Remember: Link Building is not just for SEO

In this post I’ve taken a step back from practical tips, to discuss something more strategic that’s been on my mind for a little while, regarding the occasionally skewed view of Search Marketers to think only in terms on rankings, and not broader website success - but this doesn’t by any means apply to everyone in the industry.

In many ways, the post is a précis to some research that I’ll publish here in due course.

It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it

The work that Search Engine Marketers do for clients can be fairly well defined, and has a clear value to them. By improving their ranking for certain keywords, we attract more visitors to a site  - visitors who have expressed an interested in a subject relevant to the site.

However, there are occasions where building the search engine visibility of a site is not a suitable marketing strategy; if you want people to enter a competition or watch a video that won’t be around for long, then the site may be able to receive more visitors or a higher quality by referrals from other websites. Thus, linking to the site from relevant, well trafficked sites can be very valuable.

For the Internet Marketer (it should already be clear that I believe a a title beyond ‘SEM’ is required) building links for traffic can be rewarding, as well as a fun break from traditional thinking. Analytics logs will show you exactly how many visitors (and conversions) each link resulted in - this means you quickly refine your link building strategy to focus on the techniques that give most worthwhile returns.

Additionally, the close relationship between creating a link and receiving visitors means that the middleman (Google, with her impenetrable algorithm) is out of the equation. This means that you are suddenly free from concerns about:

  • links behind logins on forums
  • nofollow links
  • image links without anchor text
  • penalised sites
  • links from bad neighbourhoods
  • exactly on-target anchor text.
In addition, you can now buy links with impunity. They are just an advert (just make sure you nofollow them, to avoid impacting on the traditional SEO work being done on the site.) Again - given that you can assign an exact value to the visitors from each link, you’ll soon know what’s worth spending resource to create and what’s not.

LinkBuilding for SEO and Traffic - A variety of link sources

2 Birds, 1 Stone?

So, the links we build are broadly either for traffic, or for search engine strength. In fact, in the ‘random walk’ model of link graph analysis, all links should do both. A link from a page with visitors will deliver some of those visitors to the linked site.

However, the web has failed to continue to work like this, in both directions. I will often place a link knowing that it will provide significant search engine benefit, but will barely ever refer visitors (e.g.: from a strong, but low traffic directory) and some links, such as  ad banners, tweets and Wikipedia references bring traffic (and lots of it) but no search engine benefit.

A savvy Internet Marketer should be building links for referred traffic as well as rankings, because it will ultimately benefit the target website, making it more successful and profitable.

A savvy website owner hiring an IM/SEM should not get hung up on their search rankings or (god forbid) how many links have been built. They should care about - and judge their Internet Marketer on - the amount of high quality traffic that arrives at the site.

A question that I will answer in a future post is: is there a correlation between the search engine benefit a link provides, and the traffic it sends? Is there some way we can identify links that provide the best overall benefit, and avoid spending time and money on those that provide neither?

In the mean time, I’ll be trying to discover if website owners would really prefer to increase links, rankings, visitors or conversions.

Your contributions are invited, and these are particular questions that I’d like to have other people’s thoughts on:

  • If your job title looks like ‘Search Marketer’, is that really what you do?
  • If you are involved with / in charge of a website that you own or for a client, how is success of the site measured? Does this correlate with how you are measured? Does it correlate with the work you aim to do on the site?

Rob Ousbey

Rob Ousbey

Rob joined Distilled’s London office in 2008 as an SEO Consultant. Over the years, he’s developed and executed SEO strategy for clients from small businesses to large organizations, and managed Distilled’s Reputation Management projects, where he’s...   read more

Get blog posts via email


  1. If your job title looks like ‘Search Marketer’, is that really what you do?
    Realistically – no, I don’t focus on purely search engine rankings. The position is based on other elements that constitute search + relationship based marketing - take universal search for instance - that’s about page dominance - but many universal search elements are off site and aren’t influenced heavily by links - many other factors come into play, like number of searches and views on videos for example.

    So as a search marketer I have to know my way around media sites, social sites, learn strategies that will boost both search volume and impressions of elements I am trying to rank.

    Buying links for traffic is beneficial even in any scenario - prominent links in large media sites, along with tantalising messages in them selves can become link bait.

    An SEM is traditionally seen to fend off results against paid and Natural search affiliates, in today’s world, I consider myself aligned with them. Where can I give them some leverage so that they compliment my strategy? Google used to allow multiple listings and banned trademark bidding – now, how can I leverage affiliates into areas I can no longer venture or protect? All these are part of my daily mix.

    I also get involved in offline media strategies, such as TV for example - questions such as "whether to have the phone number or just URL" are debates I get involved in. Tracking surge in search via TV, boosting brand popularity by targeting high value generics - researching offline media research patterns (e.g. where do the press peeps "hang out" to grab stories) all form part of the mix.

