The New Emphasis On Link Building: What’s Behind It And How To React

There seems to be a fresh interest in link building. Why now? What do the search engines have to say? How should agencies and companies approach link building?

Why The New Interest In Link Building?

Why are search engine optimizers and agencies more interested in link building again? Because the search engines are getting good at rooting out unscrupulous links, and the internet is getting noisy.

Link building never died, but real link building is difficult, time consuming and costly. It involves a lot of dead ends and frustration. Because advanced link building shares much in common with media relations — a proficiency most internet marketing agencies lack — managers and directors became accustomed to seeking shortcuts, working around link building or avoiding it altogether.


From mass directory submissions to paid links to content networks to guest blogging networks, the SEO industry has consistently sought out software and services (local and abroad) to automate link building or make it easier.

We created old-school link bait and infographics hoping to invoke an if you build it they will come field of dreams where hundreds or thousands of links appear without personally asking. We decided if businesses publish great content and promote it on social media, an audience will grow naturally, and so will links. Except, the search engines became good at devaluing suspect links.

The Social Stumble

There are too many websites putting out viral and want-to-be-viral content. Social media isn’t reaching people like it used to.

Google and Bing never claimed social media was overtaking links. However, until two years ago the search engines appeared more enthusiastic about incorporating social as a ranking factor. Compare this 2010 article by Moz’s Rand Fishkin with Google’s Matt Cutt’s January 2014 webmaster video (autoplay) to see the change in tone for yourself.

[Mark Traphagen published a great breakdown of this video on the Stone Temple blog. (autoplay)]

At SMX Advanced 2012, I participated in Authority Building vs. Link Building In A Search Meets Social World, a panel that discussed the growing importance of social media’s influence on rankings. It was right after that, to my recollection, Matt Cutts first said links would remain intact as the main authority factor for the foreseeable future. It’s similar to what he says in his May 5, 2014 Google Webmasters video (autoplay), “But I would expect that for the next few years, we will continue to use links in order to assess the basic reputation of pages and of sites.”

Yes, social media influences rankings. Bing’s Webmaster Guidelines are clear:

Social media plays a role in today’s effort to rank well in search results.  The most obvious part it plays is via influence.  If you are influential socially, this leads to your followers sharing your information widely, which in turn results in Bing seeing these positive signals.  These positive signals can have an impact on how you rank organically in the long run.

Bing Webmaster Guidelines

For the record, I suspect Bing uses social media signals more aggressively than Google. Of course, Google owns its own Google+ network.

Did social media got blown out of proportion as a ranking factor? Are we in a correction phase?

social mediaThe Social Noise Quagmire

Ranking with links is easier than ranking with social. Like links, social signals depend on quantity and quality. The problem with social is scope and noise.

Picking-up SEO benefits from social has little to do with the influence or popularity of a person or business’ own account.  It’s the quantity and influence of the people who cite and link to your content from their social media accounts. If you’re not already entrenched, that’s harder to do than ever, and it will not get easier.

Take Twitter. In 2012, my Twitter feed was largely conversational. Among the search marketing community, it was common to chat with each other while working. Today, the noise is horrible. I rarely open Twitter because I see almost nothing but links. This makes it nearly impossible to stand-out, create a conversation or get retweets. You better build your reputation elsewhere then bring it to Twitter.

During the early days of social, you could dialog with well-known early adopters like Roger Ebert, Guy Kawasaki, Neil Gaiman and Mark Cuban. Connecting with industry influencers was a snap. Today, these people have too many followers and receive far more messages than they can read or respond to. Many of them filter their feeds or are inactive. Others pop in just long enough to make a post or they automate their posts with tools like IFTTT and Hootsuite.

On Facebook, companies not only have to contend with competing traffic. The platform limits the number of page followers that see posts, without paid promotion. This makes it difficult to use Facebook to leverage followers to share your content and links outside of Facebook.

Ironically, we’re coming full-circle. Because old-style link building was difficult, time intensive and expensive, a lot of SEO agencies put their focus on creating content then promoting it via social media: content marketing.

Publish great content, build an audience, and links will appear. Even if this is an oversimplification, much of the SEO community decided writing copy and infographics was easier than evaluating potential link partners and cultivating relationships.

