Rethinking Enterprise Link Building in a Post-Penguin Era


Bigger brands are more likely to be under a microscope, not only from the search engines but also from competition…

As a bigger business that is likely to be targeting a larger segment of the market, it’s even more important to remember how crucial it is to build links naturally.  If you continue to engage in link buying or other subversive methods aimed at artificially inflating your link profile, you can expect to be called out, and you can expect to face the consequences.

Many enterprises believe that the depth and diversity of their link profile (and the trust in their brand) offers them leeway and the opportunity to push the boundaries. Post-Penguin, this attitude is a recipe for disaster.  The Penguin update was a behavior modification algorithm aimed at cleaning up the pollution of fake or ill-gotten links. Continuing to employ tactics that are inherently contradictory to Google’s mission will not be met with long-term success.

This post will look back at the early days of links, how link building has evolved, and what enterprises can do to succeed in the wake of recent algorithm changes.

How We Got Here

The World Wide Web just celebrated its birthday…

Twenty one years ago this week,  Tim Berners Lee announced that his wide-area hypertext app was available to be downloaded.  The application made finding content on the Internet much easier through “hyperlinks,” or links as we refer to them today.

In the early days of the Web, links held value that was purely navigational.  Links were sought out and acquired as they are today, but with an entirely different objective.  A link’s value was commensurate with its ability to drive traffic. In the old days, webmasters wanted links because those links had the potential to lead new customers to their websites.

On the heels of advanced search algorithms that rely on link metrics to rank websites, like Google’s PageRank, came a massive change in the way links were viewed. Instead of seeing links as potential channels to drive new customers and visitors, they became seen as a commodity and as something to be collected en masse, for the specific purpose of inflating search positioning.

With this shift, marketers took 2 potential tactics:

  1. Links could be acquired surreptitiously in an automated or subversive fashion, or
  2. Links could be truly “earned.”

Devaluing links that are not earned based on merit has become one of Google’s biggest challenges in the fight against spam and SERP manipulation, and is the impetus behind major recent changes such as the infamous “Penguin” update.

As Google gets better at detecting unnatural linking, marketers who expect to survive and thrive must change their way of thinking once again. By returning to an earlier mindset, and considering link acquisition as a task aimed at opening new sales or customer acquisition channels, we can avoid falling into the trap of seeking out links for their own sake.

A Shift Toward Content Strategies

If you accept the premise that links must be earned, it becomes clear that link building should be seen as a byproduct of good branding, marketing and content creation – and that it should not be seen as the siloed, commoditized service it has become.

As businesses are being penalized based on unnatural link profiles, there’s been a surge of interest in techniques for building links in a natural way, via content creation and promotion.  As this shift has occurred, businesses also find themselves looking towards content strategies not only for their ability to build links, but also for their ability to create  new sales and customer channels, and to drive valuable traffic and potential customers.  In a sense, there’s a return to the understanding that links and citations from other websites are worthwhile only if they have the ability to build your audience or improve your business directly.

The power of these links to drive improved search positioning still remains, but is becoming less of a primary focus and more of an indirect (though wholly desirable) result of successful marketing.

Enterprises Have an Advantage

There have been a number of criticisms leveled against algorithm changes like Penguin, an update which aims to devalue unnatural link profiles and impose penalties on sites who engage in subversive link acquisition.  Of most prominence is the critcisim that such changes make SEO harder for small businesses, and that smaller businesses who relied on automated tactics for building precious links simply cannot afford to invest in the long-term content strategies that are now necessary for long term rankings and growth.

While there are plenty of arguments to be made for or against this perception, there will always remain an undeniable fact:  enterprises and large businesses have the resources to create a higher volume of differentiated content than small businesses are likely to be able to produce.

This represents a significant advantage when it comes to link acquisition and search positioning, as long as these businesses are able to overcome the enterprise-specific content creation hurdles that often tarnish content strategies before they even start.

How Should Enterprises Respond?

Change Your Perspective

Begin by changing your perception of what it means to build or acquire links.  Go back to the days where links were evaluated solely on their ability to drive targeted visitors. Remember that these types of links are given based on merit – that you’ll be linked to when you are worthy of being linked to.

