The Kingmaker: Content or Links

A very common themeĀ  on various search engine optimization-related blogs and forums is the “Content is King” philosophy. This theory says that the way to achieve top rankings is to create excellent, unique, compelling content. Any other strategy is doomed to failure — and if another strategy does work, then it’s a house of cards that will collapse with a future algorithm update.

Content alone determines your rankings.

This is then countered by the “Links are the root of all SEO” crowd. These guys will tell you that any rumors about the value of links decreasing is pure myth and the way to get any site or page ranked is through links. They agree that poor links and poorly designed linkbuilding campaigns will run afoul of algorithm changes, but quality linkbuilding is, always has been, and always will be the heart of SEO success.

Both sides are passionate and vehement, yet push opposing viewpoints in a fact-based argument. So who to believe?

In actuality, content is not king. And neither are links the kingmaker. It is, as you might imagine, both. In some circumstances content alone is enough to rank, and in others links alone can get you there: but in all cases a combination of quality unique content, on-site optimization, and diverse quality backlinks will get you ranked better and more consistently.

The Content Fallacy

The concept of Content is King acknowledges the value of links, but makes the argument that if you create a truly useful and valuable site, then people (actual human beings) will link to you. They will link to you organically, because your content deserves to be linked.

The problem with this theory is that it relies on people somehow finding your site in the first place to realize how great it is and then link to you. There are plenty of low competition niches where you can rank for longtail phrases through optimization alone, and use that to eventually attract organic links. But if you’re trying to rank for Michigan drivers license restoration, for example, and don’t show up in any search results, then it doesn’t matter how great your site is or how comprehensive your page on driver’s license restoration might be. If no one ever sees it, they won’t link to it and your law firm will get no business from organic search results for the phrase.

This is the primary fallacy with the content is king philosophy, but there’s another problem as well.

As linkbuilders have researched pretty carefully the benefit of links, they can often rank better with fewer links. I have an online game fan blog about WoW hunter builds. It is the authoritative site in its niche, with hundreds of thousands of organic backlinks. But for the phrase “hunter builds” another site outranks it, partially due to domain name match, but partially because they have artificially created links to their site from other sites they control, all with the link anchor text “hunter builds.”

Organically created links rarely have such perfect anchor text — most of the time your anchor text is “Click here.” So in this instance a site with less than a hundreds links and more or less equal on-site optimization can outrank my far more links because their artificially created links create a superior targeted profile — despite the fact that the actual content of their site is massively inferior, and peppered all over with ads and affiliate links.

Ultimately content alone cannot grant you rankings, particularly in higher competition markets. If you’re never discovered in the first place, you’ll never acquire the organic links you need to rank (and note here that even the content is king philosophy depends on links). Even if you are the authoritative site, artificial linking strategies can outrank you and steal your traffic.

The Link Fallacy

The content is king isn’t the only model with holes in it. The linkbuilders as the sole source of SEO has the same issues. Chief among the problems with the linkbuilding model is that ranking isn’t the ultimate goal of SEO — the ultimate goal is to make money. For that you need to rank, need people to click on the link, and then need them to find enough value in your site to buy a product or click on an affiliate link.

The internet is increasingly populated with shallow junk sites, and users are getting better and better at identifying those junk sites at a glance and clicking back to check out the next search result. If you are solely focused on links to rank and truly ignore content, then you won’t get any benefit out of traffic that you do get.

But a more serious flaw with the link-only philosophy is that the search algorithms are getting increasingly sophisticated. It is harder and harder to create a “natural link footprint.” Search engines look for suspicious link profiles — too many of one kind of link, too much of the same anchor text, not enough crummy anchor text, too many links from certain kinds of sources (footers, blog rolls, directories, profiles, blog content links). Gone are the days of easy link building techniques — now a true linkbuilding strategy requires links from a huge variety of sites with a very delicate balance of anchor text and pages linked to.

But search engine algorithms are looking at more than just link profiles and on-page content. They’re also paying attention to user behavior: how many users click on your search result, how much traffic you have, how much of that traffic bounces. These all hurt a page without good content. And with Google focusing in on social media more and more, having content that users are inclined to share with become increasingly important for ranking.

And finally, the content proponents are not wrong about the danger of algorithm shifts to linkbuilding campaigns. Every time there’s a major algorithm update at Google the SEO forums are riddled with people bemoaning Google taking away their livlihoods, and in the vast majority of cases they had shallow poor quality content or stolen/spun content sites. If linkbuilding alone were so great, we wouldn’t have literally thousands of online businesses dying out at the same time that users report better and better quality search result.

The Right Answer is Both

If you’re serious about SEO, the right way to rank is both through quality original content that is valuable to users, and linkbuilding.

You have to create the quality content to give users a reason to link to the content — in other words a reason to recommend your site without any prompting from you. Create the kind of site that is used as a reference for Wikipedia or news outlets — the kind of site that everyone references in forums about the topic.

But then you also need to pursue linkbuilding efforts to support that content. You need that starting sprinkling of backlinks to get ranked for those first longtail searches — and that linking strategy has to be carefully constructed to avoid looking like spam (hint: don’t buy 1,000 links from anywhere).

Then as the site begins to collect sufficient organic links, you can use linking building to drill in with anchor text rich links to targeted deep pages on the site to prop up the ranking for the phrases that matter. After all, once you site has thousands of actual organic links, your site is by definition going to have a natural link profile. Then you can easily slip in a few dozen links here and there to target the keyword phrases that matter.

Like everything in life, proper SEO requires a balance. Going too extreme in any one direction is always worse than the balanced approach.

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