In defence of the link builder

(Image via Cravendale)

“Behold; the link builder. A modern day enigma. He is a connoisseur of the click, and his drink is link juice.”

I recall a conversation I had with Steve Jaggard when I had a job interview for my role at Further in 2015. The discussion around SEO started to go in the direction of link building and how tough it can be to get any links (let alone high value ones) whilst also not falling foul of Google’s continual moving goal posts. He said something that has stuck with me to this day and I often find myself quoting in other conversations:

“If PR agencies understood off-page SEO and link building they’d be dangerous.”

See, there’s a problem with how link building is perceived in SEO and there always has been. Until agencies, consultants and in-house folk alike can get over this perception, link building is going to remain for the most part crappy.

Let me explain why now…

Link building is “entry-level” work

You speak to many people in SEO, and there is a big possibility their first role within search marketing was building links. It was most certainly mine; I started out in my first job mostly doing “guest blogging” and directory submissions before gradually getting more technical focused and ditching link building all together.

Whether it be the olden days when any shit you could throw at the wall en masse was what got sites ranking, or more recently when links need to be approached with more caution, a lot of people in the search marketing game began by either spamming the hell out of the internet or sending outreach to other websites in hunt of the holy link grail.

And here’s where my problem lies; I felt I was a bloody good link builder when I was fully-indulged in the role and I took great pride in my skills to get the job done.

I would mass source sites from every relevant niche and sort them by Trust Flow so I could prioritise my targets. I knew almost any advanced search query possible to find exactly what I was looking for and weed out as much as the non-relevant sites possible with ease. I could scan a list outreach targets in Excel and tell straight away from looking at the title tag alone if it was a potential or a no-go. I could hunt down the best relevant contact for a website within seconds. I had Streak for Gmail fine-tuned to ensure all my prospects were managed from all the way from “not contacted yet” to “link successful” and rarely let anything fall off my radar. I built relationships with journalists and bloggers beyond just work, some of which are still strong to this day.  I’d find every brand mention of a business online, crawl those pages to check if they were linking or not and would contact each site asking if they would do so. I had outreach templates I’d tweaked and tested over and over to get the best success rates. I’d use broken link outreach and reverse engineer content to get those links, including one time when I discovered the government had retired most its site without migrating the content, and repurposed content from a dead page to build some much-needed .gov and links back to a site I was working on.

(Image via, and yes those are links I built)

When I arrived at Vertical Leap in 2014, many of the methods I had picked up in my first two years in the industry were utilised by the agency shortly after based on my previous successes, and I’d like to hope are still being used to this day.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on one and sound like Billy Big-Bollocks (I don’t think that of myself at all for the record, in fact those who know me will say I’m quite self-deprecating), but I was typical of this SEO career path I’m talking of. I steered more and more to the technical side of search marketing and now that’s my main forte.

The SEO industry continues to treat link building like a beginner’s role, and then agencies wonder why there’s no pool of link building talent when it comes to recruitment, instead having to again opt for someone with transferable skills and train them up.

So what can we do to fix this problem?

Stop treating link building as “entry level” work

Agencies; stop using interns to build links or sticking it onto the side of technical workload with an inconveniently small bucket of time need to stop doing so and build out dedicated teams who KNOW link building. And when I say “know” I don’t mean a few PR-minded people who can send emails and promote the £3043218432481394 piece of content you just produced for a client. I mean technical link builders; the ones who can apply data and processing to understand what links mean for rankings and do sort of things I listed above. Grow them as dedicated to that role, rather than using it as a dangling carrot to get to a more technically-minded position.

I audit sites all the time that are technically sound, where no on-page tweaks are going to make a big difference to rankings; these sites NEED links to grow. The new brands in already competitive niches; these sites NEED links to grow.

The people doing this work shouldn’t be seen as elves slaving away building toys in the North Pole whilst Santa “Techical SEO” Claus is out delivering them and taking all the credit. They are just as important, if not more important, for SEO campaigns and should be treated as such.

Take pride in your work and keep getting better

Link builders; don’t see yourself as stable hands shovelling the muck until you’re experienced enough to be a jockey. It’s not like that and it shouldn’t have to be.

Be the best bloody link builder you can. Create processes, fine tune them and then re tune them again. Build out a network of contacts and become friends with them outside of work. Understand how to read URLs and pages from a link prospecting angle like it’s a second language.  Make Google advanced search queries your bitch. Understand link building isn’t just about promoting a big bit of content and figure out the best ways to get the easier links on lower budget clients.

Most agencies are savvy to evolution and will go in the direction they see best at the present time. When it comes your turn to take the step up to become a “technical SEO”, politely turn the offer down in favour of becoming a professional in the craft you’ve already perfected. Give your employer the outline of your grand scheme to build a team of like-minded folk around you dedicated to off-page SEO (but still learn as much technical SEO as you can too, because it’s, errr, useful).

Let’s remove the stigma around link building

You can claim otherwise all you like, but the reality is links will remain vital for SEO success for the near-to-distant future. Seriously, Google said so.

So let’s start treating the task at hand, as well as the people who do it, with the respect warranted for such an important job.


5 thoughts on “In defence of the link builder

  1. As someone that has transitioned into just link building and is not from an agency background this is an interesting post.
    Interesting to see how agencies view it, having said that I am being asked more and more about outsourced link building from agencies who don’t seem to have the skills internally.
    Once you have the technical SEO side down pat what’s next? Produce all the great content you want but if no one sees it, so what? Well researched, relevant links are still hugely important and a great way to proactively increase traffic and rankings month on month.
    I am focused more on building links that will drive relevant traffic to clients rather than just provide a great metric or the right anchor text and I think this will become more important.

  2. Hear! Hear! (Raising a glass to you & this article…from across the pond.)

    Link building requires a formidable set of skills…from planning, research, outreach, follow up, monitoring, etc.

    Links are a natural part of the Web. Always have been. For people not to grasp that basic concept? Honestly, confusing to me.

    Truly qualified link builders (the experts) are a small group, IMHO. I have always treated this group with a great deal of respect. Link building is both an art & science.

    VERY nice article. I wanted to send kudos in something longer than a tweet.


  3. Love this post. Many good points here. I have been doing link building for over 10 years now. From operations to showing how it’s done for the last five years to hundreds of (aspiring) link builders. It can be such satisfying and creative work. Thank you for writing this. Especially “Stop treating link building as ‘entry level’ work”. Link Building is for professionals. Any link builder can learn technical SEO, but not necessarily the other way around. I came from a technical background myself. Programmed for about 10 years and did technical seo consulting until this type of work just became too boring. I have been doing content and links ever since.

  4. Absolutely. As an outsider I keep coming across these words. As a website owner I am forced to delve into them myself.

    However, definitely agree. No job worry doing should be treated without care. Data analysis skills ftw.

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