Link Building: The Untold Story

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As one of the most consistently controversial practices within SEO, the topic of link building has been critically examined, studied, judged and implemented for the best part of over 30+ years.

It is important to note that today, hardly any website on the Internet that gets new visitors every hour lack a healthy stack of inbound and outbound links. Funnily this adds to more doubt and mistrust among amateurs or inexperience audiences and SEO professionals, who find it hard to decide whether link building is a recommended practice and should be used to improve page traffic engagement, increase unique page visits and overall domain authority for a website; or whether it is that type of SEO practice which delivers great results, but are not ethically sound or resemble dubious or spammy activity on the Internet.

Today professionals are engaged in a chaotic flurry of content marketing and optimisation activity that always seems to be evolving and shifting as content creators and webmasters explore, adopt and share various combinations of SEO practices that revolve around building links to a website from a host of 3rd party websites, actively optimising a page and its content to ensure improved domain authority, and more. Within the scope of SEO, it is one of the fundamentally standard procedures to ensure that a website has a healthy bulk of good quality links to its page(s) from various different websites as that directly affects how search engine algorithms determine domain authority and other SERP credentials of a website.

But link building dynamics and how link building affects a website’s SERP rankings, domain authority and visitor engagement has never been the same for too long; as practices revolving around SEO link building has in itself constantly been shifting and evolving ever since the beginning of the practice. And this significant point demands that for the sake of cohesively and sequentially studying or exploring what the practice of link building does to a website’s success on the Internet, it is both necessary and professionally insightful to study and analyse the history of link building, from the very beginning of the practice through all the changes to how the Internet and user interact with each other that affected how websites get ranked, amass a certain domain authority and attracts online traffic; and finally explore how far the practice has come, where it stands today and what we can expect within SEO link building activities in the future.

How & Why Did the Practice of SEO Link Building Begin?

Experts and professionals all seem to broadly agree on the point that link building of webpages is one of the earliest practices central to search engine optimisation activities to be implemented by webmasters. But optimising a website to ensure that it retains more organic traffic, attracts more value and scores a high domain authority rank in SERPs; goes back to very early days of the ’90s, even before the launch of Google Search and it’s search algorithms. The amount of high quality 3rd party links to a website is a highly accurate determinatefor the domain authority of that website, and this fundamental concept is a staple of today’s most widely implemented search engine algorithms that rank a webpage or website on SERPs.

This particular way of filtering authoritative domains from average or non-authoritative webpages is a recent development, at least in context to the beginning of SEO link building activities. In the earliest days, links to a website were not specifically categorized into any niche group or genre of websites or domains, and therefore back in the early days of Internet, ranking of websites were not realistically an accurate way to represent page traffic, domain authority and online traffic engagement statistics of websites or domains listed in SERPs.

Because of this, prior to the introduction of the revolutionary Google Search Bar and Google Search Engine along with its innovative new algorithm PageRank; a popular website like MSN.com would have thousands and thousands of links, but with no real or cohesive correlation or relevance. In these early days of Internet, all that mattered to traditional search algorithms was the quantity of links and not the quality, and this meant that websites would have links to their page from 3rd party websites in triple figures, but without any identifiable relevance.

Websites where users could play free 3D games could take users to any type of 3rd party site via links to those domains which could include educational sites, online service or product catalogs, adult sites, online betting or gambling websites, travel agencies or tourism domains etc., all jumbled and embedded into that webpage. This kind of unrealistic and unrefined practice went on for some good time as more and more domains began to include just about any kind of link to and from another website in order to maximize the total links to and from other websites.

Right after the introduction of Google in 1998, the scenario changed overnight and with drastic effect to give more accurate page rankings for the first time, but that did not make any difference to the importance of link building. If anything, the introduction of the new algorithm to determine page rankings and domain authority only redefined and finely identified the role of SEO link building in fully optimising a domain for its global or local rankings on SERPs, and officially started the race for every established domain to embed only high quality and relevant links to and from other domains that have some common relevance to either the services, products or utilities they provide visitors with.

A Brief History of Link Building Activities

In order to explore a brief summary of link building practices from the very beginning of widespread use of Internet by common folk and the establishment of commercial or services & products-centric websites and domains aiming to conduct their business on the digital platform, to the introduction of powerful page ranking algorithms and onward towards the present day; it is of certain significant importance to start off from the years immediately following the days of Dial-up Internet connections and Netscape browsers, when search engines started to become more widely used every passing day.

Below, a brief time-line has been produced to list the most significant Internet innovations, modifications or developments that directly or indirectly affected the initially prevalent SEO link building activities, and the consequent updates or introductions of new Internet search tools, search result and page ranking algorithms that further reshaped link building:

Good Ol’ ’95

The year is 1995, and the Internet’s two most popular search directories or engines are AltaVista and Yahoo! The prevalent page ranking algorithm is really simple and works by returning results that are most relevant in context to the density of target keyword(s) and meta tags within the content in comparison to the user’s search.

Revolutionary ’98

The year is 1998, and the month is August. The birth of Google is quickly followed by the publishing of the ground-breaking PageRank algorithm by the company, that ranks pages based on the number of healthy links directing to a site or domain, thereby returning far more intuitively accurate, better and far more cohesively relevant search results or page rankings on SERPs than any other existing search engine. This allows Google to become the no. 1 search engine in a matter of months, and also sets in motion the meteoric rise of Google and its monopoly over Internet search tool and search engine industry, as for the first time pages on the Internet began to be accurately ranked in context to the relevance and quality of links to those domains.

