Link Fixation – What To Know, What To Do

Why do you seek links? The answer to this question may tell you more about your future chances of success in organic search than you realize.

Always a hot topic among SEOs – the need to collect links to their content. But why do people seek links in the first place? Once upon a time, links were needed to rank well. In the early days of search (5 – 10 years ago) when algorithms were more unrefined than we see today, links counted for much. And more links counted for more.

And links from .edu sites counted for even more. The holy grail being links from .gov sites.

And as with so many things, those lines of thinking are so old, busted and trampled on, they are simply blind alleys today. Shortcuts to a dead end.

I recently sat in on a Link Building session at a conference and found it entertaining. The first presenter went on to showcase all the links their company had built by contacting websites and either requesting the link, or by providing the sites content. Every example was at a legitimate, trustworthy website. National .org sites, well known brands, etc.

The problem is that so many people have tried these tactics in the past – and abused them – that there just isn’t the value there once was anymore. Like so many “tactics” for link building, if its hand curated in some way, it’ll eventually fall into the bucket of “unearned” and when that happens, either at an individual level as applied to a single site, or at a broad level as a tactic employed by multiple sites, the value simply evaporates.

Large companies don’t really link build anymore. 6 years ago, when I was doing SEO at MSN, my decision was to forgo all external link building activities. They are simply impractical at that level. More and more companies are moving in this direction. There is no return on a link building budget these days.

And that’s because the point behind the link was as a vote of confidence from one location to another. That’s been perverted to no end these days, so what’s an engine to do? Rely less on the signal.

Looming large in front of many SEOs today is a cliff. Those continuing to actively build links to boost search rankings could well find themselves wasting their company’s money, time and resources on a futile tactic that’s bit the dust.

Does this mean links are dead? Hardly. Links won’t ever die. But wrapping your head around the value they can provide is more important than ever.

Links will likely remain a small part of the algos for a while yet. But as other signals grow in value, importance and trustworthiness, older signals (such as those sent by links, for example) tend to lose importance. They count for less of the overall “decision pie” the algo reviews when determining value and rank.

So where is the value in links?

Where it’s always been, for years now – referral traffic. Now many will split hairs at this point (as proof of being a true SEO). What’s the difference? The difference is in intent. And outcome. The difference is felt by your business. We won’t really care about the links, but developing links from locations capable of driving traffic directly to converting pages, well, you’ll care a great deal about that.

Its time businesses stop fixating on tactics like link building. In the Air Force the term “target fixation” refers to a situation where a pilot concentrates so much on the enemy they’re trying to shoot down, that they lose situational awareness, allow enemy planes to actually get behind them and take shots at them.

Too many SEOs have lost situational awareness. If you’re building links today, do so as part of a direct traffic acquisition strategy. Not to boost rankings.

Let’s review some link types:

  • Reciprocal links – still useful for driving referral traffic, useless for SEO
  • Guest posting – useful for building a reputation, largely pointless for boosting rankings
  • Widget links – maybe useful for referral traffic, dead end for SEO
  • Forum links – depends on context – if posted by a real person, a real forum member, with history, as part of an actual conversation, in context, maybe a bit of usefulness for SEO. Otherwise, as commonly deployed en masse and randomly, a dead end.
  • Blog comments – again, depends on context, but largely a dead end.
  • Inline content links – still useful, assuming the link is actually in the text, pointed to a relevant page and doesn’t exhibit obvious “low value” characteristics. Would a writer for CNN actually include a link to your sales page in their article? Unlikely.
  • Directory Links – useful for referral traffic, maybe, but almost no value for rankings.
  • Link schemes – just don’t. Unless you’re comfortable with a bulls eye on your back.
  • Footer/header links – footer links are a dead end, and why in the name of all that’s useful in business would a company put a link to another site in their header? Unless they were, I don’t know, paid to do it?
  • Social media links – great for spreading the word and driving traffic, which has knock on benefits.
  • Le Garbage – hidden links, paid-for links, incentivized links, linked pixels, etc. With a bullet labeled as “Le Garbage”, it should be obvious to avoid these, and yet…

And it doesn’t matter what is linked – text, images, videos, etc. Thinking a linked image will help where a text link won’t is a waste of time. So infographics won’t skate past where text links fail.

Now, with all those traditional link building efforts yielding little to no value today, why do people continue to invest time in them when that time could produce what’s really valuable?

The Ultimate Link Bait

Engaging content. Not surprising at all that after 15+ years of trying to find every advantage to outwit search algorithms, SEOs find themselves right back here. Content is what searchers seek. If you understand what types of content they actually engage with, and build it for them, you’ll be more successful than chasing links. Yes, it takes more work to produce winning content. Yes it’s more expensive. No one said running a business would be cheap and easy, though.

Duane Forrester
Sr. Product Manager