SEOLinks Should Only Be a Surprise? Nonsense!

Links Should Only Be a Surprise? Nonsense!

Bing's Duane Forrester says "You want links to surprise you." But these links are only possible if your site already has some visibility. Without link building, the pursuit of relevant and authoritative links, attracting visibility is difficult.


Google’s Matt Cutts is the superhero of combating webspam. Certainly he doesn’t work alone at the offices of Google; he has what is known as the webspam team. But this isn’t “The Avengers“; Cutts is the star of his own movie.

Of course, there are more people fighting webspam. Duane Forrester is one of those people; he’s the Cutts of Bing.

Forrester’s name recognition is much less widespread than Cutts’. This is simply due to the fact that Google hoards such an inordinately large share of the search market. This also might be due to the fact that Cutts releases an average of two to three videos per week, videos in which he takes the time to answer burning SEO questions. Even though he is a regular at conferences and is hardly averse to doing interviews, Forrester simply doesn’t have Cutts’ visibility.

A lot of what Forrester says can get lost in the shuffle, but every now and again he will make a bold pronouncement that pricks our ears.

What he said on May 9 of this year is as good an example of that as any. Let me draw your attention to myth number seven in particular.

  • Links are all I need

While important as a vote of confidence for the content they point to, there is simply so much link spam these days that it’s tough to know where to turn. Obviously buying links is a dead end, and it doesn’t matter how you split this hair: sharing, encouraging, incentivizing, buying – it’s all the same. You want links to surprise you. You should never know in advance a link is coming, or where it’s coming from. If you do, that’s the wrong path. Links are part of the bigger picture. You want them, but you want them to be natural. If an engine sees you growing tem naturally, you’re rewarded with rankings. If they see you growing them unnaturally, you’re rewarded with penalties.

First off, let me say that I concur that “links are all I need” is a ludicrous myth. I myself am a link builder, and I certainly can’t overemphasize enough the value that link equity provides in attaining visibility in the SERPs, but they are far from the only ranking factor. There are some 200+ other signals to consider.

And yes, there’s undeniably a hefty amount of link spam out there, the kind of stuff that strengthens the principle of “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

‘Surprise Links’

This is about where Forrester and I stop agreeing. The following segment of this myth simply left me confounded.

You want links to surprise you. You should never know in advance a link is coming, or where it’s coming from. If you do, that’s the wrong path.

Every now and again, you will get links that surprise you. It’s happened for our company site several times, and it’s a great feeling when it happens.

Here’s the catch-22 of this, however: these “surprise” links are only possible if your site already has some visibility. And without link building, the pursuit of relevant and authoritative links, attracting visibility is difficult.

Here’s something that I’ve learned during my time as a link builder: link building is no longer just SEO; link building is also promotion.

Link Building Is Promotion

This wasn’t always the case. Link building used to be a much more technical trade than what it is today. But the “e” in SEO often stands for evolution, because is it is an ever-changing industry.

SEO and link building have slowly but surely been integrated into the proverbial marketing funnel. Most comprehensive marketing strategies include an SEO component today.

This was most likely inevitable. Marketers are having to adapt to new channels provided by new technology.

Television reigned for several decades, but don’t let the present moniker of “the golden age of television” fool you: that’s more to do with the quality of the programming than the amount of people watching. In fact, a lot of these amazing new shows aren’t being watched traditionally, as Netflix has birthed the cultural phenomenon of binge-watching.

Succinctly said, we live on the Internet now, and even though the death of television advertising is often overstated, marketers are allocating more funds toward Internet marketing. Even though the two have a few differing characteristics, it’s still all about disseminating your brand message and name.

Links are a powerful form of marketing, because a link is an endorsement from another brand. It’s another site in your niche lending you authority and recommending you to the surfing public.

This is untrue of television advertising. The average watcher understands that a 30-second spot on “The Big Bang Theory” has been paid for. Yes a network can and sometimes does execute editorial authority over the brands that are not allowed to advertise on the network, but for the most part they will feature the advertisements of anyone willing to pay the price.

The Importance of Links

Links don’t work that way. Let me rephrase: links shouldn’t work that way.

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin made links the most powerful signal because they appreciated the value of a link, that a link was an endorsement from site A to site B. That’s why you want the links. It isn’t only because you want to increase your rankings, but also because a link is a message that you are trustworthy or offer a unique value.

Links are an incredibly powerful branding tool. The more users see that other authority sites are willing to link to you, the more likely those users are going to believe you are such an authority.

But links don’t just come to you, and if your site is relatively new, no one is going to find your site in a search engine if you don’t have any links. You have to do the work to get your name out there.

This is link building.

Why It’s OK to Pursue Links

An email pitch to a webmaster is no longer just a plea for that webmaster to lend you a little link equity. More importantly, it’s a promotion of your site, a call-to-action that your site is a valuable resource to users/readers of her/his site.

This is why I find Forrester’s proclamation so egregious. Why is it so wrong to notify another webmaster that you have a page or asset on your site that may contribute to the value of that person’s site? Yes, the end goal is to increase your own visibility, but if you’re adding to the user experience that search engines like Bing are so eager to preserve, that seems like a good thing to me.

And as I said before, it’s simply foolish to think links should only come as a surprise. A majority of Web traffic is directed by search engines. These engines depend on links in order to determine rankings for search terms. But if a webmaster for a burgeoning site isn’t allowed to promote her/his site for links, how does that site have any hope for ranking?

Thankfully, Cutts acted as a voice of reason at SMX Advanced earlier this month:

Q8: Is link building just dead? You keep saying a new tactic is dead, or must be nofollowed, is it really you just don’t want people to try to build links at all?

Cutts: No, link building is not dead. And a very small percentage of links on the web are nofollowed. There’s a lot of mileage left in links.

(Danny clarifies that he doesn’t mean links in general, but instead people building links).

Cutts: Duane Forrester had an article on Bing’s Webmaster Blog that said you should never know a link is coming – that’s the wrong path. That’s going a little bit far. Really, do compelling stuff and your links will take care of themselves – if you’re doing great stuff you won’t always know about the links you will get. Add value. “It’s easier to be real, than it is to fake real.”

It’s clear from this interview that the goal should be to create compelling content and do what you can to add to the user experience. Some links will come to you “by surprise” – and you can track those incoming links fairly easily – but it isn’t wrong to approach other webmasters in your niche to alert them of your valuable content. Just don’t abuse that privilege and teeter toward spam.

As marketing evolves and moves more toward the Internet, search engines must be able to accommodate. After all, sites like Google and Bing contributed to the rise of the Internet.

Link building isn’t just for the socially isolated hackers anymore; it’s in the boardroom meetings of major conglomerates. You would think that Bing, a subsidiary of a major conglomerate themselves, would be able to appreciate that.


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