Something big is happening to link building. Hummingbird might have been the writing on the wall signaling more changes to come; but, we still have no idea what those changes will actually look like. Will links be less important in 2014? Is it possible that they could go away? Should I start link building, stop link building or just focus on social? Debates about the death of link building will rage on; but, how does one prepare for the unknown?
Above & Beyond PageRank — Intrinsic Link Value

Before Google came along, links were still valuable (good links, that is), and there’s no reason to believe that the intrinsic value of links will cease to exist if Google drops their measurable SEO worth.
What I’m saying here is that if links were to drop out of the algorithm completely, that wouldn’t make links obsolete. The systems, processes and best practices we have in place for “link building” could still be quite valuable.
The best link builders build relationships, and it’s that relationship-building skill set that will never go out of style. Brands will always covet mentions, links and positive press from the tier 1 influencers in their industry; and, those types of mentions take plenty of skilled effort to obtain.
Even if links stopped helping SEO directly, smaller Tier 2 and Tier 3 influencers would probably still be worth your time because:

  • There are significantly fewer people clamoring for their attention
  • They are much easier to get a hold of
  • They aren’t sifting through dozens of perfectly crafted pitches, choosing only the best to respond to
  • With limited time, you should be able to connect with many more Tier 2 and Tier 3 influencers; this ability to scale means you can get in front of a larger combined audience, faster
  • With less pizzazz to offer, small and medium brands will still struggle to get the attention of Tier 1s
  • Tier 2 influencers are tomorrow’s Tier 1s

There are many ways to make the most of influencer outreach, even if Google were to drop links like a hot potato.
Secure long-term relationships through your outreach today. If you are actively building links in any way right now, don’t think of it as a smash-and-grab activity. Seek to build long-term relationships with link partners and look for partnership opportunities beyond the link. Can they write a chapter for your next ebook? Should you try to contribute guest content monthly or quarterly to stay top-of-mind with their audience? (My favorite tool for relationship management of this kind is Buzzstream. Nope, I wasn’t paid to say that.)
Small brands: find ways to look big! Influencers large and small link to and talk about stuff that is, well, link worthy. Making sure your blog is “updated every week” is not in and of itself link worthy. Consider projects that might make a splash and spark discussion such as:

  • Run an industry survey that asks questions others neglected or were afraid to ask
  • Take a controversial stance on an important issue
  • Predict the future and invite others to share their perspective

Most “link bait” campaigns can be reengineered to focus on other primary results, such as brand awareness or referral traffic.
The Value Of Link Building & Outreach

Smart marketing managers know that their most effective link builders posses a number of skills that are valuable in any number of settings, including:

  • Networking
  • Closing the deal: knowing how to ask a favor (get a link) without burning bridges
  • Savvy communicators on email, social media and in person
  • Aggressive and goal-oriented

That qualifies the link building team as a perfect candidate to master a range of trends that have already begun replacing traditional link building, from social media to PR to even content strategy.
Social (Alone) Won’t Replace Links

Google continues to deny that +1s impact rankings. Yet, studies continue to find correlations. Two things could be happening:

  1. Google is lying. Google+ and especially +1s are important ranking signals and Google refuses to admit it, because if they do, they open Pandora’s Box. Spammers will come out of the woodwork (more than they have already) to try to unnaturally manipulate +1s and scam their way to higher rankings.
  2. Google is telling the truth. Google +1s do not lead to higher rankings, and all the data we have seen so far is just correlation, not causation.

No matter the case, the fact is that we have no idea what factor or factors could “replace” links (Google may not even know yet, either), and there may not even be a way to replace links in the algorithm. But if it ever happens, we probably won’t know what the replacement is. The Matt Cutts mantra continues: give users a better experience on your site. If they ever were to announce that X was going to replace links, X would be used and abused to the nth degree until X needed to be replaced.
So, what’s a forward-thinking marketer to do?
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Any day, Google could announce a change that severely cuts the volume of traffic sent to your site. So could Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other platform you invest in. Be sure that you are diversifying enough so that if one platform stops performing as expected, all is not lost.
Be ready for many more important ranking factors, not just one. Google owns everything from one of the world’s best web analytics platforms to Chrome to an open source font library to Chromecast (and that’s just scratching the surface), so the sheer amount of data available to them must be unimaginable for us on the outside. And, did you know that Ray Kurzweil, Google’s top engineer, is an artificial intelligence genius that is trying to create an external hard drive for your brain?
Chances are that if Google does manage to replace links, the replacement will not be a straightforward “social replaces links.”
Many questions remain. Will link building for SEO, in fact, become a thing of the past? PageRank was built on the concept of links, so what factor(s) could possibly replace it? It’s hard to imagine link building going away completely in the next year, but how will it change, and how can we adapt?