What Is Link Building: Building Links vs Earning Links

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What is link building and why do people spend so much time on it?

After all, if you create well-researched and well-written content, isn’t that enough to get ranked on Google?

Unfortunately not.

To get to the top of the search results, you have to build authority for your website. And the way to do that is to obtain links from high-authority sites within your niche.

Those links are a vote of confidence in your website, and they tell Google that your site is worth ranking in the search results.

In this article I’m going to show you what link-building is, some popular link-building techniques, and a way of getting backlinks without link-building.

Links are hyperlinks that connect a web page to another web page or another website.

Links are what make the Internet possible. They are the reason the Internet is also called the ‘web’ – the links that connect websites form a network, like a spider’s web.

There are two kinds of links: internal links and external links:

  • Internal links are hyperlinks within a website. Internal links create the structure of a website. These links form the navigation and menus that allow us to explore a website.
  • External links are hyperlinks between websites. These are the links that take you from the Google search results to an individual website. Or the links that take you from a Facebook post to a YouTube video.

There are two kinds of external links: inbound and outbound links:

  • Outbound links are the links that lead from your website to other websites.
  • Inbound links are links from other websites to your website. These inbound links are also called ‘backlinks’

External links are either ‘do follow’ links or ‘no follow’.

‘Do follow’ links tell search engine crawlers to follow the link. These links pass on ‘link juice’ or link equity to the website they link to. ‘Do follow’ links are a vote of confidence in the website you’re linking to.

‘No follow’ links tell search engine crawlers not to follow the link. They don’t pass on link juice. They are a way of distancing yourself from the site you are linking to. A ‘no follow’ link tells Google “I’m linking to this site, but I can’t vouch for it”.

So what is link building exactly?

Link building is a generic term that covers a whole range of activities aimed at getting backlinks from high authority websites so as to increase the authority of your own website.

These link building activities can be divided into:

  • ‘white hat’ link building
  • ‘black hat’ link building.

White hat link building refers to strategies that comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. In Google’s eyes, the ideal backlink is a backlink that was obtained without any effort on your part. In other words, any active link building that you engage in is, to some extent, at odds with Google’s ideal.

Black hat link building refers to link building activities that Google frowns upon. The most obvious example would be purchasing backlinks, but there are many other forms of blah hat link building.

Why are backlinks such a big deal?

Backlinks are what made Google the number one search engine in the world.

Back in the late 1990s, the search engine scene was much more varied than it is today. There wasn’t a single search engine that dominated the landscape. There was Lycos, Alta Vista, Excite, Dog Pile, Ask Jeeves, to name just a few.

What made Google different from the other search engines is that Google used backlinks as a ranking factor.

The founders of Google figured that the more links pointing to a web page, the more valuable the information on that web page was. In other words, they treated backlinks as a vote of confidence. The more backlinks a page had, the higher it ranked in the search results.

And that’s what made Google so successful – it delivered better search results than any other search engine.

In summary, backlinks are important because they are a key factor in how Google measures the authority of a website.

Link building can be divided into three categories:

  • Editorial backlinks
  • Manual outreach links
  • Self-created links

Editorial backlinks are where someone links to your web page in the body of an article. Google values editorial links more than any other kind.

The reason?

Because they are in context. 

If someone links to your content within an article, it means that your content is relevant to the page that gave you the link. And that tells Google that you probably ‘earned’ the link because your content was relevant to the content on the web page that is linking to you.

These are links that you obtain by approaching another website and asking them if they would consider linking to your page. I get dozens of these requests every week.

Here’s how it works. 

You find an article that (a) ranks high on Google and (b) is on a topic that’s related to the topic of your article. I’ll call it the ‘target article’. 

You then approach the website and persuade them that your article would be a great resource to link to within the target article.

If the publisher of the target article thinks that your article would benefit their readers, they’ll add your link to the target article. Typically, the link appears in a ‘Further Reading’ section within the target article.

These are not quite as valuable as editorial links, because the link to your article is not embedded in text of the article. But Google still values this link because it’s in context – your link is relevant to what the target article is talking about.

These are links that you create yourself by posting comments on forums or on blog posts, by guest posting, or by submitting your website to directories.

Remember Google’s rationale for using backlinks as a ranking factor? Backlinks are a vote of confidence in your site. 

But if the backlinks were created by you, then obviously they’re of much less value in Google’s eyes.

And that’s why backlinks from forums, blog comments, and guest posts carry less weight with Google than the other two kinds of backlinks mentioned above.

As I mentioned, there are many different link building techniques. Here are some of the most popular:

  • Guest blogging – this is where you write an article for another website, and they give you a backlink in exchange
  • Ego bait – an example would be a ‘top list’ where you list the top 50 experts in a given niche. The people you mention in those articles are flattered to see their names in the list and so they link to it from their website.
  • Broken link building – this is where you find a website that is linking to a web page that no longer exists and write an article that’s similar to the one that no longer exists. You then approach the owner of the website, point out to them that they have a broken link, and offer your article as a replacement.
  • Testimonials – companies with products will often give ‘do-follow’ backlinks to customers who write testimonials. Some people will even purchase a product so that they can write a testimonial and get a backlink.
  • Visual assets – finding images to go with text is often a headache for content marketers, so visual assets such as infographics are in high demand. Producing good quality infographics is another popular technique for getting backlinks.
  • Statistics – statistics give articles credibility and so bloggers are always searching for facts that they can cite in their articles. Writing statistics-based articles that rank high on Google is another way of generating backlinks. Journalists in particular are always looking for statistics to back up what they are saying. Journalists publish on news sites and news sites tend to have very high domain authority. So this another well-established technique for getting high authority backlinks.

