Anyone paying attention to the organic search marketing space will have heard tales of the death of this type of link or that. Google's own Matt Cutts has discussed the downfall of specific types of links on more than one occasion (more on that below). The fact of the matter is that no type of link is dead, as long as you are guided by one single word...
Intent. Such a simple word but in the discussion about links and link building, it is perhaps the most powerful one that exists. So much so that I, in my nerdiness, view it very similarly to the One Ring in the classic book series, “The Lord of the Rings”. Each strategy has its own pros and cons. Each link built has its own strengths and weaknesses but this one word “Intent” is what binds them into a valuable and positive area of your marketing and organic search strategies.
Let's take a moment…
…to consider why Google acts against links at all. Why do they disapprove of paid links? Why do they attack blog networks? The reason? You guessed it… intent. Google doesn't oppose buying advertising space on a site (heck, their entire business model relies on it). They don't oppose sharing your knowledge with others (has anyone noticed a Wikipedia entry or two showing up in the search results). What they oppose are links that are developed with the sole intent of increasing search traffic and offering little else to the web.
The goal of the initial PageRank papers was to use links (which weren't abused at the time) as a factor to determine editorial recommendations. The idea was that the pages that had the most links were likely the best. And in fact, prior to SEOs and site owners commoditizing them, this was a pretty decent way to go. Unfortunately for Google, pretty much right out of the gate they've had to fight against link strategies meant only to augment search results and little more. Until recently.
When technology catches up...
…to philosophy it forces anyone interested in rankings to remember the origin of the metric. In this case I'm referring to Google technologically catching up to what they've been telling us for years, and worse, making the punishments for a violation of intent so severe it frightens people off entire strategies that are otherwise sound. When Google said, “paid links are bad” and you could see in your competitor backlinks all kinds of them it was pretty hard to take them seriously. The same could be said for virtually any strategy they have put under the microscope lately. When suddenly Google becomes extremely adept at detection (either algorithmic or manual) their words fall on very perky ears and fear runs rampant.
But you still need links …
So what do you do? Even Google has said that links will continue to be part of the algorithm for the foreseeable future. Heck, they have an internal version of their engine that doesn't factor in links and here's how those results look:
So, you need links and you're afraid to do the wrong thing. So how do you know what strategies to use? It comes down to that single word Intent. In the case of links, however, we're not so much interested in your intent as the intent of the person placing the link. The idea of a link passing weight relies on the idea that every link should be a recommendation of one web document for another. We of course can't get into every possible strategy in the scope of this article but let's take a look at two strategies that have come under attack.
Directories for Links
There is a reason that directories got a bad name, there were a lot of bad directories. Directories that would guarantee you a listing for x dollars. Directories that would guarantee you a listing for nothing but a reciprocal link. Directories that had little or even no human interaction on the selection and approval process. There was no recommendation. No intent to give good information to site visitors on the part of the directory owners… and so the strategy came under attack by Google - and rightfully so.
Does this mean directories are bad? No. There are still some decent directories out there. Directories like Yahoo!, DMOZ, and BOTW come to mind. With these directories the editors will make a decision as to whether your site should be listed based on the quality of your site. Any fees involved are for a review. You are not paying for a listing, you are paying for the reviewer’s time and if they find your site lacking, the review fee is theirs to keep and you have the task of trying to remedy the issue to submit again.
If you're looking at a directory you simply need to look through their submission guidelines and site to determine if they have the right intent. If they talk about “review fees” not the “cost per listing” then they're on the right track. If they mention at all an SEO or PageRank benefit then you know to stay as far away as possible. Their intent is to sell link value and that's not an editorial recommendation. Intent.
Probably one of the best outlines I've seen on a directory sites is on the Jasmine Directory. They're pretty thorough about describing what it is and isn't. They put nofollow on advertising. They will refuse to list a site they don't like. You can read their terms on their site at http://www.jasminedirectory.com/guidelines.html. In fact, the link to their site serves as a great example of the other type of link I want to touch on and that's…
Blogging for Links
Guest blogging is the flavor-of-the-day for public assaults by Google with blog networks being hit and Matt Cutts dedicating a blog post to the subject (causing SEOs all over the web to declare the strategy dead. But it's not; as long as you have the right (say it with me now) intent.
If I hire a foreign company at a penny a word to pump out 400 word blog posts that I fire into blog networks that charge a fee and will post any page you send them, is there intent on the part of the linking site to recommend mine? Not even slightly. It's these blog posts that have lost value or even result in penalties.
But let's look at the other side, when I linked to Jasmine above I did so for no benefit other than to provide a solid example of what was being discussed. Should it carry weight, yes it should and it does. And when I was offered the opportunity to write for Meet Advisor based on other writing I'd done, should I avoid it because it's a guest post? No. The intent of the invitation by Meet Advisor was to provide an outside view of the field of SEO and in return I get to enjoy reaching an audience I may not have previously (and thanks to you, the valuable reader, it seems to be working).
Listen carefully to what Matt actually says about blogging:
You'll notice that he specifically discusses automated and low value guest blogging. The automated or quasi-automated systems that add no value to the web. Their intent is nil and thus, so too is their value.
I'm sure the conclusion is clear by now, with every link effort you need to consider the intent. Your intent and the intent of the site linking to you. If they are linking to you as an editorial recommendation, you're in good shape. And if the link you’re seeking will provide benefits outside of search rankings such as brand awareness, traffic, etc. then it's a link worth getting and even if Google doesn't give it the value you might hope in the search results, it was still worth doing.
CEO, Beanstalk SEO
Posted By Dave Davies