There are people who would say that because I’m a link builder, I don’t believe in link earning.

I’m not shy, so you’ll know when I don’t believe in something: trickle down economics, aliens at Area 51, George Clooney’s range as an actor, etc.

But I do believe in link earning. I just don’t believe in how the digital marketing community has come to define it. The typical definition of link earning revolves around the idea that your site/content should be SO good that you don’t even need to promote it. The links will come.

As a link builder, it’s my job to pursue links. I’m here to tell you that asking for a link and earning a link aren’t mutually exclusive. Just because you asked for a link doesn’t mean you didn’t earn that link.

Anytime you build a link that required editorial review before it was published, you effectively earned that link. You earned it because your site has a unique value that merited a link – a vote of confidence from a relevant site with an editorial review process.

Duane Forrester of Bing summed up link earning best when he reviewed his own SEO myths in 2014.

SEO myths in 2014

The principle behind this definition of link earning is a nice sentiment. And hey, more power to you if you’re a recognized brand that can build your link portfolio this way. This is indubitably the ideal scenario for any site owner. But if you’re NOT a recognized brand, however, this version of link earning is highly unrealistic.

Because search algorithms are highly dependent on quality/authoritative backlinks, you’re not going to rank if you don’t have links.

And guess what? If you don’t rank, the primary road that would allow people to find your useful and amazing website, is blockaded for all intents and purposes.

So you can’t be found in organic search unless you have links, and you can’t realistically “earn” links unless people are finding your site. Catch, meet 22.

Of course, link earning is not the only way. In fact, link earning is a relatively new term, as evidenced by this graph from Google Trends.


No one was interested in the phrase “link earning” prior to 2012. So what caused the link earning boom?


The algorithm I’m referring to wasn’t nearly this adorable

I’m an SEO, and I have no qualms admitting to the fact that link building has an unfortunate history. A decade’s worth of spammy, manipulative links prompted Google to create the Penguin algorithm in 2012.

Penguin threw the SEO world into a tizzy. In a relatively short amount of time, link building went from a lucrative practice to something many businesses were wary of.

Of course, there is such a thing as white hat, manual link building. Even in the era when link-spam was at its peak, there were many SEOs who were taking the time and doing the work to build relevant, natural links. Links meant for humans.

At its most rudimentary level, this version of link building involves finding relevant sites and persuading them to link to you through effective outreach. To put it another way, link building is digitized promotion.

So just email site owners of relevant sites and ask them to link to yours. It’s that easy, isn’t it College Gameday analyst Lee Corso?


Not every webmaster is eager to link to you. Indeed, you can count on the fact that an overwhelming majority of them don’t want to link to you.

Not without a good reason anyway.

No (respectable) website links out willy-nilly. Webmasters understand the value of links, and that their audience will judge them on the sites they link out to.

Remember the wildly corrupt former governor of Illinois who was forced to resign in disgrace?

which one

Sorry, I should specify. I mean Rod Blagojevich, the one who tried to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated seat back in 2009. His most famous quote goes something like:

I got this thing and it’s cussin’ golden. I’m just not giving it up for cussin’ nothing.

Yes, that’s the Fantastic Mr. Fox version of that quote. No, it’s not exactly Churchill.

Like Blagojevich, modern webmasters aren’t giving away links for cussin’ nothing.

Unlike Blagojevich, they aren’t asking for bribes. Also unlike Blagojevich, they’re probably not on a list of the ten best Elvis impersonators.

Webmasters don’t want bribes – they want added value to their site.

A website’s popularity is highly dependent on trust. Users want to know:

  • Does this website provide unbiased information?
  • Are the products that this website pushes actually beneficial?

If a website just starts linking to anyone and everyone, it’s a signal to their audience that the website has no editorial integrity. As the trust level subsides, so does the audience.

Quality Assurance is a Two-Way Street

Because webmasters are highly aware of the importance of trust, they’re incredibly careful about who they link to. When you outreach to a site, they’re going to conduct a quality assurance test on you. They’d be foolish not to.

Assuming you’ve done your part to pique the webmaster’s curiosity, that webmaster is actually going to click on that link in your email.


It’s incredibly important that your website is up-to-snuff.

If your website is slow-to-load, generic, and/or has no unique value, be prepared for that webmaster to reject your request.

Let’s do a quick a/b test, shall we?

You have two websites, both of which are devoted to tracking the 2016 presidential race. Both sites have just uploaded content regarding Senator Marco Rubio’s announcement that he is planning to run. The content is of equal quality, raises the same valid points, and reaches the same conclusion (that Rubio’s only shot at winning a general election is if the Supreme Court rules that only the anti-Castro constituency of Miami is allowed to vote).

Website A links to:

These are credible sources. They may offer conflicting ideologies, but they’re undoubtedly trustworthy brands.

Website B links to:


Which site is more likely to earn your trust?

Author note: Last political reference, I promise. I was a Political Science minor, because I didn’t think my Journalism major and my hobby of stand-up comedy would make it hard enough to find a job.

Links are veritable signals of trust, and webmasters understand this.

If a site links to a series of a questionable, spammy sites, their audience is going to believe the site itself is questionable and spammy. A site is only as reputable as the other sites it links to.

So what does all of this mean?

Unless you’re obviously spamming, when someone links to you, that means you deserved it.


It means that you’ve done something on your site that’s worthwhile to the linking site’s audience.

It means your site is valuable and bettering the online experience for humans.

Even if you ask the webmaster to link to you, you still have to deserve (earn) the link. Why does it matter that you had to personally promote your site? Are you not allowed to advocate for your site? If they didn’t know who you were, is there any better source of explaining your value than you?

A link isn’t just a digital navigational device, and it’s definitely not just a signal within a complicated search algorithm either. A link is a representation of your site’s value. Another webmaster in your niche believes you offer something valuable, something unique.

And you work harder for links you earn through promotion. You don’t have laurels to rest upon. Not only are you producing expert content or providing a sought after service, you have to get your hands dirty and engage with others in your industry.

How is this not link earning?

A Real Life Example of Earning

True story: I’m a BIG fan of the musician St. Vincent. Her most recent, eponymous record was my favorite of 2014.

Admittedly, she’s kind of “out there.” Her brand of futuristic, new wave/synth funk infused with metal and doo-wop influences isn’t for everyone, as evidenced by tweets right after her appearance on Saturday Night Live a year ago.

St. Vincent plays in her own, unique sandbox, and I adore her for it. It’s honestly difficult to list artists comparable to her, except for maybe vintage Talking Heads.

So when I saw this tweet:

I clicked.

I’m not naive. I know this is not some random, altruistic audiophile who just happened upon my profile and noticed I liked St. Vincent after digging through my favorites. This is a bot, programmed by either the artist–Bae Tigre–or her label. I like plenty of bands in the Boise area, but I would feel creepy if I just hit up a complete stranger in Roanoke, Virginia because X local band had a sound reminiscent to their favorite band.

So no, this is not a shining example of promotion, and ordinarily I’d strongly advise against this kind of social media behavior. But guess what? That doesn’t change the fact that I listened to the song and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it enough that I ended sharing it to my friends with similar music taste. In this instance, the value of the artist’s work was more important than the suspect promotional tactic.

Without this tweet there’s a solid chance I never would have discovered Bae Tiger. My friends might not know her either, if I didn’t continue the share string.

Bae Tiger now has a handful of new fans. Is it because of this Twitter promotion? Partially. But more importantly, her music earned my fandom.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

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