Around 14 months ago I shared my own tiered link building strategy with the world.
But since then we have had at least 12 major updates to the algorithm. One of which specifically targets tiered link building.
A lot has changed which has started to make the method much less effective than it used to be.
As Google evolves we must evolve and with it so must our link building practices.
So I wanted to share my thoughts on the past 12 months with you and address the much wider problems at hand.
Long Live Tiered Link Building
The great thing about tiered link building is it takes advantage of how Google fundamentally spiders and structures the web.
The tiered link building theory will always be effective unless Google makes some serious changes.
But what needs to change is how we apply that theory.
Common Tiered Link Building Mistakes
I have reviewed a lot of peoples tiered link building campaigns over the past year and I always see the same mistakes/problems popping up.
The first one is poorly spun content. I know that it takes time to spin an article properly, but it is essential for success.
If you take short cuts here you are going to waste all of your time.
Poor Target Site List
I stress the importance of this in the series and I’m going to do it again. It is critical that you spend time scraping your own target list of sites.
Once you have done that you need to continually maintain that list, adding new sites, removing low quality/deindexed ones and so forth.
It’s amazing how many people don’t bother with this but it is essential.
Focusing Purely On Tiered Link Building
A lot of people seem to be doing just tiered stuff and nothing else. I don’t think I’ve seen a single reader go to the effort of handmade web 2.0 sites or buying/repurposing an aged domain.
In my tiered link building theory video I highlight that the future is owning your first tier/your own site network and I still believe that to be true.
You need to mix things up and keep everything random.
Regardless of whether you follow a tutorial for keyword research or for link building, you need to think for yourself.
As your knowledge/experience develops you need to evolve your practices and try new things.
If you are copying what everyone else is doing step by step you will have a tough time.
The people that benefit the most from any type of tutorial on any topic are those combine new learning with existing knowledge to improve/develop.
I’m going to touch on this in more detail later in the post.
But can you honestly say your site deserves to rank? Even if it had the best backlink profile in the world, is it actually providing value?
The Future Of Tiered Link Building
Jacob King has highlighted the flaws of the current tiered link building model in his post and how to fix them.
I agree with a lot of what he says and it is great to see how he has evolved his process to move with the times.
But I do not think that is the right solution and the average SEO needs to do much more than simply evolving their link building process.
You really need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture to understand just how much SEO & link building has changed in the past 12 months.
We have much bigger problems to address.
Google Have Raised The Bar
Over the past year or so Google has really started to step their game up with spam detection.
Now this is nothing new, Google are always fine tuning the algorithm. But what is new, is they are actually getting good at it.
Over the past 12 months alone we have had-
- 4 Panda updates
- 2 Penguin updates
- 2 unknown phantom updates
- Pay day loan update
- Knowledge graph update
And they are just the updates we know about! Which doesn’t even consider the impact of authorship in the future.
In fact just yesterday we saw one of the biggest updates of the year since Penguin 2.0 was released in May according to SERPMetrics.
This is also reflected by Algoroo-
Google has denied this update happened but what it seems to have done is reduce the number of results displaying authorship.
Secondly it seems they have reduced the total number of pages in their index-
- ‘Buy SEO‘ 12 months ago returned 210,000 results, which has dropped 27% by 153,000
- ‘Kontent Machine Review’ used to return 220,000 results, now just 56,300 – 75% drop off
- ‘Matthew Woodward’ used to return 16,900,000 results, now 11,800,000 – 30% drop
This seems to be the opposite of the Caffeine update in 2010 which increased its index by huge amounts.
The Caffeine update sort of backfired by introducing a huge amount of spam and low quality results into the SERPS.
So whether you like it or not, SEO is changing.
The SERPS Have Changed
Not only are Google getting better at detecting spam from an onsite and offsite perspective, they have also changed how they deliver search results.
Way back when we just had 10 organic search results with a few Adwords ads based on the keyword you search for and the country you are in.
Now we have to compete with all of this–
Then you also have to consider personalization- based on previous search history, websites the user has visited before, people they follow on social media and their local location etc.
