Content Alone Can’t Build Links

by Bill Sebald  |  Published 9:00 AM, Mon July 7, 2014

Last week I went in for a pitch at a fairly large and sophisticated company. Our first request: “Tell us about your goals and KPIs.” Through this, we learned about the company’s current investment into a content strategy—hundreds of pieces a year—but found out it wasn’t doing much to draw search traffic.

We’re very much a full-gamut SEO consulting company, so this led us into touching on the three pillars—technical, contextual, and link building.

On the technical side, we discussed possible crawl issues. On the contextual side, we discussed helping shape the current strategy direction with search data and personas, and finding new untapped avenues.

But it was the link building discussion that really intrigued them.

After finding out what some of their most popular content assets were in social, we quickly pulled data to look for correlations in search metrics.

We found virtually no links to this otherwise successful content. This content may have been well thought out, well written, and even optimized in traditional SEO ways, but it simply didn’t take (organically speaking). It didn’t matter that this was a fairly well established brand, with a big content investment—they have not been able to get their signal through the noise.

Cognitive SEO backlinks

This graph is from Cognitive SEO using their Visual Link Explorer. It’s an amazing tool for getting snapshot link data.

The two large clusters are the homepage, one with www, and one without. The medium cluster is a product page that had gotten quite a bit of attention all by itself—unfortunately, an isolated case. The rest of the top tier clusters are collection pages, while the bottom rows are the specific content pieces.

We didn’t have enough time to understand how well the content is converting as a standalone or through other channels, but from an SEO point of view, this was still a wake-up call for everyone in the room.

Shouting From The Rooftops

I don’t like the phrase “content is king.” I find it more than a bit vague without serving as actionable advice. SEO is a household name now. Unless they’re a new business or not interested in competing in search, every company is creating content because they have read this adage ad nauseam. I’ve seen some of the five-dollar services crank out fair copy, though in bulk, I believe it’s really just adding to the noise at this point.

Fair-quality copy is becoming the new Google spam.

Let me get on my soapbox a moment—I believe it’s time to move on and fully accept that even the best content needs to be amplified and promoted. SEOs should be pushing these assets, and not expecting it to rise magically. It’s part of the SEO role now.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some big-brand retailers who created resource centers, buying guides, and blog-type sections, only to see nobody notice. If you’re nodding along with this concept wondering why I’m even bringing it up, it’s because I routinely speak with SEOs who don’t necessarily think to do this.

Many SEOs have the “build it, and they will come” opinion. But I’m learning this is no longer a field of dreams. At least, not anymore.


I can’t help thinking of it like a boardwalk. Complete chaos. During summer, in the evening, when all you see is neon signs and roller coasters cutting through the night sky, you’re bombarded with vendors trying to get your attention.

From carnies yelling at you with megaphones, to loud dance music pumping out of clothing stores, your senses are definitely assaulted. You quickly start turning a blind eye to the commotion, much like the blindness that occurs with online marketing.

If you’re truly the best pizza restaurant on a three-mile boardwalk, how can you get the attention of the strolling vacationers and their disposable income? I’ve been to the pizzerias on these boardwalks more than 100 times—from Mack’s to Sam’s to Fanconi’s to Grotto’s—and I still can’t tell them apart.

So what does an SEO do when fighting a tide of “good content” competition? I think the next logical step is taking a page from the PR book—outreach and promotion—and making that part of the SEO offering.

The Plan

If the site already has strong content that simply isn’t performing well in search, I see this as low-hanging fruit. It’s now just a matter of a targeted outreach campaign.

  1. The first step is identifying the assets. What does the website have already, from posts to interactive pieces? Did they recently do a webinar? Did their CEO speak somewhere and say something interesting? Collect everything in a spreadsheet. Identify what is interesting and who would find this valuable. Include all items that can help you make good selections.


  2. Tweak as needed. Through the exercise above, you may notice content that could use a little bit of an added spin. There’s nothing wrong with putting out a content piece that’s inspired by another content piece. You just want to keep the topics unique enough for a search engine. Use your judgment.
  3. Collect your targets. Use everything at your disposal, from Followerwonk to Buzzsumo, to Blogdash to Topsy, to all the search operators you’ve learned in the last ten years. ISOOSI has a great post by Rob Woods about press outreach.
  4. Organize your prospects by your metric of choice. I like Buzzstream for this, while URLprofiler can help speed this up as well. Import your links and let one of these tools pull the metrics. Got one with a high PR or DA? Put that higher on your hit list. These days, it’s definitely about quality over quantity.
  5. Pitch. For this, I prefer one on one emails, which takes time (and makes step #4 above so crucial). Show your prospect you know their business, and really thought about the relationship between your content and their website and visitors. I’m not talking about blasting out a bunch of generic emails here. If you want to win these high-value links, you may need to truly pitch.

A Few Final Thoughts

Link building has definitely been changing more than any other part of SEO. The digital PR concept is interesting—it’s not comfortable for some SEOs, while SEO is not comfortable for many PR firms.

But for those SEOs who want to expand, this style of link building is very much alive, and very powerful. It bridges the content and link building sides of SEO more than ever, while producing big wins.

Case in point: Last year, when we created the Outdated Content Finder, a tool that identifies content by keywords where you know there have been big industry changes, I promoted it heavily.

I reached out to many colleagues who I felt could see value, and asked them for their thoughts. That naturally led to reviews, mentions in link building posts, and write ups in Moz, Search Engine Land, and other trade websites.

I was thrilled sitting in Mozcon last year, and hearing Ross Hudgens from Siege Media give it a shout out. This only happened because I got the ball rolling.

I hope this post got you thinking, and would love to hear your tips, advice, and experiences with digital PR and promotion.


I'm the owner of Greenlane Search Marketing LLC in Philadelphia, PA I tweet and write about search and other shenanigans.

  • ronellsmith

    Great stuff, Bill. Link building/outreach is an area I’m giving a lot more attention to, primarily for the reasons you elucidate. One other thing it does is force content folks–myself included–to create content worth sharing. That makes everyone’s job easier.


  • juliejoyce

    I want a funnel cake now.