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Shades of Grey: How link building used to be done and why things changed for the better

For a considerable amount of time, links have been a core weapon in an SEO’s arsenal. The way those links are acquired, however, has undergone massive changes in recent years. I wanted to publicly give some insight into how we, as an industry, used to use heavy grey hat SEO tactics.

I also wanted to explain why SEOs did this and why most of us moved towards a white hat approach to link building and inbound marketing in general.

Link Building in 2010

Back in 2010, the most common way to build links was to use Article Marketing software tools. You would take an article and spin it. This involved creating a syntax specifying certain interchangeable words, and allowed for the creation of many variations of any sentence. A very simple example is:

The man had a coat.

This could be spun as:

The {man|gentleman} had a {coat|jacket}.

Software would then randomly pick one of each possible variation each time it generated an article. In this example there are 4 possible variations:

  1. The man had a coat.

  2. The man had a jacket.

  3. The gentleman had a coat.

  4. The gentleman had a jacket.

When this formula was applied throughout a 500 word article, it would create thousands of variations. At the time, Google was unable to determine that the output was a spun article and it saw each variation as unique content. Some software was even able to automatically spin articles. The results always ended up looking bad, and the method created links that were certainly nothing to be proud of.

Why did we do this?

The main reason SEOs chose to do this kind of link building was because in 2010 and 2011 it worked extremely well. Ranking a client for a highly competitive keyword in a few weeks was quite a simple process.

Moreover, within the industry, this is what everyone was doing. In fact, 2 years ago the majority of small and medium-sized Google search results which had any kind of commercial value, would have been almost entirely dominated by sites employing these methods. Ranking for anything in Google relied on either you being a Fortune 500 company, or using tactics like this. Rand Fishkin from Moz (formerly SEO Moz) has talked religiously about why creating quality content–among other factors–is important. In the end he turned out to be right, but at the time virtually everyone doing SEO acknowledge but ultimately ignored what he said.

Most SEO companies back then were controlled by their client base. The clients demanded fast results, low prices and a minimum amount of effort on their part. Article marketing was a great solution to this at the time. And if you didn’t offer it to a potential client, there were a dozen other SEOs waiting to step in and do so.

The real list would be hundreds of times larger. The real difference between us and most SEO companies back then was the we didn’t hide what we were doing to our clients. The “snake oil” reputation SEO has was born out of a lack of transparency on these kinds of topics. Our clients all knew perfectly well that we were doing this kind of link building. We stated it clearly in our proposals and we show clients monthly link reports. And nobody voiced any opposition as long as the results kept coming.You can find a regularly updated list of Unethical SEO Services on which we are not so proudly featured. This list was compiled from one small subsection of one Article Marketing Network. A complete list would be hundreds of times longer.

Why things changed and what we do now

It’s important to mention that virtually no clients voiced any kind of complaints about the process, so long as they were achieving rankings. I remember the only client who ever complained about the process actually declined our offer to remove the links, for fear it would hurt his newly acquired rankings.

This all changed, however when Google rolled out its first Penguin update on the 24th April 2012, a day which will live in infamy in the minds of SEOs. The short answer to this question is that we stopped performing Article Marketing because we saw that Google was starting to punish sites that were doing it. The first Panda update effectively shut down a number of these Article Marketing Networks.

At Compete Digital, we saw the writing on the wall and quickly moved to distance ourselves from the process. Between April and May 2012, a large number of SEOs and online marketers did the same.

It was by no means a seamless process, as many of us had to effectively learn how to do SEO all over again. This rough transition resulted in one of two things happening to SEO companies: they either adapted, or they died. Link building ceased to become the core of what we all did. It became apparent that inbound marketing was the way forward and that becoming experts in other areas such as content, social media, PPC, CRO and analytics was crucial to survival.

This process also led everyone to experience a massive turnover in clients throughout 2012. Many clients quit in the first half of the year, as their previously-acquired rankings dropped. The business people making the decisions were right from a logical point of view. However, they were wrong from an SEO point of view, as they failed to realize the shifting landscape of the industry they were buying services from.

Cheap, easy, hassle-free, too-good-to-be-true SEO just wasn’t feasible under the new Google modifications.

Transparency helped companies a great deal during this phase, as many or the smarter clients were waking up to what was really going on and looking for new service providers. They were searching for a new agency to do things properly and those who adapted the quickest won the business.

Links are still a very important part of SEO and inbound marketing in general. There are white hat ways to build links, the most common of which is a variety of tactics relying on guest blog posting. However, this is just one of many pieces of the puzzle. It is important to combine the processes of link building and link earning in the production of high-quality content.

Good SEOs – or inbound marketers as they are now more commonly know as–ensure clients have a great blog with good, regularly-updated content. Incidentally, very few sites do this properly, which is why at Higher Click we created our Blog Management Service to help clients achieve this first goal. Writing content and simply waiting isn’t going to get you very far though. We spend quite a lot of time in finding sub-communities online and promoting the content to these groups. This is what results in real traction.

Building on this further, we will likely engage in some guest posting on highly-rated sites. Depending on the client, there are many other options available from this point but the end result we generate a lot of chatter. By this, I mean that there is a social buzz going on which results in both traffic and links being generated without any extra effort. Once this is accomplished, we tweak the content and the promotion to start serving each sub-community we’ve identified.

The results speak for themselves. While we aren’t able to build thousands of links per day for clients anymore, it is no longer necessary in order to achieve great results.

I hope this has given you a deeper insight into the history of link building and how it has evolved into what it is today. I’m happy to answer any questions about grey hat link building or about the current best practices. Simply leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

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