Link Building Through the Ages |
Google Updates &
SEO Community Response

Many link builders reminisce about the “good old days” before Google updates struck, and their struggle is totally relatable. Link building has transformed drastically since the pre-Google era.

Back in the day, you could scatter links like confetti and watch your site soar. Random forum comments, optimizing anchor text, and buying links directly—the options were limitless; it was almost too easy, which made the process somewhat boring.

However, Google decided to spice things up with algorithm updates, turning the process of building links into an exciting quest for the SEO crowd. The game has certainly intensified, perhaps even a bit too much for some…

The community’s interest in link building has been unpredictable ever since—first dropping, then skyrocketing, then dropping again, though always remaining a topic of discussion. Intrigued by these patterns, we conducted a detailed analysis to uncover the driving factors behind them. We examined each shift closely to understand how specific aspects of Google’s updates influenced these fluctuations.

To find answers, we took a deep dive into the popularity of Google searches like “link building”, “backlinks”, and similar queries since 2004, comparing these trends with the major algorithm updates throughout their history. Interesting things came up! But let’s start with the basics…

Why Still Bother with Link Building?

Link building is the cornerstone of establishing your site as not just visible, but also authoritative and trustworthy.

Higher Rankings 

Building a strong backlink profile is vital for climbing search engine rankings. Currently, experts consider link building as the 3rd most crucial SEO factor, with 67.5% attributing backlinks to impacting search engine rankings.

More Website Traffic 

Highquality backlinks from reputable sites can significantly boost traffic. Ahrefs confirms that the more high-quality backlinks a website has, the more organic traffic it tends to attract.

Stronger Website Authority

Authoritative backlinks bolster your site’s credibility. Research, like one from uSERP, indicates that websites showing higher domain ratings from authorities such as Ahrefs, Moz, or SEMrush frequently land on Google’s first page.

Improved Visibility & Exposure

Diverse backlinks can significantly improve your brand’s online visibility. Sites linked from a range of unique root domains tend to achieve higher rankings, increasing the chances of potential customers discovering your products or services online.

Long-term Value & Credibility

Establishing a network of high-quality backlinks contributes to enduring value and fosters trust. Statistically, top Google pages have 3.8 times more backlinks than lower-ranked ones, showing how important it is to have a strong network of links.

These factors prove how relevant link-building is now. But was it really that important back in the day? To find out, let’s analyze how the SEO community’s interest in link building evolved with each algorithm update, shaping their practices along the way.

Google Algorithm Updates: A Journey Through Time

Roll back the clock to the early 1900s, the Wild West days of the Internet. As websites multiplied, giants like Yahoo and Google emerged to bring order to the chaos. However, link-building was still in its infancy, and search engines were vulnerable to shady link-building methods like keyword stuffing and spammy links.

Pre-Google Era

In 1996, two Stanford students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, made a significant advance with BackRub, a brand-new search engine that ranked pages based on the quantity and credibility of their backlinks. Fast forward to 1997, Google.com was registered, and soon after, in 1998, Google officially launched.

But how did Google surpass competitors like Yahoo and AltaVista, extending its influence beyond Stanford University? It introduced PageRank (1998), making its search results much better compared to its rivals. This enhancement immediately drew more people to Google, leaving other search engines behind. 

Naturally, a new development caught the attention of entrepreneurs and those who earned from boosting website rankings, making Google a full-fledged business. From then on, the industry of building and buying links to improve rankings soared, marking the inception of the link-building market.

🧐What Link-Building Methods Worked?

Back then, pretty much anything went well. Over-optimization, directory submissions, blog commentsthere wasn’t any tactic that you’d label as spam or black hat. Not only were they effective, but also highly scalable, turning link building into something readily available for most SEO agencies. As of today, none of these are part of white label link building solutions.

Web Rings & Link Farms 

Link builders created web rings and link farms by connecting many websites through reciprocal linking or automated systems. Web Rings grouped sites with similar topics, while link farms were designed to artificially boost search engine rankings. Overall, such methods were aimed at manipulating search algorithms and increasing visibility/ traffic to the involved sites.

Link Exchange 

Link exchange, or reciprocal linking, resembles web rings but with some key differences. Web Rings linked related sites together, while link exchange provided a categorized directory of links, making it easier for digital marketers to reciprocate links.

Website Directories

With the rise of link exchange, website directories gained popularity too. Website owners could submit their sites to directories like Yahoo! Directory, DMOZ, or AOL’s directory, you name it. However, alongside reputable directories, there was a flood of low-quality ones filled with irrelevant links. 

Misleading Redirects

Redirecting users to different pages, especially unrelated ones, was a widespread tactic among directories. This trickery often led users to click on irrelevant content, aiding in manipulating rankings.

Keyword Stuffing

This technique is a hallmark of the pre-Google era. Back then, link builders were notorious for excessively using certain keywords in content, meta tags, or hidden text just to boost their position in search results. 

Comment/Forum Spam

It mainly involved sharing unrelated or promotional content on blogs, forums, or comment sections with the sole aim of acquiring backlinks or visibility.

Hidden Text & Links

Another favorite black hat method involved sneaking text or links onto a webpage where they were invisible to users but still seen by search engine crawlers. This could include using white text on a white background, concealing text behind images, or employing indiscernible font sizes.

Email Outreach 

Believe it or not, this truly worked wonders! Back in the day, email outreach made asking for links from reputable websites as easy as sending a single mass email. It was a breath of fresh air for web owners tired of the endless typing and clicking just to snag one reciprocal link to their site.

But the fun couldn’t keep going forever. Looks like Google had enough of these tricks, so when the new Millennium rolled around, it came with a new algorithm update.

New Millenium: Google Toolbar

In the early 2000s, link-building changed drastically, ditching unethical tactics for a user-first approach. Google’s update shifted focus to both on-page and off-page ranking factors, like the quality and quantity of external links, as well as the anchor text used. 

To top it all off, Google made a splash by introducing the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, giving webmasters the ability to check their PageRank score in seconds.

