In the wake of recent Google algorithm changes, Panda slaps/penalties, and blog network deindexation problems, I've had a lot of time to think about backlinking going forward. Google has sent a pretty clear message, more than just a shot across the bow, that they don't like networks like BuildMyRank used to game rankings. Perhaps the writing had been on the wall for awhile. Really, when it comes down to it, networks like BMR, ALN, and other blog networks were really effective vehicles for rushing your sites through the SERPs. They were cheap, and they worked. Very cost effective.
Now, having done a lot of reading about what other people are doing, I've seen many going back to the old linkwheel strategy with article directories. Diversify, diversify, diversify, I hear. Use social signals, go viral. Use guest posts. Er, wait, don't use guest posts, the big G doesn't like those either it seems. Mass hysteria seems to be subsiding, but the confusion is still there.
So, now what?
One Size Does Not Fit AllFirst of all, I think that one of the mistakes I've made so far is to use one overall strategy for all of my sites. For the most part, I've done everything the same way with all of them except for a select percentage where I purposely did not. The reason I did this was to test the effects of the alternative(s) just to see if the grass was really greener on the other side, so to speak. What I'm learning from being a student of SEO is that testing is the only thing that will really make you feel confident in your methodology. It's one thing to hear people tell you what's great, or what's working, but it's another thing entirely to see it happen with your own eyes.
What this means for me is that instead of approaching backlinking in a linear manner going forward, I think that you should treat backlinking as part and parcel of your overall marketing strategy that can change and evolve. For the future, I believe that whatever backlinking strategy and tools that you use is dependent upon the following:
- Ranking difficulty for desired keyword/niche.
- What the competition is using to rank. VERY IMPORTANT.
- The length of your desired campaign. I.e., is this a 3-month project until ROI is seen, 6-month, 1-year, etc.?
- Budget/resource availability.
Where a lot of people have fallen short, myself included, is that we approached backlinking with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Typically, for niche marketers, the idea is that you end up with "winners and losers" as a result of your efforts over time. Often, we blame keyword research for the "losers" and count our lucky stars for having achieved some "winners".
In my experience, though it has been limited since the tail end of last year, is that you can rank for pretty much anything depending on how much effort you care to spend. For the most part, my focus has been the low-hanging-fruit of the Internet (i.e. long-tail keywords). But I do know that many other SEOs and niche marketers are going after medium to hard difficulty keywords and being successful, given enough time and effort of course. For those who are successful, they tend not to rely on silver-bullet strategies and instead employ a diverse set of tools and methods to rank.
When a "Diverse" Strategy is Still Linear, and Why That's Bad
I browse various Internet Marketing forums to see what other people are doing. At the moment, you'll need to sift through all the "OMG penalty help!!!" threads to find the little nuggets of information that are useful, but it's worth the effort. A lot of the time people leave gems of information that they don't even realize, that spur my thoughts forward.
So what I've seen so far is that people develop these action plans for backlinking with new (old?) methods such as:
- I'm going to do 50 social bookmarks first to the money site or niche site.
- Then I'm going to 10 Web 2.0s with unique content.
- Then I'm going to spin some articles and submit to the top 20 article directories.
- Then I'm going to use Unique Article Wizard, but ONLY a little amount because it's a blog network and we know Google doesn't like those.
- Then I'm going to use different anchor texts in these percentages: 10% exact, 25% phrase match, 65% random.
- And then...
... and so on. This seems like a good plan because you have a great mix of links. If Google devalues method A or B, you still have method C and D to prop up your site.
But, this is still too linear of a strategy.
The reason is because people expect to be able to follow the same backlinking formula over and over for each of their sites, and expect it to work most of the time. I made the same mistake. From experience, I know that what they will end up with is winners and losers. When they get losers, I will bet you that 99% of the time they will just end up throwing more of the same type of backlinks at their site and hope that it works. But what if it doesn't? Do you need to do something else, or do you need even more of the same thing? I want to specifically avoid reaching a certain point and coming to the decision: well, maybe if I just throw on a little more. And then a little more, and then maybe a little more... and get nowhere. I want to make intelligent decisions that have demonstrable effects.
I can tell you that after being at this for 4 months now, I'm no longer interested in ending up with losers. I believe that niche marketing still is a numbers game, but not for the explanation of "well you've got winners and losers and that's just how it is." You get losers because you didn't pay attention to what the competition was doing in terms of their backlinks, all other things considered equal.
The point that I'm trying to make is that when approaching any strategy, think of backlinks as tools in your toolbox. You don't bring out the hammer when you need a screwdriver. You may not have needed that nailgun when all you needed was a thumbtack. What I've realized from my mistakes is that I needed to pay more attention to the top 10 competition in a different way, by examining their backlinks, and that has helped me decide my overall strategy on how to break into that niche.
My goal is to develop a backlinking strategy that lasts. Meaning to say, that the fundamental methodology is always consistent and always viable, even if the tools or services used aren't.
