Link Building: Why The Future May Be Linkless

If you want to start a really long — and almost certainly contentious — conversation among digital marketers, just mention link building.

If you do, you’ll no doubt find these people divided into two camps. There will be those who tell you that link building is still critical in 2021 and those who tell you that link building is deader than the proverbial dodo. So…who’s right?

“They say that there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about. As an SEO consultant, I work within a fairly small, niche industry, so word-of-mouth is hugely important. While I value links from high-quality people, I seek out brand mentions as these are the holy grail for my business.”

Lukasz Zelezny, international SEO consultant at SEO.London

While there’s no doubt that gaining great, high-quality links can be useful, it’s also clear that the world — and the internet — is changing. In the not-too-distant past, dummy websites containing nothing but links littered the internet. There was nothing we could do to stop them from getting away with it until, that is, Jagger came along.

No, not the guy with the lips and hips, but Google’s rock star update which, from September 2005 on, would spoil the fun for those committing linkage crimes. The Jagger update analyzed the anchor text of an inbound link, the content on the linking page, and the speed at which links were coming from the page. This innovation forced “link farms” to remove their sketchy websites if they wanted to avoid a Google penalty.

From that moment on, quality link building became a major marketing strategy for businesses and individuals alike. Everyone began to understand the huge benefits.

Because time stops for no man — and neither does Google — the slightly jaded Jagger was unseated in 2016 by the real-time rollout of the Penguin update. Penguin prevented the kind of spammy linking that annoyed everyone. It was closely followed by the revolutionary PageRank Updated, yet another Google initiative designed to stop the bad guys in their tracks.

That was then, this is now.

After a tumultuous year, we now have our feet firmly planted in 2021 and, once again, link building is a big part of the conversation.

We’ve all been taught to follow a simple formula when assessing the value of internet content.

  • Links = Trust.
  • Lack of links = Lack of trust.

Although this formula may have been relevant in the recent past, the internet is changing.

These days, rather than merely a collection of pages and links, the internet is becoming a vast ecosystem with multiple ways of reaching out and communicating. Because of this, many feel that links are falling out of favor and that unlinked brand mentions are the way forward when it comes to boosting SERP presence.

“Building relationships is an important part of my business and, because of this, I work hard to collect brand mentions. Although these don’t link to my business site, they mean that my name is getting out there. Every time my name crops up, it improves my ranking and my industry profile.”
Szymon Slowik, managing director at Taka Oto Consulting SEO agency in Poland

Connecting, but without the links.

Also known as an “implied link,” a brand mention refers to those times when your brand, product, or service is referenced by another company or organization on the world wide web but — and here’s the kicker — no link to your company is included.

These mentions may happen within an article, blog post, or even a post on social media. This is usually done by a company that wants to present itself as high authority to Google but doesn’t want to link to your company either out of respect or simply because they don’t want their content to be full of links.

Check out how Casey Markee is mentioned as an SEO expert in this screen capture. However, the author did not link to Casey’s website or social media page. “That’s great,” I hear you sigh, “but I want endorsement which improves my ranking, so I need links.” To that, I’ll reply “Not true, and here’s why.”

Come to mention it…

We all know that Google and other search engines use links to calculate the value of a website or page and rank it accordingly. What you may not know is that these search engines do the same for brand mentions.

Both Google and Bing have confirmed this is the case. At SMX West in 2016, Bing’s Duane Forrester said, “Years ago, Bing figured out context and sentiment of tone, and how to associate mentions without a link. As the volume grows and the trustworthiness of this mention is known, you’ll get a bump in ranking as a result.”

If you need any further evidence, Google confirmed this strategy. Their Search Quality Guidelines read, in part, “For Page Quality Rating, you must also look for outside, independent reputation information about the website. When the website says one thing about itself, but reputable external sources disagree with what the website says, trust the external sources.”

Heard it through the grapevine.

It’s clear that brand mentions or unlinked mentions help you get where you’re going SEO-wise. Your business can get on board by making this a solid part of your strategy. Below are five tips for getting started.

1. Track and Trace

For starters, you need to come up with a system that will allow you to track your brand mentions. You can do this a couple of ways:

  • Sentiment Analysis. Sentiment analysis tools such as Brand24 collect all of your brand mentions and bundle them up with a cumulative score of negative, neutral, or positive. You also can respond and otherwise react quickly to any negative mentions which start to show up.
  • Alerts. Tools such as Google Alerts serve as a great backup for sentiment analysis tools as they’ll send you an email every time your brand or product name pops up anywhere on the internet.

2. Check Reviews

You should, of course, be encouraging your customers to leave reviews of your business as a standard practice but, if not, now’s the time to start. Actively soliciting reviews and ratings can be incredibly effective in terms of brand mentions. As always, it’s a good idea to keep a consistent eye on them to spot and deal with anything that’s creeping into negative territory.

3. Get Social

It’s hard to overstate the importance of engaging with your audience on social media. These days, social media is where your customers live. It’s not enough to post advertisements once a week, either. You need to jump in with both feet and join the conversation to keep those brand mentions flowing.

An ongoing commitment to social media means talking directly with customers, responding super-fast to questions, and hosting surveys and competitions. When customers feel valued, they’re quick to tell friends and family about your products and services. Put consistent, friendly social media support at the top of your list.

4. Snoop

Your primary concern should always be the brand mentions your business is getting. However, keeping tabs on your competitors will also yield a tremendous amount of insight. Make it a part of your ongoing strategy to keep an eye trained on the mentions your competition is getting. Use those insights to compare your successes and failures against those of others.

5. Influence

Social influencers are still a thing in 2021, but the trend is toward normal, everyday people and away from celebrity endorsements. You can search around for influencers for your brand or even find them among your existing customers on social media. Happy customers make excellent brand ambassadors!

For Now, It’s Best to Hang Onto Both Worlds

While there’s absolutely no doubt that brand mentions are the future in terms of SEO, this doesn’t necessarily mean that links are gone for good.

Forging strong relationships through link building can be an effective part of your digital marketing strategy and certainly shouldn’t be dismissed completely. Instead, a two-part strategy with brand mentions and links will most definitely prove to be the winning combination for 2021.