Panda, Penguin, Link Building, Penalties and more…

I have been involved in a number of seminars/conferences over the past couple of months, mainly discussing Google’s recent algorithm changes and link building strategy in light of events.

Below are my slides from BrightonSEO, where I spent 3 – 4 hours with a group of 40 discussing the above and working through common issues many in house and agency SEOs are facing:

I’ll be putting together some blog posts going through this in quite a bit of detail in the coming weeks.

Give me a shout if you have any specifics and I’ll make the posts priority.

Alternatives to Paying Cash for Links and Strengthening Editorial Barriers

Notice in the title of this post that I mention ‘cash’, ultimately if you’re looking to generate links to your site you’re going to pay for it, whether it is time, expertise, giveaways or cash.

There is a ton of information floating around the industry about innovative ways to drive links to your site; however, I have conversations weekly via email/phone/instant chat etc… asking the same question over and over; “How do I get bloggers to write about my site without giving them cash”?

Now there are a few reasons people struggle to get links without handing over cash, let’s address these first:-

Identifying the Audience

All too often people come up with creative ideas, spend time and money putting them together, and even invest in heavy promotional activity. They do all this and forget a vital step; identifying an audience that will link to it.

It doesn’t matter what your idea is, how crazy, how expensive, how unique.. If your aim is to acquire links, you need to first identify an audience willing to link to it, the linkerati, as it has been referred to in the past.

You Can’t Just Build It

Again, it doesn’t matter how good your idea or execution is, you have to outreach, identify your audience and reach out, this needs to happen way in advance of the executional stage. Very rarely will a “build something brilliant” work without reaching out and getting buy in from relevant communities.

If you attend conferences you will sit through presentations showing off  fantastic ‘link bait’ examples but the truth is 9 times out of ten link bait fails, and usually this comes down to a flawed outreach strategy.

Sometimes all Bloggers Want is Cash

You’re going to have to face it, no matter how fantastic you think your idea is, sometimes bloggers just want cash. Genuine bloggers put a lot of thought and effort into their publishing, and a large proportion of them want compensating for their hard work, you won’t get around this no matter how smooth you think you are, you just have to accept it or remove them from your target list.

So outside of cash, how do we go about generating buzz in the form of links?

Giveaways

If you’re lucky enough to have a product and/or service that you can giveaway, or offer some sort of free trial, this is a great way of getting links back to your site without cash. Yes, it is still a way of paying for links, but as I stated at the beginning of this post, you pay for all links one way or another. However, using giveaways isn’t a blatant ‘paid link’ per se, you’re giving the blogger a product, they can review it in any way they wish, you’re not controlling the text/anchor text, ultimately you are strengthening the ‘editorial barrier’ between the incentive and the link. Matt Cutts touches on this with regards to paid directories. In my opinion this is why infographics are coming under severe scrutiny, due to the fact there is a serious lack of editorial barriers.

Flattery

Maybe a little overused, but still works extremely well. Identifying the top bloggers in your industry and running a competition to find the ‘best blog’ is a great way of getting new links and social shares.

However, I have a few words of warning:

1) Don’t select hundreds of blogs thinking you’re going to land 100 new links. Instead use a considered approach and pick the blogs which you generally believe to be the best.

2) Write a summary on each blog, fully explaining why you think it is worthy of a mention.

3) Ensure that the page is easily shareable and bloggers can grab badges/banners etc…

Goes without saying really, but ensure all outreach is ‘genuine’ and personable. This can turn into PR disaster if you start using mail merge to fire out hundreds of emails.

Networking & Commentating

Yes, putting yourself out there will get you links. Having an opinion online or offline will eventually translate into some form of links, the bigger your circle of influence the more links you will get, it’s never going to bring huge quantities in, but the quality will be there.

Content & Commentary

I know, very boring “content is king” blah blah… You know what though? It’s truer today than ever before, your content offering has to be right, whether it is the content on your site, or the content you push out to your community.

For too long, link building has involved low quality unimaginative content, it won’t cut it anymore:

1) Interviews

Publish an interview, the bigger the profile the more links you will get. You could even offer parts of the interview to other bloggers in return for a shout out.

2) Images

Do you have any unique imagery that the blogging community would like to use?

3) Translation

I get approached multiple times every month for my permission to translate one of my articles, however you don’t have to wait, reach out and offer your content for translation.

4) Commentary

If you’re lucky enough to have a voice in your industry already then offer your opinion in the form of a quote. Very often bloggers will write about a particular subject, you may have some insight to add, reach out to the blogger and offer the quote.

5) Allow Guest Posting

I guess I should practice what I preach :) but the fact is (if you have a well-read website) publishers will not only want to write for you but will also be willing to link to and share the content throughout their own communities.

We have to think about more ways to produce and promote quality content, not just churn out boring articles that no one is really interested in.

Sharing

If you are producing quality content, and acquiring links from trustworthy, genuine blogs and websites, then you should not have an issue sharing it through your own social circles, this also gives us something else to leverage.

All genuine bloggers want more traffic and more recognition, offering to share the content through your own social channels and your networks is often a great way of compensating bloggers for publishing your content.

Obviously this works better if you have solid online social circles, but what better reason to start building them?

