Among search engine optimization folks there are a couple questions that continually spur on conversation, and one of them is: Link building — Is it black hat?
The last few weeks have seen a surge of articles and online chats on the topic of link building and its proper place in search engine optimization. Unlike black-hat forum discussions of past years, these recent discussions about links bring to light the battle-worn wisdom of knowledgeable, go-to search engine optimization minds, like John Mueller and Neil Patel, whose advice has been indispensable in the two years since we first were introduced to Google’s Penguin algorithm update.
These latest conversations exposed unknowns and some new fears, along with newly released tools and solutions to the problems of links, good and bad. Here we’ve harvested highlights from the articles and online conversations on the following topics that may surprise and wisen SEOs and webmasters of all experience levels:
- Link building today — its current definition and role
- Natural vs. unnatural links — staying in Penguin’s good graces
- Disavow files — tools and techniques for backlink cleanup
When we started listing all the thought-provoking insights from SEO thought leaders, we found that there have been so many fresh thoughts lately that we decided to number them in a list here. Enjoy these 19 fresh thoughts on link building, link cleanup and disavowal.
1. Google Portugal: “Do not buy, sell, exchange or ask for links that may violate our linking webmaster guidelines.”
The latest wave of link building talk was spurred in part by a statement on the Google Portuguese webmaster blog that, translated into English, gave this bold advice to webmasters: “Do not buy, sell, exchange or ask for links.” Period.
If you, like many, read that and grew concerned that just asking for links might cause site penalties, you were not alone. Google soon calmed everyone down by revising the Portuguese blog post to be less alarming: “Do not buy, sell, exchange or ask for links that may violate our linking webmaster guidelines.”
Upshot: Google really doesn’t want you to be soliciting links, but link requests are okay as long as they adhere to Google webmaster guidelines, specifically those regarding link schemes.
2. “There simply is no sustainability in trying to manipulate the algorithm.” –Linkarati writer Andrew Dennis
Let’s first state the obvious: Links still count in the search engine algorithms as one factor among many that influence search results ranking. But the old days in which unethical marketers could buy a thousand links and get a rise in search engine placement are long gone, squashed by the Google Penguin algorithm update as well as a savvier Internet user base. Columnist Andrew Dennis said it well in a July 7 post on Search Engine Land: “There simply is no sustainability in trying to manipulate the algorithm.”
3. “(O)nly focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than actually helps.” –John Mueller, Google webmaster trends analyst
Is there any good in trying to build links today? Google representative John Mueller answered the question in a February hangout. He said:
In general, I’d try to avoid that (link building) … only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than actually helps.
4. “Is linkbuilding dead? Nope. Apparently not. Not only does daily practice affirm its existence, but the industry moguls do, too.” –Neil Patel
Experienced SEOs still practice some form of link building. Patel published a Forbes article wherein he explains why links are still necessary for SEO: “Though oft maligned and long abandoned, linkbuilding is one of the most effective ways to make your website rank higher.”
Is Link Building Black Hat?
5. “The term ‘linkbuilding’ has some baggage, but it is not inherently black hat. Still prefer ‘link earning’. All about intent.” –Bruce Clay, Inc. SEO Manager Rob Ramirez
Last week we got to host #SEOChat, a Twitter chat that addresses SEO issues, and we chose to discuss link building. In the chat, our SEO manager shared this gem:
6. “We don’t know what to call it, so we might as well call it linkbuilding […] Link earning? That describes the practice better, but it just doesn’t have the same sonorous and electrifying quality.” –Neil Patel
As a counterpoint to Ramirez’s thoughts, Neil Patel’s take on his preferred term for link building/earning shows the power words hold. It’s reminiscent of the debate over whether or not SEO is dead. SEO is not dead, but evolved, and link building/earning with it.
Natural vs. Unnatural Links
7. What is an unnatural link? “Well any link which is built is, by definition unnatural.” –Alastair Kane during #SEMRushChat
Obtaining links naturally is every web marketer’s goal. You want to have content that attracts people so that they like and then link to it. A strategy of earning links is far safer in today’s world than going after them with any link-building campaign. A participant in the July 15 #SEMRushChat (yes, two industry Twitter chats devoted to the same subject last week shows how topical this is!) put it this way:
8. Link earning isn’t a passive activity. “Actively seek out websites that are relevant to your website and audience, and promote yourself.” –Andrew Dennis
The columnist argues that a user-first approach is needed to earn links. But Dennis doesn’t think you have to just wait for them:
While it’s possible to earn these links passively, in order to take full advantage of your opportunities you need to manually promote your value. Actively seek out websites that are relevant to your website and audience, and promote yourself.
His article goes on to detail many approaches to doing this.
9. Behind every real link is a real person. “Remember that your goal here is more than just a link—it’s a relationship, which could be mutually beneficial to both of you.” –Ruth Burr Reedy
In a June 25 post on the Moz blog, Ruth Burr Reedy wrote: “The kinds of links that Google wants you to build are the kinds of links that you get when a real live person decides to share or link to your content.” She goes on to explain how you can attract links in person — at trade shows, conferences, meetups and trade associations — as well as how to assess these relationship-based links.
10. “Linkbuilding, if you want to call it that, is risky business. (…) Content marketing is the safest and most effective method of building links.” –Neil Patel
Patel calls link building “a high-risk activity” because of the danger of Penguin penalties. One thing is certain: Websites have to be careful how they get links.
He simplifies the process a bit by recommending that content marketing is the most effective way to earn links naturally. He concludes:
Thus, content marketing is the superhighway to links. Instead of creating artificial and spammy links, marketers are churning out real and high-quality content that warrants legitimate and relevant links.
