teaching Off-Site SEO at University of Alabama
Guest lecturing for a Graduate Level Digital Marketing class at the University of Alabama on Off-Site SEO and link building
Search Engine Optimization is a specialized field, which takes many years of practice to truly understand the fundamentals and teach effectively. It would be unrealistic to expect a textbook to stay up to date in regards to best practices in this constantly changing landscape. Whether your students are Graduate Level or Undergraduate, sharing this knowledge and ensuring everyone who is interested has a clearly drawn out path to success is something I am very passionate about. Whether it is an overview of the history of Schema.org microformatting and it’s current benefit in the form of “Rich Snippets”, providing simple techniques for increasing site speed, explaining why meta-tags are pointless, or just understanding the logic behind why all of these small behaviors add up to success, it would be an honor to help your students better understand the organic search landscape. There are also a lot of misconceptions about SEO, and years of experimentation and hands on experience are the only way to understand what consistently works over time. The biggest of these misconceptions lies around the importance of link building.

The First Google Panda Updates and Common Myths Around Link Building

When SEO was in it’s infancy, a lot of blackhat link builders spent a significant amount of their time learning how to manipulate the system and exploit the authority appropriated to backlinks within Google’s algorithm. Eventually, Google was able to easily identify this type of manipulation and link pyramid websites, blogs created purely for the distribution of backlinks, article directories, blog comment spam, and other types of unhelpful, manipulative link building were all heavily penalized. This major change in SEO came in the form of the first Google Panda Updates rolled out in February 2011. Websites which had been enjoying top 3 organic status for highly competitive keywords were suddenly nowhere to be found in search results pages. This monumental algorithm shift permanently changed the SEO landscape both in positive and negative directions. The positive directions are obvious. The Panda updates punished the people who manipulated the algorithm in a way that did not benefit the end users. This created much better search results for the users of Google and helped ensure they actually got offered the most authoritative and helpful link in response to their search query. The negative aspects of the Panda updates are more abstract. The fallout that ensued from so many websites being penalized so hard by the algorithms scared a lot of agencies away from link building. “Link building” was a term that so many agencies began to associate with shady blackhat tactics. While this was certainly the case in a lot of situations, high quality link building is one of, if not the most fundamental part of creating real authority online.

Whitehat Link Building Separates Effective SEO from Ineffective SEO

Whitehat link building is hard. It is time consuming, requires creativity to learn how to offer value to other websites, and more often than not, it requires persistence or creativity to get your content or message in front of the right person in a way that motivates action on their end. Whitehat link building is a skill that takes many years of networking and hundreds of rejection emails to improve upon to develop an edge. That edge is the biggest factor in what separates effective vs ineffective SEO. white hat vs black hat SEO strategies

Obstacles That Make SEO Difficult to Teach:

Search Engine Algorithms Are Proprietary and Constantly Changing

Each search engine is unique, and they maintain secrecy in their proprietary algorithms to ensure their competitive advantage. If Google released their source code or gave a step by step by step guide that showed people precisely what factors contribute to their ranking algorithm and the weights of each factor, it would be very easy for another search engine to copy them, and potentially eat into their market share.


Google's algorithm is kept secret because providing better results than other search engines is their main competitive advantage. It is the main reason users choose to use Google over alternatives like Bing, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo.

But Why Do The Algorithms Constantly Need to Change?

As a search engine establishes market dominance, every website manager is heavily incentivized to learn what makes certain content rank higher than others. The early history of Google is proof that many of these website managers are more than willing to manipulate their website and/or other pages on the internet if it means establishing a competitive advantage over other websites in their industry.


The algorithms that determine authority and "rank" content for users who are searching for a specific query are therefore required to constantly change to protect against bad actors who are more focused on gaming the system than benefiting users. If they didn't regularly make improvements, it would not be possible to deliver the best result for each search term.

SEO is a Very Specific Specialty Which Requires Years of Practice to Master Well Enough to Teach

Mastering any practice requires years of focus, research, and experimentation. Optimizing a website for search engines is certainly no different.

Consistency is also important, as strategies which worked well a few years ago don't produce the same results that they once did.


If outranking your competition was as simple as having the right meta-tags or choosing the right URL to use, everyone would rank at the top of Google. Unfortunately for most, and fortunately for some, this isn't the reality we live in. 


