Contrarian Perspectives On Link Building

Today’s column is not easy for me to write. I’ve resisted writing it because I don’t want to come across as a preaching. smug, I-told-you-so-LinkMoses. Then again, plenty of people already think that, so what the heck. Here goes.

The overwhelming majority of websites have no business whatsoever being on the web at all.

Which sites? Any site with a business model predicated on search engines being their primary driver of traffic. If your business plan sounds something like this “We will launch a site about XYZ, buy a bunch of links, put out a bunch of press releases, outsource our link building, hire a bunch of content creators to push articles with anchor text all over the web, get high rankings, monetize with paid ads, and then wait for the buyout offers.


You might make it for a little while, and congrats if you lasted long enough to find an idiot to buy your house of cards website while it still ranked, but the fact of the matter is any web marketing and linking strategy that bases its fortunes on being able to confuse, fool, or deceive algorithms is folly.

I have a unique perspective. In 16 years, I have created linking strategies for some of the most famous web brands of all time, as well as sites you have never heard of. From Amazon to Zillow, from Abercrombie to Communication Arts, from Art Nexus to PBS to TV Guide to National Geographic to Disney to hundreds of mom & pop sites doing just fine in their niches. Many of those linking strategies were created and executed long before Google existed.

When I was creating linking strategies in a world where those links had no impact on search rank, it gave me an incredible insight into what the engines wanted to see when Google came on the scene. Why? I saw my client’s sites all sitting pretty in top positions. That was never my intent, since I had no idea Google was coming on the scene at all.

So, that’s when I started studying links day and night. It was a decade ago. I wanted to know just what it was that I had done that ended up appealing to Google to the extent that my clients were ranking without ranking being my primary goal.

Since I am not a programmer, I had to hire people to help me. This is the first time I have written publicly about how I did this, but it’s important to share it to give you a foundation for where I’m coming from.

I had a friend at the University of Tennessee write me a series of perl scripts that pulled the top 100 results for any given search term from a multitude of different engines, and I had a second script written that would pull back links found pointing at all those sites.

A third script looked for citations (URLs included in text but not contained within <a href> tags. Because I did not sell my scripts, and because I only used them for private client work, and because they ran from an .edu box via telnet (yes, telnet), and because nobody was doing back link analysis yet, I lived in my own private linking data lab for years.

Most of the core things I learned then are still true today, and the most remarkable thing I learned was just how wrong all the link building service companies were, and still are. The fact that this week alone, I have already received more email spam than ever offering article marketing and directory submission and press release distribution services just drives that point home deeper. The last gasps of dying services. They know the end is coming. So long and good riddance.

Back to what I learned.

First, as I have mentioned before, during then 16 years I have performed linking campaigns, I have never once used any of the following so-called link building tactics:

  • Mass Press Releases
  • Article syndication via article databases
  • General Directory submissions
  • Blog commenting
  • Paid reviews
  • Link swaps
  • Link networks

Why don’t I use these tactics? Because the data I compiled and studied indicated the sites that ranked highest did not use those tactics, while the sites that did use those tactics often saw a brief spike up the ladder and a permanent retreat.

The links I pursued were from non-spam, legit sites within the same subject matter as my client’s sites. Nowadays, my process continues to be perfected with the launch of Qbot2.0. Take a look at Qbot’s findings, it’s brilliant in its forehead slapping logic.

The Great Big Rub

Everyone has a right to launch a web business and seek their share of web riches. Everyone has a right to use whatever tactics they feel they need to use to compete and succeed. The rub is the millions of sites that launched did so with no unique compelling reasons for other sites to link to them. This spawned a multitude of services claiming to be able to help them overcome this obstacle. But the underlying problem still existed.

There are only so many ways you can produce unique content about golf clubs or steak houses or Prozac. And then you are right back where you were. Your site now has some marginal quality content that is indistinguishable from the 400 other sites that are doing the same thing.

How many different ways are there to describe a sand wedge anyway? Add a video? Why? I can too. You are not addressing the fundamental content problems you face. The search engines know your site is no different or better than the other 400 sites doing the same thing, so all your efforts to try and prove you are better are doomed.

A Couple Of Contrarian Findings

Here are a couple things I’ve learned that on the surface seem to make no sense at all, but then upon further research, make perfect sense.

