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March 29, 2012

The Death of Paid Link Networks – A SPN Exclusive Article

Ahhh… Remember the days when you could just subscribe to a paid link network of your choice for as little as $49 and watch those rankings head upward every week. No need to get involved in the messy muddiness of “white hat” SEO, no need to build relationships with webmasters and spend days upon days researching and developing high quality, share worthy content…

Those were the days my friend. And no, I’m not talking about pre-2008, or even 2011, I’m talking about 2012. Working in the casino SEO industry, it was quite common for me to see the top 20 competitors for any given keyword heavily loaded with blatantly obvious paid links in their backlink profile. And when I say “blatantly obvious,” I really mean it. I’m talking about an oddly placed “online casino” anchor text link, randomly dropped into some unrelated text on a camping accessories site… Yuk!

Why would SEO’s pay for this you ask – because it worked, and it worked really well (perhaps in part due to the lack of social signals in the adult industry) – up until February 2012 when the Google Venice update came along. “Oh dear” sigh the SEO’s who’ve been riding the paid link wave. What shall we do now?

Google (at least seems to) have cracked the paid network scheme good and proper with the Venice update. What came as a major shock and SERP shakeup for the industry was subtly summarized on their “Inside Search” post:

“Link evaluation. We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years.”

Change the way they evaluate links they certainly did. While paid link networks have enjoyed resilience to big G to varying degrees, this update seemed to truly slice the hearts of paid link networks. Whilst the ramifications are huge, it’s really no surprise (and I don’t understand why they didn’t do this earlier):

* Problem #1: Most link networks featured all their customers’ links on all their sites. You can have as many unique c-class IPs as you like, but the exact same outgoing links on every site is bound to leave a nasty footprint.

* Problem #2: Most link networks use spun content across their sites, and drop batches of links to minimize the workload (why load up one customer’s links when you can upload 5 customers in one whack?). The crappy spun content and batching of links (both in context and timing) is a dead giveaway.

* Problem #3: The link network business model is inherently flawed. In order to get buyers, you need to market your service. When you market, Google can easily catch you. You think you’ve got a new client while a “Google undercover operative” is smiling from cheek to cheek…

So link networks (or at least the ones following the above model) are biting the dust and you’ve seen your rankings plummet. You shed a tear and stare hopelessly out the window wondering what to do next. Worry not – I’ve put some starting points together:

Get Back To Basics – On Site

The good old days meant that you could enjoy high rankings without too much concern about the actual quality of your site (to varying degrees of course). That mindset needs to change:

1. Clean up that site
– if the Panda update didn’t motivate you to go through your site and clean up the crap, now’s definitely the time. Assess every page from tip to toe and ask yourself these two questions:

* Is this page 100% necessary or can its purpose be combined into another really power packed page?

* Is this page the very best that it can be? If its purpose is informational, is it up-to-date? Is it comprehensive? Is it the best answer to a users question? If not, you know what to do…

2. Speed up that site
– As SEO’s we all know that site speed is a ranking factor, yet how many of us have really put in the blood, sweat and tears to make our sites super-crazy-lightning-fast? Yes, it’s a little complicated for the un-initiated, but with some effort and a few questions, you can get that site of yours blitz-fast which not only means better rankings, but better conversions (and yes, conversions do matter to a good SEO, a lot!)

3. Assess those analytics metrics – Another common flaw of the modern SEO is a tunnel vision when it comes to Google Analytics. Just admit it, all you really want to see is how much traffic your awesome keywords have driven! That’s all good, but it’s now time to really start scrutinizing bounce rate, time on-site and average pages per visit.

* Improving your call to action and conversion funnel equates to a lower bounce rate and higher conversions – it’s a no brainer.

* Investing in some video for your site not only gives you pretty thumbnails in the search results, but also increases time on-site, general conversion and overall coolness! Do it.

