• 05 Aug 2021
  • 4 Min read

From guest posting to digital PR: The evolution of link-building tactics

In the early days of SEO, guest posting was the go-to tactic for many link builders. Although the specifics varied, the goal was always the same: to position high-quality content on authoritative, relevant sites to gain backlinks and exposure. However, just under ten years ago, Google began to crack down on any links it deemed to be “artificial or unnatural”. So, in the intervening years, brands and SEO professionals have had to move away from guest posting and devise sophisticated new tactics that deliver results without overstepping Google’s guidelines.

Here at Glass Digital, we’ve found that using a variety of modern link-building techniques—from tracking brand mentions, to creating spectacular digital PR campaigns — is the most effective way to build a successful outreach strategy. Not only are these more ethical than old-fashioned guest posting tactics, but they often deliver much more impressive results on a lower budget, too.

But how did these cutting-edge tactics emerge? In this post, I’ll walk you through a brief history of link building tactics, from the guest posting often seen during the early days of SEO, to the emergence of modern digital PR tactics.

The early years of guest posting

The idea of guest content has always been much the same: the point is to inform or advise readers in your industry or area of expertise, in exchange for a follow link. However, the first link-building tactics were much “spammier” than the ones that any professional worth their salt would use today.

Before the 2012 Penguin algorithm update, link volume was a very influential ranking factor. So, when it came to link-building, it was very much a case of quantity over quality, and the relevance of links wasn’t seen as important.

As a result, early link builders often used spammy, one-size-fits-all tactics to build as many links as possible. Articles were written before contacting the targeted host site, and then sent to hundreds of journalists, complementary industries, and press rooms, meaning identical content appeared on countless sites. Additionally, the content was often only tenuously related to the host site. Before long, the search engine results pages were often flooded with spammy websites publishing poor quality articles.

This led to duplicate content — masses of it. Google soon wised up to this spammy form of link-building and moved to crack down on it with the 2012 Penguin update. This update penalised businesses and agencies who used manipulative link-building strategies and made it more important for content to be relevant to the host site. To adapt, link builders had to up their game and find ways of securing guest posts without resorting to spammy tactics.

The introduction of pitching

Over time, it became clear that bespoke content that was highly relevant to the host site was better from an SEO perspective, and also added reputational value for the brands involved. Taking a more selective and personal approach was a more beneficial method of outreach. This led to the introduction of pitching as a link-building tactic.

Although blog post subjects still tended to be generic and safe in terms of topics and advice, ideas were personalised and pitched to journalists and marketing teams before the articles were written, meaning guest posts were more relevant and wouldn’t be flagged as duplicate content. Outreachers were no longer just offering a pre-written article, but a bespoke piece that would be unique to the host site.

The Panda and Penguin updates also made site owners and editors more acutely conscious of the need for high-quality, unique content from reliable sites, and made them wary of accepting anything “spammy”. So, it soon became very important for pitches to be carefully crafted. It was no longer acceptable to just send out a boilerplate email to a huge mailing list — instead, outreachers had to take the time to research and personalise their pitches to show editors they were the real deal.

The bespoke blog post

Naturally, as pitching lead to increased communication with editors, expectations for content began to increase. As the content was going to have a “real audience” rather than just a host site, copy needed to be very high-quality, and have relevancy to both the brand and the site’s reader base. Editors also began to expect that content would be written with their brand guidelines in mind, and began to exert more influence in terms of what they wanted to content to cover.

This bespoke approach led to better results overall, as the links were more relevant and so appeared more natural. However, this form of guest posting still had its limitations: namely, it was a time-consuming way to build links, and often wasn’t cost-effective. Plus, if it wasn’t done carefully, brands could still put themselves at risk of breaching Google guidelines — especially if money changed hands to pay for the link, which is a definite no-go.

The rise of tangential content

The generic guest post era soon passed. In its place emerged the relatively new tangential content technique. Tangential content is not directly about your brand but is related to its expertise in some way. This opens up countless opportunities for brands to appear in top-tier publications and sites — all while remaining safely within Google’s guidelines.

Over the past few years, this tactic has taken link building to a whole new level. Content is more nuanced and rich, and these types of pieces not only secure more opportunities but also open up a much wider list of targets. Even little-known brands with small marketing budgets have been able to use this tactic to secure exposure and links on very high Domain Authority publications.

Digital PR and newsjacking take centre stage

Google is continually tweaking their algorithm, meaning outreachers are constantly having to reinvent their tactics. That’s why, as time goes on, we predict that the creativity involved in link building tactics will only increase. We have already seen this with the rise of digital PR tactics like newsjacking, a technique that has taken the digital marketing industry by storm and become a successful and vital part of modern outreach.

As the industry progresses and becomes more educated, black hat techniques and guest posting have hugely decreased in popularity. These days, creating high-quality, personalised, useful content is a far more effective way to build the links you need to be an authoritative voice in your field.

I hope this brief insight into the history of guest posts and link building has been useful to you. Remember, if you’re struggling to make time for link-building or aren’t getting the results you need, our outreach and digital PR service could be right for you. Get in touch today for a free and friendly consultation to learn more about what our team can do for your brand.

Polly Kirkup

Senior Outreach Executive

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