By MeghanCahill
25 Mar 2015

Link Building: Natural…or Unethical?

Link Building

Even among link builders, there seems to be a prevailing mindset lately: if you have to actually ask a human for that referring hyperlink, somehow it isn’t considered “natural”. You didn’t “earn” it. There is only one word to describe this line of thought: Nonsense.

This rather isolated mentality doesn’t gel. How would this principle stack up against “analog” marketing comparisons? For example, let’s say your glam-rock doo-wop band is having a big show next weekend. You’re releasing a new record, have three opening acts – you’re even making free street tacos for your fans. It’s going to be awesome!


"Yeah, we play mostly drum n' bass..."

Can you imagine if the guitar player just assumed, “Well, we’re doing it and that’s the important thing, right? I guess I don’t need to tell anyone: no flyers, no listing in the newspaper, no social media messages. Because that requires getting in touch other humans. I can’t ask this business owner if I can hang up a poster in their window. I can’t ask the music editor of the alt-weekly to include a blurb about the show. That would be unnatural.”

This poor glam-rock doo-wop band is the most talented act in town, but unfortunately, they’ll be playing to an empty house and eating all those free carnitas tacos themselves because NO ONE KNOWS about their gig. They needed promotion. They didn’t get any. I’ll defer to a quote from my esteemed colleague, Cory Collins, to tie this back into what we do:

"If your site needs search traffic, links are required. If you require links, you need manual promotion. Manual promotion for links is link building."

Pretty simple, right? Yes, we outreach to people, often total strangers, offering resources or content. We do this only when it’s a prudent fit for the site, their audience, and our client. Perhaps it’s this slight resemblance to “cold calls” from the 1990’s telemarketing heyday that incurs a wrinkling of the nose from other industry factions. But let’s face it, every job – in every industry, ever – has components that others find distasteful. This doesn’t mean those components are unethical or should be penalized.

What it comes down to: this practice falls well within Google’s guidelines for what’s considered a “natural link”. And we all know links are important. They’re literally the second thing mentioned on Google’s own resource for ‘building a Google-friendly site’. Let’s take a look…


Google said it, not me. But yes, if you want people to find you in search engines, you most certainly do want to “make sure that other sites link to yours”. If your company isn’t already a household name, those effortless backlinks don’t generally pour in on their own. If that’s the case, someone has to “make sure” that other relevant websites are pointing in your direction.

“B-b-but…don’t great companies earn their links?” Back to the analog examples: let’s say a new local coffee shop is opening up on your block. Even homegrown, hipster hangouts need solid digital marketing strategies to get the word out.

To say a budding micro-business should just “be great” and then kick back and wait for killer links to emerge from the stratosphere is basically saying, “You know what you should do? You should just like, be Starbucks. People talk about them all the time. Tons of links. Sooo…can you do that?”

Is that really the advice you’d give someone? Certainly not. In every other applicable factor in life, “earning” something requires hard work and determination. Even if your company or service is so incredibly innovative that it deserves willy-nilly promotion and free advertising across the web – sadly, it usually doesn’t work that way. Unless your business is…shipping glitter bombs to your enemies. Then maybe. But don’t count on it.

Upon closer examination of Google’s website-friendliness steps:


Okay, this sentence is a little messy, but let’s scrutinize Google’s choice of verbs: “Natural links to your site develop…”

Indeed, they do. It should go without saying that if you’re not offering anything of value, you should not expect links to your website, content, or resources to “develop”. Regardless of whether or not a professional is working on your behalf. As we’re prone to saying over here at Linkarati, the links a website gets will only be as good as the website itself.

To be fair, many of the earliest SEO and link building tactics were decidedly more manipulative than today’s standard practices. For a few hundred bucks, you could spray your URL onto a thousand useless pages, all the while crossing your fingers in hopes that your investment would boost you straight to the top of search engine results. The long-term effectiveness of this practice is long gone. Very few organizations still operate this way.

What the argument frequently turns back to is something like this: “If the links you build are so natural and you’re so proud of them show us some examples, huh?”

Though I see where this is coming from, a company’s promotion and marketing plan is generally not something to be publicly flaunted. Link builders are behind the scenes, not in frame of the shot. Your client is the bigwig in the limelight. Not you.

3-D links are trending for 2016. You heard it here first.

Sticking with this theatrical verbiage, let’s say a big-budget Broadway production is kicking off. Every aspect of the show, from the custodian sweeping the stage to the casting director, is vital to its success. Yet, the thunderous applause doesn’t go to the person operating the curtain or illustrating the Playbill cover. And that’s fine. They still get their recognition.

Naturally, if you’re in the dramatic art field or follow it closely, you know how essential each and every one of these occupations are to keeping the overall machine running fluidly. Ditto for digital marketing. We can all recognize a job well done, but in the end, your client’s website is the star of the show, taking a bow in the spotlight or generating ink in the press.

Link building is one of those occupations: the better you do your job, the less likely someone will notice. There are exceptions: say you’re the business or site owner, checking out your increased traffic in Google Analytics. Then you notice. Or when an algorithm is updated and you skyrocket in the SERPs, because you’ve been doing this “link building thing” the right way all along. That’s pretty noticeable, too.

People link to other websites for a reason. If another person’s suggestion was part that reason, where’s the harm in that? Webmasters and Google overlords agree: building links the right way (or earning links, developing links, acquiring links, relationship building or whatever popular and politic term tickles your fancy) is natural. There’s nothing misleading or unscrupulous here, folks. No salty scandals. Just a lot of elbow grease, gumption and creativity.

Oh, and before I forget: my glam-rock doo-wop band is playing a free show at the opening of that new coffee shop on your block. Y’know…on Broadway. See you there!


Meghan Cahill is a link-builder and content writer at Page One Power in Boise, ID. She spends far too much time collecting classic movies on VHS and quizzing total strangers about Idaho history.