Most business owners know that Google will rank your site higher if there are a lot of links to it. This is because a link is considered a vote for the quality of the content.

But since the Penguin search engine algorithm updates last year, people are wary about any sort of link building campaigns.

They should be. After the Penguin updates, search engine rankings for many sites instantly plummeted, prompting owners to start learning how to disavow toxic links in Google Webmasters. Organizations caught in this kind of tailspin realized that the cheap offshore company they hired to get their site linked on hundreds of directories may have been choosing some questionable places for those links.

As if that wasn’t enough, in January, Google’s chief spam-fighter Matt Cutts declared, “So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done…”. Basically, you can no longer use guest posts on other people’s blogs for links (although it’s still a good idea to do for exposure to new audiences).

Are there any legitimate ways to do link building in the post-Penguin world? Yes there are – but they have to be very focused on providing value to your customers. The new content guidelines say, in a nutshell, to create your content like SEO does not exist, and link building is no different.

Google Penguin update

Is Directory Link Building Dead?

In this article about dodgy links, Google mentions that it will penalize “low-quality directory or bookmark site links”. But what does that mean? Should you avoid directories all together?

Not necessarily. There are still quite a few out there that will help your customers find you. You just need to make sure they are the kinds of directories you would want to be listed on even if they were of no SEO benefit at all. And you need to be able to tell the real directories from the link farms that will definitely hurt your ranking.

The Key is Relevance

Part of what Google looks for is relevance. When Google looks at what your site’s about, it wants to see pages, sites and link text that have some sort of relation to yours. In this “famous” (at least in the SEO world) scandal, JC Penney’s SEO providers were putting links about little black dresses on unconnected sites like nuclear.engineeringaddict.com in order to get a rankings boost. That kind of thing would never work now, but it’s a useful example.

Where this comes into play with directories is that the business links are grouped together in categories, so if someone is looking for cleaning services, they can find them.

How To Spot a Link Farm or a Bad Directory

Link farms are web spam sites designed to influence the Google search engine algorithms without providing any benefit whatsoever to actual people who are trying to find information. They have more links to their sister directory sites than to actual businesses.

Link farms generally like to reference each other within a given directory like this.

They’re not the only type of bad directory to avoid. Also beware directories that ask for payment in exchange for a link, as Google has openly declared this a “black hat” tactic.

Signs of a Legitimate Directory

There are still real directories out there. Keep in mind that legitimate directories are now worried about getting blacklisted by Google, so they have some screening processes in place. Here are some of the signs of a real directory:

  1. It organises business links into categories. This helps real people find what they’re looking for.
  2. The individual links go to legitimate businesses and other organizations. You can just follow the links to figure this out.
  3. They are free of spammy links.
  4. There’s a guidelines page, outlining how to apply to get listed – most link farms won’t have this. You will likely need to set up an account. Often there’s a verification process in which they phone the business to ensure it’s a real request.
  5. The submission guidelines mention that they review the links they add periodically.
  6. The purpose of the directory is to do customer reviews. Homestars is a good example of this.
  7. It’s affiliated with the local chamber of commerce (obviously this won’t be true of all of them).

As you can imagine, getting your site listed on one of these directories can be very time consuming, what with the back and forth of getting verified. On average, it takes us about 15 minutes per directory, not including waiting for people to get back to you. It looks like the days of cheap link building are definitely dead, unless I am missing something.

Finding Legitimate Directories

A simple way is to do a Google search for your city name + “business directory”, and stick to the results at the top of the listings. You can also try the same thing for your province/state or country. This won’t guarantee everything in the results is on the up and up, but it’s a good place to start. As mentioned earlier, beware of paid directories (although some have free listings that can be boosted in the results for an additional fee).

The Beauty of the NoFollow

If you’re worried about the quality of the directory but think it would be valuable to be listed in it, you can ask for a “nofollow” link. This means that within the link code, there is an invisible tag that says “rel=nofollow”, which tells Google to ignore the link for SEO purposes. Site users can see the link and click it to find your site if they’re interested. This is something people are now using for links in guest posts in blogs.

You can check this in your browser by going to the source code, pressing CTRL+f on your keyboard, searching for your link, and checking the link text for this tag. Here’s an example:

<a href=”http://www.mywebsite.com/” rel=”nofollow”>This is the link text that people see</a>

Be Linkable

In the final analysis, the best advice I can offer is stick to the high road: write great content that is useful to people, and let the links come to you.

Special thanks to Alex Katayama and Meg Marshall for their awesome research contributions.

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