Now though, because of the time and sustained effort it takes to cut through the noise and gain traction in social media, not to mention the difficulty in obtaining a measurable SEO benefit, more agencies are rethinking links.

The State Of Link Building

If you subscribe to the Pareto Principle,

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. – Wikipedia

two things ought to be apparent:

Websites Need Links

First, 80% of websites need links. If you manage a well-known local, national or global brand, congratulations, you’re in the 20%. Your marketing flywheel is greased and spinning. You’re already getting the links you need or can earn them with modest effort. The other 80% need methodic link building.

Agencies Need To Build Links

Second, 80% of SEO agencies and in-house SEO programs don’t build links. I’m not referring to content marketing. I don’t mean low hanging fruit like submitting to professional directories or scraping emails from related sites then blind blasting to them. Only 20% of agencies build client-specific databases, research inbound link targets, and then make an effort to connect, to get to know people inside those businesses before and between when they want a link.

The Pareto Principal isn’t a law; it’s a generalization. It’s a guide to identify observations that are true enough to act on now, when deep or time-consuming evaluation will not change the outcome.

Here is the outcome: link building is hard. Solving tough problems is good business. Agencies that develop deep proficiency in link building have a huge advantage at obtaining and retaining clients. Don’t believe me? Look at this list of people in the SEO field who specialize in link building or emphasize it in their writing and speaking engagements.

Link Builders

The Search Engines’ View Of Link Building

The latest reason link building is getting a lot of attention is because Bing’s Duane Forrester wrote, “You should never know in advance a link is coming, or where it’s coming from.” I cannot speak for Duane, but I can read between the lines. Duane was a longtime and highly-respected member of the SEO community long before he joined Bing. He knows what it takes to earn links. Were he to direct an SEO agency, I think he’d build a finely-tuned link building team.

It’s important to research potential link sources. You’ll get the best results from people with whom you cultivate a relationship. It’s just like media relations. Journalists are more likely to read and respond to email from people they know and have worked with previously. Relationships are good. Obligations are not.

When you inform somebody about your citation-worthy content, it must be up to each website whether or not to write about it and link. Journalists don’t accept every pitch; neither should members of your link prospects Rolodex.

Sites that can send relevant referral traffic should be at the top of your list. Some SEO practitioners read that narrowly; however, I don’t advocate a strict fundamentalist approach. If it’s an honest, contextual link on an honest site—basically, no one is going to look at the link and wonder what spaceship it fell out of— I’m content to pursue it.

Don’t pursue text links shoved into pages. Find link partners who will tell their readers about the content you’re promoting and ask them to explain why their readers may be interested.

How Search Engines Look At Links

Here’s simple, non-technical way to categorize links much like search engines see them:


Search engines frown on links designed to manipulate the rankings: links in content networks, paid text links, link exchanges, forum spam and so on. At best for you, the search engines will ignore these. Get too close to the edge of the cliff, and the penalties come out. Fall over the edge of the cliff, and the search engines remove your domain. No program should engage in this type of link building. If a client has links like these, depending on the extent, you may need to remove them.


There’s plenty of links perfectly acceptable or desirable for business and referral marketing that should not impact search engine results placements. Typically, these are off-site links your business or agency, places on the web. Press release links are the example du jour.

Banner advertising links are another instance. Usually, Google and Bing will counsel businesses that administer such links to add the nofollow attribute. However, not all legitimate companies do, and it’d be unfair to penalize their customers. You can feel safe that search engines know about these links and ignore them.


If search engines do not ignore or scowl at a link they accept it. How much authority any acceptable link passes depends on the linking site’s authority, the document’s page rank, where the link sits on the page and so on. Some inks get little hugs; some get big hugs. These are the links you must chase.

Search engines want websites to earn huggable links. Google and Bing are cheering for businesses to succeed (and rooting for web spammers to burn in a fiery pit until their domains expire). That’s why they attend and speak at search marketing conferences. They’re not ignorant. They know companies and agencies promote content via relationships. They just want your outreach to be wholesome and the resulting links to be honest, relevant and not slap-dash placed.

How Should Agencies & Companies Approach Link Building?

