People Still Pay for Links, Not Vague Content Marketing Strategies

by Jon Cooper
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This is a bit of a rant, but it’s important. Comments are welcomed below. 

I wish I could see all the gasps from all the content purists looking at this headline.

But I just couldn’t hold back after the following quote from an article entitled ‘Why Content Marketing is the Only Link Building That Counts’ on Brafton:

“Content Marketing is marketing, link building is manipulation.”

So it seems as though link building is dead (again…), and that content marketing rules the Web.

The truth is, though, the “content marketing” fluff in this industry needs to have a reality check, not only for the sake of SEOs everywhere, but also because it’s doing small businesses an injustice.

From an industry blogging perspective

You’re right, I’m probably biased because I build links, and thus, all of my clients come to me wanting links, but from my point of view, links is still what it comes down to in SEO.

No, not as a business as a whole, but for SEO. We’re still SEOs writing about SEO on SEO blogs, so let’s stop avoiding what information the majority of readers (SEOs) want content written on: SEO.

No, not big budget, vaguely described content strategies that are there for the sole purpose of attracting those big budget clients, thus doing an injustice to 80%+ of their audience, but tips on how to rank in search engines. And if we honestly think “Google has it all figured out” and that “the days of building links are over”, then we’re not living in reality.

What people still pay for

Yes, a lot of people have bought into content marketing, but only because they want links out of it, because at the end of the day, links are still all that matter.

Yes, in SEO, links matter, not pretty content. Google is still an algorithmic machine, not a fleet of designers & bloggers meticulously judging different aspects of websites on a scale of 1 to 10. Google lets webmasters do that by giving them the signal of whether they linked or not.

At the end of the day, even the vast majority of those big budget clients that the content evangelists are trying to attract only care about links from an SEO perspective. Not social shares or those relationships you’ve now started to harness for a couple of tweets, but links. Links are still the foundation of Google, and SEO is still alive more than ever.

Why I don’t do much content marketing

As many people have realized, it’s not exactly a science of input & output; a lot of the content marketing we talk about provides difficult to measure results (if there ends up being any), and is nearly impossible with any audience (I’ve seen it done, but very rarely), yet so many have pounded into us that arbitrage is “what you get when you do great stuff.”

But for me, as both a consultant who needs to hit quality link goals (yep, and I love it) as well as making sure there’s ROI for my efforts on my own sites, it just doesn’t cut it.

Content marketing is what I do when I’ve done EVERYTHING else. There’s a time and place for it, but not for a small business owner with barely any links, no budget, and no audience. It doesn’t make any sense for them to do “content marketing” at that time for their business, but because all the experts are telling them that they have to do it, that’s where they turn to first.

They then get turned off to this SEO thing and end up paying a spammy company to take over.

I’m not saying telling everyone out there to do content marketing is on the same scale as the SEO companies ripping off their customers (and possibly doing more harm than good), but the point is a lot of what we recommend is misleading to business owners.

Rather, we need to be educating them on everything else that can be done to get the links they need before content marketing.

We should be talking more about making our websites look like legitimate businesses so when we conduct outreach to webmasters who curate relevant business or local listings, they’ll happily accept them and give us a link.

We should be talking more about doing meticulous competitor research so we can get every link we deserve & qualify for.

We should be talking more about how to help out webmasters in our industry that hold the power to link (i.e. broken link building).

We should be talking more about how to identify new link tactics & opportunities so we’re not playing by the same rules as the rest of their competition, who’s waiting head over heels for the next blog post to be written about “how to get links with tactic X”.

We should be talking more about things like fail-proof content (NOT known as content marketing) that makes sure any time spent creating content provides measurable returns ahead of time, allowing us to be smarter about the content we create that serves an SEO purpose.

Because the truth is, there’s so much low hanging fruit in SEO. We don’t have to jump on to the content marketing bandwagon because 7 experts told us it’s “the only way to get good links”.


As I said, there’s still a time & place for content marketing, but it should be a last linking resort.

