Google’s Matt Cutts: Link Building Is Sweat Plus Creativity

Back in June, Google head of webspam Matt Cutts participated in the annual You&A at SMX Advanced in Seattle, an hour-long event in which he was interviewed by SEL founding editor Danny Sullivan live in front of a large audience. A variety topics were covered, including important Google news, changes, and updates.

The video itself is now on SMX’s YouTube Channel, and definitely worth an hour of your time:

As always, Sullivan asked outstanding questions, doing his best to ascertain definitive answers with minimal wiggle room. Cutts was as frank as he ever is, although representing a giant corporation such as Google means he needed to be vague in some aspects. There was, however, one topic on which Cutts was crystal clear: the efficacy of links.

In case you’ve missed it, Cutts has tackled whether or not backlinks will continue to matter numerous times in the last six months. Cutts seized SMX Advanced as yet another opportunity to stand behind links.

One moment in particular stuck in my mind: when Cutts referred to link building as sweat plus creativity. I knew then and there that I had to write a post about Cutts’ words.

link building sweat and creativity

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Evolution Of Links

Perhaps the biggest change within SEO in the last few years is Google’s ability to detect spammy and manipulative links. Prior to the release and improvement of Penguin, there was a very real links arm race happening in the SEO world.

Link spam worked — and it worked too well. But Google’s dependency on links didn’t change with the launch of Penguin (just watch this video), only their ability to detect manipulative and low quality links. This means that links are still important, but bad links will either be discounted or penalized. This begs the question: How do I get the links that matter? What is and isn’t safe?

And that’s where we run into our problem: Google has been adjusting their Webmaster Guidelines, compounding confusion and fear.

It’s frustrating. We’re very aware of the fact that links matter — confirmed by both Matt Cutts and Amit Singhal – but Google is changing what is and isn’t okay when it comes to links.

A great example of this is Matt Cutts’ post on his personal blog in January, The Decay and Fall of Guest Blogging (for SEO). The “for SEO” was added after original publication.

Danny Sullivan actually left a comment himself on the post, which did a great job articulating the frustration many SEOs felt:


Cutts did not respond to the comment, though Danny definitely voiced similar questions at SMX Advanced — likely hoping to end confusion and frustration.

Google & Links Today

Questions concerning the role of links in SEO today weren’t skirted — Danny was clear and direct, pushing for real answers. Matt Cutts was frank about the state of links today: they matter, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Specifically, Matt talks at length about links at 27:03, and then link building (and links) at 54:20.

Four messages stand out to me, beyond the typical Cutts statements about being excellent (which really isn’t enough with the amount of noise online).

    1. The era of shortcuts to quick rankings is over
    2. Link building is not dead
    3. Cutts refers to links as your “online reputation”
    4. Creativity will beat out any tool, product, or service

The Era Of Shortcuts To Quick Rankings Is Over

Shortcuts aren’t good for anyone. We learn this at a young age, and it’s fundamental knowledge taught by all walks of life. We know, both as individuals and as a society that taking shortcuts leads to ruin.

Some quotes from extraordinary people who lived in different time periods, practiced different professions, and all had different backgrounds relay this same ethos:

  • “Short cuts make long delays,” said J.R.R Tolkien.
  • “What is once well done is done forever,” advised Henry David Thoreau.
  • And “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” voiced John Wooden.

Whether you’re an academic, a philosopher, or an athlete those all are words to live by.

SEO fell into an unfortunate arms race when it came to links. Google didn’t have the sophistication to back up their guidelines. Link spam worked, and it worked like crazy. Just a few years ago if you wanted better rankings, all you had to do was spam crap links at your website.

Search was a marketing shortcut, because Google was easy to game. As the web matured, so too did the market’s appreciation of search. No longer do people hesitate to purchase online. People worry much less about sharing personal information online. Real people interact with brands online without blinking. Today having your company represented and visible in search is important in both branding and sales growth.

