Forget traditional link building, do these 6 things instead

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After being 4+ years in the SEO industry, I can say links rule this industry. If you have been caring, even a little about their organic search traffic in the past few years, you’ve been caring about links. And this makes sense, if you’ve been following industry surveys and studies, links still are the core of how Google and other search engines sort search results.


the overall split of the Google ranking factors according to Moz ranking factors.

The case against building links

So if links are the core of the ranking factors, why advocating against them? Well, this survey is from early 2011. Since then, Google has been rolling more algorithm updates than it has since it was created, most of them targeting “link building”. Moreover, if links are the core of the algorithm, these are not all created equal and in this day and age, few quality links go much further than traditional link building.

Here is a concrete example. Last february at Higher Click, we started to build our own properties. We decided to take no short cut, invested a lot in content and social and pretty much nothing in link building. I think we’ve done 3 niche directory submissions and 3-4 guest posts. The rest of the links has come naturally for social scraping sites and bloggers picking our stuff up on social. Here are the link stats today:

links overview

only 41 linking root domains after 8 months? A lot of SEO’s would be fired for such terrible metrics.

We have also completely ignored anchor text and most of it is branded and random words. However, we’ve been posting on this site every 2-3 days with deep 1000+ words content that we promoted on community and social sites. We’ve also barely optimised the pages although I admit we did a bit of keyword research to tackle the right topics.

Surprisingly enough, here is what the organic search traffic growth looks like:


Please note that a lot of the direct traffic is also iOS 6 search traffic that doesn’t pass referrers data.

Obviously organic growth is fairly slow at first but things tend to take a nice little hockey stick shape a lot of start-ups are looking for. So what does that example prove? Nothing, as the exception doesn’t make the rule. However, I’ve been observing the same set of parameters across sites that do well.

The rest of this post will be about breaking down what I’ve seen do well in the past few month’s “new Google era” and give you examples of people doing it. and how to get the few links that matter.

1- Ditch your 1999 design

Seriously, the world has evolved and so should your site. This especially applies to small businesses and e-commerce stores who have no idea how to change their website without spending thousands of dollars.

But one thing is clear, if you want people to naturally link to you with those risk free high power links, you NEED to look good. In our guest post service at Higher Click we’ve clearly identified that well designed sites take up to twice less work to get links for.

This should ring a bell especially if you’re in a competitive industry that is going to require a good amount of links to appear against competitive keywords.

For my part I recommend WordPress plus theme forest premium themes, if you do e-commerce then Woocommerce can handle pretty much everything you would ask from a modern shopping cart.

I know it’s easier to build links than to redesign your site but there are perks to it. If you design is original enough you DO get links for your hustle by submitting your site to CSS galleries.

2- Make your site mobile friendly

With one in three queries being done on a mobile device, being responsive is not an option. It is mandatory if you expect to make an ROI from your online marketing. Once again, if you buy a premium theme, most of that is being taken care of.

Actually, Google suggests in this post that the mere fact of having a mobile friendly site will improve your rankings for mobile search. So why bother with links when you can both improve CRO and SEO in one hit?

If you want to adapt your existing website and make it responsive there is no magic solution. Simply get your favorite front end dev do it for you.

3- Make your site load faster

When it comes to web browsing, every second counts. With the constant ADD plaguing the younger generation, sites have to load fast. Actually, according to Kissmetrics, 1 extra second of loading time can make your conversion rate drop by as much as 7%.

For those who don’t know, page speed is also a Google ranking factor, improving this metric can have pretty drastic effects on the traffic you receive from search.

There are several ways to optimise your site loading speed. Here are a few:

  • Move away from your crappy shared hosting onto a better one (I recommend WPEngine) or at least implement a good caching plugin (I recommend W3 Total Cache)
  • Optimise the size of the images you use (I recommend Smushit)
  • Shrink down your java script CSS files (Minify does it for you on WordPress)

All these pretty much apply to every site but if you want tailor-made recommendations check out Google’s page speed tool. If you’re still doubting of the power of site speed on your traffic AND conversions, check out CCarter’s post on Wickedfire.

