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27 October 2015

Mastering Digital: The Truth About Link Building

Posted By: AIB Business

In our latest “Mastering Digital” article, Antonie Geerts (Managing Director, Seditio Digital Consultancy & Training) provides a short history of link building for SEO purposes and asks “Is link building right for your SME?”

If you have ever attended digital marketing training or hired an SEO consultant or company, you will have heard the term “link building”. So what is this magical link building that so many “experts” are raving about for the last couple of years? 

Let me briefly explain how link building works:

So a few years ago, Google had a problem. They had built a very smart system that would provide their users with the best possible search results based on over 200 criteria – things like how often a keyword appeared on the page, how long the website existed and the user experience on the page. All of these “signals” impacted the search result positions. 

However, in highly competitive fields like insurance, many websites managed to reach the A+ level of SEO standards so Google needed a tiebreaker to determine who would be number one, two, three, four etc. for search terms like “car insurance”.

This tiebreaker comes in the form of links from other websites to your website. While Google has historically looked at a number of so-called tiebreakers, the number of links to a website has often remained a constant one to help determine quality of a website.


The first version of link building on Google search results was such that the website with more links than its closest competitor for a certain keyword would win.

Now this approach worked pretty well for a couple of years and many companies took it upon themselves to transform into “SEO Experts” by merely getting a bunch of links created to their clients’ websites and “booking” results.

This, in a nutshell, is link-building.

Can you see the problem with this approach? One company that can is Google and they have been fighting these link building “farms” for the last few years using a link detection algorithm. The result of their battle?

Many companies that paid for SEO services in the past – from companies utilising link building techniques – got severely penalised and many of them didn’t know what happened or why. They might have implemented an SEO project a year before and everything was looking hunky-dory and then, out of the blue, they received 50% less traffic from organic sources.

Worst of all, the SEO companies that provided this poor service blamed Google or their clients for bad practices. But the way this algorithm works is actually very smart – Google managed to identify a large pool of “bad links”. These websites would have been confirmed to be bad / fake / link farm websites, and so the first new algorithm to fight bad links penalised websites receiving X amount of links from Google’s database of bad links.

The result was that many websites, including large brands like JCPenney, got severely hit and noticed a big decline in their organic rankings. After many months of unsuccessful attempts to undo the damage of the imposed penalties, these websites were offered an out. Google asked for a list of all the websites that they had used for link building, and Google would then consider restoring their organic search results, albeit partly.

Through what is called a disavow process, thousands of companies started unlinking the bad websites they had used for the link building process. There was, however, one catch that many of the SEO link building companies didn’t consider. Google never gave them the list of initial bad websites they had identified, so the companies didn’t know which ones to unlink.

As a result, they provided any possible link they had used for link building and, as a result, the disavow database with bad websites grew from a small set of bad links to one containing millions of bad links.

Can you guess what Google did next?

Penguin 1.0

Launched on 24th April 2012, Penguin impacted 3.1% of all website queries (That’s a lot!), with  millions of websites across the world seeing sharp declines in their organic rankings.

Now, as a geek, I can really appreciate the beauty of this perpetuating algorithm as the process of “Penalty, Disavow and New Update” works like a self-cleaning system.

So the big question remains: Is link building right for your SME? Hell no. There are many better ways of doing SEO that involve zero short cuts, hard work and a genuine reward of new organic visitors.


Written by: Antonie Geerts, Managing Director, Seditio Digital Consultancy & Training


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