Whisper it: almost everyone in search engine optimisation has paid money to someone for an inbound link at some time in their career.
In fact, until the end of 2012, paid link building was the mainstay of revenues for most professional SEOs. In its purest form (and the form most objectionable to the Google guys) it involved paying "link farmers" who controlled huge numbers of websites on specific themes to add links from their websites to the client's website, using link anchor text specified by the SEO's client. The rationale was that Google was known to use the number of inbound links to a given web page as part of its algorithm for determining the search ranking of that page for given search term.
A key point here is that the websites on which links were added to point back to the SEO client's website typically existed for no purpose other than to be the source of bought links.
This kind of tactic has effectively been made obsolete by Google's progressive development of its search algorithm, by which it determines the ranking in its results of a given website for a given search term.
Google has always held up "relevance" as its guiding force in determining rankings. By this measure, farmed links were always going to a target of its algorithm changes, because they only had value in the short term to website owners who were trying to "game" Google's algorithm.
Good SEOs had always advised their clients to invest long term in their search engine strategy, to provide some protection against the inevitability of Google's eventual success in penalising websites benefiting from large volumes of bought inbound links.
This has always meant investing in the thing that Google values above everything else: good quality, up to date content.
Wise website managers ensured that their investment in content was adequate, even before Google started rolling out its "Panda" algorithm update that culminated with the dramatic changes in late 2012/early 2013.
What they learned, and the habits they established, stood them in good stead for the world of SEO post-Panda.
Because, ironically, inbound links are still vital to your Google rankings, and you still have to pay for them.
But the big change is the currency.
Where in the past it was possible to climb the rankings by buying links with cash, now you must buy them with the currency of content.
So how does that work?
Without being paid, people create links on the web to content they like. It's natural web user behaviour, and it will happen to your content if you are doing two key things well:
- Creating great new content that people appreciate, and
- Making sure that people who might link to it know that it exists.
Great content takes time to research, conceive and create, so where in the past your investment in links was in cash, now it needs to be in the time and skills it takes to create and distribute good content that's relevant to your business and your target audience.
Once your content is published, getting it seen, shared and linked to is all part of the process. Some of the links you gain will happen organically, if you're doing the right things with the right social media and bookmarking platforms. But it's also wise to plan a programme of acquiring links to your content by the good old-fashioned means of contacting people to make them aware of it. Asking for a link to great content, or offering it as a guest blog post, is more likely to achieve success than trusting to social media luck (unless you're Seth Godin!)
The good news from the search engine user's point of view is that the search results they see when using search terms related to your business are more likely to be relevant and of high quality.
The bad news from your point of view as a website owner is that paying with the currency of content is much more challenging than sending some cash to a link farm agency. But the upside is much more sustainable and deserved search engine ranking results if you produce and promote great content.
Need help with content? More info here.