Strategic Content as Marketing for Link Building (and the Win)

HP can spam the hell out of Google and Google engineers are afraid to do anything about it because they do not want to lose the associated AdWords ad budget. But if you follow HP's strategy it is called spam - and a Google engineer will smile while killing your site. It's just business.

Unless you have a well known brand and/or established social relationships with thought leaders it is hard to get lasting quality links for less than a few hundred dollars each. And there are only a few Google approved paid link sources that you can easily find for all your sites...beyond those you have to use high risk techniques or hunt for more, which requires many man-hours of work.

If you are going to spend 100 hours hunting for links, why not just spend 40 hours creating featured content and another 10 hours marketing it? I think my recent how much is a #1 ranking in Google worth article was poorly received compared to many of my other features, and it still got over 100 $100 each that is $10,000 in links for 2 days work. Thousands of people saw that article and it will keep building links as it ages. The network effect is on my side. :)

Using content as a link building strategy is typically far less risky and cheaper than link buying, and it builds brand while establishing a direct organic traffic flow Google can't block. Given tools like, Google Trends, and other sources you can create content like that for virtually any field.

Custom content is going mainstream - business marketers are spending nearly 30% of their marketing budget on custom content, and today Danny Sullivan announced he is doing a paid search feature with John Battelle for Thomson Reuters. If you have cash higher personalities and market leaders for brand association and exposure.

The border between content and advertising is blurring. This 45 minute how to AdWords video from Dan Thies comes with an introductional sales pitch and sign up close - but the content in between the sales pitches is of higher quality than most paid content...which builds trust and allows you to charge customers more. Rather than monetizing via ads and marketing with ads it is simply cheaper to use content to capture and qualify leads. This trend will only grow as the rate of innovation and competition online continue to increase.

  • A widely distributed free version is why open source is so effective - it allows you to build trust, mindshare, and marketshare for limited ongoing cost, while allowing you to create a profitable shadow brand.
  • Business organizations are also following an open-source-like strategy. Is SEMPO an industry non-profit? Or are they a for profit SEM training company with a non-profit arm that legitimizes their training programs?

Even if you are not great with video, well formatted text can still go a long way. Sure most people do not read, but some do, and well linked to text documents rank for a lot of long tail search queries.

It only takes a couple links from high authority channels to build cascading links. You can connect with people on a resource level (like this SEO guide for Information Architecture or Principles for Building a Successful Internet Business) or on an emotional level (like Brian Clark's post about almost dieing, and turning his life around).

If neither of those strategies work for you why not try creating a fun toy, like How Rich Will I Be? Rentacoder (or similar) can help you create a custom toy for a few hundred or few thousand dollars.

Don't have enough money to hire a programmer? Then take the time to learn the marketplace and satisfy demands other ways. Strategic content development for link building does not require a lot of money, it only requires patience, time, formatting, a strong understanding of the marketplace, the willingness to be wrong, and the willingness to ask.

Here is a quote from my favorite band

If you have been rejected many times in your life, then one more rejection isn't going to make much difference. If you're rejected, don't automatically assume it's your fault. The other person may have several reasons for not doing what you are asking her to do: none of it may have anything to do with you. Perhaps the person is busy or not feeling well or genuinely not interested in spending time with you. Rejections are part of everyday life. Don't let them bother you. Keep reaching out to others. When you begin to receive positive responses then you are on the right track. It's all a matter of numbers. Count the positive responses and forget about the rejections.

Sometimes a lack of cash gives you an incentive that the competition lacks to create something great.

Published: May 9, 2008 by Aaron Wall in


May 9, 2008 - 4:10am

Using content as a link building strategy is typically far less risky and cheaper than link buying, and it builds brand while establishing a direct organic traffic flow Google can't block.


What a beautiful statement Aaron. I've chatted back and forth with you for awhile about creating content and using that as well as SEO to achieve visitors, and I'm even more committed to that today then I was 3 months ago.
I think that it is completely possible to run a business successfully on great content, brand name recognition and optimized pages without having to pay for ads or text links or whatever other mechanisms are being used right now.

