Jun 122012

Links Are Effects Not Causes

(This article was originally published on Clickz.)

An important point to remember when building links for SEO, and when thinking about link building strategies and tactics, is that links are effects. Links are not causes.

phone booths stacked like dominoes

Photo by Jim Linwood. Creative Commons license.

Links are the outcome of an originating principle or strategy: to market a website online. To build influence, to introduce a differentiator, to provide value. Done correctly and well, these concepts drive attention in the form of traffic, notoriety, and yes, backlinks from other websites.

Links are the effects, the outcomes, of value. Securing links is not the means or the end in itself; links are merely symbolic of the means and ends. Why, then, do companies and consultants continually try to "build links" as if they're collecting gold nuggets? As if links are the end all, be all of SEO?

Yes, links drive SEO. They're a foundational component of the work. But the place to start is not by asking, "How can we build lots of links?" The place to begin is by asking, "How can we do something cool that people will love? How can we provide something valuable?"

Early last year I told you to Quit Obsessing On Anchor Text. Now I'm telling you to quit obsessing on backlinks.

It's Not About Links

A real backlink strategy isn't about links at all, but about content, social, and promotional strategies that will engage people. A real backlink strategy will investigate everything about a company's assets and how they can be leveraged and expanded to create more awareness. The end result of more awareness and influence online? You got it: links.

Now, some of you kind readers will argue that links are in fact causes: causes of rank. How can links be only 'effects' if they are the most important factor in how rankings are achieved? My answer is simple: they have historically been a primary cause of rankings, but that game is changing fast. Yes, links still push rankings best right now (with big changes post- Panda and Penguin). How do you get those crucial links, then? By remembering that links are effects and not causes. Links validate a site's ranking position or visibility online. What do links to a very poor page or site get you? Short term ranking and an unsustainable business model. It's not about the ranking, after all. It's about the value of that ranking to the visitor.

Links are effects not causes. Links reflect influence, value, and popularity online. Penguin showed us how a lopsided obsession on securing links and exact match anchors as the means and ends of inbound marketing saddles SEO campaigns and drives down results and revenues.

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10 Responses to "Links Are Effects Not Causes"
Rick Watson says:
Adam: I enjoyed this article. Unlike in the organic world, anyone in a paid arena understands you can pay an amount for a link anywhere, including paid search. Only the ROI of that link to that visitor matters if you keep that campaign running. Backlinks to acquire non-relevant traffic might make your SEO reporting better in some cases, but they won't make your business better.
Back in the early days of the web you only got links if your material was interesting -- because links were personal, and you were judged (as either interesting or boring) by what you linked to. As far as I can tell, all Google has been doing (with Panda and other changes) is making everyone view their links that way again. Which is good for those of us looking for interesting things who are tired of finding boring link-bait pages instead.
You've got a point for the majority of websites but some content only attracts viable customers via people searching for related terms like "rhinoplasty in toronto" and they're not the type of things which lends itself to being shared unless in a negative light. It's true that G's cut down on poor link building tactics and "a lopsided obsession on securing links and exact match anchors" won't work, but quality link building involves spreading decent content which can bring in some visitors but not as many as the millions of searches made on Google.
Rick and Tamra, you are both spot on. It's great to see the barriers to entry get ever steeper in SEO, which raises quality levels across the board. To be clear, not everyone out there is happy about the Panda and Penguin changes. Notably, smaller players are the most vulnerable here, but they're also (sadly) the ones who have pushed aggressive tactics and shortcuts more than big brands. Big brands aren't exempt of course (Overstock, JC Penny, and many other examples not public), but by and large the bell curve of SEO spam is made up of small businesses and smaller online plays.
Takeshi says:
It's amusing to see how many people are jumping on the content marketing bandwagon after Penguin. Yes, Google eliminated some spammy sources of links, but that doesn't meant link building is dead. Links are still very much causes just as as they are effects.
Jason Nelson says:
Offsite SEO has largely become SEM, which can get quite expensive, time consuming, and generally favors larger companies. I can't say the recent Google changes are necessarily a good thing for small businesses trying to compete online, outside of local SEO.
Margaret Thompson says:
Hear hear, Adam. The quality of content and one's brand integrity, (I mean any website is its own "brand" right?) will only further increase in importance as the industry continues to rapidly evolve. At the end of the day, integrity is what counts the most; and the "clicks" follow suit. Not the other way around. Well- said, indeed! I would love to hear your take on Mr. Kumar's "predictions," should you be willing to share. http://www.entrepreneur.com/blog/223765
@Peter - agreed. There will always be room on the outside corners of search (especially long tail) for thin SEO games to win. I think that's why overall trust and authority are so important to Google, and various classifiers, so that long tail and very specific queries are biased toward higher authority properties.
@Takeshi Nowhere did I state that "link building is dead." On the contrary, link building (done right) is more valuable than ever. It's harder to do than ever, too. @Jason I can't say I agree than "offsite SEO has largely become SEM". Off-page signals have actually largely become more robust, especially with the inclusion of user metrics, and to a lesser extent, social signals. But overall the off-page strategies and tactics necessary to compete in SEO require creativity, quality content production, PR, and other skills far beyond SEM. I do agree that the recent Google changes are forcing many small businesses out of competition, which is unfortunate. @Margaret I like the idea of "integrity" here and couldn't agree more. That article is accurate in my view. User metrics, quality content, no tricks. Basically the same old, same old wrapped in a new package I guess. :)
Kent says:
For those who don't understand this article, they will go for link spamming strategy because as you said link for them is cause. But for those understand this article, they will go for white hat strategy which focus on content. When we have great content, we will automatically have links link to our websites/blogs.

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