods available.

Some people I know use guest posting as their only strategy, to a great degree of success.

The issue is, with so many tools out there that seem to make backlinking “push-button easy,” methods like guest posting, which require a lot of hard work, have become less popular.

Maybe it’s time we start working for our rankings again.

The great thing about guest posting is that you can get links from highly authoritative sites, while getting in front of an audience that is perfectly suited for your content.

Guest posting for an authoritative blog that you own—sure, that’s what a lot of people do.

But guest posting for a niche site? Is that even possible?

It should be.

In obscure niches, it’s harder to find websites to publish on, so you may have to get a little creative with the type of articles you publish.

To me, any site that’s worth ranking should have an owner who has the ability to write (or research and write) a post that’s worthy on another website, and he or she should use that ability—if at all possible.

For some excellent advice about guest posting, check out Glen Allsop’s Ultimate Guide to Guest Blogging.

4. Become a Source

If you’re having trouble finding blogs to guest post on (or even if you’re not), how about flipping the switch and contacting those who are trying to find you instead?

There are several sites that bridge the gap between journalists looking for sources, and vice versa.

Often times, when a connection is made, a link back to your site is created. Furthermore, you might see a surge of traffic when their articles are published too.

Here is a shortlist of websites where you can signup (for free) to become a “source” and select from several different journalists and bloggers who seek information about a topic you might have a website about:

5. Build Linkable Relationships

Let’s say you have a niche site about coffee. More specifically (just for the purposes of this example), it’s a site all about making French Press coffee.

Yummy. 🙂

You spend a good amount of time making your site the ultimate resource about French Press coffee. Your site has:

  1. Amazing content dedicated to the several aspects of making French Press coffee. The techniques, the equipment, tips, the history—everything.
  2. Gorgeous pictures that make the site fun to look at; and
  3. Incredible videos demonstrating French Press coffee techniques and equipment.

Your site dominates all of the other French Press coffee sites out there, but it’s relatively new and you’re still working on building links to your site.

Side note: as much as possible, this is what you should aim for no matter what kind of linking strategy  you want to pursue. Dominate is the key word.

At this point, you (or a virtual assistant) do some research and compile a list of all of the coffee blogs out there.

Maybe it’s as simple as typing “blogs: coffee” in Google.

Now, not only do you have a list of sites to potentially guest post on (and since you’re in a niche within a niche, your unique content and amazing site about French Press coffee might more widely considered), but you also have a list of sites where you can start to build a relationship with the owner.

  • Connect with them on Twitter.
  • Become an active fan of their Facebook Page.
  • Hook up with them on LinkedIn and Google Plus.
  • Leave thoughtful comments on their articles.
  • Send a very short but thoughtful email that asks for nothing in return.

Over time, you will get noticed—it’s inevitable.

As a blog owner myself who receives hundreds of comments, emails and messages a day—certain people do stand out and those are the people who I’m more likely to do favors for and potentially link to, or share.

A friend of mine who started a niche site a year ago quickly got to #1 in Google by developing relationships with the top players in his industry. He used his specialization within that niche to become someone who these top players could link to and talk about on their own sites.

Do you know the top players in your niche?

Again, for more obscure niches, you might have to be more creative, but even if you have a website about lipstick, if you have a website worth ranking you should be able to develop a relationship with some of the top make-up artist blogs and YouTube personalities, right?

6. Social Media

Short and sweet: all sites should be connected to social media accounts. It is known that SEO is becoming more social.

For niche sites, you might not have to keep them as active as you might with a more community-oriented authority blog, but if you’re building connections with players in the same niche that you’re in, these accounts could come in handy.

The issue I have with social media is that if Google is going to add things like +1’s, Shares, Like and Retweets into their algorithm, is there anything that can detect whether or not they are genuine?

I take notice of this because my security guard training site has recently been going back and forth at the top spot in Google the with a competitor that has an abnormally large number of Facebook likes (among other weird things). I’ll be talking more about this and why I’m not too worried in my March income report, but my point here is that if +1’s and likes and those sorts of things are added into the algorithm, we’re going to get to a point, again, where we feel like we need to pay for those things in order to keep up.

7. Write More Incredibly Useful Stuff

No matter what though, the best and most important strategy for your site is to publish lots of incredibly useful and unique information.

This is exactly what Google is asking for.

This sounds obvious, but there are still those who create thin 3-page mini sites and wonder why they’re not showing up on the first page of Google.

On the other hand, there are thin 3-page mini sites that are still ranking on the first page of Google, so there’s still a lot of confusion out there and speculation on what is the best thing to do.

Are mini-sites dying? It’s hard to say, but think about this: why should a more robust and flushed out website with better content ever be outranked by one?

To Finish Up…

I can’t predict the future and I’m not the headmaster at Google, so please view this post and the suggestions and opinions in it as just that—suggestions and opinions.

With that said, I am happy with where things seem to be headed, but we’re still a long way from a totally perfect system.

What are your thoughts on the latest changes? Where do you think SEO is headed and will we ever get to a point where all sites will eventually rank where they deserve?  

Let me know what you think. Cheers, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

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