As much as everyone feels the imperative to deny it, link building is still one of the essential elements of every SEO campaign. The lack of honest conversation breeds ignorance, i.e. while we are all pretending we are above reaching out for a guest post, we can’t really talk about what it is that makes a link useful. That’s why some people will either think that solicited links will instantly get you penalized, or that they will magically improve your rankings – regardless of their type, quality, location, etc.

While, despite the hush-hush nature of this practice, there has been a lot written about the ways to distinguish between low and high quality links, what hasn’t been talked about as much are the types of benefits that a link can bring, aside from helping you improve your SERP position through the miracle of link juice.

This is why some SEOs are ready to ignore no-follow, forum, or blog post comment links, which might hold more value than the direct SEO value they pass on. There are entire classes of links which have become notorious just because they used to be employed in dubious, spammy strategies, but which still have their value.

There are different types of benefits that a link can bring, and more often than not, there will be at least some overlapping. For instance, while there are links that are specifically made to boost conversions, like a link on a potential source of relevant audience leading to your landing page; it could be argued that most of the links you make are ultimately aimed at increasing the number (if not necessarily the rate) of conversions. Likewise, a majority of links will bring you at least some visits, but there are those you’ll pursue specifically because of the type or volume of traffic they are likely to send your way. Once you make that distinction, you can identify several different subclasses of links based on their purpose.

The Spring of SEO Goodness

What defines the usefulness of a link? Divisions according to specific purpose aside, an ideal link, one covering most SEO-related demands is a do-follow link; with an anchor you choose, leading to the target page you choose; coming from a relevant, popular and influential website; that is not only likely to send targeted traffic your way, but it has that evergreen quality that ensures it will be sending that traffic for a long time to come. Instead of trying to get the same range of benefits from several different links, a lot of SEOs immediately and exclusively try for this golden standard, and in doing so, sometimes end up wasting their time.

Most often, they don’t choose this approach because they are sublimely conscientious, but because they have adopted the black and white view. With all the types of penalties they’ve had to be wary of, with everything they’ve been cautioned against, with everyone feeling obligated to keep harping on about how all of the links they create for their customers are as pristine as still descending snow; it’s difficult not to adopt one of the extreme opinions – either they are right and if you make a typo in your anchor text, you’re out of the game forever; or it’s all smoke and mirrors, and you can do whatever you like and still rank great.

Once you have that kind of mentality, or once that kind of approach has been imposed upon you, either by your company, time constraints or attempts at streamlining your operations; all forum links, for instance, are by default either good or bad, depending on your side. There is no room for subtlety or context. If you can’t appreciate the fact that while a dozen forum links with the same anchor, pointing to the same page, with the same nonsensical accompanying text can be spam; but one relevant, contextual and useful link on a forum which is likely to bring target traffic is SEO, you might find it difficult to agree with the rest of this post.

The bottom line is, there are not many types of links that are inherently good or bad, most of the time it’s just a question of how you’re using them.

Traffic Generation

You can’t have too much traffic, right? Well, no, you absolutely can. More traffic, if it’s not targeted, means a higher bounce rate, and a higher bounce rate might mean lower rankings – naturally, there is a balance to be struck there – but finding it is anything but easy. Traffic also uses up your resources, and brings you in close contact with people who don’t really want to have anything to do with you, and might feel mislead or let down. Even if they never vocalize their displeasure, this can still hurt your reputation.     

That being said, most of the time, more traffic is a good thing. Especially when you figure out:

         Exactly where do you want that traffic to come from, i.e. what kind of visitors are you after?

         Why do you need them – are you after promotion, conversions, friends?

         Where do you want them to land?

         How many do you need?

Depending on your answers to these questions, you might find yourself in a situation where a forum link can benefit you much more than one in your bio box on a relevant, respected publication. Not only is the first one much more likely to get clicks, if you’ve been honest with the visitors, and they really do find what they were expecting by clicking on the link, they’ve taken the first step down your sales funnel.

