What Link Building Really Is

by Jon Cooper


The term link building has been around since the minute Larry & Sergey made links the centerpiece of the Google algorithm. Well, not exactly, but I think we can agree that it’s been around for a good while.

But over time, and especially in the age of Panda and Penguin, the term has grown to mean other things.

Today we might associate link building with content, and some might even claim link building is now just link earning.

Well, I’m here to set the record straight. It’s time to define what link building really is and if it has a future as an industry term. It’s going to be a bit controversial, and I’m going to be a little critical, so understand this is purely my opinion (and stay with me until I get to my point…).


I define link building as the active pursuit of going out and acquiring links.

This usually involves outreach in some sense, but not always. In times of outreach, it’s about contacting people who probably wouldn’t link unless I reached out to them and got them to. Yes, believe it or not, that’s still a practice.

In the sense that doesn’t involve outreach, this usually involves the lower quality link building tactics, but when managed and checked for quality, they can be effective (i.e. niche directories & comments on industry blogs), but usually in only small doses.

Now, what I didn’t say was earning them. Yes, links can be earned, but by no means is the active pursuit of acquiring links dead. If you think link building is dead, you aren’t in the trenches. Link earning does exist, and it’s definitely growing as a practice (who knew offering value could win you something?), but link earning is still separate & different; they simply coexist.


Content is used as one of many things to get links, but you’re not building links by creating great content. Here, content would fall into the link earning category. You’re not actively acquiring links, but you’re still getting them as a byproduct of offering value through the form of knowledge & insight.

So, for the sake of terminology, I don’t consider the majority of what most see as content to be part of your link building efforts, because you’re not actively pursuing links in the same way.

But, if you’re smart, they can become the cornerstone of your link building efforts. I’ll give you a quick example.

Broken links are one of my favorite things to take advantage of because I’m actively solving a problem (weird, that doesn’t seem spammy…), and in return, I’m getting a link. But a common issue I face is wanting to make sure the content being linked to that’s now a 404 is being properly replaced.

Using a tool like Archive.org, I see the content had significant value & insight (which makes sense why it’s being linked to), and after checking with Open Site Explorer, it seems to have quite a few backlinks to the page. So, I could reconstruct the page, making it even better than before.

But if I stopped there, the purists would say “Congratz! You’ve built great content that’s earned links!” yet all those webmasters still have a link to the old content that no longer exists. Unfortunately, they don’t get a text message on their iPhone when something like this happens so they can update the page.

So do you think reaching out to them, letting them know about the problem, and getting the link out of it is wrong for the Web, not what Google wants, and essentially “spammy”? If so, I’d have to politely disagree.

The future of link building

It’s not going away anytime soon.

As long as Google has an algorithm based off links, we will always be manually pursuing them, whether they’re in ways Google likes or ones they don’t. But for those who say all link building is black hat, know this: just because we’re actively pursuing links doesn’t mean they’re manipulative.

Here’s an example. A colleague of mine was telling me about a client who has over 14,000 mentions of his name across the Web. What he’s trying to do is to reach out to those who mentioned them, and simply ask if they would link back to the guy’s personal website.

You think that’s manipulative? Yeah, he might of earned those links by being influential and getting mentioned, but until someone went out and did the dirty work of building them, they wouldn’t exist, and thus, he wouldn’t have gotten credit for them in the eyes of Google.

But I know people are shying away from the term of link building. Just look at the trends.


Heck, try and find the term “link building” on most big agencies websites. That’s like trying to find Manti Teo’s girlfriend in person. Even Vertical Measures is rebranding themselves as a content marketing agency (you’re welcome for that anchor).

Which is why it makes sense that fewer and fewer are searching for “link building” since all the legitimate agencies won’t be found ranking for it; you’ll be stuck finding some “packaged” deal for $XXX/mo. or some software that, strangely, no one seems to have heard of.

So I get why the trends are moving that way, but after talking with so many effective agencies, they’re still building links. I’m not saying they’re not doing the value adding tactics of content and what not, I just want it to be known that they’re still in the trenches. Links is still what people are being paid for, and they’re still building them.

