Webster's Dictionary defines link building as... it doesn't actually.
Why is there no standard definition? It isn't like link building is a secret. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of companies engaged in SEO are spending more than $1,000 a month on link building.
The lack of a standard definition leads to a large amount of confusion within the industry itself. I've met other SEOs and marketers who had a tenuous grasp on link building at best. It's not like there's an SEO college. Forget that: SEO is barely taught in universities at all.
So what is link building exactly? If you're asking me for a bare bones definition, I would say it's the process of going out of your way to find great links.
But I don't think that definition truly does link building justice: it ignores the importance of link building. It ignores the crucial role it can and should play in any online marketing campaign. In my opinion, the true definition of link building doesn't come from just asking what, it also comes from asking why.
Link building isn't just the aforementioned process of acquiring backlinks that point to your site: it's also a proven marketing tactic that increases brand awareness and conversions.
So why should you build links today? You should do it for the same reason you should have built links last year. And the year before. And every year since Google dominated the search market.
You should build links because links are still one of the most important ranking signals in Google's algorithm, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
You don't have to take just my word for it. Listen to Matt Cutts, who emphasized the importance of links at the recent SMX Advanced conference.
Danny Sullivan: Is link building just dead? You keep saying a new tactic is dead, or must be nofollowed, is it really you just don't want people to try to build links at all?
Cutts: No, link building is not dead. And a very small percentage of links on the web are nofollowed. There's a lot of mileage left in links.
Even though it seemed Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Land, was trying to bait him into saying link building possessed little value, Cutts rebuffed that idea.
It's not just about increasing search visibility and brand exposure, however. Link building can help drive other marketing strategies. There's a lot of talk about content marketing being "the new link building." I believe this to be a falsehood.
The two are completely different. Content marketing has ambitions beyond building links; it's primarily focused on disseminating a brand message.
If you launch a content marketing initiative solely for links, your content will likely suffer. Content marketing and link building may not be synonymous, but they complement each other nicely. Link building can help you to build relationships that can serve to benefit you in other endeavors as well.
Link building is a crucial component to a comprehensive online marketing campaign.
The Ghost of Link Building Past
I can't accurately provide you with the year when link building started, but I can tell you that link building has existed for a long time. Eric Ward, who is known as the godfather of link building, helped Amazon.com create a link building strategy all the way back in 1994. That's four years before Google even existed.
Image Credit: Moz
Link building hasn't always been the prettiest profession. In previous years, there was a links arms race. Everyone knew that links were heavily weighted in Google's algorithm, and everyone also knew that Google's algorithm wasn't sophisticated enough to properly detect improper linking. This led to the creation of some famed black hat tactics, tactics that created horrible user experiences and manipulated search results.
This stuff isn't wholly in the past; I see examples of some of these tactics being executed on occasion. It may even work for a very short amount of time.
Link building is no longer just submitting poorly written content to dozens of link farms that no one ever sees outside of a web crawler. Link building is no longer hiding keyword rich anchor text underneath an infographic. Google keeps getting smarter and they keep fine-tuning their algorithm to stave off attempts at manipulation.
Link builders are adapting to a new SEO frontier where building sensible and relevant links isn't merely a suggestion: it's a requirement in order to stay competitive. A backlink profile filled to the brim with unnatural backlinks will no longer increase your visibility in search. It's more likely to prompt a penalty.
Link Building Today
At SMX in June, Cutts said it's possible to do white hat SEO; it just requires, "Sweat plus creativity." Cutts, despite prompting from Sullivan, and despite having a plethora of reasons for condemning link building – it'd certainly make his job easier – still stood behind both links and link building.
In order to define link building today, you need to understand what "sweat plus creativity" means. To me, it's not rocket science.
When Cutts says "sweat plus creativity," he simply means hard work and innovation. That's all.
The links arms race was responsible for a hefty amount of links designed for no other purpose than to manipulate Google's algorithm. Google isn't standing for it anymore: they want links that better serve the user experience.
Google doesn't want natural links simply because they are idealists; many would argue that the company has shed its idealistic roots in recent years. Google wants this kind of internet because it's in their financial interest to provide the best, most relevant search results possible. Their ability to return relevant results depends upon natural links; manipulative links will unnaturally inflate rankings.
Even though Google seems to extend into a different tech field everyday, Google still amasses an overwhelming majority of its revenue from advertising on the SERPs.
I want the internet that Google wants too: we all should. The internet is the most powerful communication tool the world has ever known, and it would be an injustice to ruin the experience for those who use it. That means building the kind of links that take sweat and creativity to build.
Is Link Building Another Form of Promotion?
Just like television/radio advertising, link building is firmly placed in the marketing sphere.
How could anyone think otherwise? A large percentage of websites are built to either generate leads or to sell something. That means a website has become the brick and mortar of the digital age.
Just like the interior of a Walmart is a representation of its brand, so are the pages of a website a brand representative. You just need to get people to the website. That can be done through social shares certainly, but search remains the best way to point users to your site in my opinion.
This means that links aren't just links; they're votes of confidence. A backlink that points to your site is a signal of trust and authority. No webmasters will want to link to you unless they feel it will provide a better experience for the visitors on the site.
In order to get links, it's increasingly essential to clarify why you're worth linking to. This means that link building is slowly turning into another method of promotion.
So what is link building? It's a lot of things really. In 2014, I would say that link building is:
- The process of going out of your way to find great links.
- A proven marketing tactic that increases brand awareness and conversions.
- A form of promotion.
My definition may vary from yours, and that's OK. I anticipate my current definition will change five years from now. But unlike the bevy of SEO doomsayers who populate all corners of the web, I know that link building will be a valuable visibility strategy five years from now. I wouldn't be stunned if it remained just as nebulous though.