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What is Link Building: An In-depth Explanation

Posted by Jon Ball on Oct 29, 2013 11:49:20 AM

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Long ago I realized a very important truth about the work I do, as the CEO of a link building firm: most people have no idea what link building is.

I don't mean only the average Joe, either. Tech savvy people, people interested in the power of the internet, often don’t understand link building, the importance of links, or the nuances therein. Even people that do know about link building often have only a superficial understanding.

Not long after my brother Zach and I started a link building firm I began speaking at SEO and marketing conferences all across North America. It’s exceedingly normal for me to hear the question “what is link building?” at least once per trip.

With this post I aim to explain link building in an honest, straight forward fashion that will not only educate, but enlighten. I’ll go beyond a surface explanation and take a look at the nuts and bolts of link building.

This will be a long read, but if you’re looking for a straightforward definition, never fear – that’s what I’ll lead with.

What I’m going to cover:


What is Link Building

The 5 W’s of Link Building – an Overview

The What: Link building is creating a link between one website and another.

The Why: Google search’s core is based around links, therefore the more links you have from relevant and authoritative websites, the better your website will do in search.

The How: Using diverse proven strategies to convince another website owner it is in their, or their visitor’s, best interest to provide a link to a specific website.

The When: Link building largely gained popularity with the rise of Google, and is still vital to SEO today.

The Who: SEOs and website owners working to increase traffic to their site through Google.


The Simple Definition of Link Building

Link building is a very niche industry, part of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). SEO is vital to websites’ performance in search engines such as Google and Bing, which direct much of the internet’s traffic.

In the simplest terms, link building is the process of creating a link from one website to another website.

Link builders work to convince other site owners to link to their website, or a client’s website, in a manner useful to their SEO efforts.

A link is online code that will carry you from the current page you’re on to another webpage, by clicking it. There are several different methods of linking:

That’s link building – actively working to secure links from one website to another.

International companies, Fortune 500 brands, Mom & Pop Shops, and even other SEOs hire Page One Power to build links from relevant, authoritative sites to their (or their client’s) website and pages.

Why on Earth would all these companies be interested in link building? One word: Google.


Why Links Matter - Google

Links are important on the internet for two reasons:

    1. Google considers a link a ‘vote of confidence’ from one website to another.
    2. Links can send traffic from one website to another.

For link building, we’re primarily concerned with Google search. They direct a healthy portion of the web’s traffic, and therefore represent a serious opportunity for websites aiming to increase their traffic.

Traffic flowing through the actual link (called referral traffic) makes us happy as well, though it’s secondary to our first consideration, Google. Referral traffic is also an important indicator of a strong link.

That’s the short explanation. Here comes the longer one.


Understanding Google’s Search

Google’s entire search engine was based upon treating links as a vote of confidence. The more links a website has from other websites, the more influential Google considers them. The more influential Google considers a website, the more important their links are.

Another way to say that is: the more ‘votes’ you have from other websites, the more your website’s own ‘votes’ matter. This inherently means that links from sites with a wealth of links themselves is more worthwhile.

This was the founding of Google. They now have over 200 different signals to determine site quality and relevance. And they’re hardly sharing what those 200 different signals are, although we have strong indicators and ideas.

Google has improved vastly over the years, but their core remains the same – links are still the backbone of Google search.

Therefore, I work for clients to build as many votes of confidence (links), from as many relevant websites to theirs, as possible. This will increase my client’s visibility within Google search, for search queries relevant to their business.

But we can’t build just any link. Plenty of people have tried to game Google over the years. Subsequently, Google has greatly improved at differentiating between ‘natural’ links, ‘artificial’ links, and ‘manipulative’ links.

A large part of the way they've done this is with major algorithmic updates. Algorithms are the foundation of computer intelligence, basically extremely complex if>then statements that work to detect patterns.

Google’s major algorithm for links is nicknamed Penguin. Penguin is designed to detect unnatural or manipulative linking patterns and then either devalue the links or even punish the websites involved, decreasing their overall search visibility.

Penguin came out in April 2012, and has caused a major shift in the SEO industry. Google is continuing to evolve and grow at an incredible rate, and SEO has to match that rate of growth. So in link building the question of “is this link powerful now” is not enough – it needs to be “will this link be powerful now and continue to provide value in the future”.

Link builders and SEOs in general constantly debate how to measure this, but the best measure we’ve found is to operate as if Google didn’t exist. We work to build links that will pass referral traffic, and actually make sense to the user, the website linking, and our clients.

