The True Value of Link Building in Post-Penguin Era

by Jason Acidre on May 28, 2013 · 57 comments · Search


There has been a lot of talk around the industry that the ROI in link building is diminishing. Mainly because of the constant algorithmic updates (particularly Penguin) that strongly impact this marketing platform, as well as with the shift that Google wants to take on in revolutionizing its search.

However, I’m still one of those who won’t really believe that link building will soon be over as an effective medium that can help websites/brands earn more and win over their competitions on the web.

Let’s recap several advantages of link building and why it wouldn’t likely be extinct:

  • It can drive referral traffic, especially if the links are contextual and placed on high-traffic and thematically relevant pages/content.
  • Links and brand mentions help businesses become more authoritative and visible to their target audience (link building is more efficient as a branding tool).
  • Links help sites (and web documents) in getting found and discovered, not just by search crawlers, but also by users.
  • Links can also increase a website’s conversions.
  • Link building still directly impacts a site’s ability to rank on search results.

I’ve handled sites that heavily relied on SEO/link building alone for the past few months – without the help of content marketing, social media and other traffic/lead generating channels – but were still able to produce tremendous results (bringing us closer to the business’ goals) in a short period of time.

organic search results

traffic overview

Although we all know that it’s always best to have a diversified source of traffic, it’s given that it’s not the way how it works on other niches.

Perhaps that’s why I strongly believe in link building as a very significant process in this age of online marketing. It can still yield results – overwhelming results.

My thoughts on Penguin and the future of link building

What I really love about SEO, as a profession and an industry, is that it continues to challenge its practitioners. While search constantly enhances and evolves itself, it also tests and changes/improves our own views and principles along the process.

Let’s start digging in through few of my observations based on our team’s available data. Although, I’m sure that I’ll be updating many of the things that I’ll be mentioning in this post in the coming weeks.

Possible Google Penguin filters

Matt Cutts mentioned that the new version of Penguin – Penguin 2.0 – goes deeper on to the site’s inner pages (the links pointing to them), as the first Penguin mainly targeted homepages.

Some practitioners argue that this isn’t true, although our data somehow suggests that it is (which will be shared on the latter part of this post).

Below are the factors which I think Google Penguin 2.0 uses in determining a site’s degree of penalization – based on my initial assessment – listed in particular order (according to each factor’s weight).

  • The quality of the link source. It’s easier for them to identify spammy websites or link networks these days (sites with Panda-prone content, contain tons of manipulative links, and have low user-engagement rate).
  • Degree of penalty could be based on the ratio of # of bad vs. good links pointing to the site’s pages.
  • Thematic relevance of the linking domain(s).
  • Amount of links with exact match anchor text pointing to a page (over-optimization), as well as their positions in the linking pages (sitewide, footer, comment section, contextual, etc…). But these might only serve as supporting metrics for the first factor I mentioned.

Ratio of # of Bad vs. Good linking domains

I think that the degree of the penalty from Penguin 2.0 depends on the ratio of bad vs. good links pointing to a certain site, as I’ve seen a couple of the sites we’ve been handling that were mildly hit by the recent Penguin update.

For instance, the site with the stats I’ve shared above was also hit (by 27% loss in search traffic).

penguin 2.0

The site has only a few linking domains to it, since we’ve only focused on getting links from 3 high DA sites (through regular content contribution).

linking domains

Though the problem is that several spammy sites have scraped the content we’ve published on one of the sites we’ve contributed to. So basically, the ratio of good and bad domains linking to the site is around 4:13.

If Penguin has devalued the other domains linking to the site, then this may have caused the slight decrease in search traffic (as the links are no longer passing ranking value to the site).

Another case is from a huge site we’ve been working on for months now that have thousands of great links, but also have a few hundreds of bad ones, specifically from:

  • Scraped content hosted on spammy websites/content farms.
  • Negative SEO.
  • Directory links, articles and social profiles with exact match anchor texts (built by their previous SEO service provider).

links - sample 2

This was slightly affected by the recent Penguin update, with 17% decrease in organic traffic.

penguin 2.0 - 2

The loss in traffic wasn’t that massive knowing that it has thousands of good links. Although, I will still need to observe it in the next few weeks to ensure if Penguin was really the reason behind its gradual loss in traffic (penalties usually have sudden drop and not gradual decline in search traffic).