Links are navigational instruments and tools for webmasters to provide additional value to visitors. They lead readers to additional information that they may be looking for. Links are intended to make surfing the web easier and to enhance resources (think of the way Wikipedia uses links).

Evaluate Links Differently

Evaluating the value of links is no longer about the age of a link or the PageRank of a linking page; it’s about the ability of an individual link to drive traffic and its potential to help build your business and your audience.  As such, it’s important to adopt a more well-rounded mindset that considers the value of a link from the perspective of  how each segment of your business a well-placed link might impact.

Ask yourself:

  • Would your Director of SEO like this link?
  • Would your PR team like this link?
  • Would a Google Quality Rater like this link?
  • Would your CEO like this link?
  • Would Matt Cutts like this link?

Really Earn Your Links

If links are earned based on the merit of the content being linked to, the first step in earning high quality links is to up the ante and create some remarkable, differentiated content.  Enterprises are often in the perfect position to leverage their size and collective knowledge to carve an untouchable place in the market.

Leverage Existing Relationships

Big businesses are well connected, and creating new relationships and building audiences is often easier for established brands thanks to the trust that comes from name recognition. This is a distinct advantage for enterprises, as it makes outreach and content promotion significantly easier.

Additionally, larger businesses can make use of their extensive rolodexes to create opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.  By creating remarkable content, then leveraging these relationships to help make that content even better (and help promote that content), enterprises can often gain ground quickly and build natural links extremely effectively.

Leverage Your People

Enterprises often have access to or employ the most well-respected or knowledgeable thought leaders in their particular niche.   Of course, the goal of content marketing is to establish a similar level of thought leadership for the brand itself in the online marketplace. Big businesses can mine the intellectual capital of their people as sources for content creation.

Beyond resident experts, enterprises can also leverage employees of every level within an organization for content ideas, and as contributors of content. Our president, Greg Boser, often tells our team “if the janitor has a great idea, I want to hear it!

Leverage Your Data

In addition to having access to the best minds in the business, enterprises often have access to exclusive data sets or research that others are not privy to.  For forward-thinking companies, this data can be an absolute boon to your content strategy, and can become the differentiating element that allows your business to rise through the search rankings, building high value links along the way.

One perfect example of this strategy was executed by OkCupid, via their blog, where they shared in-depth statistical analysis of the online dating landscape, coming to some incredibly cool and interesting conclusions along the way.

Many bigger businesses are often loathe to share internal data, but there are certainly methods for sharing your company’s unique insights without giving away proprietary or even sensitive data. Begin by mining the data your business has already published. There may be a wide variety of opportunities to capitalize on collateral that has already been created, but may need to polishing to become content worthy of generating links.

Tear Down the Silos

As an enterprise, you’re likely to have a wide variety of highly talented people across multiple departments, each with their own areas of expertise and their own perceptions of what the company does best. From a content marketing perspective, sales, marketing and PR all begin in the same place:  they need to find a way to engage with your audience in a meaningful way.  With this common goal in mind, enterprises can find powerful leverage by connecting inter-office departments.

Great content strategies rely on a strategic intersection of sales, marketing, PR and SEO.  Sales can help inform the marketing department about essential messaging that can help spur immediate conversion events. PR can help rev the promotional engine, and give the necessary traction that allows new content to spread quickly and widely.

Finally, insights made from an SEO perspective are often the ideal place to begin when setting the boundaries and goals for content initiatives. This information helps to define which keyword targets and topics are most ripe and likely to lead to ranking improvements.

Get Buy-In

Making the case for a fully content-based strategy can be somewhat difficult, especially if decision makers do not understand the power great content can have – as a method for generating natural links, but also as a marketing tool for the business as a whole. The beauty of remarkable, differentiated content lies not only in its ability to create high-value links, but also in its ability to create buzz and gain exposure for a brand.

Successful initiatives can generate tens of thousands of page views quickly, and often garner massive sharing across social channels. Putting in that extra effort to promote your initial content will help to secure those “big wins” that can be transformed into case studies.  They will serve as the proof you need not only to demonstrate that content can be highly effective in building the links you need from an SEO perspective, but that these strategies can have an impact that affects the marketing, PR and sales departments in a positive way as well.


For more on enterprise link building, check out the below presentation given by our VP of Business Development, Loren Baker, at SES San Francisco last week…



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