Some of the above tactics are passive. For example, once a ‘statistics article’ has been published and ranks on Google, the article will generate backlinks by itself.

But some of the other link building strategies, such as broken link building, require active effort on your part.

Every week I receive 10 to 20 emails from other websites. These emails fall into two categories:

So these emails are about (a) link building and (b) guest posting.

But really, they’re all about link building. Because that’s what guest bloggers are chasing: a backlink that will lift the domain authority of their own website.

As I said before, backlinks are a huge part of SEO. You can see this when you get a ‘do-follow’ backlink from a website with high domain authority (DA of 60+). There’s a flow-on effect – your pages all jump a few places in the search results. And your traffic goes up a notch.

The link building strategies that I see coming through my Inbox are ingenious. Here are some examples:

Example #1

A blogger had a guest post that was about to be published on a website with DA of 75. He offered to place a link in that article to my website if I placed a link to his website in one of my articles.

Notice that this arrangement involves three websites: (1) his website (2) my website and (3) the website with DA of 75.

The reason for having three different websites in this scheme is to avoid a reciprocal link penalty from Google. Reciprocal links are easily detected by Google and they incur a penalty because they are a link-building scheme (the arrangement I’ve just described is also a link-building scheme but it’s almost impossible for Google to detect it).

Example #2

This is the most ingenious scheme I’ve come across so far. In this arrangement, you get your blog posts written for free by someone else.

Here’s how it works.

You pitch a website with DA in the 80s or 90s and they agree to accept your blog post. You then approach a freelance writer and offer them a link in that guest post. In return, they will write the guest post for you.

A link from a website with DA of 80+ could cost anywhere from $600 to $900. So the freelance writer will probably accept your offer.

Of course, the article would also contain a link back to your own website.

Example #3

This one came through my Inbox a few days ago.

The writer said he was putting together an expert roundup post on SEO tips and would like to include me in the post. I was flattered. Until I read the next paragraph.

He wanted to know if we could extend our collaboration even further. Could he write a guest post for my blog? As it happens, I don’t publish guest posts on my blog. But even if I did, this arrangement would have been a bad idea from an SEO perspective.


Because Google would have picked up in the space of 3 nanoseconds that this blogger and I had exchanged links. In the best-case scenario, Google would simply have ignored the links and neither of us would get any benefit from the arrangement. In the worst-case scenario, we both would have copped an ‘unnatural link’ penalty from Google.

It’s amazing how much time and ingenuity bloggers spend trying to get high authority backlinks to their websites.

In fact, many bloggers spend half their time creating content and the other half link building. But link-building is time-consuming and has a very low success rate.

Watch this video: ‘Complete Link Building Strategy for 2020: How We Build Traffic Fast (18 mins 05 sec)

The backlinks that carry the most weight with Google are ‘natural’ backlinks.

Last week I came across this video (above) by Jim Harmer from Income School on this very topic.

Jim says he doesn’t do any link building. At least not the link building most people think of. What he does do, though, is create resources that are very useful and that people link to without being asked.

For example, on a website that deals with off-road motorbikes, he created a table showing the resale value of different brands of dirt bikes. He put the information together himself by sending out a few emails to people in the industry. No one had created a resource like that. And so naturally, it attracted hundreds of high-quality backlinks.

Did Jim have to spend days and days cold pitching other websites for those links? Not at all. The links happened all by themselves. And those are exactly the links that Google wants to see on your website.


Search engines use backlinks to measure the authority and relevance of the content on your website. That’s why links to your site from other websites are still one of the top ranking factors on Google.

There are many different link-building techniques. But they all have one thing in common: you first need content that is worth linking to.

And that’s why creating original and outstanding content is still the most important aspect of link building.

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Rob Powell
Rob Powell shares the traffic building techniques that are working for him. Join him as he 'cracks the safe' on search engine traffic for bloggers - find out what works (and what doesn't).

4 thoughts on “What Is Link Building: Building Links vs Earning Links”

  1. Excellent article Rob!
    I’m in the same camp as you regarding link earning. I love writing highly valuable resources on my blog that naturally create backlinks for me.
    I do nothing but write value driven content as well as network and connect with influencers in my industry.
    But, a lot of marketers still work on link building schemes.
    I get the same emails as you do, but there have been a few links I may add to my content. For example, I wrote a post about how to write a white paper and a popular company that creates white paper templates reached out to me to place their link in my content. I obliged as it could be an avenue to writing for them as a freelance writer down the road and well, I know their service!

  2. Thanks, Elena – great comment. It’s a good point you make. I tend to just ignore all those requests for links, but as you point out, they can be a way of building relationships that lead to other opportunities. I’ll definitely think about going forward. Thanks again, Rob.

  3. Hi Rob,
    Interesting piece to read????

    Link building is (and will continue to be) one of the prominent ranking factor, the reason might be because it’s getting tougher to get quality backlinks.

    However, Editorial links would start flowing in once one become an authority…so I think newbies should take their heads off receiving editorial links.

    Outreach links on the other hand is the most time consuming link building method, influencers don’t attend to emails begging for backlinks.

    But .. what do you see about ‘Cold Email Outreach’?

    P.S thanks for replying my mail for not being able to comment on your blog weeks ago. Hope it works now.

  4. Hi Folajomi,

    Thanks for your comment and question. I’m not a great fan of ‘cold email outreach’ when it comes to link building. It’s very time consuming and has a very low success rate.

    I much prefer using HARO (Help a Reporter Out) for link building. One great thing about HARO is that the requests come into your ‘Inbox’ 3 times a day, so you’re not spending valuable time ‘cold calling’.

    The other link-building technique I’m very keen on is writing statistics-based articles that get linked to naturally (i.e people find them in Google search and link to them in their articles when they want to make a point based on statistics).

    All the best, Rob.

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