Why SEO’s Should Let go of Links

Before I even write this post I am imagining the comments that will begin to come through from those that only bothered to read the title, however if you keep reading I can promise you that this is not a “links are dead post” however I maintain that SEO’s should let go of them.

We all know about penalties, penguins and the hunt for new link networks so I won’t waste your time revisiting that here, however despite all this there is one fundamental principle people just aren’t getting.

Before I go into that principle let’s look at some of the links that have come under scrutiny in the last few years specifically:

Blog Networks – Typically a cheap online service that allowed you to upload the content of your choice with some highly targeted anchor text. These articles were often spun and pushed out to hundreds of low quality websites. All content and links were under your control which meant you could optimise them perfectly.

Press Releases – Press release syndication has also come under the hammer by Google’s web spam team. These services allowed you to craft your very own press release and control your links within it. Again you were able to perfectly optimise each piece before they were pushed out to hundreds of websites.

Directories – Low quality directories started getting deindexed back in 2012, again you would create your listing, control the anchor text and sometimes pay a small fee for the privilege.

Article directories – Very similar to blog networks, write your content, control your links and send it out to hundreds of low quality content websites.

Guest Posts – Seen as a fairly safe tactic, you would approach a blog that was relevant to your audience, write a great piece and add a link in your author profile, and sometimes within the content.

Infographics – A (sometimes) cool graphic you have created where you encourage publishers to paste a snippet of code which you control, usually with a link back to the said infographic.

My guess is you’ve probably already got the point I am trying to make, what makes your link strategy fail (in the long term) has nothing to do with tactics, and has everything to do with the obsession around link control. If you are engaging in any tactics that allow you to control your links, the content they are in or the anchor text you use, then I can absolutely guarantee you that your link strategy will fall down in the future.

Everything Google has done with regards to links, particularly over the past few years, has been targeted at tactics that display an element of control. When you begin to control the links you acquire they cease to be editorial, and I believe Google only really want to count editorial links.

What does this mean?

It means that you need to become worth talking about, and when you promote your awesome content, ideas, events, data, etc… You shouldn’t worry about the links, where they are on the page, what anchor text they use and the fact they don’t go back to your money page. Anchor text will eventually come back to bite you, so you have no reason for wanting to control this aspect of your links anyway.

Still do your outreach, social advertising, and chase up mentions of your brand, but care less about what your links look like, let go of them and let people link back to you how they see fit.

It’s tough, because historically bad links have worked, anchor text was king, and if a page had no links it couldn’t compete. However, things are changing, natural link strategies are working and so should your focus.

As the title says, it’s time to let go of links and worry more about being link worthy.

One thing to remember is that links you control will come back to bite you, but links you don’t control can do the same. Whether it is a negative SEO attack or someone scraping your content, keep an eye on your profile and disavow any nasty links that come through.

What Is SEO Going To Bring Us in 2014?

Well, this is my first blog post since August, and the first thing I can tell you is that 2014 is going to bring a revival, lots more blogging, tweeting, speaking etc…

Things have been extremely busy over the past 12 months at Branded3, we’ve seen massive growth in SEO, Content, Online PR and Creative; proof that SEO is going through a change, thanks to all the curve balls that Google keep throwing our way. It’s no longer about picking up as many links as you can, strange anchor text formulas or in content links (dear me) to rank well in Google, you have to focus on becoming the best result, and this means more than acquiring a handful of rubbish links.

So, over the last 12 – 18 months I have been working hard with the team to restructure our offering, add new skills to our growing department, and thankfully it’s been a massive success.

What will 2014 bring us then? More link penalites as Google tightens the choke hold? Will SEO finally die? For the next 1000 words ‘ish’, I am going to presume people are interested in what I have to say and reel off what I think are some things to look out for in 2014.

Engagement & Brand Building

Now these have been losely spoken about in the past, but in my opinion they are about to get really important, really. We have a saying at Branded3, “If you have enough links to be in the top 5, you have enough links to be position 1″. I am a firm believer in this, and how someone engages with your site is key to winning the battle at the top of Google.

I was speaking with X Googlers (Web Spam Team) around a year ago, and they kept talking about an algorithm ‘return to SERP’, we’ve adapted this slighty and called it ‘return to search’. The algorithm monitors the time it takes for a user to click on your listing and then click back to Google, either to refine the search or choose an alternative result. If users clicking on your result are back on Google within seconds looking for the next result, then this may suggest you aren’t ‘the right’ result and your rankngs will drop. We believe that this was a part of the Panda algo, but has since been incorporated into the main algorithm, and it’s going to be important over the next 1-2 years as Google tries to identify who should be at the top.

Return to search algorithm

We have trialled this since with great results, moving clients from 4-5 to position 1 without running a single link acquisition campaign. Of course links will continue to be important, but if no one is engaging with your site, link efforts will be a waste of time. Engagement on and off site are going to be really important.

