Is link building dead?
The question was top-of-mind at the recent Search Marketing Expo West (SMX) in San Jose, Calif. Links were a hot topic at the conference, thanks in no small part to the numerous changes Google made to its search engine algorithm during the past three years — changes that raised the questions of what still works in SEO practices and what can get you into trouble.
"Link building is where we see people getting hurt the most" from Google penalties, said Rhea Drysdale, CEO of online reputation branding firm Outspoken Media.
"Most of what you've been doing [for link building] doesn't work anymore," said Kaila Strong, director of client strategy for Vertical Measures. "Reciprocal links, exact-match anchor text, guest blogging, blogroll links, blog post comment links, links in forums — they aren't sustainable and can get you into trouble."
Among Google's big changes was an initiative nicknamed "Penguin," which first rolled out in April 2012 and has been subsequently updated. Penguin was designed to push down search engine rankings for websites that artificially increased their Google positions through black-hat link acquisition.
Two recent high-profile examples discussed at the conference illustrate what can happen when websites engage in questionable link-building practices.
Google rapped online song-lyric website Rap Genius on the knuckles in late 2013, for openly "soliciting links for promotional tweets and writing a blog post about their bad link building decisions," according to Search Engine Watch.
Google's Web-spam watchdog Matt Cutts learned of Rap Genius's tweets and post, and within 24 hours Rap Genius "was no longer ranking for the many lyrics they previously ranked for, nor did they even rank for their Rap Genius brand name," wrote Search Engine Watch blogger Jennifer Slegg. Rap Genius subsequently cleaned up its act in order to get back into Google's good graces and wrote a blog post explaining how it accomplished the feat.
In January 2014, travel website Expedia's search visibility suddenly dropped 25 percent for many of its most important keywords. Though neither Expedia nor Google commented, the penalty was apparently the result of an "unnatural link penalty," such as possible paid links on article sites, according to Search Engine Land.
Are Links Still Important?
During the SMX keynote, Google Senior Vice President and Fellow Amit Singhal, who heads up the search giant's ranking team, reiterated that links are still an important signal for Google to consider when ranking content against relevant search queries.
Separately, some conference speakers and attendees wondered if Google might move away from using links as a ranking signal in the future. The talk was spurred by a February Webmaster video with Google's Cutts in which he said Google already experimented with excluding the use of links as a ranking signal.
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