🧐How Did it Affect Link Building?

The impact was definitely noticeable, with link builders making their moves towards:

More Focus on Backlinks 

PageRank’s reliance on backlinks made website owners and SEO pros aggressively pursue links through artificial means, spawning link farms, directories, and paid schemes all aimed at manipulating rankings.

More Anchor Text Optimization

Google Toolbar was all about making your links count. However, webmasters got savvy, using keywords in their clickable text just to give search engines a heads-up about their page’s content, possibly boosting ranking along the way. 

Link Buying & Selling

The widespread use of PageRank in Google Toolbar sparked a trend for link trading. Websites with strong PageRank would offer links for sale to other sites to enhance their rankings. Google later took action against this practice, deeming it a violation of their webmaster guidelines.

Link Exchange Networks

Website owners used to hop on link exchange networks as if they were virtual social clubs. It was all about boosting that PageRank, so they’d swap links left and right, without much thought about whether the sites were a good fit or not.

2003: A Burst of Monthly Updates

In 2003, Google launched its first official update at a conference in Boston, as the previous ones were merely informal. Google planned to do these updates monthly, combining changes to how they ranked websites with updating their index. This mix-up was named the “Google Dance”, and some of the first changes followed with:

  • Cassandra Update (April 1, 2003): This update had a sharp focus on tackling fundamental link-quality problems like excessive links from related domains. It also put the brakes on sneaky tactics like hidden text and links.
  • Dominic (May 1, 2003): With this update, Google’s robots, named “Freshbot” and “Deepcrawler,” started roaming the internet. Some websites noticed their visitor numbers changing, wondering if Google had started to count or display backlinks differently.
  • Esmeralda (June 1, 2003): After this monthly update, there was a noticeable slowdown in subsequent releases. Additionally, the traditional “Google Dance” transitioned into the continuous updating process known as “Everflux.” These changes likely prompted significant infrastructure shifts on Google.

But the real game-changer came with the Florida update on November 1, 2003, which really put Google updates in the spotlight. Lots of websites saw their rankings drop, leaving business owners feeling ticked off. Florida said “goodbye” to those low-value SEO tricks from the late 90s, like stuffing keywords everywhere, and made things a whole lot more exciting.

🧐How Did Link Builders Adapt?

Link builders had surely tweaked their game plan by:

Diversifying Anchor Text 

Following this update, Google began penalizing websites that heavily optimized their anchor text. To steer clear of penalties, link builders switched things up by mixing in branded terms, partial match keywords, and generic phrases within their anchor text.

Prioritizing Quality Links 

Link builders shifted their focus from sheer quantity to the quality of links. They began hunting for links from authoritative and relevant websites in their niche, opting for quality over quantity.

Natural Link Building

Google’s new update turned out to be big on favoring natural link profiles over manipulative tactics. As a result, link builders focused on acquiring links organically, primarily through creating high-quality content that naturally attracts links from other websites.

Relationship Building

To promote their links more organically, link builders switched to building relationships with other website owners and influencers that could lead to genuine link placements later in time. 

Link Source Expansion 

Link builders stopped relying on single sources of links such as link exchanges, directories, link farms and embarked on securing links from additional sources like social media, press releases, guest blogging, or niche directories. 

What’s More, 2003?

Alongside adapting to the Florida update, link builders got a boost when Google acquired Blogger.com and rolled out AdSense back in 2003. The latter introduced targeted ads on publisher sites, leading to a big rise in online publishing revenue. However, this also paved the way for many sites with low-quality content popping up, all just aiming for clicks and more cash. 

2004: Battle Against Deceptive Tactics Continues

Several updates, like Austin (January 1, 2004) and Brandy (February 1, 2004), kept up the fight against sneaky tricks like hiding text and stuffing meta tags. Google also brought in the “Hilltop” algorithm, which put even more emphasis on page relevance.

The business and link-building communities got particularly interested when Google’s shares dropped to a more affordable $85 each. This move enabled Google to raise $1.67 billion, with $1.2 billion allocated to the search engine and $473 million going to Google’s executives and investors selling their shares.

In that same year, Google made its search results smarter for requests that included specific places, kicking off the era of local SEO. This tweak aimed to enhance user experience when searching for things like “find a coffee shop near me” or “laundry nearby.”

🧐How Did it Affect Link Building?

It was all about shifting from quantity to quality once again, using less meta-tag stuffing as well as paying more attention to:

Social Signals 

With Hilltop’s stricter rules, link builders started paying attention to social signals like shares, likes, and comments on social media. Even though Google didn’t confirm it, these signals were seen as “good content” labels helping websites to rank higher. 

Link Relevance & Context 

In this case, link builders aimed to get links from websites and pages that matched their own topics. That’s because the Hilltop algorithm focused on how well the topics matched when deciding which pages were authoritative.

2005: Jagger, Big Daddy & Co

In 2005, the link-building community got hit with some huge updates to keep them on their toes when it comes to manipulating Google. 

It kicked off with a battle against spam, particularly spammy blog comments, and a move to control the quality of outbound links. This was all bundled up in what’s called the “nofollow” attribute, which came into play on January 1, 2005.

Then, on May 1, 2005, Google shook things up with the Bourbon update. It started clamping down on duplicate content and sorting out issues with non-canonical URLs (like www vs. non-www).

With another update, on June 1, 2005, Google made search more tailored by launching its Personalized Search. It adjusted search results based on what users had searched for before, making the experience feel more exclusive.

Continuing to boost local SEO, in March 2005, Google introduced the Local Business Center. And already by fall, it merged existing Google Maps data with LBC to help businesses keep their location info fresh. 

However, the real buzz of the year was all about the Jagger and Big Daddy updates that wrapped things up in October and December. Here’s what link building community was newly-exposed to:

  • Jagger: Focused predominantly on taking down dodgy linksthe low-quality ones like reciprocal links, link farms, and paid links. 
  • Big Daddy: Revamped Google’s search system by changing how it dealt with URL setups, redirects (301/302), and other tech challenges.

