At a recent meeting with over 20 Managing Directors I was asked why I believe that link-building is still a key component in any SEO strategy. The reason this particular senior exec asked that question was that his company are looking for a new digital marketing agency (since you’re wondering I can’t take them on because of a conflict of interest). And they had been talking to 2 agencies with totally conflicting views. One agency categorically said link-building was a bad thing to be doing and another agency – that agreed with me – were of the opinion that link-building is essential for ranking a website.

So why such a difference in opinion? After all this isn’t politics…

Let’s start way back at the beginning…

The Old Style of Link Building

I’ve been around long enough in the world of SEO to remember the bad old days when any link was considered worth having and enterprising people set up in business to create link farms. Here they either charged to provide a link or profited from advertising revenue on their sites where SEO professionals flocked in their thousands to grab a backlink.

Most people know what happened next – Google got wise to the websites that were gaming the system and started improving their algorithm to prevent shoddy websites gaining an advantage in organic search listings over genuinely good websites (after all their advertising revenue reputation was at stake).

Just to make sure everyone improved their tactics Google threatened, and carried out, some high-profile penalties so most reputable SEO professionals and agencies turned to a new approach to improve their clients’ rankings.

The New Style of Link Building

People in the digital marketing world started talking about:

  • “citations”
  • “earning links”
  • “gaining links”
  • “outreach”
  • “content marketing”
  • “collaboration”

But guess what? The aim of all these activities is still to create a backlink, but because of the previous bad reputation of link-building some SEO professionals shied away from the term. To be more specific the aim of these activities was to create a good quality backlink. And therein lies the difference ladies and gentlemen.

But just like there are good estate agents and bad estate agents it would be ridiculous to stop calling them estate agents, which is why the term “link-building” should remain in the SEO lexicon, in my opinion.

We just need to be a bit more honest about what is still a fundamental part of SEO but, at the same time, make it clear what a good link-building campaign constitutes and why one is still necessary.

How do we know link-building works?

As in any form of advertising and marketing there is a certain element of uncertainty in the outcome. Even well-funded, well planned advertising campaigns can fail to be successful and that has been true since before the dawn of the world wide web in 1990.

Look at the Pepsi vs Coca-Cola shambles in 1985 when Coca Cola failed to examine Pepsi’s claim that people preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke and changed the formula to be sweeter. It turned out people did prefer Pepsi when taking the “Pepsi Challenge” but that was only a sip of both drinks. When it came to drinking a whole can they preferred Coke’s less sweet recipe.

Maybe if Coca Cola had done their own taste test they would have saved themselves a stack of money and some very red faces.


Fortunately, in the world of SEO we are able to test certain strategies without the necessity to “go public”. Most digital agencies will have websites which can be used to test what link building tactics actually work; because it is only by testing on real world sites that you can fully understand a particular tactic – whether it works and how.


SEO professionals also have a whole raft of software tools at their disposal to monitor the effects of link-building campaigns on client websites. Tools that assess the value of individual links and the value of the whole link profile of a website. They can be used to expertly “craft” a link profile to provide maximum benefit in driving visitors to a website. And also, of course, to take a peek at what competitors are up to.

So, the truth about link building is that links are still very much part of achieving success for a website in the organic search listings. The way the SEO professionals go about building links has just evolved and changed – but it’s still link building. You could sit back and wait passively for links to grow or you could work proactively to create them. I know which strategy I prefer…


Michelle Symonds is an SEO Consultant and founder of Ditto Digital and has worked with websites and search engines for over 10 years. She is involved in the technical, content and strategy aspects of SEO and can usually be found digging deep into data for better insights.

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