I can’t help but think that in a Post Penguin world there is far too much talk of link removal and Disavowing. Aside from the fact that I’m getting so bored of hearing about it, it’s also an unhealthy attitude for any SEO to be purely focused on cleaning up links. There is more to post-penguin life than removing or disavowing! This post will open your eyes to creating a link building strategy, because if all you are doing is disavowing or removing links, it is not enough and it’s just not cool. #RANT.
Why Removing or Disavowing Links Alone is Simply Not Enough
Before I move on to explain exactly why disavowing or removing links alone isn’t enough, I need to explain that if you think you have been ‘hit’ with a penguin penalty, the chances are you actually haven’t.
Unless you have a warning message within Google Webmaster Tools, then your site has not received a manual penalty.
I might be a little bit dramatic by giving that sentence its own line, but I need you to understand this to appreciate how important it is to be doing more than just removing / disavowing links.
If your rankings have dipped following an algo update and you know your link profile isn’t the healthiest (but you DO NOT have a warning in Google Webmaster Tools), then you have simply had your site re-evaluated, and it isn’t as strong as it has been in the past because the kinds of links that kept it ranking well in the past have now been devalued. You have not been penalised.
This means that if you haven’t had a manual warning, then there is less value in removing / disavowing your links (apart from as a precautionary measure to safe guard against future algo updates). You would just be removing / disavowing links that have no value anyway. The key is to focus on building new high quality links from a sound link building strategy.
If you have had a manual warning in GWT, then removing / disavowing unnatural links is a good thing to be doing actively, but it’s not enough on its own. Like when your site is re-evaluated, the links you are removing have also lost their value, so you need to be actively building new high quality links at the same time in order to start getting benefit from your link profile again. Removing the links may help you recover from the penalty, but that won’t help you get your rankings back up to anywhere near where they were pre-penguin.
There is talk that you should even be building a new link for every bad link you remove (or a link equivalent to the value of the ones you remove).
“Link Strategy is Worth Its Weight in Gold” Judith Lewis (Digital Females MeetUp 28/02/13)
The reason so many sites have been caught out with link building penalties is because they were greedily link building blind. If you don’t have a strategy for your link building, you are just blindly building links left right and centre, which puts you at greater risk of having your link profile look unnatural.
Having a solid strategy means you can be more in control of your link building and know that you aren’t doing too much of the same thing, or any other tactics which would be a red flag to Google.
Depending on the size of your project, your link building strategy should cover the next six months at a minimum, but you should also be prepared to make changes to it at any point if you need to.
A link strategy should consider the following elements:
Frequency & Quantity of Links
How frequently have your links been built in the past? Or at least consider how frequently they were discovered? I would use a tool such as Majestic SEO to review your site’s link profile over all time (using their historic index), as well as over the last 30 days (fresh index). Use a normalised (non-cumulative) view of backlinks over all time from the historic profile to see how dispersed and random your website’s link acquisition has been in the past. Make a note of the number of links which are usually discovered on average within each month. Your link strategy should never exceed this number on any given month. It should not always meet this level either – it needs to be as random and natural as it has been in the past. Some months you might not build any links, some months you might build 30% of that number, other months you might build the maximum level. You can safely grow your link profile by building links sporadically along the same frequency as your historic link profile.
In the example below you can see that there have been some unnatural peeks in their backlink discover over all time, such as March 2011. Although this site doesn’t have many links (60 links was one of the peek months), when the levels are considered in contrast to other months they look unnatural. If I was to plan a link profile for this site moving forwards, I would pick 10 as the maximum number of links to build in any normal month, as this is the kind of level which is achieved on average in most months (note that this site has a particularly small link profile):
Variety and Types of Link
Not only is variety the spice of life, it’s the spice of a successful link building strategy. No one type of link on its own is safe or natural. You must vary the kind of links you build each month as well as the quantities and frequencies in which you build them. Essentially what you are aiming for is to build different kinds of links, in different combinations, in different amounts, during different months.
Your link strategy should be able to create a good diversity of links, as well as a sufficient volume and quality. It’s a balancing act.
When you plan this element of the strategy look at the kinds of links your site already has – you don’t want to stray too far away from this too quickly in the initial stages of a link building project because this may appear unnatural. You should conduct the same kind of link building that has been done historically, but mix it up with small, controlled and natural looking doses.
