Should Link Building Be A High Priority for Your SEO Efforts?
Let me be clear; I am not going to argue that your backlink profile should not be a consideration in your law firm’s Search Engine Optimization efforts. However, both honest misunderstandings and bad information circulated by bad actors continue to permeate discussions on the topic of link building.
PageRank, Link Juice and Bad Advice
You see, in 1998 Google patented “PageRank”, which was, in effect, the original algorithm. To quote this article on the history of PageRank from SEMRush, “In short, Google was literally formed based upon Sergey Brin’s idea that information on the web could be ranked based upon a page’s link popularity, that the more links point to a page, the higher it ranks.” This was explained to me, at the time, as a system similar to water pressure. If a page with a PageRank of 10 links to my site, it has more “pressure” to share than a link from a PageRank 6 page. This poor explanation was describing a frequently misunderstood concept colloquially known as “link juice”.
Understandably, this led to an arms race of sorts where companies and the SEO agencies that they hired tried to garner as many links as possible for their sites. Professionals of all stripes were working hard to “game” links via “strategies” like PBNs (private blog networks) or link trading. But given the structure of ranking that Google made public, even “white hat” SEOs were forced to participate in the competition for quality links.
What is less understood, though, is the rapid development of Google’s AI since 2018, when the patent for PageRank expired. Namely, while your link profile is critical to overall visibility, Google has promoted the heck out of E-A-T, or Expertise, Authority and Trust.
Google E-A-T and Keyword Ranking
We are in the midst of Google’s third (at minimum) orchestrated attempt to push professional SEOs away from relying on old strategies. No longer is an effective SEO firm working to manipulate the algorithm. Instead, we are working (hard) to create a true match to user intent and to deliver the best experience to that user. In a word, Google is pushing for quality – and effective SEOs are responding in kind.
Look at Google’s own updates since 2021. The “Link Spam Update”, “Passage Ranking”, multiple “Spam Updates”, “Local Search Update”, multiple “Page Experience Updates” and (so far) two “Helpful Content Updates” were all aimed squarely at changing SEO behavior and centering users over algorithm manipulation.
Of note: Our opinions on the topic are specific to Law Firms with a Local SEO focus. If you’re interested in link building for e-commerce or for a virtual business, I recommend visiting Google’s direct guidance on the topic.
And to be clear – it is not our position that link building is of no benefit. But it is our opinion, based on research, interviews and experience – that too often link building is held up as a “silver bullet”. The reality is that for 95% or more of law firms, there are more glaring needs that, when addressed, offer more upside, more quickly than traditional link building efforts.
And it’s to that end that we started evaluating our own client back link profiles and link building efforts – measuring correlating impact on meaningful Key Performance Indicators. Specifically, we wanted to track Search Impressions, Users (Visitors) and Leads.
Take for instance this 3-attorney PI firm. We had worked with this client for more than 18 months and delivered a new website, many thousands of words of quality legal content, reputation management, some paid ads and professional social management. Users to the site were up more than 110% and total conversions/leads had increased by more than 500%. In fact, they had recently set a record for new cases in back-to-back months. It was at this time that the client decided to purchase links from a company that “specialized” in the practice of selling links.
The client purchased a package of +40,000 links “guaranteed” to be of high “Domain Authority” and with a high percentage of “Follow” links. The client didn’t share that they made this purchase of links – but we discovered it through our regular auditing and reporting. Suddenly, this client had more than 52,000 backlinks with a 96% “Follow” ratio!
This was potentially problematic for a few reasons, but the primary cause for concern was that this was a 9X increase in the number of backlinks in the span of 30 days. There is no natural way to drive that type of increase in backlinks. We feared a potential manual action from Google that could de-index some of the clients highest-performing pages.
We monitored Search Console closely to see if Google acknowledged any of the links. And in the first 30 days, we did see link count in Console increase from 5100 to 5600. But this was only about 1% of the purchased links. In monitoring AHREFs Domain Authority and SEMRush Authority Score, we saw no movement. In the next 30 days, we saw the link count in Console drop down to just below the original count, less than 5100.
However, over this 60-day period, search impressions increased by 15%, traffic increased by 20% and leads grew by 22%!
In short, because the links were clearly not garnered naturally, the “predicted” increase never materialized. Google didn’t penalize the client – but simply, for the most part, ignored the purchased links and moved on.
