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The truth about link building for SMBs: 6 myths and misconceptions

Author: Debbie Chew

A graphic representation of three web pages and a link icon, with an image of author Debbie Chew in the bottom-left corner.

The link building process can play a huge role in helping your business increase its visibility to potential customers. For example, guest posting can introduce your product or solution to people who have never heard of your business. If your guest post is on an authoritative site and it includes a link to an important page on your site, this link can improve your rankings for certain keywords.

Link building is the most misunderstood of the three pillars of SEO (the other two pillars being content and technical), which means it’s often overlooked as an opportunity to get more value from your content. In this article, I’ll address some of the most common myths and misconceptions about link building, including:

01. You don’t need to build links

This is the link building myth I see the most often. It exists because of the notion that if you write good content, links will naturally start flowing in.

The reality is that good content, on its own, doesn’t always attract links. If you check a website’s backlink profile, you’ll typically find that most of their backlinks point to a small number of pages. Here’s what Dialpad’s backlink profile looks like:

A bar chart that shows that a few pages on a site get the majority of referring domains.
Of Dialpad’s top 100 URLs with the most referring domains, the number of referring domains to the top five pages make up 54.9% of the total referring domains.

Website content can take many forms: videos, e-books, podcasts, blog posts, webinars, and more. Let’s look at blog posts, in particular, as there are many different types that you can write and some are more “link-worthy” than others. You might write:

For the type of content listed above, your main goal usually isn’t to build links. Insead, it may be to increase traffic, drive conversions, or go viral. It’s generally going to be more difficult to naturally attract backlinks to those types of posts compared to the following types of content, which are much more link-worthy:

Suppose you own a business specializing in pastries for pets and publish content that ranks No. 1 for “dog cake recipes” without any active link building. A competitor then publishes content for the same keyword. Despite having similar content quality, Google decides your competitor’s page should now rank No.1, and you see a loss in traffic. The search engine results pages (SERPs) change all the time and there’s nothing stopping your competitors from outranking you for the same keywords (just as there isn’t anything preventing you from outranking them).

This is where link building can be extremely valuable. Assuming that you’re able to earn backlinks from sites that are trustworthy and relevant to your industry, these links can help defend your “content moat,” making it difficult for competing businesses to hinder your rankings.

Remember, Google’s goal is to “return the results we believe are the highest quality and most relevant to the user.” To determine this, it looks at a variety of factors, including links to pages. When authoritative sites link to your content, these are positive signals to Google about your content’s quality.

02. Link building is spam

One reason why link building has become increasingly difficult is because some link builders still send low-quality outreach emails. These are sent en masse in hopes that someone will say “yes” to their offer.

Many in the SEO industry are fed up with getting these types of emails, and this has caused link building to become synonymous with spam. These solicitations often provide little to no value for the receiver—sometimes, they even get caught by the spam filter.

Email from a link builder that Gmail suspects is spam.

Beyond spammy emails, there are spammy and manipulative link building tactics. Google describes these as link schemes, which are essentially trying to “fool” the algorithm into thinking that a website received legitimate backlinks.

PBNs, or private blog networks, are a good example of this. This type of scheme involves a group of websites created to generate high volumes of backlinks that point to a specific site, in an effort to inflate that site’s rankings. Generally speaking, PBNs and their content are not made for humans, but to confuse search engines.

Google actively tries to fight against this and other spammy tactics, like mass link exchanges, comment/forum spam, or any other link building tactic that makes a website seem like more of an authority than it really is.

With that said, not all link building tactics are spam.

There are ways to get links without begging for them or engaging in a link scheme. For example, you can sign up to be a source for free services like HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and Help a B2B Writer. Journalists and writers use these platforms to find business owners and subject matter experts to provide a story or quote.

If what you submit gets included in a writer’s article, you may be able to get a backlink for providing your input.

03. Link building is as simple as paying for links

Link building is becoming more competitive. One Twitter poll, conducted by Australian SEO consultant Brodie Clark, found that 58.7% of SEOs consider “link acquisition” to be the most challenging area of SEO.

A Twitter poll with 755 votes found that 58.7% believe that link acquisition is the most challenging area of SEO.

Since link building can be very time-consuming, it's tempting to just buy “100 links for $5” or a “dofollow link from [insert news publication here].” This is a very risky way of getting links—not to mention the quality of those links may be poor and have little to no impact on your rankings.

If we refer to the Google guidelines mentioned earlier, “buying or selling links that pass PageRank” are another type of link scheme and are considered a violation.

Link buying can result in a manual action, which refers to when Google decides that certain pages of your website (or the entire domain) aren’t compliant with its webmaster guidelines and will thus either rank the content poorly or not show it in the SERPs at all. The time and resources that it would take to recover from a manual action may end up being several times more than how much the paid backlinks cost you.

For the most part, the best links out there can’t be bought—they need to be earned. Instead of buying links, use those funds to create link-worthy content for your business.

