Search Engine Optimization or Content Marketing?

It is a rare chart that tells a whole, comprehensible story.  I don’t have such a chart for you but I do have a chart that tells, in my opinion, an interesting story about how ignorance breeds change and growth.  This is a story that has played itself out thousands of times over since civilization first began, and maybe for the past few hundred thousand years.  Someone invents a perfectly good process but before it can become standardized someone else invents the process again and calls it by a different name.  What most of you call “content marketing” is just another form of “search engine optimization” and it was only your collective shame that buried this expression.  You were ashamed of all the penalties and downgrades and algorithmic surprises that your past methods and strategies led to, so you rebranded everything (including yourselves) as “digital marketers”, “content strategists”, “social media managers”, etc.

It’s all still search engine optimization.  You’re optimizing for image search on Pinterest, soundbite search on Twitter, share search on Facebook, content search on Google, etc.  You never stepped away from SEO; you simply started optimizing for different kinds of search.  But in doing so you invented phrases and names and descriptions that made it sound like you have moved on.  And those rebranding efforts have paid off dramatically as this chart illustrates.

No, this is not another “SEO is dead” argument.  As long as we have something to search with and to search for we will be optimizing for search.  SEO won’t die until search dies.

I want to share two older articles here that I have updated.  You’ll find they are still quite relevant to what many of you are doing even after nearly 10 years.  This is not what I call “10 year SEO”.  This is what I call “SEO fundamentals”.  This stuff never changes.  Ever.  And those of you who keep saying that SEO has changed in the past few years need to learn the truth about what search engine optimization really is.

It’s not your latest bag of tricks and trendy SEO blog posts and conference presentations.  Optimization gives the best performance possible.  If you don’t know how to use the fundamentals to keep a Website going for ten years you’re not ready to evolve away from SEO.  You still have much to learn.  Hiding it behind new buzz expressions won’t change a thing.

We’ll begin with basic link theory because people tend to forget that “social media platforms” are Websites.  The Social Media Web has its own rules for search which boil down to:

  • Social Media Websites ARE their own primary search engines
  • Bing and Google index social media content, not (just) social media links
  • The social media links are important for visibility, not search

In “Four Sources of Links” I described very high-level categories for linking that are still valid today.  Most Web marketers who have convinced themselves that subfolders are more important for SEO than subdomains missed point number 1.What always mattered, and all that ever mattered, was how you linked to your blogs.  And in every case I have investigated, including Salesforce’s blog (which my friend Todd Friesen recently used to support subfolders over subdomains), the culprit behind poor performance was not the subdomain but the lack of navigational support for the subdomain compared to the navigational support for the subfolder.

If you want more links you need more visibility, but visibility drives (brand value) search.  How do you create visibility without forging link relationships all over the spammy Web?  I shared several suggestions in “How to Use Search to Build Visibility”.  Unfortunately, some people took away the wrong message.  I didn’t mean for you to flood these channels with worthless “content marketing” in order to create links.  You don’t need a link to create visibility.  You do need a message that is on target and which makes clear reference (with or without the link) to what you want people to find.

Four Sources of Links

Originally published in March 2007.

Everyone wants links. In today’s search environment, the key to linking success begins with understanding where links come from, how you get them, how you use them, and why you really need them.

There are four sources of links (in descending order of importance):

  1. Your internal navigational links
  2. The links you give yourself from other sites
  3. The links you ask other sites to give you
  4. The links other sites choose to give you


Internal navigational links outweigh all other links for several reasons. They are the first expression of trust in a complex system where trust has always been valued to one degree or another. It’s hard for a search engine to rationalize calling your root URL a spam page if 1,000 other well-linked pages on the same host all link to it.

Internal navigation links also ensure that your pages are found, if they are done properly. The more links you point at your internal pages, the more easily those pages will be found, crawled, and indexed. Not that links guarantee indexing — for they don’t — but if everything else is in order, then all that stands between your brand new page and ranking well in search results is the absence of inbound linkage.

Internal navigation links also help you boost page relevance through anchor text. It’s unfortunate that search engines such as Google stubbornly cling to the practice of allowing links to pass anchor text. Doing so in no way improves their search results and in fact reduces the quality of their search results because it induces people to be deceptive. Still, without being deceptive you can point instructive anchor text from one internal page to another to improve relevance.

