What’s Going On with Link Building?
Last year’s Penguin algorithm updates were the first indication that Google, a search engine built on the foundation of links between websites, was starting to reevaluate its priorities and come down hard on people who they thought were gaming their algorithm. Suddenly all those old standbys—online directories, article submissions, link swaps, etc.—were no-nos, and links from these sources either stopped helping or could actually hurt you. And it’s not like these types of sites were inherently bad to start with, either (well, not all of them)—they just got ruined by spammers looking for avenues to cheat their ways to higher rankings.
Suddenly, business owners who had previously had great success after handing over the reins of their websites to so called “search engine optimizers” couldn’t find themselves anywhere. Some were even notified by Google that they had been levied with a “Manual Action,” condemned to a cyber-purgatory from which return was only possible after you had come clean and disassociated yourself from the practices that got you punished in the first place.
But It Didn’t Stop There
Just recently, Matt Cutts launched an assault one of the last bastions of spammy link builders, the Guest Blog. We’ve all seen them—blogs that look like they couldn’t possibly have been written by a human, saying things like “If yourself would love to imbibe a cocktail in the sitting sun,” or something equally ridiculous, complete with a totally unrelated link (with keyword-rich anchor text, of course) dropped into the middle of a paragraph. Cutts said himself on his personal blog:
“So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a link building strategy.”
What does Google want?
Ultimately, Google will always tell you that they want you to create “great, link-worthy content.” The example they might give is if you have a site about baseball cards, you should strive to build the best site about baseball cards that ever was. People will see your amazing content, they’ll be instantly enamored, and will want to link to your site from their own blogs, share it on Facebook, do everything they can to get the word out.
For businesses, the new key to Google success is to focus on building a “brand.” Not only does this improve your rankings across the board, but it can even earn you a get out of jail free card—big brands like Interflora and Rap Genius (neither of which I had ever heard of until they were in the news for spamming) have gotten a lot of press recently for cheating at the links game and making startling rebounds. Now technically, every business is a “brand,” from Old Spice and Coca-Cola to John Smith’s plumbing company in Duluth, Minnesota. But in a battle of brand equity, it’s pretty obvious who would win.
Is this fair?
Old Spice and Coca-Cola are able to leverage their multi-million dollar advertising budgets in their pursuit of building globally recognized brands. John Smith, on the other hand, has to work with what he’s got—maybe a couple hundred bucks at the end of the month for some online marketing—AND he has to compete with Yelp, Angie’s List, and other sites that are national brands. Say he puts that toward a company, maybe even a one-man-show, who promises him high search engine visibility for his most valuable keywords. For a few months, he’s dominating the rankings and business is good—so good, in fact, that he’s able to hire two more guys and buys a new truck. A few hundred bucks well spent, right?
So what happens the day Google slaps him with a penalty? With rankings gone, Mr. Smith’s phone stops ringing. Now he’s got no work for his guys and a couple very expensive trucks sitting in the garage. If he looked at his website’s backlinks, he’d see tens of thousands of links from sites out of China, Japan, and Korea, along with links from those spammy blogs we talked about earlier, even links from sites he wouldn’t want his kids to see. He fires his SEO company (who might even offer to fix the problem by building even more links) and now he has a choice: scrape together money to hire a new company to try and have the penalty removed, or scrap the website entirely. Making matters worse, even if the company cleans out every link they can find, there’s still no guarantee Google will lift the penalty. Suddenly, Google has gone from search engine to judge, jury, and executioner—with people’s very livelihoods on the chopping block.
Is this the post-SEO age?
As much as I get annoyed with people asking “is SEO dead?”, I think it is time to consider web marketing in a post-SEO age—especially given the damage a single Google algorithm update can do to your business. After all, the old mainstays are all dried up, and formerly successful tactics now come with an extremely high risk. The good news is it seems Google is finally getting better at creating the type of web they think everyone wants: one full of interesting content designed to educate, inform, and entertain, all at the same time. The bad news is if you’re not equipped for this type of shift, you’ll quickly be left behind. So how do you succeed in the new (search engine) world order?
Be Where Your Customers Are
In the way old days, phone books were the keys to advertising. Then came radio. Next, television. And the ones who succeeded were the ones who could be found across all these platforms.
The web and search engines were next, followed by sites social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. And guess what? Now you have to be on all of them.
Part of building a recognizable brand is being everywhere your customers are. Sure your primary website is where you make money, but let’s face it—your potential customers aren’t just on Google anymore. They’re everywhere, and if you want them to notice you, you need to be too.
