A Look Back On One Crazy Year Of Link Building

If 2012 was the year of Google Algorithm updates — Moz counted 37 big ones compared to the 15 in 2013 and 21 in 2011 — 2013 was the year that link building suffered from a serious identity crisis.

It was sidelined, stretched, swindled and spit back out again more times than your average SEO pitches a guest blog post; but somehow it survived, and it will slide into 2014 broken, beaten and a little bloody. Let’s look back on everything that went down in link building in 2013.

Link Building Died

Some say it died; some cry blasphemy at that statement — but whatever side of the fence you’re standing on, you can’t argue that the link building of 2013 was anything like the link building of 2011 and even 2012. Google got smarter, users savvier and the algorithm harder to game.

The traditional “10 blue links” SERP is rarely spotted anymore; instead, it is cluttered with Google Shopping, image results, map listings or news results… or sometimes a mix of all of them. That invariably made link building harder because you didn’t know what you were building for.

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It Was Resurrected By “Content Marketing”

2013 was the year that people started replacing “link building” with “content marketing.” For a little bit there, it seemed to be working; and, from looking at Google Trends, that could still keep happening in 2014.


I love content marketing. I love link building. I love it even more when they work together, but that doesn’t mean I can use the terms interchangeably.

Content marketing is creating content that’s specific to each subset of your users and giving it to them at the time they’re ready to absorb it. Link building is doing something to get more links to a page. You can do that with content, but you can do it with a dozen other tactics, too.

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It Was Briefly Renamed Link Earning

Where link building implies taking an aggressive, active action in order to get one link, link earning is purely organic. You create something that deserves to be linked to, not something you have to convince someone to link to.

“You want my link? You better damn well work for it,” bloggers started to say.

To me, changing link building to link earning makes a lot of sense because it’s a better description of what we do. We’re not “building” anything, as that implies there will be something at the end of it to show for our work (when we all know that’s not always the case). Even one-to-one actions like resource listings or broken link building still require you to have something worthy of being linked to.

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Public Relations & Media Outreach Were Weaved In

Every aspect of link building requires some sort of outreach, regardless if it’s to bloggers, journalists, webmasters or experts. The best link builders are the ones who know how to create an instant connection with someone in just a four-sentence email.

When bloggers stopped putting up with the guest blogging onslaughter, link building moved to attracting traditional news outlets for mentions (and links). That required you to get savvier in how you pitch them. Yes, journalists crave content, but they’re also sticklers for it being news-worthy and attention grabbing.

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And It Claimed More Tactics As Link Schemes

I think we all breathed a little sigh of “well duh” when Google finally added guest posting, press releases and advertorials with over-optimized anchor text to their link schemes. Still, it shook a lot people simply because of the vagueness of Google’s language. Even if you were doing the right thing, Google could just decide that you “intended to manipulate PageRank.”

Guest blogging will continue to exist in 2014, but it won’t be a viable, scalable or efficient tactic. Spending two hours writing and five hours sourcing with the hope that someone, anyone will post your article is time wasted that your competitors are taking advantage of.

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In spite of all these changes, link building isn’t going anywhere. It can’t — Google relies on links for rankings. They’re the word-of-mouth endorsement for search engines. It’s not like they can take verbal endorsements and just know what to rank. Sorry, Google. You’re good, but you’re not that good.

What do you think was the biggest change link building faced in 2013? Where will it take is in 2014? Tell me in the comments below.