Why YOU shouldn’t be building links

"The world needs ditch diggers too" - Judge Smails in Caddyshack

"The world needs ditch diggers too" - Judge Smails

Remember the day you figured out that the hour you spent finding a decent copy of some MP3, downloading it, scanning it for viruses and then transferring it to your iPod cost you more than the $0.99 that iTunes wanted for the same thing? How much are YOU wasting chasing backlinks? Wouldn’t it make more sense to let someone else with a system do it for you?

I was reading a fantastic article this morning at SEOmoz by Stephanie Chang about creative link building ideas for ecommerce websites. Stephanie lays out a game plan that includes:

  • Creative Category Pages
  • Using Products as Linkbait
  • Leveraging Sales/Deals Pages
  • Personalized Product Giveaways
  • Link-worthy Contests
  • High-Quality Photos
  • Widening Your Audience
  • Using Personal Stories
  • Taking a Risk and Creating Amazing Content
  • Audio Content Marketing
  • Utilizing Pinterest
  • Taking a Risk and Creating Amazing Content

That’s a lot of work, time, effort and utilization of very skilled people to gain what amounts to a better backlink portfolio. In fact, Stephanie even adds “Link building is hard work and results often don’t appear until months after you’ve invested an incredible amount of time and resources.”

So let’s run some numbers and look at the business case for investing an incredible amount of time and resources. We’ll use an hourly rate of $100/hour as a baseline for the cost of a competent search marketing consultant.

  • Brainstorming ideas + consolidating those ideas + fine tuning + planning for execution = 15 hours
  • Creating personalized anything = 15 hours
  • Creating a contest = 20 hours
  • High Quality Photos = 10 hours
  • Creating Amazing Content = 40 hours – infinity

Clearly I pulled out some fairly random numbers, but from a background in the ad agency world I know those estimates are not crazy.  Using the $100/hour rate we just wrote a check for at least $10,000.

That $10,000 will get you somewhere between zero links and a full-on viral tsunami of links. Maybe your ideas will spur the next Old Spice campaign, but probably not. In a normal bell curve of link building, that campaign will probably net you somewhere around 5 – 10 links that are worth a damn. That means that you just spent the better part of a month using your precious time and most talented people to do what is available to you by just writing a check.

I’m not talking about buying crappy, spammy links from some networked blog that will be de-indexed in the next Penguin update. I mean real backlinks from quality sites in your niche that cover the same things you do. It’s not very different from buying a banner ad that links back to your site. Would you spend all day buying individual ads or just use an online ad company?

I agree with Stephanie that “link building is hard work”. Ditch digging is also hard work, but you don’t send your best civil engineers down into the hole with pick-axes every morning.

Stephanie is dead on when she points to Tom Critchlow’s post about why now is the time for content marketing. That’s where a valuable SEO can really make a huge difference to an organization. Creating a culture of amazing content doesn’t happen when a company has an SEO consultant come in for 3 months. It happens when SEO ideas get baked into everything right from the start.

So my suggestion is to stop spending your time digging ditches and set up shop with the intent on changing the entire culture of the company your working with.

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  1. Link building is for suckers, IF they think that is going to boost search results.

    Google has turned off the effect of PageRank on search results and has just removed the influence of the predictive anchor text in links.

    On the other side of the coin they have setup numerous traps to filter out the sites that are building links to appear organic.

    By all means link build, but do it for traffic and forget about the SEO aspects.

    SEO is now almost all on-page.
    You should be able to get a mainpage SEO’d for $500 and a system for including markup on internal pages for a few hundred more.


    • Reg, you’re 100% wrong. Google has NOT turned off the traditional, though well-spammed targeted anchor text link as a ranking signal. Although I do think they have made it more difficult to game the system.

      SEO will never be all on-page. Google needs a powerful signal that scales, and links are it. The fact that there are spammy link builders out there doesn’t change that fact.

      As far as traffic coming through links, I believe that is certainly one of the ways Google is determining if a link should be considered “pure” or “spam”.

  2. Easy there big fella :)
    I do not think so Phil.
    Let’s look at what a link does in the Google algo.
    The first factor is that it sends you to the page that the link uses.
    They are not going to turn this off.

    If you take a look at the paper by Sergey and Larry, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” you will see in item:
    “2.2 Anchor Text”
    “The text of links is treated in a special way in our search engine. Most search engines associate the text of a link with the page that the link is on. In addition, we associate it with the page the link points to.”

    2 factors.
    The anchor text is associated with the content of the page the link is on.
    I do not see that being turned off as it is an easily verifiable (for the algo), component of onpage factors.
    That leaves only the third thing, special to Google, associating the anchor text with the page to which it is pointing.
    This last factor is problematic as it can be gamed.
    Look at Google bombing. That is using anchor text to tell their search engine that a page is popular for a phrase when the phrase does not exist on the page.

