The Future of Link Building: What Got Us Here, Won’t Get Us There
Thank you to those of you who joined my talk at MozCon, below you can find the full deck that I presented, along with a full written summary of everything that I presented. If you'd like to give me any feedback or discuss anything at all, you can drop me a message here.
One of the things that I love about working in digital marketing is that it always feels like there is more to learn. I’ve been doing this (SEO specifically) since around 2004 and I know that I don’t know everything.
Whilst it is true that there is always more to learn, I also feel that, contrary to popular belief, the fundamentals of SEO do not change very often. To me, the fundamentals relate to the core pillars of SEO, which we describe as:
Sure, there are hundreds of updates that Google makes to their algorithm and search results every year, along with a handful of larger, core updates that are usually more noticeable.
I don’t think that these types of updates fundamentally change how we approach SEO. They may mean that we focus a bit more on certain aspects or that we take more notice of certain patterns. But that’s it.
The pre-2012 era of SEO and link building
To help me illustrate my point, and to shift toward link building specifically, think back to the Penguin update in 2012. Those of you old enough (like me) to remember this will know how much of a big deal this update was. It wasn’t just an update to the algorithm itself, it was Google finally saying “we’ve had enough of spammy SEO, we’re going to aggressively penalise anyone doing it now.”
Up until this point, Google did penalise websites engaging in spammy SEO techniques, but it wasn’t really that widespread and you had to push it really far to get penalised. For most websites. The worst that would happen is the techniques didn’t work, but you didn’t actively lose traffic as a result of a penalty.
Penguin changed this and all of a sudden, lots of SEO techniques (particularly link building ones) were very risky and for many websites, it simply wasn’t worth the risk to engage in them.
Up until 2012, link building techniques such as mass directory submissions, article spinning and syndication, web 2.0 links (Squidoo lenses anyone?) were not only fairly safe to try, they often worked.
What got us here, won’t get us there.
Link building up until 2012 was a numbers game. We all knew that these techniques weren’t exactly top quality, but they worked, so that’s what we did. But things needed to change.
The link building techniques that worked up until 2012, were not going to cut it for the next ten years. So, what happened next?
2012 - 2022: the rise of content marketing and digital PR
We’ve definitely seen a shift in link building tactics over the last ten years, largely prompted by Penguin. In particular, we’ve seen the rise of content marketing. I don’t want to pin all of this rise on link building because of course, content marketing is more than just link building.
But I think it’s safe to say that SEOs played at least some part in this:
Alongside this, we’ve seen the rise of digital PR and whilst not quite as pronounced, it’s a fairly obvious increase in interest over the last six or seven years:
This has led to a flurry of “big” or “hero” link building campaigns with a piece of content at their heart. One of my favourite pieces that we launched at Distilled many years ago was The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People:
We’ve also seen creative content like this from the team at NeoMam:
And this piece from the team at Aira was interesting, albeit very scary:
It really isn’t hard to find lots and lots of examples of great content that agencies and in-house teams have created as a result of the rise in content marketing and digital PR.
Alongside this, we shouldn’t forget that lots of other link building techniques are still very popular. Our most recent State of Link Building Report illustrated this:
Which techniques do you use for link building?
As you can see, despite content-led link building being the most popular, a bunch of other tactics are still used to build links. Whilst some tactics are far less popular than others as a result of Penguin, there are still plenty of others that haven’t been forgotten about - despite the rise of content marketing and digital PR.
So, what’s the problem?
It’s a fair question. Whilst some of these tactics (guest blogging is a great example) are mentioned within Google Webmaster Guidelines, they are still used and can generally be executed without falling foul of Google - the quality just has to be obvious.
Content marketing and digital PR are alive and well.
Well, whilst I’d agree that there isn’t a problem as such, I do see a need for change. Or, at the very least, a need to evolve.
What got us here, won’t get us there.
Before talking about what the future holds, I want to explain some of my rationale for why I feel that things need to evolve. These are essentially some key trends that I’ve seen over the last ten years and what they may mean for the future.
Asking for links isn’t sustainable
This is potentially the most uncomfortable truth of this whole blog post. But it’s one that we need to address.
The truth is that if you’re having to ask for every single link that a website gets, then the tactics being used aren’t sustainable. Why?
If you stop outreach, the links stop.
One of the great advantages of effective SEO is that if you do it right, the effects of it will be felt for a very long time. Of course, you can’t just stop it and hope for the best. But the returns should compound over time.
In an ever more competitive world, links will always be needed to continue to compete - not to mention that link churn is a real thing.
