Is Link Building Dead? Answer: Yes, No, Maybe

by Zara Smith

When it comes to SEO there are new claims on a daily basis. Keeping ahead of trends, understanding the latest lingo and knowing when a new Google algorithm drops has become a full-time job in itself (Neil Patel has made it one).

There are some people who say link building is dead. SEO is dead. Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense is dead (does it count as a spoiler 20 years later…). Basically, don’t bother doing anything ever. It all fails and will eventually leave you with nothing.

This cynical view is built around the slow nature of SEO. You could be doing everything right and still not see results until two or three months later, it’s a well-known fact in the industry. Plenty of people warn about it.

And yet, there’s still those who feel ‘burned’ by the process and claim they never got anything out of it. Which is why there is such a disparate view when it comes to link building; some still believe and others are intent on vehemently denying any kind of value in the practice.

So, what’s the truth?

In a moment I will breakdown the key arguments and analyse what they mean for the future of link building…


Link Building… is Definitely Dead

broken link building

Create an alias, contact a few sites and by the end of the week you might end up with a few links for your site. Job done, link building continues to be strong.

Such link building schemes are very much opposed by Google (as you can find on any number of their guidelines) which is why a lot of marketing companies and businesses have recently dropped link building as a standard practice. Instead, investing more and more time into increasingly complicated technical SEO tactics (structured data, page speed updates and so on).

The fear of penalties is largely the biggest driving force for this shying away.

Another reason link building is in decline is the simple belief that it doesn’t work. There are no instant returns when it comes to building links or SEO in general. It’s not instantaneous as so many clients would wish. You may not even really see the benefit until months of effort have already been spent. Which is where the ‘SEO/link building is dead’ finds its feet.

The argument against link building and the claim that it is dead is therefore quite straightforward. Google doesn’t like it, so don’t do it. Or abandon it because it’s a long-winded, not guaranteed to work, kind of tactic.


Link Building is… Alive in a New Form

link building

Then again, taking things at face value isn’t always the best thing to do. The fact is that link building might be dead – claim the masses – but, if it were truly dead then why do so many people still partake in the practice? It must still be worthwhile, even at face value, for this to be the case.

This is where the content marketing lovers come forth with their battle cry: CONTENT IS KING.

(This isn’t a denouncement of content marketing, I’ve been on the content marketing frontlines myself and understand the love for this particular sentence. Words matter, darn it).

The idea behind this being that quality content will generate its own links and therefore solve the link building issue. Instead of building questionable links manually to your site, you are investing in the creation of high quality content. Which is so good that people will link to it whether you ask them to or not.

And it’s safe to say this tactic does work.

Good content marketing campaigns that attract attention can generate lots of links. And better yet, Google won’t penalise your site because they’re organic. But, there is a sticking point. The success of this technique is largely down to good PR work, not SEO. For that reason, the success attribution of this technique are murky waters to tread.

The result is great for SEO, but can we take credit for it? More often than not that answer is no.


Link Building is… Alive and Well!

link building is alive

And then there’s the school of thought that link building is definitely not dead. It is as alive as it ever was, only the tactics need to change in order to fit with the evolving landscape of the internet. There are plenty of studies to support this case.

The fact is that in terms of Google’s algorithm the changes regarding links have only ever been about quality, attempts to reduce spam tactics and similar. The function of links in the algorithm has never changed.

In the days when PageRank was everything (not that long ago really), the idea was that the more important a website was, presumably, the more links it had. This is still in Google’s algorithm, changed perhaps, but as relevant as ever.

So, the value of link building for SEO purposes on a base level is still as important as ever. Which is why some companies still involve link building quite heavily when it comes to strategy.

This is particularly the case when it comes to higher volume keyword targets. All the on-page optimisation in the world can help, but will it ever get you to position one? Unlikely, unfortunately.