My final words

The link building that’s being attacked is the traditional article directory & comment software type crap, and yes, I’m with you on that one. But don’t generalize link building as something that’s dead or dying.

There are still hundreds of millions being made each year off of the backs of those building links, whether it’s for a lead gen, ecommerce, or publishing site. You’ll still find profitable SERPs littered with sites that you can 100% tell that they’re ranking and making X figures each month because of these links, and yes, they were built. Why else would they have a link on an obscure discount page when they themselves are in a vertical that no one wants to talk about?

Yes, content can work with your link building efforts. If you’re smart, research content that’s proven to get links, either because that content has been built in the past and people have linked out to it (allowing you to then hit those people up for links), or because you’re solving a problem that people are pained with (at least some of them will have websites if you target the right ones).

So think twice of swallowing the content purists message of “build it and they will come”. Sometimes you need to help them on their way. Still offer value, but go out and claim what’s yours as a result of doing so.

If you’re needing to build links, I suggest you try out my link building course. I’m the most biased when it comes to subject, so take my words with a grain of salt, but it seems to do the trick for those who need a little help getting the links they need.

Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below so we can chat. Thanks for reading amigos!!

This post was written by...

Jon Cooper – who has written 129 posts on Point Blank SEO.

Jon Cooper is a link builder based out of Gainesville, FL. For more information on him and Point Blank SEO, visit the about page. Follow him on Twitter @PointBlankSEO.

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  1. Matt Morgan says:

    Thx for sharing your insight Jon. I have to agree. The spammy, paid, article directory spun, forum commenting link building strategies are dead, however true “link earning” is very much alive.

    I’m trying to teach our SEO team to think about building relationships and earning quality links. My communications manager is running through your link building course next week. I’ll share her feedback with you once she’s completed it.

    I’m looking forward to your next blog about how you track/organize your opportunities/contacts and the conversations with each 😉

    Stay awesome

  2. Iain says:

    It’s impossible to argue against the assertion that, under your definition, there is still link building going on. I certainly agree that it isn’t the same thing as earning links (the phrase “link earning” is pretty ugly, don’t you think?).

    It still kinda sucks though, doesn’t it? Particularly where the person you are asking for a link doesn’t understand the value of that link. Unless you’re transparent and explain to them the benefits you hope to derive from getting the link then surely it gets filed under ‘manipulative’?

    • Jon Cooper says:

      You never have to explain the value of the link, just in some of the examples above, use framing to your example. I.e. “I took the burden of recreating the resource” will get you more links than “hey, I rebuilt this so I could get links”.

  3. Justin Sous says:

    Great post, Jon. I still have the mindset of “link building” as opposed to just “naturally” building links. With some less “sexy” niches, spending time in the trenches is needed. I wonder how much unrelated organic traffic you’ll get for the Te’o line you stuck in there!

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Exactly; I do enough of it that it unsettled me enough to write this post in response to some who don’t actually have the responsible of getting links for clients.

      And none so far that I can see :). But then again, Not Provided…

  4. Dan Shure says:

    Dude this is a super important distinction – and I tell potential clients all of the time. I’m an on-site, analytics, strategy guy. I link EARN. I do NOT link BUILD. I’m sure I’ll be sharing this with ppl cause you do a damn good job at ‘splaining that for me 🙂

  5. Very interesting article. I still seek out valuable links on a weekly basis. Like someone already mentioned, it’s frustrating when someone doesn’t understand the value of a link. Good Information.

  6. Zeph Snapp says:

    Link Building is turning into the Cinderella of the SEO world. She get’s ignored, kicked around, and does all the dirty work. But at the end of the day, the glass slipper (Cash) is going on her foot, and she is getting the prince (SERP domination).
    OK, so maybe that analogy isn’t so great, but yes. Somebody has to build them.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      LOL that’s great, totally stealing that.

    • Nia says:

      LOL. True… Very true.

      Well, people has to build something before they earn what they deserve. Maybe link building is fading, but with quality contents and link building will make the princess get the prince 🙂

  7. Takeshi says:

    How are you not ranking #1 for “link building” yet?

