I’ve just come off a phone call with a client that has got me thinking quite hard about just how difficult this whole Google ranking lark is. It’s no wonder people get confused. You see, if you scour the Internet for “how does Google ranks sites”, you’ll see lots of sites explaining that sites with the most good quality links will do the best. In fact, Google became the top search engine because it moved away from such easy to manipulate tactics as keyword meta tags and the like.
It’s still a well-established fact that Google uses links as a ranking factor, and it’s still probably the most important factor to boot.
Take a look at the latest survey from Moz and they give even more information to back up this assertion. In their 2015 survey of top SEOs, they found that the factor that had the most influence over search ranking was links. In fact, the top two spots were taken by links to the domain and links to individual pages.
So we’re certain then that links are important, really important.
Penalty? What penalty?
But hang on, what about all these nasty Google updates? And what about manual penalties where Google tells us that our link profiles are natural? What does that even mean?
On one hand we’re being told that links are important, but on the other we’re told they’re bad. Indeed, Google have just plain come out and said it. In a video, Google’s Jon Mueller was asked “Is link building in any way good?”
His answer was pretty clear:
That is a good question.
In general, I’d try to avoid that.
So that you are really sure that your content kind of stands on its own and make it possible for other people of course to link to your content. Make it easy, maybe, put a little widget on your page, if you like this, this is how you can link to it. Make sure that the URLs on your web site are easy to copy and paste. All of those things make it a little bit easier.
We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.
Ok, so don’t worry about links, just make the content shareable.
What if nobody shares it?
Here we have the problem. The conversation I had with my client went something like this:
“We need to give some metrics to the sales director, can we say we’ll build 50 links a week?”
That’s when I got concerned.
As a company in the digital marketing arena, I try not to give solid numbers on anything. I explain that it’s a marathon, not a sprint and that while we can certainly have targets on certain aspects of the campaign, the number of links we’re going to build isn’t one of them. Neither can we promise a certain amount of visitors or any particular number of sales. It’s all a bit “woolly”.
However for many companies, this isn’t enough. They want numbers. They want raw data that they can pin to a board.
You’ve probably seen whiteboards nailed to the walls in sales offices with months of the year and targets. Next to the targets it will have ‘actual’ numbers. This is the number of sales they’ve made against what they’re expected to make. It’s a tangible number.
I used to work in an IT support team. We had a similar board, but this had faults and next to it, the percentage closed. We had a target for this, and our performance was based on it.
You just can’t do this with links, and if you try, you could end up with those dreaded penalties.
How to measure success
I have a big issue with companies that promise success. My personal belief is that it’s just not possible to promise it because there are so many factors that could get in the way.
For example, we were asked to plan a campaign for a new product. This product (which is under an NDA, so unfortunately I can’t explain the ridiculous nature of it) was expected to take the world by storm. However, it was new.
The client wanted to get sales, but we couldn’t promise those sales. I had a very simple question to the client:
“What if nobody wants it?”
And that’s the reality. My personal thought was that it will be tough to sell this product. I wasn’t being pessimistic; I was being realistic. The client had done little research, but they had got a big grant for marketing. And they needed metrics.
My take on this was that we should try best practice based on what had worked in the past, understanding that it might not work in the future. We should look and see what problems this new product solved (not many) and create content. We should engage with thought leaders, build reputation, all that kind of stuff. We should then measure what works. We’ll then do more of the stuff that works.
It’s a bit more complex than that, but not much.
The client wanted links. Just lots and lots of links. He needed numbers. Those numbers needed to keep on going up and he wanted a target. And we just couldn’t give him that.
Don’t count links
It’s confusing, there’s no doubt about that, but let’s just make it clear what this whole links issue is about.
Yes, links are the backbone of the Internet and having good ones is why your site ranks well. Having quantity is also a ranking factor, but three great links will beat thousands of mediocre ones any day.
However, creating these links yourself is a no-no. Obviously there are going to be ways that you can create them without Google knowing that you did it yourself. There are people out there who are experts at this. But is it worth the risk?
What you should be doing is earning them. This means you should create great content that people want to read and share. This is what will build your links, but unfortunately, it takes time and you can’t simply buy them.
I’ve seen one great blog post get shared a couple of times and gain just a few links which has then gone on to rank extremely well for an extremely competitive keyword. If you just counted the links to this blog post, you wouldn’t think it would rank at all, but it does.
Remember that Google is good at this stuff. If your sole aim is to gain a certain number of links to any particular page and expect it to do well, you will be sorely disappointed. Of course, some clever soul might do this for you, but one day you could end up with a website that doesn’t rank at all.