Link Building: Expectations vs. Reality

Link Building: Expectations vs. Reality

For those not familiar, in 2012, Google’s Penguin algorithm update was launched; it worked to decrease the rankings of sites violating Google’s guidelines, specifically targeting link schemes. In 2016, we see that the spammy and unnatural link acquisition tactics of the past aren’t going to cut it anymore. So why are we still talking about link development and link building in today’s SEO and content marketing landscape?

Well, links are making a comeback into conversations among SEOs and content marketers, who have no doubt that links are still important to a site’s overall performance. Take for example, the below image from a Backlinko study. After analyzing 1 million Google search results, they found that a site’s overall link authority correlated highly with its rankings. Meaning, the more links your domain has, the more potential your site’s pages (even the new ones) have to perform better in search rankings.

Domain Link Authority

Source: Backlinko

The importance of links has not changed, but the strategy you must use to acquire them has.

It has become common knowledge that links are still a high correlation factor in rankings, but many still struggle to understand what to expect from link development services. Transparency, and honesty are the best policy between you and your link building provider. Here are some common expectations that we’ve heard among some of our own clients, and from others within the industry.

Transparency, and honesty are the best policy between you and your link building provider. Click To Tweet

Expectation # 1: “Link building is spammy, and can hurt my site.”

In the past few years, many brands have been penalized in search rankings by Google due to violating their guidelines in various ways. One of the most common violations found is companies who have pointed links to their site in manipulative ways in order to increase rankings. Many of our clients at Vertical Measures come to us having been burned by SEO agencies in the past that built them bad links, and weary of the words “link building” or “link development” as a whole.


It makes sense to be weary, as link schemes really can get you in trouble with Google. We encourage you to be careful when selecting link development services, but we’re also here to reassure you that not all link earning is “bad”. Before entering into a relationship with a link acquisition provider or starting to build links on your own you’ll want to know what to avoid.

Link Building Expectations vs Reality

What NOT to do:

  • Paid links of any kind. Any exchange of money, goods or services for links or posts with links in them.
  • Link exchanges or reciprocal linking. This “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” strategy should also be avoided.
  • Large amounts of guest posting. You will want to avoid large scale efforts of guest posting with over optimized anchor text and thin content. We are not talking about your CEO writing a piece for a Business Journal, or your head of sales writing for an industry blog, as this type of guest posting is authentic. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re truly offering something of value to a site, then contributing and including a link back to your site is okay.
  • Automate your efforts. This can get really spammy, really fast. Make sure you aren’t automating link building, or choosing a provider that does this.

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You want to focus on ways your brand can authentically earn links. Think about the way that links are built naturally around the web. People find content of unique value, something that has helped them in some way, and then they link to that content. Link building has grown from the manipulative nature of its past and evolved into something more lasting that involves relationship building, and consistent delivery of value.

Some ways you can earn natural, white hat links include:

  • Unlinked mentions of your brand or staff. If a site or page is already talking about you, it’s okay to ask for a link back to your site! After all, you must have done something noteworthy to be mentioned.
  • Competitive analysis. Using backlink analysis of your competitors can provide you with a number of insights. Figure out where your competitors are listed, and what types of content is performing well for them. You may be able to create content like it, that will also perform well for links.
  • Interviews and offering thought leadership. If there are people on your staff who regularly speak at events, provide insight to other industry resources, or are open to being interviewed this could help you naturally earn links back to your site.
  • Develop fantastic content. Content marketing is really hard, but embracing it can earn you links. The more quality pages you create, the higher likelihood your site has to be linked to. According to Ahrefs “best pages by links” report, some of Vertical Measures top pages for links include more unique content such as checklists, ebooks, videos, infographics and templates.

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Top Content

Expectation #2: “Link building is a low budget way to get results.”

Our sales team has gotten questions that look something like: “How much would 50 links cost?” or “How many links can you build for $5,000 dollars”? Also, we are constantly targeted by bloggers and webmasters offering to post links in articles or on networks in exchange for monetary payment.

These “pay by link” services that set the expectation of guaranteed links may seem promising, but this isn’t the best way to approach link development costs. If it is as easy as “x amount of dollars will get you x amount of links,” then we advise you to stay away from that tactic.


Trust us, it’s difficult to define an exact price range that you should consider for link earning. There are so many factors to consider about your site first. Remember, that link development is impossible without content development, so first look to the costs of content marketing to get an accurate picture of what gaining high authority backlinks might cost you. Here are a couple questions you can ask to help determine what your costs of developing new links might be.

Link Building Expectations vs Reality

How active are your other marketing efforts?

We’ve found that more established sites, who are publishing content regularly often earn links naturally from other marketing efforts. An active site, that frequently gets talked about around the web might also have tons of unlinked brand opportunities to pursue making it a little easier (and less costly) to be mentioned by authority sources.

