In 2012, Google introduced the Penguin algorithm and started penalizing websites with unnatural links. Google’s ongoing crackdown on shady links leads people to worry that perhaps link-building is too risky and ineffective.
Links serve as votes for Google to tell which content is more valuable. Generally speaking, more links to a piece of content will signal Google that it’s worth showing in the search results. Albeit, there’s more to it than meets the eye. We’ll get to the nitty-gritty in a while, but first, to answer the question:
YES, link-building is still effective in 2021.
Quality backlinks are vital for your business’ success in this competitive online landscape.
The keyword here is QUALITY. The wrong type of links can certainly hurt your rankings. Still, many effective link-building strategies can earn you valuable links that are proven to increase your ranking and online visibility. So before you think links are dead or too risky to obtain, check out what experts have to say about link building.
Search Engine Land urges its reader to “take Google’s link building advice with a grain of salt.”
SEMrush surveyed 850 SEO and digital specialists. Experts admitted using link-building to improve their search rankings 94% of the time. Of these link-building tactics, guest posting and competitor analysis were the most favorable methods.
According to Neil Patel, “links are the most important component from over 200 different factors Google uses for ranking.”
In September 2019, Google updated its link attributes to help fight link spam. The addition of rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc” and change in how Google perceives rel=“no-follow” are strong indicators that Google does take backlinks into serious consideration while ranking the sites.
Before we discuss what good links are and how you can ensure you remain in Google’s good books, let’s briefly analyze why people think link-building is a lost cause.
Why Do People Think Link-Building Is Dead?
Link-building is an off-page SEO technique in which you generate links (known as backlinks) from other websites to your website. According to Google,
“Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”
Since links have always been an influential ranking factor, naturally, webmasters did anything they could to try and create as many links as possible. It often involved shady techniques and shortcuts that made link-farming easy, cheap, and quick.
It worked — for some time until Google started to roll out algorithm updates and got better at knowing which links to trust and which to punish.
- In 2005, Jagger cracked down link farms, irrelevant link exchanges, and sitewide link sale-purchase.
- In 2011, Panda penalized link building through low-quality articles on content directory sites like ezinearticles.com.
- In 2012, Penguin targeted link spam and other manipulative link-building tactics.
- In 2015, RankBrain started using machine learning algorithms that used different ranking factors for different niches.
- In 2016, Penguin 4.0 charged webmasters with the duty to monitor and disavow shady low-quality links to save themselves from penalties and de-indexing.
And then there are many Freds that Google keeps rolling out to improve its algorithms every single day.
So it’s safe to say that the old ways of manipulative and spammy link-building techniques are behind us for good. It also means links are harder to achieve now. You have to put in real work and know what you’re doing to get the right kind of links.
At the same time, links earned today are more valuable because you have to REALLY earn them.
Leading Indicators Google Uses to Analyze Link Quality
Google evaluates each of our links to determine if they’re worthy or not. Sub-par links can harm your website’s ranking even if you create stellar content. That’s why it’s crucial to know the indicators Google uses in its analysis.
Humans use source credibility to make minor and major decisions every day. Similarly, Google doesn’t give equal importance to all backlinks to your page. If Forbes or Guardian link to you, they will hold more weightage than a link from Jane Roe’s personal blog. So, make sure your backlinks come from authoritative websites.
Naturally, it’s not a child’s play to win links from high-caliber websites. You will need to build genuine relationships with the big guns and prove your mettle to win such links. That’s why such links hold more value and a strong vote of confidence for your website.
If you’re a food blog and get a link from a reputed hardware store, it won’t help improve your rank. Even if the links come from a high-authority website, if it’s irrelevant to the content it’s linking to, Google won’t consider it as a vote of your credibility.
Even if you manage a site with various niches, you should ensure that the links pointing to a page are relevant to its topic.
The clickable text that is hyperlinked to a page is called the anchor text. The anchor text bearing the link to your website is essential both for the search engine and the users. It should be simple, to-the-point, and relevant to the link telling the users exactly what will happen when they click on it.
Similarly, it also provides the search engine contextual information about the link. However, make sure the anchor text isn’t always an exact match. According to Serpstat, the following distribution percentages correlate with a healthy link profile.
