The nature of links on the web, particularly in relation to search, has changed a lot over the years, and there's probably nobody out there with more insight into this than Eric Ward, who's focused on this specific topic for many years.
As Search Engine People says in an article about 58 SEO authorities, "Eric's been building links since…1994. There's literally no one in SEO that can claim that much experience."
If you search the phrase "link building expert" in any of the main search engines, you'll likely find Ward right at the top.
Ward is a longtime friend of WebProNews, and has offered his expertise throughout various industry publications, and we're happy to have caught up with him after quite some time to gain some perspective on the state of links and linking in 2015.
Has your link building strategy changed significantly over the years? Let us know in the comments.
You've been in link building for 20 years or so. What are the biggest changes in strategy in 2015 compared to when you started?
Eric Ward: "Thank you Chris for the opportunity to share my thoughts. Well first and foremost I have to say the biggest change is that today people who work in content promotion seem to fear links. Many people feel the very act of pursuing links has become evil, which is sad because it's not even close to true. In 1994 nobody gave any thought to the idea that a link to a website could be a bad thing. The entire concept of a poisoned link profile is simultaneously comic and tragic. Links are not 'things'. Links are not imbued with the quality of Good or Evil. Links are the visible manifestation of a human's action and opinion, and in some cases, intent."
"For me the second biggest change over the years is the ease with which URLs can now be shared and migrate throughout the web and between people. There really was a time when the easiest way to tell somebody about a really cool site was just to call them on the phone and tell them the URL. This was back in the 14.4 modem days. If you were lucky a web page might give you the option to 'Email this page to a friend', but then you'd click that option and have to fill out a form requesting 21 fields of data from you first. I have fond memories of hundreds of sticky notes with URLs written on them stuck all over my monitors, keyboards, kitchen table, mirrors."
"But back to my previous comment about fearing links. The reason nobody had to fear links back then was because none of the search engines at that time used link analysis or any type of linking related metric as a part of their algorithms. These were the pre-Google days. That's the key point. The linking strategies I would use then had nothing to do with any sort of manipulation of the search engines because there were no search engines to manipulate links for. SEO was on-page only."
"This ended up accidentally being the best thing that could've happened to me because I developed linking strategies for clients for several years before Google launched. This led me to pursue the very type of relevance related linking strategies Google wanted to see. I didn't and still don't believe in manipulation of organic rankings as a viable business strategy. I know what Google wants to see because of a twist of fate, that had me starting my linking and outreach service business before Google existed, again, by accident."
"What's most rewarding is in many ways linking strategies have come full circle back to the way things were and should have remained. When Google launched, the SEO industry went through a period of time (probably more than a decade long) where many agencies and practitioners viewed links as commodities and people would use any kind of tactic, good, bad, ugly and everything in-between in their attempt to try to manipulate Google's algorithm in their client's favor."
"In some ways I find it kind of funny when companies who were proponents of extremely manipulative practices in the past suddenly talk about how we must comply with Google guidelines or else we could be penalized. This advice coming from the very people who gave you advice that got sites penalized in the first place. But that's another story for another time."
"I guess if I had to boil down the biggest change of all from a strategy standpoint it would be in trying to help people realize that it is incredibly easy compared to the old days to get URLs to migrate or propagate across the web. What I mean by that is today everyone is a Link builder, they just don't see themselves that way, and many linking strategists overlook this."
How about compared to the pre-Penguin era?
EW: "Once Google aimed its scope at backlink profiles, and more specifically what it considered to be unnatural backlink profiles, it was truly a game changer. For the first time the links pointing to your site could end up hurting you rather than helping you or simply being ignored. The impact of that change cannot be underestimated."
As Google continues to put more of its own content and direct answers in search results, has the value of links declined at all from an SEO standpoint?
EW: "Yes and no. If your entire business model was centered around a high Google ranking, and your content provided people with answers to questions that Google now answers directly, well the reality is you're screwed. Let's not sugarcoat it. Once upon a time Google was a shuttle taking you to whatever site it thought had the answer you needed. Now if Google can give you the answer directly, it makes perfect sense for them to do so. Sure your site may still be there among the top ranked sites, but I don't need to click that link and visit your site because Google just answered my question."
