7 Reasons to Remove "Link Building" from Our Vocabulary

Posted by Carson-Ward

Double disclaimer: This really is my own opinion, and may not be the official position of either Moz or Distilled.

“We’ve only built high-quality links.”

I see variations on this theme often; sadly, I see it most commonly in laments composed by those affected by Google’s Penguin update. After years of consulting, dozens of penalty-related questions in Moz’s Q&A, and careful consideration, I am convinced that the idea of “building links” has been heartbreakingly detrimental to our industry and many site owners. I will argue that everyone — marketers and SEOs included — would be better off if we stopped talking about building links altogether.

It may seem insane to many in the industry to speak of discarding “link building” as an action, goal, or job description. I certainly understand the objections, but I only ask that you consider the whole of my argument before coming to a conclusion.

1. Link building isn’t a process or goal

Our goal is almost always direct or indirect profitability. Where organic search marketing is concerned, profitability comes from qualified traffic, and qualified traffic comes largely from favorable search engine positions. Favorable search results are achieved to a significant extent by acquiring links from diverse high-authority domains.

Nothing above looks too controversial yet, but why then should we not focus on links? If links lead to higher rankings and eventually to profitability, we should build links, right? This makes sense until we expand the diagram.

Direct link building is a process that only a spammer or link buyer can do. I prefer “link earning” — a phrase I’ve borrowed from Danny Sullivan’s legendary rant and Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Friday — but I see no reason why our efforts and successes should be constrained by links. Some online marketing tactics may also contribute directly to rankings, and some definitely contribute directly to traffic.

Even those who neither spam nor buy links have become so focused on link acquisition that many de-emphasize or even ignore what comes before or after. We heard some amazing forward-thinking talks at Mozcon, almost all about real, legitimate, and sustainable marketing. Even then, we heard far more about the number of links obtained than we did about rankings, traffic, or profitability.

I am not suggesting that we stop caring about links. Link data can be used for many valuable tasks including the following:

  • Find external pages that appear to have generated awareness and increased visibility. We can, for example, use Open Site Explorer to understand industry challenges and past successes.
  • Provide valuable insights into campaigns that are still in progress.
  • Find potential marketing targets (e.g. those who shared a similar piece of content).
  • Explain current rankings.

There are plenty of additional reasons why link data is fantastic. I am merely suggesting we stop leading people to death by Penguin.

When we focus on links as a process and a goal, we’re working towards the measurement rather than the goal the measurement was intended to measure. Profitability is the goal — events, guest posts, or content pieces are the methods and tactics to get there. If we achieve the goal through a combination of organic traffic, cross-coverage, and direct traffic, I doubt anyone will complain. We might even be more effective as marketers by considering more pieces in the puzzle.

2. Google wants to kill “link building” as a process

This isn’t about being a “white hat” anything. I, for one, cringe when referenced as a “white hat” marketer — it stings like a label for someone adhering to dogma set forth by infallible Google. I’m with Dr. Pete on this hat nonsense. If I thought buying links was a smart risk-free way to make money, I would suggest we all buy links. I am simply a believer in sustainable marketing tactics.

“The philosophy that we’ve always had is if you make something that’s compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that’s backwards. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result.”
-Matt Cutts in an interview with Eric Enge

Matt says link building isn’t inherently evil, but only when we get it mixed up. We run afoul of search engines only when we look at links with tunnel vision, as in the first diagram above, as an activity rather than an outcome.

We should care what Google wants, if only because it’s dangerous and difficult to fight against them in the long run. I once warned about what would eventually be called “Penguin” in March of 2012 — just one month before the first Penguin update — and met some strong resistance claiming Google would never penalize for links, but only devalue them.

It’s a mistake to underestimate what Google can and will do. Counter-spam might move slower than spam most of the time, but I suspect Penguin won’t be our last reality check for artificial links.

3. Modern Google is not a link-counting machine

Regardless of what Google will do in the future, we should also consider what Google can already do today. What were links meant to measure in the first place? Why did Google use them, and how did they help? We know that links help to filter out the garbage on the web, and they are still heavily used because link data helps to measure the popularity and authority of a site and page.

We know Google understands more than followed links and anchor text. Embeds have been called “links for videos.” Citations are “links for local.” Google uses URL text for discovery, even if the text isn’t an explicit link. The search engine has long understood which words are related to one another, and which brands relate to which words — as anyone who has used the Google keyword tool can attest. We just heard a presentation from Dr. Matt showing a correlation between social shares and brand mentions with rankings.

