‘But Danny, it’s just not relevant enough to our business!’
This was the pain of my existence working as a freelancer, trying to come up with content ideas that would get links.
Over the years, since starting in SEO in 2006, this has never gone away.
Let’s be honest.
If you were not buying links in 2006, then you were not a proper SEO.
But even then, we worried about relevancy.
When you bought links, you made sure the content was as relevant as it could be to the site you were linking to.
I remember one of the strangest link building tactics I used to use was link wheels.
I would set up accounts on lots of web 2.0 sites (like hubpages.com) and then I would write super relevant content on each property.
Once all content was up, I would link all the sites together and have one link back to my “money” site.
Thankfully the age of the link wheels is over and most of us are spending time producing content rather than actively building links.
Yet relevancy is still a big issue.
SEOs fear that if get too many irrelevant links from a content marketing campaign, then Google will discount them or, even worse, penalise the site altogether.
During my early years of producing content for links, I quickly realised that “SEO relevant” content never performed.
It was only when I started thinking outside of the box with random ideas that I got any meaningful results.
But was this a mistake?… should I have been only going for relevant links?
In a recent post on Search Engine Land, plenty of big name people came out in support of this “relevancy” for links.
If you scan a number of SEO blog posts you will find the often repeated phrase ‘make sure your links are relevant.’
It happens so often that it feels like an industry truth.
It’s just assumed:
- Relevant links = good
- Irrelevant links = bad
But What Is Relevancy?
Let’s check out Wikipedia:
Just by reading this statement, it gets a little confusing.
It does provide some examples:
‘If someone says the phrase “I love ice cream” and “I have a friend named Brad Cook” then these statements are not relevant.’
But if we say the phrases “I love ice cream” and “I have a friend named Bard Cook who also loves ice cream” they are relevant as it relates to the first person’s idea.
The same idea could be applied to links.
If during this article I casually mention I am going to go diving in Thailand as a way to subtly boast but also let you connect with me as a human being, is this post now relevant to diving?
I’ll be honest, I have stolen this approach of explaining relevance from Michael Martinez so be sure to check out his far more amusing post from 2015: Should Your Links be Credible or Relevant?
Michael talks about how this idea of relevancy has taken hold because of the fact that many spammy links were also irrelevant so it was assumed that a lack of relevancy is a factor for detecting spam.
But the internet is not defined by black or white definitions of relevancy.
- Spam links can be relevant.
- Spam links can be irrelevant.
The reality is that Google is against all links that try to manipulate the search algorithm.
This even includes the sacred “authority” links.
Whilst authority is a great way to identify links that are more important it doesn’t automatically mean that it will be seen as a safe link by Google.
Even if you get a link from the biggest authority site in your niche but you pay for it – and Google finds out – great authority ain’t going to save you from being penalised.
Let’s Talk About Buying (And Manipulating) Links In 2017
I know this is something that agencies don’t like to say for fear of scaring their clients but any link building activity has a degree of risk.
As of 2017, there are sites still buying links.
From Google’s perspective, it’s easy to categorise a link that is paid regardless of the perceived “relevance” of the link.
- Paid link = Spam
- Not paid = Not Spam
In the same way that relevancy doesn’t mean a link is safe, neither is authority.
Back in 2013, UK newspapers were providing advertorials with do-follow links.
These domains had some of the largest authority but this was not enough to protect them.
Google handed out penalties when they realised that all these links were paid for and newspapers were forced to no-follow these links in future.
So if that is the case, what can we do?
Should we just pack up and stick to technical SEO?
I don’t know about you but I always sucked at technical SEO so there must be another option.
Google only wants to value links that happen with zero input from ourselves and will target those people try to manipulate.
But not all manipulation is equal.
Some types of link building are easy to detect (think blog networks) but other approaches (such as editorial links from content you create) are far trickier.
I see it as an obvious manipulation chart:
The safest place for anyone who doesn’t want a Google penalty is to stick to the offline world.
It’s all a degree of risk but luckily there are other players in the game.
As long as you stay ahead of your competitors’ techniques, then you reduce your risk significantly.
It’s the one reason why the iGaming industry is still so spammy even with all the Google algorithm updates.
If everyone is mass buying links, then you don’t look so bad if you are just guest posting.
Whilst in other sectors with players who are pursuing an aggressive content approach, you would be foolish to start guest posting as a way to compete.
The Real Reason Why You Should Choose a Content Approach
The reason I love content – especially great content – is that it can start to build links for you with zero input.
But if the only links you get are those that you made happen through outreach/digital PR, then be aware that these may become a risk in the future as Google’s manipulation techniques become even more sophisticated.
In a perfect world you should just produce content and promote it but don’t fixate on getting a link.
At some point in future, I can envision Google will be able to distinguish those links that have been developed through an active PR and outreach strategy and those that happen over time that had no direct input from the site owner.
But even the best content in the world will need an initial push so people can see it amongst the crowd of online content
I still care about relevancy but only to the extent that we are able to answer a journalist when they ask why has client produced content about X.
If you have no answer for that, then you are unlikely to get the initial exposure in the first place.
By focusing on getting your content to a big audience in the first place, you can get lots of eyeballs on your content.
In time, lots more people will choose to link to it without an active outreach attempt, signalling to Google that this is a page worth taking notice of.
Because of this, I believe that sites need to take more notice of the long-term links from a piece of content, rather than just those that are “built” during the initial promotion stage.
It’s these links, earned over time by real people that will stick for the very long term and have far less long term risk than those achieved through active promotion.