A complete history of links, why they matter, what search engines are looking for, how to rank on page one of Google and get all the leads.
What exactly is a Link?
The Internet consists of documents called “hypertext files”. Most people simply call hypertext files “web pages”.
What’s so cool about these hypertext files? They can link to additional hypertext files.
A link from within a hypertext file which links to another hypertext file is called a “hyperlink”. Most people simply call hyperlinks “links”. People in the SEO industry often call links “backlinks”.
For the rest of this document, we will simply refer to hypertext files as web pages, and hyperlinks as links.
Examples of links:
We all use links every day.
To set the stage of what we’ll cover next, here are 3 types of pages which contain links:
1. Wikipedia’s page about Santa Claus. As you can see, the Wikipedia page about Santa Claus contains words which are linked to other pages with additional information. Some of those words are Christmas elves, flying reindeer and Saint Nicholas. For example, Christmas Elves is a separate, related topic that someone studying Santa Claus may wish to read about. The elves are slightly beyond the scope of the article, but deserve a link. What if you had never head of an elf? Of course, you would want to know more about them. The same goes for flying reindeer & Saint Nicholas.
2. Reason.com’s article about housing prices in 2023. Please go ahead and visit this article. In this article, the journalist has done an excellent job at citing their sources. They reference percentage increases of rent prices, home value data and other articles around the web. All journalists should cite their sources.
3. A German Shepherd Resource page. This webmaster has put together a list of German Shepherd resources and helpful links. The site is a German Shepherd Dog club and they have provided a page which links to other resources around the web they deem helpful to their audience. These links are great because they will drive traffic.
Links are often blue, or underlined, or blue and underlined, but can come in a variety of colors and fonts.
The highlighted word which links to another web page is what is called the “anchor text”.
Where did links come from?
What if you were studying for a science project and needed to read additional information on a related topic?
Back in the day, you would have to hunt down a physical piece of paper.
What if the paper were on a computer network, and you could simply click on a link to go to a related document for additional information?
The hypertext (link) concept was first laid out in 1945. The first hypertext system was created in 1967. Tim Berners-Lee’s concept (the World Wide Web) went live in 1991. The “Web” runs on the Internet (the Internet is technically the physical connection of computers and servers, and the Web is technically where we view web pages).
The Web was literally created to help people link.
A true, organic link often either cites additional information which helps the reader, or a journalist can cite a source while writing a story, or someone could provide helpful links related to the topic they’re writing on.
When Search Engines started Using Links:
Most people consider the first Search Engine to be Archie. Invented in 1990, this search engine allowed users to search their index of file names.
Next came Search Engines which could search page titles and meta tags.
Around 1994 Search Engines could actually search for text within a webpage.
Then there were the directory sites and manually curated sites.
In 1996 BackRub took into account the number of links pointing at a site to determine it’s popularity. BackRub would be named Google and launched in 1998. Google’s first ranking system was called PageRank (kind of neat, partially invented by Larry Page, to rank pages.. PageRank.. heh)
Ranking websites based on the number of links was initially a great idea. Of course, it would soon be manipulated.
Search Engines combat link spam:
Search Engines like Google want to present their users with the most relevant search results. They do not want people manipulating their search results. As long as they present the best answers, people will continue using their search engine, and they’ll continue to make billions of dollars off of advertising.
Here’s how this game of cat and mouse has gone so far:
- November 2003: Google launched an algorithm update the SEO industry nicknamed “Florida”. It was full of false positives and many innocent sites got whacked, just before the holiday shopping season. Regardless, it partially took aim at low quality links.
- January 2005: Google, Microsoft and Bing introduced “NoFollow”. Eventually, software developers who created sites like Forums or WordPress made user generated content (UGC) all NoFollow by default. This is because people used to go leave comments all over the web on blogs to get links. People would also create profiles on web forums and drop a link in their profile. Search Engines rarely give any “weight” to links which have the NoFollow attribute.
