The war against link building has been going on for years now. Starting in the mid-to-late 2000s, Google began an initiative, cracking down on shady link building schemes around the web in any way that it could. Back then, backlink building required no tact—it was just a matter of quantity, and the more links you had pointing back to you the better. People would readily buy up backlinks or build them using questionable practices like article directories or link farms, and user experience suffered.
Google started clearing up the spam by de-indexing or manually penalizing sites that existed solely to help people build backlinks. A few years later, in 2012, it released the Penguin update, a massive algorithm change that rewarded high-quality links and penalized any that appeared to be built solely for the purpose of passing page rank. Since then, Google has continued to make it abundantly clear that anyone caught buying or selling links, along with anyone who built links using questionable practices, would face the search engine giant’s wrath.
Now, that storm appears to be calming, and it could mean that Google’s war against link building is starting to subside.
The Slowing Momentum of Penguin
First, we have to take a look at the Penguin update as it exists today. When it first debuted in 2012, it was a massive game-changer, sending webmasters scrambling to try and pick of the pieces of their lost campaigns. Anyone who was hit by the update had to remove the offending links in short order, and anyone not hit by the update had to update their strategies to ensure they remained in compliance.
A new version of the update, Penguin 2.0, came a year later, but had a significantly lessened impact. It refined a few processes and added some more criteria to how Google evaluated the quality of links, but beyond that it was a straightforward data refresh.
In 2014, the SEO community expected a similar update, informally known as Penguin 3.0, but the update was delayed until much later in the year. When the update finally did arrive, it appeared as though the changes were even less significant, making little to no waves in the SEO community at large.
It could be argued that the slowed momentum of Penguin is due to the fact that Penguin is still doing its job; bad link builders are punished and good link builders are rewarded. However, it could also be an indication that Google is starting to lighten up when it comes to penalizing link builders. It recognizes that millions of sites rely on link building to gain authority, and furthering the struggle against them isn’t worth the effort.
The Emergence of Link Buying Ads
According to a recent post by Rand Fishkin of Moz, Google AdWords has apparently removed its ban on advertising from link building companies. Previously, any advertisements that explicitly mentioned the buying or selling of backlinks for the purposes of increasing Google rank were explicitly banned in Google AdWords. Now, a quick search for “link building” or “buy links” reveals several top ads for link building companies.
Keep in mind that Google’s official policy still forbids the buying and selling of links for the purpose of passing page rank. Allowing advertisements for companies that shamelessly violate that policy is a seeming contradictory decision. It could be a further indication that Google is starting to realize that no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to win the war against link builders. If they’re going to exist anyway, Google might as well stand to make a little money off of them through advertising in the process. But does this mean that Google is implicitly agreeing that link building is a necessary strategy to increase rank, or that it accepts the process?
“I’d Avoid Link Building in General”
Google’s own John Mueller recently gave his opinion on the matter. As part of the Live Hangout, a user asked the question “is link building in any way good?”, directly calling the matter to Mueller’s attention. Mueller responded, “in general, I’d try to avoid that,” then elaborating that pursuing a link building strategy would ultimately cause more problems for your site than it would solve.
Mueller reinforced the accepted truth that links are still an important part of the Google ranking algorithm, but there are so many other factors that link building should never be your top priority. If you try too hard to build links, you’ll ultimately end up hurting your domain authority, instantly ruining any of the benefits you may have picked up along the way.
This little discussion makes it clear that even though Penguin is losing momentum and Google AdWords now allows link buying companies to place advertisements, Google is firm on its position that buying or artificially building links is a bad idea.
The Bottom Line
Google isn’t fighting the war against link building as hard as it used to. However, that doesn’t mean that excessive link building is suddenly okay. The search engine’s policy on buying or improperly building links is still intact, and some of its highest ranking officials are explicitly warning against it. If you want to build links to increase the authority of your site, the best way to do it is by writing or posting great content, and making it easy for your users to share that content and link back to you. This strategy generates hundreds to thousands of links, but doesn’t carry the risk of a penalty since it constitutes a form of natural link building. Otherwise, build your links on relevant sources in context with the conversation, and never resort to buying links directly or spamming users.
Timothy Carter is the CRO for AudienceBloom. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.