- Branded anchor text: 50%
- Naked links: 20%
- Generic anchors: 5%
- LSI, partial match anchors: 1-5%
- Exact match anchor text: 1-2%
Similar to the anchor text, the text surrounding your link should also be relevant. Contextual relevance is vital for Google as it discourages the practice of link stuffing. In simple words, your link should fit naturally in the text and add value instead of being randomly added without any need.
Google appreciates a natural link profile which is a mix of diverse links from different websites. The links can be high-quality, such as editorial links from high-authority websites and low-quality links from forums, comments, and social media. So make sure not to focus your link-building efforts on only a few sites or sources.
As mentioned above, Google uses link attributes to assign a value to your backlinks. Following is a brief introduction of each link attribute.
- Do-Follow: These are the most valuable links because they tell the search engine to follow the link and pass on SEO benefit or link juice.
- No-Follow: These links tell the search engine that you don’t endorse the link and don’t want any link authority to pass onto it.
- Sponsored: These links help the search engine identify advertisements, sponsorships, or collaborations with monetary benefits.
- UGC: It stands for User Generated Content and helps the search engines identify comments and forum links.
The Right Way to Build Links (White Hat Link-Building)
Link-building is hard, especially when you’re not sure what you’re doing. Many old methods of building links are useless now and even harmful for your website. However, there are still many techniques that are highly fruitful. Let’s look at a few simple strategies that form the basis of almost all white-hat link-building tactics.
Google is in the business of presenting the most valuable information about any topic to its users. So, it isn’t surprising that it promotes and rewards excellent content and content creators. SEMrush’s analysis of more than 1.2 million articles shows that long-form content that discusses a topic in-depth receives more pageviews than shorter blogs.
More page views mean more people reach your blog, share it, and link to it. Quality content that acquires organic links has the following properties.
- Make sure your articles answer all questions and confusions your audience might have about the topic.
- Back your claims with statistics and research.
- Include citations and references to experts in the field.
- Distribute your article on social media and through emails and newsletters.
- Create an outreach campaign to present your article to industry influencers, simply asking them to share or link to your content. You can also propose to write a guest post for them.
While Google hates and punishes blatant link exchanges, it’s all for strategic partnerships and resulting links. For example, if you’re a real estate agent, you’ll be naturally working in partnerships with various contractors, home decorators, mortgage experts, etc.
If you get a link from them or give them a link, Google won’t penalize you. That’s because you earned them due to the nature of your job. Just make sure to add those links naturally where they make sense.
Positive mentions are the basis of influencer marketing. Businesses that sell products or services can gain immense organic traffic if influencers in the relevant industry endorse their offerings. Links achieved through their comments or reviews drive referral traffic to your page and bring in link juice.
Since Google is getting smarter at catching manipulative link-building attempts, you need to find creative ways of putting your content in front of people who might like it and link to it. Building quality links requires patience, but many people want quick results and use black-hat link-building methods that can hurt their ranking. Here are a few techniques that are a big no-no and can land you in hot waters with Google bots.
- Private Blog Networks (PBNs): If you own a bunch of sites and use them to link to content on a primary website, Google can find out and de-index your site so that it won’t appear in any search.
- Exchanges: If more than just a few of your links are reciprocal, you can lose rank because it signals a blatant link exchange.
- Spam: Meaningless comments with links are obviously spam but did you know if you add a link in a content that has no meaningful connection with the rest of the content, Google considers it spam as well.
The bottom line is, you can no longer cheat the system.
Link-building in 2021 is more about the tactful promotion of your content with personalized requests (pitches) to create a deeper connection with other websites, businesses, and influencers.
In this way, a link truly becomes a vote of confidence, the way Google intended it to be. Earning others’ trust and subsequent links requires an understanding of white-hat link-building tactics and the skill to execute them flawlessly.
So, ignore the naysayers and know that link-building is still effective in 2021. No business in today’s online paradigm can hope to gain much traction without link-building.
About the author: Karli is a content marketer and founder of boutique content + SEO collective JuiceBox. With over 11+ years in the marketing industry, she’s worked with brands large and small across many industries to grow organic traffic and reach new audiences. She writes on everything from marketing, social, and SEO to travel and remote work. On the weekends, she loves to explore new places, enjoy the outdoors and have a glass or two of vino!