The Death of Natural Linking

As readers of this column know, links play an incredibly important role in rankings. While a search engine can scan the contents of a web page and get a good idea regarding the topic of a web page, this isn’t sufficient because it doesn’t provide the right type of signals to indicate which pages are the most important ones for any given topic (i.e., of web pages on the same topic, who to rank first, second…).

Links act like votes for a given piece of content, and as a result content with the best link profile usually does extremely well in the rankings for related terms.

The problem is that there is so much money related to search that this approach caused the birth of link buying industry, other types of spam, and corresponding problems for search quality. Accordingly, the link based ranking algorithms adapted to do a better job of handling this type of activity. But there are still problems with the link-based algorithms, and this has caused the search engines to look for other signals, such as signals from social media sites.

This has led to many theorizing that natural link building is dead. Or that links are no longer as valuable as a citation and other signals are needed.

In “The Death and Rebirth of Editorial Citation on the Web,” Rand Fishkin suggested that perhaps as much as 20 percent of the links on the web exist solely for the purpose of influencing search rankings. If true, this would certainly suggest that editorial links are losing some of the value they had when Google launched.

The implications of Rand’s post are clear. Get working on social media now, as it will become a big ranking factor. I agree.

But the next question to answer is how to balance your investment in link building with your investment in social media. Do you put 30 percent of your time in social media and the rest in link building related programs? Forty percent in social media? More?

The topic of natural linking was also addressed on Michael Gray’s blog in “I listened to Google and Failed.” The argument was that natural link building no longer works — that the idea of building great content, supplementing that with some Digg front page placements, and some guest posting isn’t enough. Matt Cutts’ video on natural link building was also referenced.

So now let me now ask the challenging question: If you aren’t good enough to be worth linking to, then what do you have anyway?

Regardless of the amount of manipulation out there, the truth will come out in the end. Perhaps social media will play a key role in this, as people on social media sites seem to revel in outing cheaters or crappy stuff (note that both posts agree that you benefit from great content).

In a recent Twitter discussion, Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim provided this answer to my query about how to build links: “do remarkable things.” The next question, then, is how do you promote it?

That’s the $64,000 question. Do you go out and start spamming forums to create your “whitehat” links? Do you buy links, or swap them en masse? Do you use a mix of social media and guest posting? Do you create badges and widgets, or syndicate content?

There are a ton of choices, and you need to figure out what the right approach is for you.

I stay away from buying links, or from spamming forums. I’ve had relatively poor results from social news and social bookmarking sites.

I like doing PR, both via press release and the old fashioned manual way, syndicating high quality content, identifying link rich market segments from competitive analysis, and strategies of these types. This approach has worked extremely well.

As for social media, you need to be investing in this. How quickly it will become a significant ranking factor isn’t clear, and I don’t expect it to happen overnight, but it’s time will come.

Even so, links will still be a big factor. Bear in mind, if 20 percent of the web’s links exist to influence search results, than that means that 80 percent do not. Still a lot of meat there for the search engines.

For me, 30 percent of marketing energy into social media makes sense. Make sure you have a strong foothold in it.

So now it’s up to you. What has worked for you? What are your frustrations in building your web site traffic? What tactics are your competitors using that are causing them to get rankings you don’t think they deserve?

Join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ’s Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, e-mail marketing, the real time web, local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an expo floor with 100+ companies, networking events, parties and more!

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