Why bulk link building no longer works

As an SEO company, you may be surprised to hear us say:

 

“Bulk link building no longer works for SEO!”

 

For at least a year, this statement has been true and with every algorithm update Google and other search engines make, this statement only becomes stronger.

This article explains why bulk link building is no longer a valid SEO strategy and what alternatives there are.  When researching this article we’ve taken into account the following:

  • Google’s guidelines
  • Google algorithm updates (Starting with Google Penguin and including recent updates like Google Panda and RankBrain).
  • A linking patent that Google was awarded on 6 May 2014.
  • Evidence from a wide range of SEO forums and blogs.
  • Our experience in managing SEO campaigns in 4 different languages (English, French, German and Spanish). 

When talking about bulk links, we’re only considering SEO related links and not links from Google Adwords or nofollow links.

 

Why is building large volumes of links a problem for SEO?

 

An old advertising motto is “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” and understandably webmasters and marketing companies have applied the same approach to SEO.  The problem is that advertising and SEO actually have different objectives and require a different approach.

Advertising is more closely connected with branding and is about getting your message out to as many people as possible.  The approach therefore involves refining your core message and creating visuals, text or video that promote it.

SEO is more subtle and involves creating great content for your website, optimizing it for a range of relevant keywords for search engines and building links to your site, or better yet, creating content that is so good that other people will spontaneously link to it.  Links are an essential component in an SEO campaign and shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s not links per se that we object to, but building them in large volumes.

Google’s guidelines include various examples of link schemes that can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank.
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”).
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.
  • Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.
  • Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links.
  • Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites.
  • Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites.
  • Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature.
  • Excessive links from foreign language pages (e.g. links on French pages to a German website, or links using English anchor text from Spanish web pages)

If you’re unfamiliar with SEO, this may seem like a daunting list, however with the exception of “buying or selling links that pass PageRank”, every other type of link has a proviso attached to it - that it can’t be completed in volume, with automated tools, be poor quality or overly optimized.

I regularly receive emails from other SEO companies that offer an SEO package something like this:

  • 50 Article Submissions
  • 500 Social Media Bookmarks
  • 200 Forum Profile Links
  • 100 Blog Comments    

Clearly to generate this kind of volume of links in a short space of time the links will have to include excessive duplicate content (e.g. the same article submitted to multiple sites), use automated tools and be poor quality.

It’s clear that bulk link building is against Google’s guidelines, not just because of the guidelines that mention volume, but because the nature of bulk link building also means you have to break other guidelines about quality and automation.

 

SEO in 2017 - What’s the solution?

 

In some ways Google’s updates have made SEO simpler – forget about SEO cowboys and their practices and focus on quality.  This applies equally to two areas:

Quality Content  – When you’re designing your site or writing content for it, Google are increasingly able to detect quality content and their frequent Panda and RankBrain updates are designed to reward websites with great content and penalise those with poor content, particularly spun and duplicate content.  Read our Google Panda SEO Guide for more information.

Creating quality content involves looking at your site from your client’s perspective and asking if you provide all the information they need and if it’s easy to find.  You then need to go that step further and say what other text, illustrations or videos can you add to the site to make it more useful, more relevant and encourage visitors to stay on it.  On-page SEO is still vital, however content should be written first and foremost with your client or visitor in mind.

Quality Links in Moderation – Yes, links still matter and there are plenty of link building opportunities that do comply with Google’s guidelines.  The easiest way to determine whether a link is good is to ask yourself ‘Would I still want this link if search engines didn’t exist?’

Different industries also require different approaches.  If you work in fashion, then social media and press campaigns may be more appropriate to focus on.  If you’re a hardware store, then specialist directories might be your first priority.

Examples of the kind of links we recommend include:

  • Articles or blogs – A Moz SEO study showed that 78% of SEO experts felt that guest blogging on relevant high authority sites is the best link building strategy.
  • Social Media Marketing – Developing your own social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and other related sites and nurture these profiles, keep them up-to-date and interactive.
  • Specialist Directory Submissions – Submitting your site to the best specialist directories in your field, particularly the directories that appear high themselves for relevant searches.  
  • Infographics and quotagraphics – Sharing infographics and quotagraphics that capture people’s imagination and are either educational, inspirational or fun, so that other people will then share them in turn.
  • Video Marketing – Sharing videos on YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion and other video sites.