🧐How Did Link Builders Adapt?

Well, nobody cried but adapted through…

Sustainable Link Building 

To cope with the “nofollow” update, link builders had to prioritize quality over quantity even more, avoiding the temptation of SEO-focused links. They also began trying out different methods like content marketing and guest blogging to attract visitors and establish authority without solely depending on do-follow links.

Content Syndication

After the Bourbon update, link builders made sure to always use the main URL when sharing content on different sites. They talked to partners to leverage the main URL or add a special tag to avoid having the same content in multiple places.

Content Quality 

Link builders embarked on making top-notch content that resonates with their audience. They avoided cramming keywords and instead researched deeper into highly sought-after topics. For better results, they diversified content types like blogs, videos, and infographics, and even did original studies to naturally earn backlinks.

Canonical Tags

Link builders used “canonical tags” in their website’s code to tell search engines which version of a web page they preferred. If they had multiple URLs with the same content, they added a canonical tag to the ones they didn’t want to appear in search results, signaling search engines to prioritize the main URL. 

301 Redirects

If there were extra or similar URLs that weren’t necessary on the website, link builders used “301 redirects.” These redirects sent visitors and link power from those extra URLs to the main one link builders aimed to focus on. Leveraging redirects was a really smart move as they kept websites clean and all the attention went to the main URL.

Consistent Internal Linking

Link builders kept things tidy by making sure all internal links pointed to the main URL only. This helped boost the main URL’s importance to search engines, showing it was the main priority. 

2006-2010: A Leap in Search Results and More

During the period from 2006 to the early 2010s, Google underwent a fascinating evolution, refining its updates and revolutionizing ranking standards along the way. 

2006: YouTube & Webmaster Tools 

This very year, Google bought YouTube and introduced some new tools that got the link-building community talking about multiple innovations, such as: 

  • Google Analytics: It instantly turned into a valuable asset for link builders, offering insights into website traffic sources and user behavior. This data helped them gauge the effectiveness of their link-building efforts and optimize their strategies accordingly.
  • Google Webmaster tools: Known as Google Search Console today, this was the early version of a toolset that link builders used to assess their website’s Google search performance. It covered such metrics as indexing status, crawl errors, and keyword rankings. Additionally, it helped to analyze data on external links, as well as quality vs. quantity of backlinks pointing to their site.

2007: Introduction of Universal Search 

Rolled out on May 1, 2007, Universal Search wasn’t exactly an update, but it made regular Google searches more exciting. Particularly, it allowed people to find all sorts of content like news, videos, images, and more, all in one place.

With this innovation, link builders found new ways to diversify their content and attract more organic traffic. By creating high-quality materials in newly-introduced search formats (news, images, videos) and optimizing them for relevant keywords, SEO pros could attract more users within a broader range of online searches. Plus, Universal Search encouraged link builders to test out new content distribution channels to get links from a wider range of sources. 

2008: Google Suggest 

Back in 2008, Google introduced a new feature called Google Suggest—as you typed in your search, it would provide suggestions right below the search box. And now, whenever we see those helpful suggested searches pop up, we’re enjoying a feature that was quite innovative at the time!

🧐How Did it Affect Link Building?

It was a real game-changer for link builders in terms of finding out what exactly people have been searching for online. It also allowed them to optimize their content/link-building strategies and make them align with popular search trends, improving their visibility and driving more website traffic. 

2009: Brand Ranking, Faster Indexing & Real-time Search 

The year welcomed three major updates:

  • Vince (February 1, 2009): Improved ranking of major brands in SERPs.
  • Caffeine (August 1, 2009): Was designed to increase crawling speed, broaden indexing, plus, combine ranking & indexing in real-time.
  • Real-time search (December 1, 2009): This was a new type of real-time search for Google news, Twitter comments, newly-indexed content, and other materials. 

🧐How Did it Affect Link Building?

  • When the Vince update gave major brands a boost in search results, “smaller link builders” had to think outside the box. They started focusing on niche markets or unique content to keep things afloat. 
  • Adjusting to Caffeine with its faster-paced indexing and ranking environment, link builders were forced to work on relevant content that could quickly get picked up and ranked by search engines.
  • Dealing with hurdles of real-time search, link builders needed to stay agile and tap into the latest trends and news to stay visible in search results.

2010: Negative Reviews Ranking & Social Signals 

In 2010, alongside enhancements to local search results through Google Places and its local advertising features, Google rolled out more complex Caffeine updates. These updates turbocharged Google’s speed, enhancing crawling and indexing. Meanwhile, Google Suggest evolved into Google Instant, offering improved suggested searches and even enabling searchers to quickly preview landing pages right from the search results page.

The biggies of the year, of course, were Negative Reviews and Socials Signals. Being not exactly updates but more like ranking factors, they entailed the following:

  • Negative Reviews: It became a hot topic after the e-commerce site DecorMyEyes scored big on search rankings due to a flood of negative reviews. Google took notice and changed its algorithms to weed out websites pulling similar stunts.
  • Social Signals: Google officially confirmed its use of Twitter and Facebook information to decide how websites rank in search results.

🧐How Did Link Builders Adapt?

Taking Down Competitors

Certain pros simply misused negative review algorithms to deliberately create nasty feedback for rival websites. Google would see these websites rank high due to negative comments and penalize them by lowering their rankings. Checkmate! 

Faking Engagement 

Link builders exploited social signals by artificially inflating likes, shares, and comments on their content through tactics like buying fake followers or engagement. This created an illusion of popularity and relevance, aiming to influence search engine rankings. Yet, search engines consistently updated algorithms to detect and penalize such manipulation, making these tactics ineffective and risky.

2011- Now: Modern Era of Google Updates

As we entered the new Millennium’s first decade, Google initiated a wave of increasingly intricate developments.

2011: Panda 

The predecessor to the milestone Panda update was the Attribution update, released on January 28, 2011. It was designed to address spam issues by sorting out content attribution and neutralizing content scrapers. 

