Stop Link Building and Start Content Marketing (for Real)

Link building is dead!

Just kidding.

But here’s the honest truth. Google does not like link builders, and it never has. Since time immemorial, Google’s guidelines have warned us that you should use any SEO strategy unless it would actually make sense in the absence of Google.

Put simply, Google wants you to pretend they don’t exist.

While that is pretty much impossible, especially for any marketer with even a little bit of SEO knowledge, it’s an important point to understand if you want to stay in Google’s good graces. And considering that Google has a virtual monopoly on search, staying in their good graces is kind of important.

That’s why I’ve always said you shouldn’t build a link unless a no-follow wouldn’t stop you from building it. Anything else means you’re building links specifically for SEO, with no other benefits whatsoever. That’s bad not just because it goes against Google’s terms of service, but because it’s a waste of resources and it doesn’t advantage of everything a link is worth.

But today, I’m going to come out and say it. “Link building” is a dirty word. Google is penalizing SEOs who thought they were totally above board when they used sites like My Blog Guest to build links. Google will continue to penalize SEOs who continue to view link building merely as a way to grow search engine traffic.

It’s only going to get stricter. I hope you realize that.

And that’s why I think we need to change our tune a bit. It’s time to stop thinking like link builders, and time to start acting like content marketers.

Let’s start with this.

Most SEOs Think They’re Content Marketers, But Most Aren’t

The fact that your SEO is built around “great content” doesn’t mean you’re a content marketer.

Just because you only post on “high quality,” “relevant” sites, you’re not a content marketer.

Even saying that your content “solves problems for users” or that it’s written “for people, not search engines,” doesn’t mean that you are a content marketer.

Here’s how you can tell if you’re a content marketer. Ask yourself, would this make money if it weren’t for Google?

I realize I’m sort of on repeat here, but this is what so many self-proclaimed “content marketers” seem to miss. A content marketer who needs Google’s help in order to turn a profit is not a content marketer. They are an SEO, plain and simple.

Just to be clear, I think the sweet spot in digital marketing is the intersection between content marketing and SEO. I’m not talking down on SEO. I was “raised” on SEO, and I love it. But it’s disingenuous to call what you’re doing content marketing if it needs search engines to stay afloat. And to me, it also means you’re missing out on massive opportunities.

Here are a few things you need to do in order to fully embrace content marketing, as opposed to content-driven SEO:

  • Retain an audience of repeat visitors who are:
    • gradually persuaded to buy your products
    • kept at attention until the need for your product arises
    • persuaded to remain customers who will continue to buy from you

This is the value of genuine content marketing. Content marketing does not exist to capture demand. It exists to create or maintain demand. There is a very big difference between the two.

  • Expand your reach through social sharing. This isn’t limited to social networks, and it can include sharing through email, instant messengers, or face to face meetings. The point is, a good content marketer devotes at least some of their time to producing content that will get shared and put you in front of more people.
  • Allow you to appear on popular, relevant platforms. Since people increasingly pay less attention to overt marketing such as advertisements, content marketing is becoming more attractive as a way to put yourself in front of people on the platforms they care about. Guest posting is one way to do this, but it isn’t the only way.
  • Earn the attention of influential people. I use the words “influential” and “influencer” liberally. I’m not necessarily talking about the Seth Godins of the world. I’m talking about people who more influential than average in their communities, online and offline. Even a blogger with a smaller audience than yours can and should be considered an “influencer” if they can put you in touch with a fair number of potential customers.
  • Persuade your audience to take action without putting them off or alienating them.

Not every piece of content you produce needs to do all of these in order for you to count yourself as a content marketer. But virtually everything you produce should accomplish at least one of these.

Overall you should have all five of these goals in mind if you want to succeed in ways that SEO alone can’t.

So, let’s talk about how to make this happen.

1. Retain an Audience

Audience retention is the most obvious difference between pure SEO and genuine content marketing, and also one of the hardest to accomplish. You can attract millions of visits, but if none of them come back, your long term prospects aren’t too promising.

So, the first thing to stress here is email.

