Link Building’s Shameful History: 1998 – 2012

If you’ve been in the SEO industry for even just a couple of years then you would have noticed just how fast things can move. On numerous occasions over the last several years, link building practices that were a staple of any SEO campaign were completely dropped overnight. Link building has had its ups and downs, but it’s widely accepted that it still remains the most important ranking signal. So how did it all start, and where are we now?

PageRank in 1998

PageRank was the SEO success metric for about a decade. Webmasters would judge their efforts based on their website’s PR and for a good chunk of time this was pretty accurate. PageRank would be passed from site to site through links and the size of the PR passed would depend on the PR of the site that was linking outwards. Google updated the index’ PageRank every few months and when rumour spread that an update was coming, webmasters would feverously check to see if their PR had changed.

PageRank was a basic tool for describing the importance of webpages on the web. But what PR did more than anything was introduce a link buying market that Rand Fishkin of 2005 estimated to be worth $500-$700 million or more.

Keyword Anchor Text in 1998

One of the earliest published cases of an SEO picking up on anchor text was back in 1998 when a post on mentioned:

On top of that, you want proper anchor texts. If you are selling “baseball bats”, then you want those keywords in your links. The search engines determine the overall theme of your website by looking at the keywords that you use as anchor texts.

Keyword anchors set the tone of SEO until around 2010. Search optimisers would incorporate keyword anchor texts into all of the links they built from this point on… whether it was a ton of spam blog comments or legitimately solicited links.

Of course the irony was that putting your awkward exact keyword anchor into a spammy blog comment was a lot easier, and therefore a lot more powerful than soliciting a genuine link from a legitimate site.

Reciprocal link building

One-for-one link exchanges remain popular today. But they are as useless as ever.

Once the SEOs of 1998 had figured out that links held a great deal of power, they quickly became keen to swap links whenever possible – the idea was that were no losers as each link passed value. Sites would have pages with literally hundreds of links pointing to other sites that returned the favour.

This was possibly one of the easiest illegitimate SEO tactics for Google to pin down; but it wasn’t until the mid 2000s that the value of this was diminished.

Paid links

PageRank opened the door to a paid linking model that allowed webmasters to easily and transparently charge for monthly or permanent links. Valuing a link was pretty easy and the temptation for webmasters to sell was high. A paid link’s value was a function of PageRank, relevance, no. of other outbound links and the niche.

Paid links have always been strictly against Google’s guidelines; however the number of reported penalties for link buying/selling were very scarce, but where it was proven, offending sites were driven out of the index – the most recent with iAcquire in 2012.

Article and Link Directories

Article and link directory submissions formed a huge part of SEO’s (so far) short history. In decades to come, we’ll all look back at search and wonder how the Google machine could have been so primitive to let strategies like this work.

Content was written, spun and submitted for free to article directories like; each article would have a keyword link that passed link juice to the author’s website. The content often made no sense and added no value – yet the link value was at this time… huge! This went on until February 2011 – the month of Google’s Panda update that went after content directories like this one.

Link directories were more or less the same. Websites submitted links to directories that users never even saw, but the value for SEO made it worthwhile. Free submission tools like DigiXmas made submitting to hundreds of directories in just a few minutes a piece of cake. Again, this sort of tactic was crushed by Panda.



Infographics took the SEO world by storm but were soon placed into the most short-lived and over-hyped link building strategy of all time. Infographics became so popular so quickly that companies were set up with the sole intent of designing them. The idea was that if you had interesting content, you could turn it into an easily sharable graphic with links that pointed back to the source i.e. you.

The reality of it was that an infographic may look great, but the content is more or less incomprehensible by Google (it’s an image). This meant that for a link to work well with an infographic, it required several hundred words of quality text-based content to go with it … and with infographics costing several hundred pounds a piece, why not just write the content? Infographics are still used and shared today, but their perceived value in SEO was hit even harder when Matt Cutts hinted at discounting them:

I would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree. The link is often embedded in the infographic in a way that people don’t realize, vs. a true endorsement of your site.

Penguin and Post Spam SEO

Google’s Penguin update rolled out in early 2012 and it has so far been very successful at clearing up exact match anchor spam and low quality link sources. We came from an era of automated spam bots all the way through to semi-valuable infographics and now totally legitimate best practices.

The old SEO strategies simply don’t work anymore. Directories add zero value to your website and if anything, they could harm your rankings; and keyword anchors need to be treated with caution. The world of post spam SEO involves quality onsite content development, press releases and public relations efforts both offline and online; it requires legitimate link building from outreach and relationship building as well as a social effort (at least on Google+). There is no longer a quick fix to SEO or an automated hands-free process; SEO requires a multi channel approach and the time and effort of a dedicated team. Sure, there will still be tricks that you can use to get quick gains, but Google is moving faster than ever and SEOs that don’t future proof simply won’t keep up.

To find out more about Boss Digital, get in touch with our team today.

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