It’s loved. It’s hated. It’s promoted and criticized. And in my opinion, it’s misrepresented and misunderstood.
Link building, in the general sense, is a marketing tactic closely associated with search engine optimization (SEO). The idea is simple. Construct links pointed back to specific pages of your website, using external domains (and preferably, high-authority ones). Allow those links to funnel traffic to your pages immediately. Over time, benefit from the increased “domain authority” that these links give you and increase your chances of ranking highly in search engines.
It’s straightforward and easy for even a non-expert in the realm of SEO to understand.
So why is it so controversial?
A checkered past
You could say that link building has a checkered past. Since its inception, Google’s search engine algorithm has preferentially ranked sites that demonstrated high levels of trustworthiness, utilizing a system known as PageRank. In its early stages, PageRank simply calculated a website’s authority based on the number of links pointing to it and the authority levels of the referring sources.
Aggressive practitioners worked quickly to take advantage of this, essentially spamming links to improve their rankings quickly. In this era, it would have been appropriate to label link building as a scourge upon the web.
But since then, Google has taken evasive and protective action. The search engine is now equipped with algorithm changes and improvements that can detect link quality — and penalize anyone spamming links or compromising the average user’s experience. These days, only “good” links are rewarded.
Schemers and the modern black hat ring
Of course, that hasn’t stopped link schemers and other “black hat,” unethical SEO professionals from using bad links to boost rankings. Google outlines a variety of link schemes it deems to be violations of its terms of service, such as exchanging money for links directly or using automated systems to blindly build links.
It doesn’t take much searching to find companies willing to build links aggressively and cheaply, with no regard for content, context or overall link quality. Because of this, many people have walked away with a false conception that all link building companies — and perhaps all SEO professionals – engage with link building this way.
This isn’t the case. Most modern SEO pros are exceedingly cautious with link building, preserving user experience as much as possible. And all link spammers and schemers do, eventually, get caught and penalized.
The link earning vs. link building debate
There’s also controversy because of a persistent link earning vs. link building debate — even with the ethical constraints of “white hat” SEO as a priority in both camps.
The modern approach to white hat link building is to rely on editorial links and other links that come as a natural byproduct of well-written, user-serving content. In other words, writing content and making users happy is priority one — and links are priority two.
Link earners suggest these measures still aren’t enough, and instead prefer to cultivate links only through passive earning. Typically, that means writing great onsite content, promoting it and building relationships so people link to it naturally.
In reality, both approaches are natural, ethical and effective.
Is the controversy deserved?
So is the controversy deserved?
Here’s my stance. In some ways, the controversy isn’t deserved because link building isn’t always a bad strategy. But because there are so many different ways to approach link building, and because there’s always some ambiguity when it comes to digital marketing ethics, there’s certainly room for criticism and debate.
Consider the facts:
Link building ethics can be ambiguous. For starters, it’s hard to claim what’s ethical and what isn’t. If it provides something valuable to a user, is it ethical by default? Are ethics determined solely by what qualifies for a Google penalty?
There’s a wide gap between the best and worst link building tactics. All link building tactics fall somewhere on the ethical spectrum. Some deserve a terrible reputation, while others should be more promoted. The gap between the dirtiest spammy tactics and the best, most passive tactics is wider than most people think.
Links are valuable for everyone when built correctly. If executed well, link building can be good for everyone involved. Websites get more visibility and traffic. Publishers look better. Users get more information. Everyone wins.
Links remain a practical necessity in SEO. It’s almost impossible to rank without a solid backlink profile — so in some ways, link building is inescapable.
As far as I’m concerned, link building is all but a requirement if you want your site to have any chance of increasing its visibility and incoming traffic in the modern era. And because there are “good” and “bad” ways to approach link building, link building itself shouldn’t be the target of unilateral rancor. When done correctly, link building has the potential to be sincere and beneficial for all parties involved.
Timothy Carter is the Chief Revenue Officer of the Seattle digital marketing agency SEO.co, DEV.co & PPC.co. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO and 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 with a cup of Kona coffee.