I'm not an expert in SEO. I'm still a student. But that doesn't meant that I don't get to make up cool-sounding terms such as adaptive backlinking. This is the approach that I'm taking for all of my backlinking from now on. The premise is this:
- Have a toolbox of "stuff" that contains different tools and methods to promote and/or market your sites.
- Examine the top 10 competition for a keyword/niche.
- Decide where I want to rank, and how long I want to take to get there.
- Examine the backlink profile of key sites in the top 10 and find out what they use to rank.
- Pick out what's working for those key sites, and use a few more tools in sparing amounts to edge them out with your own site.
- Reduce or eliminate the amount of "losers" in my portfolio.
You can see that this is a much more adaptive and flexible strategy. I'm basically to take this one level above the typical game plan that spells out only one specific strategy. I want to adapt to the competition's strategy, because if all that they used to rank was one bookmark from Digg, then why am I going to bother sending 50 of them to my site, let alone create 30 blog posts, 100 Web 2.0s, 1000 article submissions, etc.
It would be a colossal waste of time, effort, and money.
Instead, I'll spend some extra time up front to take a peek at what they're doing, and this should help me decide what I need to do. The reason that I think a lot of marketers skipped this process in the past little while was because blog networks were really so powerful that you could depend on them for reliable results no matter how bad your keyword difficulty was. That will no longer happen though.
Please keep in mind, I am talking about everything offsite with respect to backlinking here. I will still maintain a super-high quality site onpage with great content.
How I Came Up With This Backlinking Strategy
Believe it or not, it was actually Google that led me to thinking about this. With all the SERP movement that's been going on, I have been seeing changes over the past few weeks in the top 10. I've been looking at sites go up, down, all around, including my own portfolio. Things are starting to settle though, and what I began to immediately notice was that there were sites that I'd never seen before in the top 10 for the past little while.
Naturally, I became curious as to why they were there, and how did they get there. Content notwithstanding, I began to take a look at their backlink profiles to see what was holding them up. I checked various niches and these new sites did have some commonality between them, but nothing out of the ordinary. Some used Web 2.0s, some used blog comments, some used blog posts, this, that... it doesn't really matter.
Then I realized something. If Google is punishing the latest and greatest thing, or the most commonly-used method, then everyone is going to fall except for:
- Big authority sites that have a brand. I am referring to big brands like Amazon, The Gap, etc. Sites that have good domain authority and page authority at SEOMoz. I'm not talking about a 6-month old niche site that has 100 articles on it, which merely pretends to be one.
- Anyone who is not using the flavor-of-the-month strategy, or those who are using it minimally.
The second point really got me thinking. I did an extensive analysis of newcomers to the top 10 of some of my various niches and I could see the different types of diversity that others had. But what I also saw were sites that rose pretty high that used the same types of links to rank. These sites had no evidence of blog networks whatsoever. What's more telling is that they were employing strategies that Google had supposedly devalued in the past.
Perhaps everything is cyclical, and blog networks may rise in power once again? Food for thought.
I don't expect these sites to be up there for long, but nevertheless, they are in some of my niches, and they are making money (more than me). So how you can leverage what the competition is doing for your own sites? To do so effectively, I think you need a buffer if you want to survive in the long term. More importantly, you need control.
Keeping Control of Your Links
One thing that always bothered me about using blog network posts and some other backlinking methods was that you were never really in control of your links. You just basically had your link placed for you. I suppose that it didn't cause an issue with a lot of other people because the results were unquestionable back then. I never thought about it much due to my inexperience with SEO at the time. But, the thought of it concerns me even more now, and that's even with high quality networks such as LinkAuthority that are really intent on keeping their network alive.
What I've decided to do about this is to cut out the middle man, and keep control of the links that are pointing directly to my sites. The purpose is so that I can maintain the highest quality links pointing back to me because I'm essentially their caretaker. Any other links that I use will be used either very sparingly direct to my site, or as a second tier behind my first tier of backlinks.
I think that this has some great advantages:
- Google hates garbage links and garbage sites that are linking to you, and this strategy creates high quality links.
- You can monetize Tier 1 and bring in another source of income.
- You can use different tools to backlink your Tier 1 and send the link juice through them as a buffer, based on what your competition is doing (adaptive backlinking).
- What's working both now and in the future runs through your buffer, and not direct to your niche site. Thus it's easier to stabilize your ranking if Google wants to devalue a linking method.
- More resilient to change in the future.
So in the above, you get high quality links and diversity of type, which is a good move going forward this year.
What Types of Links Can You Control?Here is what I would think should be at your Tier 1 level:
- Free Web 2.0 sites like WordPress.com, Blogger.com, etc.
- High PR, high quality article directories like EzineArticles and Articlesbase that are moderated if possible. Auto-approve sites are okay, but not as good.
- Only the GOOD social bookmarking sites. I am talking specifically about the Fantastic 4 of social bookmarking: Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Delicious. (I'm actually not 100% sure if you can control/delete your own bookmarks, but I'm not sure why you'd want to anyway.)
- The social signals group: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and now Pinterest.
