Why link building is hard work!

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Proper link building is hard work.

Always has been. Always will be.

The notion of what comprises link building has been dramatically impacted by recent changes to the Google search algorithm. Google has been on a holy-terror-style flight to quality lately. Quality content. Quality links. These are the things Google wants to value and promote to their users.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the fact that links are important. Or why they’re important. If you need to understand that, then there are other places to go. Or you can just trust me when I tell you links continue to be one of the very most important ranking factors for any specific web page.

Instead, today I’m going to try to convince you to put the effort into doing the things that results in great links by sharing with you why I think “easy” link building efforts never pay off long term.

Competing for search results is important

Excuse me for a minute while I slip into “Captain Obvious” mode.

Google and Bing drive massive traffic. Duh. The combined explicit core search market in the US is roughly 17 BILLION searches a month. Billion. With a B. I don’t want to get into a debate about the Comscore methodology or whether this number is accurate or not.

Let’s just agree that search can drive massive business value.

Let’s further stipulate that being number one is better than being number thirty for any given search result. Of that, there can be no doubt. In fact, recent studies suggest that being at the top of a search result is so much more valuable than being number two that to not put in every effort to compete for that number one slot would be sheer lunacy.

So, we agree that being at the top of a search result, whether on Google or on Bing can be extremely valuable. You may be one of those idiots who think “my customers will never find my business online.”


I’m not here (today) to try to convince you otherwise. You can leave now. Come back in a few weeks when I have the time to write that post.

There’s another characteristic of search algorithms and search results that is important to this discussion.

Search is a zero sum game

Shall we play a game?Search engines are looking to satisfy searcher intent by presenting the BEST search results for a given search query. In order to do so, the algorithms are looking to float web pages that are relevant and authoritative to the top of the result.

In order to “win” at the search game, your content must be seen as more relevant and/or more authoritative than the next guy’s. At the 10,000 foot level, that is what SEO is all about. All the on page “tweaks” and “tricks” are merely about making sure the search robots can crawl your site and that they can appreciate the relevance of your content for any given search. Building links is all about proving that others value your site – or showing your relative “authority” for a given search phrase.

But in order for me to be number one for any search, someone else must be number two. For every winner there’s a loser. This is a critical concept when thinking about link why link building should focus not on cheap, easy-to-obtain links and instead focus on the difficult ones.

Supply and Demand of valuable things

Links are like diamondsSo, being number one is important. And links are a key driver of search ranking.

But there’s a problem.

If we look at links from an economic point of view, links are not unlimited. And good links, the ones from a highly relevant and authoritative site are even harder to acquire. One might even call them “scarce.” So In this way, links are exactly like other scarce resources on this earth. They have an inherent value because they drive certain business results, but their actual “price” is also affected by demand for them. And let’s not kid ourselves. Demand is high.

But we all know that actually “buying” links is against Google’s policies. (You do know that, right?)

When I mentioned “price” above, I did not mean money. Instead, the “price” we must pay for acquiring great links is the time, effort, quality and creativity that goes into creating great content. No. Great links cannot (and should not) be BOUGHT. Great links must be EARNED. And the more valuable a link is, generally speaking, the more difficult it is to acquire. The more effort must be put forth to earn that link.

Understanding Link Building

The value of any link building activity is inversely related to its scalability

Above, we established how acquiring great links is a key to great link building, and we discussed some very basic ways to do that. This is really nothing new.

And yet, we continue to wish for an easier way. Wouldn’t we all want an easy button that we could press to have our sites rank better? Something that was EASY to do! Links that were easy to acquire, and added a metric ton of link value?

Not gonna happen. Here’s why…

Link Building Pixie DustClose your eyes for a minute and imagine a world with me. A world where some young buck discovered pixie dust that could be sprinkled on any web site ever built. This pixie dust grows EVERYWHERE on earth. It is abundant and easy to obtain. It’s as available and easy to acquire as bad social media advice.

What happens next? EVERYBODY starts sprinkling the pixie dust on every web site they own. Every day. Companies spring up that automate the sprinkling of pixie dust. Agencies sprinkle pixie dust for you. There’s a hiring boom of recent college grads who wind up with pixie dust work injuries and the lawyers all get rich.

