Link Building Illustration

Ass Backwards Link Building

After well over fifteen years in this search engine optimisation business, I can quite honestly say that this industry is crazy. Despite Google’s best efforts, street level SEO is still such a backwater industry, that I often find myself ashamed to call myself an SEO. It’s little wonder that SEOMoz dropped the SEO and now just go by Moz.com. In the eyes of many, we are effectively the used car salesman of marketing. And that sucks.

Why is this the case? Search engines are one of the most amazing and wonderful additions to our modern world. We only have to go back 20 years or so, and getting answers to questions required a trip to the library and hours spent poring over books and microfiche archives. Now, we can just Google it.

Think about it. Anything you want to know. You can just Google it. That is completely amazing. Even us old un’s take the Internet and search engines for granted now, yet search is one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

 

Google’s mission statement helps frame this:

“to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

 

What a great and noble purpose. Who would not want to be involved in that? And from a marketing perspective, how amazing to have been involved from the early days. Should I wear my SEO badge proudly – right?

 

Most SEO companies have a different mission

 

Most companies exist with the primary goal of making money. They are not driven by a set of values, and they certainly don’t strive to create an exceptional customer experience. And unfortunately, many SEO companies are built on this foundation of greed over morals.

Now, I am not so naive to see that Google makes money. Lots of it in fact. But they do this through this amazing platform which they have built. I would rather have a search engine with adverts than no search engine at all. I suspect that most people feel the same. Google shows adverts – we get access to the world’s information for free. No complaints from me there.

However, with the ubiquity of search and the spread of smartphones, we now live in an always-on environment. If I want to find a plumber, a new bike, a new house, or even a new spouse (which I don’t – quite happy there), I will likely start with a Google search. Most likely that search will take place on my mobile phone.

So, it naturally follows that businesses want to be found in search engine results. So, they turn to the experts – the self-proclaimed SEO consultants and companies who can help raise their business to the top of the page.

The problem is that Google wants to show the best and most relevant results first. Businesses often want to grab a larger slice of that digital pie than they really deserve. They want to swim upstream and make the search engines bend to their will. Google wants to return quality and relevance. Companies want to own that digital page space. Battle ensues.

There is, of course, a never-ending stream of SEO companies that will offer to ‘get you to the top of Google’, but just how do they do this? How do they influence the search engine to show your site before that of another potentially closer, bigger or longer established business?

More importantly – do they work in a way that Google is happy with, and that will return long term results? Alternatively, is this work all done behind a digital curtain?

 

How search engines work

 

To understand what most SEO companies do to help ‘get you to the top of Google’, we must first understand how search engines work, and in particular, how Google works.

 

This is a view from 10,000,000 feet:

Search engines have to key the factors that are influencing how visible your site is for a given search term (in a given location).

1. Relevancy – does your site provide a good result for the question asked? If I search for ‘carpenter Birmingham’, then I am looking for a local carpenter and that is what I want to see.

2. Authority – there are of course going to be many results for a given query, so authority/popularity is used to help order the results.

 

These two key factors (with many nuances) provide the core basis of how the search engine works. The quality of the content is assessed, and then the popularity is determined by how many other authoritative sites link to that piece of content.

To help determine quality, Google developed the PageRank algorithm. PageRank, named in part after Google co-founder Larry Page, looks at the number and quality of links that point to a given site, and individual pages on a given site, to determine how authoritative and popular that site is.

Google uses PageRank to assign a numerical weighting to a given document in a set. Other factors, such as the quality of the content, the authority and relevance of the hosting site, and even the author, can affect the end result.

 

The following diagram provides an overview of how PageRank is applied in a given set, with the relevant authority shown by the size and number of links:

 

Ass Backwards link building

 

PageRank takes the idea from an academic citation, in which a paper cited by many other trusted (and well-cited) papers is likely to be of high quality. Although relatively simple, it was this well-executed idea that thrust Google into the big time, and crushed many of the early search engines like HotBot and AltaVista.

