With the imminent rollout of the updated Penguin algorithm, SEOs are spending a lot of time worrying about their sites’ backlink profiles and link building efforts moving forward into 2016. While many have declared link building dead, and link earning through content marketing the future, a recent study by Moz and BuzzSumo paints a different picture.
The study, titled “Content, Shares and Links What We Learnt From 1m Posts,” looks at a million blog posts and other pieces of content and analyzes them for social media shares, back links, and overall engagement. Among their findings:
- Over half of a randomly selected 100,000 posts had 2 or fewer interactions on Facebook. Over three quarters of the same sample had no external backlinks. A bigger sample of 750,000 posts still showed a majority with no links.
- Neither shares nor links are evenly distributed around an average. There are viral outliers with high numbers of one or both, then a very steep drop-off to a vast majority with close to none of either.
- There is no correlation whatsoever between social shares and external link popularity. Across the larger sample of 750,000 articles, the correlation of total shares to referring domain links was less than half of one tenth of one percent. The exception: “research backed content and opinion forming journalism” were both found to have a high correlation between shares and links.
There are two takeaways from this data that spring immediately to mind: content marketers have got to start getting a lot more creative to compete and even then there are no guarantees (but that’s a subject for another blog post), and the “great content naturally attracts links” paradigm is severely flawed. Even if people find a blog or article engaging and useful, it may attract social media action without getting any backlinks.
This is because the majority of people online aren’t bloggers, much less bloggers whose sites possess a high domain authority, and their primary method of endorsing a piece of content is sharing it with their friends and followers on social media. (As an aside, I suspect that the “good content gets good links naturally” idea arose in part because the SEO bloggers who popularized it have a target audience of other SEO bloggers who blog about SEO blogs. It might work for them, but clearly it doesn’t for a whole lot of other people.)
This isn’t to say blogging and content marketing are worthless – they’re crucial for getting search traffic from long-tail keywords, improving the content keyword profile of a site, and other important SEO functions. But they aren’t viable link-building techniques.
Link building is still based on manual outreach; it’s just a more arduous, selective process than in the pre-Penguin days when quantity was king. It involves researching your peers and audience and finding the right come for your content. As Eric Ward put it in a recent blog post on Search Engine Land:
“I can assure you that while the methods for identifying the right people have become more challenging, at the end of the day, the end game is still the same: I need to get in touch with the person who will most likely care about what it is I’m sharing or seeking links for.
“That cannot be automated, cannot be replicated, cannot be syndicated. It takes a person willing to roll up their sleeves, with the saavy to identify and connect with the appropriate person who will care about what they have to tell them.”