Let me also state right up front that these are based on my own study of hundreds of thousands of URLs, not some formula that can provide concrete evidence I am right. There isn’t one. (I hope that made Michael Martinez happy:)

Smaller Can Be Better

The sites that have the greatest potential to help your organic search rank are almost always sites that will send you little direct referral traffic. To restate that, a site that sends you no visitors can end up dramatically improving your rank. How? I’ll save that for next column, but here’s a hint:

Why does this site rank #1 for used car prices? Because of a plentiful collection of links from sites like Cape Cod Classics Car Club and other links from smaller, subject-specific legitimate organizations with websites that exist not for SEO reasons, but for sharing information about highly specific topics for a specific and highly interested audience. I’ll bet that link on the Cape Cod site is clicked a couple times a month, tops. It isn’t about clicks, it’s about the credibility and intent of the linking site and the credibility of it’s own inbound links.

Get Away From Google

Then more you design your linking strategies to increase your Google SERP traffic, the more risk you create over time if you succeed, or if you fail. Why? Because you have devoted resources, time and money to a single traffic source with no concrete evidence it will work, work for how long, or work at all.

I’m not saying ignore Google, but with Google getting ever more aggressive in how it values signals, you’d better be developing a counterpart linking strategy that does not depend on Google for traffic at all. That’s a hard concept to get your head around in a Google-centric world, but the less you depend on any engine for your success, the greater the likelihood you will succeed.

I’ve asked this question before, but it’s worth asking again: If all the search engines shut down tomorrow, would you survive, and if so, how would you change your linking strategy?

The great contrarian takeaway here is that by worrying less about Google, I’ve ended up ranking higher at Google for the terms I care about most, one of which is custom linking strategies, and of course, link building expert. Have a look. Not once in my life have I pursued links on other sites in any form or fashion that were designed to rank for those terms. But, and here’s the real win, I get less than 15% of my traffic from Google anyway, and I like it that way.

While many SEOs and agencies high five and party when they see their sites higher in the rankings, for me, a perfect traffic scenario would be a site sees its traffic and leads increasing while at the same time sees the percentage of that traffic coming from search engines decreasing.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Stock Image from Shutterstock, used under license.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column


About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via

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  • Valerie DiCarlo

    Another good one, Eric… thanks… unfortunately it’s still a challenge convincing clients of these necessary points. Most of them are actively reading all the lame-ass drivel that dominates blogs and the web…

    Thanks again for putting Truth out there,
    Valerie DiCarlo

  • RedEvo

    This seems to be yet another article stating the simple fact that great content linked from relevant sites will win the day. Having said that I agree that it’s a strategy to build your business on.

    The challenge comes when your clients say things like – “ACME Ltd haven’t got any useful content and they are number one in Google for ‘some valuable search phrase’”. In situations like this it’s a tough sell, once you move away from clients with deep pockets, and many clients simply don’t believe they should be investing in great content. Sad but true.

    I’m with Eric but it’s not easy selling the concept to sceptical clients with limited budgets but we’ll keep banging the drum and looking for better clients ;)

  • George Michie

    My thoughts? I think this article, and an earlier piece from Adam Audette (, are seminal pieces in the SEO literature. We built RKG on this principal: do what’s right for the client regardless of its impact on us and we’ll succeed. You win championships not by gamesmanship and trick plays, but by learning how to block and tackle. Google is trying to build an algorithm that reaches the same conclusions a human would about what’s good and bad. Build what’s good and useful for humans and the algorithms will follow you.

    Great stuff, Eric

  • cathy reisenwitz

    So if I need to sell golf clubs and don’t have anything new to say about golf I should just give up on selling online?

  • John Audette

    Spot on, Eric. It’s so nice to see that you haven’t changed one bit after 15 years. And Adam is right too (I may be a bit biased, but he’s still right). It’s amazing how doing what right is so often effective.

  • Avin Wong

    Quite interesting to find that is #1 for used car prices in yahoo but not google.

  • Zac Sullivan

    Though you may be spot on, and Kantian-like morality may apply of “doing the right thing for the right reason” in link building, still I am seeing a lot of ideas nixed here without real specifics re-posited. It sounds like you’re telling us not to comment on blogs – but instead set up meetings and make phone calls (or if not this, then how?) like the old school way. My main point here is I’d like to here more specific, positive recommendations for things to-do rather than things not-to-do, though that is good to know as well.

    Respectfully yours,

    ~ Zac Sullivan ~

  • Jake Holloway

    Does this mean that the business-owners I have helped make into multi-millionaires using SEO should give their money back? I don’t disagree with your essential conclusion (because Panda has pretty much made link and content quality a must-have), but are you really saying we should all ignore Search traffic?

