You've heard the threats.
Matt Cutts, head of Google's spam team, has told us to stop guest-posting for SEO, and Google's Penguin update periodically slams sites for malicious link-building. For example, My Blog Guest was penalized for promoting SEO guest blogging.
The threat is even right there in Google's terms of service and has been for a very long time: "Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines."
So if you build links with the goal of manipulating rankings in Google, Google is free to consider what you are doing a "link scheme."
Does that mean you should just stop building links? No, it doesn't. (And if you do, don't expect your SEO efforts to work. At all.)
The Pendulum Swings
According to a recent study by Ascend2, only 25% of SEO professionals consider link-building to be one of the "most effective SEO tactics." That is a sad example of the ignorance on display by numerous self-proclaimed SEO "experts."
For a long time, link-building was billed as the most important ranking factor by the industry. This, too, was always a misconception. Though links have always been a crucial part of Google's ranking algorithm, there's really no such thing as a "most important ranking factor."
Search algorithms don't work that way.
The "most important ranking factor" is the one that decides between two pages, and that's always going to depend on context. For the most obvious counterexample, one page could have a million high-quality links, and the other page could have just one. The page with a million links still isn't going to rank for a query if it's about something completely different.
So now that we're witnessing the deconstruction of SEO's favorite "white hat" link-building method, guest-posting, we're finally seeing the pendulum swing the other way.
What was once called the most important ranking factor is now being called one of the least. And that position is just as wrong as it's ever been.
Why SEO Is Pointless Without Links
The way the search engines stand today, SEO needs links to accomplish anything.
Let's hear that from Cutts himself...
Let's contrast this with what Matt Cutts has said about social media as a ranking factor:
"If you make compelling content, people will link to it, like it, share it on Facebook, +1 it, etc. But that doesn't mean that Google is using those signals in our ranking."
Here, we can start to see where the majority of SEO professionals now have things backward, according to the study cited earlier.
So, Cutts himself is telling us that links impact search results, and social media doesn't, but the industry is saying that links are now less important than social media integration.
He didn't just say they still use links as a ranking factor. He said that when they try to build a search engine that doesn't use links as a ranking factor, the results look "much, much worse."
That means links aren't just a ranking factor, they're a very important one. You can't afford to ignore them.
Why Link-Building Isn't Against Google's Guidelines
Building links can't be against Google's guidelines. If it were, Google wouldn't be using it as a ranking factor.
What is against Google's guidelines is building "links intended to manipulate…a site's ranking in Google search results."
And to get a more revealing look at the spirit behind that, you can take a look at this little tidbit that's been in Google's guidelines since 2003: "Another useful test is to ask, 'Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?'"
Now let's go ahead and admit that Google is asking us to do the impossible by asking us to pretend that Google doesn't exist. There's really no way any marketing professional can manage to pull that off.
But what you can do instead is to ask yourself, "If I knew for a fact that this link wasn't going to impact my search traffic, would I still build it?"
Can you answer yes to that question? If you can, congratulations; you're within Google's guidelines (well, assuming you're not paying for the link).
Here's a thought to ponder... Unless users type or paste a URL directly into their browsers, a link is the only way that people can find the pages on your site. If there were no such thing as a search engine, you would still build links.
Where do you think all of those referrals from search engines, social networks, ads, forums, blogs, and media sites are coming from? They are coming from people who clicked on links.
Somebody had to build those links.
We can play semantics and say that we should focus on "link-earning" instead of "link-building," but that just distracts from the issue. Like everything before it, that will probably just lead misguided SEOs toward another round of penalties.
The goal is to get links pointing toward your site in a way that would make sense even if Google ignored your efforts.
If that's what you're doing, then you're going to see your referral traffic rise, and the search traffic will almost certainly follow.