Earned Backlink Boost
Let’s look at a different scenario where the links were gained naturally – though not in a way that is easily replicated. Our client won a high-profile case against a large university; a case that had significant implications for students’ privacy rights, nationwide. As a result, the client’s site suddenly benefitted – rightfully – from what can only be called super-high-quality links. From the Associated Press and the New York Times and NPR and Forbes. They’re total link profile grew by 50% in a single month. For a 3-attorney firm in Ohio, this was a coup!
We, of course, worked to extend the PR benefit of the victory through features on the site, an email campaign, social media, etc. But the client does not use any paid advertising of any sort.
For the 3 months following this victory (and the related press) search impressions increased by 40%, traffic to the site increased nearly 50% and leads increased 45%. This is an excellent outcome!
However, half of those gains in impressions, users and leads were concentrated in the 21 days following the press coverage and our outbound publicity campaigns. And more than half of all the additional search impressions were driven by queries that included the firm name and/or the attorney’s name.
What does this mean? There was short term benefit of the press coverage by readers clicking the media links and/or searching for the firm that won a high-profile case. But the long-term, SEO benefit wasn’t as significant as we might hope – or might think it should be in growing a backlink profile by 50%, naturally, and with the highest quality links.
But to make this argument, we also need a control case. For this, consider our client, an estate planning law firm. The Scope of Work for this law firm is representative of the largest band of our clients. This 5-attorney firm was well established when signing with GNGF, ranked well for many keywords, saw a steady stream of business – but sought to optimize their efforts, which had plateaued after several years with their previous agency.
In the first three months of our relationship, we launched a new website for the law firm focused on simplifying a (relatively) messy site architecture, making it easier to navigate for Google’s crawlers and users alike – as well as CRO. We developed several thousand words of educational content focused on keyword gaps against competitors. We went long on schema, marking up nearly every page of the site with relevant info for rich results. And so on. What was not part of our strategy was link building – at least in the traditional sense. No link count or related deliverable was included in their contract with us.
The client joined us with a link profile that far outperformed their competitors, with more than 2100 links, most of medium-high quality and with a 65% follow ratio. In terms of E-A-T, their needs were related to Authority (content volume, quality, and alignment with search intent) much more than Expertise (again, established firm with years of history) or Trust (citations and backlinks). Of course, we worked to clean up any Name, Address, Phone (NAP) conflicts, made sure we had ownership of more than 70 citation pages and all relevant socials, etc.
But budgets are real – and that means tradeoffs. “Selling” this client a link building package would be the SEO equivalent of selling them new brakes as a solution to a transmission problem. We all need brakes that work, but that’s not the most pressing issue! Instead, we focused on users – this firm’s ideal new client – what would attract them and what would lead them to contact the firm.
With our user-centric strategy and development, in just the first 90 days, search impressions and traffic increased nearly 30% and leads increased more than 25%. Additionally, we added 257 follow links – a 12% increase.
We have additional examples that we have tracked throughout the year and they all follow the same performance model. You see, in the old model, links drove traffic. In this new model, quality drives traffic and links. Simply stated, the higher quality your content – and the easier it is to find – the more frequently it will be linked to in a natural way. And only this natural growth will be acknowledged by Google and boost your site’s performance.
But Don’t Take it From Me
But like most of us – I personally suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time. So I reached out to the authority – Google’s Search Advocate, John Mueller. Below is our exchange – edited only for clarity.
To John, I wrote,
“My full-service agency works with law firms exclusively. 100% of our clients are SMBs and locally focused in the traditional sense.
For over a year we have dropped link building efforts – in the traditional model – in favor of more and better content (academic/educational over newsy blogs), consistent GBP efforts, Page Experience / CRO and deeper-than-standard technical work for our law firm clients. We’re focused almost exclusively on efforts that benefit the user.
We simply stopped selling link building as a deliverable (in most cases). Our results have been cited within the industry and are, imho, remarkable.
To be clear, my position is not that links do not have value. Rather, I believe link building is too often central to “strategy” because it is low-hanging fruit as a deliverable (low cost to farm out, moderate margin) for agencies like mine.
My stance is that for local businesses, there is simply (with very few exceptions) much, much more upside to be gained by focusing on users over links.
Finally, I can only ask that you take my word that we started this ~10 months prior to “Helpful Content” being a trending topic. Lol! I would love to hear your thoughts on my stance – including telling me that we’ve just been lucky.”
John was kind enough to offer this short reply,
“This sounds like a good strategy to me, and it seems that it’s working for you :). (…)to me it seems like the relevance there is much more focused on non-link-like signals (you want someone local, and who is reasonably good). I see too many local businesses trying to compete with the whole web with fluff, when they really just need to put their stuff out there for nearby folks.”