Though 2014 is only a month old, there is already a pervading air of uncertainty about the link-building landscape and how one should go about approaching the process of garnering coverage and links to a clients or your own website.
This is a debate that seldom remains stationary for long because, just when you think youve got on top of things, Google will invariably throw a game-changer into the mix which will mean youll need to react quickly in order to avoid being the baby thrown out with the bathwater.
How Should You Build Links in 2014?
The answer to this question is largely dependent on how youve been building links in 2013. If youve been accruing natural, good-quality links organically through the production of excellent content (remembering the content will remain king for the foreseeable future) then, truth be told, youll merely need to do more of the same in 2014.
That being said, youll certainly want to be diversifying in 2014 and making sure that you couple your natural link building (or should that be link-earning?) with a multitude of other endeavours that will compliment it and make your site a much more viable ranking contender in the eyes of Google.
But which factors should you be putting most stock in alongside good quality, natural and well-earned links? Well, first and foremost, you should be casting your attention well and truly in the direction of your social media activity because you can rest assured that is exactly what Google is doing.
Social Media Makes a Stand
Social media is rapidly becoming one of the chief ranking factors in the eyes of Google and the days of getting a shed-tonne of links and sitting back and smugly looking at your top placed rankings are long-gone (thankfully) and it is clear that Google is now trying to strike a balance between editorial, good quality links and social media when it comes to determining a sites natural position in the SERPS and, if youre not taking both these factors into account in 2014, chances are youll not find yourself on Googles radar.
Accruing backlinks may no longer the number one ranking factor in most peoples opinion and it has been usurped by various social media signals. Quite comically given the low level of uptake of it, Google+ is thought to be one of the biggest newcomers in the ranking algorithm with the number of Google+ shares that a piece of content receives being of ever-growing importance as a ranking factor.
So, put simply, there are some quite easy quick wins for you to consider for your link-building practices in 2014 - firstly, if youre not currently active on Google+, this is something that you should remedy straight away and whenever youre creating link-earning pieces of content, you should always strive to push it as strongly as you can through your social media channels - with a particular emphasis on Google+ of course given the weight which Google, somewhat inevitably, gives to their own social media platform.
Finding the right balance from your social media endeavours is crucial in 2014 i.e. dont put all of your eggs in the Google+ basket. Allocate time to all the main social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest and aim to provide top quality content to websites that boast a large and genuine level of social media following because if you place content on their site, the likelihood of it being shared naturally though the social media mill increases exponentially.
This is fairly common sense because, as we all know, Google are trying to provide the searcher with the best possible experience and most applicable sites that correlate with the term they have searched for and, over the last 12 months in particular, Googles algorithm has taken social media shares much more into account and judges it as a better signal than the backlinks pointing to a particular site when it comes to ranking.
So, to conclude, in 2014, social should be at the forefront of your link-building activities but dont rely solely on this approach to achieve the results you are seeking over the next 12 months.
Dont Neglect Links
With the naysayers and knee-jerkers proclaiming that SEO is dead and link-building is lunacy on a regular basis, its important not to be too heavily swayed by this. Of course link-building isnt dead. Certain facets of it are but if youre a social marketer worth your salt, you wont have been engaged in these elements of link building in years any way.
Basically, what this means is dont build links on overtly obvious write for us / guest post websites as it is abundantly clear that Google has grown ever more efficient in devaluing the links from these types of sites. You should endeavour to cultivate relationships (genuine relationships i.e. a two way street - no not reciprocal linking - but one where you actually offer to help in some way) with good quality, editorial style websites and make sure you tailor the content youre offering them specifically to their website.
One of the main things Ive seen from working in SEO for many years is the blanket approach adopted by a vast number of content marketers who will simply write a piece of content and toss it as far and wide as possible until something finally sticks. This is doomed to failure for a number of reasons and youll likely find the place that it eventually sticks is the last place that youd want your content appearing.
Speak to bloggers / magazines first before pitching content and if and when they warm to the idea, take the time to look through their website and aim to replicate their writing style and type of content. You want yourself to become part of their writing team (including an author profile) and not just a fly by night ninja chucking them a piece of content and then not responding to their emails ever again when theyve placed your content.
This is an incredibly backward and counter-productive approach to link-building and one that will see you going nowhere fast. By actually cultivating lasting relationships with bloggers through providing top quality content and being available for discussions if they require it, youre making it a more long-lasting and on-going partnership.
If you can become part of a blog or online magazines editorial team, youve overcome the issue of guest posting in one fell swoop because boasting an author profile on a high quality editorial site is the Holy Grail of link building really as it exhibits a trust from the site based on the quality of content you have been providing and gives you the opportunity to continue to disseminate quality content on that site intermittently in the future.
Dont Get Tunnel Vision Unnecessarily
Anyone who has ever worked in an agency environment will be well versed in the client demand of I want to rank number 1 for .. but part of your link-building and content marketing job in 2014 will be to steer them away from this tunnel vision and onto a more enlightened path filled with long-tail opportunities.
I think anyone working in SEO will agree that ranking 1st in Google has been diluted somewhat and doesnt hold quite the same level of importance that it once did because of all the other elements that affect search results and visibility.
For example, just because youre ranking 1st in an incognito Google search, this doesnt necessary mean thats reflected in a wider way and all the personalistion options that are now open to Google seachers i.e. local listings, shopping results, top stories etc now mean that being in that first position in the SERPS isnt the impressive pedestal that it once was. That isnt to say that you shouldnt be happy if you are there however!
Diversifying and expanding your link building strategy and not being bogged down in getting those number one rankings should be your focus in 2014 because there are so many opportunities waiting to be taken by taking off the millstone of a #1 position and actually focusing on achieving rankings on a much wider scale.