The last one is from a small blog that I’ve been helping out in the last 4 months. We’ve managed to grow its search traffic by 500% in the first 3 months, but lost 38% of its organic traffic after the Penguin update last May 22, 2013.

penguin 2.0 - 3

The main reason was I didn’t check its historical link data, and just recently found dozens of spammy links pointing to its inner pages (from link networks) – which were built by the SEO he previously hired (early last year) – as I thought that the site was launched September last year.

Here’s a sample:

sample spam link

This site has less than a hundred linking domains, and the ratio of good vs. bad LRDs directing to it is around 20:45.

links - sample 3

I believe that regaining its search traffic is still very doable, so as to the 2 other sites I’ve mentioned above.

In getting their search visibility back, the link development campaign should focus on three things:

  • Build more quality links from trusted and relevant domains (have high DAs) to outnumber the bad links pointing to the site and its pages.
  • Disavow links that you have no control of via Google Webmaster Tools (disavow tool).
  • Try to remove low quality links (obvious spammy links) by contacting webmasters and requesting for link removal.

Diversity is crucial, but not a requirement

To make a site’s link building really diversified, it needs people (real people) to genuinely link to it. This means you need to really get out there and do remarkable things for people to talk about your brand (this is where content, relationships and other awesome stuff come in).

Artificial link building is promotional work, and no one is saying that it’s not allowed. Don’t forget that link building is also a marketing tool that can help your site get found (by your audience and search engines).

So if you’re going to use artificial link building methods (such as guest blogging, linker outreach, forum marketing, etc…), make sure that you can get the most out of them.

Consider these techniques as mediums to get more traffic and potential linkers to your site’s content, rather than just using them to draw signals to manipulate search rankings. Become more visible in few chosen communities where people are most-likely to share or link to your works.

You don’t need hundreds or thousands of unique LRDs

Number of unique linking root domains allows you to become more competitive in terms of having more ranking power in search results – that is what it was before.

But I think many have misinterpreted this, as many have disregarded the quality of the domains that they are trying to get links from (just to make their sites have more LRDs than their competitors).

I’d still choose and recommend having repetitive link acquisitions from a few chosen strong domains (that are entirely relevant to your site) than link dropping on hundreds/thousands.

Because this approach will make your link profile look more authoritative, based on the relationship that it’s building with other high authority domains in its field (think 5 solid contextual links from SEOmoz vs. 50 links from other not-so-popular SEO blogs).

As I’ve mentioned on the first sample website I’ve shared above, it has only 3 solid link source (in which we’ve continuously contributed content to), but the results were far greater than what most would expect.

Monthly link audit is imperative

You’ll never really know if you’re already a victim of negative SEO. Remember my mistake on the third sample site I’ve shared above? I forgot to dig deeper on its historical link data, and see where it got us.

If only I knew that it has dozens of spammy links (built by its previous SEO) before last week’s Penguin update, then I could have suggested earlier (few months back) to have those links removed or disavowed.

Avail link research tools like Open Site Explorer, Cognitive SEO and/or Ahrefs to easily monitor your site’s new and old links.

Another thing to consider in your link audits is measuring the impact of your existing links, and treating them as a part of your site’s assets (particularly those that are continuously sending referred traffic and conversions – as well as linking external pages that are ranking very well in search results).

Make these incoming links more powerful, by building 2nd-tier links to them.

Relevance and Context

Links are far more powerful when they are being clicked by users. It passes more trust and ranking power, based on the usage of the link, as well as the relationship between the linking page and the destination page of the link.

It’s easier to entice people into clicking a link when they are relevant to what readers/surfers are seeking for or interested in. Several factors that can increase clicks on links:

  • Position of the link
  • Length of anchor text
  • Traffic of the linking page
  • Context and sentiments of the texts surrounding the link
  • Relevance of the content to the link’s destination page

Building more links that can attract referred traffic can definitely send out more positive signals about your site/brand, which impacts your site’s ability to rank better on search and convert more referred visitors.