So stop thinking the only way to get links is by “earning” them. Go out there and build them.

Small update: this post is another example of link building getting thrown under the bus. I encourage you to check out John-Henry‘s comment below it, as well as the responses to it.

This post was written by...

Jon Cooper – who has written 119 posts on Point Blank SEO.

Jon Cooper+ is an SEO consultant based out of Gainesville, FL who specializes in link building. For more information on him and Point Blank SEO, visit the about page. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. I agree that a lot of companies turn into spammy activities because of lack of trust to SEO particularly content marketing. They want short term and quick results. Content marketing focused on building a brand online for long term.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Did you even read the post?

      • Yes. My comment is way far from the post.

        Okay here it is. Hmm. The use of content marketing and link building strategy depends on the budget and client’s expectation. It is still your decision as an SEO whether to use both for your clients or just make content without links.

  2. Chris says:

    It seems en-vogue to throw Link Building under the bus at the moment…

    That WASCALLY Penguin has killed Link Building so let’s distance our agencies and businesses as far away from these links we envagelised about for the past 5-10 years and rebrand ourselves as “content marketers” or “relationship builders” perrrr-lease you’re wolves in sheeps clothing… you wouldn’t be doing fluffy sexy Content Marketing if you didn’t think there was a link building opportunity in it…

    PS I ticked the checkbox as I am not a spammer :)

    • Chris-

      I was thinking the same thing about Jon’s checkbox. It kinda felt lie it should have the option for:

      “I use to spam like crazy but now I try and walk the Google line.”

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Totally agreed, it’s been fun watching all these companies rebrand themselves as “content marketing agencies” or “inbound marketing agencies”, yet they still build links (but would never use the word “build” publicly).

  3. Jon, I like a good rant! :)

    I agree that many of the smaller companies don’t have the budgets and usually (in our current algos) don’t need content marketing. We do a ton of work in the financial industry and content marketing defiantly helps with building up the authority of the domains.

    What gets me is when agencies think that content marketing is all their clients need. Sure you can get traffic bursts, some links, but they still need quality links. Links that pinpoint the money head terms.

  4. Danny says:

    Agreed. Those that leave link-building behind (for any size of client) will lose in the end. It’s not about throwing any of these aspects of SEO out, it’s about implementing them appropriately and in order. The goal should be about building a client up to the point where the base link building stuff is in place, they’re succeeding, and THEN look to an actionable content marketing strategy

  5. “Why I don’t do much content marketing” – funny. I know its just semantics, but the only reason I am on your site today is because of a form of link building called “content marketing”. Someone liked one of your posts… linked to it. I followed that link and now you have me as a visitor every time you put out new content. So your content marketed your new ideas, which helped bolster your brand, which hopefully/eventually brings you new business. Yeah I know… you were just saying that links are still king. I get it… but Matt Cutts says content is the new king and the sheep will follow. Not all fish swim up stream ya know!

    In reality… here is what builds successful brands and remains king of all things:
    Believe in something. Be different. Offer real value. Help people. Work your ass off. Repeat.
    Do that, and eventually whatever you do… will be “king”.

    Good post.

  6. Takeshi says:

    I agree with you, Jon, that “content marketing” has become the latest overused buzzword in the SEO space, but I also believe it’s important to have some kind of content to help with link building efforts. Unless your product or site itself is amazing and linkable, having additional linkable assets (i.e. “content”) makes linkbuilding much easier.

  7. Tom Roberts says:

    Timely post Jon, thank you for sharing.

    What I am keen to remind everyone I talk to is that we’re still very much in a links dominated world. The things that will get you ranking in the highest position are links. It’s as simple as that.

    Now, I’m also keen to advise that you want to earn these links in a sustainable way. Content marketing falls into this, but it’s just one asset. What annoys me as well is that a lot of people’s private definitions of content marketing right now is simply: “write guest posts” – which is just a bunch of crap, frankly.

