Several top SEO specialists have written about link earning vs link building as if the two concepts are fundamentally different, but we see them as two sides of the same coin.
"Link earning" includes the most up-to-date set of industry best practices that are intended to withstand the test of time, whereas most experts understand "link building" as a set of practices that risk becoming liabilities in the future.
Backlinks are just like citations in a formal scientific study. These links provide electronic trails of information for credibility, and it shows. Sites that earn links from relevant and authoritative sources see far more traffic than those that don't.
Quality links are essentially citations, but many have forgotten the importance of high-quality inbound links. Writers could get away without earning high-quality back links (votes) at the time, but poor-quality links can actually hurt your domain today. That's why every business with a website needs to understand what's at stake.
I heard about this from Rand Fishkin in 2012, in his Whiteboard Friday Series: The Death of Link Building and the Rebirth of Link Earning.
Read it (or watch it) and you'll see that the practices define link earning from link building.
Link Earning vs Link Building: Is There Really a Difference?
Link earning and link building share the same fundamental goal. Search engines like Google were always meant to display the most relevant and shared articles. The team at Google knew what it was doing when it awarded points to a page's rank based on links. That was called link building back in the day.
What Went Wrong?
Simply put, businesses found the most cost-effective way to rise in search rankings, but those practices don't hold up today.
Anyone who remembers websites in the early 2000s may remember the maligned practices from the time. This example excludes other bad practices from that time, such as keyword stuffing, to keep things simple.
A client has a website. He wants to be on the first page of the three major search engines (as always), so he hires an SEO professional. A good SEO would tell the client to invest in creating valuable content that industry authorities will reference. However, it was simply more economical for businesses to use artificial directories and other short-lived tactics.
From Earning to Building: The Turning Point
Search engines favoured websites that utilized low-quality backlinks, which forced other businesses to adopt the same practices simply to maintain their search rankings. It was an unsustainable race to the bottom.
These companies may have even offered the client "inside information" on services that would sell links with high authority for immediate ranking results. Webmasters also had a big influence on this trend at the time.
Clients like this one saw a cheaper and faster way to land on the first page in search engines, forcing many SEOs to follow this method in order to keep business.
Thousands of directories, forums, and link services existed for this purpose. Some even created satellite sites and link farms that would point links to the client site. It was like a major oil spill, and the whole industry was involved.
What began as an honest strategy to build a good online profile became a set of bad practices that saturated the web with links that lacked value. "Link building" became synonymous with "paid links," which proved detrimental in the long run. That's where link building earned its bad reputation.
From Chaos to Control: Google Algorithms
As early as 2005, when I met Eric Ward (RIP) in the SES in Chicago, he addressed the issue of link building. Search engines had to do something to solve their poor results, which threatened their core business. Things got so bad that search engines actually picked up "gibberish" content that simply featured numerous outbound links.
Paid links and link farms compounded the problem, but these seemed like small details at the time. Businesses were ranking well in search engines, and they had the website traffic to prove it.
At this point, Google had surpassed Yahoo and MSN as the leader in search, and began addressing the problem of low-quality link building in various video statements. Google would reference the importance of natural links on a weekly basis. Earning links from reputable sources became the new norm.
And Google Danced
Starting with the Florida Dance in 2003, Vince in 2009, and then Penguin and Panda in 2011, Google decided to act. It solved the link-building issue one update at a time.
Google launched the EMD Update in 2012 as a filter to prevent poor quality sites from appearing well simply due to the domain name, and then Penguin systematically penalized websites with paid (disingenuous) links.
Returning to the Roots with Link Earning
With Google's new updates in play, the road to recovery on the search side was well underway. On the client side, those who eliminated their bad links saw improved results.
Huge numbers of non-compliant sites lost their coveted search rankings. Backlink analysis tools became hot because SEOs needed to vet their clients' sites for poor links and disavow them. This left "link earning" as the only viable option to build link authority.
The industry abandoned the phrase "link building" in favour of "link earning," and focused on implementing best practices that wouldn't turn against webmasters with the next Google update.
Understanding the difference between link building and link earning has become instrumental in establishing legitimate and stable traffic for any website.
Link Earning Equals Best Practices
History aside, earning links just refers to the best practices that were intended from the moment search engines were invented. Earning links requires more effort than buying cheap ones, but it brings significant domain authority and long-term stability.
Focus on writing on issues relevant to your industry where you can contribute helpful information. There will be people interested in your content no matter the subject. Promote your content in the right place and you will earn links in time. You just won't know where or how those links will appear until you earn them.
Do not write for "virality." It's great when your post builds momentum, but you can't assume it will happen. Just be helpful and choose your keywords strategically.
How to Practice Sustainable Link Earning
Earning worthile back links means building relationships with the influencers in your industry. Always use these best practices to improve your chances of a successful share.
- Reach out to industry influencers directly to offer the information or insights in your content, and ask for feedback.
- Incorporate influencers' ideas into your own content, like an infographic.
- Research your content thoroughly if you want others to share it. The facts and data need to be air-tight.
- Build on what others have contributed to continue the conversation with the people you hope will share your content.
Reaching out to people directly and is the most reliable approach to earn links. If your prospects like your content, then you could be in luck. I will let Rand know about this post—he might even share it. Just follow the guidelines and you'll hit on the best way to earn real, valuable links.