Where are we right now with links?
Whilst SEO is consistently shifting and new updates are being introduced all the time which tweak our approach, the fundamentals rarely shift massively. Within SEO, we have link building and the same can be said for it. The last major shift in how links were used by Google was the Penguin update in 2012 (which you'll learn about later) and this changed a lot. Since then, there have been changes and updates, but essentially, much like SEO in general, the fundamentals are still the same. So, what, in today's world are the fundamentals of link building?
- There are no short-cuts; you need to deserve the links that you get
- Link building (like SEO in general) shouldn't be a discreet activity which is siloed away from other marketing activities
- Techniques which clearly fall outside of Google guidelines are risky, to the point where for the vast majority of businesses, this risk shouldn't be taken
- Quality links should be a consequence of a great product or great marketing
Ultimately, quality link building is looking less and less like a dark, mysterious art and more and more like its aligned with great marketing.
This hasn't always been the case. As you'll learn in more detail shortly, link building used to be a bit of an arms race. Whoever built the most links typically won the race and the risks were pretty low. This was because Google had a very hard time telling the difference between and good link and a bad link, meaning that it was more a matter of scalable link building being more effective than quality link building.
Low quality, scalable link building can still have a positive effect on a website's organic search rankings, but the risks are far higher now than they've ever been. Alongside this, the time it takes Google to detect and penalise this activity is a lot shorter. This means that for any legitimate business, low-quality link building is rarely worth the risk of being removed from Google search results.
There have been various debates over the years as to whether links will remain a strong ranking signal for Google. My view hasn't changed too much in that I think they will remain a strong signal for a long time, but that other signals will come into play more and more. The natural consequence here is that links still mean a lot, but Google may not be as reliant on them as they may have been in years gone by.
In the years to come, I think we'll see Google become even better at detecting link spam, as well as detecting when link building is artificially inflated - they aren't just using cool artificial intelligence and machine learning technology for self-driving cars or improving search results! They use it for all sorts of algorithms and systems, including spam detection.
As digital marketers, this means that link building can't be a siloed activity which isn't connected to wider business goals and brand/product strategy. It needs to connect to both and be something which makes sense for a brand to be investing budget into. This often means that the value needs to go beyond links themselves. The value needs to tie back into brand awareness or lead generation or sales or referral traffic for example. This is the ultimate way to ensure that you're doing the right things for a brand and truly adding commercial value.