May 14, 2008 - 12:57am

I agree with jake on this one. I just began the SEO process about 6 weeks ago. Our site had poor content and no quality links. Since then I've updated the content and started building quality links to the site and I have noticed a measurable gain in our ranks. Before I started, we were not ranked in the top 100 results for our keywords. We currently stand at 22. I believe that doing SEO that right way with rich content and quality links is what will be successful.

With that being said, I think google tormented me today! My site shot up from 22 to 4 for about 6 hours. I left work and came home and checked it again and we were back to 22. Oy!

May 9, 2008 - 4:37am

The great thing about creating websites about things you love is that you already know what is cool in your field, and you have some idea about whats missing and what will be well received.

I am just getting warmed up here online but I have spent the last few months learning Javascript, PHP and mysql so I can leaverage the awesomeness of google maps to make some kickass widgets and tools.

The total cost: $150 dollars of books, downloading open source software, 5-10 hours of programming/reading a week, paying my friend $200 to fix my incorrect installation of mysql/php and apache for testing on my computer.

The barriers to entry are almost nill...

Jeremy Luebke
May 9, 2008 - 4:46am

The one thing missing from that tactic is anchor text. Even the best linkbait marketing will need to be augmented by the good ole sweat and tears (or cash) needed to build links with the right anchor text. But it sure does make it easier to rank with just a handful of those links if you have thousands of natural ones.

May 9, 2008 - 6:29am

But you can name the linkbait to target the keywords you want to rank for. Want to rank for rank checker? Call your product rank checker. Want to rank for credit card applications? Call your article "what is in the small text on credit card applications?", etc.

You can always change the content's location after the inbound anchor text has been gained. :)

May 11, 2008 - 4:36pm

When you say that you can always change the contents location, do you mean that once the links are built, you change the content 0n that page to be a better landing page for your product/service?

May 11, 2008 - 8:41pm

Yes, that is what I am saying. :)

May 9, 2008 - 5:25am

If you are going to spend 100 hours hunting for links, why not just spend 40 hours creating featured content and another 10 hours marketing it?

So you are basically saying, forget about SEO and instead, concentrate on providing valuable content and operate one's site as were it a real business?

Or, are quality content and responsible site management now SEO tools?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. ;-)

May 9, 2008 - 6:29am

I was saying content strategy is a big part of SEO.

May 9, 2008 - 5:50am

Hey Aaron I'm not sure if you'd use this but I'm sure some of the search marketer's that are on a limited budget or are new into the business and don't work with creative writers could use this to get some quality content and backlinks with a little work.

You should be able to find one if not a few Doctors (Psychologist, Dentists, and Personal M.D.), Lawyers, Educators, etc that run either a personal business or blogs and if your lucky still with a university (very difficult, found my first guy last week) that would allow you to trade seo knowledge for an article or a trade off of seo work for the article with a link back to your site or to the article.
The way I managed this was I was asked to do seo work for a Psychologist who was a client of mines father. I turned down the project initially but ended working out a deal that showed the benefit of him writing the article about the Psychology of the people in this particular industry. One, he gained exposure via my blog and the article directories, social network sites that I submitted it too that he would never have any idea to submit them too... yes almost sounds like you taking advantage of the situation but prior to this exchange he's traffic jumped on his site enough to see an increase. He's ready to write a new article...we now have an ongoing relationship.

For the new guys into the business, understand exactly what you want to convey to your audience, determine which field would be best to have an article written from, if your sites region specific do a search for your chosen [field + Region] e.g. "Las Vegas Psychologist" and make your way down the list contacting the Psychologist's. NOTE: You always have better results with people/businesses advertising via pay per click, however this should be treated just as if you were doing link building, try to get the guy/girl in the #1 position as there site if linking back to you may carry more weight!

Try it, and rock it!

May 9, 2008 - 6:52am

Trading your specialized knowledge for theirs can be a win win. But you have to make sure your goals are fairly well aligned.

One guy offered me a guided hunt in North Dakota for SEO work, but I don't like hunting. ;)

May 9, 2008 - 11:34am

OK, I'll bite at the bait. I'll start with myself.

