Search engine optimization (SEO) is a dynamic digital marketing discipline, and few SEO tactics have evolved as much (or as frequently) as link building.
What was once a spam-laden nightmare of link pyramids, spun content, automated spam posts and other gimmicks has changed dramatically, and over the course of the past decade, link building has become more refined and quality-driven.
Much of this evolution was spurred by search engines directly — Google, for one, played an enormous part in cleaning up the web with its Penguin algorithm updates.
Combined with increasing user distaste for poorly placed links and a collective commitment from webmasters to give their users better experiences, we now exist in a world where link building is respectable, valuable and viable.
Take a look at these 10 major ways link building has changed in just 10 years:
1. Penalties are harsher
Link schemes have always been bad, though they haven’t always been penalized. In recent years, however, Google has stepped up its effort to penalize sites with spammy backlink profiles.
If you engage in a link scheme, you’re more likely than ever before to face a manual penalty that will drop you from the SERPs. Recovery is always possible, but these types of schemes have the potential to set you back months, or even years.
2. Crappy links don’t work anymore
Just 10 years ago, a link was a link. You could easily get away with posting a non-contextual link pointing back to your domain as a forum post, spammy blog comment, article on an article directory, or even a free community blog.
Today, such tactics are no longer tolerated; site editors know that if they don’t keep their sites free of spammy links, Google will penalize them. And if Google catches what it considers to be spammy links, it will neutralize the link’s value, leaving you with practically no authoritative gains. If Google detects a pattern of spammy links, you’re likely in for a manual or algorithmic penalty.
3. Same-source links have greater diminishing returns
Links from different domains have always returned more value than additional links from the same domain; this is because links serve as third-party indicators of credibility, and links from the same domain offer a redundant vouch for authority.
However, this effect of “diminishing returns” has escalated over the past 10 years. Today, same-domain links probably still have some value, but they are also probably less valuable than ever.
4. Guest posts have become the gold standard of off-site link-building tactics
Guest posting, the process of writing an article and getting it published on an external publication, has come to be the “gold standard” of link building. Because the focus is on creating quality content to reach a new audience, it has far more value than just SEO value. There’s virtually no risk of penalty, and it’s not so complicated or intensive that the effort it takes outweighs the reward.
Guest posts were always a good strategy, but in my opinion, they are currently among the best strategies when it comes to off-site tactics.
To clarify, I’d argue that publishing quality content to your own website that attracts inbound links on its own merit is the absolutely best tactic for link building, but I don’t consider that an off-site tactic. It’s also impractical to build links this way in many industries (or without a pre-existing audience, which necessitates off-site tactics).
5. Content standards have risen
This isn’t to say that anybody can contribute as a guest anywhere they want. The popularity of guest posting has had another effect on online communities: Thanks to increasing competition and awareness of the value of link building, most major publishers have significantly increased their content standards from outside contributors.
This means it’s much harder to land guest posting opportunities, necessitating building real relationships with editors and webmasters, and it’s much harder to produce high-enough quality content for those publications.
6. Press release links are pretty much worthless
Press releases were once a popular tactic for link building. News sources were extremely high in authority, and as long as you had a newsworthy topic, it was fairly easy to get yourself a featured link by writing and submitting a press release through one of the major press release distribution hubs.
However, thanks to the surge in popularity of this tactic, Google has significantly downgraded the authoritative power of links from press releases.
7. Keyword-rich anchor text can get you in big trouble
A decade ago, using keyword-rich anchor text was the best way to give specific ranking power to your inbound links. Today, Google’s quality evaluations are so sophisticated that they can detect unnatural use of anchor text for manipulative purposes, and it’s now among the most recognizable indicators of a spammy link. Anchor text should be natural to avoid triggering a penalty.
8. Link earning is a viable tactic
The phrase “link building” refers to the manual process of placing links on external sites. But as I mentioned in #4, there’s an even better way to get natural links: earn them on your own with fantastic content that acts like a magnet to attract links.
Years ago, this wasn’t a very attractive link-building tactic because even though Google had guidelines on spammy links, those guidelines were not enforced. So the fastest and cheapest way to improve your search visibility was through spammy, manipulative tactics that were highly popular. Most importantly, those tactics worked.
Now that Google does a good job at discouraging spammy, manipulative link-building practices, link earning is once again a viable tactic.
9. It’s harder than ever to break in
Though many of these developments have made link building simpler (just create, publish and distribute high-quality content), it’s actually harder than ever to build good links.
If you’re going with the “link earning” method, getting natural inbound links on the merits of your own content requires an established audience or some level of pre-existing authority, which makes starting from scratch a major obstacle for new startups and small businesses. It often takes a boost from an existing authority, perhaps through guest posting, to start building an audience and your brand.
10. It isn’t all about rankings
Yes, the primary focus of link building is earning more authority to rank higher in search engines, but there are far more benefits than just rankings. Brand visibility, author reputation and referral traffic are just some of the peripheral ways you can benefit.
Today, link building is about giving customers better content and better experiences in general. If you provide more original, practical, valuable content, every guest post or on-site piece you publish is going to earn more visibility (and therefore, more inbound links).
Though there’s still a bit of a technical science to it, link building can no longer be reduced to tricks and gimmicks. It makes link building more complicated, but at the same time, infinitely more rewarding.