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25 April 2019 / Opinion

Does "link building" harm your brand?

Meghan Burton / Production Director

Before we answer this question, we need to pick apart what “link building” is. The SEO industry has a considerable history, not all of it positive, and most of that negative history is directly tied to link building.

At its core “link building” is the practice of gaining backlinks through to yours, or your client’s, website from external websites. It sounds simple but, in practice, it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing but the problem is, at one point in time, gaining thousands of links quickly, no matter where from, was a golden ticket to strong rankings. A whole subset of the industry sprang up to serve that need and game the system that was Google’s algorithm at the time.

What used to happen?

Link building has a long history in our industry and has taken on many forms throughout the years, some of which include:

Directory Links

Although directories were once the backbone of the internet, the advent of search engines made them mostly obsolete. A few human-curated and local specific directories remain effective repositories of valuable websites but most of the remaining directories on the internet solely exist for link building purposes.

Outright spam

Much of the older style of link building was in the form of comment spam which involves leaving a comment with specific anchor text on your link. It also included article creation and spinning which means changing a few words here and there to make a piece of content appear unique and then posting it on a variety of websites designed specifically for that purpose. Although these tactics added zero value to and, in fact, probably took away value from brands, they worked, so they were widely used.

Paid links

Once some of the spammier systems of link building above started to be less effective, savvier SEOs and website owners started paying for and selling links respectively. Paid links include anything from a sponsored placement on a newspaper to a promoted listing on a popular directory and far more invisible placements too. Networks of paid-for links sprung up all over the internet, some without any particularly obvious footprint. These paid networks are still getting caught, sites penalised and links devalued today.

Blogger exchanges and outreach

This form of link building can go two different ways. As a method to reach your audience, bloggers can be brilliant, as they’re often passionate and in-tune with the people who follow them. Unfortunately, many bloggers only work with brands if they get paid, which makes most blogger links just another form of paid links, something Google doesn’t want to see in your backlink profile. Even bloggers who may historically have featured you for free could start taking payment for links in the future, causing an issue if they have given you a followed link. To get around this, you should ask for a nofollowed link but this will mean you are no longer link building.

If you are still engaging in one of the first three types of link building then, yes, you may in fact be harming your brand. This is often instantly recognisable to a trained human eye. It’s also something that Google has worked very hard to eliminate via both algorithms and manual penalties; getting caught could result in a severe drop in visibility and traffic for your brand, leading to lost revenue.

Blogger outreach work doesn’t have to cause your brand harm and can be of benefit. Our recommendation is to closely review the types of bloggers either you or your agency is associating with to ensure they are genuinely adding value and you’re not just doing it for the link.

What should you do now?

The cold, hard reality of SEO is that backlinks are still an important ranking factor. As much as we might like to, we can’t get away from the fact that a site with a weaker backlink profile will struggle to outrank those with better profiles, even armed with a clear site structure and strong content. All factors must be pulling in the correct direction for the best performance.

In good news, “link building” doesn’t have to be a series of emails sent out to poor quality websites or payments made for links on sites of a certain Domain Authority (DA) (guaranteed!). Not at all, in fact, the most effective form of link building is taking more advantage of the marketing you’re already doing. It’s not really link building, it’s simply continuing your marketing with a focus on links. A campaign focused around links will get better results in this sense but if you aren’t ready or don’t have budget for it, work on layering links-focused objectives into your current marketing.

  • Before you launch a new promotional campaign, consider whether you can create a piece of onsite content for journalists or web owners to have as a linking target and make sure there is additional value to doing this
  • Create campaigns that span multiple channels, don’t just focus on a hashtag. Remember that your website should be the core of everything you do online (and, for many businesses, offline too as many online companies don’t have a bricks-and-mortar presence).

The most successful link building continues to be creating content so good that people choose to talk about it and link to it. We “link build” by sending people and journalists in the right direction but the content must support it.

In answer to our question, does link building harm your brand? The answer is no, this activity is not harmful to your brand. On the contrary, it can add value to your site and your reputation, as well as boosting your search visibility in time.