I'm not doing a paid search feature. I'm writing articles just like I would on my site -- in fact, that's where they're going. Thomson wants to use them on their site. They've paid for that right. They're not telling me what to write, and I'd hoped my post would help counter concerns in that regard. Perhaps I hoped too much. Perhaps you just see it differently, and that's fine.

HP isn't spamming the hell out of Google with the engineers worried they'll lost AdWords money. Really, Aaron, you know better than that. I mean, you really know better. You've talked to many engineers at Google. You know the guy who heads up search quality, Matt Cutts. You seriously think Matt's sitting there biting his nails that if he yanks HP, Google's going to lose ad revenue. Really, honestly?

If you want to poke hard at Google, pick a more accurate point. Google's not going to touch HP for the same reason they don't hurt BMW or you name any other major brand. They can't without hurting relevancy. HP had better show up in top results for a range of queries, and Google has very blunt tools that they can use to punish sites. That's the type of point I would have expected you to make -- and make well.

May 9, 2008 - 8:04pm

Hi Danny
Sorry if I offended you...that was not my intent. I was not trying to say anything bad about you, more I was trying to say that companies are being more able to buy brand association with thought leaders. Companies can do everything from something like the Demand Media partnership with Lance Armstrong right on through to the more granular one off feature stuff that John and you are doing.

Google's not going to touch HP for the same reason they don't hurt BMW or you name any other major brand. They can't without hurting relevancy.

But think of how sophisticated Google claims to be with their search engine...and yet they somehow claim all their penalties are blunt? I am betting that they indeed do have some that are less blunt than they talk about (I think some are quite sophisticated), but generally they have chose to avoid using them against big companies with strong brands and strong AdWords spend...even on the weaker sister site associated with a strong brand...which indicatates that the reasoning goes past the issue of brand, IMHO.

It is just like how they let AdSense sites steal the entire contents of another site and run ads before they review it. Sure they are trying to clean the network up somewhat not, but many of Google's alleged business limitations are limitations that only exist because they would hinder Google's revenues and profit margins.

I make a lot of money from Google and spend a bit with them too. I am greatful that they have pushed search as much as they have, but my main issue with them is the Google two tier justice system that Michael Gray talked about.

And unless we talk about it publicly often it is going to get worse before it gets better, which does not bode well for small businesses or individuals new to the web trying to make a living online.

May 11, 2008 - 5:27pm

One needn't ban HP from the SERPs but what about penalizing Logoworks, Danny?

Maybe the search engineers aren't shaking in their boots but don't you think someone's boots ought to be walking to a keyboard to at least dampen whatever "business cards lift" Logoworks might derive from their free WordPress templates?

IF there is mounting evidence that size matters when it comes to search engines penalizing SEO practices - with search engineers decreeing that "all animials are created equal" but experience suggesting that "some animals are more equal than others" - THEN it grows harder to argue that there isn't an integrity or credibility gap in the search results, search algorithm AND/OR ALSO the corporation behind the search engine.

P.S. Finger wagging? Hyperbole? Ad hominem statements? What is the SEO world coming to? E! meets SEO? Argh. :-P

May 9, 2008 - 6:17pm

Nice, an Airbag EP quote with my link building in the morning.

May 9, 2008 - 10:41pm

Great post Aaron. It resonates well with the "Tips on Content Centered Link Building" post earlier this week, band reference and all! :)

I think what you wrote says it all for marketers like myself with high value goals and low tolerance for risk:

"Using content as a link building strategy is typically far less risky and cheaper than link buying, and it builds brand while establishing a direct organic traffic flow Google can't block."

Seems like fundamental and sustainable marketing to me.

May 9, 2008 - 11:33pm

Good post Lee.

Wow...that was scarily similar!

May 10, 2008 - 1:46am


I don't know if the border between content and advertising has ever been there - everything kids watch (Transformers, Pokemon, etc.) has been pure advertising for years. Newspapers are as much advertising as content.

What is interesting is that the *quality* of free content is changing. The folks I work with been referring to this for years as "moving the free line." As the free line moves, it gets harder to break into the market without adding value.

