2016 isn’t the first year that predicted to be link building’s swan song and most likely won’t be the last year predicted either. However, link building has become much more nuanced and has come a very long way from the era of spam and botted links from the pre-Penguin days. Today, I’m going to share with you my perspective on link building and why it should still be an integral part of your digital marketing strategy.
Link Building: A History
When the web was young, and Penguin hadn’t hatched yet, link building was almost like the wild west of the internet. It was riddled with black-hat SEO tactics from super-spammy links built on sites meant to be a repository for links and bots inserting links into website’s comments or forums all over the place. Quantity mattered more than quality, and that was the way of the web until Penguin showed up. Now, I’m not saying that Penguin has eliminated all of the spam, but, the majority of the shady link spam industry has been penalized or devalued into oblivion, and has helped clean up the link building industry tremendously.
Links have always been an important ranking signal, and will continue to be, especially since they were a core element to Google’s original search engine algorithm back in the early 2000′s. This algorithm is what separated Google from the rest of the search engine pack, making their results better than their competitors. Today, links continue to be a powerful ranking signal because Google continues to invest in links as votes of confidence about a website.
There was, however, a hitch in their plans. With the “hatching” of Penguin in 2012, digital marketers began to move away from link building. Some of the reasons cited were that Penguin devalued link spam, making link acquisition harder, they made link spam “high-risk” since spammy sites were punished severely, Google’s vagueness on the details of what caused Penguin penalties made people fearful and uncertain, which lead to doubt and a glut of misinformation involving links and what would trigger Penguin to attack.
These factors helped to create a perfect storm of misinformation. Many SEOs saw content marketing as their new golden goose, a replacement of link building with link earning. A build it and they will come sort of strategy where high level content would be created and naturally attract links. However, unlike Field of Dreams, the links never came.
Content Marketing is Good to Do, But Link Building isn’t going Anywhere
First off, let me say that content marketing is a very important part of any digital marketing strategy, and shouldn’t be shunted off by any means. However, I wouldn’t pool content marketing with link building and SEO. The theory of link earning, as preposed by the shift from Penguin, is based on the assumption that high-quality content will organically gain links through social engagement (i.e. re-tweets, Facebook/LinkedIn shares, +1′s, etc.). However, it seems that this isn’t the case.
Back in the Fall of 2015, Moz and BuzzSumo conducted a study, analyzing over 1 million pieces of content and their shares and the links they earned. From this study, they came to the conclusion that there is no discernible correlation between social shares and links. The sample size was mostly composed of highly shared articles that had already proven popular in the niches that they were published in.
These findings indicate that while some content may be viral hits and be shared far and wide across social media, that does not naturally translate into links, either to the piece of content or to the content’s home site. While compelling content is an integral piece to the link building process, it is not the be-all-end-all of link building, manual effort is still necessary to take advantage of content’s link opportunities.
Links Will Continue To Matter in Digital Marketing
Links are one of the foundational ranking signals on the web. As long as you need to market your business, you’ll need to include link building as part of your digital marketing strategy. Regardless of how any search engine tweaks or modifies their algorithm, links will continue to be a cornerstone of the web, not because of how Google values them, but because of their own inherent value to the web itself. Links are what we use to navigate the vast sea of the internet, without them, it would be extremely difficult to find anything we were looking for. Ignore links at your own peril, because if you do, you’ll be missing out in search and in turn, missing out on some great marketing opportunities.