As an agency that creates and promotes content to earn media attention and links, we’re constantly self-evaluating.

Is the work we’re spending 40+ hrs a week doing worth it?

Is it a good use of our time and talents?

Just because the client asks for link building, does that mean we should provide it?

Where do we focus on links and where do we focus on building a content cluster around a strong belief and topic the brand wants to promote.

Arguments Against Link Building

  1. The effort expended towards creating and promoting assets could better be spent improving content and marketing flywheels.
  2. For venture-funded growth startups, building network effects, growth loops, UGC and brand is much more efficient than manual content promotion and link building.
  3. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to get really good and efficient at acquiring links at scale.
  4. Google is constantly trying to sniff out abnormal links that don’t reflect reality. Constant game of cat and mouse. You can spoof it for awhile, but the market will reveal the true preferences of audiences.
  5. There is a school of thought that says Google primarily uses links for discovery, indexing, and seeding initial ranking, but then the user experience algorithm tests and decides on the final 1-3 placements.

Arguments for Link Building

  1. Google has explicitly said “Links help our crawlers find your site and can give your site greater visibility in our search results.”
  2. Simply saying “improve the content and marketing flywheels” is like saying “why fix your plumbing leak, just build a new house”. There’s a massive difference between the two. Of course we all want a brand new mansion, but that may not be realistic this quarter.
  3. Link building can be a part of a path to smarter marketing flywheels. Get things going with manual link building, then create content that gets surfaced on its own.
  4. You can get some great links and media placements by pitching good content. The journalist is very unlikely to write about that without being pitched.
  5. Journalists are used to being pitched by companies & PR firms. If they’re being pitched by 50 people in a day, and 3 of those are worth writing about, they’ll likely write about those 3 than go hunting for 3 new stories on their own.
  6. Link building via content promotion is about making a connection that wouldn’t be there, similar to introducing two colleagues to each other.
  7. I have anecdotally experienced link campaigns that have raised the traffic for the entire website, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
  8. I have seen individual pages rank from just 1-2 powerful links, even though the content wasn’t better than the page 1 average.
  9. There are some industries that will never create a compelling widely-known consumer product that acquires links constantly based on brand. Shining example: a 50-person law firm that bills $50 million a year and top rankings are worth millions in leads. They’ll never see the flywheel affects that AirBnb and Coinbase do.
  10. The hive mind of the SEO industry still places a strong emphasis on links. It’s possible they’re all drastically wrong and a few opposition voices are right, but the wisdom of the crowds says they matter.

Aim to Become a Brand that Doesn’t Need Link Building

I’ve come across SEOs that work with big names in Silicon Valley – name brand marketplaces and aggregators – that “hate link building”.

Their take is that it’s not worth the effort and there are other levers to pull across product, programmatically generated SEO landing pages, and other growth tactics.

And they’re absolutely correct – for their specific situation.

With the luxury of a venture-funded growth team that’s 100% bought into growth engineering and product-led SEO, manual link building is probably the 99th highest ROI item for them to do.

But for the 99% of companies (by volume) that aren’t a venture-funded company or established enterprise with a name brand and growth loops, link building often has a place.

Paddy Moogan said it best:

The uncomfortable truth for many link builders is that a business shouldn’t really need to worry about link building as an intentional, proactive activity. Instead, links should be a natural consequence of a fantastic product or service which is marketed and branded well.

Understand that the above-average company you’re apart of still isn’t likely the exception:

However, companies in this position are the exception rather than the rule, which means that as link builders, we still have a job!

I’d argue that there are only a relatively small number of businesses that truly don’t need to worry about link building. Think of the likes of well-established and popular brands like Apple, McDonalds, Amazon and Coca-Cola. These companies truly are the exception, rather than the rule.

You should aim to get to that point where you don’t worry about link building. But link building will often help you get there faster than not doing it at all.

Trying to be an exception and aiming to reach the nirvana of never actively worrying about link building should absolutely be your goal. Putting efforts into areas such as product development, customer service, content strategy, and brand building will all pay dividends when it comes to link building. But they all take time and you need to generate organic traffic sooner rather than later in order to grow the business.

In essence, pull the right levers for the right channels. It’s likely for a direct-to-consumer ecommerce company with a lust-worthy product targeting Gen Z that spending your entire budget on Tik Tok ads is the way to go.

For an education company, business formation startup, lawyer, lead aggregator, and many other business models, with high CLTVs and margins, that SEO and link building plays an important role.

Better than Link Building: Earn Media Coverage

Link earning is an annoying term, but the intent is good.

You should seek to create assets – data visualizations, data studies, visual content, stats posts, tools, and more – that acquire links on their own over time. They do this by being truly helpful and unique and/or ranking in Google Search for link-intent keywords.

Digital PR has become a new catch-all term for more modern white-hat link building and content promotion but the real value is earning media coverage that offers thousands of brand impressions on external sites. The link is powerful, but the awareness generated can be equally powerful.

You should do digital PR even without link goals in order to get brand awareness. If your company isn’t noteworthy enough to get press coverage because of the brand (AirBnb, Lululemon) or product (Peleton, Coinbase), you can get press coverage with interesting content.

The Big Brain Approach: Unified Marketing Campaigns

I believe that instead of creating isolated, one-off link-building efforts, companies should create unified marketing campaigns.

Companies should start at the top with their company mission and overall business objectives. That should be translated to a compelling marketing strategy that selects the most appropriate channels for this year and quarter.

The CMO should then decide when and if content marketing, digital PR, and link building deserve budget to help accomplish business goals.

Then the company should stand for something and have a unique message.

They should break this message into quarterly campaigns.

These quarterly campaigns are much like traditional advertising campaigns that global brands do with global ad agencies.

The content marketing and digital PR strategies are but one part of this overall campaign.

Content clusters should be identified and created that support this campaign.

In those content clusters, a percentage of content created is:

  • Thought leadership
  • Easy organic traffic acquisition
  • Built for media coverage
  • Built for passive link acquisition
  • Built for social
  • Built for sales support
  • Built for product education

These should all be built with content flywheel effects in mind.

It’s a harder sell, but going all-in across all marketing channels to blanket the airwaves with one cohesive message is much more interesting and powerful than small one-off campaigns that are impossible to measure the impact of.

Joe Robison

Founder & Consultant
Joe Robison is the founder of Green Flag Digital. He founded the agency in 2015 and has been heads-down scaling content marketing and SEO services for clients ever since. He is an occasional surfer, fledgling yogi, and sucker for organized travel tours.
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