Advertise Where Your Customers Are
If you’re a plumbing company, you probably know the pain of creating an awesome website that gets consistently outranked by national review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. And as much as we’d like to say we have the secret to succeeding against these behemoths, you’d probably have more success buying ad space on these sites. Yes, you’re perpetuating their business model, but if that’s where your customers are going to be, that’s where you need to be.
Create Valuable Content
This is often the hardest for business owners of all sizes to grasp, for a number of reasons. One, everyone has their own definition of “great” content. For some it’s a frequently updated blog that answers their customers’ questions before they have them. For others it’s a single piece of content that takes six months to create and gets shared across the web, bringing in several dozen to a few hundred natural links.
Two, Google may have a different definition of great content than you do. Perhaps you’ve structured your whole site around a single keyword you want to rank for, “plumber in Sacramento.” We’ve seen people do this with the best intentions, only to get slapped with a Google penalty for something they didn’t even know was wrong.
Three, and what I think Google is starting to lose sight of, is that producing great content is expensive, and getting worse. It’s getting harder and harder to make the numbers work to cover production cost, especially for businesses without large advertising budgets.
If you’re looking into embarking on a content marketing strategy and you’re not sure where to start, take it back to the basics. Create a list of search terms and classify each as Navigational (typically a branded search, one someone would use to find your exact website), informational (a search made by someone who wants to learn more about the services you provide), and transactional (a search made by a potential customer looking to buy). Build out pages that meet people’s needs directly:
- Navigational searchers can be served information about your company, such as your business hours and service area, as well as trust builders like customer testimonials, information about trade associations you’re a part of, etc.
- Informational searchers can be directed to a blog, where you write content based on potential questions people might have about your services.
- Transactional searchers should land on pages dedicated to the services you provide and what they need to do to hire you.
Solve People’s Problems
Going back to the great content thing, make sure you’re always adding value with the content you produce. Think of the potential pain points people might run into when shopping for the services you provide. What credit cards do you accept? Do you offer financing? Free estimates? Make an effort to be as forthright as possible with your service offerings and you will be rewarded.
Maximize User Engagement
You don’t need a site as exciting as Facebook that hooks your customers in for hours. What you do need, however, is a site that doesn’t repel people. We’ve talked before about how your site should be a supermodel, and there’s a reason for that: Google watches your website “bounce rate,” which is the number of times a person clicks on your site and then clicks back to the search results page without any interaction. The easier it is for your users to find exactly what they’re looking for, the easier it will be for Google to recognize your site as an authority in your industry.
Treat SEO Like PPC
People often call SEO traffic “free” and PPC traffic “paid.” And while this is true on a certain level, it would be extremely helpful to treat SEO traffic like it’s as valuable as PPC. Think about it this way: since PPC landing pages don’t have to conform to standard ranking factors, they can be much more conversion focused, with extremely obvious calls to action and a general page flow that shows people exactly where they need to go. Organic landing pages have to pay a little more attention to ranking factors (length, keyword use, etc.), but this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t encourage users to take the actions you want them to take.
Don’t Be Afraid to Play With Your Conversion Rate
As my esteemed colleague Tyler Yost recently reported, A/B testing is a great way to improve your website’s user experience. Even simple things, such as changing the color of a button, can have a marked effect on your website that can have a major influence on what people do when they get there. These tests generally require a lot of time and some technical know-how, but the benefits they can provide to your site can be invaluable.
Do Marketing, Not Just Web Marketing
One thing you don’t want to do is use web marketing as a crutch—just because you (or someone you hired) is SEOing your site, this doesn’t excuse you from doing real marketing! If your site (or your entire business) is a carbon copy of every one of your competitors, it’s going to be hard to stand out on the web and in the real world.
Marketing itself doesn’t have to be a complex science. In fact, it can be anything you want! If you’re a plumber, volunteer some time with Habitat for Humanity, installing the plumbing system in a home. These days, effective marketing is all about telling a story—how interesting is yours?
Links Still Matter
Try as they might, Google has yet to come up with an alternative to links to assess the value of web pages. In fact, that’s the reason they’ve been so obsessed with them lately—they still work. Build links when and where you can, but do it carefully. Remember, adding value comes first.
If you’ve been hit by a Google penalty, or you’re worried your website is at risk of one, call Blue Corona. We’ll get you on the right track and build up your site with quality content marketing and analytics services that will hold up against whatever Google might throw out.
About The Author: Blue Corona is a data-driven online marketing company with offices in Gaithersburg, MD and Charlotte, N.C.
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