Now you might not think many people bother to sign in when searching Google but the rise of the not provided keyword shows how many people are actually signed in when searching.
Oh and lets not forget–
- 76.7% of results feature top Adwords ads
- 51.9% of results feature side Adwords ads
- 26.7% of results feature knowledge graph results
- 20.8% of results feature paid shopping ads
- 18.7% of results feature a news box
- 13.1% of results feature bottom Adwords ads
To put it simply, ranking #1 just doesn’t deliver the same value as it used to.
Why Are People Obsessed With Ranking #1?
So that leads to an important question. Why are people so obsessed with ranking #1 for a specific term?
It’s nearly impossible to say what ‘ranking #1’ actually means now with all of the SERP changes & personalisation going on.
Sure you can enter private browsing/incognito mode and see your #1 – but that isn’t what is actually happening in the real world.
That’s not to say that having a strong organic web presence has no value. Organic search traffic is some of the most targeted and engaged traffic you can get.
But by purely focusing on trying to rank #1 for a specific keyword you are holding yourself back.
Ranking Factors Have Changed
One of the bigger changes that has happened over the past 18 months is the fundamental way in which Google ranks websites.
Since the introduction of backlinks in 1998, every Google algorithm has relied on backlinks heavily to rank websites.
The simple idea that when one website links to another, that casts a positive vote.
But as the web has grown we have seen the introduction of social networks. Which allow real people to easily cast a positive vote for a website (Google +1/Facebook Like/Tweet etc)
In essence a social signal is an everyday web user ‘building a link’ by liking your content.
This is much harder to fake then getting other websites to cast ‘votes’ which were previously limited to a select pool of people that knew how to make a website and a backlink (vote) in the first place.
Google has made a huge shift towards social signals as a ranking factor.
Ranking power has been taken out of the hands of webmasters and put it into the hands of the everyday web user.
Pause for a second and think about the real world impact of that shift.
That is serious stuff right there!
Backlinks Are Not The #1 Ranking Factor
SearchMetrics monitored 10,000 keywords, tracked 5,300,000,000 backlinks & 19,044,500,000 social signals across 2013.
Using the Spearman Correlation model they were able to determine the top rankings factors in 2013 were-
- Google +1’s
- Facebook shares
- Facebook total
- Facebook comments
- Facebook likes
That is not to say that link building isn’t important now – it always will be. But it is a lot less important than it used to be.
Obsessive Compulsive Backlink Disorder
Along with the obsession to be #1 for a specific keyword comes an unhealthy obsession with backlinks.
I see the same thing time and time again and if this sounds like a personal gripe, it is.
People build a site and immediately want to start link building to chase down that #1 spot.
They are so obsessed and focused with backlinks & ranking they can’t see the woods for the trees.
Forgetting about every other one of the 200+ ranking factors Google uses to rank websites, focusing all of their efforts on just 1.
Then scratch their heads when that didn’t work.
Even when a site gets penalised the backlinks get the blame with no evidence to back that up.
Every person that has contacted me for help with penalty analysis has blamed the backlinks.
Not a single one of them didn’t have huge onsite issues – the most common of which was duplicate/thin content.
The irony is even when I have told clients the site is at fault and the duplicate content must be addressed, they still just want to clean up link profile & build more backlinks.
I don’t know how we have developed this unhealthy obsession with backlinks, but it needs to stop.
Your Site Doesn’t Deserve To Rank
I have also received a lot of emails from readers asking me for link building advice to improve their rankings.
Hundreds and hundreds of people have done that and I can count on 1 hand how many of them had actually built a site that deserved to rank in the first place.
There is more to building a site than keyword research and keyword targeted articles at 3% density with the aim to getting people on and off your site as quickly as possible through an affiliate link or adsense block.
I think this is a symptom of obsessive compulsive backlink disorder – when people are so focused on getting rankings as quickly as possible, they want to spend as little time and money as possible on the site itself.
Amazon affiliates are one of the worst offenders of this. Find a niche, throw up some product reviews, bang in a few Amazon affiliate links, voila!
