The Changing Tide of Link Building

First let me say, if your goal is to rank a low quality site and clean up using affiliate links and ads, then most of this post won’t apply. You can still get results from spamming and make some cash; however in my opinion the time between launching and crashing out of Google is getting significantly shorter using this sort of strategy.

If you’re looking to future proof your link building and are willing to accept a long term strategy to higher rankings and more qualified traffic, then you’re probably going to be interested in what I have to say.

In the last 2 months I have seen the biggest shake up of link building in the 8 years I have been running search campaigns. The changes being implemented, the penalties being handed out and the speed at which this is happening is like nothing I have ever seen before, and certainly not as wide spread. Yes we saw reciprocal links get hammered in 2007, but the impact was nowhere near as far reaching as these recent changes have been.

I wrote only a week or two ago about β€˜The end of easy SEO‘, and I meant it. If you are trying to develop a link strategy on a legitimate website, aimed at building a business and benefiting from natural search, then you have a really tough job. It will still be worth it in the end, but you’re going to have to be patient and change your mind set when it comes to link building.

This post isn’t going to be filled with hard facts and interesting data, it is going to be a roundup of thoughts; ways I believe you should change your link building strategy to be in line with recent events.

I work on hundreds of accounts, and am privileged to consult and engage in conversations about the issues online businesses are facing with regards to search, what you make of this post is up to you, I am only basing it on what I’ve seen so far in 2012.

Google Panda

Google Panda Update

I know Google Panda is a content based algorithm and not necessarily related to link building, however I think the line between on & offsite issues is slowly fading. If you’re creating content for bots, even if it’s 100% unique and not stuffed with keywords, the chances are Google will penalise it, especially if your blog/website is full of it. How can they possibly do this?

OK, let’s say you have 1000 pages of boring dry content on your site, that’s not engaging and has in no way been developed with users in mind;

– Will it be linked to widely?
– Has it been shared and how much?
– Is it being talked about or referenced?
– Do people land and go on to visit other pages of your site?
– Does it include imagery, video or other sharable content?
– How much time do Google spend on the page?

Google have access to all this information, plugging it in to an algorithm is challenging, but from where I am sitting they are getting much better at it.

Of course everyone will have pages that fall outside of the above, however if your site is built on content that people bounce on, don’t share, don’t link to and never reference, then I’d say you have been hit or will be hit by Panda, regardless of how unique the content is.


Its clichΓ©, but every page you build on your site has to serve a purpose outside of attracting search traffic. If it doesn’t, now is the time to start rethinking your content strategy.

Link Worthiness

You may have heard me or others discussing this before, and to be honest it’s always been a difficult one to touch on, due to the fact Google didn’t seem to care about why sites were attracting links, rather they were simply interested in how many links you had.

However, this is another element that has changed. No longer can you justify building links every month without a good reason, some questions to ask:

– How do I create web content that people will want to link to?
– Do I have an opinion on events happening within my industry? (if so share it, you might get linked to πŸ™‚ )
– What else can I share?
– Do I have a unique product, perspective or set of data?
– Are my products the cheapest, best quality?
– Has my business won any awards?

A great way to think about this is as so:

‘What does my business do that would cause a user to pick me over my competitors?’

The reasons are probably similar to those things that will help you leverage more links and help Google rank you higher. You have to be worthy of links before you go out and build them, it doesn’t matter if the links come from outreach or viral means, you have to be worthy of them.

Plus if you do use a lot of outreach, and you focus on making your website link worthy, you’ll have plenty of leverage to help get buy in.

Developing this kind of strategy is not easy or cheap, if you’re a small business you will probably have to do this in house, and then feed the info through to your SEO agency.

If you’re paying for a premium search service or you’re a big brand, then it’s time to pick up the phone and have a conversation around your link building efforts and what you have on the site to justify them.

Justified Links

Look we’ve all done it, wrote a lovely article on finance or travel or gaming, sold it into a blogger and Wow, there’s a lovely anchor text rich link in the middle of it with no reference of the company it is linking to. Likewise we’ve placed text links and footer links with no reference to the business other than ‘credit cards’, ‘home insurance’ etc…..