AuthorRank

Being a verified author (through authorship markups) and having a strong author portfolio (for AuthorRank) is more important than ever.

trusted links

Verified authorship will amplify the strength of the links you are building and other authors are building for your site, since these citations/mentions are expected by search engines to be more credible and trustworthy – based on the level of trust that other people see in your author profile (from both social and web graph).

Image credit: The Evolution of Search by Tom Anthony

Key takeaways:

  • Start growing your author portfolio both in and out of your site.
  • Build relationships with other authors and publishers in your industry.

Anchor text – partial match, branded links and co-occurrence

I have always believed that the most important role of links (in SEO perspectives) is to mainly absorb and pass domain authority back to your site, for it to have more ranking power (making all of its indexed pages capable of ranking highly on search results).

Using descriptive anchor texts was – and is still – the best way to make search engines understand what the link’s destination page is all about.

Although many have abused this ranking factor in the past to manipulate search rankings (and up until now), Google is still able to use other methodologies to understand links – knowing that this is very important to them.

Some of the most efficient anchor text strategies that can help bring more value to your link development campaign are:

  • Using partial-match anchor texts, rather than exact-match. This approach doesn’t just make your links look natural and diversified, but it also makes your links highly descriptive for both users and search crawlers.
  • Build more branded links to your site, as this can still impact your site’s overall ranking ability, given that this type of link can pass domain authority and trust.
  • Since Google is also applying phrase based indexing in their search algorithms, utilizing co-occurrence (placing generic keywords near linked or unlinked brand mentions) to help search engines determine and understand what your brand is about.

co-occurrence

Link building is about building the right signals – to build trust.

Links are gateways to experience. And most of us know that great experience is what makes brands remarkable and it’s also the main thing that Google would really want to serve to their users.

eric schmidt

Great links begin with great content/experience. And great content/experience over the web wouldn’t be accessible to people without links. That’s why link building will still and always be significant.

Link building is valuable, because it’s a part of a bigger process. SEO, branding, content marketing and traffic/lead generation are far more effective with links!

For more advanced link building tutorials, you may check out some of my other posts:

If you liked this post, you can subscribe to my feed and follow me on Twitter @jasonacidre

Jason Acidre

Jason Acidre is Co-Founder and CEO of Xight Interactive, marketing consultant for Affilorama and Traffic Travis, and also the sole author of this SEO blog. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonacidre and on Google+.

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Cady Haren May 28, 2013 at 3:28 am

I believe that Google is changing the web for the better but Penguin updates can be extremely tough to recover from.

With every good website, there is always a link profile of 90% good links and 10-15% bad links but with Penguin, you need to have 100% good links to initiate a recovery. Also you may not be knowing the links that were actually the cause of the problem.

Hopefully with Google now saying that they would be providing examples in GWT, we can look forward to having a clearer picture of the kind of links that may be causing you to be viewed in negative light.

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Dean Davis May 28, 2013 at 4:11 am

Brilliant post as always Jason.

I totally agree with regards to co-occurrence and monthly link audits. I’ve seen my clients’ sites really benefit simply by doing these two things. Of course partial match anchor texts are key to their strategies, but there’s nothing like a monthly audit ‘spring clean’ of a site to ensure the right links are there and the crappy spammy ones have been kicked into touch.

@Cady – I know what you mean. I’ve heard of some guys re-starting their sites from scratch and doing their whole link building from the beginning.

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Darren@Muffin Mouth Marketing May 28, 2013 at 5:13 am

Hey Jason,

Enjoyed reading through your thoughts.

Just wondered how you go about calculating the ratio of good vs bad LRDs, do you have base factors to decipher a good vs bad linking domain?

Really love the example you gave about focussing on 3 high quality sites…

D

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Kaiserthesage May 28, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Thanks for the comment Darren!

I wrote a post last year that includes a link analysis method (that I mostly use) in calculating link quality ratio – http://kaiserthesage.com/technical-seo-audit/

Basically, I downloaded the list of linking domains to my site (can be done through Google Webmaster Tools or other link research tools) and have the listed sorted in Excel (using Neils Bosma’s SEO tool for excel – to populate the list with metrics). Then segment the good quality link sources and low quality domains (and then start comparing).

