The Future of Link Building
Building the types of links that help grow your online business and organic search traffic is getting harder. It used to be fairly straightforward, back before Google worked out how to treat links with different levels of quality and trust. However, the fact that it's getting harder doesn't mean that it's dead.
What does the future hold?
I'm going to talk about links, but the truth is, the future isn't really about the links. It is far bigger than that.
Quick sidenote: I'm aware that doing a blog post about the future of link building the week of a likely Penguin update could leave me with egg on my face! But we'll see what happens.
Links will always be a ranking factor in some form or another. I can see the dials being turned down or off on certain aspects of links (more on that below) but I think they will always be there. Google is always looking for more data, more signals, more indicators of whether or not a certain page is a good result for a user at a certain moment in time. They will find them too, as we can see from patents such as this. A natural consequence is that other signals may be diluted or even replaced as Google becomes smarter and understands the web and users a lot better.
What this means for the future is that the links valued by Google will be the ones you get as a result of having a great product and great marketing. Essentially, links will be symptomatic of amazing marketing. Hat tip to Jess Champion who I've borrowed this term from.
This isn't easy, but it shouldn't be. That's the point.
To go a bit further, I think we also need to think about the bigger picture. In the grand scheme of things, there are so many more signals that Google can use which, as marketers, we need to understand and use to our advantage. Google is changing and we can't bury our heads in the sand and ignore what is going on.
A quick side note on spammy links
My background is a spammy one so I can't help but address this quickly. Spam will continue to work for short-term hits and churn and burn websites. I've talked before about my position on this so I won't go into too much more detail here. I will say though that those people who are in the top 1% of spammers will continue to make money, but even for them, it will be hard to maintain over a long period of time.
Let's move onto some more of the detail around my view of the future by first looking at the past and present.
What we've seen in the past
Google didn't understand links.
The fundamental issue that Google had for a long, long time was that they didn't understand enough about links. They didn't understand things such as:
- How much to trust a link
- Whether a link was truly editorially given or not
- Whether a link was paid for or not
- If a link was genuinely high quality (PageRank isn't perfect)
- How relevant a link was
Whilst they still have work to do on all of these, they have gotten much better in recent years. At one time, a link was a link and it was pretty much a case of whoever had the most links, won. I think that for a long time, Google was trying very hard to understand links and find which ones were high quality, but there was so much noise that it was very difficult. I think that eventually they realised that they had to attack the problem from a different angle and Penguin came along. So instead of focusing on finding the "good" signals of links, they focused on finding the "bad" signals and started to take action on them. This didn't fix everything, but it did enough to shock our industry into moving away from certain tactics and therefore, has probably helped reduce a lot of the noise that Google was seeing.
What we're seeing right now
Google is understanding more about language.
Google is getting better at understanding everything. Hummingbird was just the start of what Google hopes to achieve on this front and it stands to reason that the same kind of technology that helps the following query work, will also help Google understand links better.
Not many people in the search industry said much when Google hired this guy back in 2012. We can be pretty sure that it's partly down to his work that we're seeing the type of understanding of language that we are. His work has only just begun, though, and I think we'll see more queries like the one above that just shouldn't work, but they do. I also think we'll see more instances of Googlers not knowing why something ranks where it does.
Google is understanding more about people.
I talk about this a little more below but to quickly summarise here, Google is learning more about us all the time. It can seem creepy, but the fact is that Google wants as much data as possible from us so that they can serve more relevant search results—and advertising of course. They are understanding more that the keywords we type into Google may not actually be what we want to find, nor are those keywords enough to find what we really want. Google needs more context.
Tom Anthony has talked about this extensively so I won't go into loads more detail. But to bring it back to link building, it is important to be aware of this because it means that there are more and more signals that could mean the dial on links gets turned down a bit more.
Some predictions about the future
I want to make a few things more concrete about my view of the future for link building, so let's look at a few specifics.
1. Anchor text will matter less and less
Anchor text as a ranking signal was always something that works well in theory but not in reality. Even in my early days of link building, I couldn't understand why Google put so much weight behind this one signal. My main reason for this view was that using exact match keywords in a link was not natural for most webmasters. I'd go as far as to say the only people who used it were SEOs!
I'm don't think we're at a point yet where anchor text as a ranking signal is dead and it will take some more time for Google to turn down the dial. But we definitely are at a point where you can get hurt pretty badly if you have too much commercial anchor text in your link profile. It just isn't natural.
In the future, Google won't need this signal. They will be much better at understanding the content of a page and importantly, the context of a page.
2. Deep linking will matter less and less
I was on the fence about this one for a long time but the more I think about it, the more I can see this happening. I'll explain my view here by using an example.
Let's imagine you're an eCommerce website and you sell laptops. Obviously each laptop you sell will have its own product page and if you sell different types, you'll probably have category pages too. With a products like laptops, chances are that other retailers sell the same ones with the same specifications and probably have very similar looking pages to yours. How does Google know which one to rank better than others?