On February 23, 2011, the official Panda update was released to tackle issues like thin content, content farms, websites overloaded with ads, and those of questionable quality. Here’s what Michael Wyszomierski, spam expert at Google commented on the update back in the day:

“Our recent update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites, so the key thing for webmasters to do is make sure their sites are the highest quality possible. We looked at a variety of signals to detect low-quality sites. Bear in mind that people searching on Google typically don’t want to see shallow or poorly written content, content that’s copied from other websites, or information that is just not that useful. In addition, it’s important for webmasters to know that low-quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole. For this reason, if you believe you’ve been impacted by this change you should evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low-quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”

🧐How Did it Affect Link Building?

Besides keeping an eye on the quality of their content and naturally earning links, link builders began using link reclamation and cleanup methods. They’d sift through their links, auditing them to weed out any toxic ones that might drag down their site’s ranking.

The update additionally prompted link builders to prioritize links pointing to sites with excellent UX, prioritizing faster loading times, smoother navigation, and mobile optimization.

2012: Penguin Attacks Spam

Penguin was released on April 24, 2012, with the purpose of tracking various forms of webspam tactics such as keyword stuffing, link schemes, cloaking, sneaky redirects, doorways, and purposeful duplicate content. Here’s how Google itself explains the update:

In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high-quality content.

Plus, Google gave general guidance on how to deal with the update:

“…our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high-quality websites that create a good user experience and employ ethical SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.”

The Penguin update’s effectiveness got a thumbs up when Google shared their monthly Search Highlights. They showed off improvements like spotting shady link schemes, title and snippet rewriting, and updates to Google News.

Source: Moz

Pro-tip! If you noticed a dip in your website’s rankings or traffic after an update, it’s worth considering whether you were hit. Take a close look at your keyword optimization and linking strategies to ensure they align with Google’s guidelines and aren’t seen as spammy.

What’s More, 2012?

In 2012, the DMCA Penalty, named “Pirate,” set sail on August 10th to crack down on websites repeatedly violating copyright laws, likely through DMCA takedown requests.

Four days later, on August 14th, Google implemented a significant change to the Top 10 search results, reducing them to 7 for numerous queries. This adjustment had a sweeping impact, affecting approximately 18% of the tracked keywords.

🧐How Did Link Builders React?

To steer clear of Penguin penalties, link builders took the following actions:

  • Diligently removed any unnatural links under their control, including those they had built for third-party websites.
  • Used tools like Disavow to eliminate any spammy links beyond their control.
  • Revisited their website content, ensuring it was free from over-optimization. This involved placing keywords naturally and ensuring that the content topics aligned well with the chosen keywords.

2013: Penguin 2.0 & Hummingbird

Penguin made a big comeback with its revamped version on May 22, 2013, boasting itself as a new breed of technology designed to effectively combat spam, especially targeting English-US queries (impacting approximately 2.3% of them) along with various languages worldwide. 

The contrast between the initial and subsequent versions of the update lies in the fact that Penguin 2.0 was more precisely tailored to target individual pages. Since the essence of Penguin 2.0 was pretty close to the first release, link builders had to stick to Google’s general recommendations to avoid penalties from Penguin. 

As early as August of that year, Google unveiled the Hummingbird algorithm, drawing comparisons to Caffeine. This new algorithm aimed to revolutionize semantic search, designed for more precise and rapid search results, as stated by Google.

In addition to its other functionalities, Hummingbird relied on PageRank to assess the significance of links pointing to a page. This evaluation considered factors like the perceived quality of the page, the content it contains, and various other criteria.

“Conversational search,” also known as voice search, was a standout feature of Hummingbird. Unlike a traditional search that focused solely on word matches, Hummingbird prioritized understanding the meaning behind the words. It didn’t just analyze individual words but rather the entire sentence or conversation to provide more accurate search results.

A friendly tip from Google for all link builders aiming to stay in compliance with Hummingbird was:

“…have original, high-quality content. Signals that have been important in the past remain important; Hummingbird just allows Google to process them in new and hopefully better ways.”

2016: Penguin 4.0

Several years later, Penguin received another update. 

In its previous iterations, sites flagged as spammy would be penalized and remain so until the next filter update. This could happen, “only Google knows when.” However, with Penguin 4.0, recovery didn’t take a long wait. The new Penguin now operated in real-time, swiftly identifying and either penalizing or releasing pages as part of its regular processing.

Moreover, Penguin began to target individual pages rather than applying penalties sitewide. As Google explains it:

“Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site.”

🧐How Did it Affect Link Building?

To avoid flagging by Penguin 4.0 link builders were required to: 

  • Consistently monitor newly acquired and lost backlinks, assessing their worth and caliber, as well as addressing any potentially suspicious ones.
  • Review their SERP positions and track not only the keywords the homepage ranks for but also keywords relevant to all major subdivisions.
  • Do a deep backlink audit of the entire website since Penguin 4.0 had a granular approach, hence each subdomain had to be thoroughly audited. 

2017: Unconfirmed Google Algorithm & Fred 

February 1, 2017, was marked by spreading rumors on how Penguin started treating spammy links, hinting at the new unconfirmed Google update. It was reported by multiple tools tracking Google search results—these showed some weird activity, adding more mystique to the day. 

The new enigma quickly stirred things up among SEO pros, especially those “on the dark side”. No wonder as they noticed that their usual tricks, like PBNs, suddenly lost effectiveness. Some claimed Google was slower to detect new links or even penalized their sites. On the flip side, a good share of link builders didn’t notice any changes at all. So what was going on?

More probable than not, an unconfirmed Google update against spammy links took place, causing headaches for aggressive link builders. Meanwhile, those who stuck to white label link building sailed through without a hitch! Many learned their lesson…

Did you know? On February 7, there was another update swirling around content quality, unconfirmed, of course.