    Look at the paper again and they say:
    “This has several advantages. First, anchors often provide more accurate descriptions of web pages than the pages themselves.”
    Only if they are not being gamed.
    Phil, Google gave up using links a as a “powerful” signal about 3 years ago.
    They told us again last year in their “Beyond PageRank” missive.
    They said it was not an “actionable metric”.

    Sergey and Larry also say:
    “Using anchor text efficiently is technically difficult because of the large amounts of data which must be processed. In our current crawl of 24 million pages, we had over 259 million anchors which we indexed.

    I would say this, combined with the almost universal link building schemes have caused anchor text to be a signal that does not scale (well).

    And linking HAS failed. Google just cannot control what they cannot police.
    It was kept in place until their algo got smart enough to be able to rank a page by the text alone.
    Google used to need PageRank to signal the indexing of a page, but no more.
    This is confirmed by their Major PageRank computation change.
    PR used to be calculated based on the PR of the linking page modified by the amount of links on the page and markup like nofollow. This was not ideal as it did not deal with the relevance between linking and linked pages. You could get more of a PR boost from a link on a non-relevant site with a high PR than you could get on a low PR page that WAS relevant.

    Not anymore.. Not since Mayday actually.
    In the Mayday update they announced that they made a major change and it was not going to be reversed. This was the addition of Relevance to the PR calculation.
    Now you can get a better PR with the majority of links on PR0 pages now.
    However, no matter the PR achieved, it will NOT affect SERPs. It is not an actionable metric. |I do not think so Phil.
    Let’s look at what a link does in the Google algo.
    The first factor is that it sends you to the page that the link uses.
    They are not going to turn this off.

    With the traffic coming through a link as being a measure of spam, yes if tied to bounce rate.
    However I think Google is determining spam by the relevance yardstick.
    If a link is relative it is not spam.

    Google would prefer if we did not build links at all and let the organic system thrive.
    Their LSI type AI can decipher and index the content based on language and silo content.
    While they no longer need a secondary citation, they are playing with Social Media signals.
    SM participation to influence PageRank and G+1′s (ReTweets, FB Likes), have a temporary affect on SERPs.
    Freshness is also a factor.
    (Perhaps more than temporary. I just read an article about a site making over 10,000 tweets and having a few thousand retweeted and the site is in the top 3 for a very competitive term.

    And look at the organic system.
    In this, a 3rd party places a link to your site.
    You have NO control over the anchor text used.
    You have NO control over the amount of times this page is sent out by the owner.

    I have a site that I let develop totally organically. I do NOT build links, my users do.
    I used to see thousands of new links each month in my stats.
    As Panda/Penguin as been applied I have seen a significant decrease in my referral traffic to the point of from 800 unique a day to less than 100. Links being built are now more in line with what I thought they should be.
    Interestingly, my sales are up.
    I have a higher conversion rate.
    I have a lower bounce rate.

    My PR on my site was decreased to 5 from 6 and then again to 4. The last happened on the global PR update this month. The first was done outside a global update. My PR went from 4 to 6 then down to 5 and it stayed there until this last PR update.

    NONE of my SERPs changed on any of the PR changes.

    To recap.
    Google does not want us to build links and they are throwing the big guns at those that do in an effort to artificially increase their ranking.
    Each link that G follows costs them money.

    Google has turned off PageRank as a measurable influence on SERPs. YES it IS still one of the 200+ factors but it’s effect has been reduced to nothing.
    Google want ALL links to be relevant an to build the information silos on the topic.
    They are turning off the parts of links that can be manipulated.
    They are finding link spammers by patterns, not type of links.
    Links, as a SERPs factor has been replaced by improved onpage determinations.

    • Hey Reg – first off, there was a weird duplicate chunk in the middle of your comment that I think I pulled out but if it looks weird let me know.

      I agree that link anchor text is not as powerful as it was a few years ago, but can still lbe a game changer for a site. I will use a real world example. I had a client with a PR5 site that had loads of high quality content in a niche where their site had the highest PR and far and away the best content. The site was optimized as well as could be expected. Yet they could not crack the top ten. a few targeted links later and the site was in the top 3, and a few links later it was wedged into the top spot ever since.

      So my question is, if links don’t carry any weight, what caused that move in rankings? This is a site that is in a mature space with a lot of established competitors. None of the sites were crap, they were all pretty good.

      I’m with you 100% on the relevance versus PR. I think link hunting based on PR is wasted time.

      I also agree that Google is getting better at pattern recognition when looking for link spammers, but what if you’re not a link spammer. What if you’re placing hand-cultivated , high quality links. How can there be a pattern to that?

