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If Link Building Really Is Dead, What Do We Do Now?
“He’s dead, Jim.”
Depending on how much you agree with that statement, you’re somewhere in the five stages of grief with the impending death of link building. They look something like this:
- Denial: “No. Those 15,000 one-way, exact-match anchor text links weren’t the cause of my ranking drop. Impossible.”
- Anger: “YOU JUST CAN’T SIT WITH US, GOOGLE!”
- Bargaining: “Ok, I’m sorry I yelled. I’ll disavow all the links. Just give me back my rankings, and I swear I won’t do it again. “
- Depression: “This is it. My clients are going to kill me. I’m never going to work in SEO again. I’ll have to become an affiliate marketer.”
- Acceptance: “Fine. I’ll try this whole ‘good content’ crap, but I’m not happy… well, what do you know? It worked!”
Regardless, it’s left SEOs and digital marketers in a state of flux. “Number of links acquired” may never have been a KPI you were reporting, but links have always been our coup. Higher Domain Authority? You have more links. Increase rankings? We need more links. Client win? I got this great link.
We’ve talked about links so much that even clients and non-industry folks have picked up rallying cries for more links. So if link building is really, truly, stick-a-fork-in-it-I’m-done dead, what are were supposed to do now?
For Starters, It’s Just The Old Ideology That’s Dead
“Link building is a terrible name for what we do.”
That’s Will Critchlow from LinkLove London in March. And it’s true. “Building” implies that when we’re done, we’re going to have something to show for it, something tangible that says “Hey! Look what I did!”
We all know that’s not always the case. 100 sources do not build 100 links. In a bad day, 100 sources could build 0 links.
Links can’t be “built” because there are too many unknowns, too many variables. Saying you’re going to build a link is like saying you’re going to build a tree house without confirmation that you’ll have 2×4’s or a tree.
Now, Focus On The Breadth Of What Drives Traffic
When you’re planning out a project, focus on tactics that work toward your (or your client’s) goals; 99% of the time, “I want to increase the traffic to my site” is somewhere in those goals. Rarely has a client outright said to me, “My goal is to get more links.”
And if their goal is to get more traffic, you have way more than links in your arsenal to help accomplish that. You have things like:
- Social media
- Email marketing
- Long-tail keyword blog posts and content marketing
- Paid search and social advertising
Some will argue that few (or none) of those things is SEO, but that’s my point. Links aren’t just a part of SEO any more. Traffic isn’t just SEO. We have a Swiss Army Knife suite of tactics in our toolkit, and we need to start using it — because it’s all digital marketing.
And Yeah, What Increases Rankings?
As an industry, we’re getting better about excluding rankings as a KPI — Google redirecting to HTTPs and inching toward 100% not provided may have had something to do with it — but we would be naive to say that rankings don’t matter. They do; you can’t get search traffic without them.
We’d also be wrong say that links still don’t count.
Links still are a critical factor in rankings — I might argue the most critical. But it’s not about exact match anchor text or link quantity anymore. Google has gotten better about looking at other factors when determining your SERP position for a query. It’s easier than you think to rank without a single link.
We know that Authorship and Author Rank influence is already there. That is only going to increase with Hummingbird. We know there is some correlation with brand and social signals and how often your content is shared. We suspect that co-occurrence is being looked at more than exact match anchor text.
So, How Do We Earn Links?
Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin ushered in the concept of link earning, and it paints a better picture than link building. Instead of “How do I build links?” it’s “What will make me worthy of a link?” Link earning includes things like:
- Interview experts in your (or your clients) industry and make yourself (or your client) available to be interviewed by other publications
- Update outdated content that .gov, .org or .edu sites link out to
- Creating content that your users find useful and relevant
- Perfect your outreach and learn how to connect to people
For more explanation on the above and other ways to earn links check out:
- 9 Things We Should Never Stop Doing in Link Building
- The Death of Link Building and The Rebirth of Link Earning
- 7 Real Life Ways to Build Links
In short, be a better marketer. Be a better creative. Do more that helps your (or your client’s) users because those are ultimately the people from whom we’re trying to earn links — and traffic and conversions.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.