As if things weren’t tricky enough, a month later, on March 8, 2017, Google seemed to unleash a big spam algorithm update around links, causing another mess in the SEO world. It got named “Fred” thanks to a playful suggestion from Google’s Gary Illyes, hinting that maybe all unconfirmed updates should be named “Fred”

The recent teasing wasn’t plenty… a few days after ranking chaos hit, Gary Illyes dropped a rhetorical bomb on X (formerly known as Twitter) on March 9, 2017. He suggested that updates shouldn’t really catch us off guard because, apparently, Google churns them out at least three times a day!

🧐What Did Link Builders Miss?

Just for the record, both of these updates aimed to downgrade websites that were:

  • Ad-centered: If your website was overloaded with poorly placed ads, pop-ups, or spammy links, users would likely be put off. Google prioritized user experience by addressing this issue.
  • Over-crammed with content: This refers to blogs and websites filled with information solely aimed at boosting traffic or redirecting users elsewhere. Often, this content gave zero value for visitors, merely serving to increase page views. Both users and Google frowned upon this practice.

🧐How Did Link Builders Adapt?

Ads vs Content Balance 

Given Fred’s dislike for intrusive ads and low-quality content, the priority for link builders was striking a harmonious balance between the two. Visitors shouldn’t feel bombarded by ads upon entering a site, nor should they encounter thin content once they finally reach it. The key was offering valuable content with minimal advertising, ensuring a fair experience for all.

No Duplicate Content 

Considering Google’s swift penalties for websites with duplicate content, link builders had to shift their focus to crafting fresh and compelling materials for each recent duplicate they had produced. 

Growing Authority 

As Google primarily targeted websites solely focused on revenue from intrusive ads and exaggerated traffic, link builders needed to work on establishing authority by acquiring backlinks from reputable sources. This strategy aimed to maintain high rankings through demonstrated expertise and trustworthiness.

2019: September Broad Core Update 

Google shook up the link-building circles and SEO experts with the exciting announcement of the Broad Core Update on September 24, 2019.

The news quickly spread within tight-knit link-building communities, such as a private Facebook group SEO Signals Lab. Following the update release, members shared experiences of their “quality sites” showing drops in ranking, largely due to being packed with low-quality content.

According to other sources, such as discussions on the Black Hat Forum, the decline in rankings was primarily attributed to issues with backlinks. Other observers, mostly practicing aggressive link-building methods, like people from the Proper PBN Facebook group, noticed a decrease in site performance associated with the use of the 301 redirect tactics. So what was the pattern all about? 

It looks like the new algorithms brought a bunch of different changes all at once. And it makes sense. Gary Illyes himself clarified at the Pubcon conference that Google’s core ranking algorithm consisted of millions of “baby algorithms”, all working together to determine final rankings.

Regardless of the algorithm’s makeup, one thing was crystal clear: the Broad Core Update had a significant impact on Google’s website rankings and how it picked the most relevant webpage for any given query.

🧐How Did Link Builders React?

There weren’t many options beyond fine-tuning their approach toward white label link building and following Google’s best practices to steer clear of any negative effects from future Core Updates. These mainly revolved around providing high-quality content and diligently adhering to Google’s search quality rater guidelines

Hence, link builders needed to frequently evaluate their content by using Google’s questionnaire providing: 

  • Content and quality questions: “Does the content provide original information, reporting, research, or analysis?”
  • Presentation and production questions: “Does the content have any spelling or stylistic issues?”
  • Comparative questions: “Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?”

In the same way, following quality rater guidelines meant link builders needed to watch their rater data. While it doesn’t directly impact Google’s ranking algorithms, it does assess content quality based on E-A-T, which is Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Therefore, the content created should adhere to the established standard.

2021: New Core & Link Spam Updates 

The big shifts of the year kicked off with Google’s announcement on June 2, 2021, about the upcoming Core Updates slated for June and July 2021.

When it looked like there might be some trouble ahead, the link-building community resorted to the same “best practices” they used during the Broad Core Update in 2019. Plus, they were anxiously watching for those Core updates promised to be dropped within “1-2 weeks,” just like the Tweet said.

Google’s next step involved issuing a Link Spam Update, with the initial part rolling out on June 23rd and the subsequent part on June 28th. What was the purpose behind these updates?

In a nutshell, Google explained: 

“…we’re launching a new link spam fighting change today—which we call the “link spam update.” This algorithm update, which will roll out across the next two weeks, is even more effective at identifying and nullifying link spam more broadly, across multiple languages. Sites taking part in link spam will see changes in Search as those links are re-assessed by our algorithms.” 

Pro-tip! The concept of “nullifying” wasn’t akin to “penalizing,” but rather more disregarding or not factoring in spammy links (as per Penguin 4.0.). Nevertheless, if spammy links were detected, the rankings would typically decline.

🧐How Did Link Builders Adapt?

To simplify the work of link builders, Google posted a friendly reminder to the community on July 26, 2021, outlining how to evaluate links in light of the Link Spam Update.

To steer clear of any red flags, link builders now needed to properly label outgoing links to other sites. Additionally, they had to tag links involving an exchange of value between the two domains.

Given Google’s specific attention to affiliate links, as well as links from sponsored and guest content, link builders had to adhere to its guidelines tailored for each of these link types, for instance: 

  • Affiliate links: While Google allowed website monetization through affiliate links, link builders only needed to label links associated with affiliate programs using rel=”sponsored,” regardless of whether they were generated manually or dynamically. Otherwise, these links would be either manually or algorithmically prevented from influencing search results.
  • Sponsored posts: In the same way, when posting ads or paid links, SEO experts needed to make them rel=“sponsored.”
  • Guest posts: When building links from guest posts, SEO pros should have marked them with rel=”nofollow.”

What’s More, 2021?

A notable update causing quite a stir was the Page Title Rewrites observed around August 16. Subsequently, on August 24, Google officially announced changes to how web page titles would be generated moving forward.

Given these circumstances, the link-building community needed to focus on creating titles that were both readable and accessible for pages. However, they also had to avoid excessively long titles overloaded with keywords, as well as titles that lack any meaningful content or contain “boilerplate” language.

