There is no white. There is no black. There are only hues of gray. To think any different is to subscribe to discrimination – to believe one way or the other is to be ineffectively forced into a mindset without appropriate judgement of another.
This post is not about white or black. That subject is dead (like SEO). This post is about this or that. Yes or no. Right or wrong. Rarely do these answers exist eplicitly to us – rarely are they imparted to us correctly in the form of outside opinion.
There are various molds of SEO, and because of that, one situation or the next will inform inherent biases, strengths, and weaknesses that should be used descriminately to analyze every tweet – every blog post – and every piece of advice you receive. Very often what you perceive as this or that – white or black – is because it’s good for them. It’s because their situation has informed that dichtomized view that informs that this is right. That isn’t. Do this. Not that.
There is a “heaven and hell” view of the SEO world that is informed by the institutional structure of its advice. Most of what you hear is purely described as “white hat” by the people with the biggest audiences. And because they have the biggest audiences, they are forced to sticking there. And perhaps they got there because they’re “white hat”. Or perhaps they have the liberty to use white hat because they have the biggest brands because they’re in front of everyone because they speak white hat. Or perhaps they got the biggest brands because they’re white hat, and the biggest brands affinity for white hat got them the biggest audience.
The answer is none of the above. The answer is all of the above. This and that. That and this. Not white or black. Not black or white. The answer is they did what was right for them. And every piece informed the next. The parts moved. The parts aligned.
There is no identifiably correct answer that falls in any one sector. There are countless sectors. And the answer, on that 3D, convoluted graph, invariably moves with every drop of personal experience.
The most frequent criticism of white hat advice is much of what I said above. That’s good for them. And they’re most often right. That is good for them. But what these said people also don’t realize is that if the tables were turned, publicity allowed you to demonstratively declare your paid link opinion and talk about how you’re doing this and doing that, it would be good for you, too. You’d be spewing similar advice that’s good for you, but doesn’t make sense, everywhere. You’d definitely be ingrained in that mold of black black black quite frequently, to the point where your mind would be so set on needing cash to attract links that you’d never not spend cash. That you’d never not break the rules. This is black hat guy. This is many of the same people who say “Hey, white hat guys, that’s good for you.”
Rarely is any piece of link building or SEO advice completely good for you. Because it’s not written by you. It is informed by a plethora of adjacent shards of bias that inform that opinion, opinion formed upon vertical, organizational and life experience built over decades.
I wrote a post, Please Exit the Link Building. Some of the advice on there I’ve never used. Because it hasn’t been good for me. But I’ve thought of it, and I will use it, probably – if it becomes good for me. But I thought – knew – it was good for someone. But if I’m in a consulting role or a temporary gig or link building for something in a massive or finite space, going to rigorous depth to analyze a vertical is a waste of time. There is data excess, and it often exists in droves.
If you need a 8 step plan every time you start SEO for a 20 page site, you’re burning time at the stake. If you’re spending 50 hours every time you do an SEO Site Audit for a cut-and-dry, static lead-gen site – you might be wasting your time compiling data that’s useless. If you create infographics just because Justin Briggs wrote a good post about it, you’re probably not too aware of the idiosyncrasies of your competitive landscape.
Note that I said probably.
In that aforementioned link building post, I said that if you produce five links a week, you’re doing it wrong. But that’s too black and white. There’s grey, too. The answer is that if you’re building five links a week consistently, you are doing it wrong. But five links a week can be a hell of a return – in one week. If you see a website that just must have your content offering and you know the fit is immaculate and it has a 90 page authority and you need to hunt their children at school to get that link, heck, get five links. But the answer is not black or white “five links a week doesn’t cut it”. The answer is produce lots of valuable links. And the best way to do that is by creating scalable processes.
If you look closely, if you look for the people that speak in black or white hats, you’ll realize that the answer of “it’s good for them, and should be for you, too” frequently works its way into their SEO advice, also. If they say it’s white or it’s black, and they also say do this. That’s wrong. It’s likely that the answer is not that it’s wrong. And it’s not that they’re right.
It’s that the answer is almost always somewhere in the middle.
Please Exit The Relationship Building
Rand Fishkin recently released a post on SEOMoz aptly titled “Don’t Ask Sites for Links. Find People and Connect.” If you can pick up on the pattern of this post, you might notice a continuity here. Rand is a very white hat. And Rand, here, also aptly states “Do this. Not that”.
Don’t get me wrong, I respect the heck out of Rand. But he’s human, and it’s an inevitability that someone with such a distinct, segmented position in the SEO world (entrepreneur, super-heavy blogger/speaker, SEO evangelist, head of SEO software company), would not have those biases seep their way into their content.
Relationship building to create links works as an outlier to the actual relationship building itself. In the process of building a relationship, there exists two trigger points. At one point your relationship, if strong enough, will channel random links in content with a direct ask. For example, I have loose Twitter connections like SebastianX, and Kris Roadruck, people I don’t think I’ve ever directly linked to. It was certainly inevitable that I would do that eventually, but they had to cross a threshold of time and respect from me for that happen. At that first threshold, I would randomly link to them based on the relationship we’ve built. At a second, I’ll get-beers-with-you-at-command threshold, I would tweet or link to anything they asked. We are not there. I have engaged or noticed them both – people I respect – over a six month plus period.
This friendship times content multiplier means that the more likely either one said something noteworthy, the more likely I would be to link to it. However, if they directly asked me for a link, it’s hard to say if I’d say yes because that would dilute the respect I have for them. And the power of a relationship in any area you are passionate about - is far more valuable than a link.