    • Jon Cooper says:

      I don’t want to talk about it… For some reason all those links don’t seem to be doing much good yet, but I’m guessing that’s because my site’s not even 2 years old.

  8. Yeah, everybody seems to be allergic to the term ‘link building’. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  9. Jason Nelson says:

    I do think that creating compelling/creative content and setting up a solid promotional foundation on social/email to build links is key to gaining a natural, solid link profile going forward. There’s still not enough of an RCS view in terms of link building, in the SEO community (e.g. would a real company find value in this link or is it being done primarily for the link value). I suppose the inclination is to pay the bills and do what works now but Google will continue to make link marketing a tougher/penalty prone prospect.

  10. Yo. I totally see where you are coming from and I may be splitting hairs (or misunderstanding your view) but I stil think there is a place for link building. I use a lot of PR in my work. I think the amount of effort that goes into getting a client linked-to in some publications classifies this as link building (and it works.)

    There are also the method of building links for product sites where you trade product for a review/link. Sometimes this is a manual process and is also something I consider link building (and this works too.)

    Now having said that, link earning is obviously a lot more effective because it is a lot more scalable and I am a HUGE advocate of link earning. I am looking forward to seeing what you say to this comment because I may be misunderstanding your intentions behind the way you are differentiating the two terms.

  11. jim says:

    THANK YOU!!! Finally a post telling it like it (still) is…
    … i have expressed so many times to people in my circle my view from any ‘moralistic’ stance that ‘outreach’ or ‘baiting’ or any of the other white hat uber clean post penguin (or pre then maybe i just never paid attention to all the above board seo blogs until now) but how is any of that stuff any less manipulative then other practices… (theres an extreme i wont go to but its pretty far out there…) my view is there is a place for each of many methods and i know from intensive analysis in my niche, a solid money maker, that i couldnt compete (and i do) with the big boys unless i did things – very very involved stuff, but very very effective stuff… to generate my own super powerful links en masse – and in quality/pr/power/trust… things have just gotten harder for people who arent very sophisticated about link building – but whether it is grey hat methods or not, i think a heck of a lot of skill and creative effort goes into what is still ranking most in many niche areas – mine for sure, and though ive been hit a few times, its why i dont rely on any one site – i have disposables, i have authority sites, i have 100 in between and diversify my methods…. but guess what still works the best, good old link building (with a little more smarts thrown into how its done).

  12. Offer Ben says:

    So without trying to do too much PR for my company, I’m really interested to understand something, how come all of my competitors are doing spammy links/blog comments which you can clearly see that is made with some sort of automated “oh such a great blog I have to recommend it” and doing low low quality guest blog posts are ranking higher then my company does? I’ve been trying to what you would call “white hat SEO” for over a year now, hired 3 different SEO companies to help me, and still I can be found only on page 2 while page one its seems like reserved to all of the spammers, can anyone give me a hint?

  13. Sahil says:

    Great post jon. Link building is really a no meaningful word these days. Its all about earning links naturally by adding some value to the users. Its about how valuable the content or the resource to the user is, so that they naturally link to it. Marketer’s job is to just promote the content on few areas mainly social media etc. just to let people know about the quality content which can help them learn, solve a problem or join a discussion etc. so that they can share or spread the word, link and let other people know about it.

  14. Mark says:

    Great read and this post has certainly been coming. Just to add my two cents (actually, pence) worth – I think it’s totally natural that people are now adjusting their mentality so that the link isn’t 100% the focus. I’m not saying that links aren’t important, because they are right now. I expect they will continue to be, in whatever form, for some time to come. However, and please don’t bite my head off (as I can tell from your writing that you’re pumped up by this!), but the last 12 months have taught a great many people that focusing solely on links is dangerous. Lots of people (including me) were working on clients’ websites that were often of mid-lower quality. But building links would enable them to rise up the SERPs in place of sites that were actually better resources. That’s not good for search engine users, however you dress it up.

