It has long been held in the SEO community that if you are working with a website that has fallen foul of a Google penalty that link building is akin to pouring petrol on the flames, particularly if the penalty is because of your backlink profile.
This however as been thrown into some confusion by a recent reply by Google’s John Mueller on the Webmaster Central Help Forum. Have a read for yourself and see what you think.
Let me try a longer answer 🙂
In theory: If a site is affected by any specific algorithm or its data, and it fixes the issue that led to that situation, then the algorithm and/or its data must be refreshed in order to see those changes. Sometimes those changes aren’t immediately visible even after a refresh, that’s normal too.
In practice, a site is never in a void alone with just a single algorithm. We use over 200 factors in crawling, indexing, and ranking. While there are some cases where a site is strongly affected by a single algorithm, that doesn’t mean that it won’t see any changes until that algorithm or its data is refreshed. For example, if a site is strongly affected by a web-spam algorithm, and you resolve all of those web-spam issues and work to make your site fantastic, you’re likely to see changes in search even before that algorithm or its data is refreshed. Some of those effects might be directly related to the changes you made (other algorithms finding that your site is really much better), some of them might be more indirect (users loving your updated site and recommending it to others).
So yes, in a theoretical void of just your site and a single algorithm (and of course such a void doesn’t really exist!), you’d need to wait for the algorithm and/or its data to refresh to see any changes based on the new situation. In practice, however, things are much more involved, and improvements that you make (especially significant ones) are likely to have visible effects even outside of that single algorithm. One part that helps to keep in mind here is that you shouldn’t be focusing on individual factors of individual algorithms, it makes much more sense to focus on your site overall — cleaning up individual issues, but not assuming that these are the only aspects worth working on.
All that said, we do realize that it would be great if we could speed the refresh-cycle of some of these algorithms up a bit, and I know the team is working on that. I know it can be frustrating to not see changes after spending a lot of time to improve things. In the meantime, I’d really recommend – as above – not focusing on any specific aspect of an algorithm, and instead making sure that your site is (or becomes) the absolute best of its kind by far.
We understand that there are lots of nuances to this and we should not take it strictly at face value, after all the algorithms are interdependent and none simply stand alone so changing one can influence others. But the ‘linking and sharing’ is directly attributable to new links being added to the site and this is link building no matter which way you cut it up.
We’re extremely conscious that there is a danger of extrapolating from a single point and taking his words out of context, but when those words back up what we all see every day in the SERPS we can surely be excused for that?
Google still naively clings to the belief that if you create great content people will like and share it and these are the signals it is looking for. This simply won’t happen if, for example you are a Funeral Director so part of SEO is link building to these sites. Despite a great Whiteboard Friday from Rand Fishkin on this topic the other day the fact remains that the majority of small businesses simply don’t have the time, resources or desire to do this, even if they had the knowledge.
Which leaves us back at good old link building. It’s not gone away nor will it anytime soon we think.