Last week I published an article on Search Engine Land about link building in a post penguin 4.0 world with real-time filtering of spam links. In the article, I talk about the importance of quality in all link building endeavours and how important it is to really build something of quality and ensure the link to your site enriches the linking page.
All common sense stuff, with its roots firmly set in doing good marketing that helps people achieve their goals – fair enough right? I would certainly recommend that you read the article as it provides more context.
Link Building Tactics
However, it appears that a few of the big guns at Google picked up on some of my comments in the article where I talked about potential tactics that businesses can use. This was all high-level stuff and surrounded by stark declarations of the importance of quality and creating value for the real folks who would create and place these links.
1. Basic prospecting.
Using a range of advanced query operators, you can often find resource pages or even (shock, horror!) highly ranking and well-maintained directories that are relevant to the product or service you provide. The more content you have on your site, the easier it becomes to find sites that are linking to similar resources and that will consider linking to you. Search for your keywords +resources, +links, +directory and other terms that indicate a relevant resource.
Then do the requisite research. (More details.)
In particular, it seems to be mention of directories that sparked the problems:
Directories are very often not the right way to build links. Make sure you know what you’re doing & remember that there’s manual actions too
— Gary Illyes (@methode) September 30, 2016
Directories? o_O #timewarp
— John Mueller (@JohnMu) September 30, 2016
I would really recommend folks read the original article to get the context, but there was certainly never any suggestion to go and spam backwater SEO friendly link directories of the type that existed in abundance pre-Penguin.
In fact, if we take just a couple of other statements from the article, that at least provides some brief context to the qualitative approach I was pushing for:
“This game is all about determining what is right for you and adding links to your site that enrich the web and make the linking page a better place. Of course, to do this, you have to focus on ensuring your site is the very best it can possibly be so the linking site is improved by the link to yours.”
“The best SEO often comes down to common sense. Spammy directory listings did not make sense. They were there purely for SEO. This backwards approach meant many sites were top-heavy with links with no content. All that time and effort spent, and no real value added to the site.”
I really felt that was pretty clear – yet Google seems to disagree.
Are Directories Really Dead?
I think it is important to not scaremonger here and to remember that nothing is black and white, and certainly, online business directories are a perfect example of this.
As a quick example, a search for ‘plumber in Birmingham’ returns a set of organic results where the top 5 are all business directories and 8 of the 10 links on the first page are directories or resources.
Here are the results (as of writing) for plumber in Birmingham (UK)
Top 5 listings are directories (for want of a better name)
Out of the remaining 5 links, another two are directories and one is a listing of relevant resources (so a directory of sorts?).
Clearly, if you were a plumber then visibility on 80% of the organic listings for those search terms has value away from SEO, and as such is a valuable marketing tactic.
Surely, the point here should be to focus on things that have a real world marketing benefit and not to do things that exist purely in an SEO vacuum? If these strategies have a marketing justification and potentially help signal to a search engine the relevance and credibility of that business, then surely that is a good thing? After all – what is a directory? Is Yell.com? Is Trip Advisor? Is checkatrade? Is this just a problem of semantics. Folks in the spam department thing “oh – directories“. Certainly, we are no Yell fanboys around these parts, but you have to play the ball as it lies.
I feel that there should be some form of Hippocratic Oath for being an SEO – first, do no harm. That is something we have always fought for here and I have always believed in. If some tactic is dodgy or exists away from the site and only for some strange SEO-only reason, then it is likely to be harmful. Would you be happy talking to someone from Google about this? That’s a good measuring stick? Would I be happy to explain getting listed in those 8 page #1 directories for a plumbing client – damn right I would. I would want photos; honest reviews and useful information on each and every one of those listings. That has a clear marketing benefit.
The point I was trying to make was about using the search engine to find resources that are highly visible and relevant, then adding links to these pages where possible that help a potential customer find your resource or business. Context is important here. Generalisation is difficult. I suggest using Google to do this, as you identify resources that are already considered of a high quality by the engine. You judge sites by the very same measuring stick the search engine uses itself.
So – should a plumber avoid listing his business on these sites due to fear of a manual penalty? Are we asking the right questions here? Or is this a knee-jerk reaction based on the directory link building of old, where some enterprising spammer would create 1000s of directory links via some software and sell it for $99 or some such?
Stick a Fork in It
Back in 2014, guest blogging was a popular SEO strategy until the then-reigning king of anti-spam Matt Cutts declared that guest blogging was done and that we should “stick a fork in it”. Of course, guest blogging, if done with marketing and quality as the driving metric, still has a huge marketing benefit and likely has positive implications for your SEO, even if those are indirect by people finding you and talking about you etc. My post, after all, was noticed by these Google top boys as it was on a highly visible platform. Had I published those recommendations on this little backwater blog then likely no one would have seen it and as such, no one would have cared.
Certainly, guest blogging at that point had got nasty. Spam blogs were set up with the purpose of hosting low-quality guest posts. Blog networks were set up so folks could cross-post on each other’s sites and drop in anchor text links to manipulate search results. SEO agencies were pitching every mom and pop blog out there to give them free content – in exchange for a link or two. It needed to be pulled in some, and just mirrors the myriad of other tactics that got popular and then got abused over the years – just like the old-school directories of yesteryear.
The problem here is the black and white nature of these statements, and Matt actually revised his post to make that clearer. Certainly, I tried my damnedest with that post to try and indicate that relevance and quality were the key points here, but it seems that the powers that be zeroed in on a single element and the subsequent post on Search Engine Round Table also kind of took it out of context – in fact, the actual statement was scissored mid-sentence to better fit the context of that article (and further detach it from the context of the original).
“Using a range of advanced query operators, you can often find resource pages or even (shock, horror!) highly ranking and well-maintained directories that are relevant to the product or service you provide.”
As quoted on Search Engine Round Table:
“highly ranking and well-maintained directories that are relevant to the product or service you provide.”
Even without the preceding context of the rest of the sentence and then the surrounding article – still there was clearly no suggestion to spam directories.
What Does Google Say?
If we look at the general guidelines from Google Webmaster Support, I am still comfortable with my recommendations and reasoning here: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35769?hl=en
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
My suggestions seem pretty much in line with this, other than Google seems to have umbrage with any placed link to your site, which would be fine if the advice was consistent with that and 80% of the search results for common business queries were not these dastardly directories that we should seemingly avoid.
Clarification or Scaremongering?
You know – maybe I should not have used the dirty word directories. Maybe I should have called them industry specific portals or… well, I am not sure what else you would call Yell.com who even describe themselves as a “business directory” in their page title. These resources are highly visible in the small business world, so should businesses avoid them? Are you confused? I am, and certainly the “ha, ha, ha – white hat brigade” would not do such a thing – but would that be the most helpful approach in the scenario outlined here?
I would be horrified if someone read my post and went and bought a bunch of old-school spam directory links with optimised anchor text. Horrified. Yet, I feel the comments from Google here have only served to further confuse the matter, rather than creating clear guidelines for users to follow.
My Advice – Use the Smell Test
This stuff could drive you mad. As I stated in the original article, use common sense. Do things that smell like good marketing. If you google your own search terms and 8 out of 10 of those sites are directories, then go and get listed. Make sure you don’t do daft old-school SEO like naming the business your main keyword. Simply, represent your business as best as possible: reviews, testimonials, clear descriptions, accreditations etc – you do good work, don’t be afraid to tell the world about it.
Maybe I am wrong and I would certainly love to get some feedback from John & Gary at Google if they believe this is bad advice, so I will ping them this article and see if we can get some clarity for the little people!