Building links that make sense in a natural, organic manner, is paramount to SEO success. But building good links isn’t easy.


Good Links Aren't Free

The saying ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ is very pertinent to link building.

In the ecology of the online world, links are the dominant species, and all websites – especially those worth approaching for links – understand this. They realize the true value of any link they provide, and the impact it can have on another website. And believe me, they’re not about to provide a link without cause or good reason.

Furthermore, as previously mentioned, a link from a website with a wealth of links itself is much more important than a relatively unknown and unlinked site. These high authority websites are even more reticent to link out.

Working day in and day out as link builders, we’ve seen the impact even a few natural links from quality and relevant websites can have. It no longer takes hundreds or thousands of links as it did in the past. This has only increased the commodity value of a single link, giving quality websites even more power within their respective industries.

And to add one more twist to the whole system, there’s plenty of people trying to build links in the worst way possible: spam. Many site owners have to deal with massive link building spam requests and comments, making it even harder to approach them and cut through the noise.

So link building requires real, demonstrable value, and not a small bit of charm and persuasion.


Understanding Google, and Why People Pay for Link Building

So I’ve covered what link building is, and the fact that Google search relies on links. I’ve explained why link building is difficult, both in actual link creation and correct implementation.

Now I’m going to explain why Google cares so much about SEO and manipulative linking practices.

Google’s number one concern is the same as any business: making money.

Google makes the majority of their revenue exclusively from search, despite their many side ventures. In fact, they often are able to do those side ventures because of search – otherwise those side ventures would represent a risk Google couldn’t afford.

How does Google make money from search, which is free? They do it with those little advertisements that are barely noticeable, at the very side and sometimes the top or bottom of the search results page.

Those advertisements bring in 95% of Google’s revenue. That’s 95% of 50 billion, in 2012 alone. That’s 47.5 billion that Google has riding on search, with consistent revenue growth year after year.

To ensure they continue to make money in search, which drives their company, Google has to do two things:

    1. Create compellingly great user experiences, to keep their overwhelming dominance and traffic
    2. Continue to drive traffic through advertisements

Let me show you a search for ‘coffee’:


I highlighted ads in yellow and additional Google elements in red. The red represents Google’s attempts at creating an overwhelmingly great user experience. The yellow represents their profits.

Anything not highlighted has made it into the results using at least some search engine optimization.

First, take a moment and appreciate just how much Google puts into search quality – there’s a wealth of informational elements designed to satisfy searcher intent, without even having to click away from Google. Secondly, notice how discreet the ads are; the overwhelming majority of people who click on ads in search don’t realize they are, in fact, advertisements.

Now, think about the fact that every other website in that search is employing SEO. Think about what that really means, and the importance of that – Google’s staggering revenue flows from search. SEOs work to put client’s websites at the top of relevant searches. The highly competitive, lucrative search terms are dominated by SEO efforts.

The obvious conclusion is that Google has to care, deeply, about SEOs and their capabilities. Google clearly has a vested interest in keeping SEOs in line – if we’re able to get websites that don’t create great user experiences into their search, we could truly affect their bottom line.

The easiest way to manipulate a website to the top of search is to build manipulative links. Now, this won’t work forever. This is called ‘black hat SEO’, often referred to as ‘churn and burn’, because it will work for a while, then get caught and burned out of the results by Google.

Google works hard to keep their search results clear of these manipulative practices with both manual and algorithmic (think automatic, like Penguin) penalties. These penalties will literally plummet a site out of search, making them all but impossible to find.

These penalties will lasts until the websites stop their manipulative practices and appeal to Google for reconsideration, which can take months to successful repeal. Penalties are typically difficult and expensive to recover from, and result in serious revenue loss.

And Google leaves a lot of grey area on what is and is not acceptable, leaving a lot open to interpretation. There is also a lot of misinformation out there cluttering the web, making it hard for the inexperienced to know what’s true and what isn’t.

This means we have to be extremely careful and considerate in how we approach link building.

So, in summation, link building is hard because:

      • Building links from authoritative websites to clients is itself a difficult task, because:
          • Authoritative websites understand the power of a link, and the power they hold
          • Authoritative websites are constantly barraged with link building efforts, making it hard to cut through the noise
      • Google is extremely strict in their judgment of links, and explain in vague or open ended terms which links they’ll punish. Being careless will result in serious consequences.

There’s such an overwhelming amount of money riding on search visibility, and such an overwhelming amount of pressure from Google to not go over the line.

As you can see, link building isn’t a simple matter.

So, we work within Google’s guidelines, helping clients build good links on sites that make sense, which will boost their performance in Google.