    In essence, a large business SEO isn’t just a geek playing with algos and SE's - but needs to be a fully rounded marketer, with strong internal politics skills as well as a flair for inline etiquette.

    If you are involved with / in charge of a website that you own or for a client, how is success of the site measured? Does this correlate with how you are measured? Does it correlate with the work you aim to do on the site?

    This is pretty hard to answer in my specific case – I get rated in direct results, but due to my major involvement, mapping areas where I have helped other marketing channels is a good measure of success. Did affiliate revenue increase because I advised them on XYZ, even though I am not directly responsible for the channel?

    Did Email open rates go up because I initiated a “best copy” test - results of which were used to generate email subject lines? Did video views on youtube go up due to a campaign I initiated? Did the number of positive reviews on SERPs increase because of my involvement? These are realistic measures of success.

    reply >
  2. I agree with both of you - some fantastic points there and really well worded. A link is for life, not just for SERPs :)

    Aligning the different departments and digital marketing specialists in a large business, and getting communication nice and slick is one of the biggest challenges with this approach to online marketing I find, but is well worth the effort.

    Links are integral to being associated in certain neighbourhoods and building reputation through association. I think even if SERPs weren't affected by links, I'd still advice businesses to have an active linkbuilding strategy in place.

    reply >
  3. Hey Rob - Absolutely agree with this.
    Ok answers first:
    1) Nope - my job title is "Digital Customer Experience Analyst" try saying that fast! And I'd say I dabble in SEO, Social Media, Online PR, Analytics, Usability and design... pretty all rounded. Oh and I break stuff.
    2) Yes I'm nominally in charge of the site, least I act that way ;) How's it measured? It's tricky as what we sell is done offline - thus tracking conversions is hard (and we've got plans to solve that) So we're left at tracking conversions thru getting leads (contact us forms). Not very forward thinking, but again thats being looked at.

    I agree with Rishil's comment on "In essence, a large business SEO isn’t just a geek playing with algos and SE’s - but needs to be a fully rounded marketer, with strong internal politics skills as well as a flair for inline etiquette." - Only this is conditional on the fact that they have to market themselves to others who percieve it as "a geek playing with Algos' and Facebook" - so internal politics is neccesary to prove worth to business.

    In order to do so they must show:
    a) success of what they do/initiate (analytics, interpretation & knowledge)
    b) results of others (same again)
    c) how others can improve what they do.

    Regarding the links - SEO linkbuilding is one of many strategies, and is approached differently to straight up Link buying (again this is done as you've said for the traffic/ad not the link) and analytics let's us measure this differently.

    reply >
  4. Excellent post and comment. You cannot myopically focus on rankings and expect that to be the only deliverable on your campaign.

    It is crucially important to track every aspect of a marketing campaign you are involved in, and ensure that credit is given for work that contributes to increased conversion.

    Sometimes this means tracking on your own using analytics packages, sometimes it means sharing data between people/agencies, sometimes it means a client providing back end information on revenue, leads or conversions.

    I have worked on an 'assist' basis where mutliple stakeholders are involved (e.g. multiple agencies, or across multiple on/offline channels), to ensure everyone gets credit for combined work. As long as you have the relevant tracking in place (unqiue phone numbers, media codes, analytics, PPC landing pages...) it is possible to calculate a percentage credit for conversion.

    This has to be re-assessed monthly depending on work done, but it ensures that you get credit where it's due. Obviously this won't work universally, but it's a good idea to think about it in relation to your own clients, and see if it's a workable solution.

    reply >
  5. Hi Rob,

    Totally agree!

    My job title is still 'Marketing Manager' which is a woefully inaccurate description of what I do - in reality I do a bit of new business, some client liaison and some SEO and PPC; and occassionally look at marketing the company I work for. Someone I spoke to today said I was a 'Finder, Minder & Grinder' - I kinda like that so I think I'm going to get that put on my business cards.

    Coming from a traditional marketing background, I'm always evangelising the mix - for me it's certainly not about ranking - it's all about conversions.

    Of course these things are all interlinked. Offline advertising - e.g. radio / tv / press all drive brand searches - which convert fantastically well - and you do rank for your brand, right?

    Of course you do. But do you also rank for the slogan used in your ads? People might be searching for that. You need to take a holistic approach.

    When evaluating whether or not to go after a link (or indeed how much time to spend going after a link) I try to think about the both the potential traffic and the SEO benefit. I often email my clients telling them about opportunities which don't have an SEO benefit, but might just send them some decent traffic.

    Re how we're measured - I would love to be measured by conversions - however I'm sure we've all got clients who are obsessed with how they rank. We try to educate our clients to think a little differently, and on more than one occassion have implemented changes on sites to increase conversions, alongside our SEO work.

    reply >
  6. Could we please sphinn this? It would be interesting to see other people commenting

    reply >
  7. "We try to educate our clients to think a little differently, and on more than one occassion have implemented changes on sites to increase conversions, alongside our SEO work."