This kind of anchor text manipulation has worked forever, but going forward we need to change the way we think about placing content and/or links.

The pages we’re getting links from need to be justified.

– Why is this piece of content linking back to you?
– Why does this website have a site wide link to mine?
– Why do I have an ‘online poker’ anchor text link in an article that never refers to my company or website?

The content you use in outreach, the links you place on partner websites, need to be justified, they need to be referring to you for a valid reason other than passing anchor text value.

Justified links

What is your content strategy? You need one for both on and off site activity? You can justify your links through PR, social, content, events and much more… What’s your holistic marketing strategy and how does it integrate with your search strategy? It really needs to.

Anchor Text

I know I rant about this a lot and published a post at the beginning of the year discussing the diminishing value of anchor text, however I’m not going to apologise because over the past month I have seen more devaluing of anchor text than I have seen in the last 8 years.

I’m not just talking about filters being applied, I’m talking about whole sets of SERPs being shuffled around because the market leaders went too hard at it with anchor text.

You need to move your focus away from targeting keywords, and instead target pages. Assess each of your target pages and try to understand the type of anchor text you need to rank in the long term and not just for a short term boost.

anchor text split 2012

You have to incorporate brand, you must have tons of variation, exact match? In my opinion, it should make up no more than 15 – 20% of your back link text, if that. So do a quick check in OSE or Majestic, get a breakdown of anchor text on your target pages, and come up with a strategy that is going to put you in line with the above.

Link Penalties

My post in March addressed the recent issues with link networks, namely those paid services that allow you to spin and post content all over the web. However, just to recap:

– They are all being deindexed
– Any keywords supported by links from these networks are losing rankings

I have yet to see a blanket penalty handed out for using these networks and receiving the webmaster tools message, however keywords that rely on these links are being hit, and hit hard.

It’s not just paid/public networks

What if I were to tell you that I had confirmation from a reliable source, that a huge private network had been hit? A network that you can’t pay a few hundred dollars a month for, and one that is 100% exclusive.

40% of the sites in this network have been deindexed, this isn’t Google manually gaining access to paid services and killing link networks, this seems to be Google algorithmically detecting link networks and deindexing based on some kind of quality metric.

As well as networks we have also seen site wide links taking a hit, especially if they are anchor text heavy, but I guess this isn’t really anything new, just the fact that Google are quicker to detect it and the penalties more wide spread.

Brands Are Safe, Right?

In times gone by ‘Brands’ have been invincible in terms of low quality links and general updates, and to a degree they still are, Google has much more tolerance for big brands.

However, it seems these recent WMT messages, anchor text filters and penalties are hitting some brands, unfortunately I can’t make reference to these, all I would say is, don’t presume you are safe because of your brand authority.

OK, time to round up I think.

The changes I have seen taking place over the last 2 months are unprecedented, they are changing the SEO landscape whether you like it or not, if you are using low quality techniques and haven’t been hit yet, you will. If you can clearly see competitors that are out ranking you based on low quality links, just give it time.

The one industry that seems unaffected is SEO :), as always paid links dominate and Google seem to promote sites that probably create 50% of low quality link signals on the entire web πŸ™‚

Still, I don’t think it will be that long before the SEO serps coming crashing down as well.

Time to change people!


Tim Grice is the CEO of Branded3, a search marketing agency in the UK. Tim has over a decade of experience in search and regularly speaks at key events and conferences.

Latest posts by Tim (see all)

21 Replies to “The Changing Tide of Link Building”

  1. Hey Tim,

    Great thoughts once again. When you talk about creating content people want to link to and having people socially engage in your website, how do you translate this to really boring niches like industrial plumbing or gravel pit expansion?


  2. Heck yeah Tim – one awesome article!

    If your brand is not the cheapest or the best quality (let’s face it, only 2 brands are one these!) – what else does your brand offer? Is it amazing customer service? The reason I’m with my electricity supplier is because they have the best over the phone customer service – not just in that industry, but across all the other industries I’ve had to talk to over the phone. Brands have to think why they deserve to get mentioned and linked to.

