(Almost) All Link Building is Gray Hat

I started fully committing myself to search engine optimization in 2009, while I was living in Taiwan, working on a startup with a friend of mine. I spent about a year teaching myself SEO and SEM. It was one of the geekiest and most fun projects I had ever worked on. Looking back, that time in my life was so fundamentally important to where I am today, because it laid the foundation for everything I know about Internet marketing.

In hindsight, the most interesting part about that year was the fact that so much of my day was dedicated to very spammy link building. Looking back on it all, it’s pretty funny that my blog comment spamming eventually became the catalyst that launched me into my current role at PayPal, where I manage search engine optimization for a company that did 1.37 billion in Q3 2012.

Once my co-founder and I began understanding what it was that Google was looking for, we relentlessly pressed on those levers. This resulted in laying spammy, over-optimized links on unrelated blogs, all day, every day. At first, it worked really well, but like all things it eventually came to an end, and we were Google-slapped. We dropped an average of 50 positions across all keywords, and never really recovered from it.

It was quite a wake up call, and for awhile it was pretty embarrassing to talk about as an SEO. It’s been almost four years since my first Google slap, and in the weeks, months and years following the first one, I would intermittently lose rankings on other sites that I was playing around with or running tests on. It mostly came down to being new to the field and using techniques that were in the realm of over-optimization. Looking back, and after talking to hundreds of SEOs over the course of the last few years, I’ve discovered that almost every Internet marketer has induced a rankings penalty at one point in their life. It used to just be part of the job. We would test the limits, and then pull back.

In this industry, there’s a spectrum. We call good SEO “white hat” and bad SEO “black hat”. White hat SEO would be stuff like making sure your pages are indexing, writing great content and titling your blog posts with keyword query volume factored in. Black hat SEO would be stuff like hacking sites to place links, buying expired domains and redirecting them to your site, or keyword stuffing your content and designing it for search engines rather than users (if you would be embarrassed to read your content out loud to a friend, you’re doing something wrong).

I don’t fully subscribe to the philosophy that search engine optimization is either white or black hat, because in my eyes link building falls into a very gray middle area, which has rightfully earned the moniker Gray Hat SEO.

I don’t get Google slapped or induce rankings penalties anymore, and I’ve found that the way I think about link building has evolved significantly from my formative SEO years. With that said, watching what the industry has done in the post-Penguin era has been super interesting, and my thinking is evolving yet again.

Along with Google’s Penguin update came the concept of “link pruning”, the act of identifying and removing bad links from your link profile. When this theory first came about, a tool called Link Detox, launched by Link Research Tools, seemed very interesting to me. Link Detox is a link analysis tool similar to Open Site Explorer or Link Diagnosis, but it emphasizes your least valuable links, and then spiders the site for email addresses, so you can do webmaster outreach and try to get any spammy links (that might be hurting your rankings) taken down.

I ran my site through this tool, and found a bunch of spammy links in my link profile. In the past, I used to outsource some of my link building, but found that it’s just too important to leave to freelancers, so I stopped outsourcing altogether. That doesn’t change the fact that I did it, though, and ended up getting a few dozen bad links that stuck. So after using the Link Detox tool, I found a bunch of low-quality links that were on blog comments, wikis and other types of sites that were accessible by anyone. These links were, in my eyes, very easy to classify as spammy. They were unrelated to the page topic and they were on pages with hundreds of other unrelated links. To the human eye, it was very easy to identify them as low quality links, which made it a no-brainer to try and remove them. I swiftly got rid of as many of them as I could and emailed every webmaster I was able to find. I asked them to please remove the links. I ended up getting rid of about a dozen or so of the bad ones that I had found via Link Detox.

The ensuing results were really scary. Within a few days, my rankings had dropped. I had made sure not to many any other changes to my site outside of removing the obviously spammy links. Turns out, these low-quality links had been HELPING ME, even though it would have been very clear to even a novice SEO that they were of no value to the user. It wasn’t a huge rankings decrease, and I wasn’t de-indexed or anything like that, but it became very clear to me what was going on. This event made me re-realize three important things that still apply today in my experience:

  • Links (even low quality ones) with relevant anchor text  seem to still help rankings
  • Classifying a “good link” versus a “bad link” is still a really tough job for Google
  • Don’t chase algorithms, no matter what path they seem to be taking you down

The cause-and-effect of this small test reaffirms why I don’t necessarily believe in “Negative SEO” (the act of pointing low quality links to competitor sites in order to trigger a ranking penalty). I think spammy links can still add value to your rankings, and are more likely to help your competitors rather than hurt them. There’s also the new Google Webmaster Disavow Tool, which you can use to negate the effects of any spammy links if they do actually hurt you.

After this happened, and my rankings dropped slightly across the board, I took a deep breath and tried not to over-react. The saga brought me back to one of the most important posts I’ve read on SEO this year, which was one by Wil Reynolds on SEOMoz: How Google Makes Liars Out of the Good Guys in SEO. The TL;DR version is this: Anchor text is still really important. Google is left with no choice but to heavily factor it into rankings, which leaves SEOs with no other choice but to find ways to get relevant anchor text into links. This can often result in spammy link building.

Now, am I advocating that everyone go out and start spamming low quality sites with their links? Of course not. And neither is Wil. In fact, I recently got the chance to hear Wil Reynolds speak at PubCon Las Vegas, and he gave a riveting talk about a project that he worked on at his company, Seer Interactive. It was under the umbrella of what he calls Real Company Sh*t, where he notes that we as an industry need to stop thinking like SEOs and start acting like real companies that provide real value. He showed the audience an example of what he was talking about, which was an awesome web app called “How do our favorite tech companies make money?“. It was created after intelligent keyword research identified significant demand in people wanting to know how popular tech companies generate revenue. He mentioned that this piece of content generated unprecedented engagement for his site. At the time of this writing, the page has received 9.8K Facebook Likes, 7.8k Tweets, 621 Google +1′s and 556 linking root domains with 4.5k backlinks from high authority places like Wired, TechCrunch, Life Hacker and The Next Web.

While they seem counter-intuitive, these two seemingly contradictory points of view work very well together if you keep them both in mind and don’t take them as absolutes:

  • Anchor text still matters, and some spammy links seem to still help rankings
  • Great, high quality content will blow most other strategies out of the water

Don’t get me wrong, I still have plenty of garbage links from freelancers and thinly-veiled link building efforts:

 

professional seo training

 

 

While I’m not proud of it, I’m not going to remove any of these bad links going forward. Instead, I’m working on continuing to generate really good, high quality links through better content. My posts on Social Media Today and SEOMoz are still some of my strongest links to date:

 

SEO Moz Post

 

 

In addition to that, there seems to be a direct correlation with the content that I spend the most time on, and the number of links it naturally attracts. Matt Cutts would say “well, duh!” to something like that, but I guess I just had to figure it out for myself. The content I’ve created on this site that has naturally garnered the most attention is stuff like my SEO Checklist, my walkthrough on How to Pass the Google Analytics Individual Qualification (GAIQ) Test, and my post on how I generated more than $20,000 in 8 days after running a promotion with AppSumo.

After 4 years of my own trial-and-error, as counter-intuitive as this may seem, the key to increasing your rankings through link building seems to be the realization that great content reigns supreme, but with an UNDERSTANDING that relevant anchor text links (even spammy ones) still round out part of the equation.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again:

  • Anchor text still matters, and some spammy links seem to still help rankings
  • Great, high quality content will blow most other strategies out of the water

 


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