With this kind of goal, this means you can still benefit from no-follow blog post comment links, those on social networks, Q&A websites, etc. As a matter of fact, when it’s traffic you are after, and when you are trying to get it from sites of this kind, you might even prefer the links to be no-follow. Again, if you have a decent link portfolio, a couple of riskier links won’t hurt, but knowing that Google is not paying as much attention to them as it might should help ease your mind further.

Naturally, for this to work, your link really has to be useful to people, has to be contextual and has to be presented in a way that doesn’t make people cringe. It is your level of involvement and effort that differentiates this approach from spam, but it’s also about subtlety and staying focused on the goal. That means not trying to make that link do everything and be everything. You won’t use an anchor that you want to rank for, but one that will do the best job of explaining the link to people seeing it. You won’t accompany it with text that only justifies its existence, but with something that will actually make people understand why they should click on it, and so on.

To Charm a Spider

Links made primarily for the benefit of crawlers are most commonly described as manipulative or unnatural, but once again, that’s only because people can be extremely shortsighted when making them.

Just like you don’t have to make the link all it possibly could be, you also sometimes have to make sure that you’ve covered all the essentials. In this case, this means paying at least as much attention to users as you do to crawlers.

Sure, these links pretty much need to be do-follow, you want them higher on the page, with the appropriate target and a suitable keyword variation, but none of this means you have to be deceptive or manipulative.

These links are mostly commonly pursued by SEOs, since they seem to have the most direct ROI. While there is no doubt that you do need a fair portion of links that meet this condition to rank well, pursing them exclusively, especially if you fail to make them appropriately diverse when it comes to anchors, is more than likely to get you in trouble.

To Mix it Up

It’s not only your anchors that need to be diverse, it’s your entire link portfolio. There are all kinds of links out there, and the more popular you are, the more colorful your backlinks are going to get. Followed or not; with a generic anchor like ‘click here’ or a brand specific one, every site is expected to attract a variety of links.

Bringing this up is not meant to inspire anyone to start chasing after potentially spammy links just because they currently don’t seem to have any. There are, however, some areas which can always stand some branching out:

         Even if you’ve identified your ideal audience, going out of your way to get some attention from a different set of people might teach you a lot.

         You’ve only been pursuing a limited set of keywords? Change it up. The more backlinks you have, the weirder it gets if all of them have a limited range of combinations as anchor text.   

         A huge majority of your backlinks are do-follow? Remember that you CAN have too clean a track record. Again, this is not to say that you should start chasing after no-follows just for variety’s sake, but maybe you should leave some of them out of your disavow file next time?

Just like there are not many things unfunnier than a failed joke, you’d have a hard time finding anything more suspicious than an attempt at normalcy. Your links still have to make sense, so this is not about figuring out ways to snatch an exotic link, but about covering all your bases and making use of the opportunities you’ve been ignoring.

To Guide them to Conversion

While the match between your offer and the audience you are presenting it to is probably the most important part of the conversion equation, there is much to be said about the presentation itself. Just like A/B tests of different landing pages show huge differences in response based on minimal changes, the same tests performed on the copy, position, and general context of backlinks leading to those landing pages show the importance of miniscule details.

The problem is, even with paid advertising options, that you can’t always control the context when you rely on third parties for promotion. If you’re after conversions and if time forces you to choose between the two, always choose a no-follow link on a relevant forum with an engaged audience, rather than a followed one on an authoritative site that doesn’t seem a likely source of visits (then find the time and try to get the other one too).

The Lesson?

Traditionally left for the summation of the points made in the post, the conclusion of this one is that one of the main problems with link building right now is that people are too eager to summarize. Because of a lack of time, experience, strategy or funds, some people seem to have come to believe that if you make enough links that have a bit of everything you need, it will all balance out in the end.

It won’t. Different phases of your strategy will require different types of links. Being able to identify and focus on the ones that are important at any given moment might be what makes the difference between success and failure.  

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