Especially thanks to the keyword stuffing practices of yore, which Google now guard jealously against. Good optimisation is, of course, still important and can very easily get you to page one of SERPs, but to reach that lauded first position you need just that little bit more.

And the fact is that Google does not penalise guest posts, partner posts, contributor posts (whatever you prefer to call them) when they inform or educate an audience or bring awareness to your company. The only way this violates Google guidelines is when the intent is to provide a high volume of links back to one site. So, the new bottom line: don’t be spammy.


New Tactics

So, the benefits of link building haven’t changed. But, the way these campaigns are carried out certainly has to if Google’s strong stance on the subject is to be adhered to.

One tactic which has gained noticeable popularity in recent years is that of emailing individual sites already linking to a similar site/resource, asking for a link to your resource or for a link to your website instead, rather than a guest post or similar. This is still not best practice – though it seems to be a quite well-documented strategy (some very big names in the marketing sphere recommend this technique).

Though it’s certainly more honest than pretending to be a freelance writer, I’ll give it that.

Some have also taken the route of reverse-engineering the posts of prolific guest writers. They typically have a large following in your target niche, with good site authority and a healthy number of backlinks thanks to their guest writing efforts.

The tactic is to simply reach out to their backlog of sites and secure similar posts. Which, let’s face it, is simply link building. But, with the safety-net mentality that this prolific guest blogger has not been penalised for these links, so nor shall I.


Back to Basics

Honestly, the best approach may be the simplest. Guest posting with the intention of adding value, while also conveniently gaining links for your own site. And – strangest of all – being upfront about the whole endeavour.

Take this article as an example. I am a guest writer, but I’m also a real person – I’m not hiding behind any cloak and dagger alias. My reason for doing so is twofold; to promote my company and myself as knowledgeable in my industry.

And being honest about that fact isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as let’s be frank, do webmasters really believe the ‘freelance writer’ spiel anymore? Perhaps, once in a very naive blue moon.

Side note: the irony of writing about the potential death of link building whilst link building…is highly amusing to say the least.

At the end of the day, it’s not a large scale campaign by any means. The impact may not even be noticeable for a number of months. But, that ensures it is in line with Google guidelines and avoids many of the pitfalls surrounding link building in these modern times.


Finishing Thoughts

With all things said and done, what is the answer? Is link building dead? Perhaps…the act of link building itself has changed and will continue to change dramatically.

We should consider the process less about building links and more about creating value. Either through  amazing on-site content that attain links – both naturally and through PR-like tactics – or by guest posting with the intent to provide expertise and build authority, not just links.

No doubt this will change again very soon, but for now, it seems that link building is still alive and kicking, but it is certainly undergoing a very serious evolution.

Guest Author Red Cow Media
Full of tea, ideas and even more tea. Zara is a copywriter and senior marketing professional. She currently works at Red Cow Media, specialising in technical SEO strategy and content marketing.

One Response

  1. Great write-up, Zara. This is the first post I’ve seen that outlines all the different viewpoints regarding linkbuilding and I really enjoyed reading it.

    I agree that linkbuilding has changed significantly in recent years and many tactics that used to work quite well in the past are useless today.

    You mentioned the resource list tactic already. There’s also the quite similar dead link tactic where you message site owners informing them of a dead link on one of their pages and ask to include a link to your website instead.

    Both of these tactics used to work quite well in the past but are mostly useless nowadays. The reason why they don’t work anymore is because every site owner knows that you’re just contacting them in the hopes of getting a link.

    Although I have seen some SaaS companies put a spin on the dead link strategy by offering a free yearly subscription to their service in exchange for a link. Aside from the fact that Google most likely frowns upon this type of behavior since it’s essentially paying for a link, I can see how this tactic might perform a lot better than its incetiveless counterpart.

    I agree that quality on-site content, especially long-form pillar-type content, along with guest posting on quality niche websites is the way to go. In my opinion, these are also the only future-proof linkbuilding tactics in existence.

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