I get this question all the time: should we spend our time and money on publishing more content or link building in order to improve our SEO?
The fact is quality content is the only thing that really matters when it comes to improving SEO. Research, write and publish great content, and people will link to it.
And many link-building strategies could get you slapped by the google gods (or bots!)
Google has spent the last ten-plus years designing algorithms with machine learning to specifically prevent websites from gaming the SEO system. There really is nothing left but content.
That’s why comparing the merits of content vs. links leads you down a dead-end road. Great content is the biggest ranking factor for search engines.
- Quality Content gives other websites a reason to link to yours and gives visitors a reason to click the links.
- With quality content as a foundation, links help Google understand what your content is about, your areas of expertise, and why you deserve to rank.
- Together, high-quality content and natural links drive targeted traffic, establish authority, and demonstrate trust.
Approaching SEO from Content Vs. Links are the Wrong Angle
Don’t be fooled. Scrambling to acquire links to your website for SEO does not work if you don’t have quality content to back them up – content is the whole point!
Why Do You Want to Build Links and What Will They Point To?
I think many business owners ask me about link building because it feels like an insider secret to them. Someone approaches them with a monthly service to build links and tells them it’s the approach no one talks about but it works.
Now of course you want your business website to rank higher in search results. You want your company listed on google.
But too many of our clients have been down this road, seen their website penalized by the search engines. and now they have to disavow spammy links they paid for.
The reason this doesn’t work is that the links are not “natural.” Google knows no one has a reason to link to your category or product page unless it’s a review article, you paid them to do it, or you placed it there yourself.
As Adam Riemer of Search Engine Journal explains, natural link placement is all about quality. Natural links can’t be easily acquired and are in topically related content sites that match your services, stores, site, or niche.
That means the SEO benefit of building links without content instantly vanishes. In fact, for many Google penalizes you for low-quality or unnatural backlinks.
Why Should Anyone Click a Link to Your Website?
Maybe you planned to build links for website traffic.
If that’s the case, why would anyone click the link and visit your website? If people don’t recognize your brand name or aren’t ready to buy your product, why would they stay on your page and bother to learn about you?
Exactly. They won’t.
Furthermore, neglecting content in favor of link building means you have nothing original to share on social media that your followers will actually care about.
Homepages and Landing Pages Don’t Earn Links – But Content Does
Sorry, there’s just no quick answer to SEO anymore. Google even considers the overnight tactics that worked years ago as spam or “black hat” today.
Google improves its algorithms every day, adopting machine learning and natural language processing. In other words, Google’s algorithms leave no room for loopholes to exploit. Instead, you must give Google a valid reason to rank your page in search results.
When it comes to content vs. links, both matter in different capacities.
Links Tell Google Your Content is Trustworthy
Google uses an algorithm called TrustRank to judge – you guessed it – a website’s trustworthiness.
Now, Google will never reveal its precise TrustRank criteria so you can’t track yours. You can, however, use some scores Moz developed as a pretty close replacement:
Your Domain Authority and Spam Score are the biggest factors here and they largely depend on your links. Specifically, which websites link to you.
Looking at the picture above, you’ll see our “top linking domains” for Marketing Insider Group include LinkedIn, The Guardian, and Forbes – all of which are trustworthy websites with high Domain Authority scores.
Plus, the 1% spam score tells us that most of our backlinks are natural and coming from high-quality sources – as opposed to shady comment sections or sponsored posts. (Yes, Google can tell when you paid to sponsor a guest blog.)
Without links from other sites, Google has no idea if your content is trustworthy enough to show up in search results.
Links Help Google Understand Your Content Expertise
You might have worked in your industry for decades, but Google has no idea. What’s your expertise? Which niche or specialty do you hold the most knowledge and experience?
The answers to those questions determine what topics you should cover in your content – and no more.
Google knows you can’t be an expert in everything. That’s why it uses links to figure out your expertise.
Let’s say you’re a dermatologist who specializes in chronic skin diseases. You’ve earned first-page rankings and plenty of links for your content around this niche.
You decide to expand your business and hire a more cosmetic-focused dermatologist. Naturally, you start publishing content about injectables, peels, and other treatments.
Without links, Google won’t know if your expertise in both areas is truthful. You might even lose prized rankings in your original expertise!
Beyond trust, links tell Google what you’re all about.
Links Drive Targeted and Engaged Traffic to Your Content
Did you know Google bots scan your site analytics to see how long people stay on your page, what they read, and how many people visit your website?
Google claims traffic isn’t a ranking factor but research from SEO tools like Semrush say otherwise:
According to Semrush, the website traffic and other related analytics are the most important factors – long before keyword placement.
Referral traffic from earned links is some of the best traffic you can get too.
Someone who finds a link to your content in another blog is already in a reading/consuming mindset (rather than scrolling or researching mindset from social posts or Google results). They’ll probably spend far more time on your page and consume more pieces of content during their time there.
Best of all, earned links typically come from websites that share a similar audience. Your link traffic is highly targeted and relevant to your niche – effortlessly.
Links Point Google to Your Most Popular Content
Google has a specific job to do: Show users the best results for each search. Google’s job is to answer user queries:
- With relevant results
- With trustworthy results
If someone clicks a headline from the search results and hits the back button within ten seconds, that tells Google it should probably stop displaying that URL in the results, for example – no matter how trustworthy the domain might be.
