Why Link Building Is a Waste of Resources

The days when you can buy links and expect them to drive lasting search engine optimization (SEO) value are long over. Google is too good at detecting unnatural linking patterns, and frankly, most paid links are so lazy and obvious that they aren’t hard to spot. For link acquisition, focus instead on the strategies that drive lasting benefit.

Do Links Matter?

Yes, links matter, but not as much as they used to. In 1998 when Google launched, they raced to the head of the search engine pack on the back of PageRank, a ranking system that determines the value of a page based on citation analysis. In essence, the more high-quality links point to your pages, the better chance those pages have of ranking. 

Yes, links still help search engines discover new sites and new content, and PageRank is still an active part of Google’s ranking systems. But links aren’t the top-3 ranking signal they used to be, in part because they’re so easy to spam.

What Is Link Spam?

Because links originally influenced ranking so strongly in organic search, they became a commodity to buy and sell. This worked for years but has had decreasing value since the days of the Penguin Updates that began in 2012.

Today, Google calls out buying links as a practice they consider spam, detects paid links algorithmically using artificial intelligence (AI), and devalues paid links they detect. For instance, Google’s guidelines state that buying or selling links for ranking purposes is considered spam, including:

  • Exchanging money for links or posts that contain links
  • Exchanging goods or services for links
  • Sending someone a product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
How Does Google Detect Link Spam?

Google has long said that buying links produces unnatural-looking patterns between linking sites. Those patterns are easy to identify, and the links that make up the unnatural patterns are easy to devalue.

Since 2018, Google has had an entire ranking system called SpamBrain, an AI-based spam-prevention system. Not much is known about SpamBrain. Google trots out mentions of it every year in its annual reports on how much spam the search engine has detected and nullified over the past year. 

For example, in April of 2023, Google announced that SpamBrain had “detected 50 times more link spam sites compared to the previous link spam update.”

This is on top of the regular Link Spam algorithm updates that Google launches specifically to improve its link spam detection and nullification processes. The last of these was in December 2022, though there was a general Spam Update in October 2023 that included language about link spam as well.

What Happens When You Buy Links?

Well, not much, actually. In the olden days of the Penguin Updates, link spam was actively punished by demotion. These days, Google just quietly removes the power that the paid links have in a process it calls devaluing the links. Essentially, the value that the link provided is just removed, algorithmically, leaving the site with fewer valuable links to benefit its ranking ability. There is no warning when this happens, the value is just gone.

Basically, you pay for something, and you feel good about doing something for your SEO program, but it has zero value. Yes, buying links is easy to do, and it’s easy to track. But that on-paper value doesn’t translate to long-term benefit in the real world of rankings.

Buying links is a waste of resources that could be better spent on other SEO strategies, ones that actually improve your site for visitors as well as improving your organic search.

These days Google’s representatives frequently advise against link building, saying things like:

  • “Of course — most of those links do nothing, we’ve spent many years ignoring that kind of thing.” John Mueller, Google Search Advocate, April 10, 2023
  • “There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall.” Mueller, April 1, 2024
  • “We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.” Gary Illyes, Google Analyst, April 19, 2024
What to Do Instead of Buying Links

The money spent on buying links can be used in so many more effective ways to improve your site for both SEO and for visitors coming to your site. 

Today, Google places an extremely high value on helpful content written for people. That great content doesn’t just fall off a tree — the internet is littered with crummy, poorly written content. It takes time and resources to create excellent, helpful, people-first content, and the dollars previously spent on link building are better spent in this way. 

Great content is good for the contextual relevance of the page it’s on, but also, in aggregate, it’s a marker of the quality and relevance of the entire site. It can also act as a way to earn links naturally — people love to share content that speaks strongly to them. Those shares can take the form of mentions or links on sites, both of which pass value to your site. These editorial, freely given links are worth their weight in gold.

If you’re deadset on paying for link value, digital PR is another great avenue to explore. Basically, it’s like regular PR where the folks working in digital PR agencies have contacts and connections with people in the media. But they marry that PR expertise with content creation skills, enabling them to create content to pitch to their partners in the media world to acquire mentions and links. Either way, there’s no getting around the content creation aspect of SEO these days.  

Take a good, hard look at your SEO practices around link building. Consider the dollars you’re spending and what it means to drive zero return on investment for those dollars. Ethical link acquisition built on a foundation of content creation is the only way forward in 2024.

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