- January 2007: Up until this time, linking to a page with specific anchor text helped the destination page rank better for that key phrase. While this was used for early SEO, others also exploited this weakness to manipulate Google’s search results for various pranks. This was called “Google Bombing”. Google’s engineers, for the most part, ignored this issue until finally George Bush’s biography used to display for the search query “miserable failure” and Google Bombing was actually added to the dictionary. Google, embarrassed, announced that they updated their algorithm in January 2007 and they began placing less weight on the anchor text. In fact, several search engines, including Bing, specifically look at backlink profiles for anchor text manipulation and it is a spam signal. Google had been working on ways to examine the context of a link long ago. This patent they filed in 2004 shows exactly this. Why? Sites which obtain natural links are often linked to for the word “here”. (Example: Writers often type like this: “Check out this article on Santa Claus I read here.” So, search engines need to understand the context.)
- April 2012: Google’s Penguin algorithm wreaked havoc on the SEO world. Websites which were building black hat links were crushed overnight. If a site’s link profile mostly consisted of links from article websites or sites known to link out frequently to all kinds of junk, such as casinos, it got whacked. Penguin refreshes continued until Google rolled Penguin into their core algorithm. Since then, in general, Google now mostly nullifies low quality links. That means they just ignore them, and the links won’t hurt your site. Still, websites with a very poor backlink portfolio still appear cursed from time to time.
- 2013: Google updates their Link Scheme page to address press release spam. People used to issue press releases to get links. This worked out really well as a $99 press release would hit all sorts of news sites. All modern search engines ignore these types of links now. Of course, real press can still get real attention from journalists.
- 2016: Penguin is rolled in the the Google Core Algorithm.
- August 1, 2018: This was a gigantic update, and the first of many announced “Core Updates”. These affect all sites but especially YMYL sites (Your Money or Your Life sites). YMYL sites are sites such as sites about health and financial topics. If you had a blog about getting mentally fit by buying green tea supplements on Amazon, it’s toast. Google did a decent job identifying the true authority sites. Cancer.gov now ranks for cancer topics, etc. This is a very complex topic beyond the scope of this article, however, for some niches, you’re not going to rank without the highest level of authority.
- 2019: Google rolls out additional attributes for links. Instead of simply “NoFollow” there are now new attributes for sponsored content and UGC.
- July 2021: Google Link Spam Update rolls out primarily targeting sponsored and guest posts.
- December 2022 – __, 2023: Google rolls out SpamBrain, Google’s AI aimed at identifying links which are used to manipulate search results.
Lawyers and Natural Links vs Paid Links:
In every single city, in the entire country, in every single practice of law, every single law firm on the front page of Google is purchasing links.
- We work with a large, International law firm who handles billion dollar cases and they’re in the news every day.
- Occasionally, we’ll bump into an attorney who has had natural press from handling a very high profile case. The links they get from the media simply can’t be purchased. We love completely white hat solutions for these law firms.
- Once in a great while, there’s an attorney who hits a home run with an amazing PR campaign and/or a tremendous amount of local involvement who gets media attention. That “might” be enough to get them to the front page of Google.
The other 99.9% of attorneys who wish to be on page one must acquire links one way or another. The lawyers who are on page one of Google are the lawyers who are getting all the leads.
With some of the world’s top software engineers and Artificial Intelligence actively hunting you, you had better be very sneaky about how to build links. So let’s talk about getting links!
Initial Links – the foundation:
I like to think of legal sites on a link journey. Initially they need to be listed in legal directories. Then by the bar associations or all of their legal profiles. Then they need to start earning or obtaining some real links. Real links need to be either local and/or come from a relevant site and be used in context in a related article.
So let’s cover the foundation first.
- Getting listed in legal directories and local business directories is where you start. These links are often called “citations”. These include sites such as Google, Facebook, Yelp, AVVO, FindLaw, HG, Martindale, Nolo, etc. We have build out a list of the directory sites here: https://optimizemyfirm.com/resources/legal-directories/
- Next would be local business directories. In every major city there are several local business directories such as Fresno.com or TampaBay.com which allow you to submit your law firm or business name for inclusion in their directory. Multi-location law firms should do this for every city they have an office in.
- Next would be checking out the State Bar and other local bar associations. Can you get a link from your profile on these websites?
- Next you need to look at your memberships. Are you a member of the BBB? The local Chamber of Commerce?
- Next you need to figure out what you sponsor. We have run into several law firms who sponsor things like bicycle races or little leagues and these organizations are often more than happy to link to your website.