A good SEO must wear many different hats and master many different skills to be successful. Not only must a website provide users with better content than their competition, it must be presented in a way that is more engaging to the user than their competition. On top of that, a good SEO must possess the social skills and creativity required to create share worthy content and get that content in front the right people in the industry to ensure that other websites choose to link to your website.


It is a big ask for one individual to possess the skillset to be a successful SEO. This person must have the ability to understand the technical aspects of organizing content on a website, and that skill must be combined with a creative and successful approach to link building, which is an intimidating task in itself. This combination of skills takes many years of practice to achieve and many more years of practice to prove success.

Most Marketing Agencies are Not Capable of Producing Results for Competitive Keywords on a National Scale

That may be a bold statement, but I am going to say it anyway. 


Most digital marketing companies do not understand SEO well enough to give their clients strong results on a national or international scale. Many are afraid of the term "link building", and many others don't understand outreach strategies well enough to ensure resources dedicated to it produce a positive return.


Charging large amounts of money for generic press releases is not an effective link building strategy. Relying exclusively on social media is not an effective link building strategy. These tactics can sometimes lead to success, but only when the content being shared is unique enough that a news agency wants to go out of their way to share it with the world. In order for content to achieve this goal, it must be crafted in a deliberate manner and introduced in a way that focuses on the value it will provide the news outlet.


SEO is also not nearly as simple as installing a plugin and waiting for results. Every single page needs a unique Title Tag and Meta Description that is carefully crafted to maximize the value of keywords targeted, while ensuring that it isn't overly vague or canibalizing keywords from other pages. Content must be well organized and easy to navigate with one or two clicks for both humans and search engine spyders. Most importantly, that content needs to help the search engine user achieve their end goal, based on the algorithm's assumption of their individually desired goals when entering the search phrase. Also, your targeted ranking pages need consistent updates in the eyes of the search engines.


One of the biggest reasons digital marketing agencies don't focus on SEO is because it cuts into something much easier for them to deliver on and profit from: PPC ads. If you rank in the top 3 for all of your target keywords, you don’t even need to spend money Adwords and your "ads" will never stop being shown. SEO vs PPC is like building a house vs renting a house. With strong SEO, your customers will find you anyway, and they will have more trust in you because they found you organically instead of through an ad, which people are inherently less inclined to trust.

Link Building is not Sexy

Anyone who has ever worked a sales job that required a lot of cold calls can understand the mental toil of continuous rejection. This is what whitehat link building feels like when you are getting started.


But just as any of these salespeople who became successful can tell you, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Tweaking your approach, finding unique ways of providing value, and developing a better understanding of how to reach the right individual can help you drastically increase your success rate.


We can effectively help your students identify false assumptions related to link building and it's importance within SEO, provide a guide of best practices to understand which backlinks are most significant for achieving different goals, and how to go about creating a strategy to accomplish these goals.

Why Doesn't Social Media Work for Link Building?

A lot of credible marketing agencies rely on social media as their main outlet for link building attempts. This can work as a small part of your outreach and content creation, but if it is your main strategy, you are most likely destined for mediocrity.


For starters, social media profiles and posts don't rank well in search engines. Also, when links to your website or products are shared on social media websites like Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter/X, Youtube, Reddit, etc, they don't transfer the same level of authority as links to your website on other websites. There are several reasons for this, most notable among them being user generated content like this is really easy to manipulateGoogle will not risk placing heavy significance on links from a platform where anyone could create thousands of fake profiles and use AI to make them appear natural as they talk about your business.


Having a strong social media presence is important for any business, it just won't have any direct impact on search engine results. Also, if everyone who talks about you is only linking to your social media profiles, none of that "link juice" is being targeted towards your website. 


A more effective approach is creating detailed content on your website and teasing it with social media content. This way, if people are really excited about engaging with your content, they will have to go to your website to get the full experience.


If you are wanting to rank for transactional keywords, the categories in your online store (or the individual products) are what is going to stand the best chance at ranking towards the top of Google. That means, the only way to separate yourself from your competitors is to organize your products better and ensure that other credible websites (major blogs, news outlets, credible industry specific publications, etc) reference these pages directly. Ranking is also not as simple as paying someone to create a story and link to your website, because "sponsored content" is essentially useless in regards to the amount of link juice it generates to your website.

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Whether in person, through video call, or behind the scenes, it is always an honor to help prepare the next generation of digital marketers for success.

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