I know social media is hot right now, and we’re going to get to that, but it’s actually pretty terrible as an audience retention platform. You may have heard about how Facebook is down to an average of about 6 percent of your audience now. Well, actually, that’s down to just 3 percent according to some reports.

Meanwhile, the average email list has more than a 20 percent open rate. And let’s be fair, here. Those are just the people who opened the emails. Plenty more of them, probably most of them, at least saw the email subject line. With Facebook, we’re saying that literally only 3 to 6 percent of them even see the post on average.

Don’t get me wrong. You can do much better than 6 percent reach on Facebook (in fact, you can do much better than 100 percent as we’ll soon see), but only if you focus almost exclusively on producing content that people will share.

I want to make this clear. Shareable content is not the same thing as content that retains an audience. You can get plenty of content shared without ever getting any true fans, without giving users anything genuinely helpful, and without doing anything to improve customer lifetime value.

So, to reiterate, email is the channel to keep an audience.

And that means you need to start putting those email signup forms where people will see them. Put them at the top and bottom of your blog posts, and in your sidebar. You may even want to consider using pop-ups (preferably the ones that don’t interrupt the user). It’s just that important to have an email list.

You also need to give people a reason to sign up for your email list, like an eBook, a free trial, a tool, a 30 day challenge, a video, or something else valuable. The whole idea is that giving away your email address is psychologically equivalent to opening up your wallet. You want to offer them something that at least some people would actually be willing to spend money on. Otherwise, your signup rates are most likely going to be abysmal.

Of course, there’s more to audience retention than email. I just like to focus on it because it’s the one thing you can change that makes the most difference.

On top of that, you need to:

  • Write with a specific audience (or audiences if you’re segmenting your list) in mind. It’s important to focus on the audience before the topic. If you focus specifically on the topic, you’re going to end up writing in order to impress experts in the topic, instead of to help your audience solve its problems and accomplish its goals.
  • Keep in mind that the honest truth is that every time you send out an email, some people will unsubscribe. The important thing to realize is that if you look at your metrics, you will almost certainly discover that people unsubscribe faster if you only send commercial updates, and that the people who actually end up buying anything are also the people who open the most emails. The purpose of your content is to get a certain portion of your audience to trust you more and more over time. Another portion of your audience will always want to unsubscribe – and they might do it any time in the course of your relationship.
  • Be solution-centric. Sending out emails to entertain will rarely translate into increased customer value, and unless you are a very good entertainer, it will probably eventually lead to unsubscriptions. Your content will be much more memorable if it actually convinces people to take an action that makes their life better in some way. It’s also important to build this habit of expecting actions out of your audience, not just eyeballs. The last thing you want is an audience that feels entitled to receiving things without giving anything on their behalf.
  • Avoid posting generic advice or anything that your target audience would find obvious. Counterintuitive advice is more interesting as well as more helpful. If what you’re saying is obvious, stress that you know it’s obvious and make the point that it’s about inspiring people to do what they already know they need to do.
  • Back up what you say with personal experience, anecdotes, data, expert opinion, logic, and emotion. Keep in mind that people typically act based on emotions and stories, but that they justify or reinforce those actions based on data, expert opinion, and logic. It’s important to find the right combination for your specific audience.

To reiterate, audience retention is one of the most important things content marketing does, and the most important thing you can do to retain an audience is to consistently get them to take actions that will make their lives better.

It’s not about consuming content, it’s about doing. This is what creates the greatest impact, makes you the most memorable, and keeps you subscribed. It’s why an audience would need your content in their inbox, as opposed to simply wanting it to be there.

2. Get Shared

As I said earlier, social networks are terrible as a platform for retaining an audience, because the average reach is so low. If that’s the case, why do social networks matter at all?

The answer is that even though average reach is low, social sharing can dramatically increase your reach.

Let me just show you.

Here’s the kind of thing you’ve probably seen in your Facebook feed:


And here’s what posts like this can do to your reach on Facebook:

See? Even though this Facebook Page has about 926,000 Likes, about 5.5 million people have left a comment, or Liked or shared a post from the Page. That means that their reach is an absolute bare minimum of 490 percent, and is almost certainly much, much higher than that.