- Youtube, Vimeo, and other video sites.
- Your own private network. This is harder to setup, and probably deserving of its own writeup.
With the exception of your own private network, all of the sites above have high domain authority, and are for the most part are trusted by Google. As long as you're not making a spammy site and you follow the Terms of Service, these things stick around for years. Just check out all those old personal Blogger blogs that haven't been updated since 2009.
You are the one who personally has to maintain those links. They require upkeep and maintenance, just like your own sites. Except for the social bookmarking sites, and maybe the article directories, the rest need TLC every once in awhile.
To be fair, I suppose it is possible to have your sites deleted by the service itself (Squidoo seems to be delete-happy, for example), so there is some risk there. But I can't really see Google devaluing ALL of those sites at the same time. Possible, I will give you that.
An added benefit of using social signals is that they can also function with separate marketing campaigns for traffic generation. Unfortunately, I don't understand how to leverage them yet, but for those that do, they are a means to get traffic without relying on Google's organic SERPs. Personally I'm not sure if they play a large role with respect to AdSense-based sites, but for any affiliate program like Amazon, or some CPA network for example, they could be really amazing.
Beyond Tier 1, this is where you get to open up your toolbox and choose from whatever vast array of tools that are available. Use anything you want! Experiment and be creative, and use links at a Tier 2 level to strengthen Tier 1, which in turn strengthens your niche site. You can also go beyond Tier 2, and use a third tier to further strengthen Tier 2 and pass the link juice up to your niche site. And so on and so on...
What I'm getting at is that you're in control of your links that are pointing directly to you. Anything beyond that is just gravy, but if you can achieve some benefit, go for it! You can instantly react to whatever changes Google is doing, because it is mostly likely going to be at your second tier of backlinks and beyond that the most change occurs. This gives you the ability to stabilize while your rankings and sites don't immediately fall over and die, preserving whatever revenue you have going (hopefully you have some).
Why I Didn't Tell You What Services To Use Specifically
Short Answer: You're in control of your business. It should be your choice.
Long Answer: Again, it depends on what your competition is doing. But also, I think it will take some time before any one service or the other to manifest itself as a dominant force for the next little while. I still use things like Unique Article Wizard and LinkAuthority with good success, but they're not going to my niche sites directly anymore.
I also think that Google isn't finished playing whack-a-mole.
The things that I am seeing that are actually working right now aren't created by "services", either. Grab a free copy of SEO Spyglass, and take a look at a backlink profile for a site that wasn't in the top 10 a few weeks ago (but resides there now). Use the tutorial that I wrote in my other post about How to Buy a High PageRank Domain for SEO Spyglass and you will see for yourself, so you don't have to take my word for it.
Disadvantages of This Strategy
For better or for worse, using this methodology means that you can't subscribe to 2-3 services on a monthly basis and call it a day anymore. Some other disadvantages I can think of:
- You have to keep an eye out for changes and trends in SEO.
- You have to keep tabs on your competition and understand how they get to where they are.
- It's harder to outsource if you are sticky on quality.
- If you don't want to outsource, you can't scale unless you have the right tools.
- It requires maintenance over time. More sites that you have to pay attention to and babysit.
- You need to learn new tools and services if necessary.
- It doesn't guarantee you solace from the Wrath of Google. But then again, nothing does.
Too Long; Didn't Read. Bottom Line: Results Matter
For what it's worth, there are still guys out there in some of my niches that are still pumping blog network posts into their sites. I'm not going to knock churn 'n burn strategies because they obviously work to make a quick buck or two (minimize time/effort, maximize ROI, get in, get out). Remember though, my perspective comes from niche sites that start off pretty small, and don't make a lot of money individually. So I have to wonder why people are throwing out their dollars to grab dimes off the floor. I'm not sure, but it's something to keep an eye on.
I don't expect to see results of my efforts for the next 2-3 months or so. I'll be using this strategy framework, and for a smaller percentage of sites do something completely different on several throwaway domains that aren't monetized. It's always good to have some cheap .info domains that you can play with and test for results.
For a lot of you though, the only thing that might matter is the end result:
Am I making money or not?
You're right, but you should also think about how long you want to stay ranked and earning. I realize that niche sites aren't forever, but I think that you're wasting your time if you can only stay a few weeks or a month at the top at best, assuming that we're still talking about easy keywords. Remember what ROI you want to achieve, and decide for yourself. I think that it will take a longer time to turn a profit on your sites, based on the nature of things at the moment.
The Next Course of Action
Whatever you choose to do, take a month to experiment with different strategies and try things that you come up with on your own. Don't just read and regurgitate: ask questions and test to verify and validate. Hopefully, you've already been doing this for the last 3 weeks, so you have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. If you haven't taken any action, well, you can lead a horse to water...
So what do you think I've missed? Let me know your thoughts!
Have a good one.
(Special thanks goes out to Regretting Panda, Technologically Impaired Duck, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy/Dreamworks SKG, Xzibit, First World Problems, and MemeGenerator.net)