This phrase has been stuck in my mind for about a year now, after I interviewed a few dozen people for an article I wrote for Search Engine Watch and one of the people I interviewed said this phrase: “Everything is link building”.
In the spirit of full disclosure, the full quote was “Everything is link building, and links indicate the right people know about you”, but only the first clause stuck in my head.
To be clear, he did not believe “everything is link building” was to be taken literally, but rather it was a guiding principle around which they organized their SEO activities.
They neither ignored nor neglected keyword research, quality content, technical SEO, etc, but they applied a “link building” litmus test to their content development. Whatever they published had to, in their experience, have an excellent chance to earn links through promotion and after some promotion to attract links organically.
The phrase stuck in my head so strongly that I became curious how other SEOs felt about it.
Surveying SEOs about “Everything is link building”
So I created a survey, and asked for input with which to write this article. I received 47 survey submissions.
There were four questions:
How do you feel about the idea that “As regards SEO, everything is link building”.
This was a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is “strongly disagree” and 10 is “strongly agree”.
What does the phrase mean to you?
This was a freeform text field.
Beyond what it means to you, if that idea influences how you approach SEO, how does it do so?
This was also a freeform text field.
Do you represent an agency, a brand, both, or other?
This was a drop down menu which allowed only one selection.
My first surprise should not have been a surprise
Even with only the initial 6 or so survey submissions, it became clear that how someone felt about the phrase depended upon what they thought it meant.
While I had the benefit of knowing what the person I interviewed last year meant, the people submitting the survey did not. So while I thought I understood what the phrase meant, that was me falling into the trap of what is called “the curse of knowledge”.
While I didn’t initially intend the phrase to be vague, once I realized the phrase meant different things to different people I became interested to see how people interpreted the phrase..
My first surprise is this was all over the map.
The numerical rating and “what does it mean to you”?
The chart below shows how people responded: The Y axis shows the rating given, the X axis shows the number of people who gave that rating. 10 means they strongly agree with “Everything is link building” and 1 means they strongly disagree.
Below are some of the responses to the questions “What does the phrase mean to you?” and “Beyond what it means to you, if that idea influences how you approach SEO, how does it do so”?, by numerical rating.
Very few people answered the second question in the way I had hoped and thought I had asked for. Most people replied with “advice for others” rather than anything about how this idea influenced their approach. Since every answer formatted as “advice for others” is something you’ve seen hundreds of times already, those responses are not shown below.
Rating of 10 – Means to them?
Link building mimics the real world idea of relationships. Everything we do is to build relationships and the same goes online, we are building relationships to ultimately land a link.
Rating of 10 – Influences approach?
At the end of the day, I am trying to obtain a link in a natural non-obtrusive way. I will build the relationship online until I obtain a link and then continue nurturing the relationship for further partnerships.
Rating of 9 – Means to them?
Whether you’re an SEO focused on producing good content, sending outreach emails, networking, brand building or simply aligning with other departments like PR or SEM, every little thing you do can result in a backlink whether intentional or not. While some may see the endgame of creating content as just that, it can also mean creating a trusted resource for other websites to cite. It can mean quoting experts who then promote the article on their website. A lot of link building may happen outside the SEO department incidentally as well. Be it due to influencer marketing or simply brand executives talking to other industry leaders, building links can be a result of any action. People create links. So at its core, link building can take place any time someone interacts with another person about like minded ideas. Link building can’t, however, happen in a bubble.
Rating of 8 – Means to them?
Link building isn’t EVERYTHING, but I would say it’s the majority. You can build as many links as you want but if your website is slow or hard to use you won’t rank well for anything. Google’s recent algorithm change is catered towards Core Web Vitals and essentially website usability, not how many links a website has. BUT, once you have your on-page SEO under control, then yes, link building is all that’s left.
Rating of 8 – Influences approach?
I always make sure we focus on the website first. A website’s page speed, customer journey, content being created and refreshed, etc. Then I approach link building. Link building is like pouring gas on the fire, but you need to have a fire first.
Rating of 7 – Means to them?
Link building establishes whether a piece of content is trustworthy, readable, scannable, and shareable. If we keep these characteristics in mind when writing, we produce more valuable, people-centric materials. In a way, link building forces us to remember who we’re writing for. I always ask myself “Who will this help?” before starting an article.
Rating of 7 – Influences approach?
Link building has taught me that you should strategize. For example, if a website is featured anywhere and everywhere, that won’t improve its ranking, at least not significantly. Nurturing partnerships within your respective niche and focusing on producing quality content is much better. Link building is a long game, so it’s important to work systematically and iterate based on previous results.
Rating of 6 – Means to them
Link building – be it active or passive – establishes and builds domain authority. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that, for instance, increasing the site speed by 20ms will have a noticeable impact on the acquisition of links. But ultimately, paying attention to details such as Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics can improve the user experience, can improve search position, can increase traffic and thus better position the site for organic link building.