So it was really only a matter of time before such a valuable marketing channel matured. For search to remain valuable, its integrity can’t be questioned. People need to continue to trust the results. Which means no more gaming, tricks, or shortcuts. Google can’t allow bad results in search if they want to retain their control of the search market, and the subsequent billions in ad revenue.

In the last few years Google’s algorithm has finally caught up to their intent. That’s fundamentally changed SEO. The only solution left is real links that matter. But that by no means translates to SEO, or even link building, being dead.

Link Building Is Not Dead

Despite what Mashable says, both SEO and link building are alive and kicking. Matt Cutts confirmed this, as recently as last month. A survey recently posted on Moz confirms this as well.

Matt Cutts has a million reasons to declare link building dead, or at the very least to discourage SEOs from building links. It’d certainly make his life easier in his role at Google, as Head of Webspam. But he didn’t.

I can only speculate as to why, but I definitely have a few educated guesses.

What it boils down to is this: links are the backbone of the web. They’re our means of navigation, the way we vote and share, the very currency of the web. This was true before Google: it’s what made their original algorithm so powerful. Did Google further spur this online reality? Absolutely. Would this be true if Google didn’t exist? Yes.

Google can regulate links all they like, but when you really look at the web you’ll realize that links are still the primary way information and ideas are shared online. That makes them powerful in their own right.

So Google can control how they (and their algorithm) respond to links, but not links or linking behavior.

The web is too big, and links too ingrained.

Discouraging online marketers from links would be similar to discouraging PR professionals from pursuing press mentions.

Links Are Your Online Reputation

Cutts references links as “your online reputation” within his speech starting at 28:49.

There are a few things within this section that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I think it’s extremely interesting and insightful that Google’s Head of Webspam conflates links with online reputation:

“…it’s also the case that if you do enough excellent, interesting, useful, funny, compelling stuff, usually your reputation, or your links, however you want to think of it, takes care of itself.”  - Matt Cutts

Now online or offline, “be excellent and the rest will follow” isn’t really the truth. If it were the need for marketing, paid advertising, reputation management, PR firms, etc. wouldn’t exist.

I also don’t agree with Cutts’ statement of “What’s my link building strategy? I post useful things, and that’s my link strategy.” I think that Cutts, as Head of Webspam at Google, has just a little bit of a built-in audience interested in the things he says. And to be fair, Cutts did go on to explain in greater detail various ways to build your authority.

But I absolutely agree with Cutts that links are your online reputation, because links boil down to a share: someone sharing your website, your page, who you are. And how people share your company with others is directly tied to your reputation.

Why wouldn’t you be interested in not only monitoring but guiding this conversation?

That’s why I so believe in the efficacy of links, and why link building is fundamental to growing a useful, powerful online presence. Links improve your visibility, increase your reputation, place you in front of new audiences, and increase your name recognition and branding power. Not just in search, but within the sites and pages sharing your link.

Creativity Will Beat Any Tool, Product Or Service

Link building is the marketing of a brand, product, company, or website with links as a priority goal. That doesn’t mean that you put links over a relationship, or ignore any other opportunities. That doesn’t mean that you pursue a link at any cost. It means that you understand the value of a link, and make sure no links are left of the table.

Link building and acquisition are an integral part of any online marketing initiative. Otherwise, you’re missing the hard earned links you deserve.

But when it comes to the actual work of building links, creativity is key.

I’ve long said that the most powerful link building tool in the world is the human brain. The human mind is capable of creativity, ingenuity, and foresight that no technology can match. That no prepackaged plan, strategy, or tactic can meet.

The only way to build real links is to invest in human care. A whole hell of a lot of it.

Every link building campaign needs to be customized and given care, thought, and consideration. There are no more shortcuts. No more outsourcing, no more link wheels, no more link stuffing. No more thin content, no more links just for robots.

Only sweat, hard work, creativity, experience, and human caring. That’s the real secret to building links: be willing to invest.

Otherwise you’re just looking for the shortcut. And we all know that shortcuts lead to short results.

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