This brings us nicely onto brand building, how else will Google recognise that you’re a result that should rise to the top? Well if thousands are searching out your brand every month this is a pretty good signal, and your link acquisiton strategies should incorporate an element of ‘becoming famous’. Let’s face it, Amazon don’t rank for everything because of their perfect site architecture and quality links, they rank where they do because they are the result everyboby wants to see (Do you honestly search ‘books’ anymore?).

I’ll likely be blogging/speaking on this throughout 2014 quite a lot, so hopefully I can catch up with you at one of the events.

Links

Boy, they have had a rough ride for the last couple of years, does anyone know what a natural link is anymore?

There is a lot of speculation about links, what works, what doesn’t work, people still trying to trick Google etc…. For me there are a couple of very clear cut facts:

1) Google are still going to ‘manually’ identify unnatural links.

2) Google are going to penalise any website operating any form of manipulation, the bigger you are the harder you’ll fall.

When I hear people talking about anchor text formulas, mixing up landing pages, and brand link building only, I can’t help but think they’re just not getting it. If you’re trying to think about how you fly below the radar, then it is only a matter of time before you’re in trouble. Real people are looking at your links, if you’re using low quality blogs, or even high quality paid links, it is going to stand out. Google are active on ‘black hat’ forums, and other SEO forums looking for new tactics and supposed tricks, lets face it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, but just in case they probably have those too.

Your links have to be a natural by-product of genuine activity, think traffic first, or brand exposure, or social interaction, think anything, but don’t run a link strategy where the sole purpose is to acquire as many links as possible.

To make my point you only have to read the post on iAcquire with regards to how they would solve the RapGenius problem (once they have recovered of course).

Badges?! Isn’t that too risky? Not if you switch up the link destination and ALT attribute randomly using Javascript magic.

They are talking about giving badges to fans, however, if you have to go to lengths to manipulate links using JS then your strategy clearly isn’t the type of thing Google want to work. Natural links shouldn’t need manual intervention, we should all be moving away from link control, unless of course you are disavowing the nasty ones.

Great post otherwise, but I’m not sold on this particular tactic.

The Disavow Tool

Yes, I think this tool will continue to be heavily used, simply because it works. I do think Google will come out with an official statement which makes it clear that the tool works and put an end to the crazy amount of link removals that are happening. Going to blog on Branded3 early next year about link removals and why they are a bad idea.

Lets keep this simple, continue to disavow your bad links, even if you have no manual penalty, keep things clean. It will prevent as well as recover.

Link Tools

Little left field this one, but I think link tools will go through a drastic change. A lot of link analysis is now dead, you simply don’t know what your competitors have disavowed, or what may be penalising them, so mining their links is a waste of time. However, understanding what links are harmful is key, so tools that help you audit and disavow nasty links will become more popular. Tools like Linkrisk and LinkDetox already exist and I expect to see a few new competitors pop up in 2014. (I would always manually audit your links as well as using these tools, if Google can’t create an algo to detect all the bad links, I doubt anyone else is close.)

Even though technical link information is going to be less popular, competitor strategies are still going to be important to understand. What is the campaign, who is talking about it, how popular is it on platform x, where did the conversation start… these are all questions Online Marketers and SEO’s are going to be interested in.

Guest Blogging

Time up I’m afraid, it’s been overdone and I think Google are going to be all over this in 2014, penalising blogs with follow links on posts marked as ‘guest post’ and sites that have lots of links coming from such posts.

Yes, if you are an expert looking for brand exposure, and the posts have an authorship box that links back to your Google plus profile, and you only post on the best quality, high traffic blogs etc…. then yes, it is still worth doing, otherwise I would simply leave it alone.

So where does this leave SEO?

Well, it leaves it exactly where it has always been, going strong.

SEO has never been about link spam, anchor text, high PR links, sidebar links, keyword stuffing etc… it’s always been about driving relevant search traffic to your web property, those were simply tactics to artificially increase rankings. Search traffic is still there, it’s still extremely profitable, and you will still need to inlist the help of a search expert to help you get at it.

You will absolutley need collaboration between different teams and skill sets, but the objective remains the same, more relevant search traffic.

I could go on, but I’ve covered the things I want to discuss, yes social will continue to be important, more so as an activation tool in my opinion, but nevertheless important, and yes mobile, we all know it is huge, and having your site in order is a priority, Google have already fired the warning shot.

Anyway, hope eveyone is enjoying the holidays and looking forward to 2014.

Happy New Year!

Stop Building PPC Landing Pages and Expecting Them to Rank Organically

You may or may not have read my post in April on SEO and Ecommerce websites, it discussed the need for a change in mindset as well as covering some of the basic technical problems ecommerce websites face.

