After Google released the first version of its Penguin algorithm update in 2012, sites that had been practicing successful — but spammy — link-building tactics saw drastic ranking declines.
The depth and breadth of the post-Penguin fallout caused many to shy away from link building. Even though links were still being used to help determine search placement, the cost of being punished for an error was perceived as too high. And Google was hinting strongly that it was trying to reduce the weight of links as a ranking signal. The time had come to focus on content.
Since Penguin, and its predecessor Panda, which takes aim at thin or poor content, many marketers have turned their focus toward content marketing as a principle method for building links. Content marketing is so hot that it has spawned something of a “Field of Dreams” movement, which contends that all you have to do to get visitors and links to your site is create great content. If you write it, they will come — and link.
The terms content marketing and link building are now often used interchangeably, as though they are the same practice. But while content marketing and link building share similar components, they are fundamentally different practices with different goals.
The 2016 State of Link Building
At the beginning of April, Moz released its 2016 State of Link Building Survey, along with in-depth analysis, on its blog.
According to the report, 90 percent of all respondents said they used content publication/promotion or guest posting as a link building tactic, and 78 percent said they believed this tactic to be the most effective.
This is not in itself an indication that people are conflating content marketing and link building, since manual link building requires content to which links can point, and it requires promotion of that content. Guest posting is also a common tactic for building links.
The more telling data comes from answers to the question, “What is the best name for link building?” The majority, 54 percent, of respondents said that “link building” is the best name for the practice. But 36 percent said “content marketing” was the best name for link building and 13 percent chose the term “link earning,” which involves creating quality content that will receive links naturally. This means close to 50 percent of respondents merge the two disparate concepts of content marketing and link building, at the very least in terms of the language they use to describe them. From the report:
What is the best name for link building?
Why make the distinction?
The problem with the Field of Dreams theory, in which great content simply produces great links, is that it does not work. If you do not pair content marketing with a calculated strategy for getting links, it is likely the links will not come.
According to research performed by Moz and BuzzSumo, the majority of content published online earns no links. Of their random selection of 100,000 posts, 75 percent had received no external links. In a larger sample of 757,317 well-shared posts, specifically picked to include the types of long, informative, persuasive content that is most likely to be linked to, over 50 percent had earned zero external links.
While some content may shine so brightly that it is able to earn links organically through its very existence, most will not. Therefore, link building requires manual effort. If you are not actively seeking external links, these statistics indicate you are unlikely to get them.
Why is link building important?
1. Links are still a major ranking signal.
Google’s is focused on returning pages that contain the highest quality and most useful content for any search term. And it cannot get away from using links to help determine what constitutes a helpful page.
During a Q&A on March 23, Andrey Lipattsev, a Google Search Quality Senior Strategist, revealed that links were still among the top three ranking signals Google uses to determine search result placement. According to Lipattsev, the top two signals are content and links (in unspecified order) and the third is Google’s new algorithm, RankBrain.
Google sees links from an authoritative source as an endorsement of the quality of the page being linked to. Links have been at the core of Google’s algorithm from the beginning, and although Google has added significantly more complexity to its algorithm, links remain a critical component of good search results placement.
2. Content marketing and link building must work together.
The trouble is that content marketing and link building can exist without each other. You can convince others to link to your site absent a specific piece of content, or you can build links through simple directory submissions and review solicitation. Conversely, you can produce myriad pieces of great content — content that receives a lot of engagement — without earning a single link. However, both work best when used in concert. Taking this approach requires an understanding of how the goals and processes behind link building and content marketing differ.
Goal: To get links from external pages to pages on your site.
Deeper: Getting links from quality external pages with a good reputation and high authority to link to pages on your site through outreach and promotion.
Process: Link building begins with keyword research. You must first understand what terms people are searching for and what anchor text you will want to link to your pages. The next step — in most cases — is producing assets that you hope will provide value to others and that is relevant to these keywords. Link building also involves uncovering and compiling a list of targets, or other blogs and websites that may want to link to your content. Finally, link building requires manual outreach to website owners (real people), during which you encourage them to link to your content.
What link building is not: paid links, link exchanges or spammy guest posting.
Goal: To build awareness about your firm, and to grow your audience and community.
Deeper: To produce content relevant to certain audiences and publish that content through a variety of channels in order to increase your reach and earn more website visitors. Rather than bringing links in, content marketing is about getting a message out. According to the Content Marketing Institute, at its core, content marketing should “attract and retain a clearly-defined audience.”
Process: Content marketing begins with audience research. After you have done a thorough analysis, you should then build client personas to describe the different (highly-specific) categories of people who will want to consume your content. Produce content specifically for these people. Then, you must research where prospective clients are most likely to come into contact with your content — like news sites, blogs or social media platforms — and publish it on these platforms. Some content should be reserved for your own website, which you can also promote through the channels on which you publish other content.
Ideally, content produced for the purposes of growing readership and building authority will earn links. But that is not its primary goal.
What content marketing is not: producing as much content as you can with no attention to topic, audience or quality.
So how can I produce great content and get links?
Some types of content work particularly well for link building. These include:
1. Appealing to the egos of people who already have a big audience.
This tactic involves writing about an individual who is well-known, or at least well-known within your practice area, in the hopes that this person will link to the piece once it is published on your site. Examples of such ego-bait include ask an expert pieces, interviews, case studies and personality features.
This method requires manual outreach. Either a) you must contact the subject with an interview request or b) you must reach out after the feature has been written and inform the subject of your article.
2. Guest posting.
In early 2014, Matt Cutts, then head of Google’s webspam team, declared, “stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy.” But such criticism not withstanding, many blogs kept accepting submissions for publication.
Today, the practice is alive and well, and standards have improved greatly. Reputable sites will accept pitches and submissions, which are independently reviewed by editors before being approved for publication. These sites expressly prohibit articles that even hint at self-promotion or that contain links back to the author’s website within the body of the article. However, some of these sites will allow authors to link to their websites in an author bio or from an author profile page. Author credit links carry the weight of a reputable publication because they are an indication that the publication has approved the article and agrees that the author is a source of credible information.
3. Broken link building.
Broken link building is the process of uncovering broken links, reaching out to site owners to tell them about the broken links and suggesting alternative content — yours — to which the site owner can link instead. It is time intensive but rewarding when done successfully.
In order to convince other people that they should link to your page instead of simply removing a broken link, you must have already produced high-quality, suitable content. Broken link building requires a lot of research, both in link and topic discovery. Your content must be very targeted to your audience and the audiences of the sites you contact.
Content marketing has taken off, and for good reason. Google rewards the publishing of highly-relevant, quality content. Pages that contain lengthy analysis of specialized topics tend to rank well, and brands that boost their authority by distributing useful content through multiple channels see that authority passed to their own websites.
However, content marketing is not link building — these are complementary but distinct practices. Understanding how the goals of each differ and how each affects search rankings will help you build a marketing plan that strategically incorporates both at maximum effectiveness.