Unpopular opinion: Why I don’t use the term “link building”

Unlike lawyers or doctors, SEOs have no regulating body to look to for guidance. This lack of standardization means terms like “link building” are up for debate.

It’s common practice for SEOs to quibble over semantics, like whether “dofollow” can reasonably be used as a term to describe links that pass PageRank (ugh). While I’m a huge advocate for clarity of diction, I think we can go a little overboard. I don’t believe it’s worth calling out a semantical difference when the intent is clear and the difference isn’t likely to cause confusion or misunderstanding.

So why call out link building?

It’s not a controversial term. In fact, it’s one that’s just about as old as SEO itself. “Links to your site” is one of the pillars of SEO. You need them. What’s to discuss?

Turns out, a lot.

What is link building?

I think a definition of link building that accurately describes most people’s understanding of the practice is this one from Wikipedia, and it states:

Link building describes actions aimed at increasing the number and quality of inbound links to a webpage with the goal of increasing the search engine rankings of that page or website.

Let’s break that down.

  • Actions: Links don’t just fall out of the sky like manna. You must do something to warrant them. They’re the byproduct of a separate action.

  • Increasing: This is the “building” aspect of link building. You have a set number of links to your page or domain as a whole, and you’re trying to grow that number. That’s because, in Google’s eyes, links are like votes. The more votes, the better you’ll perform...kind of.

  • Number: Lots of links can indicate that your content is popular. Google wants to rank content that lots of people find valuable.

  • Quality: Links from quality sources carry more weight than links from untrustworthy sources or sources with unknown quality.

  • To a webpage: For a backlink to be a backlink, another site must add a hyperlink on their site that directs their readers to a destination on your website.  

  • Goal of increasing rankings: The aim of link building as an activity is to increase a web page’s or website’s rank position in the organic results of Google’s search engine.

So link building means procuring links from lots of high quality sites so your site will rank better. What’s the problem?

What Google says

Take a look at what Google says, and you’ll see where this starts to get a little hairy.

  • [From Google’s Quality Guidelines] Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

    • AKA if this link was created to help your site rank better, we consider that a link scheme and you could get penalized for it

  • [From Google’s Quality Guidelines] Creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.

    • AKA if the site owner isn’t linking to you out of their own volition because they personally vouch for the quality of your content, it’s considered an unnatural link and could get you penalized.

  • [From John Mueller] If *you’re* making quality links to your site, then that would be considered against our webmaster guidelines, and by that, those links would definitely not be considered “quality.”

    • AKA it’s the quality of self-creation that makes a link not-editorial and therefore low quality.

All of this seems to be pointing to the fact that any followed backlinks you create to your own website are a violation of Google’s guidelines. Google’s algorithm is getting better at detecting and ignoring links that violate their guidelines, but they sometimes take manual action to remove spam from search results. If you have links to your site that meet this criteria, you could get a total or partial manual action in your Google Search Console account for “unnatural links to your site.”

unnatural links to your site.jpg

At first glance, it’s a total paradox. You need links to rank. Google says not to create links.

What in the world are we supposed to make of this?

I think it all comes down to the word “create.” To explain what I mean, let’s take a look at what companies did pre-Google.

How companies got found before Google

Let’s use a fictional company and product as an example. Billings Instruments is a company that manufactures pens and pencils. Lucky for Billings, they just invented a new type of ink that dries 10x faster than the competition. They want to let the world know about it so people will buy their pens!

Billings would likely hire an ad agency, and that ad agency might record a TV spot, design billboard graphics, and maybe even put together a magazine spread. They’d probably give the product a zippy name like Insta-dry or Smudgeless.

Billings might also get in touch with a public relations firm to handle press in relation to the product launch. They might even book Billings some interviews with trade publications or send out a press release when their product officially launches.

Someone creates a thing. They want people to know about the thing. When people know about the thing and how awesome it is, they’re more likely to buy it. That’s how businesses have worked forever.

Companies have never created products and then just set them in a field waiting for someone to hopefully, maybe someday stumble across it. Companies have always promoted their products. It doesn’t cheapen the product. It just underscores the fact that people aren’t aware of things unless you tell them.

Google’s search team isn’t dense. They don’t disagree with the way companies from the dawn of time have operated. I believe what they disagree with is the ulterior motive that most digital marketing tactics seem to have taken on.

What does it mean to “create” links?

Googlebot finds content through links, and Google’s algorithm looks at links as a sign of a page’s authority and popularity. The importance of links isn’t up for debate. This is about how we’re classifying the activity of link building.

Link building connotes an action on your part to build the links themselves, and that’s what I find so dangerous about this term. You can take all kinds of actions that result in links, but those actions are high-quality content creation and promotion, not building the actual links as the term “link building” suggests.

Google isn’t saying “don’t take any action at all to let people know about your content.” They’re saying that the act of creating the links themselves can’t be done by you if you want them to count as quality.

  • Content – done by you

  • Promotion – done by you (others who value your content might opt to share, too)

  • Links – done by others

I know I’m being redundant, but this is nuanced and the subtleties are easy to miss.

You can create content. You can promote that content. What you can’t do is create your own backlinks.

Alternative definitions for link building

No one is arguing that you shouldn’t promote your business or its offerings. My main issue with the term “link building” is that it gives the impression you can go out and construct the links themselves. You’re creating content that your audience needs and will find useful, valuable, and interesting, then promoting that content so others know about it. The rest (the links) are up to other digital content creators.

Instead of “link building,” I often refer to the type of activity that can result in links as:

  • Content promotion: telling others about your content so that they will see it and take your intended actions. Those intended actions could include sharing your content with others, converting on your content (filling in a lead form, making a purchase, etc.), and using their own websites to link to your content.

  • Link earning: A byproduct of creating great content and promoting it to your desired audience.

  • Link outreach: The process of identifying specific website owners who might be genuinely interested in your content, then reaching out to them to let them know about your content with the goal of getting them to link to you.

As SEOs, we hope that the outcome of content creation is links, and we can (and should) be very targeted in our approach to increase the likelihood that will happen. However, I refuse to call myself a “link builder.”

That’s my audience’s job.

Kameron Jenkins