This post expands on the change of mindset based on conversations and experiences I have had in the last few months, in my opinion people are still struggling to understand what Google want from them. Rankings are declining, organic traffic is dropping and business owners just don’t understand what to do.

If you have an ecommerce website there is one simple truth you have to understand, Google only want to rank you organically if:

A) You’re a brand (aka the result people want and search for)

B) You add genuine value on and above the average ecommerce website

Historic Ecommerce SEO

For the last 10 years it has been pretty easy to rank ecommerce sites, you build your category page and then you get as many links to it as possible. You didn’t worry if the content justified the links, or even think to yourself ‘Why would anyone link back to a list of products?’, even if you did think about it you couldn’t overcome the undeniable fact that it worked, it made you a lot of money.

So for the last decade ecommerce site owners have been using link building tactics to rank their category pages and make a ton of cash.

The Truth

If you have a list of products that you want to market through Google, Google want you to pay for it.

Afterall, they can do a good job on there own of finding and listing products:

Google Shopping SEO

Do you remember when Google shopping used to be free, happy days.

The fact is Google can find and index products, and then make you pay for it on Google shopping, and if they can’t find the products they can send you to Amazon :)

Google does not want to list your page of products, for free, and let you make a load of money, it’s that simple really.

Making Conent Unique

Of course, any good SEO will always advise unique product descriptions, and ensuring that canonicals are set up as to avoid duplication across categories, this should be the foundations of your SEO strategy. However, this is not going to get you the best rankings possible, because you’re still only displaying a list of products.

Your content needs to be unique, yes, but it also needs to add genuine value. If you sell wallets, why would someone visit your website over any other?

– Do you use videos and other rich media?

– Do you have expertise, insights or even a qualified opinion on your products/industry?

– Are you creating compelling offline campaigns that are driving brand search?

– Are you investing in creative digital campaigns that drive natural links, citations, traffic and brand engagement?

– Are you considering the user journey and developing content/campaigns that aim at engaging customers at different points in that journey.

If you aren’t thinking about the above, then you’re going to struggle organically moving forward.This is why content marketing/strategy is such a buzz word at the moment, because a sound strategy helps to add that value, gives people a reason to share/link to your site and ultimately allows Google to award you with organic traffic.

How do I know it will work?

Despite all the buzz around content, I feel there is still some hesitation in investing in great content and creativity. I think in part it is due to the fact this is real marketing and not link spam, therefore it requires a greater investment, but also I think some are struggling to accept that the good old days are over.

12 months ago we began work with a client in a really competitive industry, flooded with link spam and blackhat tactics, yet we insisted on a campaign fuelled by content and creartivity. Yes, the investment was greater, yes results weren’t fully realised in the first 3 months, and no we didn’t deliver 100 links every month, in fact link targets aren’t even set, we’re measured against what really matters, results.

As of today this client has more traffic, higher rankings (dominates a lot of keywords), better engagement, increased social following, and importantly more conversions than ever before. All this despite disavowing previous poor links, never using exact anchor text, and only ever acquiring links to pages that genuinely deserved it.

A content/creative strategy can work for every website, of course the thinking behind it has to be sound, and the execution planned and implemented well, but it will work.

How can you measure this?

Traffic – Not just from Google, a content strategy should increase referals from social and other websites as well as from search engines

Links/Shares/Citations – Your campaigns should always include a promotional element, in fact it should make up a major chunk of your time. If done correctly this will always produce buzz in the form of mentions.

Brand Search – Brand search almost always increases as you invest in real campaigns

Sharing/Following – Your social stats across the board should increase

What about engagement?

This is a difficult metric. If you start investing in content when historically you have had a page full of products, then you might see decreases in time on site, and increases in bounce rates. This is due to the fact people will leave as soon as they have read the content, they’re not coming to browse your products, they are coming to engage with the value you have added. However, they have engaged with your brand and now stand a better chance of returning and buying from you when they are ready.

You can decrease the risk of increasing bounce rates by producing content that catches people whilst they are in that buying cycle, but this has to involve a lot of tact, we’re looking to add value at this point, not sell directly.

If you want to understand the commercial value of the content you’re investing in, then you can do this using page value in Google analytics. This will help you understand how each page contributes to your sites conversions by giving it a value based on how it fits in to the conversion funnel.

I could write another post on this but Stephen Kenwright does a much better job than I could: Using Page Value in Google Analytics to measure the ROI of content marketing

If you aren’t willing to invest in content, and producing real digital marketing campaigns, then I suggest putting all your budgets into paid media. If you’re paying for SEO services that are focussed on building links to category pages that don’t add value, then I suggest you stop, you’re paying for something that won’t pay dividends and potentially land you in trouble in the long run.

I’ll be speaking on Ecommerce and SEO at BrightonSEO in a couple of weeks, I’ll also be running a penalty recovery workshop on the 12th.

Hope to see you all there.