On August 24, Google wrapped up its Link Spam update. The guidelines from Google seemed to be set in stone: 

“…make sure your links are natural and in accordance with Google’s webmaster guidelines. Work on improving your site, so it can naturally attract new links over time” and “…focusing on producing high-quality content and improving user experience always wins out compared to manipulating links. Promote awareness of your site using appropriately tagged links, and monetize it with properly tagged affiliate links.

2022: Rolling Back the Spam Update

After almost a year, on October 21, Google officially announced an update to their spam detection systems:

“…ranking may change as spammy links are neutralized and any credit passed by these unnatural links are lost. This launch will affect all languages.”

At the same time, Google cautioned about the potential impact of the innovation:

“...sites that violate our policies may rank lower in results or not appear in results at all. Making changes may help a site improve if our automated systems learn over a period of months that the site complies with our spam policies”.

However, there wasn’t a clear indication of whether this update was primarily targeting content spam or linking.

On December 14, 2022, a fresh update was announced, aimed at tackling Link Spam. This update was designed to counteract the influence of artificial links on search results through SpamBrain, an AI-powered spam-prevention system. 

The primary risk posed by SpamBrain to “anti-white label link building” was not only to “identify spam directly but also to detect both websites purchasing links and those utilized for the sole purpose of passing outbound links”.

What did it mean for the future? It suggested that after eliminating such spam links, there would be significant changes in rankings, and any credibility attributed to these links would vanish, irrespective of their language.

🧐How Did Link Builders React?

Link builders, vigilant for decreased rankings following the update, were usually following Google’s long-standing advice of “prioritizing high-quality content and enhancing user experience.” Moreover, they began to:

  • Use the Disavow tool to fine-tune which links Google considers when determining website rankings.
  • Closely monitor their website’s backlink profile with specialized tools to swiftly detect and remove any unauthorized spammy links.
  • Exercise extra caution in granting website access only to trusted individuals who won’t add unauthorized links to the content.
  • Employ a robots.txt file to block search engines from indexing undesired pages on their sites, mitigating the risk of link spam if unwanted links are added to those pages without your awareness.
  • Monitor website analytics for sudden traffic drops or a surge in 404 errors, which may signal potential link spam occurrences.
  • Promote site visibility with correctly tagged links and monetize it using appropriately tagged affiliate links.

2023: Recurrent Spam Update 

Seems like Google had a bad habit of rolling out its Spam Updates in the fall, and 2023 was no exception, with one occurring on October 4. This time Google presented its more “comprehensive” version covering more languages and detecting more spam types.

As the search engine comments:

“…this spam update aims to clean up several types of spam that our community members reported in Turkish, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Hindi, Chinese, and other languages. We expect this to reduce the visible spam in search results, particularly when it comes to cloaking, hacked, auto-generated, and scraped spam.

🧐How Did Link Builders Adapt?

Typically, by adhering to Google’s best practices and employing white-hat methods or removing cloaking, hacked content, auto-generated, and scraped content from their daily activities.

2024: Spam & Core Update Combo

On March 5, 2024, Google implemented a new Spam Update, introducing new policies targeting: 

  • Scaled content abuse;
  • Expired domain abuse;
  • Site reputation abuse.

Google also significantly enhanced the SpamBrain system to ensure it detects newly emerging types of spam with greater precision. This got the SEO community talking, with some suggesting that a wave of manual penalties might have followed this update.

On March 5, as part of a combo, Google also released its 2024 Core Update. Its aim was to enhance Search quality by displaying less clickbait-style content and more materials that users find genuinely helpful.

Overall, the link-building community wasn’t given specific instructions on how to handle the update:

“…there’s nothing new or special that creators need to do for this update as long as they’ve been making satisfying content meant for people.”

However, Google gave one tip:

“…for those that might not be ranking as well, we strongly encourage reading our guide on creating helpful, people-first content”.

🧐How Did Link Builders React? 

Since it’s still early in 2024 and these updates are pretty new, the link-building community is just figuring out how to adjust. Mostly, they’re focusing on anti-spam tactics and creating relevant content, as Google suggests. Anyway, there’s still a lot of interest mixed with curiosity about what else Google has up its sleeve. 

Fluctuations in Interest in Link Building: Analyzing Trends

The SEO community’s interest in link building has never been predictable, this much is evident. Each new update brought challenges that caused some to abandon their efforts, while others sought new ways to adapt.

At the onset of our study, we were particularly interested in identifying which specific aspects of Google’s updates had a direct impact on the community’s overall engagement with building backlinks. Using Google Trends, we analyzed several link-building-related key queries over the last 20 years and compared fluctuations to major Google algorithm updates.

“Link Building” Query 

We’ll start by searching for the term “link building,” as it’s a fundamental concept triggering updates over the past 20 years. 

The trend reveals a steady increase in interest in the topic in Google searches since early 2004, reaching its peak (100) in September 2022. This can be attributed to the exact rollout of the 2022 Core update on September 12, 2022. 

By November 2022, it appears that interest levels dramatically dropped to a mere 61 points, possibly indicating a slight breather the link-building community took after the September Core update proved to have less impact.

That does seem a bit odd, considering that between September and November of 2022, Google announced its Spam Detection Systems Update on October 21, which tremendously impacted rankings by neutralizing spammy links.

In this case, the interest slightly rebounded by January 2023, likely in anticipation of new updates in the upcoming year, before dropping back to almost a similar level.

If we analyze interest levels within specific timelines, such as from 2004 to 2010, we may observe that the peak occurred in June 2004.

This could be explained by the lasting impact of the Brandy Update of 2004, which targeted indexing, anchor text relevance, link “neighborhoods,” and aimed for deeper keyword analysis. This could have led to a gradual increase in interest from February, when Brandy was rolled out, to the peak in July, when rankings started changing, grabbing the attention of the link-building community.

Anyway, during the given period, the interest only showed an upward trend, reaching its highest point in October 2010. Allegedly, this could be tied to the release of Instant Searches on September 1, 2010, which proved to be a great tool for link builders as it gave prompts on what users were searching for recently.

The overall growth of interest from 2004 to 2010 indicates the frequency with which Google introduced various updates, making it impossible for link builders to ignore the changes.

