Lee Odden

Link Building vs Content Promotion for Links

Lee Odden     Link Building, Online Marketing, SEO

When marketing web sites on the internet 10 years ago, people “surfed” the web, clicking on links between sites they already knew about, links from directories and review sites. Search engines like AltaVista, Lycos, Hotbot, Excite, etc were around as well. Remember those? 🙂

People like Eric Ward pioneerd the practice of promoting web sites editorially resulting in links from these sorts of resources. Links had to come from relevant sources otherwise the traffic was irrelevant.

Google came on the scene with PageRank and boosted the value of bot detected links. Search engine quality improved substantially but opportunistic webmasters and eventually SEOs, identified and took advantage of as many methods of link acquisition as possible. Many of those links being topically relevant and many completely out of context. Think “link farm”.

The ongoing back and forth between search engine efforts at improving quality and website marketers finding shortcuts or even ways to spam links for competitive advantage isn’t going away any time soon. As long as links are important for search engine visibility, web site owners will hire firms and consultants to acquire them.

However, there’s a big difference between link building to content & content promotion that attracts links. Long term, promotion of content that attracts relevant links from those empowered to publish will win. The act of linking is performed, unsolicited, by individual publishers. There is no risk, no tricks or loopholes being exploited and links are contextually relevant.

The rub is, it requires content of value that others are keen on linking to and willing to share with others. Most web sites do not see themselves as content publishers.

The model for unsolicited link acquisition based on content is pretty basic:

Promotion > Awareness > Links > Direct Traffic & Search Engine Traffic

The challenge comes from a combination of:

  • The need to create new content that travels and that others are motivated to link to
  • Convincing web site owners that they need to create and promote content on an ongoing basis outside of their brochureware corporate site or online product catalog

What it boils down to is marketing. The SEO most consultants practice today isn’t really search engine optimization, it’s marketing web sites online. SEO marketing efforts that focus solely on keyword lists, meta tags and directory submissions are just one small slice of web site marketing.

The technical aspect of SEO will always be important thanks to web developers/designers and content management systems that ignore search engines as an important audience. Search engines may be getting better at indexing complex URLs, Flash and finding content behind forms and JavaScript, but there are plenty of issues that still hinder search engines from finding content and crawling links.

For content promotion, the good news is that many web site owners are wising up to the idea that they need to provide more value, in the form of information, to their customers. That informational content can be leveraged for promotion to attract links. The most common example would be blogs used as platforms to publish and promote content via RSS, RSS to Email, Twitter and social networks.

Distribution channels are important for creating awareness of content to link to plus they can attract traffic on their own. As a content distribution network matures, it builds traffic simply through publishing new information for recipients to consume and link to.

Does it still make sense to build links through directory submissions, back link analysis link requests, article submissions, etc? A certain amount of traditional link building is appropriate for just about any web site marketing effort. Realizing the advantage of a quantity of quality links takes clever content and clever promotion. Clever like Link Moses.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Right on Lee. At Resolution Media, we refer to it as Content Outreach. Same idea. Just trying to get away from Link Building. Reminds me of the DAO vs. DCO conversation we had in this Search Insider thread. Regardless of what you call it, the point remains that it’s so much more than Link Building just as DAO is so much more than SEO. As always, thanks for doing your part to keep the industry honest when it comes to verbiage.

  2. I think it boils down to a lot more than “marketing” as you assert.

    Today, we are witnessing the continuing rise of social media because it is simply mirroring what happens when people network.

    What we need is an integrated, intentional, and organic approach to building customer relationships.

    Integrated to the point that it becomes part of the cultural DNA. Then using social media tools adds value to the sales and marketing cycle while providing the additional benefit of building incoming links.

  3. Hey Greg, maybe so. There are many who would subordinate the realm of social media under a marketing umbrella.

    There are few social media cost centers in organizations, they are a part of marketing. The people implementing social media efforts are often marketing staff or report to marketing staff.

    Obviously execution is different, evolved maybe, when it comes to social media. I agree that using social media tools adds value to sales/marketing efforts by making it easier for consumers of content and those empowered to publish to share, bookmark and vote. And building links along the way.

    It’s part of a much more holistic perspective towards online marketing than technical SEO and link building.

  4. Avatar Ivan Nunez says

    Thanks Lee, a very timely suggestion. I agree: traditional SEO through link promotion is only one slice of the marketing pie. Marketing efforts need to consider all possible touch points; and today, that means social media spaces too.