If your ability to generate links to your website is tied up 100% in having to ask for each and every one, you’re going to lose out as soon as that activity stops.
The return on investment of asking for every single link also isn’t viable.
Let’s say that your closest competitor has 10,000 more links than you. According to our report, over half of SEOs say that it takes 1-5 hours to build one link.
If you needed to put a time estimate on how long it takes you to secure a single link, how long would you say it takes?
Even if we go down the middle and assume 3 hours per link, that’s 30,000 hours to catch up with our competitor. Let’s also assume an hourly rate of $100 for an agency or freelancer to deliver those links, that’s $3m just to catch up.
Yes, I know this is overly simplistic. But the point still stands: the ROI of asking for every single link that a website gets isn’t viable.
Ultimately, the results that you get as a result of your outreach are limited by the amount of time that you invest. If you reduce that time, you get fewer links.
Ideally, link building should get easier over time, not harder or even the same level of difficulty.
Questionable link and content relevance
Over the last decade, I’ve seen plenty of examples of digital PR campaigns where the relevance to the brand launching it is, questionable. I’d include some of our campaigns in that realm too.
This has happened for a few reasons, one of which being that we’ve become very focused on the volume of links that a campaign can drive. Many of us (me included) have stood on SEO conference stages and talked about campaign successes. Whilst others have filled the Twitter verse with campaigns that have driven hundreds of links.
Sidenote: this isn’t normal for most campaigns, we see it every year:
Typically, how many links does a campaign need to have in order to be deemed a success?
Back to the topic in hand, setting the expectation that a campaign needs huge volumes of links in order to be deemed a success will mean that relevance is likely to be compromised.
At Aira, we use the following scale to explain this to potential clients and basically ask them where they want to sit:
If you want more links, it’s easier to do that by pursuing content topics and themes that go a bit wider than the brand. Whereas if you want to produce content that is hyper-relevant to the brand, that’s absolutely fine but it means that for most brands, you’ll end up with fewer links.
Part of the reason for this is that the more focused you go on a topic, the fewer people there are who will link to it.
Our current observation is that Google would prefer us to be more relevant with our content, whilst many agencies sit at the other end of the scale:
Ultimately, we have a growing problem with the relevance of the content that we create for brands and this needs to be fixed. We’ll talk more about why and how a little later.
We rely too much on campaigns
I love a good digital PR campaign. As we’ve seen above, there are plenty of examples of cool content pieces that are genuinely insightful and interesting.
But I think that in the same way that we’re too reliant on outreach, we’re too reliant on campaigns as a way to generate links. Let me explain.
As we’ve discussed above, there has been a huge focus within the industry to deliver huge volumes of links, particularly when it comes to content-led campaigns aka digital PR campaigns. This has led to a focus on going viral over what that campaign is actually doing to add value to a brand.
The thing is, 25% of SEOs have launched a campaign that has generated zero links:
If you do create content specifically to generate links, in the past 12 months have you created a campaign that generated:
That’s a LOT of campaigns that haven’t just not gone viral, they haven't gotten any links at all.
Despite this, we all want the big, shiny, fancy campaign. And why wouldn’t we? We’ve all seen campaigns and thought “wow, I wish we’d done that.”. NeoMam is open about this and shares their jealousy list every year.
The thing is, much in the same way that if you stop outreach, you can stop getting links. If you stop launching campaigns, you stop getting links - if campaigns are the bedrock of your link building strategy.
The other issue that is making campaigns harder to execute successfully is the ever-changing news cycle and its “always-on” nature of it over the last five or six years. To put it simply, a LOT of stuff has happened in the world over the last few years and quite rightly, these things dominate news headlines when they happen. Here are a few examples:
Trying to insert a large, pre-planned, hero-style campaign into a news agenda like this is harder than ever. Sometimes, other stories are (understandably) far more important than our campaign, leading to a delay in launching or a lack of responses. This means that results are far more unpredictable than they used to be for this type of execution.
This combination of elements makes campaigns far less effective and reliable. If they form a large part of your link building strategy and the way that your brand gets links, then you’re going to be on shaky ground.
Link building isn’t integrated
After many years of SEO being a serious discipline and an important part of the digital marketing landscape for most brands, it still isn’t as integrated as it should be.
Drilling down further, link building is definitely not as integrated as it should be and this leads to a bunch of problems that agency teams will be familiar with such as difficulties with approvals, through to lack of understanding of results.
Ultimately, when an activity isn’t integrated with the wider business, the value isn’t very clear. When the value of something isn’t clear, it can be easily removed by a senior stakeholder.