  • Mike Gracen

    Eric, your link building tips have been generally gold over the years, but I think you have missed the mark on this post.

    There is _always_ room for a new player to enter a vertical on the web and succeed. Whether it be golf, steaks, or whatever. Saying new players are doomed because there are 400 other sites are ‘doing it’ is just plain silly. If this was the case, there would be no successful online affiliate programs of any kind. There is always a piece of the pie for clever (and honest) online marketers.

    As well, blog commenting and link exchanges within moderation (i.e. no spamming, no auto generating comments, etc.) are both legit link building techniques that I use regularly as part of my backlink mix with great results. Everything in moderation…

  • mac

    Hi Eric. Great post.

    The sooner that search is more focused on the content of a site, rather than the ability of a site owner to manipulate the algorithm, the better.

    I too do not rely on Google. In fact, i’m running an experiment right now that has nearly 70% of the 5,000+ a month traffic from Linkedin (of all places). You can see it over at:

    Looking forward to your next post (as hinted at in your blog above).

    Regards, Mac

  • Seo Lair

    The discussion of increasing KPI’s while decreasing referring traffic from search engines in an interesting one. I’m slightly confused by the flow of the argument as it is laid out above. You say that referring clicks don’t matter just the “credibility” of the linking site, which I agree with 100%. My confusion is about where the increase of your KPI comes from online if it isn’t search engines and it isn’t the referring traffic from links you build. Where is the online traffic that is driving the revenue/leads coming from?

    I would also comment on the KBB example. If there was a program (and there is) that

    1. scrapes advanced search parameters to find links pages on extremely relevant sites (like the Cape Cod Car Club)
    2. scrapes the webmaster address (if it can find one)
    3. emails the webmaster a message suggesting a relevant site to link to (KBB)

    would you frown upon this? It is pretty much the exact tactic you as suggesting, simply automating it instead of doing it manually. You could also just scrape the webmaster emails and URL and have someone manually email the webmaster a custom message. This would probably increase your success rate.

  • Philip Segal

    Bravo! Phenomenal article and all of that needed to be said.

    “The overwhelming majority of websites have no business whatsoever being on the web at all” is a brilliant truth that so many people just don’t understand.

    This article is the unspoken philosophy of my efforts for every business I’ve ever worked with.

    Thanks Eric.

  • Eric Ward

    @SEO Lair – I do not advocate any automated contacting of prospective link targets. I never send email to a webmaster@ address because that address is rarely if ever the person who makes the editorial decision as to which links will or wont be included on a site. I take the time to find the exact person who is in charge of those decisions, even if it means using the phone.

    @Mike Gracen – I do agree that there is room for anyone to compete. What I should have written is any site getting into a saturated and SERP competitive vertical needs to understand that the typical generic linking tactics of years gone by are useless now, as I hoped (expected, and patiently waited for) them to be. I hate it when crap wins. You hit on the key: being clever. If I was going to launch an online golf store, sourcing identical products as every other store, then I am doomed unless I find a golf related niche I can occupy that has not been tapped well, that then leads to a unique and sustainable linking opportunity.

    @Jake Holloway – Not saying ignore search traffic, but create a way to be profitable with less of it. I will get a call form a site and they will be in a panic because they slipped from #2 to #8 and this slip is enough to put them out of business if they can’t regain their previous position. Often they tell me they’d hope to sell the site before that happened. That’s just bad business. If I’m naive, so be it.

    @cathy reisenwitz – well, yes. Or, recognize you are trapped in a game you can’t win unless you create value that results in links you can’t get today.

    Here’s a crazy idea that will illustrate what I mean. Let’s stick with the golf store example. Do a search on the phrase “hole in one”. OMG there are organizations and societies devoted to people who have hit one? Wow. Now do a search on “hole in one video”. Wow, that’s a half million vids. So why in the world hasn’t a golf store launched a site at where they not only aggregate the best of what’s already out there, but also let others upload their own vids in exchange for an award coupon at their store. They run that site as an adjunct or sister site to their (boring) store site. How many thousands of links would such a site earn from golf enthusiast pages, course sites, club sites, fan sites? And how much traffic would such a site send to their golf store? And none of this has anything to do with SERPS. What if you ended up with a steady stream of dependable and pretty much free traffic for life to your golf store because you took the time to create something clever and of value and interest within your vertical that had not been done yet? Or, the heck with it. Just spend another 25k this month on PPC.

