You don’t need me to tell you that you need to be doing search engine optimisation, and maybe you’ve heard of “link building” as being a part of that. If not read on to learn what link building is and how it can potentially benefit your corporation, but if you’re already aware of what link building entails then skip the next section to find out how it could also potentially destroy your entire organisation.
What is link building?
When the search engines visit your website and read your content, they try to find words and phrases that indicate what you do and what you’re about. If you’re selling garden gnomes then they might pick up on the phrases “garden gnomes”, “garden gnomes for sale”, “affordable garden gnomes” and “why you need a garden gnome”.
That’s great, but what about your competitors? They might also have these keywords on their website. What sets you apart from them? How does Google decide that your website is the one they should send traffic to when someone types in “why you need a garden gnome”?
The answer is not to be found on your website, but on other websites.
Whenever another website links to you Google will trust you that little bit more.
Take for example a question on a garden gnome forum. Somebody is new to the world of garden gnomes and is thinking about buying their first. They ask people on the forum why they should get a gnome. What are the advantages and the benefits? How is it going to improve my life? What can I do with one? Where would I put it? What would the neighbours say?
The conversation takes some twists and turns with people offering all kinds of advice and guidance, before somebody posts a link to your website, specifically the article titled “Why you need a garden gnome”. The link is extremely relevant to the conversation, the title of the link clearly indicates an answer to the question can be found within the article, and the content of the article is indeed of a high quality and answers the question quite succinctly.
This is the gold at the end of the rainbow! Your website has the answer to a real question, asked as part of a real conversation, and your website is providing the perfect answer. Not only is it likely that the person who asked the question will ultimately end up buying from you, but so might many others who ask the same question and end up on this forum. But most importantly of all Google is going to see your content as more valid for this question than any of your competitors’ content because it comes with a virtual tip-of-the-hat from an external website, in the form of a link.
This is the essence of link building:
Getting links back to your content onto external websites such that Google will trust you that little bit more.
But that’s not the end of the story.
The wrong way to do link building
Everyone loves spam, right? I just can’t wait to read all of my spam emails in the morning. They’re always so useful.
Okay that’s not true. Nobody loves spam, and that includes Google. And spam takes many forms, not just email. There’s…
- …comment spam, where spammers post fake comments to blogs,
- …forum spam, where spammers post fake posts onto forums,
- …sign-up spam, where spammers create fake user profiles,
- …and many others.
Back in the “good old days” it was possible to sky-rocket your website to the top of Google by using a combination of spamming techniques to blast links to your website all over the Internet. Google would see all of these new links back to your website as trust indicators (“oh look, 60,000 websites all suddenly trust www.garden-gnome-emporium.com, it must be a good website”) and so your website instantly took the number one spot in Google.
Until, that is, one of your competitors started using the same technique and put links to their site onto 70,000 websites. And then of course another competitor would do the same, and another, and now you’re back at the number 7 position in Google. Well that’s no good, so let’s start another link building campaign and add links to your site to another 100,000 websites and we’re back in the number one spot.
All of this competition meant spammy links were being created all over the web. Not cool.
And, of course, Google was sort of to blame, since it was only for the sake of a better position in Google that people were creating these spam links in the first instance. Google had to respond, and respond they did: By introducing a system that could detect these “unnatural links” and penalise your website accordingly.
The original goal was to simply detect unnatural backlinks and discount them so that they made no difference to your ranking in the search engine. But over time they’ve become more aggressive about preventing websites from using these techniques. And so nowadays a backlink building exercise can land you in hot water.
Well-ranking websites have literally vanished from Google overnight as a result of back-link building.
But I got an email selling back-link building services…?
Yes, there are still people trying to trick people into buying these services. And to say that these services are potentially dangerous is probably an understatement. In fact I’d go so far as to say that with 99% of these companies purchasing the service would be akin to paying somebody a large sum of money to set you on fire.
These services used to work. They were a bad idea and they were immoral, but they worked.
Nowadays however purchasing a back-link building service will almost certainly lead to Google detecting unnatural linking, and you will be demoted from Google faster than you can say “terracotta garden gnome” as it goes directly against their terms of service. It’s both very difficult and very expensive to recover from a Google-imposed penalty.
Google would expect you to start contacting the websites that now have a link to you and ask them to remove the link. How many websites has your website been spammed to? 100? 1,000? 10,000? More? How long would it take you to find the contact details of all of those websites and ask them to remove your links? A month? A year? More?
Additionally you’d be expected to generate a list of all the sites that have unnatural links back to you and submit them to Google to ask that they disregard those links. Even this can take some time since Google won’t provide you with a full list of the sites that have links to you, and yet on top of that Google still expect to see you taking the time to clean up your act with these websites by contacting them individually.
Call it penance for your crime, perhaps.
I think Google is penalising my garden gnome website :(
This is very bad news. You’ll need to find all the websites that have links back to your site and ask to have them remove the link(s). You’ll not be able to remove them all but you should be able to make a significant dent.
Next you’ll need to create a list of all the websites that you couldn’t get links removed from and request that Google ignore the links on these sites by creating a “disavow” file.
And finally you’ll have to grovel. Google don’t make it easy for you.
Getting out of a penalty such as this is the sort of task that’s best left to an expert, but it’s not cheap as there’s a lot of work involved. It also takes a long time: Typically more than a year.
Not all link building is bad
You might be thinking “my book on search engine optimisation says I need to be doing link building!”
On the one hand you’re right, you should. Your website’s future is dependent on getting good quality, relevant back-links to your website. But if you try to automate this process I can pretty much guarantee you will do more harm than good.
There are various legitimate tactics for building back-links to your website, but that’s a topic in its own right. Perhaps we’ll cover some in another email. If you find a good quality search engine optimisation company that talks about “white hat link building” then you’re probably onto a winner, but keep in mind it’s quite expensive as it requires a real human to do real work, and it takes real time to see results. Typically these companies won’t be in India or other developing nations.
So what’s the quick fix?
Sadly there isn’t one.
If you don’t have funds set aside specifically for link building then I suggest this extremely simple and free approach to link building:
Don’t do any.
Okay that’s actually a bit of an over-simplification. Really what you want to be doing is writing compelling content that will prompt people to visit your website and, ultimately, take action such as:
- Sharing on their social networks,
- Posting it to their blog,
- Emailing it to friends.
Google loves fresh new content, and so do people. If you can write good enough content people will naturally want to share it anyway, and so the people will do the link building for you without you ever having to ask them for anything, and without paying anyone a penny.
- Avoid any companies selling link building services via email, otherwise your garden gnome business could disappear from Google.
- Cleaning up the mess that bad link building companies create is extremely expensive.
- Proper “white hat” link building is expensive but can be very lucrative if you have good garden gnome content.
- The cheapest way to build links is to simply create awesome and compelling garden gnome content.
- And, in case you’d not guessed already, this advice also applies to businesses not selling garden gnomes. ;)