We don’t know everything about Google and the algorithm. Perhaps Google is using co-occurrence as a ranking factor, but can we really doubt the search engine looks at good-old-fashioned occurrence as a measuring stick for site authority and popularity? It’s not unlikely that Google is using a combination of data sources — mentions, links, offline brand metrics, etc. — to measure or confirm popularity.

We also need to back up and consider the degree to which popularity, awesome products, useful content and great web pages drive all popularity signals, and to what extent they are used by Google. Facebook likes correlate with site traffic whether Google ever looked at them or not. Even with great statistics and a few tests, we can’t be totally sure about how much Google uses which signal or under what circumstances. Why focus on simply building links when Google uses more than links? Why obsess over a small HTML element when we have the ability and skills to improve multiple metrics and build visibility with or without Google?

4. Qualifying “good links” doesn’t stick

Perhaps “building links” isn’t a bad idea as long as the links are good. Even though I agree, we still need to stop talking about building links. Even if we could list every possible quality that defines a “good link,” we find that we have an overly-technical and roundabout way of saying “market to your audience.”

No matter how many caveats we add, or how precisely and carefully we define “high-quality links,” people still seem to come away with their own version of what a good link is. The value of a link is far less intuitive than the value of coverage and visibility.

Adria Saracino wrote an enormous post last year about nothing other than qualifying link prospects. More could have been written, but I’m not sure more could have been retained or recalled. To keep clients focused on the real goals rather than links, Adria has begun pushing internally and externally for a stronger focus on revenue rather than links alone.

Rankings and links are benchmarks, not processes — a way to track progress on the way towards our real goals of qualified traffic and sales.

5. Link obsession can hurt relationships

Asking people to add links, change the post, or edit their existing links can appear selfish and demanding. I believe most people who do so are not selfish people, but rather people whose success is measured in terms of links above all else.

… And now I want to remove any mention of the source. This is a ridiculous example, but illustrative of where “link building” has led us.

Sometimes building awareness with an audience is better than link building. Coverage and relationships with publishers leads to more coverage, awareness, and — yes — even more links. But once again, links are not the goal; they are merely one outcome and benefit of marketing with the goal of profitability.

If you do want to risk additional requests from those who have already been kind enough to cover your topic, take Phil Nottingham’s advice and offer something of value (in his example, HD quality video) in the process.

6. Focusing on links leads to missed opportunities

I was recently reminded of a short-term consulting project I worked on where a large client had dedicated as much as ,000 per month and a full-time employee’s time to buying and renting links. They hadn’t been caught yet, and their rankings were relatively solid, but improvement was minimal. The total traffic from paid links — mostly footer links — was in the low thousands.

The company was so risk averse (a pet peeve of mine) that they were unwilling to stop because their competitors were also buying links. To my knowledge, we never convinced the client to spend half as much producing content or seeking real visibility.

Even giving the money away would be more effective marketing. What blogger wouldn’t participate in a contest for a chance to win a free car? You could literally drop k in cash from your rooftop in a press event and generate more publicity, and probably from more and better sources if done well.

It’s true that the case above is the second or third most extreme example of link-centric myopia I’m aware of, but one need not look far to see less dramatic examples.

For instance, the cost of a typical unbranded guest blog post will also far exceed its value. From first contact to actual posting, the submission will easily take a few hours. More importantly, marketers focused on corresponding with blog owners for links are not focusing on building better businesses, products, content, or websites. The opportunity cost for tactics where link building is the only goal can be enormous — and why, when even guest posting could bring both links and awareness?

7. Marketers should differentiate their services from spammers

The results of emphasizing link building are predictable: marketers new to the industry hear so much about link building that they become desperate for links and turn to spam and paid links. Similarly, clients hear regularly that they need links, and set link goals for their employee or agency. Then, Penguin unleashes its wrath almost exclusively on those who focus on link-building as a process. And, we wonder why it’s so hard to change the perception of SEO in the industry.

Consider this, if you are “link building,” you’re either spamming links or doing online marketing. Those who are practicing sustainable marketing tactics may do well to distance themselves and their activities from spammers using the same terms.

So, what should we do instead?

“Link building” is a phrase used by most industry experts, many of whom I respect deeply. Unfortunately, their use of such terms grants a sort of license, shelter, and reassurance to people doing a very different kind of link building. The ambiguity can take new marketers some time to figure out, and our industry and personal reputations suffer at the hands of ineffective marketing.

Among those who agree with the philosophy presented above, the required change is simple: it’s just a matter of using new words. Many others may find adjustment more difficult; I hope and believe they will also find it more rewarding.