    If you don't offer it in house partnering with other agencies can be a big help here - PPC agencies can often show small changes mean big changes in conversion through A/B testing, usability agencies can show clients how chnage one word (seriously) can increase conversion through multivariant testing, even Google offers it in Analytics.

    The point everyone seems to be making is that this type of marketing involves thinking about the whole customer journey, from initial contact with the brand to conversion. Concetrating on rankings alone means you only see a small section of the journey, and as such propose a limited solution to your client.

    reply >
  8. Sorry, but 'it' above I meant 'services other than SEO/Online Marketing'

    reply >
  9. Good point Rob, high quality traffic is what it's all about in the end.

    reply >
  10. Rob

    It's great to see that your company values the opinion of an internet marketer on other, off-line parts of the business's marketing. In particular - as Linop says - it shows a company is open minded when it recognises the importance of not siloing people off from each other - particularly when it comes to online.

    Lindop - "a links is for life" - I like that. Did you see Patrick's comment about his good value link?

    RobBothan - I didn't realise that all your sales were closed offline. I guess the Google Phone Call Analytics thing will help you out then? I do like the idea of focussing on the "Customer Experience". It implies an adjustment in priorities to something less measurable but potentially much more useful.

    @stuartpturner - I imagined that lots of people must be running something like "percentage credit for conversion" calculations, but it's not something I've been involved with. Of course, I imagine then that certain parts of the process can be undervalued when conversion is the metric - outdoor advertising for instance is generally poor at conversions, but racks up impacts (or 'eyeballs' as they insist on saying) at a phenomenal cost-per-thousand, so does well in a branding / positioning campaign. Looks cool though; might well be trying this soon.

    @hannah_bo_banna - really interesting comments, thanks. You mentioned conversion-rate-optimisation at the end; I know the feeling of doing SEO for clients, and being acutely aware of onsite changes that would increase conversions that they have some internal issue with implementing.
    As Stuart points out - Google offers A/B testing in the PPC manager, but of course they also have Web Optimizer for running split tests on site content.

    reply >
  11. Hey Rob - irritatingly the Google phone analytics only applies to the states (I checked already) and UK has few to implement this, however when you can integrate Google Adwords, Analytics, Salesforce (SaaS CRM system) into one single customer viewpoint you can start to attribute these out!

    reply >
  12. @rob - that's an awesome link. Not that I'd ever buy a link of course, it being against the rules and all. Of course. Ahem.

    reply >
  13. Link building is a great way to generate traffic for your sites.

    reply >
  14. Great article, thanks for sharing. I agree that it's quality over quantity when it comes to link building.

    reply >
  15. Rob

    Lindop - but when you're thinking about traffic, it's not against any rules. If it's going to be worthwhile paying for, then don't be shy.

    reply >
  16. @Rob Yeah I guess it must be going on. There's some cross over with Display and PPC here as you point out:

    "outdoor advertising for instance is generally poor at conversions, but racks up impacts"

    Sometimes the number of impressions (for a low CPC or CPA) can be just as valuable, particularly on a paid ad network like Facebook where the targeting is much specific than on Adwords.

    reply >
  17. As long as you promotes your web sites in places related to you topic I think that you do not have to decide if you want to do it for search engine rankings or if you want to do it to get another traffic source. Somtimes it will be both of them and sometimes none. i do not worry too much about it.

    reply >
  18. Dan Kennedy calls it "responsible marketing". If you cannot measure results what good is it. It's that whole "if a tree falls in the forest..." thing. Knowing your metrics, studying analytics and trying to define what a successful campaign is ahead of time is very important.

    reply >
  19. Ned

    While rankings are good, factors such as personal search have made it less easy to say your site is ranked at position x for keyword y. The bottom line is not links or traffic. It is return on investment - how much more product have I sold as a result of my actions. If you can show this you are doing a good job.

    reply >
  20. Nice post Rob,

    The way we measure success is by defining ahead of time Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and measuring them against results for a specific period of time. This will depend on the needs and goals of the company, which will also vary per campaign, department and seasonality.

    However, there is a group of core metrics that could be applicable through out specific industries, should the IM/SEM identified them (based on experience) by working in those verticals.

    reply >
  21. An eye opening article. It is true that some of us are so obsessed with rankings, we forget the true purpose of referral links. They are a vote of credibility to a page useful to web browsers. Let's put it into perspective really quick. Rankings are wonderful, but what is most important to clients. Conversions and return on their investments no?

    reply >
  22. I guess the target always is to get qualified traffic at the end of the day, but not neccessarily directly from the site you put your backlink on...meaning that the backlink helps your ranking in the search engines, and thus helps in getting qualified traffic that way :-)

    reply >
  23. By the end of the day ROI is the only important thing. I often get off track on this one, but you have to prioritize your efforts if you want to stay in business.

    reply >
  24. I have to agree with that. Our main priority should be our clients and our target audience. We must cater to their needs to sustain our business, because in the end its the ROI that matters.

    reply >

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>