By Andrew Dennis
15 Apr 2014

Link Building is (Really) Hard

Link Building

The fickle nature of the SEO industry tends to lend itself to looking for the hottest trend and more people climbing on the bandwagon than at a Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl Parade. One of the more irksome trends I have noticed lately is the idea of link earning.

Those touting this idea believe that if you simply create great content, the links will come “naturally”. However, this strategy is not viable for most businesses. To be successful with link earning you need to have an established following/audience or spend a tremendous amount of time and resources building and cultivating one. Once you have this audience, you still need to create great content that people from your audience would actively link to.

The problem is, however, that even then there is no guarantee that people will naturally link to your content/site. My boss Jon Ball said it best, “you’re not going to get the links if you don’t do the work”.

This idea that you can build links magically out of thin air bothers me because I know how hard it is to build links: I’ve done it.

It would be nice if it were easy to build links because they are so valuable in terms of visibility within search. However, there are number of hurdles and challenges we must overcome to be a successful link builder.

Link building is (really) hard.

Link Building is Hard image

People are Unpredictable

One of the major obstacles we face as link builders is that people are unpredictable. This is especially true on the internet where people do not feel as accountable for their actions.

This is problematic for us link builders because we rely on people to build links. We have a saying at P1P – people link to people.

A useful and relevant link comes from a mutually beneficial relationship between two websites and two people. The link is the result of an endorsement from one site to the other and it takes human beings to earn/give this endorsement.

Because folks are sometimes unreliable on the internet, it takes a fair amount of persistence to build links. Typically people aren’t going to respond to your first outreach email and research shows that sending follow-up emails drastically improves response rate. This is why persistence is key, as most webmasters receive a large number of emails daily and your outreach can easily slip through the cracks.

Not only is perseverance important in making initial contact with a linking prospect, but it may still be needed even after you establish communication. I learned this was true through my own link building experiences.

I found that a website had mentioned a client’s resource, but was not currently linking to their site. After a couple of outreach emails, I got in contact with the owner of the site and asked if he would be willing to add a link to the client’s site. He said “Of course!” and happily added the link. Unfortunately, he made a slight error in the URL and the result was a broken link.

After a couple of follow-up emails, he responded to me and said he would fix the broken link as soon as he got the chance.

Every few days I would check back and see that the link was still not working properly and touch base with him to see if he still planned on fixing it. Every time that I was on the verge of giving up, he would respond with a different reason for why he had not fixed it yet and reassure me that he still intended to do so.

This back and forth went on for about a month and a half until one day I checked and the link was working properly! Although it took some time (and A LOT of emails) my persistence paid off as it ended up being a great link for the client and one that I was personally proud of.

Black-hats/Spammers Have Tarnished the Reputation of SEOs and Link Builders

Another challenge we face in building links is that spammers have sullied the reputation of honest SEOs and link builders.

Unfortunately, the actions of black-hat SEOs have created a sense of mistrust among the general internet population regarding link building. Webmasters often receive so many spam emails each day, they can be hesitant to respond to anything concerning links (reiterating the importance of perseverance). It can be difficult to overcome this distrust and even get your foot in the door with a link prospect.

Google is Spreading FUD

Along with the distrust spammers have created, Google has been disseminating FUD surrounding links and linking practices.

After the whole MyBlogGuest fiasco, many websites have been scrambling to “nofollow” any external links in guest posts. This goes against Google’s own advice to treat users and web crawlers the same, but people are scared and going overboard.

Although SEOs and those in internet marketing should know better than to immediately panic and buy into Google FUD, the average blog owner may not. Many of these blog/site owners are becoming too afraid to link out to anything – even sites/content that are useful and add value to their own site.

Not only does this type of culture and environment make link building harder, but it actually has an adverse effect on Google’s own search results (which are based around links).

Representing Clients from Numerous Verticals

Finally, as a link builder we must represent clients from a variety of niches. Rather than being able to specialize in a single area, we must be versatile and familiarize ourselves with each individual vertical we are working in to be successful.

Along with understanding the various niches we operate in, we must truly understand the clients we are working for. When we build links for clients we are representing their brand online. To represent clients properly we must understand everything associated with their brand, including:

  • Brand’s unique value

  • Core messaging

  • Familiarity of various products/services

  • Comprehensive knowledge of various aspects of client’s site

When representing a client online it is imperative that you fully understand their branding. Along with SEO value, link building can have branding power but you must maintain consistency with brand messaging. It can be quite difficult to maintain that consistency effectively while operating in multiple verticals.

You have to do the Work

The idea that you can simply create content and links will accrue on their own isn’t feasible for most companies. To effectively earn these links you must have an established following/audience or spend an enormous amount of time, resources and energy building one. Then you need to create content that is so spectacular, your audience would go out of their way to link to it. Even then, there’s still no guarantee they will link, regardless of quality. For these reasons, link earning isn’t really viable for most businesses.

I believe the reason people are hyping link earning is because they’ve tried to build links and found out it’s not so easy. Instead of doing the work necessary to be successful, these individuals would rather simply write off link building altogether.

Others may be advising link earning because they are afraid of being penalized by Google for building improper links. This is the chilling effect of Google’s FUD and as I mentioned before it may actually detract from the quality of their search results.

Regardless, links remain at the core of Google’s search algorithm and without link building you are leaving serious link equity on the table (no matter how good your content is).

Although link building is (really) hard, it remains the most effective way to increase visibility within search.


Andrew Dennis

Andrew Dennis is a Content Marketing Manager at Shopify. Andrew is an alumnus of the University of Idaho and consequently a lifelong Vandals fan. You can connect with Andrew on Twitter or LinkedIn.