We’re coming off the back of a tough two years for many businesses and it looks like the UK (at least) will be heading into a recession. If businesses start to cut spending, the line items that they don’t understand and value will be cut first.
Without proper integration, SEO and link building will be one of the first things that get cut.
2022 onwards: where do we need to get to?
Over the coming years, we need to overcome these challenges. Yes, they may not be actively causing you huge issues right now. But we can’t sleepwalk into another Penguin-style update by not trying to evolve what we do.
Also, despite numerous core updates a year, I doubt that we’ll ever see anything as obvious, or at the scale of Penguin again. These updates will happen, but they’ll be far more subtle.
We want to get to a place where:
- We implement sustainable link building strategies that outlast us: even if we stop working on a brand, our work continues to have an impact and links are still generated.
- There is no question of relevance when it comes to the content that we produce.
- True integration between SEO, link building and the rest of the business units.
Let’s look at how we can do this.
How to get there: four concrete changes you can make
I should say that all of this requires a transition. You can’t just flip a switch and adapt to new ways of working overnight. At Aira, we’ve been slowly but surely working on this for a little while now, accelerating things recently now that the business is back to growth post-pandemic. But we are expecting it to take time.
With that said, there are some very concrete things that you can start working on. Let’s take a look at each one.
Use the customer journey to generate link building ideas
Let’s start with a simple question: why do we create content at all?
Quite often, it’s to help with one or more of the following:
- Brand building
The thing is, you don’t really need content for these. At least, you don’t need a full-blown content strategy and amazing execution. I’d argue that you can achieve the above via other means, such as a huge amount of spend on paid media.
I wouldn’t advise this, but you see the point.
So, that question again: why do we really create content?
When you strip back everything else, the answer is actually that we want to put our brand in front of potential customers at the various points of their journey.
There are plenty of ways to visualise different steps of the customer journey. At Aira, we use this as a starting point:
In reality, the journey itself is rarely simple. Here is an example of how it may look for a B2B client:
Google actually refers to this as the messy middle because a lot of stuff can happen in the middle of this journey:
The reason that this is important is that over the years, we’ve forgotten about the customer when it comes to content-led link building and digital PR campaigns.
Instead, we’ve focused on who can link to us - bloggers, writers and journalists etc. We convince ourselves that if we are a travel brand, working with a travel writer means that we will get in front of our target audience. This isn’t necessarily the case.
Yes, there is a crossover between the audience of someone who can link to us and our actual customers. But it’s smaller than we think and can lead to irrelevant content being produced.
Combined with this, we’ve been conditioned by our own industry to believe that success means going viral and getting hundreds of links to our content. In order for this to be possible, we need as big a pool of link prospects as possible.
This forces us to go broader with the topics that we create content on and we end up further and further away from our customers.
Here we have the root causes of irrelevant campaigns.
So, what do we do instead?
At Aira, our creative and digital PR teams look at four pillars:
By answering these, we start to string together the important elements that need to be included when coming up with ideas for content.
Here is an example of how this may actually look for a mortgage provider, along with how we may connect the various elements:
The output will be ideas that span these four elements, along with an idea of how we may decide to execute that idea:
This approach forces content relevance because you start with the target audience and their pain points as they relate to the brand you’re working with. SEO is taken into consideration too by the use of keywords.
Now, this is hard. But that’s kind of the point.
If we want to move closer to content that the customer would actually find useful and remains relevant to the brand, this is the type of approach that is required.
Move beyond campaigns
I actually wrote about this a couple of years ago, so that post is worth a read too.
As we’ve talked about, the industry has glamourised big, shiny, hero-style campaigns and the hundreds of links that they get. I’ve been guilty of this too over the years.
The thing is, there is so much more that is possible when it comes to content-led link building. Let’s look at a few ways that we can produce content that isn’t just in the style of a fancy campaign, with a start and end-point.
Prioritise ideas that are evergreen and reusable
One of the reasons that campaigns are not ideal is that they tend to have a start and end date. They get launched and promoted, then we move on to the next one. This isn’t terrible, but it’s not ideal either because as we mentioned earlier, it gets us to a point where if the campaigns stop, the links stop.
Instead, if we can build up a bank of content that is always relevant for outreach and this increases over time, there will never be an overreliance on the latest campaign alone to drive new links.
A great example of this type of content is this piece by Rover which lists the most popular dog names each year.
They update it and it continues to get links over and over again, whilst pretty much always being relevant.
Look for existing content that is link worthy
With campaigns, the focus is on creating something new and shiny. This can lead to us overlooking content that is right in front of us on the website already.