With any link building campaign you shouldn’t need to build all the links!  By including inspirational images or well-researched articles as part of the campaign, other people will then share them in turn and this helps those links gain popularity and value.  By having great content on your site, when people find it, they’re also more likely to link to it themselves without needing to be asked.

The above content marketing approach is highly effective and will remain so in 2017 and beyond.

Bulk link building creates links that weigh you down

What do Google do about bad links?

Looking just at links, before Google Penguin (introduced in April 2012) and to some extent before more recent Penguin updates (which are now performed on a continual basis, rather than as a series of updates) the equation was relatively simple.  The more links the better, unless you got really carried away and generated huge volumes of bad links to your site, in which case your site would be penalized and move down the results.

Links were like balloons filled with helium, carrying you up the search results, sure some balloons were bigger than others and gave you more benefit, but generally the more balloons the better.

With Penguin, Google lowered the benchmark for bad links and this meant more sites received manual penalties.  They also introduced negative links or ‘link weights’, as in the image above, so now good links continue to move you up the search results, just like the helium balloons, but bad links move you down. 

This means that if there are two sites with the same number of good links, the one with no bad links will appear far higher in the search results than one with even a few bad links.

 

This is another crucial reason why bulk link building doesn’t work – you have to focus on obtaining only good links to your site!

 

Open Link Profiler provides a useful link disinfection tool that will identify some potential bad links and is a good starting point.  To use it, click the link above, then click ‘Link Disinfection’ and enter your web address.  If your site has a significant number of bad links, or has been penalized, then we would recommend a manual review of all links in addition to using this software.

 

What about sites with thousands of inbound links?

 

Youtube.com has over a billion links going to it and you may be wondering how YouTube (or maybe sites that aren’t owned by Google) get away with so many links!

The difference is between link building and simply having links to your site.  The majority of Google’s guidelines refer specifically to the actions you’re taking to build links, not to the links themselves.

Link building as part of an SEO campaign means that you are actively going out to look for links, submitting your site to directories, publishing articles, asking other webmasters to link to you, etc.  This is a very natural part of promoting any business, so long as it’s completed ethically.  The vast majority of links to sites like YouTube or Wikipedia are spontaneous and haven’t been ‘built’, or at least haven’t been built by a single person or company.

The next question is logically “How do Google know the difference?”

If you launch an amazing video that goes viral or some other content on your site that generates interest internationally, or just within your local sphere of interest, you’re going to receive links to it and potentially in large volumes.  To be clear, this is a by-product of creating great content and isn’t a link building campaign; but how do Google know that you’ve not simply paid for a bunch of links?

The difference is in the link profiles.  If something goes viral, it’s bound to receive the odd link from disreputable sites, however the huge majority of links will be from related, high quality sites that also share links on related subjects.  It will also receive social media links in the form of likes, tweets and shares from real people with photos and a network of friends who are fully engaged and not from 1,000 empty profiles.

Because different people are writing about it, everyone will have something unique to say and while the odd article will be copied and the social media shares may be similar, again the vast majority of content will be unique.

Another factor Google look for is whether the sites the links are from are affiliated with each other (are they all hosted on the same account, do they have lots of links in common, etc.).  Google were awarded a patent on 6 May 2014 which gives some insight into this - Ranking nodes in a linked database based on node independence - Patent 8719276.  Although only recently awarded, the application for this patent was submitted on 4 January 2011 and it is the fourth variant of a patent they first filed in 2003, therefore Google have been using this technology for several years.

The combination of quality, relevance, independence between sites and unique content tell Google whether the links were all created by one company or arose spontaneously.

Focusing on qualiy links is the answer to SEO in 2017

By focusing on smaller volumes of quality links, you will be free of negative links that weigh you down and you'll be able to soar up the search results.