Building a profile of high quality, authoritative backlinks should be a top priority for SEO success in 2023 and beyond. But should you focus your efforts on actively building links, or taking a more organic approach to earning links?
In this post, we’ll compare the pros and cons of link building and link earning strategies. We’ll dig into the data on which tactic delivers better SEO results in the long run. By the end, you’ll know which approach (or combination) is right for your website.
Let’s dive in!
Link Building vs. Link Earning – The Key Differences
To understand which approach is better for SEO, we need to first clarify the key distinctions between active link-building versus more organic link-earning tactics.
Link building refers to active outreach and acquisition of backlinks to your website. This involves things like:
- Contacting the other website owners to request backlinks
- Creating and pitching guest posts
- Buying sponsored posts or links
- Swapping links with other websites
- Building private blog networks
The focus is on rapidly gaining as many backlinks as possible through deliberate effort. To maximize SEO gains, link builders pursue sites with high domain authority and traffic.
With link earning, the focus is on producing high-quality content assets and resources that naturally attract backlinks over time.
Rather than aggressive outreach, you earn links by:
- Publishing helpful, engaging content
- Promoting your best content through social media
- Conducting PR outreach and securing press mentions
- Building relationships with influencers and brands
- Sponsoring events or conferences
The goal is to build brand authority and recognition. Valuable content earns links more passively from reputable sites. You get links because other sites want to reference your content, not because you pursued the links.
Now let’s analyze both approaches in terms of SEO value and long-term sustainability.
SEO Value of Link Building
Active link building can generate SEO results fast, especially when targeting authoritative domains. Some of the potential SEO gains and benefits that link building can provide include:
- Quick acquisition of backlinks: You can rapidly build links pointing to your desired pages, signaled by metrics like:
- Faster improvement in domain and page authority metrics
- Higher rankings for target keywords
- More referral traffic from high authority sites
- Links on authoritative pages: Pitching guest posts to reputable blogs in your space can earn links on pages with existing high domain authority.
- Diverse backlink profile: Link building campaigns allow you to gain links from a wide range of different sites, improving your site’s link diversity.
- Enables targeted anchor text: By requesting backlinks, you can often dictate the anchor text links use pointing to your site. This allows you to intentionally build keywords in your anchor text profile.
Clearly, an active link building campaign can deliver tangible SEO results in the near term. But such gains come with substantial risk over the long run.
Potential Downsides of Link Building
Here are some of the potential negatives to weigh with an aggressive link building approach:
- Risk of Google penalties: Building too many links too quickly, especially low-quality links, runs the risk of manual or algorithmic penalties from Google.
- Low authority sites: Outreach is often directed at easier targets, but low authority sites lend less SEO value and could be seen as manipulative.
- Irrelevant link sources: Seeking the maximum number of links can mean getting links from sites unrelated to your industry or content.
- Over-optimization: Overusing keyword anchor text is more likely to trigger a penalty. Google favors natural, contextual, and varied anchor text.
- Higher maintenance: Links gained through active outreach may come and go more frequently, requiring constant work to maintain or replace lost links.
- Less sustainable long-term: As Google’s algorithms get better at assessing links, lower-quality links could ultimately hurt you if not built carefully.
Now let’s compare the SEO impact and sustainability of focusing on content and link earning tactics instead.
SEO Value of Link Earning
Link earning takes patience, but high-quality content can continue paying dividends over months and years. Here are some of the advantages:
- Links from higher authority sites: Influential sites in your industry are naturally more likely to link to your content if it offers unique value.
- Improved trust and authority: Google trusts sites more when they earn links organically, rather than building template outreach emails.
- Contextual anchor text: Links earned through assets like data studies or tools often use your brand name as anchor text, which Google views favorably.
- Ongoing value: Evergreen, useful content can continue to earn new links over time with less effort required.
- Lower risk: There is little risk of penalty, as you are earning links passively through assets people actually want to reference.
