Online marketers understand the value of backlinks. Simply put, these are the hyperlinks to your website which appear on third party websites. While the Google algorithm is intentionally somewhat of a black box, it is generally thought that having a lot of third party sites linking in to yours will elevate your site’s ranking.
There exists a dilemma for marketers though in creating a link strategy: Google would prefer that you don’t have one. And they are right in stating that preference. The reality is that backlinks created solely for the purpose of SEO have very little value, and old tactics of link exchanges, private blog networks and spammy articles in blogs nobody ever reads will do more harm than good. The best inbound links are those which are created organically, and placed in the proper context of appropriate and well-written content, on websites that are read by real people.
SEO practitioners have perpetuated several myths about backlinks that continue to generate revenues for the SEO practitioners who sell them, but very little revenue for the site owners themselves.
Those SEO practitioners masquerade as marketers, lulling webmasters into a false sense of security by telling them that by engaging in SEO tactics like link building, that they have actually done some valuable marketing. While it’s true that you do need link building, it’s not the numbers-driven, commodity-based and mostly cheap and automated process they try to sell it as. Kate Walker, freelance SEO strategist and content writer, has seen the damage these SEO practitioners can do first-hand: “I am currently working with a client who used an overseas ‘cheap’ SEO provider for her own SEO and linking strategy,” said Kate. “I’ve had to undo links that were bringing her down in SERP, because they didn’t follow good practices. Now we are beginning to develop some quality links that will benefit the company, boost its ranking in SERPs and stand the test of time. My advice is, don’t shoot yourself in the foot trying to do things the ‘easy’ or ‘cheap’ way. Cheap and easy hasn’t been good since you dated that cheerleader in high school, and it isn’t any good now. Quality is all that really counts.”
Some of the biggest and most dangerous myths about backlinks include:
- Backlinks are a commodity item that can be bought in bulk.
- You can use a “private blog network” or artificially created websites that exist only for SEO to place a large number of backlinks quickly and at low cost.
- You can build up a lot of backlinks quickly with forum commenting.
“Backlinks really are the backbone to SEO,” said Alexis Krasinski, founder of Monarchy Management. “A few years ago, submitting backlinks to any site or directory might have given you the results you were looking for, but Google’s algorithm has gotten smarter, and those types of links just aren’t going to cut it – they’re actually going to hurt you.”
Those myths are built around a backlink strategy that ignores the broader context of the link, couches the link in spam or poorly-written articles, and ultimately harms your brand value by associating it with low-quality content placed on websites that exist only for SEO.
The backlink context
The truth about backlinks is that a backlink by itself is worthless without context. If it’s in an article that nobody but the search engine will ever see, then it’s not going to give you as much benefit as you could be getting.
A backlink without context is just an isolated hyperlink that has very little value, and back-handed techniques to couch a link in a spammy article will not only add no value, it may well harm your brand because of the low-quality association.
The best backlink is one which is included in a vendor-neutral article that is not self-promotional, offers insights, new thought leadership or entertainment, has been written to journalistic standards, and placed in an online media outlet that has a legitimate editorial review process. If the website will take any contributed article from anyone who signs up for an account, you don’t want to be there.
The process naturally takes time. You’re creating real journalism, and it’s being reviewed by a real editor. There may be an editorial calendar, so it may not appear for two or three months even if the editor does accept it.
Backlink steps that work
- Cultivate relationships with real journalists – not SEO writers – who write about issues relating to your website’s value. Your goal is to be a point of contact for the journalist looking for a good quote to include in an article.
- Launch a “brand journalism” campaign. This involves creating high-quality, journalistic feature articles on a separate branded website. The articles differ from standard quick-and-dirty SEO articles, which tend to be superficial and self-promotional, and often simply copied from a Wikipedia article and rewritten just enough to pass Copyscape. Brand journalism is legitimate journalism, typically not self-promotional, and written to standards that would pass muster with any career editor.
Do thought leadership placement. Create bylined articles that relate to your industry, and offer meaningful thought leadership and original content. Offer them to industry trade journals in your niche. These vendor-neutral articles, again written to journalistic standards, will typically include a hyperlink in your author bio.
When marketers first started to learn about SEO, they focused on getting on the front page of Google by using keywords, header tags and backlinks. “But to really learn SEO, you have to stay up to date with Google’s ranking algorithm,” said Danny Garcia, Marketing Operations Manager at Stacklist. “It’s based on a method to find useful, important college research papers. If a document is cited in several other places, then that source must be outstanding.”
That’s where Domain Authority (DA) comes into play. According to Garcia, “Google marks and ranks pages based on how many well-accredited pages (e.g. non-spammy) links to your site or blog posts. They measure bounce rate to determine whether your page is useful or not. So with that in mind, you’d rather have one backlink from a well-established site, than hundreds from a bunch of spammy sites that no one reads. In fact, links from those sites will impact your SEO efforts negatively since Google will assume you’re playing with a bad crowd.”
Link building done right is often an indirect process. John Brown, Content and Community Manager at Fieldboom, suggests that marketers “Create ego stroking posts. Basically these types of posts are meant to get influencers or websites to share a particular piece of content with their social following or to possibly get links back. You can do roundups where you feature experts or their advice, or do an interview with an influencer in your vertical.”
A meaningful backlink campaign isn’t going to be fast or cheap, and it’s not going to get you 100 new backlinks by this time next week. Rather than operating in a vacuum and designed to simply build up a high number of links regardless of source (SEO), a legitimate backlink strategy is part of your overall marketing and brand awareness initiative.