If you have had the misfortune of hiring an SEO consultant to review your website, or the even greater misfortune of actually being involved in the torrid world of “digital marketing”, you will have doubtless encountered the concept of “high quality”, “ethical” “white-hat” link building – where link building might be variously referred to as link acquisition, content marketing, article marketing, link development or (my new favourite) intensive link agriculture.
The conventional wisdom goes, that some links are good, and some links are bad. Not all of the links were made equal! Obviously, links that you pay money for are bad. Links that you bought from anyone with an accent are really bad. Links that you get by writing articles for other people’s blogs used to be good. Now they’re really bad. Except, that sometimes they’re good.
So what exactly are you allowed to do? Well, if you go to moz.com or one of the other big pillars of the SEO industry, you’ll find no end of wisdom from numerous guest authors – some very prolific industry figures - who have written long, detailed articles full of diagrams and graphs (that makes it Real Science, you see), evangelising the need for “really great, engaging content”, without ever really defining what that is. It’s in danger of becoming an echo chamber - kind of homogeneous, so much so, that you might drift off and miss the dofollow link to the author’s own website tucked away in the author byline.
The man himself, Rand Fishkin will tell you to “add value”, while gesticulating excitedly, about crafting “fantastic content” by “engaging” your audience with “interesting and useful” information. His enthusiasm is catching – so catching that you get caught up with him, dreaming up amazing, innovative “content strategies” involving a roaming wi-fi hotspot broadcast from a branded zeppelin – until you remember that the site you're working on has a budget of £250 a month, operates out of an allotment in Bumfuck upon Tweed, and your client / boss treats you with the disdain and suspicion usually reserved for pedophiles and social media consultants.
So that’s a no to the zeppelin?
Allow me to cut through all the bullshit and let you in on the dirty little secret:
There is no such thing as “ethical” link building.
The distinctions between “high quality” and “spam” link building techniques are almost entirely imagined.
Google is a machine. It can’t read, it isn’t a literary critic, it does not know whether your writing is hackneyed and clichéd or whether it fizzles and pops from the page like a washing machine full of potassium. When the clever sods at Google HQ constructed it, they had to feed it simple signals to determine the quality of a website. One day, some clever young upstart realised that if you can figure out which signals Google uses to do that, you can tweak your website to send the ‘right’ signals and before you know it, you’ve got more traffic than a B&Q car park during dogging season.
The guys at Google hated that.
You see, Google doesn’t want you to be able to manipulate their system. Google has a lofty ambition to deliver impartial, organic results based on what resource is actually the best result for your search query, not which resource had the biggest SEO budget; That’s what AdWords is for. AdWords, not SEO, is Google's perfect system for managing budgetary pissing contests.
People messing about with their website to get it to rank better does nothing but make the search engine’s job harder and the end result less accurate, less impartial, and less “pure”. Fucking with the rest of the internet to get your website to rank better is even worse. It doesn’t matter if your SEO campaign is white hat, organic, free range, corn-fed SEO farmed by local farmers or the result of child slavery and 6 million links from a shady Guatamalan link farm. If you or your SEO is building links with the express purpose of manipulating your site's Google ranking, you're gaming the system and Google won't like it.
Tricking Google is pointless...
Why? Because your client just shouldn’t be outranking Amazon for “Kindle Fire” in organic search, from his family-run shop in Bradford. You know it, Google knows it, and despite the £50 a month he pays you as an SEO consultant and the six spittle-flecked, eye-popping rants he e-mails you per day that protest to the contrary, he probably knows it too. If by some miracle you find a way to trick Google into doing so, it doesn’t matter if you wore a gleaming white fedora, lemon-fresh from the Daz dimension, you can bet that £50 that Mr Cutts will be sending a black and white animal your way in the near future.
Sadly, Google isn't as clever as it should be
How can Google discern the difference between an article on a blog that you spent 40 hours researching and writing, vs a blog you outsourced to a freelancer on fiverr and syndicated to the same blog for a small fee? Of course, it is comforting to think that your intentions will be weighed and measured, your hard work and honourable endeavours justly rewarded, and that evil will be detected and punished (like the Mass Effect 3 ending… oh wait). And, this is very much the “party line” for many thought leaders in the SEO industry.
“Google knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake”.
It makes perfect sense that Google would do everything it can to encourage this line of thinking.
However, I’ve worked with enough no-budget clients in the past, and done enough “are you sure you want me to do this?” grey hat link building to know that those techniques still very much work. You may get caught out one day, but hey – that happens to "pearly white link builders" too! Just ask Ann Smarty or anyone who was using myblogguest for “ethical, sustainable, white hat” blogger outreach up until about a month ago when Google decided to chuck a (sexy, knee high) black sock into the washing machine and all those hats came out a murky shade of grey. The rules changed and all of a sudden Google is handing out penalties like a drunk referee at a derby.
OK, but what should you be doing in 2014?
I'm not saying you should ignore Rand Fishkin, Matt Cutts, et al and listen to me. I'm not saying buy 10,000 links from India. I'm certainly not suggesting that you should feed an employee into the threshing machine and then bask in the cathode ray sunshine of a thousand editorially justified, white hat links from the BBC.... Although that would work... But I don't want to start a new strand of link building called "Blood Hat".
The bottom line is: you need to do what you can to get ahead.
You have a budget to work with and an agreement with a client (or boss) that you’re going to bring them success – something you can’t realistically guarantee. Maybe the business for which you're working solely manufacture O-rings specifically for use in Von Boring machines: you’ll have to accept that you might not be able to produce “engaging, exciting and great quality content” for this client. Even if you could, the likelihood is that no-one would read it, if they did no-one would care, and whatever happened, it isn't a scalable, practical or appropriate strategy that will have any discernible effect on the website’s success in search.
That’s not to say off-site SEO is futile. I’m saying that instead of thinking in terms of white hat and black hat techniques, you should be thinking about 2 things.
• What will work for you (and what won’t).
• What will be awesome (and what will be boring, pedestrian and weak).
You need to experiment, test, and track. Forget reading about “white hat” link building. Look at your budget and figure out what options you have. Try some approaches, see if they work, if they do, decide whether you can sleep at night if you do it again. If they don’t work, or you can’t sleep, accept it and move on. Be creative, but be realistic – if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter what colour it is – it still doesn’t work.
Most of all, be proud of what you do online
The key point is this: you shouldn't need Google to tell you when you’re being an arsehole. The simple reality is that you shouldn’t be cultivating thousands of low quality links because it’s a shitty thing to do, not because it might receive a penalty.
If you've got any sense of pride in your work and any desire to produce something that you can happily put your name to and say “I did this and it’s awesome”, then you should be creating effective, interesting (and above all appropriate) content anyway. As someone who is being paid to market a website online, you should be hell bent on making them famous for being good at what they do, not lying and cheating your way to the top with risky link buying schemes so that you can barge your way to the top of a tiny corner of the internet for a few weeks.