Since the beginning of SEO, link building has been about human connection. People like Eric Ward were building links on the web before search engines like Google existed. Ward and other link-building pioneers weren’t building links for SEO and search crawlers — they were building links for human readers and site owners, helping connect people to the information they sought.
People rely on the internet in their day-to-day lives more now than they ever have before, and the web is fueled by links. Search engines may be able to track links and even analyze them to a degree, but links are first and foremost designed to serve people. It takes human minds to create links that are truly valuable to other humans.
Link building is a human endeavor.
Google is devaluing spam and manipulation
Link building is no longer about manipulation.
Google has gotten much better at detecting manipulation and link spam — and is continuing to improve. Gone are the days of auto-generating thousands of shoddy links and spamming your way to the top of the search results.
Thanks to the Penguin algorithm and the continued efforts of Google’s web spam team, link building has come full circle. Building links today is much more akin to the “good ol’ days” when people first started building links, rather than the Wild West-style antics of the pre-Penguin era.
As Google continues to get better at identifying and devaluing link spam, link building as an industry is shifting back toward human value and interaction.
If Penguin ever updates again, it is expected to move to a real-time model. This would mean another step forward for Google in the battle against spam, making real links earned through human interaction even more valuable.
Real links require human interaction
The best way to acquire real links that search engines value is through human interaction. This means manual outreach to real people and site owners.
I recently attended SearchFest in Portland and sat in on Jon Cooper’s session about link building. One of the first points Jon made was that bulk link building is dead, and that links should come from one-on-one outreach with a real person.
Any site that lets you put a link up without any sort of human engagement or interaction probably isn’t a site you want a link on. You should be able to find a real human being who is clearly in charge of any site you target. Otherwise the site is likely abandoned, created purely for web spiders, or both.
Identifying appropriate link prospects also requires a human eye.
Relevance is the most important factor when considering a link prospect, and that can only be determined through human thought and consideration. Furthermore, you need to manually examine a site to see if there is a real audience by looking at blog comments and social shares.
Metrics measured by algorithms and machines (such as Domain Authority, Page Authority and Trust Flow) are important, but they only provide a piece of the full picture. It takes a human link builder to combine that information with other factors like relevance and audience engagement to assess the true value of a link prospect.
Worthwhile links don’t happen without a real connection. If a link to your site isn’t going to benefit a site owner’s audience, then you won’t get a link — and you shouldn’t.
Links are for people, not spiders
Eric Ward was building links before search engines were popular because links are meant for human users, not search crawlers.
Links were useful and necessary long before Google existed. Google became the search giant it is today because it recognized the inherent value in links online and leveraged this value for their search algorithm.
Links help people traverse the web. Without links, the internet would be an unnavigable mess of information, and search engines like Google couldn’t function. Consider a human-first approach when earning links, and think about how the links you build will help your audience find your site.
Google will never devalue or penalize links that are built with a human-first approach, because they are foundational to the way its algorithm operates.
Links are public endorsements. Of course, links signal authority to search engines, but they also signal trust and respect to human readers. If a site owner wants to endorse or recommend another site to their audience, they link to it. A link provides a direct pathway to the recommended site, and there is no simpler or better way to endorse another site online.
Links also improve user experience, particularly for online content. Links can be used as citations or references to add depth to content. Rather than expanding on a large, complicated topic, links provide a way to deliver important information to your readers without having to distract from your main point.
As a link builder, you should be promoting your resources to the appropriate sites because links help connect the web and improve the overall user experience.
Using a “human-first” approach for link building
Understanding that link building is a human endeavor is one thing, but putting that philosophy into practice is another.
Here are some general guidelines for using a human-first approach for link acquisition:
- Focus on relevance: Explain to another person (colleague, friend or client) why a given link opportunity is relevant. If you can’t plainly state why it’s relevant, don’t pursue that link.
- Operate with an audience-first mindset: When prospecting, prioritize sites your customers frequently visit over general authority metrics.
- Consider context: Think about where your link might appear on a page and whether or not someone would click it. If so, would they be pleased with where it takes them?
- Human outreach: Remember that there is a real (and likely busy) person on the other side of your outreach, and treat them as such. Always be polite and considerate.
- Deliver value: Earn links that offer a “triple-win” for your site, the linking site and human readers that find them.