Resolved: The SEO Industry Should Embrace Broken Link Building

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Let me begin with a disclosure. I now have a financial stake in brokenlinkbuilding.com, a tool that assists in the process of broken link building. I hope that my arguments below, which in no way necessitate using that site, help stir up an important conversation regardless of that apparent bias.

What Went Wrong

I have a weird admission. Lately, I have become addicted to watching debates on Youtube. Yeah, skip funny videos or the latest viral vid and replace that with 2 hour long debates on everything from the existence of God to the ethics of genetic engineering. It is a strange choice of entertainment, I admit, but I believe it is born out of a growing desire for raising the level of discussion in our industry to thoughtful discourse on how we should approach what is an industry intrinsically laden with ethical questions and great variation of opinion.

It is within this light that I was greatly disappointed with the cyclical rise and fall of link building tactics - not simply in that history repeats itself so brutally, but that our response is hackneyed as well. We blame greed, laziness, and iniquity without ever examining the underlying structures which breed those qualities. I want to attempt to do that in this post and, hopefully, describe why broken link building is largely inconsistent with those structures.

The Life of a Link Building Tactic

It normally goes something like this. 

  • One or many individuals discover a tactic. 
  • The tactic succeeds on one or many sites. 
  • Someone markets the tactic. 
  • The tactic becomes adopted widely by SEOs. 
  • Demand for the tactic increases. 
  • Tools are created to make the tactic accessible. 
  • Suppliers enter the market who are also SEOs. 
  • Google targets tactic either through FUD or algorithm. 
  • Tactic dies.

The story fits so many different types of link building. 

Reciprocal link building worked for a while, then it became the primary method of optimization for many SEO firms, tools started rolling out, SEOs started creating sites to meet that demand through 3-way linking, Google targeted it, and now it is hardly ever mentioned. Directories worked, then they became heavily marketed, then SEOs created tons of directories and... gone. Article syndication. Gone. And now, we see a similar path for Guest Posting.

Now, all of these tactics still exist today in their pure, unadultered forms - high level partnerships that result in a blog roll link (reciprocal), getting into DMOZ or BOTW (directories), pushing content to news outlets (article syndication), and expert guest posting - but only after a lot of money is made and lost and, frankly, the credibility of our industry is shaken even more.

Indulge me for a second as I describe the trajectory of Guest Blogging. First, someone discovered the tactic. The truth is, Guest Blogging has been around since blogging has been around, but at the time, article syndication was a preferable method of link building because it acquired far more links with just a single piece of content. There were plenty of easier tactics available that Google had not yet targeted. Over time, though, the tactic became more effective as other tactics were discarded by SEOs due to fear of retribution by Google.

Within the last 2 years the tactic has become widely adopted by SEOs. They blog about it, they build communities around it, and they evangelize it at conferences. Subsequently, demand for the tactic has increased dramatically. Then came the tools - tools that tie directly into Wordpress for example - that created obvious footprints that were then tapped in by agency and public tools as well to make the whole process streamlined. 

Finally, the nail in the coffin - SEOs became both the demand and the supply. We began creating sites and aggregation businesses that made money - whether through adsense or placement fees - to satisfy the insatiable demand for guest blog posts. Just like SEOs created the article syndication farms. Just like SEOs created the DMOZ clones and directory submission sites. Just like SEOs created the Press Release distribution services that never actually reached the press. We created the supply, not just the demand.

And then Google stepped in. 

I want to sit here for a moment and dwell on that last step - SEOs becoming the suppliers. That tends to be the point at which Google intercedes. It seems to me that the second we start building the link supply, rather than tapping the existing web, is the point where Google starts to get active. Even with paid link building, Google seems to go after the big link suppliers more than 1-off advertising deals where someone didn't think to put a no-follow. Some of this is out of ease (we leave an awful lot of footprints), but a lot of it is out of pragmatism. We reach a point at which Google must act because when both the supply and the demand can scale, Google has to get worried.

So What Makes Broken Link Building's Story Different

Let's restate the initial order of life stages for a link building strategy and follow the path for Broken Link Building.

  • One or many individuals discover a tactic. 
  • The tactic succeeds on one or many sites. 
  • Someone markets the tactic. 
  • The tactic becomes adopted widely by SEOs. 
  • Demand for the tactic increases. 
  • Tools are created to make the tactic accessible. 
  • Suppliers enter the market who are also SEOs. 
  • Google targets tactic either through FUD or algorithm. 
  • Tactic dies.

