Exactly what will it take for brands to embrace the new reality of search?
It has been a few months since Interflora's recovery from the landmark Google penalty caused almost certainly by a large number of paid advertorials and potentially by a number of other link building techniques. Interflora had suffered a milder penalty in 2012 from which it had recovered, but then continued to link build against Google's guidelines thus incurring a rarely seen level of wrath from the web spam team that saw Interflora lose rankings not only for all of its generic and long tail queries but also the brand - an almost unheard of level of severity for a link based penalty. It seems an opportune time to put down some of my thoughts on the "state of link building", current and future.
Linking without linking
As Social Media becomes the de facto way of expressing appreciation for a piece of content, naturally given links are becoming vanishingly rare. Frankly, why would you bother when you can press a "share" or "like" button and be done with it?
Meanwhile there is a flight of SEO's to the few remaining link building "techniques" that are collectively deemed "safe", however misinformed they may be.
Various forms of semantic markup that allow content to reference its source without an explicit link may also prove important in the future. Google's proprietary authorship markup is widely hyped but is just one example of a burgeoning pool of schema and microformatting options for content providers.
Make no mistake: search engines will have to use these "non-link" link signals more in the future. After all, they are companies that have historically leant on links as a signal, but are now faced with a shrinking pool of those links, a greater and greater percentage of which are manipulated (if you think about it for long enough you almost start to feel sorry for them).
Mixed messages from Google
For marketers, things are getting confused by Google's apparent mixed messages on various types of link, caused by its increasingly prominent television advertising for the Chrome browser and the connected "ecosystem" of Google services. In a classic case of the left hand not talking to the right, paid advertorials, sponsored posts and product reviews have all received apparent endorsements by Google on the one hand while various penalties, warnings and guidelines tell a completely different story.
Take product reviews. The basic approach here is to identify a number of bloggers in your industry with a desirable following and send them free products to review. From there angles vary, from the obviously unnatural "in return for me sending you this I expect a link to this page with this anchor text" to "here's a product, do what you will". The former line is explicitly named and shamed in Google's webmaster guidelines, and the shades of grey in the middle have various degrees of risk. A highly trumped campaign by Interflora resulted in many product review style blog posts, many of which had links to Interflora that might have been deemed unnatural (note that nobody except Google, including probably Interflora itself, knows exactly which links if any contributed to its penalty aside from the paid advertorials that are about as open and shut a case as it's possible to get).
Meanwhile, the current Google Chrome above the line campaign you may have seen on TV recently (http://youtu.be/E0qDrRJT4zE) features the story of Cambridge Satchels, a startup company that sends products to fashion bloggers as part of its online marketing strategy. In the ad this results in YouTube video reviews, but Google certainly runs the risk of being seen to explicitly sanction sending products to bloggers in return for promotion, including by extension links. In reality of course, Chrome's marketing team just isn't talking to Matt Cutts and his web spam team, proof of which came when a paid advertorial and a number of sponsored blog posts for Chrome went live on the day that Interflora was banned including followable links to various Google pages. At the time of writing, Google seems to have removed the specific posts that were widely reported on but others still remain, including its links (search for "this blog is part of a series sponsored by Chromebooks" in quotes to unearth some). This hypocrisy is bound to raise ire and confusion in equal measure.
In March Matt Cutts told us to expect a "very large" Penguin update at some point this year. Penguin is the closest thing to an algorithmic version of a member of the web spam team, dishing out ranking "filters" that feel like link penalties, thus far to a very small number of sites (to date Penguin updates have typically affected less than 0.5% of search results). The Penguin update we have seen is arguably not that large - yet - but I think it is now quite obvious (despite Chrome's best efforts!) that in general Google expects marketers to be going cold turkey on link "building" and doing things properly. At the moment this has resulted in a lot of noise about content marketing.
Unfortunately I am not convinced that many people really get what this means. I recently attended a content strategy conference full of people whose jobs revolved purely around content. The thing that struck me most clearly was that the concept of assigning value to content was seen as weirdly alien. In particular, in a session dedicated exactly to this topic, the speaker had to explain what ROI meant and felt the need to speak to the delegates like a room of primary school pupils. For someone coming from an online marketing background it was faintly condescending and frankly bizarre.
I have written often of the need to blend the various strands of on- and off-line marketing into compelling campaigns and I'm more convinced than ever now that success will come from mashing creativity together with the science of numbers driven marketing - call it content marketing if you like. Perhaps the Interflora case and the continued threat of Penguin will turn out to be the tipping point that convinces brands to embrace the new reality we find ourselves in.