Work alongside your clients to find the keywords that will yield actual traffic and returns as opposed to vanity keywords that theyve got in their heads that they want to rank number one for. Chances are you will have much happier clients when youre delivering traffic, engagement and returns from a number of different long-tail keywords as opposed to a consistent battle to get them to number one for an uber-competitive keyword which may not even yield results as and when you achieve it.
Does your Site Deserve to Rank?
This is a painful question to put to a client but one that will avoid you banging your head against a brick wall six months down the line. You can be doing some really great, innovative, highly-link worthy stuff for a client but if their website is a mess and a visual abomination, chances are this will be in vain.
As mentioned, back-linking is still an extremely important ranking factor but Google is getting ever more proficient at understanding whether a website actually deserves to rank in their listings.
The actual design of a website, from head to toe if you will, incorporating the key elements such as title tags and on-page content through to the usability of the site itself is pivotal to earning the rankings you think your site deserves and if you dont invest time in making your site worthy of lofty positions in the search engines, chances are you wont achieve them.
Link building is a whole lot easier when you have an engaging website as your muse and those with uninspiring, insipid websites will a] make link earning much more difficult than it need be and b] make ranking a more of an uphill struggle.
When link-building in 2014, work alongside your clients to bring their websites up to scratch because this will streamline your link-building endeavours and make your job easier so far as building up the reputation of the website in question.
Follow Matt Cutts Advice
An obvious one, perhaps, but if you want to avoid obvious SEO pitfalls in 2014, make sure you keep abreast of the big mans latest news and actions pertaining to the link-building landscape. One of the most obvious to focus your attention on is the pure and simple act of generating excellent content because this takes the art of link building out of your hands and places the ball in the court of your awesome content - if its as good as your think it is, the wider world of social media and organic links will concur with you and do the job of sharing it for you.
This is what Google wants to see - content people are naturally drawn to linking to and not endless reams of low-quality content that has links surreptitiously squirrelled away within it. So, if youre producing high-quality, link-worthy content in 2014, which all good content marketers should be, you neednt unduly concern yourself with the algorithm updates that are likely to be sprung on us marketers by Google over the next 12 months.
It might be a bit of a kop out on my part to say Matt Cutts advice but, quite frankly, it is a basic undertaking which Ive seen ignored time and time again and youll be like Sisyphus pushing your SEO rock endlessly up the hill without ever achieving the end result youre looking for. This just doesnt make good business sense so before embarking on any link building campaign make sure that youre following the sorts of procedures and methodology that wont land you on the wrong side of Googles Judge Dredd-esque laws of link building.
Old Habits Die Hard
For those who have been working in SEO for a long time and have seen much success from their link-building campaigns over the last few years - it can be difficult to adopt a new approach to SEO (if thats even an appropriate moniker for it anymore) in 2014. It is always tempting to revert to tried and tested techniques that youve seen work time and time again over the years but this simply isnt sustainable as Google because ever more omnipresent and better at ranking sites based on popularity rather than the easily manipulable ranking factors of the past.
But diversify you must in order to provide your clients with the results that they will crave (and demand) in 2014 and you should no longer be relying solely upon link building to generate results. The best analogy I can think of for this is Mark and Jezs Megatron remote control from Peep Show - which brings all the necessary components together to create an awesome overall package and, instead of a behemoth remote control capable of controlling every device in the house, youll have a content marketing strategy that yields results and doesnt promote the ire of the Google algorithm.
Relevancy is Key
With many saying that the link-building as a concept is dead, I think this is misguided, I think its merely more important than ever to get the relevancy of your link building actions absolutely spot on because if theres one area in which Googles algorithm has improved exponentially, it is with its capable to determine the relevancy of links. So, in short, dont even consider creating links for luxury watches on a technology blog, for example, as this will trigger all sorts of alerts in Googles link-monitoring and will likely see your site penalised and end slap bang in the middle of the SERP scrapheap.
Its not just relevancy of links that is imperative, you also need to ensure that your anchor text is diverse and natural as possible. Dont shoe-horn impossibly unnatural links into an article. Add links in a natural and normal way that is in keeping with how a blogger would naturally link to a website and you should bear in mind the importance of branded anchor text in 2014. Google are going to find it hard to justify penalising links that are branded because a companys name is the most natural means of linking to their site so its likely that this type of anchor text will remain cleanest over the next 12 months, so factor this into all your link building endeavours.
To conclude, I think its important to take stock of your link-building in 2014 but really pushing on with any campaigns. Take a little time to analyse and consider what areas youre currently weak on and make sure thats your emphasis first and foremost before then relying on the elements of content marketing that you know youre doing well. For example, if you suck at social media, make sure you really get on top of this in the early parts of 2014 because it will have a big part to play in the inevitable jostling for search engine presence that is sure to ensue over the next 12 months and beyond. Areas of focus:
Google+ - Make sure that youre much more active on this social platform. Google (almost) certainly gives more weight to this platform than it does to the other social media avenues and yet it is invariably the one in which content marketers place the least attention.
Facebook / Twitter / Pinterest - The overall objective for your link building should be to generate the sort of content that is shared on these platforms so if you get the first bit right, you wont need to do too much. Ensuring your clients use social media as an engagement with customers platform is also essential.
Once youve got your social media sorted, dont just rest on your laurels - this is the time to really kick on with traditional link building and marketing because once youve developed a social media presence, youll want to back this up with your more conventional marketing endeavours.
Making sure the site to which your building the links to has targeted and, very importantly, engaging (as Google is putting more stock in how long a user stays on a page before heading back to the search results) content is of vital importance in 2014 but if you can get your mixture on top quality onsite content, truly original, engaging and link-worthy work and a well thought out social media strategy just right, theres no reason that 2014 cannot be your best year yet in the SEO sphere.