I was describing the other day to a perspective client the ins and outs of a link building strategy and how it should fit into your overall plan in terms of improving the search visibility of your website. Google has for many years been very clear on the idea that selling links is a bad thing to do and those found to have done so will be punished.
The fundamental problem for Google in this area is that inbound links are by far the strongest ranking factor in their algorithm. Google sees an inbound link in a similar way to a vote, not only does it factor in how many votes your site has but also how many votes the site linking to you has, and so on (this is pagerank).
Here’s the problem. Pagerank was conceptualised in 1998 and while search engine optimisation has no rule book; SEOs have had 13 years to experiment, examine, test and re-test theories to get a reasonable picture of what works and what doesn’t, and links work.
For most individuals and small businesses starting up online, the ones that break Google’s guidelines will find it easier to rank well than the ones that don’t. I’ve been in the exact same situation countless times; I believe in protecting the brands I’m entrusted with, I believe in following Google’s webmaster guidelines, white hat SEO, responsible SEO and fairness for all. Ultimately Google make their own rules really hard to follow because often you’ll follow them to the letter and see websites out-perform your own who’ve broken every rule going and only seen it improve their rankings.
Sometimes I wonder if Google are complacent or just puzzled. They must be aware that their search results are often manipulated by brands and SEO companies who will use any tactic to get quick results, so why sit back and do nothing?. Is it that they can’t or is it that they wont. The former I find implausible because of the quality and quantity of brillaint minds and skilled individuals they have at teh disposal, while the latter I find scary because I want to believe Google genuinely should and do take their power and responsibility seriously and don’t ‘do evil’.
It’s this very idea of not doing evil that I like to bring to the table when working with companies who need to build links. When Google invented pagerank it worked because people naturally linked to each other, either as an endorsement of the content they were linking to, or as a (paid) advertisement. The problem we have now is that how do you advertising online without getting a link?, Google’s own adwords and adsense programs amount to little more that people paying for links, so how do we possible distinguish between a good paid link and a bad paid link?. I know some people may argue that the nofollow tag does this, but I think that too much a technical concept for your average web user to understand how and why they are using it.
So what I come back to time and time again when link building is similar to Google’s ‘don’t do evil’ rule. Placing relevant good quality links on websites with similar themes and content as your own, exposing sites users to a similar website because if they found that interesting they may find your site interesting is not an evil or dishonest thing to do, it’s simply trying to attract visitors to your site. And until Google offers a better alternative in terms of ranking websites, it remains a fundamental part of online marketing for any website looking to rank well.