Rating of 5 – Means to them?
I think I understand where this person was coming from when they said this. Everything is link building in the sense that everything that improves your website and leads to greater visibility (both online and offline) improves your chances of getting a link. That’s why well-known brands like Wise (formerly Transferwise) are able to attract thousands of high-quality links despite not having an SEO team for many years. Personally, however, I wouldn’t really agree with this statement because, using that logic, you can basically say that everything is everything. E.g., everything is marketing, everything is brand building. etc. Link building is a very specific and intentional thing in my book.
Rating of 5 – Influences approach?
Doesn’t really influence it 🙂
Rating of 4 – Means to them?
Link Building is important, however if your content is bad, the number of backlinks is irrelevant. We managed to raise our organic traffic from 400 to 4000+ in 6 months just by changing our content strategy, with no link building.
Rating of 3 – Means to them?
Creating relevant and engaging content that people want to link to remains an important SEO activity. But to say it’s the only thing that matters is wrongheaded. On occasion, we’ve been hired to create a link building program only to find a site has technical and content issues that are holding it back. Link building is an expensive way to make up for bad technical SEO and poor content. And at the end of the day, you still may not get there if the underlying issues are bad enough.
Rating of 2 – Means to them?
It means people are placing more effort, investing time and money on improving other people’s websites rather than their own.
Rating of 2 – Influences approach?
It’s good to know that the competition invests more on other people’s sites rather than their own. By focusing on building good quality useful sites I always find other site owners organically link to my content for free, this would not have happened if I didn’t invest time building a good product for people to link to.
Rating of 1 – Means to them?
This may sound blunt, but to me it sounds like a hyperbolic, tunnel vision perspective on SEO.
Rating of 1 – Influences approach?
I don’t subscribe to this view so I’m not sure how to answer this, but I’m interested in responses.
Do people representing brands and agencies feel different?
Below shows how people self identified, in terms of representing a brand, an agency, both, or other. For purposes of the comparison, I used only the 21 people who stated they represent agencies and the 11 people who stated they represent brands as I thought that would give the “cleanest” distinction between the two.
The charts below are the same labeling as chart 1 above. The Y axis is the numerical ratings, the X axis is the number of people who gave each rating. Again, 10 is “strongly agree” and 1 is “strongly disagree”.
Here are the “charts” shown as tables
This is so I can show the weighted averages.
The phrase “link building” doesn’t have a universally accepted meaning. Some strongly feel content creation is tightly coupled to (even part of) link building, others strongly disagree.
Based on comments received, there is a general consensus that link building is about relationship building.
Everyone agrees quality content supports link building, independent of how tightly coupled you think content generation and link building are.
SEOs supporting brands have a more positive or optimistic perspective on the idea that “link building is everything”.
A thank you to the people who filled out the survey
The list below is not a full list of the 47 people who submitted the survey, because some people did not leave a name, email address, and/or URL. Some people seemed suspicious that I was merely fishing for email addresses as they left email addresses and URLs in the form of “WhyDoYouNeedThis”.
Having said that, this is a thank you to everyone who submitted a survey response and also provided a name and a URL.
- Wayland Myers of MarketPage
- Vineet Gupta of 5 Minute SEO
- Tyler Suchman of Tribal Core
- Tahir of JETflair Digital Marketing
- Saurabh of automate.io
- Sander Spiegelaar of Ten Stripes
- Sam Bretzmann of Whiskey SEO
- Saleque Antor of Educube
- Rizwan Khan of Venus
- Owain Powell of OCP Digital Marketing
- Nicole DeLeon of North Star Inbound
- Mushfiq Sarker of TheWebsiteFlip
- Michael Martinez of SEO Theory
- Mehvish Patel of Zen Media
- Maya Stern of Creative Navy
- Mat Houchens of GatorSEM
- Ludwig Makhyan of Mazeless
- Laira Martin of Vegamour
- Kieran Reid of Kieran Reid Digital Marketing
- Kenny Soto of Finch Money
- Karan Singh of SEO Singh
- Joshua Hardwick of Ahrefs
- Josh Imhoff of Always Relevant Digital
- JJ Lee of Digital Funnel
- Jeff Gorwitz of Story Solutions
- James Taylor of James Taylor SEO
- James Johnson of Soar Digital
- Harrison Sharrett of Prime Office Space
- Hans Petter Blindheim of Curamando
- Frank Olivo of SagaPixel
- Faisan Siddiqui of Botsify
- Dan Sondhelm of Sondhelm Partners
- Chris Caouette of GorillaBow
- Charlotte Sheridan of The Small Biz Expert
- Celest Rodriguez of Pearl Lemon
- Bogdan Odulinski of Solve iQ
- Andy Kolodgie of The House Guys
- Andrew Maffettone of BlueTuskr
- Amber Theurer of ivee