If they triggered this process too early or were too explicit with said relationship building as Rand describes, they can destroy that relationship building process. Also, this concept of “building relationships” works most effectively when the relationship is across a threshold of equally respectable people. Rand is respectable to anybody in tech, therefore, the attempt to build a relationship is quick due to the social proof he has in place.
If you’re John Doe (see: 99% of the people who read that article), they don’t have the personal brand to leverage immediately to garner respect. Therefore, the power and immediacy garnered from a strong personal brand is lost, and much of the ROI is evaporated because much more time must be spent to gain acclaim. If I randomly got a follow from some writer from The New Yorker, I’d be giddy because I love the magazine, and it’s likely he would quickly get a link from me. But if a random new SEO with 10 tweets followed me, it will likely take them months to authentically grab my attention (if they were attempting to) – because they have nothing to leverage in terms of personal brand. And that personal brand must grab me, or anyone else, before I or anyone else cares about their content offerings.
Secondly, it is very, very rare that any SEO care at all about the vertical they’re building links for. I follow lots of SEOs, and very few ever tweet about anything else besides SEO itself. This means any interest they display in their field of choice would be inauthentic. Gary Vaynerchuk, social media expert (a real one), said it best:
“People’s bullshit radars are insane. Marketing is about to get really, really hard. If you’re just doing social media to keep up with the Joneses – don’t.”
If you try to care about something you don’t care about, you will have a hell of a time faking it. To fake it well, you’ll have to spend even more time dedicated to that faking, for an opportunity that could blow up in your face if they simply don’t want to link to you. As Gary states, our bullshit radars are insane. If I randomly see some article tweeted out that doesn’t match the standard for that person, I read bullshit. If you retweet an infographic and you’ve never tweeted an infographic, ever (see: me), it’s pretty obvious you got asked to do it.
If you engage with someone in a way that isn’t congruent with who you are or what you care about, we, or any person with a site worth engaging with to get a link from, will see right through your lies. The thing about sending e-mail pitches is that you only have to do it once. You don’t have to do it over 5000 tweets.
Did I mention that you’re an SEO? If you try to engage w/ someone in food and your title says “Director of SEO for Sally’s Donuts”, you just made authenticity even harder for you. Because you’re an SEO, and it’s plainly obvious your intention is a link. So, should you sacrifice the personal brand you’ve built and start over, or do you go gunho forward and dilute your entire message to both SEOs and donut people?
Building links with personal relationships, at scale, only works in outrageous situations. Rand Fishkin situations. When you have a massive personal brand and your site is built on that personal brand. When that personal brand exists naturally within a website’s focus. Otherwise, every attempt to explicitly build links doing so will be a struggle – or, at best, something that will return ROI only moderately worse than more direct link building efforts.
This strategy can work for people that do SEO for their own website. That have a small website. Or have a huge personal brand. That aren’t SEOs. That have a small network in their niche. Or a huge network in their niche that they care about. But that’s not everybody. That’s not many people. That’s not “don’t e-mail people for links, build relationships”. I can spend 10 hours building a relationship for someone I will never care about connecting with past this link, or I can send twenty e-mails and get twenty links based on my linkable asset that took ten hours (or less) to build.
Building strong relationships with influencers willing to link to your content can take months, sometimes years. Your better bet is to spend time on the content, and then just build the personal brand on the side – in an area you care about. The thing about SEOs is that the sites you work on and your interests rarely align. When they do, sure, use relationships to build links. But don’t stop sending e-mails to build them. Just use it as another quiver in your arsenal – an arsenal not defined by someone saying you’re doing it wrong.
Please, PLEASE don’t interpret this as me saying “relationships don’t generate links”. They do. They do in droves. But I don’t believe the most effective way to generate the link, for most, is through building the relationship first. It’s through content outreach that creates relationships when link confirmation comes. After you’ve gotten that first link from someone, you return back to that relationship when a compatible link or other synchronous link opportunity exists. This way, you aren’t just investing tons of time into something that probably won’t stick.
In life we are very often incapable of awareness of our biases. Because of this we frequently say things like “this is right” or “this is wrong”, when often times these kinds of “right/wrongs” are very rarely based in scientific fact, but rather, are formed on opinions that are subjective and as such, maneuverable. For the same reasons “ethical standards” can be firmly judged one way in the United States and be polarized in countries across the globe, opinions will always be formed and structured around our locations, our biases, and our life experiences.
SEOs frequently give advice as though that advice is just right, as there is no maneuverability to that message. This is often the preferred thing to do and may even be the right thing to do – because passive language will dilute impact. But this is dangerous to the reader, who may go on believing that this process makes sense for them and their perfect situation. That they should do press releases. That they should do 50 hour site audits. That they should build relationships as an exclusive link building function. For those incapable of differentiating between opportunities, this leads people on a path of self-destruction, or otherwise, equally dangerous and over-reactive self-preservation.
These are the people you see who create terrible infographics or submitting HTML sitemaps for 30 page sites or building relationships with 1 follower or otherwise, taking no “risks” because someone with public klout says not to on a blog post – they one way or the other end up sacrificing opportunity or over-committing because they misinterpret opinion as fact.
Every SEO’s advice should not be read on a piece of printed paper without an author. Every blog post should be juxtaposed against a biography that assumes distinctions, biases, and strengths and weaknesses that inform that context. I would read and interpret a post SEOMoz’s blog completely different from one I read on Click2Rank. I’ll be cognizant of Eric Ward’s link building core competencies when I ingest his laundry list of link building articles. I will know that SEO advice from Hugo Guzman, an enterprise-level SEO, must be read with a much different lense than SEO advice from popular hacker Patrick McKenzie. For those incapable of differentiating one’s own experience with another, much time and potential ROI is lost.
For SEO and many other areas, each blog post requires a new pair of glasses. Those who refuse to use them will continue to remain blind.