For years, link building was the best way to increase your rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs). With enough links, and links from suitably strong sources, you could reliably climb the SERPs and eventually dominate the competition.
But does link building still work?
Table of Contents
What Is Link Building?
Let’s start answering this question by explaining the basics of link building.
As the name suggests, link building is the process of establishing more links pointing back to your site.
Why was it ever important?
Google chooses how to rank webpages in its SERPs based on two main factors: relevance and authority. The relevance of a webpage is a measurement of how appropriate it is for a given query. If a user searches for “ice cream” and your website has a lot of content about ice cream, you’ll probably stand a good chance of ranking.
But what if there are literally thousands of other websites that have just as much content about ice cream? This is where authority comes in. Google preferentially ranks content that it deems to be trustworthy, or authoritative. So if you want to have a competitive edge, you need to increase your perceived trustworthiness.
The “authority” of a domain and/or its individual pages is determined by an algorithm. The more links you have, and the more authoritative those links are, the higher your authority is going to climb. The higher your authority is, the higher you’ll rank in SERPs.
Historically, search optimizers could boost the rankings of their websites by, frankly, spamming links. They could build links in blog posts and forum comments with reckless abandon, benefitting from the inbound surge of authority.
Link building remains important, at least in some form.
Here’s why. It’s practically impossible to rank high in search engines without links. Even if you have amazing content and a perfectly structured site, you’re still going to struggle to rank unless you have inbound links to support your authority. Build and/or earn enough high-quality links, and you’ll have a much bigger competitive advantage.
But it’s not just about SEO. There are other benefits to link building as well, including:
Referral traffic. Each link you build functions like a normal web link, in addition to passing authority to your site. That means the people who encounter these links will have the option to click them and be immediately transported to your website. If you build links with a high-traffic publisher, this could result in thousands of additional visitors to your site (without having to worry about search engines).
Brand mentions. Building links is also a great way to earn brand mentions. Just seeing the name of your company in the body of a high-quality article can be beneficial for your business. This is especially powerful at larger scales, when you’ll have tens of thousands of people seeing your brand name regularly.
Publisher relationships. As we’ll see, modern link building strategies require you to build relationships with high-quality publishers. These relationships can be valuable in their own right; you could use them to discover new PR opportunities, meet content collaborators, and get introductions to even more powerful institutions.
The Death of Old School Link Building
Let’s take a look at traditional, or “old school” link building. Does this strategy still work?
The flat answer is “no.”
Over the years, Google has tightened its grip on the link building world. Understandably, this search engine doesn’t want people to be able to manipulate their rankings reliably with user-unfriendly tactics like link spam. So to fight back, Google improved its algorithms and imposed penalties on domains engaging in shady tactics.
This was a gradual evolution, with a few massive leaps forward (like the Penguin update of 2012). But as we stand today, if you’re caught engaging in any kind of link scheme, you’re going to catch a penalty.
In other words, if you’re spamming links, buying links outright, or otherwise disregarding the average user’s experience, your website will actually go down in rankings, rather than rising up. In egregious cases, you may even be blacklisted from Google search results.
These days, “black hat” link building practices still technically exist. Occasionally, you’ll hear of a link building company or an ambitious domain engaging in tactics like these. They may even see temporary gains from using them. But sooner or later, Google will find out and catch up – and every site that utilizes black hat link building techniques will pay the price.
Modern Link Building Practices
So why is link building still considered integral to modern SEO?
Because the definition of “link building” has evolved. These days, when people talk about link building, they’re talking about a variety of tactics designed to attract more inbound links while still preserving web user experience and maximizing the value of each link.
One of these tactics could be called link earning, rather than link building. The basic idea here is to ensure your links are as natural as possible by attracting them naturally. You’ll start by writing the highest-quality, most valuable content possible on your main website. If this content is suitably descriptive, detailed, and original, people will want to link to it on their own blogs and websites. To close the gap, you merely have to spend time promoting your content and making it more visible.
The problem with this is that it’s inconsistent and unreliable. You may show your content to 10,000 social media followers, and all of them may love it, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to build links to your site. Even if they do build links to your site, there’s no guarantee those links will be high-authority, or that they’ll accumulate fast enough to help you increase your rankings.
Most link builders compensate for this by building links via offsite content. The idea is to write high-quality content for high-authority publishers, including a truly valuable link back to high-quality work on your own site in the body of that piece. Over time, these guest posts will help you snowball your authority and boost your rankings enormously.