There’s a variety of ways we can build these links. Let’s take a look at the how of link building.


How Link Building Works & Examples

The term ‘link building’ is actually counterintuitive, because we’re not in control of making the coded link as the term seems to imply.

We have to convince another website that linking to our client is either beneficial for them or will in some way benefit their visitors.

Have I mentioned that paying for links is completely against Google's rules, and will result in swift and severe penalties?

Ideally the site I’m attempting to build links to is in fact useful, and will provide some measure of value.

Let’s look at a few common examples of how link building works:


1. Building links through resources

One go-to link building strategy is resource creation. In order to ensure I can acquire worthwhile links, my client needs to build a resource real people within their market will find useful. Of course I can help or make recommendations with the resource creation, but it needs to be hosted on their site.

Once the resource is created and the client has it live on their website, I find a variety of websites worth acquiring a link from who already have a list of resources similar to my client’s. I get in touch and ask to be included within that list.

Here’s the simplistic step-by-step process for building resource links:

      • Research to find a resource gap/needed resource for the client’s industry
      • Further research to ensure interest and link building opportunities
      • Resource creation, focusing on user value
      • Targeted outreach leveraging the resource’s value in order to obtain quality relevant links that make sense for users.

There’s a few spin-offs of this technique as well, to make the process easier or take a different angle:

      • Update an old/dead resource to capture already existing links (found through research)
      • Start a fresh outreach campaign with an already existing and under-performing resource
      • Find links pointing to similar resources and inform site owners, suggesting client’s resource
      • Find broken links in target lists, inform site owners and suggest client’s resource for inclusion while providing valuable information to site owner.


2. Building links through content

Another pervasive link strategy is to create valuable content relevant to the client’s industry. We then contact another website, offering the content for free.

Commonly the content is hosted on the website I’m reaching out to, as opposed to the client’s site. This is somewhat of a barter type situation – I provide valuable content in return for my client being exposed to a new audience along with a link back to their site.

Examples of different content commonly used:

      • A post/article for their blog
      • An infographic
      • An interview
      • A tool their visitors will find helpful
      • A news piece.

Somewhere within the content will be a link back to my client’s site, either embedded as a resource or as part of the bio to explain to the audience where the content is coming from.

This link building method is used to target high authority websites within the client’s niche. It’s a slower method of link building, but can create truly great links and high visibility.


3. Building links through community value

Another quality link building tactic is building links through community value. Sounds vague, but what it really means is doing something meaningful within the client’s community – online or physical – that will earn the client links and generate conversation.

Typically this takes much more client involvement than other link building strategies.

A few common examples of this are:

      • Starting a scholarship
      • Hosting/attending a charity event
      • Thought leadership – sharing industry news, strategies, guides, videos, etc.
      • Host a giveaway/contest
      • Building a mutually beneficial partnership with another business/website.

The proper steps are:

    1. Research the client’s community to find a meaningful way to add value
    2. Research to ensure interest and link building opportunities
    3. Follow through
    4. Outreach to targeted sites in order to build good links that make sense.

This is typically an even longer term strategy than content creation. Oftentimes we’re actually brought in when a client already has something of this nature planned, and is looking to further capitalize on the value of what they’re doing.

The goal here is to help the client do something notable, then help create a buzz within their community, securing links as possible.



As link builders it’s our job to secure links from relevant sites back to our client’s website. We can’t actually create the link – we have to rely upon whatever assets the client has, along with our natural powers of persuasion.

There are various strategies we can use to help leverage this process. These include using the client’s resources, providing further content, leveraging relationships, and highlighting the value of the client’s site and brand.

Ideally we create links that are useful for:

      • The client
      • The website linking
      • That website’s users/visitors.

This keeps the links from being flagged as manipulative by Google, and keep them safe from any future updates by Google.

Creating these links will help our client’s visibility within Google search. They’ll appear in more searches relevant to the client’s industry. This is because Google created search around the concept of links as votes of confidence: the more relevant links a website has, the more important Google believes them to be within their industry.

There’s many other factors within SEO, but links still remain very integral to any SEO strategy.

Link building is difficult because Google fiercely protects their search quality – advertising within search results is how they make 95% of all revenue.

If we use manipulative practices, or build low quality links, the client will suffer. Therefore we work extremely hard to be careful we’re only building good links on sites that make sense, in a natural, non-manipulative manner.

The reason I love link building is because it’s both a science and an art: it requires technical knowledge and analytical skills, but the best link building tool in the world is human creativity.