Feverish ’99

Webmasters all across the Internet realize that creating a massive network of backlinks to their domains in huge volumes is a quick and surefire way to rank higher in SERPs. This creates a maddening rush of webmasters exchanging or trading links with multiple others so that either’s domain can mutually benefit backlinks. The Internet quickly becomes saturated with professionals implementing this technique to rank their pages higher. This causes confusion since although PageRank natively returned accurate results, now that people were manually embedding massive chunks of links across domains to brute-force the search algorithm to rank these domains remarkably high on SERPs.

Link-Mail Craze in ’00

We have crossed into the 21st century and the year 2000 finds webmasters now scurrying to send massive bulks of emails requesting individuals or webmasters who maintain 3rd party domains. This effect is directly caused by an over-saturation of link trading between people, meaning there was a dire need for newer ways to harvest huge chunks of links from and to 3rd party domains on the Internet. On the other hand, Google introduces its toolbar for browsers as well as a ranking metric to measure and determine domain authority, named Google Toolbar PageRank that begins to improve algorithmic determination of domain authority for Google.

SEO Directories Spring to Life ’01

Live web directories like Yellowpages.com, Yahoo!, DMOZ (the Open Directory Project) and Botw.org (Best of the Web) start to change how people list their businesses or personal contacts on local directories. Although sites like Best of the Web, Yahoo! and DMOZ have been around since 1994, in 2001 the whole world switches over to online directories to find people and businesses in local urban areas. Now people could submit a link to their desired page on an online local directory and consequently Webmasters begin to list websites and business contacts across various different types of directories specific to certain niche categories as well as general directories, and this in turn starts off the trend which inspires some of the most popular niche directories for thousands of different categories as well as general directories that became a hit with locals everywhere, like Yelp.com and Yelp.ca.

Google & Blogging Take Over ’03

It’s 2003 and blogging is the latest rage all over the world. Since blogs are very much like online social platforms and discussions/q&a/roleplay/debate forums, they are quickly able to attract impressive amounts of traffic and also engage them with growing comment threads, and this makes blogs a great tool to use to direct links back to one’s page using comments/discussions/q&a threads. Webmasters make quick and good use of this link building technique. Meanwhile, Google begins to periodically update existing algorithms, that primarily weed out internal link spamming activities by black hat businesses and/or webmasters.

Blogging Rules Content Marketing & Linking through ’04 – ’05

Publishing content optimised with important keywords and relevant information has become to go-to practice to organically rank one’s page high in SERPs, while some are going the extra yard by submitting articles, blogs, promotional/advertorial or business content to forums and directories to get valuable and diverse backlinks to their domain. Individuals who own or manage blogs quickly begin to utilise the resource of selling or advertising content or blog posts of others, that would also get them more traffic and increase their page’s domain authority. The blogroll sidebar found in blogs becomes a mini-lucrative money game for owners of blogs.

Linking is Rough Bizz ’06 – ’08

Paid Links are becoming quite the everyday craze as people make good use (and abuse), and this culminates to a point where Google’s most recent update to determining quality of links cracks down on networks of paid links spammed across various platforms, forums, blogs, directories and general domains. Amidst this ongoing lesson in business ethics to black hat SEO practitioners, other dubious activities like linkbaiting begins to start making waves on the Internet, whereby webmasters post fake, unrealistic, adulterated or bogus content and submit or embed links to pages where they publish these posts, thereby conning vast numbers of traffic, fooling users to click on bogus, spammy links.

Google Algorithm Updates Progressively Refine Linking ‘09 – ‘12

Google Begins changing and updating its search and ranking algorithms, starting off with the update Venice in ‘09 that ensures trusted brands always rank higher and get quality backlinks from authoritative domains instead of average competitors in order to better optimise results for users looking for products or services. Following that Google proceeds to release its Panda update that sets the standards for SEO practices implemented on pages and filters out pages that violate webmaster rules and guidelines. In April ‘12, Google releases its most complete update Penguin, that is designed to filter out content with poor quality or relevance, and content spammed with hyperlinks, keywords and other black hat SEO activities.

According to Wikipedia, There are 10 ways to build backlinks as follows:

  • Editorial link
  • Resource link
  • Acquired link
  • Reciprocal link
  • Forum signature linking
  • Blog comments
  • Directory link
  • Social bookmarking
  • Image linking
  • Guest blogging

Most of them are dead link building practices in the year of 2020, except Guest blogging linkbuilding techniques.

A Brave New World: What’s in Store for the Future?

Linking of websites and content across platforms can be expected to get more dynamic in their application and how they bring results. The most significant driver to what may likely dominate SEO website and content linking practices in the immediate and imminent future, is undoubtedly the dominance and monopoly of social media in terms of global daily traffic engagement as well as local traffic engagement and retention of visitors. Industry experts and professionals believe that the popularity of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram among internet users across the globe shall dictate how people make the best use of platforms with the biggest chunk of diverse and unique visitors, and leverage top quality backlinks from the most popular social media back to their domains.

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S N Chatterjee
Author: S N Chatterjee

Founder and Author of BDN Groups. He can help you create a highly-effective online presence & conversion rate optimization.