Every two years, SEOMoz publishes a report on organic search engine ranking factors. In 2009, that report found that the top three most important ranking factors were related to link building, specifically:
- Optimized anchor text
- The number of links back to your website
- The number of different sites providing links back to your website
It's not really surprising that, at one point, so much emphasis was placed on link building. At the time, a link was considered a "vote of confidence" in the quality of the website. It meant that someone else thought the content of your site was so great that they were willing to send traffic your way.
But then something bad happened. Instead of focusing on making a quality site, people started looking for easy ways to take advantage of the ranking factors listed above. Specific culprits included rampant paid linking, user-generated content sites (like Squidoo or Hub Pages), and article distribution sites (like eZine Articles or GoArticles). As a result, and as always happens when the system is abused, the engines fought back.
In the 2011 edition of the SEOMoz ranking factors report, two of the factors that lost the most amount of ranking impact were paid links and anchor text optimization. This is a far cry from the findings of the 2009 report. As if that's not compelling enough, don't forget about the Penguin update, launched in April of 2012, which penalizes over-optimized sites that got that way, in large part, due to suspect link building efforts.
So what's a web marketer to do?
First, change the way you think about links. Links are still important, you just shouldn't want to get links just for the sake of getting them. You want links that are going to generate relevant traffic. You want links from quality websites. You want links that are going to get your business more revenue. And in most cases, user-generated sites or shady paid link tactics aren't going to accomplish any of those goals. Go for quality instead.
Another thing to consider is a concept known as co-citation. As SEOMoz explains, co-citation is when a search engine crawls the content of a website, sees references made to a different website, doesn't see any links back to the that referenced website, but still gives credit to the referenced website anyway. In essence, it's like the referenced site got a link.
This may sound confusing, but I encourage you to visit this great post by Rand Fishkin over at SEOMoz to learn more.
So what does co-citation mean for your website? Simply put, focus on your users. If you consistently focus on providing useful content - whether it's a video, an interactive tool, or a helpful guide, to name a few- you'll be more likely to pique the interest of relevant website owners. And because that content is actually going to be useful, these website owners are going to feel comfortable referencing your site. And if your content is truly amazing, you'll probably get a link, too. It's really a win-win situation.
It's clear at this stage that link building has changed. But the real question is this: have you changed the way you think about links?