Skyrocket SEO released the results of its Link Building Survey 2014 in July and have published the data on the Moz blog. Over 300 consultants, marketers, business owners and SEO managers answered questions about link building budgets, challenges and tactics. The results show that link building is still an integral part of most search marketing budgets, even if the process is becoming more demanding.
What is link building?
Link building is the process of actively seeking quality links from other sites back to your own website. Link building has developed a bad reputation in part because of its ugly past. In the early 2000's, companies acquired links through link exchanges, link purchasing and direct solicitation of links through email. Much of the process was robotic and automatic, and little to no thought was given to the context of links. Link farms were filled with spammy, meaningless links that received no human traffic but helped sites fare better in search results.
Search marketing professionals considered such “black hat” tactics unethical, but they flourished nonetheless because in many cases, they worked. Google had no way of distinguishing a legitimate link from spam, allowing marketers to cheat the system and get results.
Google changed the link building landscape with the release of Penguin in 2012. Penguin specifically targets bad links – those that come from link exchanges or link buying. Penguin penalties have made some site owners wary of link building, even though links are still an important way to gain positive recognition from Google.
Link Building Survey 2014 results
The first part of the survey focuses on link building budgets. Eighty percent of respondents said they spend at least $1000 per month on link building alone, and a full 50 percent spend more than $5000 per month.
Amount spent on link building per month:
- Between $0 and $1,000 - 20 percent
- Between $1,000 and $5,000 - 20 percent
- Between $5,000 and $10,000 - 23 percent
- Between $10,000 and $50,000 - 37 percent
- Over $50,000 – 0
Last year, 10 percent of respondents said they spent over $50,000 per month on link building, indicating some shifting of investment into additional or alternative marketing tactics. However, more companies are now investing at the $10-$50k level — 37 percent this year compared to 11 percent in last year's survey.
Investment as a percentage of an overall monthly marketing budget tells a similar story. In terms of total spending, roughly half of those surveyed say they invest between 0 and 50 percent of their overall monthly SEO budget on link building, and 40 percent invest between 51 and 75 percent of their total budget on link building activities.
Spending on link building as a percentage of overall budget:
- Between 0 and 25 – 27 percent
- Between 26 and 50 – 27 percent
- Between 51 and 75 – 40 percent
- Between 76 and 100 – 7 percent
The continued investment in link building indicates business owners and marketers still believe in the importance of growing a site's visibility and authority through links. However, the data also shows that very few professionals believe putting all of their efforts into one activity will produce results.
Diversity is important within link building campaigns and with regard to online marketing as a whole. Many tactics long-considered to be effective, like repeated linking of the same keyword-related anchor text, now produce penalties, and businesses that relied too heavily on those tactics saw serious declines in rankings.
As Google's algorithm continues to become more sophisticated, companies will have to invest in a growing number of outreach methods. Google wants to return results that have value to searchers. The best way to prove you can produce this value is to be real — and offer information real people want to read.
Some links may come from work done offline for charities or through connections made with local reporters. Some may come from targeted social or blog-related campaigns. However links are achieved, each effort should take into account clients' needs and firm goals. There is no boilerplate solution for good links, each campaign must be custom-built to appeal to the right audience at the right time.
Link building is a promotional activity, and a diverse link portfolio is a sign of a good reputation. Link building works easily with other online marketing endeavors, which center around building trust and authority. Links are a confirmation you have established authority and a positive reputation within your field, and link building should come naturally as others recognize your contributions.
Link building takes time and creativity
Of those surveyed, 73 percent plan to increase spending on link building in the coming year. When asked why, respondents said they planned to invest more because link building is getting more expensive and because they need to be able to compete with other companies that have increasingly sophisticated content assets.
The tactics that are most used and considered most effective show that marketers are stepping up their games in an effort to produce quality, sharable content. The top three link building tactics are:
- Content and outreach
- Infographic promotion
- Guest posts
Other popular tactics include resource pages (number 4), contests and giveaways, broken link building and local directories (all tied for number 5).
Companies are willing to invest in activities that prove their value to visitors. These tactics are appropriately diverse and heavily content-centric. They recognize the needs of visitors and offer benefits in terms of information through content, outreach and infographics, and reward through contests and giveaways.
Link building requires relationship building online and off. Content and outreach can no longer consist of cheap, quick tactics. You have to convince those linking to you that you provide a meaningful experience. If a site links to you, its owners are saying they trust you.
Link building as a legitimate SEO tactic is still viable
According to the survey, one of the top three challenges of link building is avoiding Google penalties. Through trial and error, Google has done a good job of eliminating spammy tactics. The top four link building practices considered to be the most harmful by respondents are: paid links, article directories, website directories and forum profile links, most of which were considered legitimate only a few years ago.
Matt Cutts confirmed the importance of links to Google's algorithm in June at SMX (Search Marketing Expo) Advanced Seattle. In an answer to a direct question about the continued viability of link building, Cutts said, “No, link building is not dead . . . There's a lot of mileage left in links.” Cutts also said that white hat SEO was still possible but that it takes a combination of “sweat plus creativity.”
What Google is doing is effectively eliminating shortcuts. Robots cannot produce what real humans want, and link building requires firm's become proficient at expressing their value to clients in creative ways.