Hope this helps :) Thanks!

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vishal shah May 29, 2013 at 11:26 pm

@Kaiserthesage

my website has been affected by penguin since last update of Google. I decided to remove bad links from mine website. Already have downloaded all links from google webmasters, but can you know me which links should I go for remove, how can I get to know this links are harmful for my website? is there any consideration for this?

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Ydeveloper May 28, 2013 at 6:37 am

Great insight on the link building and Penguin update. In summary, we should build a link for the site that do not contain exact match anchor text in their inbound link profile, offer branding signal within content and links of all kind and make sure the page containing link to your site is relevant.

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Johan Bengtsson May 28, 2013 at 7:31 am

Great article. Also seeing some fluctation now with Penguin2.0 but think it is too early to tell if it will be positive or negative in the end for my site. Guess need to wait 1 or 2 weeks more to see the real impact.

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Kevin Burke May 28, 2013 at 7:46 am

Excellent piece. What subscription service are you using for the link reports you show?

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Kaiserthesage May 28, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Thanks! I used Ahrefs.

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Matthew Barby May 28, 2013 at 8:03 am

Love this post, Jason. Some really solid advice.

I couldn’t agree more about the monthly link audits; they have become a staple part of all of my SEO campaigns. On top of this I’ve found that co-occurrence seems to be an incredibly important part of post-penguin link-building that we’re seeing some great results from.

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Kaiserthesage May 28, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Thanks Matthew!

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Jordan J. Caron May 28, 2013 at 11:02 am

Thanks as always Jason for breaking down some actionable steps here. I like how you have shared with us the results of your clients campaign. It seems like if you have had bad links pointing to your site it can be hard to recover from. However you’ve pointed out how to find those bad links and what to do.

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Donna Saliter May 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Oh man now I have a million questions. Will be reading this article more than once for sure. On an up note: my friend had gotten snookered into an odd back links scheme years ago and got really spanked by Penguin when was it? October 2011 or so? Anyway he’s been using the disavow tool to straighten out all his internal pages and posts. Since Penguin 2.0 came out traffic to his site has increased by 40%. This is great news!

Thanks for this article. I have the same question as Darren: what criteria do you use to determine link strength/quality?

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Kaiserthesage May 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Thanks Donna, and glad to hear that your friend is already doing well after the first Penguin update. I’ve been testing some things with the disavow tool right now, and hope I can share it on a future post.

Anyway, I already answered Darren’s question :)

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Krystian Wlodarczyk May 28, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Very insightful. Love the line:

“What I really love about SEO, as a profession and an industry, is that it continues to challenge its practitioners.”

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Junalin May 28, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Really impressed! Everything is very, very clear and open. You have shared a lot of valuable information.

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Nathan Brook May 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm

The new update was just announced by Matt Cutts on May 22nd, the newest version, referred by Matt Cutts as Penguin 2.0 and that is in action now. I don’t know what is exactly changed yet.

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Farrell Conejos May 28, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Hey Jason,

Your blog never fails to amuse me. Well, base on your posts, I can say that Penguin is not a threat to anyone who doesn’t uses black hat SEO or to someone who is constantly checking their sites for link arrangements. I mean, people on the online world, especially in the SEO industry feel dreadful and afraid if some updates in the algorithm takes place. If a site is well optimize and is constantly check, there is no reason to fear at all. Yes, we may experience changes, but that doesn’t mean we have to fear it right? Well, the future of link building is still bright for everyone. We just need to know the right steps and procedure to adopt the ongoing changes in the industry.

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Rameez Ramzan May 28, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Kaiserthesage, Can you tell me which SEO strategy is fruitful nowadays because I am also suffering similar issue which you mentioned in your post? Yah, your post give me some insight about Penguin 2.0 but therefore I want some more information about today SEO strategy.

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Dan May 29, 2013 at 9:07 am

So, if link building isn’t as important, what is important now? I know on page content doesn’t do much. Is it just factoring in quality links? There’s got to be more factors than that.