    There are several things, many of which you have mentioned in the past Jon, that agencies and consultants can do to earn links before they have to formulate a content marketing strategy. I think having one can be a strong weapon in your arsenal, but it should be one of many.

  8. Ryan O'Connor says:

    Great article Jon,

    I think you hit on a lot of key points. The two things that I always get pissed off about are:

    1.) Articles on how people don’t want to be known as SEO’s anymore and instead want another acronym or title. There are literally thousands of these posts and I immediately bounce when I end up on one. I value my time and I don’t need to read the 54,253 post on why you now want to be called a “content advocate” or “inbound X Y and Z” even when you’re just going to be doing the same things you’ve been doing.

    2.) If you’re not doing strategy x then you’re doing it wrong (in this case content marketing). Every site needs a different approach and for an industry that claims to be “data driven” it makes me crazy when people think the same strategies will be the right fit for every site or client. If you’re working exclusively with massive clients who have been around for years and have hundreds or thousands of links then yes maybe big content marketing initiatives are your best investment to move the needle. Don’t try and say that same approach applies to a local business, new affiliate site or personal blog though.

    Linkbuilding FTW

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Totally agree on #1 Ryan; and yep, it’s TOTALLY different for those dealing with huge, big budget clients, and those working with small business & in some cases startups. Yet, the type of strategy broadcasted is that XYZ is the answer for everyone, and if you’re not doing that, then you’re wrong.

      Thanks for your 2 cents!

  9. engines use links as positive signals. the more incoming links from better domains, the better a site’s visibility. awesome. then.. depending on vertical/consumer behavior, perhaps not much more is needed other than visibility to convert? to spread goodwill/word of mouth? to maintain the customer? to build the brand? to make more money?

    in most cases, communicating to the traffic which got there through the linked means is additionally important. do you need a world-class writer to compose a ditty on dish soap? maybe not – but who knows? do you need a well-twitter-engaged audience if you’re a plumber? maybe not (the cadbury UK handle is pretty engaging with its audience.) i don’t know in dollars what each ‘retweet’ amounts to, but PR wise, engaging a targeted market builds advocacy and accepted as a means to business ends as well.

    i think present-day link builders’ frustration/headbanging is warranted. good link builders understand their methods still work, therefore, their work should not be devalued or entirely reevaluated. i fully agree. but combining solid link building with a content(communication)/pr only makes my client stronger and likely to make more money, which in the end, is the international language of business.

  10. Matt McGee says:

    I don’t do much consulting anymore, but the one client that I still consult for has been with me since 2008 — a small business with a website that sells about 150 products. We spent one month doing what I’d call traditional link building — identifying competitors’ links, getting links from those that should be linking to us, looking for (and fixing) mentions that should’ve been links, etc. It netted a few additional inbound links, but was mostly a waste of my time and the client’s money. That’s mainly because I wasn’t very good at it, not because link building is/was dead or not needed. :-)

    We decided that a new approach was in order and focused on a consistent blogging schedule, great informative articles and PR outreach. Since then, we’ve scored mentions or interviews in USA Today, US News & World Report, Shape, Redbook, Glamour, and many others — some of which also included sweet links to the blog articles and/or the home page. Product sales have skyrocketed.

    So I agree with you, Jon, that link building isn’t dead. Great link builders do amazing things. But I disagree with the idea that content marketing should be a last resort. Every situation is different. In our case, the combination of a client that excels at writing (as a way to establish authority and trust) and a consultant that’s not good at building links traditionally led us toward content. And it worked. For some other client and/or consultant, a different approach might’ve been best.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Thanks Matt!

      You’re using something like HARO I presume? In that case, even though it’s more PR focused, I still consider that closer to traditional link building than anything along the lines of content marketing or the ‘relationship building’ mumbo jumbo.

      I guess I didn’t do a great job explaining what I feel is the right time for content marketing, and I appreciate you pointing it out. I don’t think it’s really a last resort, but more so once you’ve tapped into some of the easier opportunities out there (i.e. in your client’s case, HARO), then you should turn to it; rather, don’t make it a priority right out the shoot without doing any other link focused activities.

