By Kate Smith
18 Sep 2015

Link Building: Invisible Marketing

Link Building

Link building can feel like a thankless task. We can’t always speak openly to other professionals, our families, and even some webmasters about what we do. In many ways, link building feels… invisible.

The word invisibility, if we’re being charitable (and awesome), brings to mind stealth and things that move stealthily into the night like ninjas, spies, and Batman.

Link building can feel like a thankless task. We can’t always speak openly to other professionals, our families, and even some webmasters about what we do.

In many ways, link building feels… invisible.

The word invisibility, if we’re being charitable (and awesome), brings to mind stealth and things that move stealthily into the night like ninjas, spies, and Batman. Less charitably, invisibility can mean being below notice, being unappreciated, and sometimes being clandestine, all of which are notably less awesome. And when it comes to the reputation of link building, “clandestine” is not a descriptor we want to be associated with.

But the truth is that it isn't just a gut feeling. The link building industry really has been invisible in many ways. I believe that these forms of invisibility can be boiled down into three different-but-connected categories:

  1. Link building is obscure as heck. Most people don’t see us or even know we exist.
  2. Link building is still somewhat unacknowledged when it comes to the marketing community, largely due to stigmas attached to our industry from its inception.
  3. The nature of link building is to be behind-the-scenes, unseen and unheralded.

Only one of these is truly problematic: Link building needs to be not only visible but integrated into the larger marketing community in order to make both link building and online marketing the most successful they can be.

We can handle the inconveniences and knocks that come with most of our invisibility. But as linkbuilding moves further and further away from our spammy roots, we need to start becoming more visible in the marketing world -- even as we stay invisible overall.

Invisible marketing image

Linkarati Obscuri

As widely-used forms of marketing go, link building is pretty seriously under the radar.

As Dustin put it long ago:

I started building links in 2012. I had no idea what link building was until the day I was hired, and I've been an avid internet user since I was a teenager.

I didn’t, either. Most of us didn’t.

Now that we’re in-the-know, of course, we sigh heavily whenever someone politely inquires as to what we do. I, myself, go with “I do internet marketing” so as to avoid a lengthy and confused line of questioning about things like “Robots? On the interwebs, you say? Sounds positively science-fiction!”

Robot imageImagine if I threw in that the robots are also spiders. Mind blown. Source.

Honestly, it’s rather curious that over 1.5 billion people across the globe rely on search engines to bring them information, but few wonder how search engines choose what information to fetch them. The simple answer is algorithms, though that conveniently overlooks the human element to search. Link builders are part of that human element, helping websites and businesses optimize their sites for search.

But being overlooked by the public is alright. The effects of our work should be invisible to most people. Our interactions online are with webmasters, fostering connections between websites. Unlike other online marketers, at no point do we blast a message to an audience-- so we can’t be too upset when audiences have no idea who the devil we are.

This makes link builders uniquely invisible to the very people we’re helping market to.

Earning a Seat at the Table

So most of the population (billions of people) have no idea what link building is. Very few (maybe thousands) do. These are largely other marketers, from fellow SEOs to PPC experts to public relations specialists, that know who we are and what we do, if not how.

The difficulty is that there’s a general opinion that link building doesn’t really deserve a seat at the marketing table. Part of this is because some marketers think that link building doesn’t deserve its own separate focus within marketing. But it’s also partly because of our history. Some feel that link builders are a class of spammers, not true marketers.

Judgmental women imageI'm not going to say they're overly judgy, but I'm thinking it real loud. Source.

And, to be fair, link builders aren’t the victim of some giant conspiracy to sully our name. SEO is a developing industry, and not too many years ago many SEO services could be summed up as link spam.

Before the term “black hat,” the SEO landscape was famously like the Wild West. Link builders did whatever they could to make their clients rank and they did it A LOT. Most of that was spam. Things like churn-and-burn link farm websites, frequenting the world’s crappiest directories, spinning word-salad “articles” stuffed with keywords-- all of this was common.

These tactics were common because they worked. To beat out competitors, many people felt like they had no other choice but to embrace these spammy tactics. This meant that search results were being manipulated willy-nilly and their integrity was being compromised. So, in response, Google used the algorithmic equivalent of the nuclear option: Penguin.

Penguin imageThey couldn't have chosen a more adorable nuclear option. Source.

Penguin was the napalm of algorithms, and had unacceptable levels of collateral damage (you know, people whose livelihoods and businesses were directly and adversely affected by guidelines they didn’t know existed). However, Google didn’t have a plethora of alternatives. They needed an algorithmic solution, even a messy one. And honestly, it was pretty cool to see Google close their multi-billion-dollar fist around much of the black hat playbook. Not worth ruining companies and lives, but pretty cool.