    It is so simple but often overlooked: I respond to your blog and a link to my company appears within it. Plus, I participated in the conversation and hope to have shared a little about my marketing philosophy.

  5. Great post Lee. As a small business guy, I get a ton of offers from companies that offer to get me a million links and such. Instead of dealing with them, I am trying to add more content to my site instead of just having it be one big advertisement. It’ll take some time, but I’ll get there. Then, I can start working on getting good links that will drive traffic to the site for the content.

  6. Avatar John H. Gohde says

    Content is King while Link Building is Queen. Put them together and you have a Kingdom.

    Developing content works quite well.

  7. I agree that SEO is more of a marketing role at present, however over the next few years links will play a smaller role in SERP algorithms.

    Replaced by what I am not sure of although I do believe Google will start to look at user habits and social media factors to determine rankings.

    Your opinion on the future of links would be interesting – While they work today should we be planning for the future?

  8. Great post Lee. I’m glad you mentioned that directory submission and other link building methods still remain as a small slice of the pie. Obviously not as important as they once were but still in the equation.

    Also I”m most likely going to share this with my blog forum. Guess producing content IS the way to build links now 😀

  9. It’s great when high profile guys such as you stand up and advise people to create great content, excellent. Day after day we receive requests from people asking for SEO reviews for zero effort websites.

    I just despair at the way people still think all they need to do is add to the spam-o-sphere to succeed online.

    Keep preaching Lee 😉


  10. Great article Lee. I was actually just having the same conversation today with some of our clients. I’ll pass this along as an additional reinforcer.

  11. Avatar Glenn Gabe says

    Excellent post Lee. My conversations about link builidng always lead to creating killer content and then promoting that content. I’m going to pass this link around now.

  12. Hope it’s OK to comment again but I just had to get this off my chest. I’ve been doing some research this morning for an SEO project. I investigated a site that’s holding a number one position for a term with very sensible search volume.

    The sites links are 100% spammy, it’s a joke when you look at them – I won’t link to them here. It’s so hard to stick to the straight and narrow when examples of link spam manipulating the SERPs are so easy to find. The site in question is also using pseudo hidden text, that is text that’s hard returned way off the page. I feel like giving up sometimes….


  13. RedEvo, I think you know what you have to do. Thanks for sharing that example.

  14. This is great information. I must agree with some of the other commenters though, what about the guys that are killing you with black hat methods?

  15. If the category is ripe with competition using aggressive methods, then it falls into the “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” category. If it’s just one competitor, then you have to make a decision as to whether you can reasonably beat them on merit, if the effort is worth the return/risk and if they are blatantly leaving themselves open to a TOS report.

  16. What awesome information! I only link with like minded businesses, and have never taken part in link sites. Through concentrated SEO efforts and linking with sites that are as good or better than mine I have managed to maintain high rankings for my site, no marketing dollars spent! Most of my visitors are organic, the way I like it! Thanks for sharing some great thoughts!

  17. Avatar Edward Beckett says

    “Link Building vs Content Promotion for Links” …

    IMHO … A lot depends on the vertical … Legal web sites still get a great deal of rankings from reciprocal links and link spamming …

    But I wouldn’t try that on a retail merchandising or an SMO related site …

    FWIW …

  18. “Long term, promotion of content that attracts relevant links from those empowered to publish will win.”

    Now that is a bold statement, but it rings true. For example is it better for me to write and publish content that attracts links, or should I spend my time commenting on blogs that use “nofollow”

    I know which approach I prefer!


  19. I happen to agree with everything posited here and would love for folks to link to me based on unique and interesting content. The difficulty is of course creating valuable, informational writing that has wide appeal, especially when talking about an industry that you’re not in (as in the case of taking on an SEO client). While it’s certainly possible, there’s also no guarantee that it will be well received, just like any type of marketing. Still, I’m glad easy mass distribution channels are quite common these days, so I can keep trying to write something of interest!

  20. Great post Lee, I have to agree with content being king, but in the end whether its traditional link building or content promotion for Links in the end Relevancy is going to have the best impact no matter which method you choose. Building irrelevant links is like baking cookies using Splenda instead of sugar for a recipe in the beginning it seems like a good idea, but in the end you will taste the difference.


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