Use better words, track better metrics

When we talk about obtaining visibility, awareness, traffic, or coverage, we immediately ensure we and our clients are talking about similar goals. For processes, we can talk about the actual tactic, whether it’s outreaching for an infographic or hosting a webinar.

If, for some reason, we need to refer to these processes in aggregate, terms like “inbound marketing,” “online marketing,” and “content marketing” might be right, depending on the breadth and focus of services offered.

Changing our choice of words admittedly has less impact than changing what we do, but even altering the use of words can have a surprising effect. “What can we do to get links?” sets an unnecessary and artificial constraint on marketing activities, thereby limiting our marketing to a few activities and making the goal of links explicit.

For the last several months, I’ve been trying to ask better questions. “What can we do to increase visibility and generate awareness? What can we do to drive more qualified traffic? What can we do to increase profit per qualified visitor?” Followed links may be a facet of the resulting strategy, but they are unlikely to be its entire purpose.

We ensure that we’re building better businesses when we track the results of our efforts and report on their impacts. To ensure we are working effectively it’s wise to continue tracking the places we have requested and received online coverage, but we’re more interested in revenue first, traffic second, and rankings third. Coverage (sometimes as standard links) and rankings matter, but only to show progress while working towards traffic and revenue.

Do better marketing

I’m truly excited that we have the skills and knowledge to do something better in a way that other marketers cannot. We have tools that other marketers don’t use in their research, giving us insights into what works before we start building or emailing anyone. We understand the Internet, search engines, and traffic generation. The future looks bright if we can get our priorities straight.

Awareness over links

It is easier to slip links into posts about diverse topics than it is to write a post about a product, service, or company. We all know the kind of guest post I’m talking about: guest posts on mommy blogs that suddenly include suspiciously-targeted anchor text. Posts on pet blogs somehow slipping in a link to a web hosting company. They look like this:

How many people out of a thousand would click on that link? One, maybe two? Compare that with a guest post on the Wall Street Journal by the CEO of a relatively small company.

It’s about the company, branded and obvious. It was no doubt many times harder to obtain this coverage, but it builds awareness, authority, and some links while it’s at it.

You don’t need to get in front of the Journal — you just need to get in front of your target audience. Find out where your audience is, where they are reading, and then talk to them. Build or say something that they will care about, and find interesting, surprising, and useful. If your audience reads mommy blogs, post on mommy blogs. You can build more awareness and more links if you make the posts about your company, product, service, or content rather than sneaking a link in. Such guest posts require more effort and knowledge, but they can actually accomplish goals worth caring about.

Visibility over authority

Imagine a hypothetical situation where you could choose to place an article in one of the following locations:

  1. A large news site, Domain Authority 95, with millions of readers. Your article would be posted in a subcategory of a section where at most 500 people might read it.
  2. A medium-sized blog, Domain Authority 65, with roughly 10,000 readers per day. The blog posts once per day, and your article would be on the home page for the full day.

Most in our industry would choose (1) in a heartbeat. For the reasons outlined above, I would undoubtedly choose (2). We should seek visibility in what we do, even if we sometimes cant get followed links out of it. Even if the resulting Page Authority of the linking page is lower in the end, there is value in higher visibility insofar as there is value in a site’s offerings.

Audiences over rankings

Businesses like MailChimp and Dropbox define their industries. Their brand names dwarf the generic/unbranded terms, most of which they rank for anyway. Their brands overshadow even terms that are broader than the entire industry. Dropbox has more searches than even the most ambiguous terms, dwarfing single-word searches like “storage.” MailChimp doesn’t need to rank first for “mailing list management,” but it would make Google look bad to do otherwise.

No doubt both receive millions of visits from Google, and no doubt the vast majority are branded. Before posting a mediocre post on a mediocre blog with an anchor text link tucked in the back, consider the opportunity cost of seeking keyword rankings rather than audiences.

Better businesses over all

Respected venture capitalist Paul Graham is fond of saying, “make something people want.” Hearing this phrase as advice more than once makes it instantly sound trite, but the underlying philosophy is actually profound. “Of all the potential advice, that is the one thing you should do.” Not build links, not rank highly in Google, but make something people want; you will love your job, and people will love your company.

This philosophy applies to products, services, and business models, but it also applies to marketing and content. SEOs and other digital marketers can and should help make businesses better. We can provide valuable insights into building better websites, better content, and better messaging. When we have built something people want, they will want to share what we have made and said.

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July 15, 2013  Tags: , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

One Response

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