A Look Back On One Crazy Year Of Link Building

If 2012 was the year of Google Algorithm updates — Moz counted 37 big ones compared to the 15 in 2013 and 21 in 2011 — 2013 was the year that link building suffered from a serious identity crisis.

It was sidelined, stretched, swindled and spit back out again more times than your average SEO pitches a guest blog post; but somehow it survived, and it will slide into 2014 broken, beaten and a little bloody. Let’s look back on everything that went down in link building in 2013.

Link Building Died

Some say it died; some cry blasphemy at that statement — but whatever side of the fence you’re standing on, you can’t argue that the link building of 2013 was anything like the link building of 2011 and even 2012. Google got smarter, users savvier and the algorithm harder to game.

The traditional “10 blue links” SERP is rarely spotted anymore; instead, it is cluttered with Google Shopping, image results, map listings or news results… or sometimes a mix of all of them. That invariably made link building harder because you didn’t know what you were building for.

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It Was Resurrected By “Content Marketing”

2013 was the year that people started replacing “link building” with “content marketing.” For a little bit there, it seemed to be working; and, from looking at Google Trends, that could still keep happening in 2014.


I love content marketing. I love link building. I love it even more when they work together, but that doesn’t mean I can use the terms interchangeably.

Content marketing is creating content that’s specific to each subset of your users and giving it to them at the time they’re ready to absorb it. Link building is doing something to get more links to a page. You can do that with content, but you can do it with a dozen other tactics, too.

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It Was Briefly Renamed Link Earning

Where link building implies taking an aggressive, active action in order to get one link, link earning is purely organic. You create something that deserves to be linked to, not something you have to convince someone to link to.

“You want my link? You better damn well work for it,” bloggers started to say.

To me, changing link building to link earning makes a lot of sense because it’s a better description of what we do. We’re not “building” anything, as that implies there will be something at the end of it to show for our work (when we all know that’s not always the case). Even one-to-one actions like resource listings or broken link building still require you to have something worthy of being linked to.

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Public Relations & Media Outreach Were Weaved In

Every aspect of link building requires some sort of outreach, regardless if it’s to bloggers, journalists, webmasters or experts. The best link builders are the ones who know how to create an instant connection with someone in just a four-sentence email.

When bloggers stopped putting up with the guest blogging onslaughter, link building moved to attracting traditional news outlets for mentions (and links). That required you to get savvier in how you pitch them. Yes, journalists crave content, but they’re also sticklers for it being news-worthy and attention grabbing.

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And It Claimed More Tactics As Link Schemes

I think we all breathed a little sigh of “well duh” when Google finally added guest posting, press releases and advertorials with over-optimized anchor text to their link schemes. Still, it shook a lot people simply because of the vagueness of Google’s language. Even if you were doing the right thing, Google could just decide that you “intended to manipulate PageRank.”

Guest blogging will continue to exist in 2014, but it won’t be a viable, scalable or efficient tactic. Spending two hours writing and five hours sourcing with the hope that someone, anyone will post your article is time wasted that your competitors are taking advantage of.

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In spite of all these changes, link building isn’t going anywhere. It can’t — Google relies on links for rankings. They’re the word-of-mouth endorsement for search engines. It’s not like they can take verbal endorsements and just know what to rank. Sorry, Google. You’re good, but you’re not that good.

What do you think was the biggest change link building faced in 2013? Where will it take is in 2014? Tell me in the comments below.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building | Link Building: General | Link Week Column | Search Engine Land's 2013 Search Marketing Year In Review | Top News


About The Author: is an experienced digital strategist, content developer and search marketer. She's currently the SEO Manager for The Home Depot and has previously worked agency-side for mid-sized business and Fortune 500 companies. She speaks regularly on digital strategy, content development and inbound marketing at conferences nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @erinever.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    Hi Erin,
    since Disqus failed to post my reply when I tried, I had to post my reply to you here : http://www.wtff.com/p.php?h=LinkBuilding_122

  • Zach Griffith

    Are you link building? :-)

  • Zach Griffith

    Are you link building? :-)

  • http://wtff.com/ JustConsumer

    Nope. Just the path )

    But your question perfectly shows, that something is wrong with links in the modern Internet )

  • Zach Griffith

    Great post Erin!

    I think every content strategy (formerly known as “Link Building”) needs to start with one question “Will any of this ever get shared?”. If you can’t honestly answer that question with “Yes!”, you may want to reconsider your topics.

    If you consistently strive to write share-worthy content (with a source link), repeat visits / links should come naturally. It’s important to note that Google is very aware of content surrounding links, so a simple (Non-Keyword-Stuffed) source link should work nicely.

    It’s only a matter of time until social signals rule the SERPs, so if your team is stuck in the old “We need to produce massive amounts of content with a boatload of keyword-rich anchor text to meet quotas” mode, you may want to rethink things a bit.

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Totally agree with you Erin. I frequently get asked if link building is still important and if they should be doing it. My response is generally: Your competitors would love it if you didn’t build any more links.

    My point is that links are still incredibly valuable. Not spammy, cheap links like the old days. But earned links because people want to freely link to your useful content. You might have to assist by sharing it on social media and asking for a link now and then, but it’s almost always worth the effort.

  • http://www.searchlocalhq.com/ Toby Crabtree

    Great Post Erin. This was really informative. Link building is all about getting quality links and I am sure guest blogging would be the future of 2014.

  • http://yousufseo.elance.com/ Yousuf Seo

    Nice post Erin. Thanks for sharing.

  • Erin Everhart

    I think I’ll have to steal that line whenever people ask if they should still invest in link building :) Thanks for commenting!

  • Erin Everhart

    Social signals are hard because it’s turning Google into a brand machine. The companies that have a bigger following (big brands) perform better, but they’re also putting out better content, right?

  • Zach Griffith

    Whether it’s business or personal branding, I think turning into a brand machine is inevitable.

    When social indicators start being used more heavily, big brands will have to have good content in order to survive. People won’t interact with something they don’t like and social algorithms will detect that / adjust accordingly.

    At the end of the day it’s all about a quality experience for users and I can’t help but think that social signals will be a primary factor when ranking results in the near future.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “To me, changing link building to link earning makes a lot of sense because it’s a better description of what we do”

    I totally agree with you. We can still “build” a few links here and there, but for the most part links aren’t falling out of the sky. You have to create something of value that gets people wanting to link to you.

  • http://www.verticalmeasures.com/services/quality-link-building/ @CliqueKaila

    Great article Erin!

  • http://ReturnOnNow.com/ Tommy Landry

    Agreed that link building in the traditional sense is (gladly) down and out. That said, there’s a good opportunity for a more marketing-based outreach program focused on valuable content items. The key is that, content for content’s sake won’t get you there. Rather than repurposing the PR team to become link solicitors, it makes sense to hire an SEO firm to take on that work on the client’s behalf. The potential opportunity is actually quite large, although less scalable and resistant to any automation tricks. Content + Outreach = the new Linkbuilding.

  • http://www.kingged.com/ Kingsley

    I agree, it has been one crazy year, but the truth is that there are still those who continue to do link building the old way, regardless of what anyone else tells them. Whether it works for them, still, is another thing.


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