Link building has fallen, both in practicality and in popularity, as a long-term SEO strategy. Once universally-acknowledged as a necessary foothold for ranking in search engines, building links has been ostracized by the SEO community, largely at the behest of Google engineers, who frequently warn marketers not to waste time building offsite links.
There’s still a problem, however. Google needs some way to calculate your domain authority, trust, and authority, aside from what’s actually on the website. Originally, its search algorithm relied on external links as a kind of third-party authority measurement, with more and better links indicating a better, more authoritative site. Over time, as most webmasters began to abuse this system by building unnatural links meant to manipulate the algorithm, Google constructed more advanced algorithms that can detect whether a link was “naturally” built.
Today, links are still one of the primary factors used by Google’s ranking algorithm. However, because Google’s detection of unnatural links has become so sophisticated, many of the old tactics of link building are often more risky than rewarding.
So how can a modern-day webmaster reap the benefits of inbound links without resorting to the obsolete processes of traditional link building?
1. Brand Mentions
Brand mentions are probably the most similar modern-day alternative to link building, and may appeal to marketers who want to maintain their older strategies as much as possible while still conforming to the new requirements. It’s been speculated that Google’s algorithm is able to detect mentions of your brand name and associate that mention directly with your site. This means that even without a link, if you can get your name mentioned on various external platforms, you’ll be able to pass more authority to your site.
The best way to do this is through guest blog posts. It’s natural and easy to work your brand name(s) into the text, and relatively easy to build a wide circle of potential publication outlets. Because you’ll never have to worry about getting penalized for a brand mention, you also have more flexibility in the types of sources you use and the frequency at which you post. For more on this, see “Link Building Evolved: The Age of Brand Mentions.”
2. Nofollow Links
One of the advantages of old link-building strategies went beyond the domain authority benefits; those links were essentially portals back to your site, which readers could follow easily and directly. Eliminating link building as a strategy altogether has the unfortunate side effect of removing this portion of your referral traffic, as people can’t follow unlinked brand mentions back to your site as easily.
The way around this is to build “nofollow” links, with a tag that tells Google not to consider the link as part of its ranking algorithm. With nofollow tags, you can build as many functional links as you like without the risk of a penalty – just be aware that you won’t get the PageRank or “link juice” credit, either.
3. Social Shares
Getting increased social media attention also correlates with higher search engine rankings, according to multiple correlation studies. While correlation is not causation, it stands to reason that brands with more social media activity exhibit stronger brand signals to Google’s algorithm, which, in turn, results in stronger authority and trust, along with search rankings.
If a large number of your brand’s social media posts or links to your onsite content are shared, liked, favorited, or commented on in a social media platform, Google may give your content that authoritative credit, and thus rank it higher for relevant search queries. In order to leverage this, create as much valuable content as you can, as often as you can, and make sure you share it with your social media audience.
4. Third-Party Reviews
Local reviews are often seen as a local-exclusive SEO strategy, but any company that uses third-party reviews can reap the benefits of better branded search representation in Google search results. Google scours sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and UrbanSpoon to learn which brands seem to attract the greatest number of good reviews compared to bad reviews. In short, the more good reviews your business has on each site, the higher your profile on each site will rank for branded search queries – not just on Google, but within the review sites themselves.
The only downside is you can’t solicit reviews directly, so use indirect methods – “find us on Yelp” stickers at your physical location, for one – to encourage your customers to write more reviews. For an in-depth overview of how to get customer reviews without breaking any rules, see “How to Get Online Reviews for Your Business.”
5. Turn Your Website into a “Link Magnet” through Content Marketing
There’s nothing wrong with links themselves; having more links from a wider range of sources will objectively increase your domain authority and your rankings in search engines. The problem comes in when you try to build all those links yourself, which leaves a footprint and can result in negative consequences, such as a manual or algorithmic penalty. The perfect alternative, therefore, would be creating a system where thousands of people build links to your website’s content without any solicitation from you. Link building through content marketing accomplishes this by essentially creating a “magnet” attracting inbound links on the merits of the quality of the content itself.
Essentially, you’ll create an extremely high-quality or valuable piece of content, such as a detailed infographic, published research, or a video. You’ll then distribute that piece and encourage social sharing to circulate it as much as possible. If the piece is original and interesting enough, your followers will take it from there. They’ll cite your content as a source in their own published work, and you’ll attract completely natural inbound links with no questionable tactics executed along the way. The key, along with the necessity for extremely high-quality content, is to first establish a social media following or email list, which can extend the reach of your content.
Link building itself isn’t as bad as some search marketers would have you believe. Building natural links on an occasional basis, or including them in your guest posts, won’t bring the Google penalty hammer down on you. Still, these modern-day link building alternatives are just as valuable as traditional links – sometimes more – and carry virtually no risk of penalty. Use a diverse blend of them in your own SEO strategy, and you’ll start seeing the impact almost immediately.