4. Do the things you’ve always wanted to do, but were too scared to – when your site was ranking number 1 on Google, it was understandably risky to go tinker with design layouts, script upgrades, CRO and split testing (among other things). If you’ve taken a bump to page 2, you may as well make the most of it and get those changes done. When you’re back on top, you’ll enjoy the rewards of an overall better site.

Get Back To Basics Off Site

Those paid links are now worth very little and suddenly your backlink portfolio is looking rather bleak – you realize that you may have been just a touch to reliant on those “miracle” networks. Never fear though – where there’s a will – there’s a way, and the fact that you’re still reading means that there’s definitely a will!

Directories are a Logical Foundation

Quality, relevant listings on legitimate local directories (i.e., not purely developed for the purposes of selling links to desperate SEO’s) are a good starting point. Take a quality over quantity approach and put some tender loving care into those submissions. Also try to go for the premium option (if your budget allows) with a view to getting some (real!) qualified traffic from it. The same approach can be taken in joining industry forums, commenting on relevant blogs and so forth. Add value – don’t spam.

Foster Those Relationships

Let’s be honest, guest blogging is hard work and that’s exactly why it’s worth your time. Get in touch with industry related webmasters, be authentic and give before receiving. Put your best foot forward and I guarantee that you’ll find a rose or two amongst those harsh thorns.

Social is Essential

You may have been neglecting social media (especially if you’re in a particular niche or adult market). The good news is that it’s never too late to get involved. Get setup on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus (remember to connect your G+ account to your site). Again, authenticity is key – give and ye shall receive.

Video is the Ultimate Content

Another underrated platform/tool for link building is video. You don’t need to be Vanessa Black to benefit from the YouTube community. Whatever industry you’re in, there’s something that you can better explain in a video. Create as many how-to videos as you can and promote them wherever you can. It’s amazing how linkable videos are, and the more people link to your video, the more juice flows to you. PS – YouTube isn’t the only video sharing site – be sure to utilize the likes of DailyMotion, Vimeo, etc.

Think Out of the Box

Sure, you’ve heard this a million times before. The difference is that right now, you NEED to listen. Every motivational speaker will tell you that you need to think radical thoughts in order to achieve radical results. This definitely applies in SEO. Use these ideas to get that old think-box ticking:

1. Got eBooks? Why not submit them to a handful of premium ebook directories and document sharing sites (think Issuu, Slideshare, Docstoc, etc) – even better, apply for submission to Amazon and the iTunes store. It will cost you a little but the payoff on a quality ebook will make it worth your investment.

2. Got cool images/graphics?
There are a ton of wallpaper sites just waiting for your content. Crack open Photoshop and make some wallpapers out of those cool stock images. Even better, invest in some screensaver software and leverage those images to score links from screensaver sites.

3. Got videos? If you’ve already invested in video, you’ve inadvertently created some pretty cool podcasts. Even if you haven’t, I’ll bet that laptop has a microphone which allows you to enter the world of podcasting. Use that industry expertise to start a podcast. There are hundreds of podcast directories ready to not only link to you, but send a healthy stream of traffic.

These are just three ideas but the concept is simple and highly scalable – take stock of your content equity (in whatever format it may be) and leverage it. Convert it to a new format, add to it, subtract from it – do whatever, just be creative and get those links that nobody else has thought of.

Be Smart

Many a great link building idea is crushed by the realization that a serious time commitment is required (at least at first). For example, guest blogging means spending a LOT of time building a list of publishers, emailing them, etc. Guess what? You don’t need to do that – hire someone on elance for $100 – I assure you they’ll do a much better job. Come on – no excuses…

Successful link building in a post-Venice era is obviously going to be more challenging than shopping for links. Yes, this does mean a greater time investment and thought overhaul, but the upside is incredible and makes it all worthwhile – now creativity and innovation are ranking factors. Money can only buy so much. Your ability to think outside the box is now the real equity. Welcome to a new world of SEO innovation.

Derek Jansen+ is an SEO educator, providing customized SEO training and implementation in Southern Africa. He has authored a free SEO course and specializes in casino SEO.