Link building has been a subject of controversy for the past few months, as comments from Google’s own John Mueller and evidence from the latest round of the Penguin update have called into question the overall legitimacy of link building as an SEO strategy. Up until recently, link building was considered to be indispensable to any SEO campaign — because Google considers the quantity and quality of external links pointing back to a domain as a major indication of that domain’s authority, it only made sense that building more links would have a proportional effect on increasing that authority.
However, Google appears to be cracking down on the practice of external link building, putting new regulations in place to closely scrutinize the quality of external links and in most cases, recommending that search marketers avoid the practice altogether. The SEO community has responded in a deep divide, with one side claiming that link building should be avoided at all costs and the other insisting that it’s still a viable strategy.
I believe that link building is still an important part of any SEO campaign, because correlation studies continue to indicate that links have the heaviest impact on the ranking algorithm, but I do recognize that its power has weakened and its risks have increased in recent years. While inbound links are essential for any SEO campaign, link building as a tactic is no longer essential. Instead, a quality content strategy which attracts links like a magnet (rather than engaging in outbound efforts to acquire links) appears to be what Google is trying to nudge webmasters toward. Still, there are dozens of other fundamental factors far more important than link building that should take immediate priority. These are some of the most important:
1. Mobile Optimization. First, make sure your site is optimized for mobile. After Google’s “Mobilegeddon” update, there’s now no excuse for having a site that isn’t mobile-compatible. Hopefully, your site is responsive, which will allow it to be viewed consistently no matter what type of device is used to access it. Without some level of mobile optimization, your site may be doomed to low search visibility. Beyond that, it’s worth optimizing your site for speed as well — the faster your pages load, the better your overall user experience will be, and Google will rank your pages higher as a result.
2. Site Navigation. Google rewards sites that make it easy for users to find what they want, whether that’s information, a service, or a particular product. Optimize your navigation so it’s easy to find any page; the common way to do this is to group your pages in a single, minimalist navigation bar with descriptive core headings and full lists of pages underneath. It’s also helpful to include a search bar and interlink your content deeply so no single page of your site is ever more than two or three clicks away. Your goal should be getting your users to their ideal destination as quickly and easily as possible.
3. Full, Informative Content. Every page of your site needs to have a full section of descriptive, accurate content. On your home page, users should be able to immediately tell what your business is. On your About page, you should list important facts about your company. On your Contact page (and home page), you need to list your business name, address, and phone number at the very least. The more accurate and the more thorough your content is, the higher you’re going to rank.
4. Regular Ongoing Content. Without an ongoing content strategy program to support it, an external link building campaign is practically useless. Every business needs to be developing and publishing least one new piece of content every week — the more the better. This content needs to be wholly original, informative, and useful for its target audience. Without that ongoing fresh content, your site will quickly fall to the competition.
5. A Social Media Presence. And by a social media presence, I don’t mean a stagnant or token presence on Facebook and Twitter. If you’re going to get social, you need to get involved. Claim your business’s profile on as many social media platforms as you can, and post regularly on those platforms. Work to build contacts, connections, and a real ongoing community with syndicated content, company updates, and of course exclusive offers. The greater your social presence is, the higher esteem you’ll hold with Google.
6. Shareable Syndication. In addition to the content you produce onsite, you’ll also need to make sure you’re syndicating shareable pieces — these can be materials you host on-site, such as extended written posts or infographics, or they can be off-site materials like YouTube videos. The key here is to make sure your content is shareable by making it some combination of original, informative, entertaining, practical, and surprising. If you can get one of your pieces circulating in the social world, you’ll generate heaps of brand recognition and Google will reward you accordingly.
7. Brand Mentions. Google looks at mentions of your brand name throughout the web in a way similar to how it used to view links pointing back to your domain. Brand mentions carry little to no risk of penalty, and pass authority based on the type of source that holds the brand mention and the context of the brand mention — for example, if you are being referred to as an authority, the authority will be higher. Make sure you have a strong brand mention strategy before delving into link building.
Focus on developing these SEO fundamentals first; they should be your immediate priority. Only once you feel you have a handle on these important ranking factors should you proceed with any type of direct link building strategy, and even then, be careful to build only natural links. The keys to a truly successful SEO campaign are diversity and balance, so never lump all your efforts into one tactic or one approach.