I always have the same question for people that follow this kind of strategy-
What value does your site provide over and above the reviews by real buyers on Amazon directly?
No one has come back with a good answer for that yet.
And well if you can’t answer that, all things being equal why would Google send the traffic via your site rather than directly to Amazon?
Now if you were supporting unique content by pulling in data feeds from a range of merchants with geo targeted product price comparisons you would be on your way to adding value. Maybe I’ll teach you how I do that one day.
But the bottom line is this, the onsite quality bar has been raised significantly.
My Favourite Affiliate Sites
I can’t give you any live examples of bad affiliate sites but I can share with you some shining examples of great affiliate sites.
I know these are established sites and you might be just starting out, but sites like this are built over time – they are not born overnight.
MoneySavingExpert.com is by far the leading consumer finance advice site in the UK. Built in 2003 by Martin Lewis for £100, in 2013 he sold it for £87 million/$140 million.
It gets over 13 million unique users a month recommending some of the highest paying affiliate programs including banks, credit cards, mortgages, loans, utilities & more.
If you spend some time browsing around the site you will quickly see why it has been so successful. They provide the very best consumer finance content in the UK period.
Not only that but they have put a lot of time and effort into the user experience. Everything is easy to find and neatly organised.
In fact after spending some time reading the site you quickly forget its an affiliate site at all!
CompareTheMarket.com have done a cracking job at taking data from affiliate feeds and API’s and combining it to create huge amounts of value for its visitors.
If you want to get the best price for car insurance, home insurance, life insurance, energy, credit cards or travel insurance this is the place for you.
Again these are some of the most lucrative niches and affiliate commissions in the world.
So when sites like this exist, why are people still trying to build and rank micro niche sites for ‘cheap car insurance’ that are nothing more than 1,000 word article with an affiliate link or two?
HotUKDeals.com is my favourite affiliate site in the world period. The idea is simple but the profits are huge.
Imagine a Digg like system where people could submit deals they find online, then the rest of the community could vote them either hot or cold. The hotter a deal is the more likely it is to hit the frontpage.
That is exactly what HotUKDeals is. A community of people fighting to find & submit the best deals and voting for them/discussing them.
In my corporate life I used to game the system and having just 1 deal hit the front page would drive a healthy £50,000 of revenue without fail.
Now imagine if every time someone submitted a deal they found, the link was automatically turned into an affiliate link on the backend.
The community finds the deals, the community votes the deals, the community promotes the deals, the community discusses the deals and you just spin on your chair.
Now that is what I call an affiliate site!
Level Up Your Site!
What I want you to take out of those examples is to think out of the box a little bit. You can do so much more than just write an article with the hope someone clicks on an affiliate link.
Spend some time on those sites with your internet marketing hat on and get a feel for how they do things to find inspiration.
I’m not saying you have to invest huge amounts of time and money developing massive authority sites with custom developed features.
This blog alone was started with nothing more than a plan, domain, hosting and a headset.
But I am saying you need to build a site that actually engages people and provides value in some way.
Getting people on and off a page via an affiliate link just isn’t going to cut it long term.
What Happens When You Forget About SEO?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you forgot about SEO/link building entirely and purely focused on creating great content like Matt Cutt’s keeps telling us to?
Well I did.
My regular readers will know this blog was born out of a zero link building case study.
I focused entirely on creating content and driving social signals. I was not allowed to use traditional SEO or link building to rank the blog.
This is what search traffic for 2013 looked like against all of the algo updates this year-
The proof really is in the pudding, by focusing on content and social signals the site has grown at a rapid pace throughout 2013.
If you want to learn more about exactly what I did and how I did it then have a read of this very detailed post.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Reading through all of that might seem daunting but I hope it helps to address some of the wider problems at hand with SEO & link building.
Usually there are no guarantees with SEO but one thing I can guarantee is Google are going to get better at detecting spam.
If you are fully focused on link building and that elusive #1 ranking you are going to have a rough ride.
SEO Is Just Risk Management
SEO is nothing more than risk management and the risks you take depend on the goals of the campaign.
