There was a time, back in the dark ages of 2009, when "web 2.0 SEO" was the next big thing. Interest since then has...waned a bit:
Well, it was a number of things, but it was mainly Panda. In February of 2011, Google unleashed Panda, which was most likely a machine learning algorithm, trained on a set of manually chosen low quality pages. It identified some of the hidden patterns exhibited by low quality content writers, and it didn't take long for links from places like EzineArticles to become close to useless.
All those "web 2.0 properties," like Squidoo and so on started to look a lot less like viable link building opportunities.
Of course, anybody who was claiming to build links from sites like these for referral traffic and branding was either lying through their teeth or out of touch with reality. The update didn't effect many legitimate marketers, because very few of them were using sites like these. The same goes for any above board SEO agency who steered clear of such grey-hat tactics.
But today, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the state of web 2.0 link building. Does it still work? If so, what does that mean for the rest of us marketers and full-fledged businesses?
There Are At Least a Few Cases Where it Still Works
The question of whether web 2.0 links still work is a difficult one to answer, because very few people who use the tactic are terribly interested in letting anybody else know about it. No agency would want to admit to clients that they spam their sites with links from the empty carcasses of web 2.0 sites, and anybody using it to make money for themselves isn't going to be very interested in letting their competitors know about it.
However, after doing some extended digging, I was able to find two whole case studies recent enough to bother talking about.
Nathan Gotch was able to improve rankings for a niche site by building web 2.o links circa June 2013:
About a month and a half of sporadic link building from web 2.0 properties got him to rank for a phrase with 1,300 searches per month. Believe it or not, those links came from spun articles. Ugh.
Kelvon Roy was able to improve his rankings for two keywords with a combined total of 7,300 exact search traffic using web 2.0 a private network links. When I say "improve," though, I mean he ranked himself somewhere on the 6th or 7th page of Google. Better than nothing I guess:
Now, specific keyword rankings are a very old school metric, and it would be nice if these two reported their traffic instead. (Come on guys, Google does not think in terms of exact keywords anymore. Get with the program.) That said, these case studies demonstrate that building traffic using web 2.0 links might still work occasionally. You can't call me 100 percent convinced on that, though. These could also easily be flukes, considering how many case studies probably went unreported because they never led anywhere.
As a counterpoint, Jed at SEO Pro Tools never saw any improvement in rankings using web 2.0 links, as exhibited by his comment on his own post:
By the way, I really love the phrase "high quality spun content." It's hilarious.
Let me just say it. Web 2.0 link building was never worth it.
(Well, it was never worth it assuming you were a legit business. As in, not a site whose business model was to exploit Google loopholes for affiliate money. I know, I'm edging close to No True Scotsman territory here.)
Unless you consider links from, say, Facebook and Twitter to be web 2.0 links, then web 2.0 links never sent any actual referral traffic. In my view, as I've said many times, if you build a link yourself, it had better send (valuable) referral traffic, and not just because that means your links will help your SEO for the long haul. Producing content that nobody is going to see is a wasted opportunity. Building a link that nobody is going to click is a waste of resources. It may help your SEO, temporarily, but it's never going to offer the ROI of a real link that real people click on.
What Does This Mean For Us, Then?
I'd really like to use this as an opportunity to point out how modern SEOs overvalue the huge, authoritative links from major players.
If you're confused and thinking "Wait, didn't you just say you should only build links from sites that will send valuable referral traffic?" you're right, that's what I said.
You should only build links from sites of that nature. We sometimes forget that every once in a while, a web page actually picks up an honest to god natural link, freely given without an outreach email or guest post in sight.
And here's where I need to remind everybody that most of the links on the web are, wait for it, "low quality." Web 2.0 links still do influence rankings because they are one of many kinds of miscellaneous links that make up the majority of the link graph.
Google is not necessarily interested in ranking the sites with the best marketing departments.
A surprising number of SEOs seem to believe that Google actually wants to reward businesses that are good at marketing themselves, but that's not what they're in business for. (Wikipedia doesn't market itself, and they practically own the single word query search results.)
No, Google is interested in ranking web pages that will satisfy searchers, so that searchers will keep coming back and seeing their ads.
This post is a reminder that those random links you pick up from obscure places on the web, the ones that you look down on and think don't have enough "link juice" or "domain authority," those links are actually helping you rank. Assuming you aren't manipulating them unnaturally, they are sending the signal to Google that your site is naturally attracting attention. A site that seems to always pick up authoritative links, without attracting any of these lower quality natural links, is an anomaly. It doesn't look good. It looks promotional. And Google alone can decide whether or not that's a good thing for any specific query.
For more about pages naturally attracting obscure links and how to approach backlinks in modern SEO, with some case studies for reference, take a look at our post about SEO without backlinks and whether it makes sense to try to rank without them.