John Mueller Says Don't Build Links, Confuses Everybody

Cara Bowles    By under Link Building.

link graphAm I the only one who thinks these Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangouts are doing more harm than good?

Unlike the carefully-planned, carefully-worded webmaster videos of old, the hangout format just keeps leading us down a familiar path:

  • Webmaster asks question about contentious SEO subject
  • Mueller offers dismissive, short, uninformative response
  • SEO news sites publish said uninformative response with clickbait title
  • Commenters respond with snark and conspiracy theories
  • Uninformed webmasters make bad decisions based on uninformative responses from Google and misleading internet comments

Google's policy on links has been clear 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."

John Mueller has not announced a change to Google's policy on links, nor a change to their core webmaster guidelines, which say:

"Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, 'Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?'"

I've been reminding people of this for a while now.

Nobody should be shocked by what Mueller has said about building links, but they should also be careful not to read any more into this than is already clear from Google's webmaster guidelines. When Mueller says "In general, I'd try to avoid [link building]," he's NOT saying you shouldn't build links.

And therein lies the problem.

Mueller is creating confusion for new webmasters and other industry outsiders because he's telling people who (should be) experts on Google's webmaster guidelines what they (should) already know, but he's being heard by people outside of the industry, from ma and pa shops to VPs of marketing.

These are people who are going to misinterpret what he's saying.

And I'm not sure whether to blame John Mueller, the terrible hangouts format, or the SEO news industry for that happening on such a repeated basis.

So, if you're an outsider, this is how you should interpret what John Mueller is saying:

  • "Link building" as John Mueller is defining it in this hangout is a "No true Scotsman" fallacy. All "link building" in his mind is intended to manipulate search results. If you're building links for traffic or for other promotional purposes, you're not actually "link building." And that's beyond misleading to newcomers and outsiders.
  • Yes, that means Google does not want you to build links in order to improve your search results.
  • Google does want you to go on promoting yourself as though search engines never even existed. (Or more accurately, doesn't really care if you do.)
  • If you were going to promote yourself in a world where search engines did not exist, you would be doing a lot of link building, just not "link building" as John Mueller is defining it in this hangout, since there would be no search engines to manipulate.

Now, of course, as a new webmaster, or VP of marketing, or any other person who lives in the real world:

  • Pretending the search engines don't exist is impossible.
  • You know too much: links do influence search results, and you can't possibly build links without recognizing that it might influence your visibility in search results.
  • Some aspects of Google's webmaster guidelines are laughable: Would you feel comfortable explaining your marketing strategy to a competitor? Um, no.

And so, I reject Google's version of reality, and substitute my own, which I believe a Google employee would probably find satisfactory:

"Would you build this link if you knew for a fact that it would have no direct impact on search results?"

Why do I choose this particular language?

  • It gets to the heart of Google's Webmaster Guidelines (while maintaining a connection to reality).
  • It allows you to think like an SEO. I'm serious. You're not doing SEO if you're not thinking about search engines and how you're influencing them. Google may prefer we live in a world where nobody was doing that, but it's not the world we live in.
  • The word "direct" is chosen very consciously. I'm a big fan of social media marketing, for example, but it does not and may never influence search results directly. There are reasons to build links solely for their indirect impact on search results, and if you're ignoring those, you're not thinking like an SEO.
  • I start this off by saying "would you build this link" for a very specific reason as well. I am stating that it is indeed okay for you, as a human being or a corporate entity, to deliberately point a link at your own site, even when you have full control of the context and anchor text of the link. It is, however, only okay if doing so would make sense, even if you imagined that the link would be nofollowed.

Now, I want to draw one more distinction before I walk away from this post, lest I contribute to yet another misconception.

I'm not saying you should never get links from "low quality" sites or that you should waste much of your time monitoring your backlink profile for "garbage links." A natural link profile will contain far more "low quality" links than "high quality" links. That's a fact.

John Mueller is making an important point when he emphasizes encouraging others to link to your content, making it easy to link to, and so on. Attracting links is very much a vital part of SEO. And that is true for all varieties of links, even most of the ones you might call "spam," as long as you're not the one placing those links.

There is a distinction between building links yourself, and building links by promoting your content in such a way that others will voluntarily link to it. Both methods can be done ethically, and in line with search engine guidelines (and those are two different things). Both (yes, both) approaches can also be done in ways that are unethical or against search engine guidelines. It's important to understand the differences between these two forms of link building, and how they need to be approached differently if you want to comply with search engine guidelines.

I'd like to end this on one last thought.

I'm fearful of this new development to associate non-compliant link acquisition with "link building," and compliant link acquisition with "link earning." I've used this language a bit in the past, but it seems to be evolving in the direction of "link earning" meaning "link schemes for sites that deserve to rank," a totally subjective approach that's probably destined for another round of penalties.

Image credit: Noah Sussman