Seven years ago, you might see people giving away a 15-page free report in exchange for an email address. Nowadays, nobody would sign up, download it, or read it. Sorry, "free report guy."

Now in 2008, we spend two weeks of our lives to put together 45 minutes of the best instruction that we can do and still keep it entertaining... and you don't even have to give up an email address to see it.

For us, this raises the bar a bit, vs. the "biz-op" people, and I guess that's nice, but that's not why it's effective. It's effective because there is real value in giving us your attention.

You don't have to buy anything to get something of value. You don't even have to give up your email address.

It's not the free sample of tasty spam-on-a-toothpick that you get at the grocery story, it's a full meal. That's why it works.

It's not just that people are skeptical (in this area they happen to be), it's that we don't have enough attention to give, unless we get something back.

Naturally, we do *try* to get an opt-in, so that we can talk to people, but that's done by offering even more real content, not some throwaway report.

It's not cheap to develop this kind of content, much less give it away, but to borrow a line from Farris Bueller... If you have the means, I highly recommend it.

Thanks for the mention of my video, BTW - if you don't want to hear Andy talk about transforming Stompernet and all that, you can skip ahead to the 8-minute mark where the actual instruction begins.

I think the intro is relevant but it is a little, um, dramatic. What are you gonna do - the guy used to make movies, he can't help himself...

BTW, *you* could write a post about what you had for lunch and it would get more than 100 links... and it could probably go hot on Sphinn too. Just write a title like "Matt Cutts and Google Officially Confirm Something." :D

Nice to see you get back to doing "Wall to Wall" content, BTW.


May 10, 2008 - 3:08am

Thanks for the great comment and the great video Dan.

I agree about the free content having lots of value - and needing to do so due to attention scarcity in a saturated marketplace.

Funny you should mention lunch and Google stuff. I just had banana chip ice cream there the other day. :)

May 10, 2008 - 3:37am

Aaron...thanks for the pickup on the research. We anticipate that inside 5 years marketing spend on custom content could reach 50% of marketing budget. All the more reason to heed your advice...

Joe Pulizzi, Junta42

May 10, 2008 - 10:14am

No worries, Aaron. The whole conversational marketing thing is new and somewhat scary to even try, so I'm probably just too sensitive to it.

I guess I'm sort of with Dan. Company have always tried to buy brand association with thought leaders. Go back to those old 50s TV shows, even the news shows, and I think they used to have the actors and anchors doing product pitches. I'm not sure that it is that new. Perhaps it's just that advertising is everywhere now. Dunno :)

I agree that what Google does isn't completely blunt, in terms of tools they wield -- but relatively so, I'd say. They generally do not seem able to knock sites out on particular queries, for example. I still remain pretty trusting that the reason they don't knock out big brands has little to do with AdWords spend and much more to do with the fact that they end up harming relevancy.

May 11, 2008 - 7:53pm

Even with a great piece of content you still have to do some work in trying to promote it.

No offense Aaron, but at this point once you create the great content it will spread because you have so many people who see your site.

If lets say I was to do the same thing I would still have to do the SEO work of contacting people like yourself to take notice and maybe mention my content. (not to say i have good content)

For example, I decided to take Google Search Sucks from a Google ranting to a comic style blog. I think the cartoons are pretty funny and unique, but no one will notice unless I promote the new style by going to blogs like yours and mentioning the change ;)

SEO at its finest.

May 11, 2008 - 9:53pm

That is why I said 40 hours of work and 10 hours of marketing...I did about 1 hour of marketing...if I were new to market I would have done closer to 10 :)

May 12, 2008 - 8:37pm

I am planning to create a new niche site with great info content,video,..
what is the best way to do seo?
wordpress or create 5 page website and create articles and link to each other?

May 12, 2008 - 9:23pm

Hi Hayem
Read our blogger's guide to SEO if you want to do SEO for a blog.