Of course, it’s worth noting that not everyone spammed to get ahead. Even before Penguin struck like a trigger-happy avian avenger, there were people building links for humans as well as for search engines. Pioneers like Eric Ward were building links for humans before Google even came along.

Like a Phoenix Rising from the Spammy Ashes

Since Penguin, despite some shady looks that we still get from other marketers, link builders as a whole are much more accepted in the marketing community than we were. We’re even being acknowledged for our ability to gauge what content will be successful in a niche.

One of the reasons we’re getting more legitimacy is that link building is being acknowledged as genuinely useful. It’s become accepted that link building tactics can be applied across a whole spectrum of businesses, large and small, in all niches. We’ve been proving our value by showing how agile link building campaigns can be and how effective organic traffic is for businesses.

Of course, if we’re being real, the biggest reason link building is becoming reputable is that Google has insisted upon it. Through fancy algorithmic footwork, Google has made it very costly for businesses to hire link builders that ignore their guidelines. This rule of fear is fantastically effective.

I believe there’s also a growing understanding in the marketing world of what links are and do, and a developing acknowledgement that link building is evolving in an ever-positive direction. Hopefully that has helped link building earn more legitimacy, too.

It’s pivotal that link building earns a seat at the marketing table, since link building can’t reach its full potential without integrating with the rest of the marketing world, nor can the marketing world ignore link building.

So, while it’s satisfying to feel like we’re finally getting that chair at the marketing table, managing our reputation isn’t even close to the top of our priority list. Because the people we most want to impress and earn the esteem of aren’t other marketers.

The people we work the most to impress--the people we literally work for--are our clients. And they don’t mind that we’re invisible. Now why would that be the case?

Competitors Not Wanted

I gotta be honest. When I first meditated on why link builders can feel invisible to clients, I was pretty sure that it was because link building’s reputation had poisoned them against us. I assumed they just didn’t want to admit publically that they were affiliated with us.

Sad pug imageNo, no. It's fine. We understand. Source.

And, sticking with brutal honesty, that’s come up with clients in the past. Sometimes they’ve heard rumblings that link building has strong ties to spam. Often times they’ve had less-than-ideal interactions with SEO firms in the past. Clients would rather we stay as invisible as possible because they don’t want to risk guilt by association.

There are also cases where brands we work with would rather we intentionally stay invisible by not representing them, directly. We’re not PR reps, after all, and we need to earn their trust if we’re going to speak for them.

And we also have some companies ask us not to broadcast that they use our link building services because they don’t want to tip off their competitors that they’ve hired us. They’re (rightly) afraid that their competitors could hire another firm to try to duplicate their backlink portfolio, reducing the advantage we can win them in the SERPs. Ashley Penrod, one of our sales-associates-turned-SEOs, put it thusly: “They think of link building like it’s a secret sauce. They don’t want their competitors knowing about it.” So some clients want us to stay invisible so that they can keep our talents all for themselves. Which feels rather nice for a change.

Ninjas for Hire

But beyond these scenarios when our clients like our status of invisibility, there’s also the fact that the work we do is legitimately just not all that flashy if we’re doing it right. We work with other marketing campaigns seamlessly, directing attention and traffic to our clients’ unique value propositions and content without raising a fuss. Some clients would prefer to pretend that they got all of that attention and traffic on their own, without link builders, which we can hardly blame them for.

Whether it’s our clients directly or partner organizations that whitelabel us, we often work invisibly so that someone else can take the credit. This is simply the nature of link building. Behind-the-scenes is where we get some of our very best work done.

Ninja imageYou see where I'm going with this. Source.


We link builders are still invisible for the most part, and probably always will be. We’ve been ignored by other marketers because our beginnings were questionable. We’ve been obscure because SEO is a technical field that most people on the planet don’t know exists, despite using the internet (and search) every single day. And we’re certainly not in the limelight-- when we do our jobs well, it looks like we’re not doing anything at all because our clients are ranking for terms relevant to their business.

And that’s ok.

Yes, it can be frustrating to watch my colleagues go uncelebrated for their hand in a client’s success. Yes, it’s still annoying to explain to my relatives what it is I actually DO. And yes, it has totally stung to be called a “spammer” when I’ve sent outreach. But, really, this is all ok. These repercussions of invisibility are survivable.

Where we do want to be visible, though, is in the conversation with our marketing peers. The partnerships we can forge, the knowledge we can gain, the strides we can make towards better marketing overall-- this is what’s important when we talk about wanting to become more visible.

I kind of like being an internet ninja, anyway.

Kate Smith

Kate Smith is a Content Marketing Specialist at Page One Power in Boise, Idaho. When not at work Kate enjoys obscure movie trivia, reading Shakespeare, and the occasional zombie video game. Sometimes all three at once.