Barrier to Entry for Link Building

Links are important for a website. Of all the factors Google and Bing take into consideration when ranking search results, links to your website are given the greatest weight. In most cases, they even outweigh the value of content provided. Without links, a website has virtually no chance of ranking for any worthwhile search results. Or being found at all.

The State of Link Building

In the past, the barrier to entry for ranking well on search engines was lower.

  • There were fewer factors taken into consideration when ranking sites.
  • There were fewer people creating content.
  • There were fewer people online linking out.
  • There were not half a billion people on social media websites sharing their favorite links.
  • There was less gaming of the system.

Link building was easier in those days. Directories still carried some weight. Now there are maybe a handful of Internet directories worth submitting a website to, and even their value is questionable. Website owners and bloggers were more susceptible to being asked for links. If your website looked interesting or caught their eye they wouldn't hesitate to link to you. Now their inboxes are flooded with emails, mostly from India, asking them to link to one site or another. They don't even bother reading your request, even though your site would truly be beneficial to their readers and has quality content.

Even gaming the system was easier, if you wanted to take that route. Link farms, "Useful Links" pages, reciprocal linking - spam detection for those kind of shady links weren't as smart as they now are. There are still ways to game the system, it's just harder.

The problem with building links is the barrier to entry. No one wants to link to a new website with a handful of pages on it. If you are a nobody on the Internet world, start a blog, and write a piece on Startup Visas no one is going to care. The article written by Tech Crunch, even if it is of lesser quality and provides little useful information, will gain 2000 tweets, 2000 likes, and a couple hundred links from bloggers.

Search Engines are Gauging Quality

The big trend of late with search engines is measuring and gauging the quality of content on a website. Several Google algorithm changes over the past year and a half have revolved around content. Links are still the golden goose for right now, with social media pulling up a strong third. Content is more important than ever.

Content doesn't help you rank, though. The best article ever written about Startup Visas will never outrank Tech Crunch without any links to it. How do you get people to link to it?

Link Building Principles

It starts with sharing. With a brand new website, no one knows you exist until you begin sharing it. If you don't have already established relationships with influential people in your industry then how can you begin to share it? In this past world that lives on in our hearts, it was a matter of sending a well crafted email to one of those influencers. This, like manually building links through emails, is becoming more difficult. Everyone is sending them content to write about or tweet about. Your content may be great, but your email has to be better.

Maybe targeting the industry leaders isn't the best choice when you are just starting out. There usually exists a second layer of people in an industry. These are the ones that have 10,000 followers instead of 100,000. Their blog gets read actively and has a good subscriber base. There are others like you, that are just starting out. And some that have been around for awhile but never quite caught on. These are easier targets for link building, but you would still be hard pressed to compete with Tech Crunch yet.

There's an old expression that can be applied to link building. "It takes money to make money." While this certainly isn't true in every circumstance, whether talking about money or link building, it could generally be stated that "It takes links to build links." Tech Crunch, the NY Times, the Huffington Post - any one of them could publish a typo-riddled article written by a 9th grader about Startup Visas and it would make the first page of Google News, maybe even Google itself for awhile. Regardless of whether or not your article blows theirs out of the water, theirs will gain a higher ranking and gather more links. This must fit within the realm of some Law or Rule, but I don't know what to call it. Other than it takes links to build links.

But Content Is King!

(And other halfwit idioms)

Directories don't work. Automatic submission software doesn't work. Emailing site owners or influencers doesn't work. But content is king, you say? Only if it has links to back it up. A king without a kingdom and all that.

Great content gathers links! So you say. I say great content with authority gathers links. Great content with notoriety gathers links, with reputation, with popularity. Great content alone? Goes ignored.

In fact, that 9th grade article on Tech Crunch or the NY Times website might even gather more links than a well written one. People like to criticize those in a position of influence, deservedly or not, and that article gives them a reason to criticize. This probably isn't the kind of link building they are shooting for, and it's no way to sustain a business, but a piss poor article will likely gather more links than a mediocre article for these Internet giants.

(Maybe that also has a name, I'm sure it is some sort of Phenomenon.)

High trafficked sites build a lot of links, medium traffic sites build a medium volume of links, and your measly new website without any notoriety will gather hardly any links. This, together with the destruction of alternative link sources has created a huge barrier to entry for new websites.

The Foundation to Link Building: Build Relationships, Share Your Content

Successful link building comes down to one key component: relationships.

If you have built relationships in the appropriate industries, building links becomes easy. It's all about tugging the right strings. But you have to know people first, one way or another. If an influencer is following you on Twitter, and I mean actually following you and listening to your tweets, then tweeting interesting content will get his attention. Or emailing him will likely garner a reply. Sure, you still have to be well composed for sharing, but since he already knows of you it isn't so tough.

Relationships. Yep. I'm including the loosely defined bonds of Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, etc. into this broad category called "relationships". It's really debatable whether or not they fit the criteria to be considered such, but for the sake of link building we'll give that a green light.

In this mystical past, building links took some strange mix of technical skills, content writing,  personality and reputation. Today, those other traits don't matter.

Okay, now I'm prattling on for too long. I probably have been all along. This is going somewhere, promise.

