I first want to get three things out of the way:
Link building is not dead.
Link building is still imperative to any SEO efforts.
The “old” ways of link building are still valuable.
But things have changed for you as a marketer.
And this change is only the beginning.
Here’s where you are now, and where you’re going as an SEO, link builder, and content marketer.
The Four Axioms of Search Engines and Relevance
Search engines are here for one thing: To provide the most relevant search results for its users.
That’s it. Nothing else.
Search engines do not care that you rely on their traffic to make money as a marketer or webmaster. And in the ways that they do care (e.g. making Google Analytics free), they only care about because it helps them fulfill on their promise to their users.
So long as search engines continue to fulfill on the promise of having the most relevant search results for their users, people will continue to use them and they will have the opportunity to figure out how to make money through selling advertising to their users.
But there’s a second axiom that you probably don’t often imagine: The best way that search engines can provide the most relevant results to its users is to have as much information as possible.
With more information about how people use their search results (and the internet), the better search engines are able to rank web pages based on a search query.
In the beginning, “as much information as possible” meant things like more web pages in its index, indexing text and titles on a web page, and having as much link data (internal and external links) as possible. Those data points have obviously changed over time.
Which brings us to the third axiom: Having as much data as possible is not enough to determine relevance. You must also properly prioritize and value the data points.
As people began to use the internet differently (which has occurred as a transition from content consumption to content creation), the power shifted hands from webmasters with technical expertise to the layperson.
Which brings us to the fourth and final axiom: Having as much data as possible and prioritizing it properly is not enough. How data is prioritized must also evolve in parallel with how users interact with the internet.
Before Google, the content on a web page was all that was needed to prioritize search results. As the internet evolved, Google saw links as an algorithmic advantage to more relevant search results.
Now where are we?
It’s obvious that links are not the only major factor any more. We’ve been through over a decade of unique c-blocks, link text, PageRank, authority, trust, etc.
We were staring down the barrel at social becoming an important factor for rankings, but with the walled gardens of Facebook, Google not renewing their firehose agreement with Twitter, and Google+ still a far minority in terms of usage and breadth of demographics, it’s unclear as to the direct impact of social on search results.
But there’s something else that us marketers aren’t talking about.
And maybe we’re not talking about it because it’s scary as hell for any of us to consider these other metrics. These other metrics can’t be controlled directly. These other metrics succeed based on creativity rather than brute force. These impact of these other metrics simply can’t be predicted with the data we have access to as marketers.
These other ranking factors are a black hole that, in a major way, you have no control over.
But before we get into that…
Why Link Building is Not Dead
The initial reason that link building evolved into content marketing is because it got links that you couldn’t get otherwise.
In the past, content marketing has been supplemental to your direct link building efforts. Your direct link building efforts (directories, links pages, link exchanges, etc) eventually became the same thing your competitors were doing. To stand apart, you began doing some content marketing like guest posts, infographics, “link bait,” etc.
Historically, content marketing has been supplemental to link building simply because the competitive landscape of link building got watered down. Basically, everyone was doing the same stuff. Because we we’re all eventually doing the same stuff, search engines needed another way to set apart the most relevant web pages for a search query. The few links that minimal content marketing efforts achieved were enough to set those sites apart.
“A few links from content marketing” is no longer enough to be competitive.
Now, link building is not dead. You still need to compete, at a very baseline level, with your other search competitors. If your top-ranking competitors are ranking because they have directory links, there is good reason to get directory links. If your top-ranking competitors are ranking because they have guest post links, there’s good reason to get guest post links. If your top-ranking competitors are ranking because they do infographics, there’s good reason to make and promote do infographics. And, gasp if your top-ranking competitors are ranking because they pay for links, there’s good reason to pay for links. (Though, for obvious reasons, I don’t specifically recommend buying links.)
This is not only how SEO works. This is the nature of competition.
When you compete, there is a base level of requirements you must meet. If you’re building a new car, you still need four wheels, an engine, a frame, and a steering wheel. And if you’re trying to rank on well search engines for particular keywords, you still need to build relevant links to your website.
Content Marketing as a Competitive Advantage in SEO and Link Building
It’s true that if you’re building a new car, you need four wheels, an engine, a frame, and a steering wheel. But if that’s all you have, there’s no reason for someone to buy your car.
To stand out, to lead a market (and the search results), in addition to what is required by your customers, you must do something unique. In business, you call this a Competitive Advantage. In marketing, you call it a Unique Selling Point. In economics, it’s Marginal Utility.
When it comes to SEO, content marketing has become a competitive advantage. Here are four reasons why.
1. “Old” Link Building has Become Commoditized
When something becomes commoditized, it means it has shifted from a Competitive Advantage to an Industry Standard. Where you could previously compete on the competitive advantage of “old” link building, it is now the standard for any SEO campaign. Links acquired via traditional means no longer have the impact they once did. You need something different to stand out.
2. Content Marketing Sets You Apart
Content marketing is uncommon, valuable, and difficult to execute. These are three things about a tactic that search engines love to measure in order to identify the value of a tactic. This supports the third axiom outlined earlier.
3. Search Engines Crave Relevance
If you’re regularly producing content, you give search engines more content-based data points to use in your ranking. Do you talk about all kinds of electronics? Or just phones? Are phones the main topic of 50% of your new content in the last six months? Or is it just 10%, while you also talk about stereos, laptops, and more?
4. Recurrent Content has More Value to Search Engines in the Long Term
If you’ve published 100 pieces of new content about phones in the last 12 months, and most of the other sites about phones have produced only 10, this can demonstrate to a search engine that you’re not only relevant, but may also be timely and up-to-date with your information.
Why Social Metrics are Not the Future of SEO
As humans, we suffer from Adaptive Bias. Adaptive bias allows us to make assumptions about something without enough information. When given incomplete information, we make predictions based only on the information we have. We adapt our predictions based only on the (often incomplete) information available to us.
In the context of understanding how social metrics influence search rankings, we will look at metrics like Facebook Likes, Shares, Tweets, Klout, etc. We look at these only because it is all we have to analyze.
In the end, we only have correlation data and nothing that nearly definitely points to causality.
Here’s why social media metrics have no direct impact on search rankings: Google and Microsoft don’t have access to this data. Facebook is a walled garden and Google decided to not renew its firehose account with Twitter.
Google doesn’t have the metrics.
Google+? Sure. It’ll get you indexed faster. And that may have a short-term impact on rankings. But as of now, Google would be foolish to let Google+ influence rankings more than that.
But social does matter. Here’s why…
Next up, I’ll discuss the previously-unspoken ranking factors of the future (and probably now), and the primary (only?) thing that will actually be useful for SEO.
About the Author
Ben has been creating websites since 1994 and in the career of SEO, link building, and content marketing since 2001. From 2001-2006, he led agency work for over 1,500 clients including multiple Fortune 100s. He is now the CEO of Ontolo, creating content marketing and link building tools that help you research and outreach faster.