How Link Building Really Works in 2021


I do not write a lot about link building in 2021. When I do I try to expand the concept usually or at least question it.

I focus on sharing, engagement and outreach (SEO) or as many people refer to it by 2021 “social SEO” instead!

Why? These things actually make you get links from people without manually building them!

Link Building Does not Go Away

The issue with the term link building is that it doesn’t go away. No matter how often I and other people say that you have to

  1. get links
  2. earn links
  3. create linkable assets

people both from the SEO industry and clients will always want you to build links or write about it.

They often even dismiss alternatives like content creation and building relationships in many cases.

Demand and Supply

The ongoing demand is not the only reason why I return to the topic of link building: two of my colleagues I value very much have linked to me in their link building resources:

Wayne Barker of Boom Online has added two of my link building posts to his yearly selection of valuable link building articles.

Jason Acidre of Kaiser the Sage has mentioned me in his very insightful post on high-level link building techniques.

Despite my reluctance to deal with link building some people who know the SEO trade still consider me worthy enough to point out my expertise in this arena.

That’s why I decided to disclose how link building really works these days. It won’t be such an in-depth tutorial like Jason writes.

It will not be a resource list like the amazing collection by Wayne. I still hope it will help you to make sense of the current Internet landscape and the ways you can make other people link to your site.

Link Building vs Attracting Links

There are two kinds of link building: the one that I sell to clients and the other one, the one that I practice intuitively for myself and my blog here.

It’s not that I cheat my clients or something selling them second rate link building while I do the real thing for myself. It’s just that

most clients can’t cope with the state of SEO of today. They are still approaching link building with a traditional mindset. Many

  • clients want links right away and are ready to take short cuts
  • they want link building as a separate entity that has not much to do with their website
  • they want link building without the effort needed to make it possible (e.g. content creation)

For myself I take many things for granted that my clients do not have. That’s why they contact me for link building services, otherwise they probably would not need me. What are these things?

  1. having a name aka personal branding
  2. having friends online aka relationship building
  3. having linkable assets aka content creation

I do have all three to some extent. I’m not a SEO celebrity but the people who matter know who I am.

Many more have read my articles elsewhere but do not remember they were mine probably. Nonetheless enough people recognize me. How do I measure “enough”? 

I can see it by how many read and share what I write.I notice how connected I am when my newly published content spreads by itself without me overtly pushing it.

In case you’re completely new to an industry people won’t even look at your content at first let alone spread it.

For a client I need to overcome the lack of a personal brand.

Even in case you have a brand name people won’t share your content just because they know you. The person who actually writes is crucial.

People follow other people not entities unless the brands are really huge like Apple or Google, then no matter what they do most people will clap.

Average businesses can’t rely on such loyalty. They have to reach out instead or better make friends. That’s what I offer them.

Reaching out just for the link is a short cut. Especially cold mailing people out of the blue is one. Ideally they know you for a while before you actually ask them for a favor.

Even getting people’s attention is a favor nowadays.

Once they know you it takes quite a while and some attention on your side before you become actual friends in the online sense.

How to Make Friends Online

You do not have to meet your online friends in person. Wayne lives in the UK, Jason is based on the Philippines.

Meeting them is not that simple especially as I don’t travel much unlike some famous SEO spokespeople. Still

  • regular attention
  • exchange of ideas
  • mutual aid
  • respect

made us what I consider online friends beyond the meaning of that term on social media sites.

Do they link to me because they owe me a favor or because I ask them to? Not really.

They link to me because they know me, respect me and thus read my articles in the first place.

You Need to Know People to Become Known

When people like my content they link to them in their posts. They link partly because they know me yet that often not enough.

They also know how I usually react: I will notice it and reciprocate by at least sharing their article or linking to it in some cases (see above!).

Yet it’s not like a link exchange or something. Of course my posts have to be good enough to get the links as well. It’s natural give and take.

Without my friends listening to what I say I wouldn’t get the links and shares, or much fewer of them.

For clients in most cases I have to be quick. It’s difficult to reach out and stay connected to the bloggers and influencers I have contacted on their behalf. In the worst case it’s the dreaded “cold outreach” to strangers.

In a way neither I nor them have the online friends needed to get the traction needed. This is how you earn the links you deserve though. At least I hope they deserve them.

Sadly in most cases clients don’t deserve to get links. They don’t have the linkable assets I take for granted.

Then they approach me and want them over night. Here again there is no quick substitute for a strategy. You build up the assets one by one over time.

A blog is not a panacea for a site that does not have any content beyond sales copy and any assets beyond the products they sell.

Until recently potential clients like these would not get back to me after I told them about the things they need to do.

These people went to the next SEO expert who build them links by paying for them. Paid links get riskier with every Google update.

The so called Penguin update has killed off many sites that relied on paid links and other artificially built links. That clean-up was long overdue.

Until then many low quality sites ranked high without actual acknowledgement from real people. The links were literally made up or simply built.

I have flagship content and even my content that’s just great gets also links because people know me and some of them are my friends who tell their friends and so on.

Being recommended by a friend makes me credible even among perceived strangers. Valuable content by itself is only part of the equation.

  1. connections
  2. content
  3. credibility

may already suffice to get enough other people to notice you and then for them to spread the word about you. This will ultimately result in social shares and static links.

It Takes Time to Do it Right

You need to understand that these three prerequisites I take for granted work only in the long run. Once they work you do not even have to spend time on link building directly.

Give me half a year and I will lay the foundation for you to get those natural links. Give me another half a year and I will make the links arrive this organic way by itself.

After a year you have a link building perpetuum mobile. Give me just a few months and a number of links I have to generate instantly and I will have to resort to

for merely great content nobody will see without me pushing it.

A modern link building strategy has to entail half a year of preparation before the links arrive naturally.

Anything faster will be less organic and ultimately not future-proof. Invest time now to prepare for tomorrow or pay again next time once the current short cuts won’t work anymore.

Direct blogger outreach already does not yield the results you’d expect. Why that? Bloggers are not readily waiting to work for you.

Many bloggers want money even though you offer them free content. You may end up paying for links again in the worst case.

Take your time and practice link building like it really works in 2021 and beyond. Take the long road but the one that leads to the desired destination.

* Perpetuum mobile is a Creative Commons image by Thilo Hilberer.