When you start working with a new brand, use a tool such as Ahrefs or Moz to check out which pages are already getting lots of links. Amongst this list, you may find content that you can pick up and start promoting straight away.
When this happens, you may still go ahead and create a new campaign as well, but you’re not putting all of your link building eggs in one basket. The added benefit is that you can start to get links whilst the campaign is being developed, relieving the short-term pressure that can often come when waiting to launch a new campaign.
Simplify your execution
One of the dangers of campaigns is that there is implied pressure for them to be big, shiny and complex. I love a big, shiny campaign as much as anyone, but relying on these can lead to a huge investment in time and money. The truth is, you can get links without having this reliance if your ideas and angles are strong enough.
A simple blog post can be enough to get links if the story or data within it are strong enough.
The thing to remember is that you’re looking for a good return on your investment of time and money. If a blog post takes a few hours and you get a few links, that’s actually pretty good. Contrast this with a large campaign that may take weeks or even months to produce, the pressure for a good return is (rightly) much higher in order to make that time worth it.
Aim for links that you didn’t ask for
This is a big one for me and comes back to our earlier points around outreach not being sustainable. Yes, outreach should be part of our activities, but it shouldn’t be the only way that a brand gets links.
To try and take some of the reliance away from outreach, we can try to create content that gets links on its own.
In its simplest form, the way to do this is to create content that ranks.
It feels weird saying that in a blog post that is probably being read by SEOs, but it’s true. If a page ranks well in Google and is something that can be referenced by someone, it’s more likely to get links.
Take this example from HubSpot:
It ranks number 1 for “marketing statistics” and a bunch of other similar keywords. It has over 10,000 links pointing at it.
Do you think that HubSpot asked for every single one of those links? No way. They did ask for some, but the vast majority happened because it’s a great piece of content that ranks well and is easily referenced by other writers in their own content.
The same is true for our very own State of Link Building Report which has hundreds of links that we didn’t ask for. It ranks for a bunch of keywords related to link building and has been referenced naturally because of the content.
Make yourself indispensable
When you speak with an agency or in-house team about how they handle integration with other teams or agencies, most will answer in the same way. The answers usually revolve around some kind of checklist (e.g. an SEO or copy checklist before publishing some content) or having a meeting to discuss plans about an upcoming launch.
These are fine, but they aren’t really what true integration means.
True integration means multiple teams coming together to create something of higher value than it would have been without them. This doesn’t happen very easily because most teams aren’t actually incentivised to work together, so why should they?
It can feel like an uphill battle to overcome this which is also why most teams don’t bother.
But a lack of integration can lead to sub-par results when it comes to link building, as well as issues along the process of producing content, such as:
- The brand team not signing off on your ideas.
- The PR team reducing your list of 200 link prospects down to 25 (but your link KPI remains the same).
- Your content is published in an area of the website that no one will ever find.
On the last point, here is an illustration of integrated content vs. non-integrated, with the orange page being your campaign or content:
It’s all too common to just tag content onto an area of the website where it’s easy to upload and doesn’t bother anyone. As opposed to where it will add real value and pass link equity to other key areas of the website.
To evolve here and make integration better, we can start with a few simple things:
- SEO: ask the SEO team for target keywords that may inform your ideation, whilst learning how they are measured and how you can align your work to those measurements.
- Copy: ask internal copywriters to brief you on the brand style and tone of voice, don’t just ask them to proof your existing content!
- Brand: ask them what they care about the most and what would make them veto ideas.
- PR: build trust over time to divide and conquer when it comes to link prospects.
Ultimately, the one thing that all of us can to here is to get these teams involved as early in the process as possible in order to avoid issues and wasted time later.
At Aira, we actually ask a lot of questions during the sales process to try and get an understanding of potential blockers later in the process if we were to work with the client. If we’re unable to get an understanding of blockers, we often decide to not pitch for the project because we know that we’ll likely be setting ourselves up for failure later on.
To wrap up
In summary, we can use the past to learn what may happen in the future. When it comes to link building, we can safely say that what got us here, won’t get us there. Sure, things may not be on fire right now like they were when Penguin rolled out, but we can’t sleepwalk into future updates.
These future updates won’t be as obvious and Google is more likely to subtly poke at the areas where we can do better with link building.
Try to get to a place where:
- You’re not reliant upon asking for each and every link.
- You’re not making campaigns the bedrock of your link building strategy.
- You’re using the customer journey to inform ideation.
- You’re working to integrate with other areas of the business to drive more value.
If we can do that, we’ll get there.