If Link Building Really Is Dead, What Do We Do Now?

“He’s dead, Jim.”

Say it isn't so, Bones McCoy! Say it isn't so!

Say it isn’t so, Bones McCoy! Say it isn’t so!

It’s been shouted from the rooftops, from here to Moz and every blog in between, but I guess it isn’t official until the doctor says so: Link building is dead.

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:

  1. Denial: “No. Those 15,000 one-way, exact-match anchor text links weren’t the cause of my ranking drop. Impossible.”
  3. 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. “
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

No. 3 without a single link built. I'll take it.

No. 3 without a single link built. And it’s not just because of the mustache.

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:

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.

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


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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  • Eric H

    The Internet is Dead.

  • http://pageonepower.com/ Nicholas Chimonas

    Relevancy first link building will never die, due to the implicit requisite of a real human endorsing the link. If the link doesn’t make sense on the target site, the human behind that target site won’t host the link. That is “link earning”, simply a synonymous term for link acquisition.

    Spamming low quality link directories, article directories, and irrelevant sites has been dead for a long, long time.

  • http://www.livinginthailand.net/ Neale

    No one will dispute the fact that ranking with crappy low quality links alone is dead, on the other hand using “pubcon takeaways” to highlight the need for no links to rank a term is is pretty lame. Why not show us an example of a fairly competitive term that ranks without any back links?

  • Rock Hillbilly (*Patriot*)

    Growth will require returning to “old” media tactics. The poor-man’s “free lunch” is nearing an end.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Sorry, Erin, but there are way too many misconceptions in this article to even begin to disagree with its points.

  • http://www.seo-experiments.com/ Andrew Guida

    SEO and linkbuilding will be around as long as people are using search engines. It is clear now that aggressive spammy tactics do not work which I am happy about. Webmasters now just need to focus on creating better websites and acquiring links from other relevant sources

  • David Jones

    Erin can you provide some more details or examples of this?
    Update outdated content that .gov, .org or .edu sites link out to

  • UK Tutoring Services – Cambodi

    Firstly can I say that I am an avid subscriber to your site.

    I have read your article and furthermore I have read a fare few others recently concerning this issue. Many years ago I used to create/obtain/build/glean ( whatever terminology you feel more comfortable with ) links and have had great fun doing it.

    I have been out of the game now for a while but I believe that with the massive change that is being implemented this is will certainly sort the wheat from the chaff so far as the multitude of so called SEO experts that seem to swamp this industry.

    It is about time that search becomes more enriched and I welcome the fact that, hopefully, the direct value of links will not be a significant or governing factor anymore. The reason why a lot of SEOptimizers are screaming and shouting about this is that they are actually going to have to work for their money, just like the rest of us in this world and not rest on their laurels or merits of link building skills.

    Relevant indicators will rely more heavily upon social networking contacts, Authorship, new fresh content originally sourced and researched as well more consideration for geographical and cultural differences. IMHO

  • petersonpol

    Google is controlled by big brands now… Crap results, repeating the same website all over the place… youtube results showing almost every time but … it is google brand now ;)

    Quality content? Yeah right ;) Bullsh..t

  • Barrie Smith

    Link building’s not dead so we don’t need to worry, as you went on to explain in your article, Erin :)

    Great quote from Will Critchlow.

  • Graham Bowers

    I wish I worked with clients in niches where pages ranked from quality content alone!! Hummingbird seems to make it easier for Google to display different results for very similar ‘longer tail’ search queries but without strong domain and page authority its still very hard to rank highly!

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

    I think “link earning” is exactly on point. You have to put yourself, your website, and your content out there and get people’s eyes on it. Earning links is a side effect of creating great content, getting involved socially, and more.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh Zehtabchi

    The concept of inaccurate article titles to gain link bait then contradict said title in article body is dead.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh Zehtabchi


  • http://theseonut.com/ Adam

    I’m guessing someone accidentally hit the ‘publish’ button on this post instead of scheduling it out to April 1st, 2014.

  • Scott Davis

    Link Building is Dead, SEO is Dead, SEM is Dead, Content Marketing is Dead… I think what all these statements really are trying to say is, “Scamming search engines is dead.”

    All relevant strategies that increase the quality of ranking factors in favor of your site are still alive and well.

  • Erin Everhart

    That’s a fair point, but it was just used as an example, and I do say that links are still needed, and probably the most important thing needed, to rank for anything. The example is just to show that Google is taking more into consideration and you can rank without a link. You should apply those same principles (authorship, social influence, co-occurrence) in addition to link earning.

    As for competitive terms, we’ve secured No. 1 rankings in the fundraising arena without “building” a single link. There are still backlinks of course, but all that was through a link earning philosophy.

  • Erin Everhart

    Sure. .Gov, .org, .edu sites are notorious for linking to outdated content. Find those sources, update the content on your blog, and then build the relationship with the webmaster. I talked more about it here: http://searchengineland.com/9-things-we-should-never-stop-doing-in-link-building-170248 Hope that helps!

  • John E Lincoln

    Erin, Great article! I totally agree with most of what you said. Don’t let these mean spirited commentators get you down. Was a good and true post.

  • nagleonce

    There’s always social spamming. Cheap, easy, and the social networks host your spam for you for free! The price of bulk fake social accounts has dropped in the last two years. Especially for Google+. At least a quarter of Twitter accounts are fake. Start pumping those tweets out now! Google has no clue which social signals are fake, unless you do something dumb like use the same text for all of them.

  • SBS Fence

    I think still Link Building works but now SEOs should also looks towards SMO with it when designing a marketing campaign.

  • Matthew Zajechowski

    I think a better way to phrase this is manipulative link building is dead. As you noted “Links still are a critical factor in rankings — I might argue the most critical’ and according the moz ranking factors survey, most critical thinkers in our industry would agree. Focus on links without worrying about anchor text. Build links that will actually bring traffic and conversions to you website. Even if it doesnt increase rankings, if it makes a sale, its way more valuable then a link that might raise your search rankings slightly.

  • petersonpol

    Yeah yeah… tell me about websites ranked by Internal Blog Networks… back links from poor often 1 page blogs which purpose is only back linking. So yeah manipulative link building still exists.

  • Evgeniy Orlov

    It’s all nice and good, till you wake up on morning and get penalized-mail cause of some millions of bad backlinks pointed to your site from competor.

  • http://theseonut.com/ Adam

    Content Marketing is not scamming the search engines. Unless you’re doing it wrong.

  • Romil Tripathi


  • Romil Tripathi


  • AhsanParwez

    With all being said, I would like to add that “Like Earning” is nearly impossible in few niches …

  • http://tshero.com/ Eric K. Cone

    I am in complete agreement. Just do real company sh*t.

  • http://dailyblogcast.net/ Bryan Knowlton


    This is Bryan Knowlton over at the Daily Blogcast for Internet Marketing.

    We recently talked about this blog post on our show and wanted to let you and your readers know!

    019 – Making Money on Thanksgiving & Black Friday, Pat Flynn made $116,757.39 in monthly revenues, Black Friday Apps, Thanksgiving Porn, Link building is dead


    We found the article to be well written and decided to feature it in this episode. If you woud like to provide any additional comments, you can do that directly at the bottom of the page listed above.

    Again, thank you for the blog post! Without it we might have not had much to talk about! :)

    You can subscribe (or let your readers they can) at http://dailyblogcast.net/itunes

    Thanks again!

    Bryan & Mark
    Daily Blogcast for Internet Marketing – Because reading is hard…

  • http://www.numerosmegasena.com/ Mega Sena

    the best


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