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a Marketer’s Plea: don’t be afraid to ask for Links

SEOs, content marketers, and online marketers in general have slowly pushed the message that it’s wrong to ask for links. It’s seen as manipulative and unnatural. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

This undermining of links is a two-pronged approach. On one hand, as a community we’re commonly pumping out the message that asking for links is asking for trouble. On the other hand, we’re building the expectation that “links come for free.”

One of my KPIs (key performance indicators) for page/site success remains links, for good reason. A fundamental component of the web, links are extremely valuable in search, brand building, audience exposure, and relationship building.

It’s 2015. We’re beyond link manipulation, right? SEOs and marketers alike realize that short cuts lead to short lived results with echoing consequences. Google’s technology, fueled by every single PhD they can hire, has reached a level where it no longer makes sense to try to dupe the algorithm. Loopholes are being closed, and were never the safe, long term bet to begin with.

None of this means, however, that we should ignore links or that it’s wrong to ask for links. Or even that we should build expectations around links coming in “for free”.

As SEOs – optimization is quite literally in our title – and marketers, we should recognize the value of links and the fact that we’re allowed to promote ourselves. We’re allowed to market why we’re valuable, with an eye toward links. If links are an important piece of online success, then we should be strategically pursuing links.

We don’t have to be blind to the value of links online.

It’s time to ditch the message that we’re not allowed to ask for links. And for the love of Pete, let’s quit with the “links come for free”. We’re marketers; let every other department tell us that our hard work, which results in attention, awareness, and recognition happened “naturally.” We don’t need to start putting ourselves down as well.

The messages that links, an important factor to online success, “shouldn’t be asked for” or “come for free” are particularly insidious messages for a variety of reasons: they play on the fears of the inexperienced, create unrealistic expectations, and serve a top-down economy, which means the rich get richer. Let’s level the playing field.

Links Don’t Come for Free

Let me tell you, as a content marketer with a background in SEO, I haven’t experienced the “create-great-content-get-free-links-build-natural-community” effect. Not even a little bit.

My success as a content marketer has always, always, always been defined by my ability to market my content; not by my ability to create great content and have someone else then recognize my virtue.

Any engagement I’ve built has been due to the hard work of creating value, marketing that value, and pushing for engagement day-over-day.

Don’t get me wrong, in this busy world of unending content, noise, business, and products, it’s absolutely vital to create value, quality, and be deserving of attention. But it’s more important to be great at promoting yourself intelligently and to the right audience.

We should know and recognize that as marketers. We know that creating a great product is fundamental to good marketing but is only the first step. What comes afterwards is the marketing itself.

In this amazing fast-paced world we live in, people are capable of outstanding things, and the competition’s product or service is often great, unique, and valuable as well. I’m often blown away by the sincerity, humanity, intelligence, and capability spread throughout the entire online experience.

It’s precisely the fact such greatness is so widespread that makes promotion so important. My experience in content marketing has taught me that content quality is the foundation of what we do, but marketing is the purpose, the reason, the thing itself. Content is just the vehicle in which we market.

The quality of the content needs to meet expectations. Your content should be adding value to the web in a unique way. But if you’re not marketing what you’re doing, it’s just content and you’re only adding to the noise.

I gauge the success of my own content based upon its ability to complete intended goals:

  • Educate prospects
  • Build loyalty
  • Aid conversions
  • Drive newsletter signups
  • Improve engagement: pages per session, time on page, comments
  • Site amplification: links, shares, mentions

The rub is that none, literally none of these goals are accomplishable without visibility. If I create content and then leave it to the generosity of the webizens to promote it, I’m working with two arms and a leg tied behind my back.

The only leg I have to stand on is the quality of my own content.

I’d much rather be free to promote my own content to its intended audiences and secure key metrics of performance. Links, shares, comments, relationships.

Who better to promote my content than myself? I best understand the value of the content and know which audiences the content will help.

If I’m doing my job and creating quality, unique content with an audience in mind, the result should be something others would actually like to know about. They just need to be shown.

And, because I’m fully aware of the value of links, you can bet that I will have links in mind when I promote my work. I will in fact ask for a link when it makes sense.

As a marketer and an SEO, I should be pursuing links. I should be asking for links. Otherwise, I’m leaving value on the table and working ineffectively.

Google’s Role in the Fear of Links

Of course, online marketers didn’t come up with the idea that “links should come for free” or that “asking for links is manipulative” 100% by ourselves; Google has spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt around links.

Not about the value of links – they’ve clearly stood behind using links in their algorithm to improve the results – but about the pursuit of links. About what is and what is not manipulative and will therefore be punished.

Think about the tactics Google has put on the “do not use for links” list: infographics, guest blogging, widgets, press releases, directories and reciprocal links, just to name a few.

And, to be fair, each of these tactics were widely abused by SEOs at one point or another. But the deeper down the rabbit hole Google went, the more tactics they threatened, the more confusion spread.

Soon the question became “What is safe?” And the answer the community has come up with: nothing.

Simply put, many online marketers looked at the risk vs. reward and felt fear. Fear that they might be punished for any links “built”. Danny Sullivan said it best in a comment on Matt Cutts’ infamous “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO.”

What an eloquent way to sum up the confusion and fear surrounding links.

But Google isn’t against links. You should be building good links that make sense when possible – just don’t do it with the mindset of “how can I manipulate the algorithm?” Instead, seek links that you deserve but can’t control. Ask the people who should be linking to you for links.

Google Isn’t Against Links

Despite the fear Google has instilled in the community, Google never said it’s unnatural to ask for links. Google has never said that it’s manipulative to ask for links.

“The philosophy that we’ve always had is if you make something that’s compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that’s backwards. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result,” Cutts once said. “Their goal should really be to make a fantastic website that people love and tell their friends about and link to and want to experience. As a result, your website starts to become stronger and stronger in the rankings.”

By this model, when we create something of value then we should be allowed to promote it. Part of that promotion would involve “link building”, or asking for links.

Marketing isn’t easy. Marketing takes value, creativity, sweat, intelligence, and trial-and-error. This is all true of building links as well, because link building is really just promotion with a specific goal in mind.

Links aren’t the secret to overnight success. There is no secret to overnight success. When you see something gain success overnight, the reality is those people have been working long and hard to gain success, and you’re just now noticing them. Even quick growth often takes a long time and hard work of foundation building in order to prepare for the growth.

Don’t Believe We’re Not Allowed to Promote for Links

It bothers me that the very community who should be advising others on how to go about links the right way is instead warning against links at all or pretending they come “naturally”.

We as marketers should know the importance of promotion. Everything we do is tied around the idea of promoting your brand, business, products, site, and pages for improved success.

Why then should we ignore a key metric that everyone agrees plays an important role in online success – links?

This is particularly toxic behavior for SEOs. It’s impossible to ignore the importance of links as a professional in search engine optimization. Link strategy should be a core part of your role within your organization.

By all means let’s ensure we’re using best practices and future-safe behavior. Secure real, editorial, deserved links.

But don’t be afraid to ask for links, and certainly don’t believe that you can “earn links for free.”

By Cory Collins