- Brand visibility: PR and influencer outreach focuses on brand exposure over link metrics, which indirectly drives more organic links.
The data also supports the power of link earning for long-term SEO gains:
- One study found sites that rely on link earning have 50% more search traffic on average.
- Brand mentions (a signal of link earning) have a strong correlation with higher rankings.
- SEMrush data shows top ranking pages have way more branded anchor text compared to middle or bottom rankings.
So while actively built links give a quick boost, brands focused on link earning tend to outperform over the long run. Next we’ll dig into some examples of earning high-quality links.
Link Earning in Action
Here are a few real examples of how top brands have earned high-value links through compelling content and outreach:
Help a Reporter Out (HARO)
HARO is a free service that connects journalists with expert sources for news stories. By becoming a source, you can get links and mentions from major publications. For example, this Huffington Post article features a quote and link to an SEO expert source found through HARO.
Influence & Company (KISSmetrics)
Analytics company KISSmetrics used influencer marketing to get links and references from people like entrepreneur Neil Patel. Identify relevant influencers and offer them free access to your product in exchange for reviews.
Surveys & Studies
Data can earn links and press coverage. This survey from SEMrush was referenced by reputable sites like Social Media Today and JeffBullas.com. Consider teaming up with an influencer on a co-branded data study.
Resources & Tools
Links frequently get placed on “best of” lists of resources. Moz built an influential tool called Keyword Explorer that gets referenced on sites like HubSpot and Backlinko. Create resources that people in your niche naturally want to link to.
Sites link to or mention sponsors of events and organizations. This page links to Alphabet as a sponsor of the New York Times Local Innovation Tour. Pursue sponsorships of industry events, publications, and non-profit orgs.
So in summary, link earning relies on distinctive, newsworthy content that sites naturally want to reference. Next, we’ll look at how to integrate link building and earning together.
A Balanced Approach
To summarize so far:
- Link building can give fast SEO results but carries more risk.
- Link earning is more sustainable but requires patience.
So what’s the best overall strategy?
A balanced approach is likely optimal, where you focus on earning links through great content, PR, influencers, and resources, but also pursue some link building.
Here are some tips for combining both methods:
- Use link building on top of a solid base of earned links. Don’t overly rely on low-quality link building or risk penalties.
- Focus link building efforts on securing links from high authority sites, so they enhance your earned links. Avoid manipulative tactics and low-quality domains.
- Diversify anchor text through a mix of earned brand name links and some targeted keywords via link building. Don’t over-optimize anchor text.
- Use link building for short term goal achievement, like ranking for an important keyword. But maintain focus on long term link earning assets.
- Build geographic and industry specific links through outreach, but earn more general brand visibility links organically.
- Limit use of paid links to reputable sites like sponsored posts on authoritative blogs. Avoid buying bulk links.
In summary, link building and link earning each have their purposes. Like any SEO tactic, you want to avoid overdoing either approach. The brands ranking #1 tend to blend both methods strategically over the long term.
Link Building and Link Earning: Conclusions
Generating backlinks remains one of the most important ranking factors that SEOs must master. But the days of solely chasing link metrics are gone.
Google’s updates have made trust, authority and relevance the key factors for earning links that truly impact search visibility. As their algorithms continue improving, low-quality link building provides diminishing returns over time.
That’s why seasoned SEOs focus their efforts on creative link earning strategies through compelling content, brand awareness, and resources people want to naturally reference. Links earned this way are more sustainable and hold more value.
But modest link building still serves a purpose when done strategically. The brands consistently ranking #1 use a balanced mix of actively building links for short term wins while also earning authoritative links over the long haul through valuable assets.
If you’re unsure where to get started, focus first on auditing your existing links and content. Identify strengths you can build upon and gaps you need to fill with unique, highly shareable content. Maintain patience, as high-quality link earning takes time. But the long term SEO gains are well worth the effort.