4- Add content more often

Wether you like it or not, content marketing is a thing these days and adding content is a great way to boost up metrics that will help your site do just well in search without active link building. Content marketing is also the most reliable way to hit all these long tail keywords that, together, carry so much juicy traffic. As a matter of fact, 40% of queries in Google have never been seen before. That’s how big long tail is.

Do you really want to pass on over 60% of search traffic? No? Then post often.

Do you really want to pass on over 60% of search traffic? No? Then post often.

Frequent content posting helps with things such as:

  • Content freshness (check the latest viperchill post about freshness, scary)
  • Social signals
  • Natural mentions and links
  • Brand awareness
  • Community engagement

If you’re doing link building but no content, just get started with Neil Patel’s advanced guide to content marketing, start a blog and never look back.

5- Build pillar content worth linking to

Fresh content is one thing that can be solved with a blog, pillar content is another. Pillar content is content that will be cited as a resource and increase your “aura” as a thought leader. This type of content with a bit of promotion can earn a ton of links you would never be able to get in any other way. It will also grow your brand in a nice organic way.

One example of pillar content is this funding guide we’ve built for that got featured on moneysavingexperts and a bunch of  UK’s top universities.

6- Invest in social

That last one seems fairly obvious to most “balanced” Internet marketers, but those who have been hardcore into SEO tend to hate social mostly with the idea that it doesn’t convert as well as search traffic. Well first of all for the site I first quoted, Facebook was actually converting better than Google for a long time and last touch attribution isn’t always the best way to count conversions.

Social does count as a pretty heavy ranking factor these days (we’ve ranked some pages with just tweets and on page SEO) and it is a great way to connect with real people who can give you the links that matter.

But I guess all of this is pretty basic and you already know you should be doing the social thing so I’ll just share an easy way to find and help your target market on Twitter (you can also find them using Follower Wonk) :




Are links dead? No. Is link building dead? No. You will still need it to compete for competitive queries. The goal of this post is not to tell you to completely stop it all. The goal is for you to tackle the highest pain points of your website.

Too many SEO’s and internet marketers simply go and spend their whole budget on link building hoping they’ll do fine without tackling these structural web issues that make your site not perform. Don’t be one of these. Your site most likely doesn’t tick all the boxes above so work on these.

And if you do tick all the boxes above, you will find out that both earning links and ranking on a very low number of links is actually quite easy and your job becomes a lot less stressful.

How about you? Do you still invest heavily in traditional link building? Do you still see returns from it? Let us know in the comments!

Written by Gael Breton

Gael Breton

Gael is the co-founder of Higher Click. A complete Inbound marketing nerd, he splits his time between research, advising Higher Click’s consultants, running the company, and reading a ton of books!

8 replies
  1. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    I have to agree with you here. I think the vast majority of people seeking SEO services have websites that just aren’t ready for link building yet. I agree with you when you say there are a lot of boxes that need to be “ticked” before pursuing link building. Unfortunately this idea isn’t widely shared and it seems most SEOs dive right into the link campaign without first addressing the above issues.

    Good thoughts G-man!


  2. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    I agree — to a point. Linkbuilding is never going to go away on a large scale, but I do think people should split-test their marketing results between SEO, PPC, Content Marketing (Paying for awesome content like videos + infographics etc.)

    I think a lot of people forget that there is so much more to internet marketing than pure SEO.

    Nice post.

  3. Ryan Jennings
    Ryan Jennings says:

    Hi Gael, great article. I’ve experienced similar with new sites. was a test case in what’s possible with social and search work alone without link building. The importance of G+ right now and authorship is something I’d add to the ‘must do’ activities. It’s like telling Google your new blog posts and immediately getting juice.

    Thanks all the same, from a digital marketer in NZ with a little insomnia tonight!

    • Gael Breton
      Gael Breton says:

      Agreed, Authorship is a nice easy way to get some SEO power into your posts right away. Although half of our article on the example site were not marked up.


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