Results like this also aren’t at all uncommon. In fact, there is almost certain a post in your own Facebook feed right now from a Page like this.

Pages like these are successful because Facebook’s algorithm is utterly unrelated to their success. They reach people because friends share their posts directly with friends, not because Facebook decided to organically show the post to anybody in particular.

There are two lessons here:

  • Social networks can be a great place to expand your reach if you focus on creating shareable content
  • Shareability almost certainly comes with a tradeoff, because shareable content is rarely exceptionally relevant to your core audience

You need to find the balance between shareability and relevance in order to use social networks to expand your reach. Here are a few things to keep in mind about shareability:

  • Shareable content is almost always bite-size and visual. While your blog posts can get shared, it’s not the kind of content that will get you the most reach. Images, especially captioned images, tend to do better than almost anything else. Videos can also do very well, especially now that they play automatically on Facebook.
  • Humor is huge. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find a heavily shared piece of content that isn’t at least a little bit funny.
  • Inspirational messages are important, especially if they help the sharer assert their values about something they care about to others.
  • Heavily shared posts are usually relatable in some way.
  • When they aren’t relatable, they are usually the exact opposite, meaning that they are very novel, unusual, or surprising.
  • Pages like I F*cking Love Science owe their success to their ability to inspire awe, which research by Jonah Berger has shown is one of the most shareable emotions. An awe-inspiring post actually changes the way people see something be reframing it in a new way.
  • As you are probably well aware, cute images tend to get shared frequently.
  • Actionable posts also tend to do better than usual.

You will almost certainly need to tone down some of the shareable elements in order to keep your posts relevant enough that people would actually click through to visit your site, but it’s important to understand why content gets shared.

For a double dose of shareability, embed your social posts inside of your blog posts. That way, you can at least ensure that your existing audience sees the social posts, which they will be more likely to share than the blog post itself. This is a smarter move than counting on Facebook or Twitter to show your posts to an initial audience.

3. Get on Popular, Relevant Platforms

Content is your gateway to visibility on the most popular platforms for your target audience. A few examples:

  • Guest posts, obviously, can put you in front of massive, relevant audiences. Rather than go in depth on that subject, I’d rather just point you to what we’ve said about it at Moz.
  • YouTube is one of my favorites. The great thing about this platform is the way that it’s designed to guide users through the archives to discover new videos. At least according to our metrics, traffic from YouTube also tends to stay on your site for much longer than referrals from most places. Another great thing about it is the fact that when you embed your YouTube videos on your site, you can boost your view count and other behavior metrics, so that your videos will take higher priority on YouTube, creating a virtuous cycle of exposure.
  • Infographics, obviously, are a good way to get featured on a large number of sites.
  • For reasons similar to YouTube, SlideShare is a good site to get involved with, especially if you’re in the B2B sector.
  • Podcasts are still a great place to earn a repeat audience, and they allow your audience to feel close to you in a way that isn’t possible with most other mediums. If you launch with enough positive reviews, you can get listed in their new and notable section, which can put you in front of a larger audience.
  • Interviews with popular bloggers, YouTubers, or podcasters are another great way to put you in front of new people.
  • Forums are still amazing, even if they seem old school. The same goes for Quora, and similar communities, like the ones on Google+. The crucial thing about these kinds of communities is the fact that they are for conversations about specific subjects, as opposed to social media which is a free for all.
  • Social bookmarking sites like Reddit and Pinterest can send massive amounts of traffic if enough people vote for your content. However, with both platforms, it’s important to remember that you can’t simply post your own links, since this is frowned upon, and can actually get you banned.

4. Connect With Influencers

Content is a good way to get in touch with influencers, who can be instrumental in creating top-notch content.

When it comes to guest posting, the reasons why are obvious. If you produce a good piece of content for a guest post, an influencer is more likely to accept it. It’s that simple.