If you’re unwilling to share the content where your links are coming from, then you have your link building strategy all wrong. In order for your links to stand the test of time, you need to be thinking about increasing the quality of editorial opportunities. This will strengthen the editorial barrier between the incentive and the link, making your link profile natural and will decrease the chances of you tripping any filters or link penalties.

Link Building Still Works, Only The Mechanics Have Changed.

the google hammer

Finally mustered up enough time to put together a post, it’s been a busy few months thanks to Mr Cutts and his team of spam hunters :). So much has changed, so many tactics have been left by the way side, link networks finally pulled and sites are being punished for unnatural links, whether they created them or not.

If Google’s aim was to create a whole load of uncertainty around SEO and the industry, then they succeeded, however the fact is, SEO is still a valid form of inbound marketing; that much hasn’t changed. In fact, the only part that has changed relates to the mechanics and specifically link building tactics/techniques/practices.

Search engine optimisation, is as it was, optimise for search engines, rank for relevant keywords, get qualified visitors and generate leads. This much is still valid; however, how we do it has changed significantly.

So, SEO is definitely not dead, but what about links?

I can categorically confirm that links still influence rankings; in fact not only do they still influence, but they are still the key driving factor, in my opinion.

Do we still see ranking improvements through link building? YES.

Does anchor text still help influence keyword rankings? YES.

Again the fundamentals haven’t changed, only the mechanics.

If you have been involved in SEO for the last 10 years, or even the last few years, you will have listened to Google and other SEO’s talk about ‘quality’ links and editorial votes, creating a quality site, post, image, tool, hub etc… and earning those awesome links! Then we head off to take a look at a competitive SERP and realise that awesome links aren’t the driving factor, the driving factor was based on large quantities of low quality links all targeting the same set of keywords.

However, we knew Google would one day kill this link spam, and by doing things right we would rule the roost! Eventually!

The problem is, year after year Google could do nothing to police what they had titled ‘link spam’, and those people practising ‘Google style SEO’ were always losing, this has happened consistently for the past decade, even up until the end of 2011.

Then, we hit 2012 and Google began to follow through on pretty much everything they have been promising for a decade, and the world of low quality SEO is turned on its head.

However, we’re SEO’s, we play to Google’s beat, there is no time to piss & moan, we have to adapt and adapt quickly. Any company, whether agency or in house, who thinks they can implement SEO activity like they have been doing historically, is in for a big shock and drops in organic traffic and revenue.

The area where mind-sets and mechanics need to change surrounds link building, below are a few of the areas, I feel link building needs to change and expand, in order to meet the current changes head on.

It’s link optimising, not just building

Historically, link building has always been about creating new links, some believed in building quality links, others just focussed on tons of anchor text, either way the emphasis was on building links.

Moving forward, the focus has to be shared, if you take on a new project you need to take a holistic look at the link profile and decide what needs doing first. It may be that more links are needed, however it may be that some need taking down, or the anchor text changing to be less aggressive.

Link profiles sending out low quality or ‘over’ optimised signals will struggle to influence the pages they target, even if you build the best links possible, they will still struggle.

You have to focus on crafting a natural profile, stop trying to build on unsteady link foundations.

Link Removals

If you have been practicing competitive SEO for any significant amount of time, then you almost certainly have a few questionable links in your profile. These need cleaning up, even if you haven’t been hit by the recent updates you need to future proof your efforts by ensuring you’re crafting a clean profile.

At the minute this process is tedious, it takes a lot of time, and the success rate through outreach can be worse than trying to build links! However, Google might have a certain webmaster tools addition that could help out significantly.

For now, make a master list of all links you consider unnatural, and make a continued effort to take them down.

More Integration!!

For the last 2 years we have been trying to fully integrate our outreach, social and online PR teams, this is needed now more than ever.

A link profile has to be justified, and the way you justify your profile is by having a reason to outreach, and for the person you develop a relationship with to have a genuine reason to link back.

Offering a nice article, a gift voucher or a little bit of cash is not good enough justification, when acquiring links it needs to be an editorial vote, why is this site linking to you? A dry article with a random anchor text in the middle is going to stand out like a sore thumb!

Have regular meetings with the PR and Social team, understand what they are working on and discuss ways you can make it work from an SEO point of view.

Link builders don’t need to create the angles; they just need to understand how to use them.

Yes, all this makes link building more time consuming, it means you can’t build thousands of links each month, it means you have to develop and manage relationships. It’s going to be a challenge, but doing it right always has been.

A positive change is that you can finally focus less on anchor text and more on pitching the right piece of content. Trying to work anchor text into an article is a pain, however it was a necessary evil to get the results you needed from search.

I am absolutely convinced that anchor text matters less, I wrote about this in 2010, then again in 2011 and again at the beginning of 2012. Gradually over the years, websites using aggressive anchor text practices have been weeded out. Sure, you may find the odd site still benefitting, but given the recent change rate, how long do you think that will last?

I’m going to make this my last post on link building for a while, for me the signs are clear and a change is needed. The current updates are based on a threshold, once you’re flagged, creating more noise won’t help. Go back to basics, remove the junk and craft a natural profile with a little SEO influence.

If you are a late comer to these changes, please check out the below articles:

Google’s view on the Penguin Update

More on unnatural link messages

The new Google algorithm

Earning Good Links

Matt Cutts lays down the law!

Hopefully I can up my blogging activity soon :)