In light of recent (and ongoing!) Google Penguin updates penalizing sites for link schemes, many marketers have been asking themselves if link building is dead. Not so, says Jon Ball, CEO at Page One Power. During his SES San Francisco day one presentation, Ball explained why he feels link building will always be alive and well in solid SEO strategies, and he offered some tips for marketers looking to kickstart their link building campaigns.

According to Ball, links will always be essential to search optimization.  He’s arguably bringing some bias to the table as he works for a link building company, but Brafton has reported that representatives from Google and Bing also acknowledge that links will always factor into search standing. Moreover, SEOmoz data shows that quality iinks are the No.1 factor correlating to high rankings. 

„Getting a listing on page one of Google is better than having a billboard in Timesquare,“ Ball said. But to achieve quality link building, he recommended marketers follow seven guiding principles.

7 white hat link building philosophies

1. Pretend Matt Cutts is your conscience.

Ball started by telling marketers they should always pretend Matt Cutts, Google’s distinguished engineer (formerly its head of webspam), is looking over their shoulders. „Would he like the link?“  

For insights on what Cutts and other Googlers constitute as high-quality, merited links, check out Google’s related Webmaster Central blog post, Good times with inbound links.

2. Relevance first.

According to Ball, Page One Power client sites have seen significantly more benefits from a handful of links on niche relevant sites than dozens of links on directory sites. He also suggested article sites are not always the most reliable sources of quality links.

Ball pointed to the example of a pet site requesting a link on a brain surgery forum. It doesn’t make sense to users who want to learn about brain surgery, and, as Penguin showed, Google may perceive websites receiving links from other sites that lack industry focus as participating in link schemes.

„Do your homework and find your niche,“ he told attendees.

3. Remember people have power.

Building relationships can help build links that count. By identifying key, authoritative individuals in a brand’s sector and engaging them on the web, marketers put themselves in a position to solicit links around key landing pages – assuming, of course, that they’re asking for a link to content that’s worth sharing. 

Taking a personal approach – emailing a person directly or calling them on the phone – could go a long way in link building.

4. Use your brain.

No one knows a site better than the marketers, developers and content creators who contribute to it daily. Ball told marketers not to get too hung up on best practices espoused by industry leaders (including him!)  because marketers are the experts on their own sites. By thinking outside the box with the particulars of a brand website in mind, marketers should be able to come up with link building ideas that maximize their web assets.

5. Treat link building like a team sport.

Any company employee can be a link contributor, and everyone on a marketing team should be asked to „use their brains“ (see guiding principle four) to come up with ways to build merit-based links.

6. Forget viral.

„If a campaign goes viral, that’s great. But it’s better to focus on valuable content,“ Ball said. 

7. FTBOM – „For the betterment of mankind.“

Ball’s final guiding principle relates closely to his first one (in essence). Google’s Matt Cutts is constantly reminding marketers that there are no shortcuts to SEO and the company claims focusing on the user is the best strategy for search success.

The „for the betterment of mankind“ link building philosophy similarly reminds marketers that the best way to build inbound links is by offering compelling content that will naturally attract clicks and shares. 

Once marketers have adopted these philosophies, they’re ready to create they’re link building plans. Ball offered five steps to sustainable link building.

5 steps to killer link building

1. List your assests.

It’s essential to take inventory of a site to see which existing pages have link love potential. Examine text, video, photos, unique features or tools and other core content.

Additionally, he recommended marketers list their „offline“ assets – which include enthusiastic team members who can be recruited to the link building cause and industry connections who might be useful allies.

2. Research.

„There are no secrets in link building – competitors can’t hide links!“ Ball said. Marketers should take advantage of free tools, including Majestic SEO and Open Site Explorer, to see where the competition is winning links, then use data. For example, list related industry news outlets and associations that are providing links to sites in a brand’s sector and put them on a list of possible contact sites. If there are individual journalists or bloggers who create write-ups (with links), marketers can reach out  directly to these media contacts with content published on their sites that the journalists they may want to cover. They can also ask established bloggers to review products and services.

Even beyond link sources for the competition, marketers should research niche industry news outlets that can become valuable link providers. To find these sites, Ball suggested doing some research to build a „local keyword universe“ – and no, this has nothing to do with geotargeting. He suggested marketers tie their head terms with news-friendly words. For example:

  • „Keyword“ news
  • „Keyword“ experts
  • „Keyword“ forums
  • „Keyword“ blogs
  • „Keyword“ tradeshows
  • „Keyword“ events 
3. Make your plan

When it comes to getting down to strategizing, Ball reminded marketers this can be difficult. (Refer to his philosophies on using your brain and working as a team!) A key starting point is having a solid content marketing strategy. Aside from Ball’s insights, Google has always said that the best way to increase merit-based inbound links is to:

Create unique and compelling content on your site and the web in general.

Some of Balls‘ most notable tips included:

  • Have a blog. This „magnifies your search terms 100 fold.“ Marketers can monitor new keywords that drive traffic to their site as they build up the words on their site via blogs, then use referring search terms to inspire more blog content. (Brafton has a related content marketing video tip about maximizing top-converting keywords with website content.)
  • Reach out to people to read your blog and promote it through social media. Readers can become frequent link providers.
  • Offer to write guest blogs on other sites. Ball suggested that marketers send a personalized message to site owners and editors (which follows his philosophy on building relationships to build links). He also recommended including an excerpt of a potential post and pictures that can be included to increase the chances that a guest post offer will be well received. Importantly, he advised marketers to request a link to their website in exchange for a post upfront.
  • Write unsolicited testimonials. Many companies would love to publish a write-up of a positive experience from a business partner, and the benefit they receive from a positive review is likely to encourage them to give a site link.‘
  • Comment on other blogs. Brafton has reported in the past that Google says comments count for SEO, and Ball believes this strategy „still works.“
  • Give link love to get link love. It’s hypocritical to ask for links from other sites when a brand isn’t willing to link to other web destinations. 
4. Schedule

It’s important to have a schedule that outlines when brands will reach out to request links, as well as a schedule to guide sustainable content creation for ongoing link building, Ball said. (For more, check out Brafton’s related blog about setting an editorial calendar.)

5. Adapt.

Link building strategies (and content marketing campaigns!) are not set and forget. Measure and monitor link progress to make changes according to what drives results.

For more on link building from SES, read Brafton’s coverage of Jim Boykin’s tips to post-Penguin success, as well as tips from experts at former industry conferences – including six tips for better link building from SES and a link building case study from SMX Advanced.