For many websites, getting traffic from Google is the most valuable and effective way to market to targeted customers. Not every method is equal, though. Understanding how to use a high-value search engine optimization (SEO) strategy – and understanding what tactics to avoid – can make your website stronger.
One of the most powerful – and also risky – components of any SEO strategy is getting other websites to link and refer traffic to your website. The value of these links for achieving higher rankings is well known in the online marketing industry. This is why both Google engineers and anyone trying to rank for targeted keywords on Google’s search engine have been engaged in a multi-billion dollar game of cat and mouse for over a decade. So the question is, what link building strategies can today’s business owners employ to help their site rank better on Google and not put their site at high risk of penalty?
How White Hat and Black Hat SEO Strategies Came to Be
Top Google rankings for targeted keywords yield significant financial rewards. Thousands of people and businesses have built careers out of “optimizing” websites for Google. However, many of these professionals employ tactics that Google either frowns upon or sees as violations of their quality guidelines. Google has become increasingly punitive to webmasters caught gaming the system too aggressively by penalizing websites that employ violating link building strategies.
In 2012, Google rolled out an update to its ranking algorithm, code-named Penguin, which was designed to punish websites that appeared to be engaging in these violating link building strategies (also known as “black hat SEO”). Websites that are hit with Penguin lose between 50 and 90% of their Google traffic overnight. If those sites can ever recover, it often takes years.
Given the extreme risks of black hat SEO techniques backfiring, modern websites need to be careful to only engage in link building strategies that are white hat, or at the very least gray hat. What does that look like?
The Good: Link Strategies to Do
What it is: Content marketing is the process of creating great content for your own website, then marketing that content to other website owners and the media in hopes that they will reference and link to your article in one of their posts.
Tips: The best, most thorough article I’ve ever read about content marketing is this one on Movoto.com. This strategy will help you create and market content pieces that are not only great, but also have a high probability of going viral on social media and, most importantly, getting linked to from other websites.
What it is: Quality SEO today is almost indistinguishable from public relations (PR). An effective, white hat strategy is developing a PR campaign focused on identifying journalists who write for high value websites in relevant industries and getting them to write stories that either reference or are about your website.
Tips: Most of today’s journalists are underpaid and overworked, so many will welcome useful tips and quality story pitches. Create a list of journalists and writers from your industry’s top websites (try to get at least 50). Then, try to build a relationship with these people. I’ve found that following them on Twitter, commenting on their articles, then sending them an introductory email is a great way to get your foot in the door.
Strategic, high-quality guest blogging
What it is: This is the riskiest strategy that I’ll recommend, but it’s also the one that you have the most control over. A guest blog post is a post on a website that is written by someone not directly affiliated with that website. The best guest blog posts are written by experienced experts, and offer valuable, unique content relevant to the theme of the blog.
Tips: A good example of a high-quality guest blog is the article you’re reading right now. I have over ten years of experience with SEO and have been a small business owner for eight years. Volusion’s blog focuses on helping its users get more value out of their websites. Therefore, an SEO expert’s tips on how to drive search engine traffic to their customers’ websites is a great value. In exchange, I’ll build my personal brand as a small business and online marketing expert and likely get a link to my website.
The key is making sure that the blog you contribute to maintains high standards for any contributed content. If you’re looking for a way to determine the relative “value” of a blog that you’re considering, install the “MozBar” for free, which will show you the “Domain Authority” of any website. Domain Authority (DA) assigns a rank of 1-100 for every website – the higher the DA, the more valuable a link from the website is likely to be.
The Bad: Link Building Strategies to Avoid
Low-quality link directories
What they are: These online directories were originally created to organize websites into groups, similar to an online Yellow Pages. However, SEO experts saw these directories as a way to easily get links to their websites to improve rankings. Thousands of low-quality directories funded by marketers looking for ways to get additional links to their sites popped up all over the Internet. Today, getting links from these directories won't help you at all, and could lead to a Google penalty.
How to identify: 99% of all directories are “low quality.” Any directory openly advertising the SEO value of their links should be avoided. In fact, the only directories that should be considered are those that have very tough requirements for approval. DMOZ.org is one of the few directories worth applying to.
What they are: A low-quality blog is one that contains poorly written articles whose primary purpose is to link to sites that marketers are trying to optimize. The articles rarely contain any research or original ideas, and are the opposite of the quality content mentioned earlier. These sites typically charge a small fee to allow guest bloggers to post articles, but have virtually no screening or filtering process for the articles they post.
How to identify: These blogs will be filled with articles that have an unusual number of grammar mistakes and strange sentence formations. An easy rule of thumb to help evaluate blogs: if you wouldn’t consider sharing or recommending any of the five most recent articles on the site with your friends, the blog is “low-quality.”
What they are: Link brokers sell links on various websites to online marketers to improve their ranking on Google. Buying links from a link broker is a direct violation of Google’s guidelines and, if you’re caught, Google will penalize you.
How to identify: Anyone selling links on sites they don't own are link brokers. These links are typically easy to spot because they’re often located in the footer of a website. The more clever link brokers will sell links that are directly located within the content of a website, but working with this industry is playing with fire.
Link exchange/ link farms
What they are: Most link exchange programs were wiped out years ago, but a few still exist. They are websites (“link farms”) that link to other websites in exchange for a return link. Linking to a link farm will lead directly to a penalty.
How to identify: Any offer to link to your website in exchange for a link back to another website is a link exchange program. Never agree to this.
Over-optimized anchor text
What it is: Anchor text is the string of words used in a link. Google will often rank a site higher for a specific phrase if that phrase is used in the anchor text of the links to that site. However, Google has implemented filters to identify sites with an unnaturally high number of inbound links whose anchor text exactly matches specific key phrases (besides the brand name or URL of the site). For example, if the website SmithMortgageCompany.com has 100 inbound links and 30 of them have Smith Mortgage Company for the anchor text and 70 of them have “home mortgage” for the anchor text, that site would likely be penalized and rank poorly for the phrase “home mortgage.”
Any high-volume link acquisition strategy
What it is: Many SEO companies promise to deliver hundreds of links to your website. These links will typically appear in blog posts or comments, forum comments, or social profiles. However, any strategy that delivers hundreds of links in a short period of time is going to lead to trouble. Never engage in this practice.
The days of outsourcing SEO link building to a low-cost contractor are gone. Today’s SEO strategies require creativity, original content and networking. In the long run, businesses that embrace in white-hat strategies will be stronger in more ways than just improved search engine rankings. Thoughtful, expert-driven articles and content will lead to a strong brand, diverse traffic sources and a much better understanding of how to attract the attention of the stakeholders, influencers, and customers in an industry.
About the author
Leo Welder founded ChooseWhat.com, the entrepreneur's startup guide, in 2007 in Austin, TX. Since that time, ChooseWhat and it's sister websites have served over two million people seeking information on small business tools and tactics. Immediately preceding ChooseWhat, Leo worked as a search engine marketing consultant, helping grow that business from four to over thirty employees in under three years. Leo is a native Texan, an avid Texas Longhorn fan, and an Austinite of 20 years.