Why is link building so controversial?

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It’s loved. It’s hated. It is promoted and criticized. And in my opinion, it is misrepresented and misunderstood.

Link building, in a general sense, is a marketing tactic closely associated with search engine optimization (SEO). The idea is simple. Build links pointing to specific pages on your website, using external domains (and preferably, high authority ones). Allow these links to immediately funnel traffic to your pages. Over time, benefit from the increased “domain authority” these links give you and increase your chances of ranking well in search engines.

It’s simple and easy to understand, even for a non-expert in the field of SEO.

So why is it so controversial?

A turbulent past

You could say that link building has a checkered past. Since its inception, Google’s search engine algorithm preferentially ranks sites that have demonstrated high levels of trustworthiness, using a system known as PageRank. In its early days, PageRank simply calculated the authority of a website based on the number of links pointing to it and the authority levels of referring sources.

Aggressive practitioners worked quickly to take advantage of this, essentially spamming links to quickly boost their rankings. In those days, it would have been appropriate to call link building the scourge of the web.

Related: 7 Best SEO Tools to Help You Rank Higher in Google

But since then, Google has taken evasive and protective measures. The search engine is now equipped with algorithm changes and improvements that can detect link quality and penalize anyone who spams links or compromises the average user’s experience. These days, only “good” links are rewarded.

The schemers and the modern black hat ring

Of course, that hasn’t stopped link schemers and other “black hat” unethical SEO professionals from using bad links to boost rankings. Google describes a variety of linking schemes that it considers to be violations of its terms of service, such as directly exchanging money for links or using automated systems to blindly build links.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to find companies that are willing to aggressively and inexpensively build links without regard to content, context, or overall link quality. Because of this, many people came away with a misconception that all link building companies – and perhaps all SEO professionals – engage in link building this way.

Related: 7 reasons why SEO is important for every startup

This is not the case. Most modern SEO professionals are extremely careful with link building, preserving the user experience as much as possible. And all link spammers and schemers end up getting caught and penalized.

The Debate Between Link Earning and Link Building

There is also controversy due to an ongoing debate between link earning and link building – even with the ethical constraints of “white hat” SEO as a priority on both sides.

The modern approach to white hat link building is to rely on editorial and other links that are a natural by-product of well-written, user-serving content. In other words, writing content and making users happy is the first priority – and links are the second priority.

Link earners suggest that these measures are still not enough and instead prefer to cultivate links only through passive earnings. Typically, that means writing great on-site content, promoting it, and building relationships so people naturally connect with it.

In reality, both approaches are natural, ethical and effective.

Is the controversy deserved?

So is the controversy deserved?

Here is my position. In some ways, the controversy is undeserved because link building isn’t always a bad strategy. But because there are so many different ways to approach link building, and because there is always some ambiguity when it comes to the ethics of digital marketing, there is certainly room for criticism and to the debate.

Consider the facts:

  • The ethics of link building can be ambiguous. For starters, it’s hard to tell what’s ethical and what’s not. If it provides something valuable to a user, is it ethical by default? Is ethics determined solely by what qualifies for a Google sanction?
  • There is a wide gap between the best and the worst link building tactics. All link building tactics fall somewhere on the ethical spectrum. Some deserve a bad rap, while others should be promoted more. The gap between the dirtiest spam tactics and the best passive tactics is wider than most people realize.
  • Links are valuable to everyone when built correctly. If done right, link building can be beneficial for everyone involved. Websites get more visibility and traffic. Publishers look better. Users get more information. Everyone wins.
  • Links remain a practical necessity in SEO. It’s nearly impossible to rank without a strong backlink profile – so in some ways link building is a must.

As far as I’m concerned, link building is anything but a requirement if you want your site to have a chance of increasing its visibility and inbound traffic in the modern age. And because there are “right” and “wrong” ways to approach link building, link building itself should not be the target of one-sided rancor. When done correctly, link building has the potential to be heartfelt and beneficial to all parties involved.

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