This builds out the foundation and lets search engines know that you exist. Based on these links, search engines can probably figure out that you’re a personal injury law firm in Houston Texas, for example. You might still rank on page 5, but, they will at least know how to categorize your website.
People on the web hate linking to locksmiths, casinos, payday loan companies and adult sites. Next up is insurance companies and lawyers. Getting natural links, the way Google wants you to get them, is extremely difficult.
We have had some success building out detailed accident studies and pitching them to carefully selected journalists. The cost of this far exceeds the cost of simply paying someone for links. Still, we always strongly recommend trying to earn links, especially if you’re paying for them.
A couple of other ways we have successfully earned links:
- Build out detailed pages showing specific crash statistics
- Build out pages explaining state laws and statutes
- Build out hyper local / niche scholarships (just getting listed on random EDU sites is a waste of time these days)
- You can be active in your community (giveaways, mock trials, being active in actual events, donating your time)
- Contribute opinion pieces to local news stations
- Advertise with local news stations (this is a grey area, but if you are paying for airtime they’ll often offer certain perks & access to their website)
- Certain attorneys can contribute to sites such as Forbes or Bloomberg Law
- Answering journalist’s questions via HARO
If you’re going to buy links, the best possible link would be on a competitor’s site. That’s not going to happen. But why would it be so good? Because it is as geographically and topically relevant as possible.
Since that is not going to happen, pay attention to the context.
- A Los Angeles lawyer getting a link from a blog in Los Angeles
- A Personal Injury Lawyer getting a link from a website about personal injury
- A Divorce Lawyer getting a link from website about marriage
To be clear, you would want to get content ON these sites. The content would link FROM them TO you, and appear naturally. You want this content to look like THEY wrote it and just happened to mention something on your site. You do NOT need to link to your most important landing pages, you want to cite something. This builds what we call “topic relevance”. If you get access to a website about Biking in California, you want to add an article to that site about biking in California. And when you link to your site, you want to link to a page on your site about bicycles.
Example: “Bob’s Bike Blog” will let you publish an article on their website for $250. It’s a good site and not full of junk. You already have, or go create, an article for your website about “California’s Bike Helmet Laws”. You then create an article for Bob’s Bike Blog that looks like it was written by Bob himself. The article is titled “Bob’s Best Bike Helmets of 2023”. The article links naturally to his favorite helmets, but in it, it happens to say “I always wear a bike helmet while cycling in California. Even though they’re not legally required, they help reduce injuries”. Of course, Bob is linking to California’s bike helmet laws (on your site). This link appears to be totally natural. If Bob is in California, it’s also geographically relevant. It’s topic relevant because you’re a bicycle accident lawyer and someone is linking to you from an article about bikes, to your content about bike safety, from a site about bikes.
The biggest issue now, thanks to SpamBrain, which I have been anticipating, is obtaining links from sites which Google won’t ignore (nullify). You need to properly vet sites. Sites which are willing to sell you a link will probably sell one to just about any idiot who emails them. You have to be selective. They should be selective.
A good alternative here is to actually build out an author profile for yourself, or a fictitious character, and use that person to gain access to sites who actually want good content. These sites will be highly selective of who gets in. You may need to actually begin by contributing real content several times before eventually linking out to your target site.
If you must pay for a link, here’s what to avoid (like the plague):
- Sites that NoFollow outbound links
- Sites which link to Casinos
- Sites that charge under $100
- Sites that offer “link insertions” to old content
- Sites with stale content
- Sites that don’t rank
- Any site that is not a REAL site with real traffic
- Sites which exist just to link out
- Sites that state your content is “sponsored content”
Going White Hat:
For the 0.01% of law firms already established or lucky enough to rank on page one naturally, OR, after a site has manipulated it’s way onto page 1, it’s time in their link journey to go legit. Shift gears. Focus on building out amazing content which might get a natural link. Build out statistic pages. And most definitely, go full speed ahead with an amazing content plan. Look for ways to earn real links. The easiest way to actually earn natural links is to rank #1 in the first place. a LOT of writers link to what Google trusts. It’s a tough game to get there, but once you’re in and can shift to a white hat approach – you’re golden, so long as none of your previous ‘grey’ efforts come back to haunt you. As long as you haven’t gone completely black hat, you’ll probably be just fine.