Link building has been the subject of controversy and debate in recent years. Thanks to the release of Google’s Penguin update, which greatly increased the quality and relevance of links necessary for a site to benefit, and statements from Google engineers themselves, the concept of “link building” as a strategy has been under fire. The major argument is that links should come naturally, as the result of producing high-quality content, and that manually attempting to build links is an exercise in futility.
Two major arguments exist against manual link building. The first is that it’s a risky strategy, and manually building links will eventually get you penalized. The second is that it’s an inefficient strategy, and that the amount of time and money you spend on building links won’t yield enough of a value to your bottom line strategy.
Links Are Necessary
First, understand that external links are necessary if you want a chance at attaining any search visibility whatsoever. External links from outside domains are what Google uses as third-party votes to determine the authoritativeness and popularity of yours. Without those third-party votes, Google has no reason to believe that you’re an authority, and you won’t ever rank—especially against a competitor who’s already established themselves.
It’s possible that you could wait around long enough for your organic and in-person followers to start supporting your site through external links. However, unless you’re already an established, national brand, this is highly unlikely. If you want organic traffic to your site, you will have to take measures to build links one way or another.
Two Kinds of Link Building
The term “link building” itself is up for debate, because there are two kinds of modern link building. The first is the traditional kind—you evaluate the authoritative strength and relevance of various sources, find the best ones, and use content to link back to your site. This is manual link building, and is the primary focus of this article.
The alternative, which has gained more momentum and popularity in recent years, is more of a glorified form of content marketing. The goal here is to create pieces of content, particularly those born from original research, that have a mass appeal and potential for viral circulation. Most writers and websites will gladly link to content they find particularly enlightening, or content that serves as evidence for or against a point they’re trying to make. If you can produce a piece of content that provides this for a good chunk of your industry, you’ll naturally earn dozens (or even hundreds) of links without ever stepping into the manual game.
The Risk of Penalty
Many marketers are afraid to delve into the world of manual link building because they’re afraid of earning a penalty for their site. Under Google’s Penguin algorithm, if a link is found to be irrelevant, non-authoritative, or unhelpful, it can be flagged as spam. At that point, your domain authority will suffer a hit until the link is removed. If you make an egregious offense, or repeatedly build bad links, your domain could suffer a substantial and much longer-lasting official “penalty,” from which recovery is arduous.
The likelihood of earning the latter kind of “official” penalty is extremely low unless you’re deliberately trying to spam people. Otherwise, if you adhere to best practices and keep your users’ best interests in mind, the risk of even a light penalty is virtually non-existent.
Your goals here should revolve around building links that are actually valuable to people. Find sources that are relevant to your industry, valuable to readers, and welcoming of your content. Frame your links within content that is original, informative, and valuable, and make sure to link to pieces that expand upon your original points. Doing this virtually guarantees that you won’t earn any penalties from your work.
The Time Factor
The big factor here, then, is time. Qualifying sources, producing offsite content, and checking over your past link building work all take hours of time. When the fruits of your labor only amount to a single link, all those hours can seem pointless. However, with practice, the speed and efficiency of your process will improve, and you’ll spend fewer hours for every link produced. Plus, if you write good enough content on an external source, other sources will link to that piece, and you’ll gain secondary link juice—essentially giving you the best of both worlds with both types of link building.
On the other hand, consider how much time it would take to produce the kind of originally researched, high-quality content that attracts links naturally. That will probably cost you just as many hours, or hundreds of dollars to pay a professional to do it for you. Either way, link building requires an investment.
The Bottom Line
As long as you’re adhering to best practices, manual link building is worth the time and effort you put into it. Trying to cut corners could earn you a penalty and set you back further than where you started. Taking too much time can make your strategy inefficient. Try to find a middle ground for your manual link building strategy, and don’t be afraid to emphasize the more natural side of things, with high-quality content production serving as your link magnet. The more diverse your strategy is, the better equipped you’ll be to see a rise in rank without serious risk.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.