When I was a kid, I was a bit of the daring type. I've been told stories of myself, getting caught playing balance beam on a 2nd story deck railing, wandering off and requiring a search party of a dozen people at the campground (they found me, having turkey dinner with the park owner's family), and numerous bicycle and snowboarding feats gone terribly wrong.
I can't pinpoint when risk aversion crept into my psyche, but it has been especially prominent in my professional life. In digital marketing, that isn't always a bad thing. With Google handing out more slaps than Moe, Larry and Curly, it is usually a good idea to walk on the side of caution.
Yesterday, I was browsing a discussion in a forum for online business regarding an interview Pat Flynn did with an SEO who made some, in my opinion, poor recommendations and definitely came in more on the black hat side of the spectrum. To Pat's credit, he followed the video with his own thoughts on what the SEO shared and definitely didn't endorse his tactics (you can also see the look of bewilderment at times on Pat's face during the interview).
However, the video did unearth some common misconceptions and questions in the forum, and all that black hat talk made some folks nervous about doing any SEO or link building for their site. While some tactics are certainly dangerous, total inaction can be dangerous in its own right.
I posted these rules of thumb for safe link building in the topic thread but I decided to also share them here. By keeping these in mind while you perform link building, you are essentially future-proofing yourself from unforeseen search engine penalties further down the road and positioning yourself for long term success, as opposed to the short term gains enjoyed by black hats and spammers.
1. If a link requires little to no effort to obtain, it is most likely useless and/or dangerous.
You know the old saying "If it were easy, everyone would do it!" Well, these links are easy, and everyone is doing it---which is exactly what makes them worthless. Included in this are directory sites with thousands of pages of nothing but links, which require 10 seconds to submit your site to.
Additionally, the easiest links to obtain are nowadays nofollowed by default (meaning, rel="nofollow" is appended to the link code, which essentially tells search engines not to pass any value through that link), so comment spam on blogs and forums is a pretty fruitless (and annoying) activity.
These quick and easy links are also likely to bite you in the ass. Say you find a way to get a bunch of easy links---being human beings, you're going to snag them all, right? Before you know it, you have a link profile that is 90% shit, and search engines will take notice. Suddenly, those links have quite an opposite effect on your rankings as you intended.
2. Only pursue links that users will actually find useful and click on.
I'll use directories in another example. Do you really think people think "Gee, I really need to find a new pair of sunglasses, I should visit freecrappylinksdirectory.com and navigate six levels deep to find some sunglasses sites!" Nobody is actually using those sites and therefore those links are shit.
Every day, one of my sites is bombarded with users setting up fake profiles so they can post statuses (which are nofollowed, by the way) linking to their cheap Louis Vuitton bag site or fake Rolex site. The site is about baseball. 'Nuff said.
Seek out link opportunities where you feel users will be glad they found the link, because it provides value. The best example is a link within an article. Someone reading about a topic of interest and at a certain point they reach your link, which provides deeper context into a specific aspect of the topic. *click*
Useful links take many forms, whether it is a citation, an interesting image or graphic, a promotion or even a reputable directory, such as your local Chamber of Commerce website or well-known industry directory.
3. If a link requires pulling out your wallet, don't do it.
This isn't just reserved for people paying for directory links, paying bloggers to post links, exchanging physical goods for a links, etc., it also includes some even shadier tactics, such as buying dying sites and pointing links on them towards your primary site, which was recommended by the SEO in Pat Flynn's interview. Little is known about how well Google can detect things like this at present but considering how fast search engines are advancing, it certainly isn't a safe long term strategy.
When I quit the major time-suck that is known as Reddit, the first thing I did was bury the bookmark in a couple folders, so I could no longer mindlessly click on it and would instead notice what I was doing before I got there. Next time you're working on link building and you pull out your wallet, then your credit card and begin to fill in information...well, there should be plenty of opportunities to catch yourself.
I've summarized several best practices and tactics into three simple rules of thumb, but in case you needed it more simplified I'll put it into one: Use good judgement. Seriously, folks, most of us have some sort of moral compass, so reference it often and ask yourself if a reasonable, ethical person would do what you're doing.
There's countless posts out there on great linking building opportunities and what you should avoid, but applying these rules of thumb to your link building activities should protect you from 99% of what Google dishes out in the future. Google wants to serve the most relevant web pages in search, and these tactics ensure you're only seeking out relevant links.
That said, I think I'm going to go do something risky. Not sign up for any article spinning software or anything like that---I'm not that stupid---but maybe ride through a black diamond mountain bike course without a helmet or something.