"However, there are still hundreds of different types of businesses and verticals for which it does not make sense for Google to provide a direct answer because a direct answer is not what the searcher is looking for. It is in those instances and for those businesses that a linking strategy should still incorporate tactics that are intended to improve organic ranking. However I must always include this caveat: you never want to rely solely on any search engine as the primary means for your businesses success, and your content strategies should not involve anything designed to try and fool the Google brain trust."
How has the Disavow Links tool impacted linking?
EW: "More than anything it seems to me like an admission from Google that there are links on the web for which it cannot truly determine the intent or rationale behind why those links exist. Otherwise they would not need us to disavow them. They would be able to recognize and discount them themselves, without our help."
"What's interesting to think about though is we now have a scenario where millions of people are uploading disavow files that collectively represent billions of URLs. In some ways you could argue this is a crowd-sourced spam detection signal that Google could use to improve their algorithm. For example imagine if you were to do a co-citation analysis across all those disavow files. What does it mean if the same URL or domain is disavowed by 15,000 different people?"
Do you believe Google should just ignore links it doesn't find valuable rather than making webmasters jump through hoops to have them discounted?
EW: "Yes. And the reason I feel this way is there are many people who find themselves spending significant amounts of time trying to undo links that have been placed there by people who were working on the site long before they were. Or even if they placed them there themselves, they now have to spend time removing them, and that's time that might be better spent creating a more useful content experience for the site's users. Ask yourself this: would you rather spend six months researching and sending link takedowns, or six months creating awesome new content?"
You recently tweeted that "link strategists are affected as well," in reference to an article about the B2B SEO opportunity in organizational mergers and acquisitions. Can you elaborate on that?
Linking strategists are affected as well http://t.co/52aNpgS1Tf
— Eric Ward (@ericward) January 14, 2015
EW: "I've seen many cases where companies merge or acquire the assets of another company and among those assets are websites, often more than one, sometimes several, maybe even 10 or 20. Each of those websites was likely launched at a different time, and over the years, each of those sites developed its own individual and distinct backlink profile. Now when we have a merger one of the things that has to be taken into consideration is what do we do with all this link equity that is spread across all of these various web properties that are now owned by the same entity. Sometimes the answer is to leave them just as they are, or it may be better to merge some of the sites that have a similar target audience or client base, or, the best strategic move may be something else entirely. I think the best linking strategists are those of us who can take a look at the big picture of all of those brands and sites, look at the mergers and acquisitions and help navigate the client through the best strategy that will maximize the link equity. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the link equity challenge."
I read your piece on the "link apocalypse," which made some great points about how different sites should be taking different approaches to link building. Can you talk a little bit about that?
— Eric Ward (@ericward) December 23, 2014
EW: "I wrote that column almost 8 years ago, and I have to be careful here to fight the urge to say 'I told you so'. Still, if you read that piece I don't think there's anything in there that did not end up coming to pass. But let's be honest. I can't be that smart or I wouldn't still be working."
"But...aside from the specific predictions, the main thesis of that piece is that marketers must respect that which makes one site different from another site. The example I used in the article was intended to be funny but also illustrate the point. A site about whale watching in Iceland does not need the same link building strategy as a site about spelunking in Arkansas or accordion repair in Biloxi. Unfortunately though, for over a decade companies have been trying to sell link building packages in a cookie-cutter approach without regard to what differentiates one site's mission and passion and content from another."
What's the one piece of link building advice you'd give above all else in 2015?
EW: "Don't use your website to just write about yourself and how awesome you are. Don't use your blog to simply write a little bit longer summary of one of your products or services or an in-depth profile of your CEO or how awesome your staff is. Instead, make other people, places, events, and other industry specific happenings the stars of your content. It will come back to you in the form of links, shares, likes, tweets and quite possibly, earned improved rankings."
"Give to get. Just like 1994."
"Thank you again Chris for the opportunity to share my thoughts and now please everybody go to http://ericward.com/lmp and sign up for LinkMoses Private, my Linking Strategies Newsletter where I provide effective linking strategies, tactics, Q/A, advice, and and Link Opportunity Alerts. I'm also available for consults and very specialized link dev projects. I've got three kids to put through college, so I wont be retiring anytime soon :)"
And thank you, Eric for the great (as always) insight into the state of link building.
How have your linking and link building practices changed over the years? Please discuss in the comments.