Google continues to make SEO harder: Deliberately, or as a side-effect of improving the user experience, depending on which side of the “Evil Google” fence you sit. This comes as no surprise when you look at the history of updates Google has made, from lowering the impact of reciprocal links and web directory listings, to the Panda and Penguin updates of recent times. Now there is talk from Matt Cutts of lowering the value of infographic links. Cue hand-wringing and forehead slapping from the SEO community.

Forehead slap

Image courtesy of Hobvias Sudoneighm.

Google has to continuously evolve its algorithm and platform to keep up with the ways that people find to manipulate it and changes to the way the web is used. Otherwise, we would simply get increasingly poor search results (some would argue we do anyway…) Leaving aside the clear evidence of Google’s attack on numerous markets and ever-decreasing visibility of organic search results, Google’s search results would be a complete spam-fest if they hadn’t introduced many of the updates that have caused SEOs headaches over the years.

This year has seen two events that have particularly affected the SEO process as we have known it for years. Firstly, the Webmaster Tools “unnatural links” warning messages/penalties that appear to punish websites that have too many links from certain kinds of websites (likely to include web directories and article sites). This was swiftly followed by the Penguin update, penalising sites that have too much “exact match” anchor text (i.e. lots of links that use their target keywords as the link text, rather than a broad collection of anchor text from brand name and URLs to generic “click here” and “more info” type phrases).

These changes are big on two fronts. Firstly, it has long been held that if Google doesn’t like a particular link for some reason, it will simply ignore it. Now, you could be penalised for it, so the “throw it around to see what sticks” approach is suddenly a lot more dangerous. Secondly, for years it has almost been “best practice” to get exact match keywords as anchor text when link building – it was (is?) the quickest way to improve your ranking for those keywords. Now that too could get you penalised, so getting links needs to look a lot more natural – a much greater variety of anchor text and the pages on your site being linked to.

Google’s intention to deal with “over-optimised” anchor text has been clear for a while and here at Boom we started introducing much more variety into our anchor text some time ago; I’m pleased to say that none of our clients seems to have been affected. However, going forwards, we and the rest of the SEO community have a challenge – Google has pretty much wiped out all of the “easy” ways to get links. We cannot rely on the same old methods. We must make a stepchange in how we approach obtaining links.

Massive Change

Image courtesy of Sookie.

As things stand, the quality bar for links has been raised to the point that repeatedly generating links from the same sources simply won’t work or worse, will get you penalised. The “rinse-wash-repeat” processes that many SEO companies use, if continued, are now a timebomb. The “new SEO”, to many people, is not new at all – it’s about content marketing, creating genuinely useful stuff on your website (or somebody else’s if they’re willing to give credit with a link) and promoting it far and wide, with a strategy behind it that gives you the best chance of maximum reach and hence a good number of genuine, valuable links.

The reason it’s “new” is that this is something many people have shied away from for two reasons:

  1. Creating content and marketing it takes time and skill that might not be available or that clients can’t afford.
  2. There are no guarantees with this approach as to how many links (if any!) you will generate. SEO is a results business and the choice between a process that you know generates a certain number of links vs. one that might generate more/better links (but also might not) is an easy one – go with what you know works.

Of course, today we find ourselves in the position where there are very few (if any) link building processes that (a) still work and (b) don’t have the potential to cause problems down the line. So, that choice between “I can get (x) links with (y) amount of time” vs. “I think this will work…” is no longer there. If you want the links that count and that will still be counting in a year’s time, you have to get content marketing. You cannot afford to create a pattern in your link profile by repeating the same process over and over again, getting links from the same kinds of websites in the same sort of format. Google will find you out.

There are other mitigating factors around a reticence to use content marketing. Generally speaking, you need a social media presence with which to “seed” and promote your amazing content. Not all businesses are there yet. Budget can also be an issue, as the content needs to stand out and that might mean using the services of a graphic designer or video production company.

However, there are also benefits beyond the link building properties of content marketing. You are creating genuinely useful stuff on your website, that in itself might get search traffic and help convert visitors into customers. If you are promoting it via social media, you are also networking and making contacts that could lead to future business and improve your standing in your industry. Content marketing shouldn’t sit in the SEO silo – it should be part of your holistic online marketing strategy, playing its part in social media, visitor retention and conversion rate optimisation.

I’m not suggesting that content marketing is the only SEO tactic left on the table. Far from it, but the point is that without it, you are left with processes that if over-used create a genuine risk by forming a pattern over time. Patterns are what make it easy for Google to discount links. The nature of links from content marketing is to be varied, with a natural spread of anchor text and type of website making the links. Mix in some other types of link building without over-doing it and you have a strategy for success.

Here at Boom, that is the approach that we take. Google has forced our hand to an extent, but we saw it coming and have already taken steps to make content marketing a much more central part of what we do. That fortuitously coincides with a range of internal process improvements that we are making, so if you are a Boom client, you will soon be hearing about all the changes here, including how content marketing is going to help you.