The only dramatic dips in interest were observed in early 2004, as well as January and September 2005. It’s indeed odd, as these periods were abundant with updates.

The period from December 2010 to January 2020 can be characterized as a plateau, with stable interest in link building and without dramatic peaks or drops. Again, we associate this with steady releases of Google updates.

The maximum growth over the whole period analyzed was from January 2020 up to September 2022.

During this time, the 2020 Core Update was rolled out, followed by the pandemic, which in its turn dramatically shifted consumer search behavior. Additionally, a couple of indexing bugs altered rankings. It’s no surprise that the link-building community was much more vigilant about updates!

“Backlink” Query

Once more, we observe an upward trend throughout the entire period, with a peak occurring around the same time as in the “link building” queryalbeit with a slight difference of a couple of months, particularly in January 2023. This could be explained by the repercussions of the Link Spam Update of December 2022, which had an extended effect into the beginning of 2023.

If we analyze the most prolonged periods of growth within certain timeframes, two notable periods emerge: September 2009 to May 2011 and May 2022 to January 2023.

These surges between September 2009 and May 2011 coincided with significant infrastructure changes, including the Caffeine Update, the Negative Reviews turmoil, the Attribution Update to crack down on content scrapers, and, of course, Panda.

Between May 2022 and January 2023, these interest boosts can be attributed to the May 2022 Core Update, along with the lasting impact of the Link Spam Update extending into the beginning of 2023.

To sum up, when comparing the interest levels of two search terms, “link building” and “backlink,” over the past 20 years, we see consistent signs of growth or stable interest, with no indications of slowing down for the time being.

Industry Specifics, External Factors vs Interest 

As we’ve looked back on the updates and how the link-building community responded, we’ve also taken a deep dive into the specifics of the industry that evolved over time. These specifics have played a significant role in shaping link building as we know it today. Some of the core ones include: 

  • Focus on quality: Google now places greater importance on the quality of backlinks rather than sheer quantity. Links from authoritative and relevant sources carry more weight in search rankings. This shift emphasizes the importance of building relationships with trusted and relevant websites.
  • Emphasis on contextual relevance: Links placed within content directly related to the linked page’s topic hold more value than random ones. This alignment enhances user experience and boosts the authority and credibility of the linked content. 
  • White label link building: With each update, Google keeps refining its approach, leaving behind old tricks from the “Wild Google” days. Instead, it encourages fair play in link building, making sure everyone has an equal opportunity to rank higher based on merit. 
  • Brand building: Even though distant at their core, link building and brand building are tightly woven together when it comes to the online promotion of products and services. This makes link building an integral part of the marketing strategy for a given website. 
  • Personalization: Google now tailors search results to individual users, taking into account their search history, location, and browsing habits. This underscores the importance of customizing link building efforts to resonate with the target audience and cater to their preferences.

In addition to algorithm updates that shaped overall industry practices, several external factors impacted the attention given to link building today, including:

Changes in User Behavior

As generations transition, 2024 sees significant shifts in the search behaviors of today’s internet users. While Millennials keep sticking to traditional Google searches, Gen Z pioneers a new approach, favoring social networks for brand, product, or service queries.

Source: eMarketer

One of the reasons for the growing use of social networks as search tools, particularly among Gen Z, is tied to platforms like TikTok. The latter, as a matter of fact, gained attention as a “new search engine” in a late 2022 article by The New York Times. Why? That’s because Gen Z finds the interactive search experience on TikTok more engaging than sifting through text-heavy Google results. 

A later 2023 New York Times publication suggests another thoughtthat YouTube might be a superior search engine to Google, as it boasts a powerful search tool and has long held the position as the second-largest search engine on the internet. 

Exactly the same thought was backed up by a recent poll conducted by eMarketer as of July 2023, asking Gen Z “Which social media platform is your go-to for searching information using keywords?” It revealed that TikTok isn’t Gen Z’s top choice for search, YouTube is. This is an obvious win for Google, since it owns YouTube, meaning its monopoly remains strong. 

Yet, it’s undeniable that there has been an exceptional shift in user behavior that does affect link building practices as we speak. 

Technological Advancements

Yes, we’ll be talking about AI and how it’s changing the game for contemporary link building. First and foremost, it helps link builders to automate the majority of repetitive tasks that link building conveys such as analysis of large data sets, backlink monitoring, competitor analysis, and even content creation. Additionally, AI aids in adhering to Google’s best practices by tracking spammy patterns, thereby minimizing potential risks to rankings.

UX factor 

If you think deeper, high rankings are impossible without top-notch user experience. Hence, link building is highly affected by this factor. It all starts at the very second users land on websites. What they truly seek is simple navigation and valuable content that aligns with their queries.

Moreover, quality link building prioritizes user experience by steering clear of websites cluttered with excessive pop-ups, ads, and other distractions. This ensures users aren’t annoyed and are directed straight to valuable resources.

For smoother website navigation, link building enhances user experience by internally linking relevant pages. This not only makes visitors feel at ease but also helps search engines better comprehend your site’s structure, leading to improved indexing and rankings.

Influencer marketing

When it comes to building links, influencers can really help a business by sharing their content or website links with their followers. They might do this through paid promotions or just because they like the company. This kind of link building can boost a company’s search engine ranking and bring more people to the website.

Visual marketing

In a world where attention spans are shorter and instant gratification is key, link building benefits galore from visual marketing. Since people are naturally drawn to visuals, interactive content like images, infographics, and videos, proves to be 43% more persuasive than text alone. It boosts engagement through clicks and is 40 times more shareable than other forms of content, which leads to the natural promotion of websites and their higher rankings.

Following the significant rollouts of the 2024 Spam & Core Updates, it’s clear that the link building community will continue to be highly interested in understanding how to attain top rankings and adapt to upcoming search algorithm changes.

