Jun 18 2012
(A Brief History of Link Building)
In the beginning search engines did not consider links in their ranking algorithms, but businesses wanted links to their site simply for the valuable traffic from a specific target market. This was and still is a form of advertising.
Google (early years)
When Google came along in 1998, their PageRank algorithm relied heavily on links and anchor text to other web pages. But, since Google was not well known yet, compared to Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos and other popular search engines back then, link building to improve search rank was not an emphasis.
The Big Shift
The buzz about Google’s highly relevant search results along with no ads pushed Google into the limelight until they surpassed Yahoo as the most used search engine in 2001. Link building typically involved directory listings in the Open Directory Project, Yahoo Directory, and other well known directories. Other forms of link building ensued: link exchange, web rings, buying and selling links, link farms, etc. Alas, link spam had begun.
Matt Cutts Debut
Webmaster World’s forum began receiving interesting entries from the handle googleguy, and some found evidence that indeed this was an employee of Google. Soon enough Matt Cutts emerged as the engineer at Google who was serving like a PR role – later he became known as head of the webspam team. Webspam is anything that violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines which became necessary when link building began impacting search result quality.
In 2005 Google announced that links with rel=”nofollow” would not influence PageRank for the target URL. The nofollow attribute was originally intended to block comment spam and non-trusted links to external sites from influencing search results. Later it became a useful way for advertisers to deal with paid links or advertisements.
In October 2007, Google rolled out a PageRank update that penalized sites that sell links. This update was aimed at well known sites who were selling links for a monthly fee as well as text link brokers. Google seems to have lowered PageRank for sites across the board since link brokers based their fees on the PR of the pages where they placed links.
Matt Cutts: “I care about paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings. I’m not worried about links that are paid but don’t affect search engines. So when I say ‘paid links’ it’s pretty safe to add in your head ‘paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings.’”
Does Google still penalize sites that sell links and do not label them as advertisements, nofollow them or noindex them? Absolutely, and they still have their paid link report form up and active.
NoFollow – Part 2
Some SEOs began using the nofollow attribute to control the flow of PageRank within a site, also known as PageRank sculpting. So, in 2009, Matt Cutts announced Google would not treat nofollowed links in the same way.
Google’s public statement on nofollow: “In general, we don’t follow them. This means that Google does not transfer PageRank or anchor text across these links.” Google recommends using nofollow for untrusted content, paid links and crawl prioritization.
Vince / Brand Mentions
Also in 2009, Google made a change to their algorithm that many SEOs said favored big brands, but Matt Cutts clarified. Cutts said it is not really about pushing brands to the front of the Google results. It is more about factoring trust more into the algorithm for more generic queries. He said most searchers won’t notice and it does not impact the long tail queries, but for some queries, Google might be factoring in things like trust, quality, PageRank and other metrics that convey the importance and value of a page, into the ranking algorithm. “We don’t really think about brands; we think about words like trust, authority, reputation, PageRank, high quality…”
Toward the end of April 2010 many sites that were enjoying good search rank for long tail search queries began seeing 20-50% loss in traffic from Google. Webmaster World users poured in on May 1st to report their problems and named it the Mayday Update.
Matt Cutts said it was an algorithmic change that affects long tail searches and did improve quality. He says, “Ask yourself if you have the highest quality site, am I showing up for the most relevant searches, what sort of things can I do in terms of adding great content, making sure people think of me as an authority…”
In February 2011 Google released the Panda update. SEOs who monitored the change in search results, named it the Farmer Update because it seemed to affect sites that produced lots of content, or content farms. Some of the more famous sites that got hit initially were Ezinearticles.com, Hubpages.com, Mahalo.com, etc. Panda is named after the Google engineer who developed this update.
The goal of Panda was to lower search rank for “low quality” sites and replace them with higher quality sites; in other words, poor user experience sites went down and good user experience sites went up. Although many low quality sites were hit by Panda, some high quality sites were also hit in a negative way. This led to Panda Updates that continue to roll out to this day.
What makes the Panda update so different is its machine learning algorithm approach using human quality raters. A machine learning algorithm can learn, over a long period of time, against a set of known shady practices websites, then when it encounters sites that match the same pattern, it can take action on them.
In April 2012, Google launched the Penguin update. It was dubbed to target sites that are “over optimized,” but it really means clearing out web spam from search results as outlined in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. The most common problem of sites hit by Penguin involve an unbalanced link profile (too many links with exact match anchor text, too many links that were clearly added for SEO purposes rather than with a more natural link profile, etc.)
So, in case you were wondering…
The era of easy and unnatural link building is over
And it’s been over for years but Google has made it painfully obvious now for those who have lagged behind.
I like the way David Leonhardt spells it out in this post: Spinfographics: When Will Google Crack Down On Infographic Spam?
If you take nothing else away, get this: your business and site can have its own “Big Shift” moment in your industry if you can build up an audience of people who like your site enough to market it for you. In other words, end your dependence on Google and take on the challenge of creating things that lots of people will like and share – things that real businesses do to build up brand engagement.
By the way, if you have been a search engine laggard, you might benefit from some of our SEO consulting services to get back on track and up to speed again.