I am not going to go into great detail here, but there is a great Wikipedia entry that I strongly recommend you read, which will give you a good overview of the history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PageRank

 

The SEO Agency Business Model

 

So, with PageRank using links to determine where a site ranks, it naturally follows that in order to improve a site’s visibility, it needs to be of high quality and relevance. It then needs to get more links – and this is where the problems start.

This has created an environment where SEO companies don’t have industry expertise for their clients, so they focus primarily on building links. In the early days, almost any link would do. I had a few personal sites that we experimented with circa 1999, and some links in the footer/sidebar on every page would rank other sites with ease, even in topically unrelated fields.

SEO companies cottoned on to this, and more and more sites sprang up purely for the purpose of hosting outbound links to help sites rank.

This should not have worked so well, but unfortunately, it did, and often the easiest and most cost-effective way to compete was to just churn out hundreds of crappy links, and there was always an SEO company willing to do so.

The problem was that this was always against Google’s webmaster guidelines. Occasionally, sites would get hit by a manual penalty, but the web is a big place, and policing this at scale can’t be easy. It must, therefore, be done by the search algorithm itself.

In 2011 Google started releasing major qualitative components to the algorithm. Panda came first and tackled the quality of the sites and the written content contained on sites. This was swiftly followed by Penguin, which tackled the quality of links on the site.

Many businesses simply plummeted from view. In many cases, several years of effective but wholly dodgy links fell away. Penguin had a punitive element, in which overt targeting of specific phrases led to penalties for those terms. Penguin iterated and improved, and many sites are still seeing problems today. We have picked up two clients in the last week that are seemingly still labouring under problems due to the quality of the links pointing to the site. It’s either this or that they are struggling due to a lack of focus on building quality exposure and links. Likely a bit of both.

The problem is that as soon as one way of artificially ranking a site is squashed, another one comes along. As the spam directory and article sites were crushed by Penguin and Panda, they were swiftly replaced by private blog network (PBN) sites. These are often sites that have some authority but have expired – they are then registered and have a very simple blog or page added. This content then links to the site being promoted. These sites are created purely for the purpose of taking the authority of the previous site and passing that along as a vote to the client’s site.

This approach is popular with SEO firms as it’s just so easy. Find an expired domain with some relevance and authority, spin up one page templated site, add some $5 content, and drop a link in there. BOOM. The job was done. Time to get back on the phone and drum up some more SEO business

 

(top tip: never trust an Internet marketing company that does aggressive outbound marketing).

 

Site owners are also not entirely blame free. Money talks and strong search results for commercial phrases have made a lot of folks a truckload of money. Who cares if it’s not guideline compliant? Also, if you had the choice between paying £250 PM for the quick and easy approach, or £2500 PM for a slow and steady approach, then folks will often go with the cheap and nasty option – money talks and sustainable SEO runs a marathon.

There is a big grey area here as well. If an SEO company sells you this kind of dodgy approach as being totally Google safe, whitehat, guideline compliant (etc yada yada) but is knowingly breaking the rules, then that is not cool. Likewise, Google does not own the Internet, and if you want to try and sculpt the results in your favour for fun and profit, and you do it with your eyes open, then have it.

Ultimately, many SEO companies are still doing things the cheap and nasty way. They are putting their customers at risk whilst selling them a story about guideline compliance.

This creates a seemingly never-ending game of cops and robbers, with Google policing their results from sites that have artificially improved their position, and the SEO companies switching to the latest daft, short-term tactic to artificially improve results.

Ass Backwards SEO

 

Consider PageRank and the core idea here and distill it down:

  • Something of value is cited (linked to) by other well cited documents.
  • Something of value is linked to.
  • Something of value

 

This is where most outsourced SEO goes wrong. Or, gets it ass backward! They don’t create the initial value. They don’t create the thing that other authoritative and high quality sites would link to.