Link building is no longer about link building. The barrier to entry is too high for traditional link building to matter.

I realize everyone isn't competing for "Viagra" or "poker" or other top 10 most competitive keywords on the Internet. Some websites would be happy with a thousand visitors a month from a couple dozen phrases. For these a link from DMOZ and a mention on a couple forums might do the trick. Emailing a site owner that probably never gets hit with link requests could be effective. Traditional link building holds some merit.

In even mildly competitive realms, say 500 searches a month phrases, that just isn't enough. The cost vs reward spread is too large. These are the kind of phrases that ecommerce sites want their product pages to rank for, or that a young blogger might be targeting with a new post. Directories and forums and blog comments don't cut it at this level.

Domain authority? PageRank flow? Oh, so a link to my homepage has a tendency to help every page on my site rank better. So a link here, two there, they add up over time and eventually your pages are ranking for some of those lower competition terms with 500 searches a month. After a year you could probably bring in a thousand or two thousand visitors a month using only conventional link building tactics. Directories, email requests, forums and blog comments. That's not going to be profitable, but it's a formidable start.

An Unjust Link Building World

Compare this to someone who is connected. They make 1 post, it may only be mediocre but covers an important topic. Your equivalent post which gathered you a proud 4 backlinks is really top notch stuff. You just don't have their connections. Their post gets some initial traction from their connections - a couple of leaders in the industry. This catches on with the lower tiers that follow their blogs and grabs another 12 or 15 linking domains, plus a hundred guaranteed tweets about it (after all, they all have followers that love to retweet them). That's enough to put them on top for a fairly competitive phrase with 20 or 30 times the search volume of your 500 word phrase - even if it's only for a short period of time, due to QDF, before they settle into a slightly lower spot.

One post for them is the rough equivalent of a year's worth of your work.

Let's talk cost vs reward for a minute. I know, it's usually stated as "risk vs reward." This is something I have come to understand in life. Cost and risk are really the same thing. Just looking at the dictionary definitions they're similar. Risk: "Gamble: take a risk in the hope of a favorable outcome;" or "risk concerns the expected value of one or more results of one or more future events." And cost is "the total spent for goods or services including money and time and labor;" or "a negative consequence or loss that occurs or is required to occur." Breaking out the dictionary, how cliche of me.

When you spend $100 on a pair of shoes you are taking a risk. The shoes might break, you might not like them any more, they might get ruined. There is some sort of inherent guarantee from the store that sold them to you, or maybe even the manufacturer, but accepting that guarantee requires you to trust they will uphold it. To take a risk, if you will. $100 is the cost, but it's also the risk you accept. That may be 1 hour of work on your part or it could be 12 hours. I like to think of purchases in terms of the work it takes me to make them, because it really puts things in perspective.

The same applies with longer ventures of labor. A year of work building up a website or a blog is a big risk, there's a big cost involved. Time, labor, frustrations, research, carpal tunnel, writing, less time with family or watching television. All of these add up to the cost of your site. It may appear to be free or nearly free on the surface. Underneath it's fairly expensive.

So it comes down to a cost vs reward matrix. I'll let you figure out how to visualize that yourself. The studious writer will spend all of his time hacking away at the keyboard. After a year he may have 150 really outstanding posts. Some of which may even be the kind that are worthy of .edu links or publication in a print journal. The conventional link builder has only 100 posts, and they aren't quite as good as the 150, but he's gained 10 times as many links. Nothing the first person did was geared toward building links, or even optimizing his website for search engines. He gets 100 visitors trickling in a month, while the second has reached our idolized 2000 monthly visitors.

The third guy has spent his year talking it up in the industry, getting to know the second tier guys, even a couple of the real influencers have heard his name and visited his site once or twice. He was only able to write 75 blog posts, and they're on par with the conventional link builder's quality. His site is already getting 20,000 monthly visitors though. Every post grabs a guaranteed dozen links.

So Link Building is Dead! I Knew It!

No, link building isn't dead. SEO isn't dead. Content isn't even dead.

They are all very much alive and more important than ever.

There needs to exist a trade-off if you want to be successful. Every blogger, every website owner, every hobbyist wants to do what they love doing. They want to make a living happily doing it. They can. Starting out, though, they need to evaluate the cost versus the reward. Writing non-stop articles can produce a lot of great content, but in and of itself this will not provide success.

Not monetary success. You will not be able to support yourself in this lifestyle.

Instead, you have to make some sacrifices. This will probably entail writing less in order to have more time for relationship building. It might entail money spent on an outside agency to do the marketing for you, but starting out you probably don't have the luxury of money.

Instead, collateral tasks must be worked in along with what you love to do. Start building those relationships. Begin at the bottom, with others like you. They are also just starting out, they may not have all the wisdom you have. They probably have some pearls of wisdom that will benefit you. Connect with them on social media networks, email them, write them a letter, request a song be played for them on their favorite radio station. Whatever it takes to get their attention and make friends, do it.

Work your way up from there.

By year's end, you'll be off to a running start. Sure, you may not be receiving 2000 tweets about your latest article, but it might gather 2000 visits. That's better than 2.