04. When link prospecting, DA/DR are the only metrics to look at

Emails trying to sell you “high DA” or “high DR” links can make it seem like DA (Domain Authority) or DR (Domain Rating) are the main metrics to pay attention to when building links. So, what exactly are DA and DR?

DA, or Domain Authority, is a score from 1–100 developed by Moz “that predicts how likely a website is to rank,” based on data from their Link Explorer web index. DR, or Domain Rating, ranges from 0–100 and is a metric that Ahrefs created that​​ can be used to compare the strength of different websites' backlink profiles. Metrics like these try to emulate how a search engine perceives a website’s authority.

The key thing to remember here is that these are not metrics created, used, or endorsed by Google.

“From my point of view, I would tend not to focus on the total number of links to your site, or the total number of domain links to your website, because we look at links in a very different way ... We try to understand what is relevant for a website, how much should we weigh these individual links, and the total number of links doesn’t matter at all.” — John Mueller, search advocate at Google (SEJ, Southern, 2021)

These metrics are not perfect. There may be ways to manipulate DA/DR scores and they don’t factor in relevance.

In essence, having high DA/DR doesn’t guarantee anything.

Also, if you solely focus on links from “high DA/DR” sites, you’re going to miss out on lots of great link building opportunities. High authority sites already get tons of emails asking for links—just ask a journalist from any well-known publication.

On the other hand, there are niche industry sites that may be more relevant to your business and customers. For example, if you’re a cycling brand, a backlink from an industry publication like Pinkbike might be more meaningful for your rankings and your traffic than a backlink from a more general hobby-focused publication. Not only might it be easier to get a backlink from them, their topical relevance is also a positive sign to Google.

When prospecting your opportunities, keep in mind that DA/DR are only domain-level metrics. You should also check whether or not the site looks spammy (which may be a sign that it’s part of a PBN, but is also generally a red flag for users). Depending on the goal of your link building, you should also consider other metrics, such as:

  • Traffic to site/page

  • Relevance of the site/page

  • Keywords the page ranks for

  • Quality of links to the page

05. Link building is the same as digital PR

Both link building and digital PR require email outreach and relationship building. Engaging in either activity can help you position your business as an authority or gain backlinks. However, while digital PR is one way of getting links, it’s not the same as link building.

Venn diagram with link building as the left circle and digital PR on the right.

Link building is an important part of SEO, whereas digital PR (similar to traditional PR) is more focused on brand awareness. One of the biggest differentiators is how SEOs and digital PRs measure success.

For SEO, the goal is to help pages rank well for certain keywords and drive traffic to the site, which should ultimately help the business generate revenue. Link building focuses on getting links that will help reach these goals, so building links to certain “money pages” on the website may be prioritized.

On the other hand, digital PR focuses on increasing your business’s exposure. Getting featured in a high authority publication, even if the link is nofollow and doesn’t pass PageRank, is seen as a win.

Also, link builders and digital PRs tend to outreach to different groups of people. Digital PRs focus more on pitching stories to journalists, whereas a lot of link building is focused on getting backlinks from relevant sites—this can include news publications but is not a top priority.

06. Building links too fast is bad for SEO

Some (outdated) link building guides may talk about watching your link velocity (the speed at which you build links) and caution against building links too quickly to avoid a manual action or an eventual drop in rankings.

This misconception is rooted in trying to make sure that Google doesn’t think that you’re engaging in shady link building tactics.

But, what if your business hits the jackpot and publishes an amazing piece of link-worthy content that people can’t help but want to link to? Do you really need to worry about “getting on Google’s radar” for gaining a particular threshold of links in a short period of time? The answer is no, you don’t.

“It is not so much the number of links that you’re building in the short period of time. It's really just a matter that you're probably building links in a way that would not align with our webmaster guidelines.” — John Mueller, search advocate at Google, (English Google Webmaster Central office-hours, November 1, 2019)

So unless you created (or bought) a bunch of unnatural links, you don’t need to worry about building links too quickly—after all, it’s highly unlikely that publications like The New York Times worry about how many backlinks their articles attract when they go live. And, because link building is inherently difficult, it’s unlikely that you will build legitimate links “too quickly.”

Separating fact from fiction

To avoid falling victim to link building misconceptions, it’s essential that you understand how Google uses backlinks and what Google has said about them.

At the end of the day, it may be tempting to seek an artificial advantage by buying links, for example. But, these illicit tactics don’t stand the test of time and, sooner or later, you’re likely to get caught, which can be a serious setback for your business.

That having been said, link building is a powerful tool in your SEO toolkit, but many businesses don’t focus on this area of SEO at all.

Don’t just rely on passively earning a few links—incorporate link building into your overall SEO strategy to build and maintain your competitiveness in the SERPs, especially for your revenue-driving keywords.


Debbie Chew

Debbie Chew is an SEO Manager at Dialpad with over 8 years of experience in digital marketing. She specializes in content and link building, and is passionate about sharing her learnings with other marketers. Twitter | Linkedin


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