But for those who are willing to look back and learn from the past – mistakes included – there’s far more clarity on how to move forward.
Link Building: Trial and (Lots of) Error
If you’re looking to make some casual friends at a digital marketing conference, you’ll want to bring up some safe, casual topics like social media or video content.
If you want to stir the pot and see what people really think, just mention link building.
Link building is kind of a hot button topic.
Some see it as the be-all-end-all – the ultimate marketing tactic in a world where content and SEO are the cornerstone pieces to every digital strategy.
Others see it as a spammy practice or unethical pursuit that renders very little long-term value.
But as heightened as people’s emotions are around the topic of link building, the actual state of things is much simpler.
Over the years, it’s become clear that attracting organic inbound links from high-quality websites that are relevant to your niche has a significantly positive impact on search rankings and online visibility.
But it’s hard to truly understand where things stand today without first taking a look back at what’s happened over the past 20-plus years.
The industry has evolved. Changes have been near constant. And, as you’ll see momentarily, mistakes have been made. But before we dig into link building failures, let’s attempt to wrap our brains around the history of link building.
Here’s the basic gist:
Google was founded in 1998, and webmasters quickly realized that they could make their sites move up in the search rankings by attracting links back to their sites. This led to the rise of link exchanges, where people would trade links with one another.
By 2001, SEO directories started popping up all over the internet. This gave website owners the ability to submit their sites to directories that would provide links in return.
Around 2003, savvy marketers and webmasters discovered that blogging was very useful for building backlinks. This led to some good practices, as well as dreadful ones like mass blog commenting and spam.
By 2005, questionable blog rolls and low-quality article submission sites were everywhere. Google quickly realized that these sites existed for the sole purpose of gaming the system. In response, they released an algorithm update aimed at devaluing low-quality links. The “nofollow” attribute was introduced and reciprocal/paid links were targeted.
Around 2008, “linkbait” became a popular concept and people began publishing anything they could – whether truthful or not – just to attract links and attention.
In 2011, massive businesses like Overstock.com and JC Penney were penalized for black hat search practices – including manipulative link building. In the following year, Google released the Penguin update. This update enacted severe penalties for over-optimization and low-quality link building practices.
Around 2013, the rise of organic content marketing further complicated matters. It paved the way for authentic link building that adds value to readers – precisely what Google wants.
In 2016, new algorithm updates shifted away from penalties and instead began devaluing bad links.
If you look at today’s world of SEO and link building and contrast it with what was happening in the early 2000s, it’s almost unrecognizable.
Whereas black hat techniques once ruled the day, they’re no longer viable.
White hat is the new black hat.
Organic is the new spam.
Quality is the new quantity.
But it’s taken us – meaning those of us in the search marketing industry – years to learn and embrace this shift. And the primary method of learning has been through firsthand experience and the dreaded…F-word.
Hey now, we’re talking about failure!
9 Lessons From Failed Link Building Campaigns
Failure isn’t a comfortable topic.
Most of us would prefer to gloss over the shortcomings and focus the bulk of our attention on the good things.
But that’s not how you learn.
True growth occurs when you understand what went wrong and use this knowledge to improve, to enhance, to evolve.
Now that we’ve set the table, let’s dig into the main course.
Let’s explore some of the biggest lessons learned from failed link building campaigns of the past – and what they mean for us moving forward.
1. Don’t Create Content for a Specific Publisher
We’ve all had that epiphany.
You know, the one where you’re staring off into space and then it hits you. You have the perfect piece of content for the editor you know over at a major industry website.
You take the next few days working with your content team to come up with an article that’s carefully tailored to the publisher.
Then you send the finished product over to the publisher.
You wait a few hours. Then a few days. Finally, you touch base with the editor and she tells you that she isn’t interested in the piece.
It’s a gut punch.
But do you know what makes the rejection even worse? The fact that you created the content with that specific publisher in mind. You can’t just turn around and pass it on to another editor at another blog. The content must be scrapped.
The lesson here is simple: Don’t create content with a specific publisher in mind. You can’t control what a publisher will do and it’s possible that all of your time and creative energy will be wasted with a swift rejection.
It’s much better to get full approval before writing the piece, or to write a post that’s flexible enough to be published on a handful of websites or blogs.
Video is the most powerful content medium on the planet – there’s no doubt about it.
Video is visual, engaging, clear, and shareworthy.
It’s also hard to build links with.
Yes, video content has a tendency to go viral. The challenge lies in the attribution of the video.
Once a video takes off and is shared on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the original creator of the video content often gets smothered or forgotten. Publishers rarely give the proper attribution and simply embed the first link they can find from YouTube.
While there are still ways to benefit from video – including making your branding more visible in the content – it’s not a reliable link building content medium.
It’s possible that this could change – and we’re not telling you to avoid video content creation – but make sure you’re aware of the facts.
3. Newsjacking Must Happen FAST
Newsjacking has become very popular over the past seven or eight years. And with all of the noteworthy success stories, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that latching on to a hot topic is the quickest way to success.
The problem is that most brands don’t move fast enough.
By the time the news story is processed, a writer comes up with an idea, approval is given, the article is written, copyedited, and published/shared, it’s possible that a week has passed.
In the world of social media and viral content, a week-old story might as well be six months old.
In order to give newsjacking content a fighting chance, it must go live within 24 to 48 hours. If you miss this window, you’re better off doing something else.