To be successful with this type of link building, you’ll need to pay attention to several variables, including:
Destination page value. First, you need to think about the value of the destination page. When a reader clicks on your link and visits your website, they should be glad they did. Greeting them with a detailed, informational post is a great way to do this; it’s also a great way to start the visit with a positive first impression.
Destination page relevance. It’s not enough to throw in a link to a well-written post. Your destination page also needs to be relevant to the linking content. If your guest post is all about which toppings go best on hot dogs, linking to a page about building bookshelves would be irrelevant, and therefore problematic.
Anchor text and context. Anchor text, the text that “houses” your link, used to be one of the most significant considerations in a link building strategy. Stuffing anchor text with target keywords could help your strategy enormously. These days, it’s less valuable. Stuffing keywords into your anchor text can actually work against you if it makes your link seem spammy or irrelevant. Instead, it’s best to simply ensure your anchor text is relevant to both your link and the surrounding content.
Accompanying links. Including a single link to a page of your site is a bad idea. To make it more natural (and make your post more valuable), it’s better to include a variety of different links to other high-authority sources. Cite facts and statistics, and give your readers links to further reading as well.
Content quality. The quality of your content matters not just to the value of the link you build, but also to the impressions of the people reading it. Make sure all your guest posts are well-researched, well-written, and enjoyable to read. The better your post is, the more valuable your link will end up being.
Publisher quality. The more authoritative the publisher is, the more authority your link is going to pass. Working with nationally revered, universally trusted publishers will reward you with far more valuable links. The catch is, these publishers are also more discerning and therefore harder to work with. You’ll have to work your way up from small-time publishers to these content juggernauts.
Publisher relevance. While it’s certainly acceptable to publish content with a general-purpose publisher, it’s better in the early days to work with publishers who are relevant to your website, specifically. Local news outlets, industry magazines, and websites like yours are all solid options to get started. You’ll also need to write your guest post to fall in line with publisher standards and audiences; otherwise, you’ll have a hard time getting your content accepted.
Timing. You also need to be cautious about the timing of your link building. If you build links too quickly after launching your site, it will seem suspicious, and it could attract a penalty instead of helping you boost your authority.
Volume. Similarly, you need to keep an eye on your link building volume. To an extent, building and earning more links is a good thing; however, if you build too many links or build them too quickly in succession, it could work against you.
A plan to scale. Finally, you need some kind of plan to scale. You’ll have to start with a small smattering of links across a handful of low-quality publishers. Eventually, you’ll want to build many links per week with some of the best publishers in the world. How are you going to bridge that gap? How can you gradually increase your spending and effort to get to this level? For many websites, this is the hardest challenge to tackle, and it’s a problem that takes years to solve.
Understandably, it gets a bit complicated, and many optimizers find it difficult to manage their own link building campaigns.
On top of that, you’ll need to consider how link building integrates with the rest of your SEO campaign and your digital marketing strategy overall. How much time, money, and effort should you spend on link building? How does it mesh with your PR strategy? How are your rankings changing over time?
Does Link Building Still Work?
Overall, link building still works. More than that, link building is practically essential if you want to increase your search engine rankings.
However, the traditional course of link building, and the literal act of “link building” can land you in hot water. If you aren’t careful, or if you’re inexperienced, these old school forms of link building will get you penalized.
Instead, to make it work, you’ll need:
A commitment to high-quality links. Every link you build needs to be high quality. That means it should be embedded in great content, it should point to great content, it should be featured on a strong publisher, it needs to be contextually relevant, and above all – it needs to add real value to web users. People need to be glad to see your link; they shouldn’t be rolling their eyes at an obvious marketing ploy.
A broad-spectrum digital marketing strategy. Link building is most effective when it’s an integrated part of an overarching digital marketing strategy. There are many benefits to link building – not just search ranking benefits – and you’ll want to capitalize on all of them, if you can.
The help of a professional link building agency. Most amateurs find it exceptionally difficult to begin and manage a quality-centric link building strategy. It’s challenging to build relationships with authoritative publishers from scratch and developing the right kinds of content at the right times can be tricky. That’s why many ambitious webmasters end up working with a professional link building agency to maximize their chances of success.
You heard it here. Link building still works, but it’s not as straightforward or as easy as it used to be. If you want a good chance to rank higher, your best bet is to work with a link building agency. Or, if you’re an agency yourself, our white label link building services are made for white hat and hands-off link building for your clients.
Contact us today for a free consultation, or to learn more about how we can support your business with link building services!
Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.
Over the years he's written for publications like Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin & Twitter.
Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii. Over the years he's written for publications like Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.