The Future of Link Building: How Offsite SEO is Changing
23rd November 2023
SEO is a fickle thing. And like all fickle things — tides, weather, the number-one Google ranking for your target keyword — it can be hard to pin down. Over the years, the parameters of what search engines reward have changed, and digital marketers around the globe eagerly anticipate each new algorithm update that might send their strategists scrambling.
Of course, this isn’t helped by Google being notoriously tight-lipped about just what makes its algorithm tick.
One core component of SEO under constant scrutiny is link building. Put simply, link building is a strategy that aims to improve a website’s visibility, authority, and ranking on search engines by acquiring hyperlinks from other websites back to a target page.
For years, Google has loved a good backlink — and it still does, in some guises. But as the digital landscape grows smarter than ever before, the methods that can be used to reliably boost a website’s search visibility are transforming — and getting harder to keep up with.
With that in mind, what’s next for link building? Let’s take a closer look at how methods have evolved over time and where the road is heading next.
Is link building still important for SEO?
It certainly is. For all its volatility, the Google algorithm has been consistent in rewarding pages that receive backlinks.
PageRank was the original algorithm that Google used to improve its search result quality for users. Essentially, it boosts pages that are linked back to by other websites. Think of each individual backlink as a vote of confidence — the more votes a page gets, the more PageRank will reward it for being a relevant and quality resource.
One of the many brain children of Google’s co-founders, PageRank was created back in 1997. Then, in the noughties, the race was on to get as many links as possible routing towards your website’s home page, product pages, and the like. Links effectively became the “currency of the web”, buying SEO-privy businesses valuable spots in search engine rankings — and as a result, access to the most traffic and conversions.
However, Google officially stopped publicly updating the PageRank metric back in 2013.
Nowadays, the search giant’s ranking algorithm comprises hundreds of additional factors, and as for how it treats backlinks, it tends to favour quality over quantity.
This comes as a result of various major updates Google made to its algorithm throughout the 2010s, aiming to reduce instances of spammy link building tactics.
The thing about spam
In 2011, Google released the Google Panda update, which devalued web content considered shallow, thin, or low-quality. This included ‘content farm’ sites that used to rank highly in SERPs (search engine results pages) solely because of their high volume of copy.
Instead, well-structured, unique and helpful content was rewarded. Think comprehensive ‘how-to’ guides, detailed white papers, and authoritative blog posts.
This was further compounded by 2012’s Google Penguin update, another big tweak that aimed to reduce web spam. At the time, this update actively penalised websites with spammy backlink profiles, and rewarded those with links from reputable websites.
More recently, Google released SpamBrain in 2018, which brought AI into the SEO conversation before ChatGPT was even a twinkle in the internet’s eye. The update introduced an intelligent machine learning system to help Google devalue spammy pages and links that find their way into search results.
These days, Google’s algorithm mostly just ignores low-quality links — but if it detects a lot of them, it can decide to discount each and every link pointing to your site, regardless of their source.
The problem with black hat link building
Together, these updates mean that links from websites which Google consider low-quality have little value.
As a result, link building strategies that relied on mass-produced or unnaturally inserted links became less effective, as well as those that came from the shady content farms existing solely to take up valuable SERP real estate.
And this was common. A lot of SEOs at the time deployed black hat tactics such as link farms, comment section linking and link networks which manipulated the rankings.
So, Google’s updates changed the game for SEO strategists, webmasters, and content writers. The bottom line is that link building remains a vital part of SEO, but to be of value, your links must now:
- Come from authoritative sources
- Be embedded in content relevant to the topic of the page
- Originate from a diverse variety of sources (editorial, guest posts, social media etc.)
- Be customised according to a target audience and their preferences
Do traditional link building methods still work?
Google’s crackdown on link spam tactics was ultimately a good thing. Businesses now have an incentive to produce the good kind of content that will earn them high-quality links, and users can find more helpful resources on the web. Everyone’s a winner.
But how does this new and improved criteria affect existing link building strategies?
One widely used link building strategy is guest posting, whereby writers create content to be published on third-party websites catering to the specific niche that the target business operates within. This strategy generates backlinks by providing useful informational content to the publication’s audience, and referring back to a resource on the target site.
However, guest posting must adhere to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines in order to assist with SEO efforts. This usually isn’t a problem, provided that the content and linked resource provides value to the reader. However, many guest posts are paid for — which can be a problem.
Google has previously said that buying links is a direct violation of its guidelines, and it could incur search ranking penalties — though it has since softened its stance.
The guidelines state:
“Google does understand that buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web for advertising and sponsorship purposes. It’s not a violation of our policies to have such links as long as they are qualified with a rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attribute value to the <a> tag.”
So, while guest posting can still be an effective link building strategy, it requires careful consideration of Webmaster Guidelines, and the creation of original, high-quality content.
The future of paid links
Paying for links is a risky business, especially given the current uncertainty surrounding how Google will respond to link-buying tactics in the future. Any good SEO knows the risks and will want to avoid a repeat of the aftermath of updates like Penguin, which saw many businesses plummet in the rankings (and even close down in extreme cases).
But it’s not just the hesitance of your SEO agency that might stop you from purchasing links. After the fallout of Penguin, many top-billed digital publications suffered in the rankings because they were engaging in spammy or paid link building practices in collaboration with businesses.
