Why I Shall No Longer Use The Term Link Building

First, let me begin by clearly stating that this is not another “link building is dead” article. Anyone who claims that links are dead just hasn’t been paying attention to either Google or what’s going on around them. To be honest, I’m fine with folks believing links are dead as it makes my job easier (and yours too) so let’s leave them believing it and move on.

At this point you may be asking, “If he’s saying links aren’t dead then why is he stopping using the term link building?” Great question hypothetical you, so let’s get to that part…

Link Building Circa 2000

Let’s take a very quick walk down memory lane. For those of you who weren’t doing SEO back in the early 2000s, link building was essentially the speedy development of links using a wide array of strategies – some legitimate, some less so. Those were the days of article syndication, forum commenting, low-grade directories, etc. – all the things you can’t do now. For that reason the job of “link builder” was straight forward, it was a person who generated individual links in pre-determined locations on a schedule. I personally could build 7 or 8 links an hour on a one-by-one basis and that’s not getting into the volume-focused spam, just using things like forum signatures. Again – that was in the early 2000s and it worked. I am not saying to do this now.

So let’s flash forward to…

Link Building Circa 2010

By 2010 Google had come a long way and link building had become more akin to PR than its prior iterations. While some of the old strategies still worked, the writing was on the wall that not only were the easier link strategies being devalued but they could lead to penalties. This is about the time we started seeing a bunch of “Link Building Is Dead!” articles flooding out. Was it dead? No. Is it dead today? No. Will it be dead tomorrow? Not for years at the very least.

This all said, by 2010 it had changed dramatically and between 2010 and 2015 it had continued along that path with dramatic changes to the valuations of specific types of links and the strategies used to develop them. I don’t think I need to talk about the Penguin updates as a case-in-point so I won’t, save to say … it’s a case-in-point.

But why am I getting into all this? The reason is simply that it’s good to understand where things have been to see where they’re going. In fact, this is the sole reason I’m moving away from the term “link building” altogether – it’s not that links don’t count and won’t into the future, it’s that the writing is on the wall that the area itself is expanding to include far more than it has in the past.

If Not Link Building – What Is It?

Undoubtedly there will be a variety of names and sub-names for what link building is to become. I’ve recently begun referring to it internally at Beanstalk as Offsite Signal Development but that’s a bit technical to become a layperson’s verbiage. On our site we refer to it as “Offsite Signal Driving”. Whatever you call it … it’s no longer just link building.

Let’s take for example the move to “outreach” that started a few years back. The reason for this was the shift away from the directed forum posting, directories and other one-to-one link to communication with real people to find to acquire links through the development of these relationships, communications channels and some great content. It was still qualified as link building however as the primary goal of the exercise was to develop links. Even the related social media work was designed to find and connect with authors or site owners in efforts to secure links. But we’re on the cusp of that changing. We’re not there yet…but it’s coming.

The idea first struck me while watching a Hangout with John Mueller. In this hangout he is asked about linking brand mentions with a domain, he goes on to answer whether an unlinked brand mention counts as a link. Now, for veterans in the space you’ll know that it’s important to not just listen to what the folks from Google are saying but also think about what they’re not saying. He is clear that a brand mention does not count as a link however he “imagines there might be indirect effects” and that they don’t use it as a “primary ranking factor”. If something is not a factor then one would state that it’s not a factor. To state something isn’t a primary factor leaves the door open to it being used, just not as a key metric.

What made it more interesting to me is that he goes on to qualify why they don’t count it as a link: because they can’t understand the context. Now consider further that a goal of Google as outlined by senior vice president Amit Singhal is to be an “expert friend” in every field and they have repeatedly discussed and filed patents regarding enhancing their ability to understand context and meaning. Essentially, the limitation to unlinked brand mentions being credited to a website is based on the very area Google is investing massive resources into improving. One can argue further that a negative mention thus could potentially be problematic once Google has higher confidence in this signal set and moves up its place in their algorithm.

While it was this realization that was the birth of my move to stop referring to the service as link building, thinking about other aspects of what Google would be looking to in the future makes this all the more relevant. As they add Twitter into their results, as they pull more and more structured data into the knowledge graph and as they strive to consider more the content and authority of the source as well as the intent of the searcher it becomes clear that over the coming years a lot more offsite signals are going to be coming into play.

It’s not that links are going away but rather that the areas covered by offsite factors is increasing. And so we must adjust our strategies, just as we all moved away from reciprocal links over a decade ago, we find ourselves moving from “Link Building” to “Signal Driving”.

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