I don’t do Black Hat techniques, but I’d like to think I can do something.

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Afzal May 29, 2013 at 10:08 am

This article is really very helpful in making ur website more effective .
Thanks for sharing :)

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Jeric C May 29, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Your Twitter brought me here! :D
I am really looking for some tips about using anchor text since Google updated again its new algorithm, the Penguin 2.0.
Well, from your 3rd “anchor text strategy” above, how true that placing generic keywords near linked or unlinked brand mentions will help search engines determine and understand what your brand is about?

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jossef May 29, 2013 at 11:01 pm

I thought of myself as an SEO expert and one of my sites was ranking in the first page of Google for a very high competitive keywords and i was making thousands of dollars with that site. I knew everything about SEO, then come panda but did not effect my ranking but penguin did. and honestly i quite, i started to look for other sources of traffic. Reading this post made me consider going back to link building and SEO, but i still not sure i can do it and maybe you are right but i don’t think it is that easy and that simple. thanks for sharing

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Peter Zwart May 30, 2013 at 5:57 am

Hello Jason,
You have talked about “AuthorRank” in this post is nice, but how the author ship is effected of the author rank is effected while we are just making the profiles in different sites. And how can I make a authorized author in all the way?

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Chris Angulo May 30, 2013 at 11:59 am

There is a competitor I track that does all sorts of link building through methods of spamming. Amazingly, I have noticed their traffic ranks have dropped on some key phrases I monitor. They are building links the wrong way and all the money and effort put forth has gone down the toilet.

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Simon May 31, 2013 at 6:14 am

Wasn’t links the major way in which Google differentiated itself from other search engines when it was launched? I can’t believe that Google will fully move away from it as a ranking factor. Sure, it is easy to manipulate, but so are other measures.

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Paul Koks May 31, 2013 at 7:23 am

Hi Jason,
Thanks for sharing this great article and real life case studies.
What’s your opinion on this one:
Last year a blog/website (2,5 years old) was hit by penguin 1.0; due to this the site has experienced 80% organic search traffic loss since then. After examining the link profile I noticed a lot of bad links are built to the homepage and inner pages as well. After penguin 2.0 the traffic is unchanged.

Two options:
1) Try to move from the bad to good side to recover; with a huge investment in link building efforts
2) Start over again on a new domain (and point the GOOD links where having access to, to the new domain and leave the bad ones)

What’s your feeling in general about this one?

Thanks,
Paul

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Christopher May 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Good article topic to write about. Sure many people are worried that link building won’t be effective in the near future. But some of us are not worried in the least bit. And it’s funny that everybody that’s worried just so happen to be the ones that don’t do it properly and ethically. Back links are the foundation of the web. Before Google and the rise of search engines, links were how we navigated through and across the internet. That’s where the term “web” originated from. And linking will remain the underlying platform for expanding on the web. What Google is attempting to do is make user’s search experience better, or more relevant. The way to do that is to get rid of the garbage sites littering the top spots in the search results that are filled with nothing but garbage links, and make room for the relevant sites with quality content. They are moving away from link ‘count’ and moving toward link ‘quality.’ As long as your links are relevant, NATURAL, and of high quality, they will remain one of the key ingredients toward claiming your seat high in the search rankings. For those of us that build our businesses the right way…based on value…this is not a penalty but rather a blessing. Goodbye spammers, hello honest business men and woman.

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George Anderson June 2, 2013 at 12:41 am

That’s certainly a lot of interesting data for me to be thinking over. Can I please ask what method that is that you are using to analyse your link building campaigns?

Thanks
George

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Virg H June 3, 2013 at 8:12 am

Very nice post, I do have a couple of older domains who’s links are shaky at best. I had been just letting them sit but learning about the Google Webmaster disavow tool is making me think about revisiting them. The problem is that it is such a herculean job having to deal with hundreds of links.

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Donna Saliter June 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Virg, it’s worth it, if you were making money from the older sites and want to re-establish that income. A friend embarked on the disavow journey earlier this year and since the May 22nd penguin update has seen a 40% rise in traffic. Good luck with the process!