    Further to this point – engage with users on twitter, if they love your brand, at least give them a thanks, if they have a website, go and comment on it or whatever. Engage Engage Engage. We can’t just build pages for SEO purpose anymore we have to have a real reason a page is on a site from a user prespective.

    On a random not, I love how your Anchor TExt 2012 graph makes a reversed peace sign – are you sending out subliminal anchory messages πŸ˜‰

    And love your closing message about brands – Google is getting very clever so those big brands that rank for everything might just have to watch their step!

    Great article Tim!

  3. Hello Tim,

    Good post for clarification on what has been happening. I am happy with the results of this change for multiple reasons. For one, several of my websites have literally seen HUGE boosts in website traffic from Google as a lot of other sites have been pushed down due to the failure of blog networks. I guess I am doing something right in Google’s algorithmic eyes πŸ™‚

  4. Agree with nearly everything other than the very last point. I’m pretty sure SEO Positive would disagree about the SEO Industry being untouched πŸ˜‰ and a couple of others to..

  5. Don’t get me wrong, a few SEO companies have been hit with filters and penalties in the past, but the fact is you can’t look at the first page of Google for the term ‘SEO’ without being dominated with sites buying links left right and centre. Fair game, they do what they need to, to get the rankings they need for sales pitches etc.. I just think it’s coming to an end, it makes no sense for Google to allow it to happen.

  6. Great news Aaron.

    Honestly, I think most SEOs have been involved in low level link building at some point in the last decade. I’m not judging, I just fully believe that those days of ranking, just because you are good at SEO, without the quality to back it up, are coming to a close.

  7. Thanks Emma,

    No comment on the peace sign πŸ™‚

    I guess the big question businesses should be asking themselves is, “what do I have to offer other than thousands of links and anchor text?”. As you well know we are shifting internally to answer this question.

    There are a lot of people frustrated by the changes and I can understand that, but that is the nature of this industry, nothing ever stands still.

  8. Hi Mikeal,

    Good question, and the answer is, not easily πŸ™‚

    When we talk about being link worthy, I think this means different things in different industries. Plumbing and gravel pits are unlikely to drive social attention, you have to think what you can add to the site that would serve as a legitimate reason for people to link. For boring industries, I personally like reviews, however don’t just stop at reviews, ask customers to like you on facebook or at least share a link to your site.

    Having good reviews, helps you justify links. Approach personal bloggers about writing posts on home improvements etc… then a nice link saying ‘check out our reviews’. This is what I mean about being links worthy, why would someone link back and then make it happen.

    I also think how to articles are great for boring industries, the SEO industry does this really well, we give away genuine information and most of us don’t hold anything back. It doesn’t make us left sort after, in fact it increases it. Many industries that have arrived late to the web need to understand this.

    You may read an article about fitting a bathroom, doesn’t mean you’re going to try it out yourself. I’m sure with a little more time and insight I could be a little more creative, but ultimately thinks, what on my site warrants a link.

  9. No one ever talks about where the “link worthy” links are being placed. There is a lot of hype about links placed in articles and social signals via twitter or facebook. But I can’t imagine a lot of people tweeting about the embarrassing surgery that they are about to undergo. I can however envision that these people would be going to forums or blogs that are discussing this embarrassing surgery and leaving comments with links.

    What are your thoughts on placing “link worthy” links in relevant articles comment sections?

    I know that people think of comment linking as “spammy”. But isn’t this a natural social signal?

  10. ” this seems to be Google algorithmically detecting link networks and deindexing based on some kind of quality metric.”

    I don’t think so, reverse engineering of link profiles isn’t too hard if you find some sites ranking suspiciously well. There are so many smaller networks with heavily spun crap content out there, still alive with no more than 1-2% de-indexing per month, still deliving decent results. Any algorithmic method would have hit on a much larger scale in my opinion, with BMR and ALN they hit some mayor players very hard, but overall there is too much. The hard part probably isn’t finding those blogs, it’s sorting out the false positives.