On the other hand, if you have a brand new site or one that doesn’t already hold authority, then you aren’t likely to see much natural link growth or attention from authority sources. In this case, link earning will likely cost more, as it will require content strategy and creation to really be successful.

How much of the effort will be done in house?

Link development requires a strategy, writers, editors, and SEOs. If you’ve already got a dream team like this in house, then you’re a step ahead in the game and your costs will often be lower. The more you can do in house, the less costly your link acquisition will be. There are quite a few steps to link earning, and the more heavy lifting you’re willing to do, the less you’ll have to pay an agency.

Link development includes:

  • Strategy to determine what the best plan for acquiring links to your site will be.
  • Research and competitor analysis to determine what content, if any, needs to be created or what pages need to be modified.
  • Creation of link assets identified in your research and strategy.
  • Manual outreach to increase the reach of your content.

If your brand is active in other marketing efforts, frequently talked about online, and you have the resources to bring at least some of the above steps in house then your link development costs will usually be lower.

Aren’t quite there yet? Our advice is to invest in content now, and build links later.

Expectation #3: “A link-development agency or company can build links without my involvement.”

We find that many view link development as a siloed effort from other marketing efforts that can be a “hands free” operation contracted out to an agency.


While some link development strategies are very hands-off for the client, that isn’t always the case. The level of involvement needed from you really depends which tactics and strategies are identified in your link strategy.

SEO and content marketing agencies may be fantastic at identifying link development strategies and conducting manual outreach, but they likely won’t know your business like you do. Some things might require your help such as offering testimonials, interviews, or guest contributions from thought leaders at your company. These are really authentic ways to build links that we can’t do alone but we can definitely help facilitate!

Testimonials, interviews, & quality guest contributions are authentic ways to acquire links. Click To Tweet

We get excited when our clients want to be more involved in link development efforts; it opens up whole new worlds of opportunity for us and allows us to be more creative when acquiring links and building out your strategy.

Expectation #4: “All links will equate to some monetary value.”

It makes sense that you might want to know the direct ROI of every link you build to your site. Understanding how you can measure success will be key in not feeling disappointed with your hard work.


It’s hard to see direct monetary value or ROI from link-development because it shouldn’t be working in a silo. You’ll often have many things happening on your site along  with link acquisition such as:

  • Other SEO optimization efforts
  • New content development
  • Seasonality of your business (if this applies)
  • Events/other marketing efforts

Instead of looking for monetary returns to your link building, look for site performance changes that could have been influenced by links. In the long run, these performance boosts will aid in monetary ways, but pin pointing “this link earned me x amount of dollars/leads” is not always possible.

Some metrics you might want to measure:

  • Link growth to your site
  • Referral traffic to new content, or targeted pages
  • Overall lift in traffic or rankings from the time you began link development efforts
  • Keyword rankings

Expectation #5: “Building new high quality links will fix all of my other SEO issues.”

Now that you know the importance of links, it’s easy to want to jump right into link acquisition and content creation.  Take a step back to look at the overall SEO health of your site.

Google penalty example


The example above shows a company who was proactively creating content for 5 months, but not seeing the results that they should have been. Upon looking deeper into their traffic, you can see that there is a clear drop off where a manual Google penalty hit. Due to duplicate content, an unnatural backlink profile, and a few other common SEO issues, they weren’t able to see any results from all their efforts.

If you have other SEO issues with your site, spend time fixing them before focusing on link acquisition, or developing new content. You could be lighting your money on fire by choosing to ignoring SEO best practices and continuing on with your link acquisition or content marketing efforts.

Some of the most common SEO issues we find include:

  • Unintentional duplicate content
  • Slow page load speed
  • Poor or duplicated HTML optimization (such as title tags, meta descriptions, and broken link)
  • Poor optimization of images and videos.
  • Unnatural backlinks consisting of over optimized, or irrelevant, anchor text, or links coming from “bad neighborhoods”.
  • Not enough high quality authority backlinks.
  • Thin content
  • Not being mobile friendly

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You’ll want to focus on fixing the above issues if they exist before diving heavily into link development or content development efforts.

Links are here to stay

The above might be a bold statement to some, but links are consistently an important ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. Put content first and focus on authentic, natural ways your business can be earning links. It isn’t a one size fits all model, and it will take strategy, time, effort and willingness to keep experimenting in order to be successful.

Put content first & focus on authentic, natural ways your business can be earning links. Click To Tweet
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Kayla Tarantino

Kayla Tarantino discovered her love for all things digital marketing while overseeing daily operations of a small e-commerce business throughout college and has been in the industry ever since. She joined the Vertical Measures team in January 2015 as an Internet Marketing Specialist and she is now supervisor of our Internet Marketing Services team. In her free-time you might catch her crafting, horseback riding, or seeking out new local shops and restaurants.