Back to basics: Why you need to stop stressing over backlinks
Backlinks are important — there’s no argument on that fact. The emphasis that has been placed on backlinks in the past decade, however, has caused SEOs to hyper-focus on something that was never meant to be a marketing strategy.
I cannot count the number of times I have had conversations with clients, trying to impress upon them how they hurt their digital marketing efforts by prioritizing followed backlinks over relevancy, value and innovation in their marketing strategies.
In my experienced opinion (5+ years in the link business, 50+ clean-up efforts, 100-percent penalty removal success rate), the downward spiral of ineffectiveness begins the moment you start a marketing strategy conversation with, “What can we do to get followed backlinks?”
When backlinks become the primary KPI of your campaign, you’ve effectively shifted focus away from your customer and to your bottom line. Your readers will notice this lack of sincerity, as will the influencers you try to engage with.
The harder you work toward gaining followed links, the farther away you get from natural link acquisition
When you start taxing your brain to come up with all the various ways you can gain a followed backlink to your site while avoiding a manual penalty, you begin to lose sight of the original intent behind the existence of backlinks: citation.
In the World Wide Web’s infancy, links were used to connect pieces of information/research for the reader’s reference. Citation in academic research serves to support or argue a position or to provide the foundational learnings upon which the research was conducted.
The same holds true today for backlinks in the sphere of digital marketing, and, in my opinion, is the essence of what Google is trying to get at with their provisioning of the Link Schemes list. Links should be to content that is relevant to the topic, supports or argues a position or is recommended reading for those consuming a given piece of content to further inform themselves.
Scholars and scientists do not conduct their research with the goal of being cited by another paper — their goals (assumedly honorable) are to contribute to the research in that space and shed more light on a possible answer to a persistent question or problem. In sum, their goals are to contribute value and advance knowledge.
The same should go for any marketing strategy: Develop and market content for the benefit of and value to your readers, not for the possible backlinks.
The objective is not to “make your links appear natural,” the objective is that your links are natural.
If backlinks are like votes, then it follows that link spam could be likened to ballot stuffing, and followed advertisements and affiliate links likened to vote buying. When domains participate in these practices to influence their positions within organic search results, they are effectively influencing the governing body’s (aka Google’s) understanding of who the people voted for — and in turn, rigging the “election.”
In the real world, these actions can have serious consequences. In the SEO world, the same is true — sites are penalized (aka put in “Google Jail”) and demoted in rank, effectively pushing them out of their positions of influence. With penalization having the potential to impact thousands, if not millions of dollars in revenue, fixating on backlinks as a marketing strategy is a huge gamble for a lot of big-name sites.
Many digital marketers from the last decade have recklessly played the long con called link building and have bet against the house in the hopes of climbing the ranking ladder. A lot of us are guilty of this, including myself.
In the last few years, however, with the clarifications Google has made in its Quality Guidelines (Yes, Link Schemes provides clarity, if you know how to read between the lines), those who “get” this industry have recognized what it is Google wants and expects from their sites: a solid user experience, and valuable, authoritative information.
Backlinks are a happy result of a job well done
Backlinks were never meant to be the origin point of a marketing campaign, but rather a result of (or even reward for) those efforts. Sure, they contribute to how competitive you are in the search results, but this is based solely on the idea that those backlinks were legitimately gained and represent the people’s choice.
We, as SEOs, need to step away from the dials and stop trying to game an ever-evolving and highly complex algorithm. Instead, let’s get back to the SEO basics of building technically sound sites that crawlers can find, read and understand.
Let’s develop, market and share content that helps our customers improve their lives, expand their thinking and get involved in the important conversations happening around them. Let’s stop looking for the gaps in the system and start paying attention to what really matters: user value and a quality experience.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.