    So, my aim is no longer to solely concentrate on links, they remain a part of the mix, but I also look a lot at what content we can create and how we can leverage that to get natural links and also social shares (which I think will be far more important in years to come). Your links can get devalued over night, but if you concentrate on creating great content that acquires links, social shares, mentions etc, then you can’t go far wrong. That’s nothing new to many, however it has been a shift in my mentality. I’m not saying you’re wrong, and I don’t even think we disagree in many ways, however I wanted to make the point that the people who have stopped talking about link building as the holy grail have done so because the time is right to realise that G are getting clever, and even your valid links might not be as powerful as they once were in 24 months time.

    I’m wearing a t-shirt with a big target on it… fire away! 😉

    • Jon Cooper says:

      +100 to: it’s not all about links.

      I’m just tired of some small businesses thinking the ONLY way to go about getting links is through content marketing, which can be really tough for them. Yes, content is the way to go, but links can be obtained in other ways that’s not against Google’s guidelines.

      Thanks for leaving your thoughts 🙂

  15. gstock says:

    I think something that’s important to take into consideration here with all the “content is king” hoopla, is that it’s much easier to create relevant & link worthy content when you’re blogging about interesting topics or link-centric industries such as… SEO or anything tech related.

    That’s not to say that you can’t create link worthy content in a boring industry, but I think there should be a greater focus on linkbuilding that varies based off industry / website / organizational goal.

    Lets face it, link building for a large e-commerce website based off selling sheet metal is going to be a TON different than linkbuilding for a tech blog.

  16. read this says:

    You really make it seem so easy along with your presentation however I find this topic to be actually one thing which I
    feel I would never understand. It kind of feels too complicated and
    very broad for me. I’m looking forward to your next post, I’ll attempt to get the cling of it!

  17. Wholesale Energy says:


    Very well said and mature insight into the current status of link building. Link building will always be a foundation of SEO, the true understanding of what proper “white hat” link building has continued to evolve as Google has continued to look for ways to prevent gaming the system.

    There will always be three fundamental rules when it comes to SEO… When google is comparing 2 sites side by side, it will always:

    – prefer the one with quantity and quality content versus the one with less quantity and/lower quality
    – prefer the site with more traffic versus the one with less
    – prefer the site with better links (again quality and quantity both matter) versus the one with poorer links

    And of course, better content is a key to getting better links and better links help drive more traffic…

  18. Well that was really a comprehensive article about what is link building. I also totally agree with you when you say “But don’t generalize link building as something that’s dead or dying.”

  19. DavidGill says:

    Thank you for this article about llink building. I believe that the most important think is the rich and unique content in link building.

  20. Hi Jon, link building is not an easy practice at all. I agree with you, link building is not dead, and think it never will. However, now is more difficult than ever getting a backlink from a respectable source. It takes a lot of time and effort to go out there and reach out to find people to link to your site. I tried a lot of time in the past to get a link from a well-respected source in my so called “niche”, but everyone seems to just disregard my emails. It must be the way I ask maybe…I am not sure. Anyway I am not a link building expert, ergo what I do is probably not right. Do you send emails to people to do some link building? Apologies for the ignorance regarding “your” subject.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      I understand Davide. I’m not saying it’s not difficult here, I’m just saying it’s still around and if you’re willing to look, you’ll find opportunities.

      My advice would be not to look so narrowly at your niche; for example, if you sell curtains or sofas, look at the entire home decor space. Also, look at how others are building links in similar industries.

      And no, this isn’t “my” subject. Link building has been around longer than I’ve been in it. I’m not claiming it to be mine, and I’m not claiming to be an expert of any sorts. It just happens to be the topic my blog is around.

  21. mouservice says:

    Great post, Jon. I still have the mindset of “link building” as opposed to just “naturally” building links. With some less “sexy” niches, spending time in the trenches is needed. I wonder how much unrelated organic traffic you’ll get for the Te’o line you stuck in there!

  22. Lucky says:

    Nice work admin! content is the king & high quality links also play a good role for SERPs content should be perfect & fresh according to your business.

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