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Victoria June 3, 2013 at 8:13 am

Thank you for such a detailed review of a new Google algorithm! Luckily no of my sites got injured by new Penguin update, but you ideas about link trust, not just diversity as most people say is extremely interesting and I think has a ground under it.

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Aqiyl Henry June 4, 2013 at 8:45 am

Thanks for this article. I had no idea about utilizing co-occurrence, and I guess this is done mainly to make links look more natural.

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Patrick Tasner June 4, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Thanks Jason for giving us this clear view of what to do and consider in this Post-Penguin era. I have a hard time lately figuring out what to do to my site that the new penguin algorithm would love it. Good thing, you have shared some of your awesome ideas and metrics. Cheers!

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Dr. Tim Lawler June 5, 2013 at 12:11 am

This was a phenomenal post. Thank you for sharing this stuff. I agree that “AuthorRank” will be more important than ever. Keep the great stuff coming! Take care,

Dr. Tim

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Rio Babush June 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm

It’s really great that these Google updates make legitimate sites rise to the top, but it’s getting harder and harder for new businesses to get an edge. My site has been around for over 10 years, so I’m lucky, but I feel bad for new sites trying to get Google to recognize them.

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Kenneth Villegas June 7, 2013 at 8:58 am

This is my first time to visit your blog site Jason, referred by Point Blank SEO. I am actually impressed with your knowledge in SEO and your writing skills as well. By the way, I’m so thankful that I found your post about the latest Google Penguin Update. This helps me clear out my mind that link building is still alive as long as you are doing it on the right way. I actually agreed to most of your opinions because I am also an SEO Specialist. I’m so proud of you as your kababayan!:-)

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Yasir Khan June 11, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Link building is very important and centre point of any website optimization because without it there’s no business, no sales and no income. It is what you need to establish yourself as a reliable marketer.

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Ritugupta June 14, 2013 at 4:23 am

This is my first time to visit your blog site Jason, referred by Point Blank SEO. I am actually impressed with your knowledge in SEO and your writing skills as well. By the way, I’m so thankful that I found your post about the latest Google Penguin Update

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Jim Doyle June 18, 2013 at 3:46 am

Great in-depth post, Jason!
I do agree that co-occurrence is going to be more and more essential part of the link building strategies after Penguin 2.0.

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Jervis Zeuldeick June 30, 2013 at 9:44 am

As usual, I’m always mesmerized by your article sir Jason. I strongly agree that link-building is among the SEO factor that should be given importance even though Search Engines updates are very often lately. And thank you for this post sir, I’d learn new things from this one. Thumbs up!

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Matthew Maka July 16, 2013 at 11:19 am

Hey Jason,

Awesome post, as usual.
Do you have any idea what the value is on links that Google accounts for ranking sites. It used to be about 70% was attributed to links and 30% for onsite factors but day after day I see social mentions affecting SERPs as well as location, citations, Google +, and a bunch of other factors. So what value do you think links play in calculating SERPs.

Thanks,

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Panagiotis Kontogiannis July 22, 2013 at 1:06 am

Invest is brands. That is the key of success.

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dede July 29, 2013 at 6:58 am

very in-depth article, love it! and i strongly agree that co-occurance is getting more valueable in google algorithm and SM like google+ is as a baclink. Awesome article!

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Abhijit Gupta January 6, 2014 at 5:01 am

Nice post, link building the suitable way is still the key for the future. If you do link building in the proper way, you will not have any problem with Penguin. Your shared every point is very helpful and effective to understand the importance of link building.

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Tufail Shaikh January 15, 2014 at 3:52 am

Thank you Jason, Very clear and great article, Love it! .. I am new to this , I want to ask one question . How we calculate Ratio of bad vs good links of a domain. Please reply me with this point — “ratio of good and bad domains linking to the site is around 4:13″

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DJTrinity June 19, 2014 at 12:57 am

We are always so busy building links (free or paid) that we don’t even bother to see our link profile. Be smart now, understand what Google is doing and saying. No matter if you are an Agency or In house SEO team, don’t act when you’ve been penalized. Link checkup can be a routine activity.
Stay safe. Don’t try black hat.

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