  • Eric Ward

    OK, so how long til someone registers ? :)

  • Eric Ward

    Someone just tweeted me that they registered it. So it took 19 minutes.

  • SE

    Follow Eric Ward… he has the truth! Amazing!
    I’m a Believer

    Updated Date: 04-may-2011
    Creation Date: 04-may-2011
    Expiration Date: 04-may-2012

    Thanks for the wise words Eric… look forward to our chat next week.

  • A.L.I.

    haha. yep, figured i should also register just in case it takes off.

  • George

    @Eric Ward I like your enthusiasm for creativity using the golf store example. You will still need a store site that converts, but it would be a very creative way to drive traffic.

    My belief that the automation of these tactics is legitimate is based on how risk adverse I am when it comes to conversion. Manually, even using the phone, your success rate will be extremely high. If you choose to automate some of the steps, you decrease the success rate substantially but at the same time you increase the number of requests. The strategy works, no doubt, it just depends on how it is executed.

    I will admit that by executing the strategy manually, you are building relationships with real people that can come in handy in multiple other ways. Maybe they are involved with other sites in the niche for example :)

  • John Lee Blackwell

    Nobody likes a ‘know all’ Eric, but then this isn’t a popularity contest is it? You have NEVER been more on the money than this post mate. Generally those who can’t do teach and I would throw down a challenge to my fellow SEO Peers …. find an idea thats WORTHY of the web and then fire your clients! That’s my mission.

  • Ian Howells

    Sure, KBB might rank because of links like that Cape Cod site.

    Or… you know. The mere fact that there are 737,610 other links pointing to them as well might have something to do with it. (About 120,000 more than edmunds, the #2 result).

    Now, I agree that links from smaller, niche specific sites are fantastic. But, if you build 20 of those and I build 5,000 links of the other flavors you mentioned (press release, articles distribution, etc) everything I’m seeing leads me to believe I’d still end up on top. Raw volume or links and unique domains, anchor text distribution, and link velocity still win.

  • L.B.

    I couldn’t agree more about the specific link building tactics, especially when it comes to large companies. There is no need for a fortune 500 company to utilize gray area linking strategies. While 1000′s of paid links works wonders, and even still for years now without a penalty, eventually you’re business is going to get smacked down.

    We recently had a company come to us after getting that smack for lousy links….although they had been ranking for 8 years with these methods implied.

    If you’re going to last a long time in this game, do it right and think outside the box because chances are, your competitor won’t be.

  • Eric Ward

    @Ian Howells – I can’t argue with you about the raw volume theory :) Maybe we compromise. We use both approaches. That way, as the lesser quality links that anyone can get are devalued over time, you’ll have in place a powerful merit based foundation of links that will help assure your rank stays intact. At the same time, I’d also recommend linking and publicity strategies that have absolutely nothing to do with search rank. Link marketing.

  • todd jirecek

    I think it’s pretty simple. All Eric is talking about is standing the test of time. Sure you can build raw links and get on top but at some point you can lose your rank. trust me I know I had a site I built in 2004 which was just kicked out of Google this past December 2010. Over the years I did all the article marketing and commenting and other things which got me kicked out.

    You can also get good links to give you traffic lot’s of it. I don’t know about everyone else but I really paid attention to the last part of his article where he states “I get less than 15% of my traffic from Google anyway, and I like it that way.” Have you seen Eric’s Alexa rank?

    Good stuff Eric.

  • Almer Viloria

    I agree with Eric both quality and quantity would do best rather than attacking all by quantity.

    Another strategy is by shadowing on competitors sites that would eventually show you how they build links to their sites if its worth replicating then go, if not move on to the next.

  • Ian Howells

    Definitely agree on using a variety of methods. I don’t think anyone really disagrees on that point, unless they’re churning out completely disposable websites.

    Even notorious link spammers would still love to generate links from quality, micro-niche hobby sites. The fact that they’re good to have isn’t being debated (that I’m aware of) – I guess it all just boils down to each person’s available time/budget and the methods that are going to provide the most bang for their buck, so to speak.

    Scale also certainly comes into play. Generating one site that can earn you $1,000 a month is a lot more difficult than whipping up ten separate $100 a month earners and promoting them via quantity-centric methods. Doing real, PR/Brand building promotional work across 10 sites at once is very challenging. I think we could all stand to do a good bit more qualifying when discussing tactics etc. Link building, like anything else, isn’t a one size fits all proposition.


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