Patel’s article gives three ways to (more-or-less) safely come right out and ask for links when sharing your content.
11. “As of now guidelines are pretty clear: You cannot reimburse links in any way. Let’s stick with that!” –Ann Smarty and Jim Boykin
Last week’s Jim & Ann Show discussed how one could go about asking for links in order to stay within Google’s guidelines. They covered lots of specific scenarios such as, “What if I sent free stuff but didn’t ask for a link? Should I be worried if that person links?” (They answered yes.)
12. “(M)ake it possible for other people of course to link to your content. Make it easy …” –John Mueller
When you’re sure you have high-quality content worth linking to, Mueller suggests two ways you can make it easier for people to link to your pages:
- Put a little widget on your page that helps someone link to it.
- Make sure URLs are easy to copy and paste.
13. “Go through your entire backlink profile MANUALLY. Any that look remotely suspicious, investigate (& where necessary remove)” –Dan Smith
During the #SEMRushChat Twitter chat, the other part of link management, dealing with unwanted backlinks to your site, was addressed. Here are a few nuggets of wisdom on the need for link pruning to avoid or recover from a Penguin penalty:
14. Should every site submit a Google disavow file? “Depends on the penalty situation. If not penalized, no disavow. Pruning for sure though, in all cases. Everyone’s got skeletons” –Matthew Young, senior SEO strategist at Adobe
The link pruning process starts with monitoring your site’s backlinks to try to identify your weakest (least trustworthy and relevant) links. Most SEOs today agree that watching your backlinks is essential. Once identified, those low-quality links should be removed — which means going through the painstaking process of contacting the linking site and requesting they take down your link. When that doesn’t work, webmasters have a last resort: They can disavow the links they cannot remove.
One of the #SEOChat questions asked: Do you always recommend a site submit a Google disavow file? The answers were mixed:
Tools for Backlink Research and Cleanup
15. “We believe there has been, up to this point, a critical imbalance in disavow link data. (…) We decided that instead of letting Google and Bing keep the data themselves, there is a way to have more intelligence about our backlinks and disavow files if we crowdsource the data.” –Bruce Clay
In June we released DisavowFiles, a free tool that started as a dream of Bruce Clay’s to have greater visibility into Google’s black box of disavowed link data. During the weekly digital marketing podcast SEM Synergy on June 10, which was one week after launching the tool, Bruce explained the genesis of DisavowFiles:
We give all this (disavow link data) to Google in bulk. All of us give it to Google because we don’t want the penalty, but we have no way of seeing that data ourselves. They keep it from us. We decided that instead of letting Google and Bing keep the data themselves, there is a way to have more intelligence about our backlinks and disavow files if we crowdsource the data. Everybody gets to give us their disavow files, and with our new service, DisavowFiles.com, this is what it does — it collects the data and allows us to query and get answers to these questions.
16. “Very TAGFEE: (…) DisavowFiles – upload file & can see whether others have disavowed links that point to you” –Rand Fishkin
Because DisavowFiles is a crowdsourced database and we’ve shared it among the SEO community, Wizard of Moz Rand Fishkin called DisavowFiles “very TAGFEE.” Since its June launch, the tool has more than 1,200 members signed up and hundreds of Google disavow files uploaded so far.
17. “It also made sense in a lot of ways to share data, especially when you’re dealing with the same types of link farms, the same types of sites that scrape and are showing up in a lot of our clients’ backlink profiles.” –Rob Ramirez
In the announcement podcast, SEO Manager Ramirez chimed in with another reason that DisavowFiles.com is such a helpful tool for speeding up the link cleanup process:
Like all good ideas, (DisavowFiles) was born out of necessity. We had a very real need to simplify and speed up the process of doing link audits. It also made sense in a lot of ways to share data, especially when you’re dealing with the same types of link farms, the same types of sites that scrape and are showing up in a lot of our clients’ backlink profiles. Simplifying that process, being able to share the data across our clients, was something that was a very real need that we had.
18. “Tried (DisavowFiles) again today and it worked — found ~1,000 more domains and URLs to add to our file.” –Daniel Thomason of Online Performance Marketing in Dallas, Texas
The primary purpose of DisavowFiles is to show webmasters which of their own backlinks have been disavowed by others in the database. This kind of insight gives them more confidence in disavowing links. Here’s what one told us:
Tried [DisavowFiles] again today and it worked — found ~1,000 more domains and URLs to add to our file.
Thanks for innovating with a tool like this.
19. Would you want to know if your website has been disavowed by others? “Yes, I would like to know. There’s no reason to be oblivious in this respect imo” –Jesse Stoler during #SEOChat
There’s a side benefit for DisavowFiles.com participants, and that’s being alerted whenever someone else disavows one of your own website’s pages. Google has stated that being listed in a disavow file does not affect your site negatively. Nevertheless, knowing that people consider your web pages worthy of disavowal can cause you to take a good hard look at your site. #SEOChat participants were asked whether they would want to know if their pages are disavowed. This question would have been unthinkable before this tool because search engines don’t share this kind of intel. The SEOs balanced their answers between common sense and confidence in their own website ethics:
Off-Page SEO Evolves
So is link building black hat? Is SEO dead? No! The role of search engine optimization continues to evolve, and as long as Google’s webmaster guidelines change and its search engine ranking algorithms along with them, so will the definition and target of link building. Off-page SEO once was defined primarily by link building. Today, link assessment, cleanup and disavows are off-page optimization tasks that require careful attention by search engine marketers. Take pride in staying up on the debate and the journey, and enjoy the ever-changing practice that is SEO.