You have complete control over your internal links. They give you total flexibility. You get more power from your own links than from any other source of links.  (2016 Lesson: Screwing over your subdomain through poor internal navigation is bad SEO.)


Links you give yourself from other sites include all the classic spam links: forum signatures, blog comment links, guest book links, free-for-all page links, profile links, etc. They also include links embedded in biographical tag lines for press releases and free distribution articles. The inevitable rush among Webmasters to exploit these types of links has rendered most of them pretty much useless for passing anchor text although they may help promote your visibility and send you traffic.

There are other links you can give yourself as well. Social media taggers have already begun exploiting some of those types of links. So have classified ad spammers. Generally speaking, if someone out there is letting you create content on their Web site for free, SEOs and spammers are abusing the privilege in the insane pursuit of (now usually worthless) links.

If you want these types of links to pass value, you need to build value in them. It actually requires less effort but more patience to build value in external links than it does to generate hundreds or thousands of spam links, most of which won’t help you. You build value in linking sources by telling people about them. Link to those pages, or only use pages that many other people link to. But intruding or dropping links doesn’t build value. Instead, it destroys value.  (2016 Lesson: The rush to build links in every corner of the Web destroyed the positive impression people once had for SEO.)


Links you ask other sites to give you are the most sought-after links, even though they tend to be less important than the first two types of links. These kinds of links include traditional reciprocal links, paid links, free directory links, etc. In general, these types of links are easily organized on a large scale. They lend themselves to categorization because people who are open to link requests usually receive many and therefore need to handle those requests as efficiently as possible.

These linking methods still work to some degree, but their return on investment has declined considerably for the same reasons that links you give yourself have lost value: the search engines do their best to filter out their value.

Another type of links you ask people to give you are the (presently) highly coveted baited links, the so-called “natural” links people give you for creating great content. If you create good link bait you’ll realize a spike in traffic and a surge in unrequited links. The problem with link baiting is that it doesn’t offer long-term value. You have to keep creating high-value content in order to keep the traffic/link spikes rolling. As soon as you rest on your laurels, your high traffic/link days are over.

And just because you baited yourself into drawing 400,000 links doesn’t mean you will dominate every search going forward. While having lots of “link juice” is always good to have, if you don’t assert relevance with your new copy, your new copy won’t rank for anything useful regardless of whether it enjoys lots of link love.

In other words: PageRank is not nearly as important for search engine rankings as SEOs tend to believe. It never has been.  (2016 Lesson: Now many of you believe Google has devalued links in its algorithms.  You’re wrong.  It devalued the links in YOUR algorithms.)


The links other sites choose to give you tend to be weak because you really don’t have any influence over them. You don’t decide where they point to, what anchor text they use, or where they are placed. Now, I’m not saying you should turn your nose up at 1,000 truly organic links. If you’re not creating link bait and people still point links at your site over a long period of time, that’s a good thing.

Link bait goes for large numbers of links in a short period of time. That’s really not natural, not in the sense that a good Web page can accrue a handful of links every month for 5 or 6 years. Truly natural links don’t come because of all the pizzazz you formulaicly whipped up in your content. Truly natural links come because people share your passion with you and they discover your passionate content.

If you create link bait, the links you get are links you asked for. As soon as you create something for the sake of getting links, you leave the path of natural linking. That’s just the way it is.

Ultimately, the more control you exercise over links, the more they can help you, and hence the more powerful they are in terms of search engine optimization.  (2016 Lesson: This is why I have been equating “content marketing” with link building for years.)

In search engine optimization, links get your content crawled, help your earn trust so your content will rank for multiple relevant queries, and improve relevance through the anchor text they pass to their destinations. Some search engines may also look at link anchor text favorably for the source pages.

In Web marketing, links create visibility, build brand value, and pass traffic. You tend to get more value by practicing Web marketing than by practicing search engine optimization, if only because pursuing visibility and brand value creates a more stable presence. In search engine optimization, everything you do is subject to the whims of the search engines.

In all four categories, the best links are those which convey intrinisic value to a human observer. If you feel compelled to hide your links, there’s something wrong with your linking strategy. The more willing you are to let your visitors see your links, the more effective your links will be. If you cringe because you’re grudgingly linking openly to a Ring Tones site, you’re not very willing to let people see that link.

In other words, the more you cringe over your own links, the less valuable those links — and whatever pages they point to — truly are. And why are you wasting your time and energy on links you really don’t care about?