Links to these product pages can work fine but in my opinion, is a bit of a crude way of working it out. I think that Google will get better at understanding the subtle differences in queries from users which will naturally mean that deep links to these laptop pages will be one of many signals they can use.
Take these queries:
Context: I want to buy a laptop but I don't know which one.
"asus laptop reviews"
Context: I like the sound of Asus, I want to read more about their laptops.
"sony laptop reviews"
Context: I also like the sound of Sony, I want to read more about their laptops.
"sony vs asus laptop"
Context: I'm confused, they both sound the same so I want a direct comparison to help me decide.
Context: I want an Asus laptop.
You can see how the mindset of the user has changed over time and we can easily imagine how the search results will have changed to reflect this. Google already understand this. There are other signals coming into play here too though, what about these bits of additional information that Google can gather about us:
- Location: I'm on a bus in London, I may not want to buy a £1,000 laptop right now but I'll happily research them.
- Device: I'm on my iPhone 6, I may not want to input credit card details into it and I worry that the website I'm using won't work well on a small screen.
- Search history: I've searched for laptops before and visited several retailers, but I keep going back to the same one as I've ordered from them before.
These are just a few that are easy for us to imagine Google using. There are loads more that Google could look at, not to mention signals from the retailers themselves such as secure websites, user feedback, 3rd party reviews, trust signals etc.
When you start adding all of these signals together, it's pretty easy to see why links to a specific product page may not be the strongest signal for Google to use when determining rankings.
Smaller companies will be able to compete more.
One of the things I loved about SEO when I first got into it was the fact that organic search felt like a level playing field. I knew that with the right work, I could beat massive companies in the search results and not have to spend a fortune doing it. Suffice to say, things have changed quite a bit now and there are some industries where you stand pretty much zero chance of competing unless you have a very big budget to spend and a great product.
I think we will see a shift back in the other direction and smaller companies with fewer links will be able to rank for certain types of queries with a certain type of context. As explained above, context is key and allows Google to serve up search results that meet the context of the user. This means that massive brands are not always going to be the right answer for users and Google have to get better at understanding this. Whether a company is classified as a "brand" or not can be subjective. My local craft beer shop in London is the only one in the world and if you were to ask 100 people if they'd heard of it, they'd all probably say no. But it's a brand to me because I love their products, their staff are knowledgeable and helpful, their marketing is cool and I'd always recommend them.
Sometimes, showing the website of this shop above bigger brands in search results is the right thing to do for a user. Google need lots of additional signals beyond "branding" and links in order to do this but I think they will get them.
What all of this means for us
Predicting the future is hard, knowing what to do about it is pretty hard too! But here are some things that I think we should be doing.
- Ask really hard questions
Marketing is hard. If you or your client wants to compete and win customers, then you need to be prepared to ask really hard questions about the company. Here are just a few that I've found difficult when talking to clients:
- Why does the company exist? (A good answer has nothing to do with making money)
- Why do you deserve to rank well in Google?
- What makes you different to your competitors?
- If you disappeared from Google tomorrow, would anyone notice?
- Why do you deserve to be linked to?
- What value do you provide for users?
The answers to these won't always give you that silver bullet, but they can provoke conversations that make the client look inwardly and at why they should deserve links and customers. These questions are hard to answer, but again, that's the point.
- Stop looking for scalable link building tactics
Seriously, just stop. Anything that can be scaled tends to lose quality and anything that scales is likely to be targeted by the Google webspam team at some point. A recent piece of content we did at Distilled has so far generated links from over 700 root domains—we did NOT send 700 outreach emails! This piece took on a life of its own and generated those links after some promotion by us, but at no point did we worry about scaling outreach for it.
- Start focusing on doing marketing that users love
I'm not talking necessarily about you doing the next Volvo ad or to be the next Old Spice guy. If you can then great, but these are out of reach for most of us.That doesn't mean you can't do marketing that people love. I often look at companies like Brewdog and Hawksmoor who do great marketing around their products but in a way that has personality and appeal. They don't have to spend millions of dollars on celebrities or TV advertising because they have a great product and a fun marketing message. They have value to add which is the key, they don't need to worry about link building because they get them naturally by doing cool stuff.
Whilst I know that "doing cool stuff" isn't particularly actionable, I still think it's fair to say that marketing needs to be loved. In order to do marketing that people love, you need to have some fun and focus on adding value.
- Don't bury your head in the sand
The worst thing you can do is ignore the trends and changes taking place. Google is changing, user expectations and behaviours are changing, our industry is changing. As an industry, we've adapted very well over the last few years. We have to keep doing this if we're going to survive.
Going back to link building, you need to accept that this stuff is really hard and building the types of links that Google value is hard.
Links aren't going anywhere. But the world is changing and we have to focus on what truly matters: marketing great products and building a loyal audience.
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