The Imaginary Separation Between Link Building and Content Marketing

imaginary separation header

When you blog a lot, you notice things.

Sometimes they’re obvious things, but sometimes they’re strange things.

One particularly strange thing I’ve noticed has been around the words ‘Content [word for marketing or promotion]’ and ‘Link [words like building, acquisition, and/or development]’.

If a headline had “Content Marketing” in it, it appeals to one set of publications and people on social media.

And if it had “Link Building”, a completely different group of people would share it. It would appear in different industry round ups.

But the true irony of this, is that it could basically be the same article, with ‘content marketing’ swapped for ‘link building’, and ‘content piece’ swapped for ‘linkable asset’.

The SEOs Dilemma? Or Two Roads Diverged on a Whiteboard

Rand Fishkin and his team at Moz recently recorded a video called, “The SEO’s Dilemma – Link Building Vs Content Marketing“, talking about making the decision between content marketing and link building.

Rand said, “I want to address a dilemma that a lot of SEOs and a lot of marketers face and that is sort of choice between what should I be doing to move the needle on my search traffic? Should I be doing kind of classic SEO, the keyword targeting plus link building, which moves the needle? Or should I be thinking more broadly in terms of kind of a full content marketing spectrum?”

It’s a pretty good video, so I highly encourage you to cruise over to Moz and give it a watch. (Don’t worry – barring NSA intervention, this post will be here when you come back.)

Here’s his whiteboard:



But there was something about the video I (respectfully) disagreed with. In his whiteboard sketch, Rand showed link building and content marketing as disparate, deeply divergent paths – where online marketers had to choose one or the other.

The Content Marketing – Link Building Continuum

link building v content marketing v2 cropped


Content marketing and link building are a continuum. You can optimize for the far left or the far right, but tons of value can be captured in the middle by combining both approaches.

Can you do content marketing without building any links?

Yes, you certainly can. You can hide all of your content behind a log-in wall, or, for example, send people postal mail.

Can you do link building without content marketing?
If you put your mind to it, yes, you can.

On the white hat side, you can do resource page outreach (which often requires, you know, resources), you can do broken link building to your site and bask in your tiny response rate, and you can do things like submissions to high quality or niche directories.

You can also do things like market content irrelevant to your business to link rich segments. This was a popular tactic to build domain authority in the late 2000s, especially combined with Digg voting rings.

And if you want to go the grayer route, you can do mass submissions/mass social bookmarking or use any of the other no doubt reputable link building products available on the Warrior Forum.

(Disclaimer: We here at BuzzStream do not necessarily endorse any of the approaches just mentioned.)

Do Link Building and Top of the Funnel Content Marketing Go Together? Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate!

Content marketing can be optimized to achieve certain business goals.

You can optimize for things like search engine rankings, inbound links, conversion, retention, and the like.

However, these goals are not mutually exclusive. Top of Funnel content can both attract links and educate prospects.

Certainly you can build links without content marketing. You can do content marketing without building links. But neither of these is as efficient as it could be. As that forgettable Jack Johnson song told us, Some Things Are So Much Better When [They’re] Together.

If you’re optimizing for lifetime value, instead of one-time traffic, (something that would make Avinash Kaushik’s heart swell with joy), an approach that combines both link building and understanding search visibility with content that appeals to your target market, gets influencer attention, and moves prospects further down the funnel.

As Asana’s business chief Kenny Van Zandt shared on Quora while discussing their growth strategy:
Read Quote of Kenny Van Zant’s answer to Asana: What were the most successful customer acquisition strategies and tactics for Asana? on Quora

But Don’t Forget to Build Links to Your Content Marketing

While I was researching this post, I started looking for good examples of content marketing that ranked for things, and exploring their backlink profiles.

I found something interesting – very few of them reached their link acquisition potential.  

I looked companies famous for their content marketing, like Marketo and Eloqua.  And I found awesome resource hubs like this one with very few linking domains.  

You have to imagine that some university class would find those resources very useful – yet there are no .EDU links.  Moreover, there are only 9 linking root domains to that page, according to AHrefs.  With a page full of great resources from an industry leader on lead scoring – one of the hardest problems in scaling sales and marketing machines – there has to be more link opportunities than that.

If the marketers in charge of this content had done more link outreach, they would’ve gotten better results – more referral traffic, an opportunity to build more influencer relationships, and more search visits.