May 14, 2008 - 4:28am

Hi Aaron,thanks for the link.I would like to start blogging and not sure do I spend money on wordpress templates or use the one that comes with the hosting company(I found them not attractive).where can I find affordable wordpress templates?thank you

May 14, 2008 - 4:45am
Terry Van Horne
May 15, 2008 - 2:03am

Aaron, great article! Content is the best risk free way to build links. Why spend 100's of hours building links when you can do 10 hours of research to find the niche that will give you the foundation to widen that audience going forward. Instant gratification unfortunately is what most want, what they don't know is it's a little like kissing your sister.

I have been doing this for a long time and I have never done link development. Link development the way most go about it is nothing more than a house of cards that will be brought down with the next change or weight adjustment to the Google link algo. It's where the "SEO kiddies" concentrate their efforts so when you go contrary to that you've avoided a crowded space.

Aaron, anyone who doesn't think there has always been a two tier system or those who can do what they want with no repercussions, they simply doesn't understand that their little computer ecommerce site will always be less important/relevant for a search on "HP computers" than HP. They are just being delusional about the value of the ecom site to the SERP and the user.

May 15, 2008 - 3:36am

Hi Terry
My comments are not geared toward the large HP site or sites like it, but to the extended network of sites that some of these companies build...the thin affiliate sites owned by companies like, Bankrate, etc.

I can state for a fact that those thin affiliate mirror sites are *not* needed from a relevancy standpoint.

May 18, 2008 - 8:44pm

Edit: I didn't notice someone making the same point above.
That said, even with 10 hours of marketing, the results wouldn't be the same. The fact of the matter is that a person's network and readership make a huge difference to their success gaining links. If an unknown pitched that content to Rand, for instance, he would put it in the "newbies pitching links; check it out later" line. If you pitch it, it's on the blog the next morning (or in the Thursday Roundup).

Aaron, I think you're making a gross exaggeration that is likely to lead many readers into placing unfounded hopes on creating truly premium content. Specifically, I'm referring to your claim that 2 hours of work got you $10,000 worth of links.

It ignores that your ideas have existing distribution networks that are extremely strong and powerful. How many RSS subscribers do you have? I'm betting it's over 20K, perhaps closer to 30.

How many hours did you put into building relationsips with other bloggers in the industry? With social media experts? With the media? At conferences? In interviews?

Simply put, if you had put the exact same content on a brand new domain, under a pseudonym, and not shown it to any people in your network, it wouldn't have gotten anywhere.

May 19, 2008 - 12:45am

I did not say 2 hours work = $10,000 ... I said 2 days work = $10,000. And if a person was well in tune with profitable market segments, actively marketed their features, and kept writing the types of features I was writing for a while they would see similar results.

Simply put, if you had put the exact same content on a brand new domain, under a pseudonym, and not shown it to any people in your network, it wouldn't have gotten anywhere.

So what you are saying is "on a social network, if you do not network you fail" ... how could anyone disagree with that?

Keep in mind that I have other sites too, and many of them are successful outside of my SEO network status.

May 20, 2008 - 7:17am

Sorry for getting the numbers wrong. Let's say 2 days work. That's still not achievable for most people, imho. What I'm getting at is that I feel it hurts lesser networked webmasters to make exaggerated claims like you can do five figure business in two days like this. You're not taking into account what you put in to get to the point where you could do that, you know?

May 21, 2008 - 3:51pm

It's absolutely true that it's easier for Aaron to get links to his great content than it is for the average person who is just starting out.

But, I knew Aaron back when his main goals in SEO were to tell people how depressed he was, and to communicate something about peanut butter that I still don't fully understand.

When Aaron started this site, almost nobody came to watch. A few people stopped by, and saw that it was good. Then a few more.

He has what he has today because he has published good content on a regular basis, along with an occasional rant about how unfair the world and Google is to him.

Angry losers who hate Google for filtering their spam link to one kind of post, people who appreciate Aaron taking the time to think about something and write down his thoughts link to the other.

If anyone out there thinks that they can't get there, they're just writing their own excuse. Create really great content and promote it - it's not really that hard, in fact it's never been easier to get attention.

But the bar is being raised on what "great content" means. Top 10 lists ain't gonna get you as many air miles as they used to.

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