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July 20, 2015

Link Building in the Penguin Age: SEOs on Earning, Pruning and Disavowing Links

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Link building is a matter of hot debate among search engine optimization analysts because quality links are vital for top rankings while spam links can land a site with a serious search engine penalty. In the age of Penguin, attention must be paid not only to the links themselves but how they are earned. Even asking for links the wrong way can violate webmaster guidelines, according to a Google blog post from earlier this month. (Here’s the original Google post in Portuguese.)

As moderators of last Thursday’s SEO-focused Twitter chat, #SEOchat, we wanted to hear what top SEOs were feeling about the current state of link building, link removal and disavowing links. The debate was lively and at times surprising. We asked questions like:

Here are a few of the thought-provoking and controversial points of view shared:

Do you think link building is a black-hat technique?

The term “linkbuilding” has some baggage, but it is not inherently black hat. Still prefer “link earning.” All about intent. (@ramirez_robert)

Do you always recommend a site submit a Google disavow file?

Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t walk up to a cop and say “hey, someone left these drugs in my pocket.” (@tonyxrandall)

To remove weak links for Google Penguin recovery, how much time do you spend pruning links vs. disavowing links?

Very sensitive issue to be handled per site. Many sites don’t require disavows – and when used – I fear a red flag is raised. (@EricLanderSEO)

Would you want to know if any site has disavowed you? How many disavowals would it take before you were alarmed?

Yes, especially in cases where you suspect negative SEO. I would want to be notified immediately. (@MatthewAYoung)

Yes, I would like to know. There’s no reason to be oblivious in this respect IMO. (@JesseStoler)

Yes, especially it were part of a pattern. Might be bad SEO, maybe my baby is ugly. But getting disavowed is a call to action. (@CallMeLouzander)

Read on to find out what SEOs had to say during Thursday’s #SEOChat on Twitter!


Has the Penguin update simplified the link building process for you or made it harder to tread?

Eric Lander: My clients tend to view content quality and social engagement as triggers for quality links. So in short, it’s beneficial for me.

Netvantage Marketing: Depends on a website to website basis. Need to pay close attention to sites that dabbled in bad link building in the past.

Creative California: Definitely more difficult. I now have to scrutinize every site before I look to get a link on it.

Matthew Young: Neither hard nor easy. By having a content-forward link earning strategy, nothing has really changed.

Do you think link building is a black-hat technique?

Robert Ramirez: The term “linkbuilding” has some baggage, but it is not inherently black hat. Still prefer “link earning.” All about intent.

Dragon Search: It can be either, depending on how you go about it. A little strategic PR goes a long way.

Brian Baker: Difficult question. It’s all about the intent behind the link building.

John Alexander: I’ve always been suspicious of link building campaigns, TBH. Find relevant directories, sure. But how systematic can you be?

Kristi Kellogg: Personally, I feel time is better spent investing in creating quality content and promoting it than link building. My logic being that if you build something amazing, links will be a byproduct naturally.

Eric Lander: No, and it never has been. People push envelopes across marketing initiatives — link building is essential, but far from black. To be clear, aspects of SEO can be pushed in gray/black areas. It’s up to us to ethically provide quality services and results.

Netvantage Marketing: Providing value to users = white hat. Only trying to manipulate rankings = black hat.

Creative California: Not at all. Most link-building we do is local directories, media quotes, social. If we don’t pursue these, they’ll never happen. In other words, you can’t naturally get links if you don’t promote yourself.

Matthew Young: Depends on who you ask. Google says ‘Don’t build links,’ but the irony is that the algo is built on them.

Do you think it’s acceptable to ask for links? When and how?

Brian Baker: Of course it’s acceptable, just don’t be pushy!

Eric Lander: Yes, asking when relevancy is clear and there’s a visitor value added to the host site. All require direct, quality conversations.

Netvantage Marketing: Absolutely. When you can provide value to their users — by asking in a personable way.

DragonSearch: I like to barter. Provide something in exchange then ask for a link in return.

Matthew Young: It’s acceptable under the right circumstances.

If you could offer one piece of advice for link building in a Penguin world, what would it be? Go!

Kristi Kellogg: Be aware of who’s linking to you at all times. It’s your responsibility.

Brian Baker: Focus on existing relationships, link reclamation, and natural links. Go after low-hanging fruit for max effect.

Eric Lander: Stop emulating what others are or have been doing. Developing a unique approach in your space has explosive opportunities.

Netvantage Marketing: If you have to question if a site is a good link prospect, the answer is probably no.

DragonSearch: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …

To remove weak links for Google Penguin recovery, how much time do you spend pruning links vs. disavowing links?