      If Google is putting that much effort into making sure links are clean, I can’t believe they are devaluing the amount of juice that is coming through them. I would say that as of today the off-page/on-page split is about 65%/35%. I think 5 years ago it was about 80%/20%.

  3. Thanks for pulling that out Phil.
    I composed the post in a text editor and must have double pasted.

    Linking USED to be a game changer but Google got fed up with the game.
    They found that it could be used to increase position in search results BEYOND the intrinsic value of the content.

    Let’s rewrite your paragraph about your PR5 client.

    I had a client with a 500,000 link PR5 site that had loads of high quality content in a niche where their site had the highest PR and far and away the best content.
    (We thought) the site was optimized as well as could be expected. Yet they could not crack the top ten. A few targeted links later and the site was in the top 3, and a few links later it was wedged into the top spot ever since.

    Now how many links are required to get a site to PR5? I did a few search and found that the ones I found had over 500k links as reported by majestic.
    With a base like that, how would a few more links help?

    I did a test of a site that was a couple of months old and I was trying to get the phrase “History of Google SEO” up from it’s first spot in the mid 70′s.
    I built a few links and started checking position, (using a proxy server to remove personal influence), and found it was too hard to track as the sites above my position were in constant flux.
    I did some on page mods and increased the page to #27, a much easier position to check.

    I started building links and I got to over 60 without the SERPs for that phrase moving even one spot.
    These links were built on a number of sites with PR from 0 to 6. Anchor text was varied but focused on the keywords and was done as anchor text “history of Google SEO”, “history of SEO” and domain.com/history_of_Google_SEO.htm

    After 60 or so links had been built I started testing social media and found that retweets – FB “likes” and G+1 votes increased its position in the SERPs considerably, but only for a week or 10 days when it would go back to its original 3rd page position.

    I found that several G+1 votes brought it to around #12 and then this year’s rounds of Google algo changes brought it up to #2 out of 82,500,000 sites. (Site is nbs-seo.com)

    If you think link hunting for PR is a waste of time, then how does Google evaluate links without PageRank?
    There are not 2 separate systems to judge the quality and quantity of links, one for PR and one for SERPs.
    There is only PageRank, and Google has told us that it is not going to count.

    IMHO, 65%/35%, is out of the ball park.
    If links counted for 35% then I could not have gotten a #1 in a field of 31 million sites with only onpage content and ONE link. This is especially true when you consider the #2 site had over a million.


    • Hi Reg,

      That was an interesting experiment…I do have a question on a particular point – I do agree that links are not as important as they used to be. I strongly believe that with the algorithm changes, ranking is now affected by how many shares/likes/retweets that your readers create for your website (on any particular piece of content).

      It’s most likely, that Google will consider the frequency of a website’s content being updated, how many times it’s shared using social media and in a small part, how many backlinks that come from similar peer network sites.

      The emphasis is now put on the network referrals with a heavier weighting on social media platforms and the frequency of content being put out there. Correct me if I’m wrong :) ..



  4. Google and Bing spend a great deal of time looking for legitimate and meaningful ways to stack rank sites against one another. Getting tons of irrelevant junk links is easy, pretty much brainless work, and your efforts in that task will be rewarded accordingly (i.e. not much at all).

  5. Hey Phil, great post! (love the Caddie Shack reference too btw). I completely agree with you though…regardless of what type of work you do online, its clear that with the new Panda/Penguin updates, the old ways of grabbing customers are long gone. You nailed it on the head that the winners will be the ones taking risks and creating amazing content. These will attract high quality links – ones that are extremely difficult to find otherwise… and don’t we have machines that dig our own ditches now???

  6. And how do any kind of links help SERPs Phil?
    PageRank is turned off as a SERPs influence.
    It also looks as if anchor text is too.

    If the metrics for links do not influence search results, how can link building help?

    My tests show that retweets and G+1 votes have an influence on search positions.
    In the case of retweets, the higher position is only temporary, and the page descends back to it’s original position.
    G+1 votes are similar until several votes are received. Once this happens the new positions become permanent.
    Regular tweets are treated like normal links as they could be marketing based, but retweets and G+1 votes are considered citations.


    • It’s not that I don’t believe you, I just believe Matt Cutts more when he says, “So there’s this perception that, ‘yes, everything will go social’ or that links are completely obsolete and I think it’s premature to reach that conclusion. I don’t doubt that in ten years things will be more social and those will be more powerful signals, but I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet.”

  7. So what do you have to say now that Penguin has targeted link building, Phil?

  8. You are right on the mark Phil.
    I think, after 16 years of marketing website I can call myself that.

    In my original post I said:
    “On the other side of the coin they have setup numerous traps to filter out the sites that are building links to appear organic.”
    Penguin proved me right.

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