Don’t give-up your content marketing program and replace it with link building. Do both. Whether publishing articles, infographics, tools and resources or any link-worthy material, solid content meant to attract traffic, combined with visually pleasing, up-to-date graphic design, is a must. Link building does not replace content marketing; it requires it.

Start with web design. Great content inside dated or poor visual design looks dated and unappetizing. Creating a clean, modern design with great fonts is easier than ever. In my opinion, a lot of websites shoot themselves in the foot because they won’t update or cleanup their appearance.

Publish high-quality, citation-worthy content. If I’m contemplating giving you a first link, I will look at your website and what’s on it. If I don’t see a collection of excellent articles or resources or whatever you want me to link to, I’d be unlikely to link to that one thing.

Get to work earning links. Emphasize link building as a discipline. Your agency ought to spend as much time building links for content as it takes to conceive, create and design. If your marketing flywheel is not spinning—if you don’t have a good set of relationships in place—plan to spend more time building links than creating content.

What Counts As Link Building?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could hit publish and know people will link to it or mention it on social media? Pareto-80%ers don’t enjoy such good fortune. Most websites must work for their links.

There’s lots of ways to build links. You can see a comprehensive list of link building tactics at Point Blank SEO. For the practitioner or agency, there are two buckets to dip into.

First you have to harvest the low hanging fruit. For example, Point Blank lists 24 submission opportunities. Some are more effective than others and not all will be appropriate to your business or clients. While you shouldn’t waste time trying to fit square pegs into round holes (For example, should you really submit your client to a CSS directory, and how much good is that ink really going to accomplish?) any diligent competitor will go after the easy links, too. You need them, but these are just a set it and forget it baseline.

[Outspoken Media made a searchable version of the Point Blank SEO link building methods list.]

To get ahead of your competitors, you must use link building tactics from the second bucket. This is where you actively promote quality pieces by reaching out to your network, one person at a time, and bring your content to their attention.

What not to do: don’t make a list of every related website and social media account, then blast them every time you create a piece of signature content. That may earn some links, but you’ll leave a lot of links on the table, you’ll alienate the people you spam, and you’ll get added to block lists. Even worse, it could lead to online reputation management problems.

Instead, become a long-term, co-marketing evangelist.

Start A Database

Get your infrastructure in order. Build a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool for link building or buy one. If you build your own a relational database, like MySQL or Access, will work best, but you can do this in a spreadsheet, too.

Link Building Database Screen Shot

This is a screenshot from Buzzstream, a paid link building CRM. You can build your own tracking database or spreadsheet too.

At the very least, you will need:

  • Website or business information
  • Contact data
  • Company description and keywords (for searching and filtering)
  • Contact history
  • Pitch history
  • Links & social media mentions received
  • Links & social media mentions given
  • Authority score (like Moz Domain Authority)
  • A score for how likely they are to link out

A data entry screen and reports will be helpful as well.

Organize The Network You Have

Take stock of your network you and your agency or company has. Who are your professional friends, customers and suppliers that also blog and use social media? If yours is a funded company, what other startups share the same investors?

What businesses are your board members connected to? Do members of your executive team sit on any company boards? If you work in an agency, which clients can share synergies? If you have friends at other agencies, do they have clients compatible with yours?

Starting a network doesn’t come easy. A good way to get things moving is by becoming an evangelist. Meet with the people you listed, discuss your shared challenges and how participating in a network can be mutually advantageous. Get the ball rolling.

As you work on client projects, actively research and prospect for new partners. As you do, try to keep the focus on relationships and the long-term. It’s okay to pursue one-time link opportunities, but your real goal is to build a link-building engine that keeps going. You don’t want to start from zero every time.

Keep track of your network. Actively reciprocate and keep an eye out for opportunities on the other members’ behalf. When you can give someone a nice link or social media mention, whether from your site, one of your clients’ or an altogether different site, they’ll appreciate it. What goes around comes around.

Here’s two great articles on relationship building for links.

Growing a network takes time. Push the flywheel; get it moving. Eventually, you’ll build momentum and your link building will become much easier. For agencies, when you can create this type of momentum for your clients, they will come to rely on you and be less likely to leave.

Now let’s get out there and earn more huggable links!

 (Stock image via Used under license.)