Explore your competitor’s link profiles for ideas for new link building opportunities.
Some standard link building techniques you might plot into your link strategy are:
- Blogger outreach
- Social media profile links
- Local profile links (eg yelp etc)
- Press releases
- Directory submissions for brand name only
- Social bookmarking to the links you’ve built – don’t do too much of this directly to your site because I think they may be next to be penalised or at least devalued
I would recommend having a selection of strong high quality content based links each month, which are supplemented with other kinds of link such as social profiles.
Your high quality content based links will be your ‘earned’ links, whilst the lower value links create diversity and volume and ensure these strong earned links fulfill their potential.
Links used to be about passing page rank, and that is still a primary function of them, however now they are becoming more about gaining referral traffic. Consider this when you plan your higher value earned links. If you can gain enough links from highly relevant sites which Google recognises as authorities in your industry, then you are more likely to become seen as an authority in that industry too. Google are becoming better at determining who is an authority in individual industries, and so gaining links from authority sites in your industry will no doubt continue to grow in importance.
Don’t just build links to your site – build links to the links you have built! For example, point some social bookmarks at your higher quality links. Building links to the social profiles you create is very effective. Promote the high quality content links you create such as guest posts within your social media strategy too.
I believe that anchor text is losing its value at a steady pace, and that in actual fact optimised anchor text is more likely to earn you a penalty. Within your link strategy you should still consider anchor text but focus on brand terms and keep it incredibly diversified if you do keyword anchor text. Go for three or four word phrases as anchor text if you must use keywords.
The Pages You Build Links to Must also be Varied & Engaging
You need to make sure the pages you are building links to are also varied. It’s natural for the Home page to get more links than deeper pages so make sure your link strategy reflects this. You must also make sure that the pages you are driving links to have sufficient and engaging content on because if there are shed-loads of links going to a page with very little on it, it will be a red flag for Google.
Co-Citations and Co-Occurrence Might be the ‘New Anchor Text’
As important as links are to a successful off-page digital strategy, co-citation and co-occurrence are also growing in importance and can ensure your profile looks natural. They are also a great way to associate your brand with particular subject areas and keywords, which makes them a safe replacement for optimised anchor text.
“The process of co-citation refers to the similarities found between two webpages, based on a third-party webpage that successfully mentions the first two webpages in a correlation with each other. Based on that co-citation, Google identifies a relation – or link – between those two websites, which is then used as an important search engine-ranking factor.” Haris Bacic.
Co-occurrence is a bit less clearly defined and understood than co-citation, but the basic idea is that when particular keywords are mentioned within significant proximity to each other, then they create an association that Google may deem to be a rankings factor. For example your brand might be constantly referred to within a significant proximity to keywords relating to your industry. As a result, Google will build an association between your brand (and website) and those industry keywords.
Co-citations and co-occurrence are not going to make much difference to your site in small quantities, but it is something you should be doing alongside your link building activity because it is only natural that if people are linking to a site they are talking about it in relevant context too, which doesn’t always include a link. These techniques are an ideal way to safeguard your link strategy by adding another layer of naturalness to it.
Monitor Your Link Profile Closely
As well as having a strong focus on building links from your strategy, you should review your link profile monthly to ensure nothing unnatural is being discovered. You could use a tool such as the Fresh Index data on Majestic SEO. Even if you are only doing natural and ethical link building to your site, you might find unnatural or low quality links are still being discovered so it’s important to review your link profile regularly and deal with unnatural links as required.
Don’t Isolate your Link Building
Link building can only get you so far, so please don’t start focusing all your efforts just on link strategy because it can only get you so far. It’s important to have a sound link strategy in addition to all other technical and on-page SEO strategies.
Hopefully this post has communicated how important it is to be building good quality links from a sound links tragedy in addition to any removal / disavowing you may be doing. If you have any other thoughts on what should be considered when planning a link strategy then please share your ideas below.
Judith Lewis summarised the need for a link strategy very eloquently at Digital Females, when she said that “Pigs get fatter, Hogs get slaughtered”: Be patient and build your links naturally with a sound strategy.
Diversity and diversify from BigStock