In the end, one of two things happen…

  1. The rising tide lifts all boats. Pixie dust becomes a “must do” for every site ever built and a small percentage of web sites go without pixie dust and suffer. You STILL need the hard to acquire links to beat out everyone else who also has pixie dust fix applied to their sites.
  2. Google and Bing decide that pixie dust doesn’t represent the things they want to value and they completely devalue pixie dust as a link building tactic.

Sound familiar? It should. If you’ve been around the web for a while, you’ve seen this exact scenario played out several times.

  • Reciprocal links and link trading
  • Link rings
  • Link ecosystems
  • Blogrolls
  • Comment spam
  • Cheap, free and crappy directories
  • Article marketing & article spinning

All have had there day in the sun and either been stamped out or utterly minimized as “not the type of links we want to value” by Google. And for good reason (but that”s a blog post for another day).

How do you build links that matter?

I wanted to end this blog post right here. But I know I’d get crucified for pointing out the problem and not recommending a solution.

There really are several link building techniques that can help you build quality links to your properties.

  1. Create epic shit! I’m not the first to suggest this and I certainly won’t be the last. Building fantastic stuff for your customers/readers is the first key.
  2. Add value. Add value to your customers’ lives. Make their jobs easier. Products and services that get results are things that people like to recommend.
  3. Stand out. Whatever you are doing, do it in a way that’s different from what the rest of the market is doing.
  4. Entertain.One way to be more remarkable is to be entertaining in what you do or in how you market what you do. People share things that are entertaining.
  5. Create controversy. Controversy is Darth Vader to Entertaining’s Luke Skywalker – the dark side method of being “remarkable.” It has to be a ft for your business, or you need a thick skin (or both). Doing things that are controversial can be the fastest way to generate attention and shares online.
  6. Be social. Having a core community built – one that continually participates and shares your content, services or product is an awesome asset to develop. It enhances the possibility of things getting shared and lays a base upon which to build entertaining or controversial content. It also creates an ecosystem you can draw from easily by creating guest posts for others within your community.

Ultimately, link building is about attention. Attention earned. Attention given. And it”s HARD to get attention these days. What with the proliferation of content on the web; the growth of opportunity; the high quality, data driven analysis that can be easily found and shared online is staggering! Ultimately, if the web is important to you and you wish to drive high quality organic search traffic to your site or blog, you need to consistently spoon feed amazingly awesome content to your readers and customers. The better it is, the more it will be shared and the more links you will acquire NATURALLY – without gaming – without “submissions” – without trading or link schemes. And that’s what it’s all about, Always has been.

What has been your experience with building links? Good, bad, indifferent? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

How are you going to EARN your links today?

Sean McGinnis

Sean McGinnis is founder of 312 Digital, full service digital agency based in Chicago, Illinois. 312 digital provides high performing websites, SEO, content marketing and other online marketing services to small and medium sized businesses across the US. He speaks and blogs about SEO, content creation, social media and a number of other digital topics. Sean has been involved in Internet Marketing since 1998. You can find him on .

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Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

Soooooo, I'm curious on your take on this new "disavowing" of links. From my underdstanding, it goes back to Google (and Bing's) desire to let quality and relevancy float to the top  - the point you raise here. But can it be gamed? can you get penalized if you are incorrectly disavowed? do we need to even worry about that? 

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@arodriguez3310 Thanks Anthony. Glad you enjoyed the post. Epic shit FTW!


"It’s as available and easy to acquire as bad social media advice." That's the most important sentence I have read in a while. Clearly have not been around enough. I am just glad its not rocket science. Ditch digging is hard work.


@shonali @seanmcginnis I took the title of this article in a literal way... a good #measurepr chat could be on link tracking! :-)

Sean McGinnis
Sean McGinnis moderator

@Lisa Gerber Lisa - sorry just noticed this comment (thanks Livefyre!)

Disavowing is a process whereby you are able to disavow back links to your site. Since links from bad areas or bad neighborshood now have the potential to hurt your site, there is the prospect of "negative SEO" out there.

Let's say you and I are competitors and I go ahead and buy thousands of crappy links and point them to your site - there's the potential this could harm your results - so Google gives you the ability to disavow those links. The disavow tool should be a tool of last resort. You're still better off contacting the webmaster and asking that the links be removed first.

Latest blog post: Content Marketing

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

@Sean McGinnis @Lisa Gerber OHHHH OKOKOKOK.. thanks. Been waiting with baited breath for four months. :) 

But seriously - I see - I misunderstood this disavowing thing. 

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