Commentary

The Case Against Link Building

Here’s a controversial admission for an SEO: I don’t believe in link building. In fact, I haven’t done any explicit link building for more than five years. One of the key currencies of web authority, inbound hyperlinks can make or break a site’s visibility across the search engine results pages (SERPs). But I’m perfectly content with letting the chips fall where they may. I’m happy when you to link to my content, but you won’t catch me begging. I say this for two reasons: 1) pre-existing authority; and 2) spam. Let me explain.

A majority of my SEO experience has been in the B2B and healthcare industry verticals, exclusively on the agency side. In these environments, I’ve seen the same thing time and again: companies that don’t have a clue how authoritative their websites already are. Strong toolbar PageRank marks, a healthy non-spam backlink profile, plenty of anchor link keyword diversity, and a strong thematic focus are all often present. A lack of applied SEO smarts is the missing ingredient.

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Not to trivialize the importance of those missing pieces, but in more cases than not a strong SEO foundation exists. For any SEO worth his salt, these are the opportunities to dream of. And there are plenty of these examples in the wild.

There’s also a seedier side of link building that adds to my distaste for the practice: spam. I am of the firm belief that link building, when it takes the form of requesting that a Webmaster link to your site(s) purely for SEO gains, is by definition unnatural. It’s an artificial manipulation of a site’s backlink profile. In theory, the best and most-useful content and experiences will naturally accrue hyperlinks and social mentions. Asking for that type of attention to influence search rankings feels deceptive, if not outright spammy.

I recall (now with fondness) the good old days of link building. When I was just cutting my SEO teeth, one of my first assignments was to use an application called Zeus Internet Marketing Robot in order to “build some links” for a new client. That program would scour the Web for potential reciprocal link partners, after the user would enter keywords and competitor domains. Part of the crawling process would extract webmaster email addresses, and the application would even help you develop a “link partners” page to publish on your site.

“Link to me, buddy, and I’ll link to you. Dumb old Google.” Like every other spam-like tactic, that practice too was eventually quashed and those who had over-relied on its effectiveness found themselves out of luck, and out of the SERPs.

My anti-link building stance is one that I’ve largely kept close to my vest, for fear of public backlash from those who specialize in link building or evangelize it as a best-practice tactic. With the advents of both Panda and Penguin, Google algorithm enhancements aimed at down-ranking poor quality sites and ones with unnatural backlink profiles, I feel it’s safe to come out. And just this week I received very timely validation in the latest Rimm-Kaufman Group newsletter, “The Dossier” (which was very well done, btw), which referenced the firm’s focus on quality content creation and marketing in lieu of legacy link building tactics.

So there, I’ve said it. I don’t believe in link building. I believe instead in optimizing the user experience through content, and engagement through social mechanisms and platforms.

That belief will be tested over the next few weeks, too. My team and I are responding to new SEO client opportunities where link building is clearly identified as necessary elements. Our collective response will be: Why bother?

4 comments about "The Case Against Link Building".
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  1. Steven Sevell from Sevell+Sevell, Inc., September 16, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.

    First blog I've read promoting not going out of your way to get back links. Thank you. Have the same theory, but some found competitors have 3 or 4 times as many back links as us, so thinking they're the non-organic variety. So some Qs: have you seen SERP demotion of sites that have non-organic back links (beside the JCP fiacso), any thoughts about article posting sites, what online resources do you recommend to check the # of back links to one's site, ) and would you share how many back links does your company has? (though I understand if you prefer not to share). Thanks again.

  2. Catherine Lockey from oz 2 designs LLC, September 16, 2013 at 1:15 p.m.

    Thanks for speaking it Ryan. I too have utilized only content driven SEO in the last 4 years with outstanding results. Google updates show a "pattern of behavior" indicating it will continue to cares less and less about backlinks and more about proper code, industry standard design, and relevant authoritative content that is liked and shared. :):)

  3. Ruth Barrett from EarthSayers.tv, September 16, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.

    More liking than linking these days of social. Keep to the linking for partners, sponsors, and coalitions for mutual promotion. Thanks for addressing the over emphasis on linking.

  4. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity, September 17, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.

    Great stuff as always Ryan, and I agree about 95%. Link building should still be done, but as a natural byproduct of doing the right things from the standpoint of maximizing a brand's online footprint. To cite just one area - PR - getting a product reviewed, an executive quoted in an article, or a bylined article published can all produce backlinks; but PR professionals should be doing those things regardless. However, yes, the old spammy ways of begging or buying links have clearly gone by the wayside.

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