So, without anything to really link to, they are forced to create sites or generate links from backwater websites with no authority. Any big and credible source will not just link to your local plumbing business – why would they? But if you published a complete guide to plumbing jobs you can do yourself and promoted that in the right way, you may well get some play (and a boat load of links).

So the SEO companies create sites and try to play the system. They use cheap parlour tricks to rank your business, whilst playing against the biggest and best brains in world that Google employs, as they try to make the world’s information useful and accessible.

This is completely backwards – they don’t start with the value – and then they try to fake the links. Really think on that for a moment. Ass backwards.

 

Google’s business model

 

Consider Google’s own business model. They create a search engine to provide this wondrous access to information. It is free. And utterly amazing. My children of 12, 10 and 4 have never known the world without search. They use it primarily for entertainment, but research for homework is easier now too. How much more do our children know, and how much more information do they have easy access to than we had? How will this change the world over the coming generations?

We use Google as it is a wonderful resource. In return, they get to show us adverts. Give and take. Value leads to results. This is the way that things should be done.

Consider Wikipedia. A free, online Encyclopaedia. Plenty of value there. And guess what – Wikipedia has plenty of links. Quite literally billions of them. This is shown by this screenshot from the popular SEO link analysis tool Majestic.

 

Majestic SEO

 

The basic principle here is that to get links that Google likes, you need to create something of value. It is wrong to assume that links will just tumble in, though, and you have to then promote the hell out of what you have just created.

Smart thinking here is to find something that has been built previously, has lots of links, and that you could do better. Create the new and improved version, and let all the folks that linked to the previous version know about it. Tell the world. Share it via social media, and try to get influential folks to share it with their audience.

It is not to say this is easy – it is part art and part science. But it works, it is safe, sustainable, won’t upset Google, and can be scaled. In practical terms, for most small businesses a single piece of epic content with a solid outreach campaign can make all the difference.

Most importantly of all, you are starting with value. You are playing by the rules. You won’t get penalised and see a sudden loss of traffic.

 

Links still matter

 

Search has evolved considerably over the last twenty years. However, links still matter. But Google and the search engines will only get smarter. You must create something of value and use that to help you generate links that will stand the test of time.

We are on the verge of a new iteration of the Penguin Algorithm – if your SEO company takes your money each month and you don’t really know what they do with it, then it is time to ask the question. Or else that precious search engine traffic your business relies on to generate leads and new business may suddenly and scarily fall away.

If you would like some help understanding your link profile or the links built for you by your current SEO company, we will happily give you a second opinion.

 


References

 

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines – https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35769?hl=en

Wikipedia PageRank – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Google Panda – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Panda

Google Penguin – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Penguin

 

 

 

Marcus Miller
marcus@bowlerhat.co.uk

Marcus is our Digital Strategist. He’s been working in the industry for nearly 20 years and wears many (bowler) hats as a highly technical developer and SEO, and even has a fancy computer science degree to prove it.

5 Comments
  • AMIR JAFARI
    Posted at 15:19h, 29 April Reply

    Great article. These people give real marketers a bad name. I can’t tell you how many clients we’ve dealt with that had used these churn and burn ‘agencies’, charged $1k+/mo and all they did was the Fiverr spam links and automate some low quality social content.

    • Marcus
      Posted at 06:31h, 05 May Reply

      Great business model for the morally corrupt! Much tougher for those of us that actually feel an ethical responsibility in how we promote our clients! 🙂

  • Shawn Kirby
    Posted at 05:06h, 04 October Reply

    Thanks for another great article that I can safely show my clients how the web is supposed to work and generally does. It also lets them know that I am not full of BS when I tell them that fresh, informative content will pay off big time and no company can promise you page 1 on Google period, but to do it without cheating with every client they have is virtually impossible they believe me. Thanks again, Marcus

    • Marcus Miller
      Posted at 07:47h, 04 October Reply

      Hey Shawn – glad you enjoyed. Cheers. 🙂

  • Suresh Sarode
    Posted at 11:54h, 14 October Reply

    Great article Marcus. This content helps for new comer SEOs.
    Thanks.

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