Link building is at the heart of any search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, and it has been for more than a decade.
But over the course of the past 20 years, the role of link building in SEO has changed. In fact, it’s changed so much that “link building” today is practically unrecognizable to old-school practitioners.
If you want to succeed in climbing the rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs), you need to understand how link building works today—and how it’s different than the link building of yesteryear.
So how exactly has link building changed? And what should you do with this information?
Let’s start with a basic overview of what link building is, and its role in SEO.
SEO is all about ranking higher in search engines like Google. The goal is to make your website more visible and more attractive to search users looking for a company like yours. The higher you rank, the more easily you’ll be seen, the more traffic you’ll generate, and the more your brand reputation will grow.
How do you rank higher?
Despite all the changes that Google has gone through over the years, the basic formula remains the same. Google wants to give users the best possible results for their searches. Part of that means identifying relevant content—the content that most closely aligns with the user’s search query. This is why keyword optimization is so important.
But Google also needs to consider the trustworthiness of webpages. Assuming 100 pages are relevant to the user’s search query, Google wants the most authoritative page to be at the top.
Google calculates the “authority” of a website (and individual pages within that website) based on a number of ranking factors, but most importantly—links.
The exact formula is unknown, but generally speaking, the more links you have, and the better those links are, the more your authority will rise. Getting links from high-authority sources will pass more authority to your site, while low-authority sources will pass less authority.
Link building is the practice of establishing more links to your site, in an effort to boost your authority and rank higher.
Back when Google was relatively new and people were just figuring out the basics of SEO, link building was easy—for lack of a better word.
You could build any link in any way you wanted, and practically guarantee that your site would benefit from it. You could post random forum comments with nothing more than your link, with fully optimized anchor text. You could buy links directly from certain sites. You could build links over and over again on the same sources, or create a link network to regularly pass links between multiple sites.
It was easy for optimizers, but obviously, it was also deeply problematic.
Building links in this way isn’t good for web users. It also doesn’t help your brand’s reputation. People who encounter these spammed links in the wild generally find themselves frustrated; the links don’t add any content, context, or value to the conversation.
It didn’t take long for Google to figure out that people were manipulating their search engine rankings with links like this. And of course, they wanted to take action.
Some search optimizers feel like Google is a schemer, out to sabotage their efforts or make their life difficult. In reality, Google just wants search users to have the best possible experience.
Over the years, Google has issued a number of algorithm updates designed to improve the average user’s experience. These include updates to make the algorithm more efficient and more accurate, with better aesthetics in SERPs, but most of the updates are designed to stop abusive practices and do a better job of finding high-quality web content.
There was a smattering of link-focused updates in the early years of Google, from around 2003 to 2010. For example, the Cassandra update of 2003 issued penalties to sites that relied heavily on co-owned domains linking to each other, as well as links that were hidden from view.
However, the biggest game changing update of the past decade was the Penguin update of 2012.
Issued in April 2012, the Penguin update majorly overhauled the way Google evaluates link quality and spam. As with most Google updates, we don’t know the exact mechanics of Penguin—we just know that link quality standards sharply increased.
Many smaller updates followed Penguin, sometimes referred to as Penguin 1.1, 1.2, 2.0, etc., but they were generally in line with the intentions of the original Penguin.
Obviously, search optimizers have had to update their practices to accommodate these new evaluative criteria.
So how, exactly, did link building change?
How have search optimizers adjusted their strategies, and how is modern link building different from link building in the 2000s?
So what does it take to manage an effective link building campaign today?
That’s a complex topic, and one we explore in several other blog posts, but we’ll summarize the basics here:
Ready to get started with a modern, effective link building campaign of your own? Everything starts with a free audit of your strategy and your current efforts. Contact SEO.co today for more information!