Google Algorithm Ranking Compliance

As of 2024, to maintain top rankings, the best strategy is to keep a close watch on:

Сreating & Consistently Publishing Premium-Quality Content

Google’s AI promotes pages when searcher behavior indicates their intent is satisfied by the content. Generally, it prioritizes high-quality content published at least twice weekly.

Using Keywords in Meta Title Tags

It’s important to get the placement and concentration of keywords right in your title tag. Ideally, you’d use only your main keyword, but it’s also crucial to add articles and adjectives to make it easy to read.

Backlinks 

While backlinks used to be a major ranking factor for Google’s algorithm, since 2018, their importance has diminished in favor of high-quality content and keyword usage in meta title tags. But the trick is that all of them are interconnected. Hence, to ensure your backlinks are organic, prioritize creating excellent content that naturally attracts audiences. 

Niche Expertise 

It’s no secret that Google favors resources that showcase expertise in specific topics. To boost your website’s visibility, use the “hub and spoke method.” Start with a central page, or hub, covering a broad topic within your niche. Then, create up to 10 supplementary pages, or spokes, to explore specific aspects of the main topic. 

For example, a fitness site could focus on “weight loss tips,” with additional pages for healthy meals, workouts, supplements, and FAQs. This structured strategy enhances your authority and attracts visitors who are passionate about your subject.

User Engagement

Since 2016, Google’s algorithm has notably prioritized user engagement, a vital aspect tied to the consistent publication of engaging content. This metric, covering bounce rate, time on page, and pages per session, is a key indicator of content quality. Thus, focusing on creating engaging content and encouraging user interaction is crucial for effective link building. 

Other ranking factors link builders should consider in 2024 include the freshness of content, its trustworthiness, as well as UX elements such as mobile-friendliness, page speed, and so on. 

Here’s a visual breakdown of each ranking factor, represented as a percentage out of 100 for you to have a better understanding of their importance.

Source: First Page Sage

Anticipated Trends 

We’ve got a sense of what’s coming next, just by looking at today. Take a peek at our very own list of future trends!

Extensive Use of AI for Link Building 

As AI gets better at finding and assessing link-building opportunities, it’s bound to offer even fancier tools for this job. These future AI tools might not only identify and evaluate opportunities but also autonomously execute link-building strategies. Additionally, AI might delve into semantic understanding to ensure links are contextually relevant, contributing to improved search engine rankings and enhanced user experience. The possibilities are endless! 

Interactive Link Building 

As previously discussed, the evolving search habits of users, particularly among newer generations, could significantly influence the practice of link building in the future. This is particularly relevant with the rise of technologies such as voice, visual, social, or personalized search. Here’s more to it: 

  • Voice search: After 2024, voice search could reign supreme among younger generations like Gen Z and beyond. These digital natives, accustomed to seamless voice interactions, may heavily rely on assistants such as Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant for quick and convenient information searches.

🔎How would link builders respond? 

To make their website voice-search friendly, link builders can FAQs, use long-tail keywords, and organize content to match common voice search questions. This could help them secure relevant backlinks from trustworthy sites favored by voice assistants.

  • Visual search: Visual search tech could soar in popularity, particularly among visually inclined younger users. Platforms like Pinterest, Google Lens, and Instagram might witness a surge in adoption as users opt for snapping photos to discover products or gather information.

🔎How would link builders respond?

Website owners can boost their visual search visibility by adding descriptive alt text and metadata to images. Link builders, on the other hand, can focus on acquiring backlinks from visual search platforms like Snapchat, Tumblr, or Bing to attract links and enhance their site’s authority naturally.

  • Social search: Social media platforms might blend even more profoundly with search functions, blurring social networking and traditional search engines. Younger users, who often find information on social channels, may use platforms like TikTok, Twitter, or Snapchat for both fun and queries. 

🔎How would link builders respond?

Link building can benefit from social media by engaging users, sharing valuable content, and connecting with influencers. By using social signals, websites can improve visibility on social platforms and search engines.

  • Hyper-personalized search: As AI gets more refined, search engines will show results tailored to each person. Younger people, used to personalized experiences, will expect search to understand their needs better.

🔎How would link builders respond?

Link building can target backlinks from sources aligned with the individual preferences and behaviors of target audiences. This may include reaching out to niche communities or influencers with audiences mirroring younger demographics.

Local Link Building 

As local markets get more competitive, snagging local backlinks is key for businesses to shine and draw in customers to their brick-and-mortar stores. These links not only boost user experience by offering helpful info for locals but also spark community connections. By teaming up with other local players, businesses can earn trust and nab those sought-after backlinks from trusted sources in the neighborhood.

Manual Link Building 

Getting natural backlinks is key for search engines to discover new websites, and that’s not going away anytime soon. One effective way to do this is through manual link building. This means reaching out to others, creating great content, and building relationships. Instead of using spammy methods, this approach focuses on getting quality links from trusted sources. These links basically tell search engines that your website matters. Plus, having great content plays another big role when you’re actively building links, and that’s never going to change.

Digital PR 

As the focus on manual link building will only deepen in 2024 and beyond, digital PR appears to be the ultimate method for building links manually. Why? Because it offers a comprehensive approach, integrating relationship building, brand promotion, content collaboration, and long-term brand growth. By incorporating digital PR into their link building strategies, websites can consistently attain valuable opportunities and boost credibility.

Internal Link Building 

Since 2014, E-A-T has been crucial for top rankings, and this trend will only persist. To highlight your site’s expertise, authority, and trustworthiness, focus on internal linking. Strategically place links in your content to direct users to relevant information on your site, signaling to search engines the significance and cohesion of your content. By integrating internal linking into your content strategy, you can benefit from your website’s E-A-T and position yourself as a trusted source.

Wrapping Up

Congrats! You’ve come a long way, gaining valuable insights into the evolution of link building. And we’re quite confident that your optimism for its future matches ours!

Whenever you hear link building is dead, don’t buy into these rumors. As we’ve shown, the link building community successfully adapted to each of Google’s tricky updates and seems to be alive and kicking! 

So, we anticipate an even more exciting journey ahead, filled with new updates and thrilling challenges to overcome.