I've been thinking a lot lately about link building. The term has always made me uneasy, in part because it feels manufactured.
My mind conjures up an image of an assembly line where link after link rolls down a drab conveyor belt. It feels wrong because links are supposed to be organic. Way back when a link was a real sign of trust and authority. People linked to another site because they found it useful or interesting.
PageRank and SEO changed how people thought about links. Suddenly people linked because of SEO. The motive was no longer pure. It wasn't about real trust and authority, but was to achieve a measure of trust and authority.
By measuring the link graph Google has forever changed it. Google has a Heisenberg problem.
Is link building a good thing? Too often it seems to be about getting the most links on highest ranked pages with specific anchor text.
Practitioners are like foremen on a construction site. They mix together forum links, blog links, social bookmarking links, reciprocal links, directory links, widget links, paid links and content engineered to obtain links. We'll have your McMansion banged out in no time flat!
I'd argue that much of that work is short-sighted and bound to fail. Because links are really about establishing yourself in a neighborhood.
That means getting to know your neighbors and gaining their trust. Build that McMansion in a neighborhood full of one story Eichlers and you're probably off to a bad start. You can overcome that, but not if you avoid the neighborhood block party or PTA. And you'll get more out of coaching in the local little league than simply sponsoring the team.
There just aren't any shortcuts to getting to know people and creating relationships.
I think the better analogy for links might be gardening.
Prep the Soil
You have to prep the soil first and get your garden in order. Does the soil have the necessary nutrients? That means you have a site that contains valuable content. You probably want to set up a drip system too, which means ensuring your content can be easily shared.
Plant the Seeds
Things don't just magically start to grow. You need to plant seeds and put down roots. And not just any seeds but the right ones for your garden, depending on climate, soil type and amount of sun exposure. This means you're reaching out and finding people in your neighborhood. You're reading and commenting on their blogs. You're following and engaging them on Twitter and Facebook. Email them and introduce yourself.
Sure, you might be able to pick up some cacti on the cheap but will that even grow in your garden? You want links from people in your neighborhood, from relevant sites not from some random off-topic blog. A handful of relevant links are going to be more powerful than a hundred random ones.
Tend the Garden
At first you're not going to see a whole lot. That's the truth. Gardening takes time and constant attention. You can't just plant a few seeds and walk away thinking you'll come back to a beautiful garden. You'll need to water it, throw down some fertilizer, be on the look out for bugs and do some weeding.
When those first shoots start to come up the work gets even harder. Plants need love and so do those links. Thank people for the link and make sure you're aerating the soil by continuing to produce great content.
You may have to do some pruning or pull weeds to ensure there's room for the plants you really want. That means turning down the inevitable link requests, guarding against comment spam and watching for links from bad neighborhoods.
Keep at it and over time - over months and years - your garden will be the envy of the neighborhood. People will come to you for advice and links.
Hiring a Gardener
Of course there are plenty of link builders who behave a lot more like link gardeners. They understand that it's about community and relationships, and that those things can't be manufactured.
But make no mistake, some folks have a green thumb! They're master gardeners. You can hire someone to do this for you, but it won't be cheap. And when someone asks about that variety of plant in the corner, you might be stumped. If you have the time and resources, you might get more satisfaction out of doing it yourself.
Whether you hire a master gardener or do it yourself, I hope you decide to grow your links instead of build them.