4. You’re Wasting Your Time With Incorrect Anchor Text
Every backlink is inserted as a hyperlink, which is cloaked in clickable anchor text. And when harvesting links for SEO purposes, proper anchor text is key to your success.
As thousands of failed link building campaigns have shown, using overly optimized anchor text is a huge mistake.
You don’t want to use one-word anchors or calls-to-action like click here, buy now, or visit this site. Instead, it’s all about natural anchor text that includes your target keyword for the page being linked to.
Here’s a look at some different topics with potentially valuable anchor text:
SEO = why you need SEO
Entrepreneurship = how to start a business
Local Restaurant = new restaurant in Charlotte
Real estate = buy my house in cash
Obviously, these are just some rough examples. It’s up to you to do some careful keyword research and analysis to find out what keywords will give your anchors the best chance of passing along value to the linked URL.
5. Social Media Doesn’t Provide Link Juice
Social media is obviously a key component of any modern digital marketing strategy.
Any attempt to build a competitive brand in the 21st century must include a firm commitment to social media marketing and engagement.
But it’s important that we set the record straight on a common misconception. While, yes, social media can help content go viral, it does NOT provide any link juice in return.
All major social networking sites use what’s known as “nofollow” links. This is essentially an instruction to the search engines that hyperlinks shared on the website should not influence the ranking of the URL being linked to.
Nofollow restrictions are put in place as a defense mechanism against spammy practices. They cut down on the number of useless links published on social platforms and encourage people/brands to only share content that’s valuable to followers.
Does this mean social media is worthless for SEO and link building?
Though social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter don’t pass on link juice, there’s still some value in generating nofollow backlinks.
For one, the exposure associated with a viral nofollow link certainly leads to an uptick in traffic, which has a direct and positive impact on search rankings.
Secondly – and this is a bit of a controversial point – search engines like Google reserve the right to ignore nofollow tags. And if you speak with some of the top SEO experts in the field, many of them will tell you they suspect Google does ignore the nofollow tag when the link appears to be trustworthy and organic.
That last point is best described as speculation, but it speaks to the larger point that social media is still important and relevant to SEO and link building.
6. Stay Away From Paid and Reciprocal Links
If you want to buy links, there are plenty of opportunities for you to do so.
You can find them with very little effort or digging.
Some paid links might work out just fine, but they’ll command a hefty price. And there’s always the risk that they’ll fold on you.
Buying links isn’t cheap. While you might occasionally find a $20 link here and there, you’ll typically need to fork over $200, $500, or even $1,000 to get a backlink from a high authority domain.
Reciprocal links are also frowned upon. These often come in the form of Private Blog Networks, or PBNs, where people harvest and share links for the sole purpose of passing along SEO juice.
While you’re better off staying away from paid and reciprocal links, there’s nothing wrong with paying for link procurement services from reputable companies that specialize in this area.
Link procurement services leverage vast networks of publishers to find organic linking opportunities for your web pages. Depending on the quality of the service, they may even be able to get you on industry-leading sites like Forbes or Inc.com.
The difference is subtle, yet important. In one instance, you’re paying to have a specific link inserted in a specific place. In the other, you’re paying a service to go out and find organic opportunities for you. The former is frowned upon. The latter is still effective.
7. Guest Blog Posts Only Matter If…
Guest blogging is one of the more powerful SEO and link building strategies around. However, it must be used appropriately.
As countless failed link building campaigns have revealed, guest posts are only useful if the content is high in quality and the publishing site is considered relevant.
Publishing low quality content on spammy websites will actually have a negative impact on your link building efforts.
It’s all about the execution.
It’s also important to consider whether the guest posting opportunity generates dofollow links or nofollow links. As previously mentioned, the latter don’t provide much (if any) link juice.
It’s nearly impossible to get a post published these days without some sort of visual content baked inside. Even if it’s just a couple of pictures or graphics, you need something to break up the text and visually stimulate readers.
The problem is that you never know what kind of visual content a publisher is comfortable working with.
Do they want video? Charts and graphs? GIFs? Interactive graphics?
The best course of action is to create multiple types of visual content and allow the publisher to choose the ones that work best. Anything they don’t use can be repurposed in your own promotion of the content.
9. Link Building Can’t Exist in Isolation
We’re big proponents of link building. It’s been shown to be one of the most effective strategies for enhancing SEO and generating brand visibility. However, it’s not designed to stand alone.
Brands that attempt to focus on link building at the exclusion of all other content mediums almost always fail.
Link building is just one component of the bigger picture. It needs to be coupled with content marketing, technical SEO, social media, paid advertising, and strategic branding. That’s how you generate sustainable results over a long period of time.
Sticking to the Basics
Did you take some notes?
There’s a lot to glean from this post. Feel free to bookmark it or share it on social media so that you can return again and again.
No lesson is quite as impactful as a lesson learned in the aftermath of failure. It teaches something far more powerful than success.
Ultimately, if you blend all of these little lessons together, there’s a clear recipe for success. The recipe consists of three primary ingredients:
A healthy pour of authenticity;
A few ounces of quality;
And a dash of consistency.
If you blend these three ingredients up, you’ll find link building to be a prosperous endeavor – something that enhances your online visibility and encourages growth.
Take the time to ponder these lessons and infuse them into your own forward-thinking link building campaign.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building. Connect with Sam on Linkedin.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building. Connect with Sam on Linkedin.