Where Does Link Building Fit into Modern SEO?


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Backlinks used to be the basis for SEO success…but where are we now?

There was a time where all a website needed was a handful of backlinks to rank well in the SERPs. That’s hard to imagine today, but old-school SEOs sure remember! SEO and its strategic complexities have evolved over the years, and one of the most dramatic shifts has been the success rate of and attitude toward backlinking as an SEO strategy.

The Evolution of Link Building

Backlinks deserve distinct recognition because they were such an integral part of early SEO strategies.

Shifting from Wild Wild West to User-Focused

During the dawn of the internet in the late 90’s, it was the wild west – raw and unfiltered, with everyone scrambling to find ways to claim their stake on the World Wide Web. Concerning SEO, all strategies were fair game, including backlinking to the spammiest degree.

It wasn’t until the new Millennium that Google came to bat for the search user and began testing ways to regulate results. At the same time, inbound linking was the height of sophistication when it came to SEO strategies. Google released some of the first updates to combat link spam, including the Brandy and Jagger algorithm updates.

Caffeine – The Catalyst to Combat Webspam

In the quest for more responsive search results, Google rolled out Caffeine, which was essentially a new way of indexing results continuously. Caffeine was the beginning of a massive shift in SEO, thus changing strategies that companies had to use to earn rankings.

As Google continued to focus on user experience, they made it a priority to combat webspam.

Enter Penguin 1.0.

Penguin is one of the most notable algorithm updates in the history of backlinking. Penguin focused heavily on combating webspam and penalized a massive amount of sites for spammy link tactics. There were over 10 iterations of Penguin between 2012 and 2016.

Quality to the Core

In 2013, Google released Hummingbird, which functioned as a more efficient core algorithm, encompassing every aspect of the previous algorithm updates. Ranking well came to rely on hundreds of different signals focused around search intent and user experience.

Where Are We Now?

Today, quality is still the main driving force behind Google’s core mission and algorithm – (RankBrain). To thrive, SEO strategists were forced to adopt the same mentality – users are top priority.

Inbound linking as a strategy has been through the gamut, from seriously abused to nearly devalued.

So, is inbound linking still a valid SEO strategy today?

How you obtain links is the difference between the past – and potential penalties today. When considering link building in the modern-day, apply these three main strategies:

1. Align with the Search Engine Mission

Search engines’ main goal (other than obtaining ad dollars of course – another topic for another day) is user experience. Instead of trying to manipulate the search engines for improved rankings, put that energy into making a better experience for your users. Focus on your users and prospective customers to benefit from more than just rankings!

Brush up on some of the techniques to build quality links in our post Forget Link Building. Think Link Earning!

2. Be Discerning with Directories

Or any lists, websites, or blogs for that matter.

If you submit your website to local directories, vet them heavily. Always err on the side of caution, and if you’re on the fence, opt to forgo a link rather than risk a penalty.

3. Take Control of Your Link Profile

Now more than ever, the quality of your links trumps the quantity. There are many tools, including Google Search Console, that enable you to monitor your link profile. And monitor you must!

*Exclamation Icon* If you’re starting to audit for the first time and have purchased links in the past or have suffered a penalty, check out our post on cleaning up links.

Gone are the days of amassing copious amounts of links. Monitor your inbound links, maintain a clean link profile, and be very selective about the types of sites you link to and the types of sites that link to yours.

So where are we now?

Building backlinks is still a valid strategy, although they carry much less weight than they once did.

User-focused perspective = more effective

Worry less about how to build links and more about how to build content that will resonate with your user. This will be your key to long-term success. And if you focus on building that killer content, they will come!