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Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re chatting about why link building sometimes fails.

So I’ve got an example here. I’m going to do a search for artificial sweeteners. Let’s say I’m working for these guys, ScienceMag.org. Well, this is actually in position 10. I put it in position 3 here, but I see that I’m position 10. I think to myself, “Man, if I could get higher up on this page, that would be excellent. I’ve already produced the content. It’s on my domain. Like, Google seems to have indexed it fine. It’s performing well enough to perform on page one, granted at the bottom of page one, for this competitive query. Now I want to move my rankings up.”

So a lot of SEOs, naturally and historically, for a long time have thought, “I need to build more links to that page. If I can get more links pointing to this page, I can move up the rankings.” Granted, there are some other ways to do that too, and we’ve discussed those in previous Whiteboard Fridays. But links are one of the big ones that people use.

I think one of the challenges that we encounter is sometimes we invest that effort. We go through the process of that outreach campaign, talking to bloggers and other news sites and looking at where our link sources are coming from and trying to get some more of those. It just doesn’t seem to do anything. The link building appears to fail. It’s like, man, I’ve got all these nice links and no new results. I didn’t move up at all. I am basically staying where I am, or maybe I’m even falling down. Why is that? Why does link building sometimes work so well and so clearly and obviously, and sometimes it seems to do nothing at all?

What are some possible reasons link acquisition efforts may not be effective?

Oftentimes if you get a fresh set of eyes on it, an outside SEO perspective, they can do this audit, and they’ll walk through a lot of this stuff and help you realize, “Oh yeah, that’s probably why.” These are things that you might need to change strategically or tactically as you approach this problem. But you can do this yourself as well by looking at why a link building campaign, why a link building effort, for a particular page, might not be working.

1) Not the right links

First one, it’s not the right links. Not the right links, I mean a wide range of things, even broader than what I’ve listed here. But a lot of times that could mean low domain diversity. Yeah, you’re getting new links, but they’re coming from all the same places that you always get links from. Google, potentially, maybe views that as not particularly worthy of moving you up the rankings, especially around competitive queries.

It might be trustworthiness of source. So maybe they’re saying “Yeah, you got some links, but they’re not from particularly trustworthy places.” Tied into that maybe we don’t think or we’re sure that they’re not editorial. Maybe we think they’re paid, or we think they’re promotional in some way rather than being truly editorially given by this independent resource.

They might not come from a site or from a page that has the authority that’s necessary to move you up. Again, particularly for competitive queries, sometimes low-value links are just that. They’re not going to move the needle, especially not like they used to three, four, five or six years ago, where really just a large quantity of links, even from diverse domains, even if they were crappy links on crappy pages on relatively crappy or unknown websites would move the needle, not so much anymore. Google is seeing a lot more about these things.

Where else does the source link to? Is that source pointing to other stuff that is potentially looking manipulative to Google and so they discounted the outgoing links from that particular domain or those sites or those pages on those sites?

They might look at the relevance and say, “Hey, you know what? Yeah, you got linked to by some technology press articles. That doesn’t really have anything to do with artificial sweeteners, this topic, this realm, or this region.” So you’re not getting the same result. Now we’ve shown that off-topic links can oftentimes move the rankings, but in particular areas and in health, in fact, may be one of those Google might be more topically sensitive to where the links are coming from than other places.

Location on page. So I’ve got a page here and maybe all of my links are coming from a bunch of different domains, but it’s always in the right sidebar and it’s always in this little feed section. So Google’s saying, “Hey, that’s not really an editorial endorsement. That’s just them showing all the links that come through your particular blog feed or a subscription that they’ve got to your content or whatever it is promotionally pushing out. So we’re not going to count it that way.” Same thing a lot of times with footer links. Doesn’t work quite as well. If you’re being honest with yourself, you really want those in content links. Generally speaking, those tend to perform the best.

Or uniqueness. So they might look and they might say, “Yeah, you’ve got a ton of links from people who are republishing your same article and then just linking back to it. That doesn’t feel to us like an editorial endorsement, and so we’re just going to treat those copies as if those links didn’t exist at all.” But the links themselves may not actually be the problem. I think this can be a really important topic if you’re doing link acquisition auditing, because sometimes people get too focused on, “Oh, it must be something about the links that we’re getting.” That’s not always the case actually.

2) Not the right content

Sometimes it’s not the right content. So that could mean things like it’s temporally focused versus evergreen. So for different kinds of queries, Google interprets the intent of the searchers to be different. So it could be that when they see a search like “artificial sweeteners,” they say, “Yeah, it’s great that you wrote this piece about this recent research that came out. But you know what, we’re actually thinking that searchers are going to want in the top few results something that’s evergreen, that contains all the broad information that a searcher might need around this particular topic.”

That speaks to it might not answer the searchers questions. You might think, “Well, I’m answering a great question here.” The problem is, yeah you’re answering one. Searchers may have many questions that they’re asking around a topic, and Google is looking for something comprehensive, something that doesn’t mean a searcher clicks your result and then says, “Well, that was interesting, but I need more from a different result.” They’re looking for the one true result, the one true answer that tells them, “Hey, this person is very happy with these types of results.”

It could be poor user experience causing people to bounce back. That could be speed things, UI things, layout things, browser support things, multi-device support things. It might not use language formatting or text that people or engines can interpret as on the topic. Perhaps this is way over people’s heads, far too scientifically focused, most searchers can’t understand the language, or the other way around. It’s a highly scientific search query and a very advanced search query and your language is way dumbed down. Google isn’t interpreting that as on-topic. All the Hummingbird and topic modeling kind of things that they have say this isn’t for them.

Or it might not match expectations of searchers. This is distinct and different from searchers’ questions. So searchers’ questions is, “I want to know how artificial sweeteners might affect me.” Expectations might be, “I expect to learn this kind of information. I expect to find out these things.” For example, if you go down a rabbit hole of artificial sweeteners will make your skin shiny, they’re like, “Well, that doesn’t meet with my expectation. I don’t think that’s right.” Even if you have some data around that, that’s not what they were expecting to find. They might bounce back. Engines might not interpret you as on-topic, etc. So lots of content kinds of things.

3) Not the right domain

Then there are also domain issues. You might not have the right domain. Your domain might not be associated with the topic or content that Google and searchers are expecting. So they see Mayo Clinic, they see MedicineNet, and they go, “ScienceMag? Do they do health information? I don’t think they do. I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate one.” It might be perceived, even if you aren’t, as spammy or manipulative by Google, more probably than by searchers. Or searchers just won’t click your brand for that content. This is a very frustrating one, because we have seen a ton of times when search behavior is biased by the brand itself, by what’s in this green text here, the domain name or the brand name that Google might show there. That’s very frustrating, but it means that you need to build brand affinity between that topic, that keyword, and what’s in searchers’ heads.

4) Accessibility or technical issues

Then finally, there could be some accessibility or technical issues. Usually when that’s the case, you will notice pretty easily because the page will have an error. It won’t show the content properly. The cache will be an issue. That’s a rare one, but you might want to check for it as well.

But hopefully, using this kind of an audit system, you can figure out why a link building campaign, a link building effort isn’t working to move the needle on your rankings.

With that, we will see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

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