As a result, the outlets that are the most reputable (and hold the keys to the most link equity) now have editor guidelines in place that limit where and how they will include hyperlinks.
This works to protect sites like Forbes, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review and government-affiliated publications from falling foul of any Google guidelines, past or present. These are high-traffic, reputable sources — which in Google’s eyes, boast heaps of authority — but they won’t just give out their valuable backlinks hand over fist.
The impact of AI on link building
If you work within the marketing sphere, or if you’ve been online at all in the past year, you’ll have heard of ChatGPT. Back in November 2022, US tech outfit OpenAI released its free-to-use chatbot service to the public, and the rest is robot history. ChatGPT is a natural language model that, nine times out of ten, can respond to user prompts with a relevant text output.
And you can ask it to do almost anything: from writing simple lines of code to a script treatment for the next big blockbuster film — in the style of Tarantino — in less than thirty seconds.
Of course, the ethics are another conversation, but regardless of where you stand in the “should robots be allowed to take over the world?” debate, AI is already being hired to support business marketing efforts.
Recently, we’ve seen it used for:
- Original content creation
- Automation of sales outreach
- Influencer marketing
- Competitor research and backlink analysis
Part and parcel of AI-powered content creation is the rapid production of link building content. But while it might be faster, cheaper, and drink up considerably less office coffee than your in-house writer, AI is not without its SEO risks.
Google’s stance on AI-generated content
Historically, Google has taken a stance against machine-generated content, with Google Search Advocate John Mueller stating this as recently as April 2022:
“My suspicion is maybe the quality of content is a little bit better than the really old school tools, but for us it’s still automatically generated content, and that means for us it’s still against the Webmaster Guidelines. So we would consider that to be spam.”
However, Google has relaxed a little with the advent of accessible services like ChatGPT, and indeed, the development of its own chatbot system, Bard. Google now states that AI-generated content isn’t against its guidelines, but warn that it is subject to the same criteria for success as human-written copy:
“Using AI doesn’t give content any special gains. It’s just content. If it is useful, helpful, original, and satisfies aspects of E-E-A-T, it might do well in Search. If it doesn’t, it might not.”
As it stands, however, the derivative content generated by services like ChatGPT is unlikely to improve a website’s search rankings in any meaningful way.
This is because Google primarily rewards content that is original, human-oriented, and helpful to users — or satisfies the criteria of E-E-A-T — Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.
But the generic responses regurgitated by chatbot tools are based almost entirely on content that already exists. Plus, they’re renowned for providing inaccurate information, being impressionable to social biases, and even infringing on copyrights.
These fatal flaws mean that AI content still requires a human touch to fine tune, fact check, and tweak for real-life audiences.
Going forward, it’s likely that Google will put further measures in place to prevent poor-quality AI content from manipulating the search rankings. This means that AI-based link building will remain a risky practice, even as AI becomes smarter. For the time being, you’re best off with a real person at the helm of your link building campaigns. But even so, those campaigns might look a little different in the years to come.
Why digital PR is the future of link building
So, where are we going with this? How does it all link, so to speak, to PR?
Essentially, technological advances from search engines and the world of AI are pushing link building strategies to take on a new shape. Enter digital PR.
Pioneering SEO agencies are now intertwining their SEO, content, and public relations efforts into holistic, cutting-edge campaigns that drive unparalleled search visibility. For example, the Go Up approach to digital PR allows businesses to improve their brand awareness through a range of means, including:
- Thought leadership pieces
- Newsjacking through press comments and issue jumping
- Media interviews and podcasts
- Exclusive studies and survey data
These approaches turn traditional link building on its head. No longer will forward-thinking businesses be producing the same content as everybody else — they’ll be distributing highly tailored, unique content that informs users and steers them to the top of the search rankings.
Digital PR is a two-pronged approach
Digital PR strategies work to market businesses by aligning brand-building opportunities with both PR and SEO needs. Whether our clients have a new product to promote, audience to target, or story to tell, each piece of content generated from a PR opportunity creates exposure to help achieve these goals.
But if it’s a comment on a breaking news story or an interview with the CEO, it’s not just exposure that the target business stands to gain from digital PR opportunities. In addition, they also receive those all-important backlinks from reputable sources.
This drives improved search rankings and reduces the need to produce guest articles or pay for links, which could lead to devaluing if marked as spam by Google.
As traditional link building is phased out, digital PR will pick up the slack to produce high-value, shareable content that naturally attracts organic backlinks.
The new way of driving business visibility
As the SEO cogs turn, PR professionals are increasingly moving into search, and the priorities of digital marketers are shifting towards cultivating productive relationships with influencers, experts, and other media bodies. This way, businesses big and small can target industry-relevant publications at international levels, and build a bulletproof backlink portfolio that would be otherwise impossible to earn.
But digital PR isn’t just about earning links — it also helps to drive higher brand visibility and enhance credibility, positioning the target business as an authority within their industry.
So, there you have it. Digital PR is the future of link building, and we’re all over it.
If you want to learn more about how Go Up could transform your marketing with digital PR, take a look at some of our client success stories. We’re pretty proud of the work we do. Or, let’s skip to the good bit and book in a chat about your digital marketing needs today.