For example if you wanted to rank something quickly, you would adopt a very aggressive link building strategy encompassing blog networks.
But that obviously sits on the higher end of the risk scale.
If you want long term sustainable rankings you need to play things much safer and mirror the Google Webmaster Guidelines as closely as possible.
Regardless of what type of link you build or how you build it, you breach Webmaster Guidelines – so it’s all black hat SEO if you ask me.
Really there is no right way or wrong way to build links, but the links you build and how you build them needs to align with the goals of your campaign.
It is still possible to throw a site together and link it to the top, but that model is dying.
So you really need to ask yourself – what type of site do I want to build?
SEO Is Not SEO
SEO is no longer all about the links. In fact SEO has changed so much it’s hard to call it SEO anymore.
What we are seeing is a convergence of content, social, analytics, user experience & marketing.
It seems over the past 5 years obsessive compulsive backlink disorder has seen internet marketing become Google marketing.
We have forgotten about all of the other faces of internet marketing in our quest for rankings.
You really need to start thinking about a more complete & comprehensive online marketing strategy.
SEO is not SEO anymore. SEO is internet marketing.
Link Building Is Still Important
Please don’t get me wrong, link building is still important and it certainly isn’t dead.
However link building on its own just isn’t going to be enough to compete in the coming times.
It will always need to be a part of our wider SEO strategy.
You Have A Great Opportunity
I see the changes of the past 12 months as a fantastic opportunity.
What Google has actually done by leaning towards social signals more is hit a big ‘reset’ button in the SERPS.
This means that sites with little to no authority in terms of links can easily compete against established sites with strong backlink profiles.
Luckily so many people suffer from obsessive compulsive backlink disorder they have failed to notice this shift.
Secondary to that humans hate change, it pushes them out of their comfort zone and in general we avoid doing that.
I don’t think SEO’s have been handed an opportunity on a plate like this before in the history of search. Ecommerce sites especially!
You just need to plan things properly. If you ask me, every niche is for the taking right now!
I am In A Tricky Position
All of this puts me in a very tricky position.
Most of my audience just wants to know the quickest and easiest way to rank a site.
It is clear looking at my analytical data that no one really cares about site speed, conversion, user journey, social signals etc. The vast majority just care about link building and nothing else.
What they actually need though is their perceptions of SEO challenging and evolving. Breaking old habits that have been engrained in them for years.
That is no small task and is much easier said than done! Not everyone is going to like it & people naturally fight change.
I want to arm my readers with everything they need to be able to build a long term & sustainable stream of income online.
I have put some thought into how I can do that with your help through 2 case studies.
#1 – How To Build A Business Online With $100
I have mentioned this series before but just to recap you I’m going to build a successful business online step by step with a $100 start-up budget.
You will be able to follow along week by week as I share exactly what I have done and how I have done it.
This series is going to encompass everything I know about internet marketing & not just SEO/Google.
I have spent the last couple of weeks looking at different e-learning platforms to deliver the lessons and have finally settled on one.
This series is my top priority in the new year – it won’t be for the faint hearted.
#2 Live SEO Ranking Case Study
To cater for those currently suffering from obsessive compulsive backlink disorder I’m going to create a traditional SEO ranking case study.
What I plan to do is take you through the entire process of setting up SEO ranking experiments/case studies so you can roll your own easily in the future.
I haven’t worked out the full details yet but it will be something like building 3 sites targeting the same niche/set of keywords each with a unique link building strategy.
Then we can measure and report on the successes & failures of each strategy.
I have a few things to consider though, when other people have ran live experiments like this people have ruined it with negative SEO. But if you don’t reveal the sites everyone says its fake.
So not entirely sure how I’m going to solve that one just yet!
I’m still in the early planning phases of this but if you have any suggestions/ideas please let me know and I’ll take them on board.
Wrapping It Up
I hope this post has helped you to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of search.
SEO is no longer just about backlinks and we have much bigger problems to address over and above changing some settings in link building software.
We need to adapt & embrace the change to evolve with the times.
SEO is internet marketing.
Please let me know your thoughts/ideas on the case studies in the comments!