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Does Link Building Still Work for SEO?

SEO Blog
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Old ideas about link building still wreak havoc on many SEO campaigns. While most marketers understand that tactics like keyword stuffing and link farming no longer work, those same marketers often believe that press releases and guest posting still work.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The Old Link Building Model
  • The Impact of Links in Google’s Current Algorithm
  • Link Building in 2024

We’ll begin by discussing the old-school link building tactics that are the subject of misconceptions today.

The Old Link Building Model

When companies began to understand the importance of backlinks for improving search rankings in the early 2000s, they immediately began looking for ways to exploit that system. These methods comprise what is now considered “black hat” link building:

  • Link Buying: Doing business with a text link broker, blog network, or link farm to buy packages of backlinks for a monthly rental fee.
  • Link Trading: Agreeing with another party to link to each others’ websites, often without regard to content relevance.
  • Link Baiting: Various inorganic tactics such as creating dubious scholarships for the sole purpose of peddling them to university web admins, and inventing awards to get a linked award logo on as many “winner” websites as possible.

When the Google Penguin algorithm update occurred in 2012, these tactics were wiped out, taking many SEO agencies and well-known websites with it. While some of those agencies turned their focus to white hat tactics such as producing original content, others continued the cat-and-mouse game of finding the easiest ways to build links that was just off Google’s radar. These methods comprise what is now considered “grey hat” link building:

  • Press Releases: Writing a press release that includes a link to your company and distributing it on a wire service so that hundreds of pages on various PR websites publish your link.
  • Guest Posting: Writing an article for the sole purpose of another website publishing it with a link back to your website.

Whether black hat or grey hat, these old models of link building had one thing in common: they produced links without providing real value. Considering that the entire basis of Google’s original algorithm was to elevate websites that had genuinely earned credibility from fellow webmasters, these old models ran contrary to Google’s very DNA.

Today, Google is clear that its overarching goal is connecting searchers with high quality content, which it judges in part based on genuinely-earned links.

The Impact of Links in Google’s Current Algorithm

Over the course of two major updates, first Panda in 2011, then Penguin in 2012, Google updated their algorithm to prioritize high quality, original content and penalize the older techniques above. The first of these updates, Panda, allowed Google to detect when the target of a link was unrelated to the content on the page, significantly reducing the relevance of link trading and guest posting. The second, Penguin, targeted link buying, penalizing domains with spammy backlinks. Between these two updates, Google was able to eliminate most of these low-quality practices.

The current algorithm prioritizes domains that have genuine links from highly trusted sources. The concept of trust, which equates to rankability, is based on a hidden Google Trust score that Google maintains for every website. However, a few SEO websites have developed their own measures such as Moz’sDomain Authority” and ahrefs’ “Domain Rating.”

The most popular rankability metric, Domain Rating, is expressed as a score between 0-100. The highest-scoring websites generally belong to news providers, governments, and Fortune 1000 companies. Some examples of websites’ domain ratings are below:

Company Website Domain RatingCompanyWebsite Domain Rating
Apple100Bessemer Venture Partners75
Microsoft96First Page Sage73
NY Times 95Apollo Funds68
Wall Street Journal94Hollister67
Salesforce92Equator Coffee63
Logitech87We Buy Ugly Houses47

Most websites have domain ratings between 10 and 30 at the lower end, with well-known websites earning a DR in the range of 60-75. This difference is the reason some websites always appear at the top of the rankings and others barely rank, and why news sites and Wikipedia pages occasionally outrank businesses for their own names.

Because higher-trust websites confer more ranking value on recipients of their outbound links, a single link from the New York Times, for instance, could be worth 50x the Google Trust of a random small business website. The exponential increase in Google Trust for higher-scored websites is what gave rise to the cottage industries of guest posting and other tactics; but is also the reason Google has dedicated so many resources to detecting and discounting links from sites that accept guest posts.

The upshot of all these changes is that link building in 2023 is a matter of earning links naturally as opposed to engaging in dedicated link-building campaigns. Earning links naturally involves publishing original research, interesting ideas, compilations of data, or other link-worthy content. It often pairs with PR or other outreach campaigns to ensure that journalists and bloggers see that content.

Link Building in 2023

For those interested in gaining a competitive edge through SEO, an investment in high quality, original content is necessary. We recently published an article on the content types that are best suited to attracting links. These content types all feature easily shareable information, and consist of:

  1. Quantitative Reports with custom research, statistical compilations, and data analysis. This is not quite as hard as it sounds. Most companies have access to interesting internal data that, when sliced up in interesting ways and anonymized, makes for valuable fodder for researchers, journalists, and bloggers.
  2. Creatively-Organized Articles that present information in a novel and visually-appealing way. Infographics come to mind here, but they can be overwhelming for users. Other options are comparison tables, interesting graphs, and data visualizations.
  3. Distilled Expertise Pieces that condense complex topics into simple language. Producing this type of content requires a true expert who is also a good communicator, but if you can find such a person, you’ll likely be rewarded for it with substantial links, social shares, and thought leadership credibility.

A page utilizing one of the above strategies makes for an excellent link magnet because it provides readers with real value, which is fully aligned with Google’s business interests. As an ancillary benefit, these types of pieces also earn the trust of website visitors, improving  your conversion rate.

Good content requires distribution. Google-approved content distribution occurs in two ways: (1) automatically for websites that already have a foundation of Google Trust (i.e. a Domain Rating of 25+), as Google will promote those pages in their search results; and (2) manually through hiring a digital PR firm.

The first method only requires a good editorial process behind your content marketing, wherein every article’s title contains a well-vetted keyword. The second method involves interviewing and hiring a public relations firm, whose job is to reach out to journalists in your industry and convince them to cover your company’s work, and as a result link to your website. Of course, results vary depending on the skill and connections of the PR firm – and the best firms are quite expensive, making content a better option for many businesses.

Getting Help Creating Link-Building Content

Understanding the importance of creating link-worthy content is straightforward, but executing on it takes significant time and resources. Most businesses have the knowledge necessary for great original content in-house, but their staff doesn’t have the time or know-how to create it. It’s rare to find a company that can regularly publish original, quantitatively-driven content, all while positioning that content for success on Google.

This high difficulty factor is why many companies partner with an experienced thought leadership agency such as ours. We’ve been ghostwriting original content that earns links for over 12 years, and specialize in working within complex fields. If you’d like to learn more, you can contact us here.

Evan Bailyn

Evan Bailyn is a best-selling author and award-winning speaker on the subjects of SEO and thought leadership. Contact Evan here.