Content is also crucial during outreach. When you email influencers, with the hope that they will share your content at some point, it’s important to have something to show them that will actually impress them. If you don’t, they probably won’t take you very seriously, even if you aren’t initially reaching out with a guest post.

Staying in touch with influencers is also a great way to spice up your content. The conversations that you have can be a good starting point, and can offer insights that you wouldn’t be able to arrive at on your own. People can also relate to conversations and stories better than they can relate to you standing on your soapbox. This is one reason why podcasts and interviews do so well: they allow for conversation.

Even a brief quote from a conversation you had with an influencer can make your content more interesting.

It’s also important to realize that it’s not always about appearing on an influencer’s platform. Inviting them to do something on your platform can be equally valuable. If an influencer joins you in a podcast, writes a guest post for your blog, or agrees to a little Q&A for your site, it livens up your content, makes you appear more authoritative, and the influencer will most likely be willing to share the result with their audience.

Other influencers and visitors will also be more likely to share your content if it features an influencer.

5. Persuade Your Audience

Content marketing isn’t worth much if it doesn’t eventually result in some kind of financial benefit. This is why persuasion is an important part of the process, even if it isn’t as central as it would be in more traditional marketing.

To a certain degree, all of the content that you publish is persuasion, since at the very least it has the goal of building trust. However, you need to push things a little further every once in a while in order to get visitors to take that next step.

Here are a few pointers:

  • As I mentioned earlier, almost all of your content, at least your in-depth content, should have the goal of getting the viewer to take an action. As I said, this is important because it has more of an impact on the reader and makes the experience more memorable. But it’s also important because it develops a habit of taking action, as opposed to passively absorbing your content. This means they will be more inclined to act on a purchase as well.
  • It’s important to subtly remind people what you sell every once in a while in the context of your content. You don’t want people to start thinking of you exclusively as a media company. We absorb so much content every day that it’s easy to forget how each site makes its money, or even that it needs to make money in the first place.
  • Punctuate your blog posts and other content with a call to action. While you don’t want to get too salesy, it’s important to “make the ask” within the content itself. Most calls to action outside of the blog post will be completely invisible to most visitors.
  • While the vast majority of your emails should be helpful content, every once in a while you should send a commercial message to your audience.
  • Subtly sell your product within your content. By this I mean talk about the problem that your product solves, as opposed to talking about how awesome your product is. It’s usually smarter to point to faults in the industry and what’s missing from other products (in general, not specific brands), than it is to play yourself up too much. You want to persuade your readers to believe in the problem so that your solution becomes desirable.
  • Keep Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of influence in mind:
    • Reciprocity: The more you give, the more likely they will be willing to give back. This is one of the obvious fundamental principles behind content marketing.
    • Authority: People trust authority figures on relevant subjects more than others. It’s better if there’s no apparent conflict of interest, such as a recommendation from a neutral expert.
    • Social proof: Seeing others use your product as a solution to their problem helps build trust. This is one of the biggest benefits of your comment section.
    • Liking: This is the simple fact that people will be more likely to trust you if they like you and share things in common with you. This is why it’s good to have some personality, even if it means alienating certain potential customers, because it makes you much more appealing to those who are like-minded.
    • Scarcity: The rarer your product is perceived to be, the more desirable it becomes. This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to point out flaws in the industry and what other products are missing.
    • Commitment: Once we commit to something, we aren’t likely to change our mind, because we have an innate desire to be consistent with ourselves. It’s also easier to commit to something in the future than it is to commit to something in the present, and if you make a small commitment to somebody, you’re more likely to feel comfortable making more commitments later. This is why asking people to take actions is so important.


Content marketing is one of the most powerful ways to grow business, but all too often, digital marketers who think they are doing content marketing really aren’t. The smart content marketer has enough knowledge of SEO to leverage their activities in order to reach a larger audience, but they don’t use “content marketing” as a label to hide what is really just SEO link building.

  • Manish Dudharejia is the Founder & CEO of E2M Solutions, a full service digital agency specialized in Website Design & Development, eCommerce, SEO, Content Marketing, and Copywriting.