Natural Link Building: Past, Present and (Predicting) The Future

A while ago I wrote my case study on how I listened to Google and failed. The post got a lot of attention from the SEO community. Many people wondered whether natural link building was really dead and what was the future of building natural links. I’ll try to answer some of those questions in this post. The statements below are a mix of my opinion/my personal observations.

1. Is There a Universal Definition of ‘Natural Link Building’?

There’s one thing I’ve learned from some of the reactions of my previous post: Not all people have the same definition of what natural link building is.

Put in simple terms, a natural link is a link you get from someone who found your page and decided (on his/her own volition and  without any direct influence from you) to link to it.

Why did the person decided to link to you? Some of the possible reasons include:

– Not necessarily for the content but because you’re an authority in that topic

– For the valuable/controversial/funny content

– Or maybe s/he had a good day and wanted to link to a bunch of random folks on the web :)

As you can see, there are many reasons why someone would link ‘naturally’ to you. Valuable content is only one reason.

2. Natural Link Building: The Past

In my previous post, I mentioned this article on 25 Free People Search Engines as a case study of a successful link bait. The article got 140k+ views from StumbleUpon and also a bunch of editorial links (check Yahoo and OpenSiteExplorer for more details). Lists were quite popular back in 2008-2009 and you could write anything that was somewhat interesting as a list and get popular on Digg/Stumbleupon/Delicious.

Some SEOs realized this opportunity and started creating a bunch of these types of posts (SeoMoz is a good example. Rand once talked about how they went crazy with list posts during that time). After a while, the effectiveness of list posts as a link bait method reduced drastically because many people realized how powerful they were and everybody started creating their “top x ways to ____” type of articles.

Twitter and Facebook weren’t very popular back then, so you got a lot more links from unique root domains rather than re-tweets or Facebook ‘likes’.

Then images became quite popular (people love pictures more than text–not surprising) and a bunch of web design blogs suddenly appeared with their “30+ Beautiful ____” showcase posts. Just type “beautiful site:stumbleupon.com” or “beautiful site:digg.com” if you want to see how popular they were. As with lists, ‘showcase’ posts are also dying slowly, but their popularity lasted long enough to give rise to a whole new category of web design blogs (which are more like gallery resources, honestly).

By the way, I am talking about the ‘rule’ here. There are always exceptions. Some amazing list posts still go popular occasionally (Cracked.com is very good in making creative list posts).

3. Natural Link Building: The Present

The number of people who tried to get their posts to go viral (by writing list posts and publishing images) increased dramatically and, at the same time, Twitter and Facebook REALLY took off. People that wanted to ‘share good stuff’ found these services easier to use for sharing than having a WordPress or Blogspot blog. The result? If you create linkbait and it goes popular, then you should expect a lot of re-tweets/stumble thumbs-ups/Facebook ‘likes’ but a very small number of links from different unique root domains. Do these links from Facebook/Twitter carry any special importance?

Matt Cutts once said in a YouTube video that they rate links from Facebook and Twitter just like any other link! Yay!

One recent lesson I’ve learned about ‘niche’ link building is that you can get viral in your niche community. Take SEO and this blog, for example. I’ve witnessed how different SEOs follow each other and, in case someone has something interesting to share, then other people in the industry re-tweet him and the chain goes on. This is not the case for every niche market unfortunately.

4. What’s the Future of Natural Link Building? Is it DEAD?!??!

Okay, 3 points here:

  • Many people who link ‘naturally’ have switched to Twitter/Facebook (this is from my personal observations)
  • Matt Cutts said Google treats Facebook/Twitter links the same as any other link
  • Thus, if you want to build natural links, you need to appeal to a VERY SMALL number of people who still own sites and want to link to other resources (very, very tiny minority)

This is, of course, a very ineffective strategy, which is why, in my opinion, you have an increasing number of people who go and hunt for links (that are not natural of course). They can get some great links with great content but the result is re-tweets and so on which aren’t very important in Google eyes.

PLUS, according to some SEOs, people that own websites became stingy because of the ‘do follow’ paranoia of ‘leaking PR,’ so that could be a big factor as well.

5. What Does the Future Hold?

I am pretty sure Google will start treating Facebook shares/Twitter re-tweets as more than just 1 ordinary link from a same domain. These links will probably become more important for ranking in the SERPs.

The only problem here is spam. If Google starts giving greater importance to Facebook/Twitter, they know people will start spamming these platforms like crazy and new markets will emerge where people will sell re-tweets/Facebook shares depending on the profile ‘authority’.

I hope you found this post to be useful.

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