The idea that content in itself is enough to achieve successful marketing outcomes is fundamentally false.  Content should be promoted as much as possible.  Fundamentally content with great ideas and great production values will not achieve its maximum ROI without great promotion.

Well, that was quite the polemic. What do you think? Are content marketing and link building separate paths? Or can you work on both tactics together to achieve superior results?


  • I must say that if SEOs have a “decent” content marketing budget then building and generating leads is not a difficult task. Still the combination of Link Building and Content Marketing plays a fantastic role to reach your desire goals.

  • “In his whiteboard sketch, Rand showed link building and content marketing as disparate, deeply divergent paths – where online marketers had to choose one or the other.”

    Actually, what I got from that video is that Rand is pushing for a more holistic view, just the same as you.

    I think he is just saying that many marketers see these two activities as ‘separate lands’, it’s not how he thinks it should be, just how he thinks it is at the moment.

    I agree with the both of you – Linkbuilding on it’s own is probably short sighted and unsustainable, and content building on it’s own might not have enough momentum if you don’t give it the ‘push’.

    Combine link building with content creation, and that seems to be where the power of SEO is today.

  • Hi Matt, thanks for taking the time to research and craft a great post. I agree with Julian’s sentiment while watching Rand’s whiteboard post – it’s rarely a choice of strategy, it’s a balance decision.

    Whether Rand’s points were meant to be subtle or not – when you position the post as “old school vs new school” (on his Google+ feed) and suggest there is a “fork in the road”, you’ve set the stage for viewers to see this as a “choice” that needs to be made.

    My experiences are with earlier stage venture-backed consumer web companies that do both as an integrated strategy. On the link building side its primarily guest blogging to build the brand and influencer audience from higher trafficked, relevant sites. As you point out, visitors then must be linked to equally great content experience or its a failed strategy.

    I’m a fan of Moz products – mostly on the link building effort, so that added to the confusion of Rand’s post. In his defense, he attempted to clarify in the comment thread and is worth a read (more than 100+).

  • Spook SEO

    Technically speaking, I wouldn’t say that Richard’s comment about content marketing being link building is true.

    I would however say that if you want to make more sense out of your link building campaign and content marketing campaign, you need to combine both.

    Thanks for sharing this post Matt. Cheers!

  • That’s an interesting point. I suppose not all link building is content marketing and vice-versa. But certainly combining them works great.
    Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • The separation of both is true for a lot of marketers. Hence, their failure. But fortunately, there are some who got past that and realized that combining the two is actually way better.

    Shared your awesome post on the IM social networking site, 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing it Riza.

  • Nice stuff Matt. I’m totally with you on this because I don’t believe link building and content marketing to be separate paths at all. In fact, I might dare to even suggest that content marketing IS link building.

    The reason I say this is because actively promoting a piece of content is with the ultimate goal of landing natural links to it. It’s just not as tactical or agressive as straight up link building, but the end goal is the same.

    So, in a nutshell, could it be fair to say that content marketing is passive link building and link begging / broken link fixing is aggressive link building?

    It could also work the other way hehe. For example, if you find broken link on a resource page and suggest the blogger to replace it with your great piece of content, then that IS content marketing. On a small scale you are marketing your content to the blogger and once the link is updated to your piece of content you have effectively aggressively marketed that content to their audience.

    Dang, the whole thing is getting my brain in a twist but I’m convinced that content marketing and link building at least have many crossovers and cannot be bundled up as two distinctively separate things.

  • Thanks Richard!
    This is one of those issues that I see as mostly semantic. I think active promotion of content marketing can still be content marketing – there are ways to do it (in say, email newsletters) that don’t generate first degree dofollow links – but lots of bloggers do read email newsletters so often it will generate second-degree linsk.

    I think I’m just going to start calling it “That thing where you drive the top of the funnel by making cool, useful things on your site and telling people about them.”

    Thanks for the comment

  • Great post. I was thinking this exact same this while watching that whiteboard Friday. If you read the comments of Rands post you’ll see a lot of people agree with you. It’s rarely ever either or, that produces the best results, but both. Good job, take the rest of the day off Matt.

  • Thanks Julian. Glad you enjoyed it.

    I think in general, frameworks are fun, but as the neurolinguistic programming community says, “The Map is Not the Territory” and it’s important to remember that.

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