  11. Hey Tim,

    Thank you for taking the time to give me such an in depth answer. I appreciate it.
    I guess that doing linkbuilding for these obscure niches will be extra non-traditional work and relatively hard to do. On the other hand I imagine that the competition will be relatively low so even if you do get a few shares, like and links, it’ll go a long way in comparison to what is required for popular niches.

    Do you have any thoughts of the fact that your link profile will be significantly different from your competitors in the same obscure niches? I often hear talk about you having to mimic the link profiles of your competitors, but if none of them are doing any social and are only getting very few links, shouldn’t you take that fact into consideration so you won’t stand out too much?


  12. Hi Tim

    Great post, and certainly very timely with Google’s post on the March Updates – πŸ˜‰

    In terms of the 2012 anchor text break down, is this suggestion just for internal landing pages or the homepage as well?

    If it applies to the homepage, what do you specify as exact match, as you could obviously be targeting a number of phrases with the homepage (and internal pages for that matter). Do you analyse on a phrase by phrase basis, or do you take the top 5 ‘headline’ phrases for that page and include those as exact match? Or any phrase that could be seen as a head term?

    For example, if my target phrase was ‘travel’, would you take links with ‘travel guide’, ‘travel blog’, ‘travel destinations’ as exact match too, or only links that had ‘travel’ as the anchor?

    It’s obviously a bit of a grey area, but would love to know what you think.



  13. Nurture what you know best:

    It’s stares us all in the face every working day: A businesse’s SEO should be about people and what matters most to people… Their industry, There advancement. Take brands out of the equation and you have ‘profiles’. People that need something flock to popular profiles. An excellent profile nurtures the right content their industry and their advancement needs the most.

  14. Hi Tom,

    I think you just need to be sensible, the way I would break up keywords for a target page is as so:

    3 – 4 core terms
    10 – 15 longtail

    In terms of anchor text I wouldn’t want the core terms to make up more than 20 – 25% of the profile, at the most. I would make 40% of the profile an even mixture of the long tail terms and the rest brand focussed.

    So pick as many variations to build links with as possible, anchor around 20% with your core terms and leave the rest to be anchored naturally, which will most likely have a brand focus.

  15. I think rather than mimic industries, try and consider where and why someone would link back to a site about plumbing services. As long as your profile is naturally developed, I wouldn’t worry about it standing out.

    As you say some of these industries will have very few competitors who know how to implement a decent strategy, so even if all you do is ask customers to share, review and then build some industry or location specific directory listings, you’re probably going to be there or there about’s.

  16. I think the reason why blog and forum comments are associated with spam is because they are massively manipulated. However, if you’re aim is to add value in the comment or thread then why not leave a link? As you say what could be more natural.

  17. When these penalties first start hitting, my thoughts were that Google had manually uncovered these networks, and this still could be the case. However, I have seen two large 100% private networks hit, none had spun content, they were hosted across hundreds of proxies and none interlinked. Yet in 3 weeks 60% of the sites were completely de-indexed.

    This made me think it could have been a content signal, let’s face it most of these networks are filled with dry content that is never shared and rarely linked to, plus each article will have anywhere between 1 – 3 perfectly optimised links.

    We shall see, whatever Google are doing they are spanking the major players.

  18. I’m really new to the world of internet marketing but articles like this really help. I always try to think like my customer and I’m determined not to go down the ‘obsessive’ path of wanting to go be at the top of google, if I did that would mean I have less time to spend on my products and customers. Posts like this help me to focus on what’s important.

  19. Great article, I have also noticed a drop in ranking when targeting exact match anchor text in your backlinks. Been testing more brand target to internal pages, we’ll see how it goes.

  20. A great article, we’ve been building in wordpress for a few months and have certainly found that we have been generating more leads by just building pages with relevant content to the subject and embedding youtube videos we’ve created. As always it’s a process of change, evolution and seeing what works for you in the long term.

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