Euan Harris explains why seo's need to stop "building" links and focus efforts on earning them through a solid content strategy and integrated PR activity.

In 2012 Google announced their (later dubbed) Penguin algorithm update. To me and many web marketers trying to carry out legitimate practices, it was a huge step forward and a victory for good marketing and PR. Yet 3 years on, despite several updates (we’re on Penguin 3.0 now) and many horror stories of people being hit by suppressions and manual penalties, I’m amazed at how many companies and agencies are still trying to ‘build’ links for a quick win.

Instead of heeding Google’s warnings and changing their online marketing strategy to focus on legitimate practices, many have continued with black hat techniques, albeit more sophisticated than before.

When carrying out link audits on new clients and competitors, I’m amazed that it’s still going on. Some have moved on a little, trying to ‘cheat’ the algorithm while others are still adding links to directories, bookmark sites and link networks. I understand that both in-house and agencies need to show their managers and clients that they are getting results but at some point the algorithm will catch up. When that happens there may be no way back.

The convergence of SEO & PR

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how SEO and PR are becoming more closely integrated and I think this is absolutely the case. SEO can no longer work in silos and needs to be an integral part of the marketing mix. Focus should be on the user experience, good content, a great social strategy and effective PR and outreach.

Good, high value links can no longer be built, they need to be earned. ‘Link building’ is archaic and this is a direct result of the changes that Google and other search engines have been making over the last few years. And it’s for the better.

Morals in SEO?

As marketers we are responsible for helping to generate the business that keeps companies thriving, sustaining and creating jobs. Google is becoming more adept at algorithmically picking up on bad link practices; eventually ‘shortcuts’ will come back to bite you and if you’ve been particularly guilty of webspam the results on a business and people’s livelihoods could be devastating.

Personally, I like to sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that my practices, although hard work, won’t result in one of my clients falling off the edge of a cliff.

Hiring an agency – what you can do

With all the negative practices that still go on, and the devastating effects that they can have on a business, when hiring an agency you need to ensure their practices are legitimate and safe. Ask to see examples of links that they’ve earned and how they got them. In addition if you know some clients that they are working on you can use tools like Open Site Explorer from Moz to see the links that are pointing back to that site. This will give you an idea of what kind of link strategy they are using.

Things to look out for include a high number of directory links, article marketing sites and a high percentage of exact match anchor text (e.g. the company’s products/services) as opposed to brand terms.

Link earning, not building

Ultimately there will always be marketers out there looking to find ways around Google’s algorithm to get quick results. But these will likely not last. The only sure way to future-proof your search engine strategy is to follow Google’s quality guidelines. It’s not supposed to be easy but it’s those who persevere will reap the returns.

Link building is dead. Focus on link earning through good content and an integrated PR strategy - that is after all what the algorithm is ultimately designed to reward.