Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pros and Cons of Backlinks: Not Worth the Effort Anymore?

Writers or web content publishers who are also search engine marketers often tout the value of backlinking their own work.  I'm a maverick.  I think backlinks created for "link juice" are pretty valueless and getting cheaper daily.  I write web content for revenue share, and I don't systematically backlink, and my articles, many of them hosted at HubPages, don't do badly at all.  And I think I'm not alone.  I know, I know.  A lot of people swear by creating strategic backlinks.  But there's another group of people that don't touch the things and let the backlinks develop organically.  And it's looking like that may be okay.

What is backlinking?  It means building backlinks.  Backlinks generally refer to external links, as opposed to internal backlinks, which are links within your own website or profile pages.  The purpose is not just to gain traffic to your pages, but also to improve their PageRank so they will show up higher in the SERPs.

Building backlinks can be done by developing relationships with other websites and attracting links from them by having valuable content.  But these days, people build their own backlinks via article marketing and social media.   Backlinking is, in short, a strategy in which SEO marketers themselves publish links to their content on other websites or through Internet media.  

Historically, those links have given their content "link juice" or "Google love" or whatever you want to call it - basically, they helped them rank well in the search engine results pages (SERPS), which increases web traffic.  That is now changing, I believe - even though Google's proprietary algorithm for ranking pages is all about PageRank, and PageRank is mostly about backlinks.  But more on why I think it's changing later...

After almost two years of content writing, dabbling in backlinking and most especially seeing what others have done, I've decided that for me, backlinks take more effort than they're worth.  And especially, that an online writer's energy is better used writing articles that attract enough targeted traffic via SEO (search engine optimization), revising them when necessary and adding fresh, useful content that other people will want to link to.

Backlinking isn't dead, by any means.  It's still got power, especially if you're writing in topics that are time sensitive rather than evergreen.  If you're writing on the latest products or events that will be outdated by next season, you don't necessarily have the luxury of time to wait for articles to "mature" and natural links to develop organically.

But there's a catch - several catches, in fact - when you create backlinks.  It's hard work (or expensive if you pay for it) and you already have to have your "backlinking infrastructure" in place - like established websites or community memberships.  Virtually no forums are dofollow any more.  External backlinking via articles or social media can work, but only when done with great discretion and sparingly will it make you more money.

On the rare occasion when a backlinking blitz works and the monetary rewards are great, they're also short term.  That's because it's a way of "gaming" the system.  Google Search uses backlinks to calculate PageRank because it can reveal the usefulness of a web page.  When people vote for themselves multiple times by creating thousands of backlinks, they're masking the true usefulness of the page.  I believe Google Search is always working out how to stop people doing that, and they're getting better at it by the day.

Why Gaming the System Isn't the Best Way to be Competitive in the Internet Age

There's nothing wrong with trying to show the search engines you've got a relevant page.  They like that, in fact.  But over time, they will combat your efforts to rank highly based on artificial props like self-built backlinks.

This is a new economy we're in.  In the olden days (well, okay, the 1960s  through the mid 1990s), professional and commercial competition was fierce.  The only way to succeed was to "game" the system in the approved manner. 

The type of gaming was different back then.  It involved getting a college degree, doing local networking, acquiring references, building a great resume, learning interviewing techniques, and cultivating other "proofs" that you're better qualified for the work or sale than others.

A lot of people are still thinking they're in that world of cut-throat competition - too many workers, not enough jobs - limited products, limited customers.  They feel that the only way to rise to the top is to use tricks.

But that's an old strategy.  Today better resembles the economy of the early 20th century when improved communications and the automobile expanded commerce in unprecedented ways.

There's lots of opportunity, and though there's plenty of competition, there's also more than enough room for a large number of people to succeed.  Online.

Which means that very little gaming is necessary; it's mostly about performance. 

For writers, it means to write good content.  Learn what your visitors want.  Learn the few rules of the game you do need to know. 

The search engines need our articles "search engine optimized" to find our content, because the Google, Bing and Yahoo search engines are not quite AI (artificially intelligent) enough yet.  So that much "gaming" is necessary. 

But it's possible to do well just by producing content organic visitors find helpful and by keeping up with current (and constantly changing) SEO strategies.

And judging by what webmasters are saying, Google Search in its ranking algorithms is already beginning to devalue - or at least, differentiate - external backlinks. 

A revealing article containing an interview with a Google staffer, Maile Ohye, says a lot about the recent Mayday and Caffeine changes and about the direction Google is taking.  It's not much different from what's on their own blogs, webmaster documents and help pages, or what's being discussed in webmaster circles, but it goes a bit more in depth. In the article, Ms. Ohye says that links are a "big part of [the] PageRank algorithm" and that quality is far more important than quantity. 

What I'm reading between the lines is that Google is getting better at differentiating between low quality links and high quality links.  And backlinks bought or created by web marketers are quite often low quality links.

How to succeed without backlinks?  Google Search likes content that users like.   In fact, Google seems to define spam not just as content that "looks" like spam, but as content that users don't like when they do a particular search. 

Whether or not the search engine is doing a good job at filtering the content is another issue - it's certainly a work in progress.

That article contains a clue about the disadvantages of building external backlinks.  While some folks find backlinking to be a valuable strategy and are able to devote the time, effort, and/or money to create high quality backlinks, those investments  can also backfire.   And I think that the historical value of backlinking is beginning to change, and the links are not going to be weighted as highly in the very near future - which is now.

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom

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