The first few steps are all too familiar. BLB has been around for a while. It started with simply reaching out to webmasters with broken links and seeing if you could get a link for being nice. It evolved into finding all the sites that link to that broken resource, recreating the resource, and reaching out to them to request they replace the broken link with one to your shiny new resource. It became effective, then people started marketing the tactic on places like Moz, myself included.

But then it stopped. 

It hasn't become widely adopted by SEOs yet. Does this mean that Broken Link Building will be immune to the path taken by other tactics? No. I think it will become widely adopted. It hasn't yet for the same reason that it took so long for Guest Blog Posting to become widely adopted - there were other tactics available that were easier to implement, Guest Blogging being one of them. So, if we assume it will get over this hump, then what follows...

Demand will increase for the tactic. Tools will be created to make it accessible (this has already been done with brokenlinkbuilding.com and brokenlinkindex.com) and then we reach the nail in the coffin...Suppliers enter the market who are also SEOs.

But How? This is where the life cycle becomes dramatically different for Broken Link Building from any of the other white hat tactics discussed above. SEOs cannot go back in history, create great content that has links pointing to it, then 404 it today in order to attract people looking for broken link building opportunities. And, even if they do have a resource that would be worthy of receiving the attention of a broken link building campaign, why break it? Why take down a resource that already has great links? 

Unlike nearly every other example, Broken Link Building harvests from a slowly growing, but finite set of opportunities. There are intrinsic properties of Broken Link Building that insulate it from the type of adulteration we regularly see in our industry. Importantly, that intrinsic property happens to fall right at the line where we regularly see Google get upset. 

Now, this will likely limit the adoption of the tactic to a degree. Broken Link Building will never scale like article submission or directories. It will scale more than high-end Guest Blogging because 1 piece of BLB content can mean the replacement of hundreds of links, while high-end Guest Blogging will largely reflect 1 piece of content for 1 link, but it hits a brick wall in terms of creating supply.

Ok, So What.

I hope I have given a strong argument for why following the natural path of link tactic growth won't lead to the same demise as we have seen for so many tactics. I have said it before, but my favorite part about broken link building is "the success of the campaign is directly proportional to how much good you do for the web". You are fixing holes on the internet, plugging them with updated content, and helping users and webmasters along the way. Hell, even Google his helped to a degree. But we could make those types of arguments about Guest Blogging and Article Syndication as well. You could argue you were producing great content worthy of Google's admiration, helping users find answers they are looking for and webmasters find content to attract an audience. I can't make a claim that this quality of broken link buidling is unique.

But unlike those tactics, Broken Link Building is insulated to some degree from the market forces that have driven other link building tactics into the ground. As SEOs, we must be concerned not solely with what we do with a tactic but what everyone else will do with that tactic. That insulation makes it a true long term strategy. And, given that there is constant churn on the internet of pages dropping as webmasters move content or lose interest in a website, it is a strategy that has a long life span as well.

Guest blogging isn't going away. It is becoming what it was always supposed to be, but for a while it will suffer because Google's FUD will scare away even the most honest of its practioners. This is an unfortunate outcome, especially for those who have been vocal for a long time in protecting the tactic. They were unaffective though because the market itself is a tough beast to control. With broken link building, that market is unlikely to ever develop.

Broken link building seems promising because, most of all, it protects us from the enemy - and that enemy is ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Any Questions?

If you want to discuss the topic, I'd love to here rather than just on twitter, so we have an archive of the discourse.

Zero Sum Game

Fantastic post and I agree with it and love the steps you outlined in terms of the cycle that us veteran SEOs have all been through before with tactics life cycles. 

But I can't help but think that BLB is such a zero some game that it won't last that long because as it becomes more mainstream niches will get all used up in terms of broken link opportunities. 

People talk about the tactic in terms of its scalability but I guess I don't see that because of this. For instance, if I wanted to do BLB for SEO I'm sure that its been already abused to the point that there are just not opportunities out there. 

Antother thing is how do agencies sell this service when you don't know how many links you can get or if BLB is even viable, or has enough opportunities in it, for a given niche?

Looking forward to your take and reply..

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