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The Evolution of Link Building: Is Blackhat a Thing of the Past?

The Evolution of Link Building: Is Blackhat a Thing of the Past?

by Ben Wittams-Smith17th July 2015

The art of link building has evolved over-time, and with strategies developing in-line with search engine updates, are blackhat methods becoming a thing of the past?

Search engine manipulation for many SEOs is becoming an unsustainable strategy. Ranking websites by building “unnatural” links is becoming increasingly difficult due to the advances in:

  • Google’s algorithm
  • Manual reviewers
  • and even other marketers reporting to the spam team

Many SEOs still enjoy success through manipulation of search engine algorithms, especially with the use of ‘churn and burn’ websites which are designed to rank high for short periods of time before being spotted. For long-term rankings however, more and more SEOs are developing their strategy to focus more on the acquisition of natural links which do not result in penalties, and which bring in referral traffic.


The inherent value of natural links

Links are not just a ranking factor that Google arbitrarily selected to be a core part of its algorithm. Links serve, and always will serve an important purpose:

  • Navigation: allowing users to travel from one page or from one site to another.
  • Reference: giving access to additional information
  • Citation: giving credit to other publishers

Links serve the function of connecting people to content that they might find useful, and in this way, natural link building involves creating genuinely useful content for other websites to link to.


The history of link building

Looking at a brief history of search engines helps to understand why link building strategies have developed, and how they will continue to develop:


Pre-Penguin Link Building

The Penguin updates are the most influential where link building is concerned. These updates assess the number and quality of links that each webpage has.

Google’s has been the most advanced search engine for close to a decade, and this is in part due to the fact that its algorithm takes websites’ link profiles into account when.

Marketers quickly realised that the number of backlinks that a website had, directly affected its ability to rank high in the search engines, and sought to exploit this by building masses of low quality spammy links, and even using automated linkbuilding tools like SEnuke to get the job done quicker.

The results pages quickly became full of spammy squeeze pages that users had to trawl through in order to find anything of value.

Google acted decisively with the Penguin update.


Post-Penguin Link Building

Penguin works by assessing the quality and diversity of websites’ link profiles. The algorithm is punitive, and automated, acting with extreme prejudice according to a strict set of rules. This has created a certain level of fear and uncertainty amongst blackhat marketers, further adding to the effectiveness of the algorithm.

With the release of the Penguin update, Google’s algorithm not only assesses the number of backlinks that a website has, but assesses a wide range of other factors, like the amount of PageRank that is passed on by each link; the diversity of the anchor text; the types of websites that the links come from; the contextual placement of the links; and many other factors.

The algorithm is still exploitable, but requires far more effort to the point at which it becomes favourable to acquire links naturally instead. Natural links are also preferable for another reason: they are more sustainable.


Natural Link Building

Google are a long way off from having a full-proof algorithm for detecting unnatural links – and will likely always require manual reviewers as a supplement. However, the algorithm is always improving, and marketing strategies which are built upon a foundation of blackhat links are therefore high risk.

Added to this, building links that actually benefit internet users, and provide value to people is rewarding on an almost intrinsic level.

So what does natural link building involve?


Guest Posting

Is guest posting a form of unnatural link building? The answer is that it can be, and that it ultimately comes down to the discretion of the manual reviewer.

Guest posting for the purpose of attaining links that pass PageRank back to your website is against Google’s guidelines; and by using the rel=“nofollow” attribute to prevent PageRank from being passed on, you effectively remove the value of link in terms of “link juice”.

Even credible, authoritative websites such as Moz are not impervious to penalties from Google’s spam team for guest blogging.

This is quite simply because whether or not guest blogging violates Google’s guidelines, is subjective.

However as long as you:

  • focus on providing original and truly valuable content
  • link only to content which is contextually relevant
  • guest post on credible, highly authoritative websites
  • don’t overuse guest blogging as a source of dofollow backlinks

then you can’t go too wrong…


Blog/Forum Commenting

Similar to guest posting, commenting as a means of building links has been heavily exploited in the past and can be construed as being spammy; and just like with guest posting, overuse can lead to a penalty.

Successful blog commenting should involve providing useful information to users, and linking to relevant information.


Social Media & Web 2.0s

Social signals, from sites like Facebook and Twitter, are a good indicator of a site’s authority and relevance. Likewise, links from web 2.0 properties, like video sharing sites; wikis; and infographic sites, also can pass on value that will help.



The general trend with regard to link building is towards creating links that genuinely add value to web users. As long as you are focusing on providing links to relevant and useful information, and are not overusing a particular method of link building for the sole purpose of acquiring PageRank, then your links are likely to be far more sustainable.

Will blackhat methods become a thing of the past? To a great extent they have already, with many marketers opting to create high value content to acquire links, as opposed to creating masses of garbage links from low quality sites. However, there will always be those SEOs who seek to exploit the search engine algorithms, if for no other reason than because they are there…

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About The Author
Ben Wittams-Smith
Ben Wittams-Smith is a content writer for Just SEO and the Company Director of JSEO LTD. As a specialist in SEO, SEM and digital marketing, Ben regularly contributes content and provides analytic insight in these areas.

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