      Thanks for stopping by, always love your perspective.

      • Matt McGee says:

        Thx Jon – yep, HARO has been a big help. And then once you get picked up in national publications, it starts to snowball a bit. Which is great. And makes me look better than I deserve. :-)

  11. Daniel Ezquerro says:

    I’m 100% agree with you Jon.

    When I read all the blogs that claim that they just do content marketing I ask myself it they even believe what are saying. Of course having a good content is very important, but if you don’t build links pointing to that content and you are not a big brand with a lot of followers, the amount of people who is going to see/share it is going to be ridiculous and in consecuence, you’re getting no “natural” links.

    Btw, great post again.

  12. A great post Jon. Nice to hear some counter-balance to all of the content marketing hype that’s out there. I agree link building is alive and well and content marketers need to stop throwing link building under the bus. I don’t think content marketing should be a last resort, but I also think content marketing is simply the production of content for marketing purposes (“targeted content + targeted outreach”). It doesn’t have to be all the bells and whistles infographics about topics that have little to do with your offering. It doesn’t have to be about going viral. By this definition I consider everything we put on our websites to be content marketing and yes it still requires links, earned organically or through link building (because damn it…link builders earn links too!)

    I discussed this a bit further with a friend over on Google Plus https://plus.google.com/114779041142136013466/posts/G2NPk1s59sz

  13. I agree that content marketing is way over-hyped right now and SEO/Link building is being denigrated at an unfair rate. However, I am confused why you don’t seem to like Content Marketing all that much, or as a last resort.

    I use all of the tactics you mentioned above but I actually get some of the best results from Content Marketing. But perhaps what I refer to as Content Marketing you are think of as link bait or something else. I don’t get caught up in if something is “technically” an infographic or actually just a great illustration or instructo-graphic. Labels don’t be jack if you don’t get links, shares and traffic.

    I do content marketing mainly for links and social shares and I am not ashamed to say that because that is how I gauge if the content I am producing for a client is resonating with their market. Pro Tip: The best content we make tends to get more links and social shares..lol.

    Second tip…for our smaller to mid-size clients if we didn’t do VERY aggressive outreach for each major content piece we produce nobody would see it because they just simply do not have the built in audience yet.

    Who are these people that are doing Content Marketing and not link building off of it and getting tons of social shares??? The only people who I can imagine that can afford to make that mistake are large brands with a built-in audience.

    Now look, you got me ranting lol. Very thought provoking post keep it up!

  14. Mahesh Mohan says:

    It’s annoying when large companies (especially eCommerce sites) are buying paid links and sponsored posts aggressively. Blame their black hat SEOs!

  15. Mike says:

    I agree in the strongest possible way with this post. In my experience, clients don’t want vague platitudes – they want you to tell them they by spending £X, Y rankings will happen and that will result in £Z income. If you can’t do that, you’ll get hammered in the typical boardroom.

    I think it’s very important for anyone new to this game to remember that the vast majority of SEO writing isn’t produced out of the goodness of the writers heart – there is a (usually commercial) agenda behind it, and very often it is the result of the writer trying to dismiss the competition and position themselves as something better. Of course, the irony is that our reputation is probably in part to us, as an industry, constantly slagging ourselves off. I’ve worked for, and helped pitch against, many big agencies, and for all their bluster about being ‘white hat’, a set number of links are usually their main deliverable.

    That’s not to say there isn’t value – a lot of value – in content marketing. But content creation is a separate endeavour, and frankly it is a very, very rare person who has both a creative background and an aptitude for Analytics and number crunching. Your average SEO wouldn’t recognise good content if it vomited on their shoes, and that’s OK! If I showed any of my creative buddies GA they’d probably start criticising the colour scheme or something.. What pisses me off is when people just decide one day to pass themselves off as ‘inbound content marketers’ when they’re spectacularly ill qualified to call themselves that. If anything is ‘snake oil’, it’s that!

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