Google has millions or billions of choices to display for every search query. Why should it choose your website? Google has its own reputation to keep too.
If you have lots of links pointing to your content and people who click those links stay on your page to read your content, that tells Google your content is a safe bet for the search results.
Look at your top-ranking blogs right now. I’d bet those are also the blogs with the most high-authority backlinks.
Even one popular (and high-quality) blog post is enough to get your foot in the proverbial SEO door. Strategic internal links point Google bots and visitors to some of your other relevant high-quality content, encouraging more links and engaged traffic.
It’s easier to drop the content vs. links mindset when you realize SEO is more about creating a positive feedback loop than running through a checklist.
Building Links without Valuable Content is Asking to Get Flagged as Spam
Let’s say you’re still not convinced on the content vs. links question – you’re holding onto the idea that you need links first for SEO.
After all, links are arguably one of the most important factors for demonstrating your authority, earning traffic, and showing up in SERPs.
How do you plan to earn links without earning them through quality content?
You can’t earn natural and high-quality links without content. Instead, you have to build them yourself by:
- Buying backlinks from a company peddling this service
- Paying to publish sponsored content somewhere and link to your website
- Inserting links to your site in comment sections of high authority blogs or forums
- Guest blogs, event promos, or other earned media (ex: YouTube) with links to your site
The only legitimate option is the last one – and it still involves creating content first!
At best, any link you buy – whether through a company or sponsored post – usually includes tracking information or other signals that tell Google it’s not natural. That’s not an effective SEO strategy.
At worst, buying backlinks or inserting them yourself in comment sections qualifies as spam. And backlink spam is something Google takes extremely seriously:
Even sponsored guests blogging can get you flagged as spam if you include keyword-rich anchor text (another major spam red flag). Keep in mind, Google can change its mind anytime and decide to consider all sponsored guest blogs spam.
In fact, Google even asks people to report paid links when they find them:
Content Diversifies Your Traffic and Connects You with Your Audience
Let’s assume a brand still believes that link building takes top priority in the content vs. links debate. How much time and money do you think that brand would spend building links compared to the ROI?
Building links, rather than earning them through content, is extremely tedious with a minimal reward for your effort. Buying links, meanwhile, is costly. (Some charge $200 per link and call it a steal.)
All that time, energy, and money going towards links would deliver much better results invested in content. Unlike generic categories or homepage links, content gives people a valuable reason to visit your website.
Like Semrush showed us above, more engaged traffic = better SEO.
Plus, content lets you diversify your traffic. You can share content anywhere it’s relevant: social media, email, forums, chat groups, etc.
Nearly 90% of B2Bs say social media and email are essential distribution channels.
Not to mention, almost every content distribution channel provides an opportunity to interact with your audience casually and build relationships.
How can you build a relationship through a backlink to your homepage? You can’t – it’s too disconnected.
Content adds emotion to your internet presence via your unique brand voice and tone in blogs, videos, and comments. Your brand becomes a human team instead of a logo (and people don’t build relationships with or buy from logos).
Content is Easier to Scale and Control as Owned Media
For SEO (and really all digital marketing), you only have two main categories: earned media and owned media.
Owned media includes channels under your full control like:
- Website and blog
- Email list
- The contact list on SMS or messengers like WhatsApp
- Branded podcast
Earned media covers channels where you build an audience:
- Guest blogs
- Social media
- Third-party events or podcasts
When Huffington Post killed their open contributor program in 2018, some 100,000 people lost access to a valuable traffic source.
Contributor content reportedly only accounted for 10% to 15% of its traffic – but how many avid contributors do you think relied on HuffPost links for most of their website traffic and SEO links? Probably quite a lot.
Owned media, like your blog content, keeps your investment secure because no one can take it away from you. You can also seamlessly scale your content production and pivot distribution channels as needed.
Consistent Content Gives You More Chances to Rank in Varying Searches
You can’t drive traffic from SEO without web pages for Google to index.
Let’s say you have a website with no blog – just a homepage, service pages, about page, and contact. That only gives you about five or ten chances to rank in SERPs for searches around your brand’s primary keyword like:
- SaaS platform
- SaaS provider
- SaaS company
Someone with an active blog, however, might have hundreds or thousands of indexed pages and chances to rank. Plus, they’d dominate the industry results for keywords at every stage of the sales cycle like:
- What is SaaS and how does it work?
- How to build a martech stack
- Building customer loyalty online
- Marketing and sales automation
See how content lets you demonstrate authority and engage buyers in the awareness and consideration stages?
It’s Not Content Vs. Links – It’s Always Content First, Links Second
I’m not denying the importance of earned links for SEO – neglecting links would still fall into the content vs. links trap.
You need natural backlinks from trustworthy websites – especially authoritative ones in your niche.
But you can’t earn natural links if you don’t publish regular content. Content gives other websites a legitimate (not paid) reason to link your page.
Original research, statistics, reports, infographics, graphics, gifs, videos, podcasts, quotable thoughts – these are all backlink gold.
Just focus on publishing unique content in your specific niche (while optimizing for relevant keywords). Sustainable links and SEO will follow.