Robert Ramirez: Actually removing bad links from the internet > disavowing links. Google rewards cleaning links sooner than relying on disavow.

Brian Baker: Penalties and the disavow process are a nightmare. Talking about it further will put me in a tailspin.

Netvantage Marketing: Depends on the penalty and size of backlink profile. We outreach to sites at least once when we see a link we don’t like.

Eric Lander: Very sensitive issue to be handled per site. Many sites don’t require disavows – and when used – I fear a red flag is raised.

Matthew Young: The pruning takes way longer than the disavowing. Plus you have to account for the time a site remains penalized before the next Penguin refresh. So, yes, a long time.

What link pruning tools do you rely on? How do you identify weakest links?

Brian Baker: I’m loving @Moz’s spam analysis tool – GREAT starting spot + Manual Ahrefs review.

Eric Lander: My go to tool is @ahrefs for link quality, research and competitive/shared reviews. Then Excel. And logic. :)

Matthew Young: I use a combination of Majestic, @ahrefs and Google Search Console. Can’t forget Excel either.

Netvantage Marketing: A machete and beast mode bit.ly/1J0rbm5.  

John Alexander: Majestic makes my life so much easier, including their browser plugins.

Bruce Clay, Inc.: Who’s tried DisavowFiles.com? It’s a free crowdsourced tool that lets users compare disavow files to their backlink profiles.

Do you always recommend a site submit a Google disavow file?

Eric Lander: No. Rarely. I need to see a direct correlation of a Penguin release date and traffic and/or rankings loss to even consider it.

Matthew Young: Depends on the penalty situation. If not penalized, no disavow. Pruning for sure, though, in all cases. Everyone’s got skeletons.

Netvantage Marketing: No. We only go disavow route if we suspect a penalty is in place.

Tony Randall: Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t walk up to a cop and say “hey, someone left these drugs in my pocket.”

Would you want to know if any site has disavowed you? How many disavowals would it take before you were alarmed?

Eric Lander: No. If you know what a disavow is, you should be comfortable with your own site (being disavowed). Feeling “alarmed” is not a productive state.

Matthew Young: Yes, especially in cases where you suspect negative SEO. I would want to be notified immediately.

Creative California: I think I’d see many other signs that my sign was spammy long before I noticed disavows.

Jesse Stoler: Yes, I would like to know. There’s no reason to be oblivious in this respect IMO.

John Alexander: Yes, especially it were part of a pattern. Might be bad SEO, maybe my baby is ugly. But getting disavowed is a call to action.

Google has stated that data from disavow files is NOT part of the quality algorithm. Do you believe it? Could that change?

Eric Lander: Change is inevitable. So too are algorithm hypotheses. As an SEO, you focus on what you can control – and stay the course. Don’t mean to suggest that you don’t innovate your approach, but you cannot obsess on what you don’t know and be successful.

DragonSearch: Pretend your client somehow gets added to the list of low-quality disavow sites. Imagine trying to get out of THAT penalty.

Matthew Young: Anything could change. It’s Google. You can’t see me, but I’m wildly shrugging right now.

John Alexander: I haven’t seen direct correlation. But as part of online reputation, I’m sure it can come later to bite you in the … server logs.

Want to join the search engine optimization conversation? #SEOchat takes place every Thursday at 10 a.m./1 p.m. PT. Meet up with your fellow digital marketers for a tactic-packed hour of SEO goodness.

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6 responses to “Link Building in the Penguin Age: SEOs on Earning, Pruning and Disavowing Links”

  1. Andy Kuiper - SEO Services writes:

    Interesting article and interesting comments for sure ;-)

  2. Kevin Pike writes:

    I love posts that boil down concisely and candidly like this. I think link earning used to supplement building for many of us, but times changed and this ratio has flipped. As large brands found success with the earning idea during some critical 2012-2014 algo changes, more local SMBs are still trying to make a splash and finding it harder. SEO experts in this area are becoming increasingly popular and successful.

  3. Hemanth Malli writes:

    Yes, link building is very important for SEO. Thanks for sharing an useful post. Keep posting.

  4. Matt Fletcher writes:

    Great Post! Link Building is an important part of SEO and no one can ignore it, but it has changed a lot within the years and yes penguin has changed the way we used to create backlinks. Very informative article as usual.

  5. Alvin writes:

    I think the key to successful link building for SEO in 2015 is to ensure that the link being built would add value to the readers and that it comes from a highly relevant and authority blog.

  6. Esfera writes:

    Backlink is most important part of SEO i have read the post and gain many new things about the SEO thanks for sharing.



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