Using content marketing for links? You might be doing it wrong

If you’re still building content for links, you have a problem.

Why should you de-prioritise links as the primary metric for your content marketing campaigns and start thinking about achieving your business KPI’s instead?

There’s a very clear shift happening in the search agency landscape that I think we should all talk about. SEO has been conflating content marketing with link building, and it’s hurting both specialisms.

IcelandAir's Northern Lights piece was developed by the Builtvisible team to highlight a popular tourist attraction as part of their ongoing digital campaign

IcelandAir’s Northern Lights piece was developed by the Builtvisible team to highlight a popular tourist attraction as part of their ongoing digital campaign

More and more, agencies with expertise in organic search (like ours) are acquiring the people and skills to expand their digital content production capabilities to a fuller creative content offering.

For example:

  • Full site design and development
  • Branding
  • Interactives and campaign microsites
  • Data visualisation
  • Illustrations
  • Video
  • Other forms of buyer’s journey driven content
  • Other creative design services

As a result of that shift, there’s an issue that I see us tackling more and more each day. That’s that businesses who consume SEO services use content marketing for links. That approach is somewhat flawed.

The outcome from a piece of content we're actually looking for - thanks Rand

The outcome from a piece of content we’re actually looking for – thanks Rand

Relying on links as the KPI is not reconcilable to any business performance metric

Firstly, clients who are purchasing content with SEO objectives in mind (any type of medium from an infographic to an interactive experience) tend to rely on KPI’s that might focus solely on metrics such as link volume, shares on social networks and so on.

This has all sorts of uncomfortable side effects.

  1. That it’s actually very easy to garner performance metrics directly to the URL of the content itself but hard to direct any of those benefits into revenue generating pages on site (except, perhaps for the home page). The links acquired might be beneficial for search, but might not be relevant to the purpose of the actual business.
  2. The agency is treated like a production outfit when in fact we have strategic expertise that far outstretches producing single pieces of content for links and SEO purposes.
  3. Over time it becomes gradually more difficult to steer the conversation towards real business outcomes which content marketing can absolutely achieve.
  4. Running a campaign for any meaningful amount of time (6 – 12 months) is a difficult sell because the primary objectives set don’t encourage the need for campaign planning.

Furthermore it’s getting harder to justify the long term value in SEO orientated content marketing.

The problem: it’s an SEO centric approach not a customer centric strategy. You have to provide uniquely relevant content that performs a useful function.

Challenging conventions

Unfortunately, the convention of content for links and secondary metrics can be difficult to challenge, especially in larger organisations where the mechanics of success measurement are baked in, all the way up the management reporting structure.

This convention prolongs the core issue: your organisation might believe its marketing goal should be “create content for links”. Meanwhile, it’s ignoring the value content strategy can add throughout the buyer’s journey while delivering meaningful business outcomes:

Put simply, don’t confuse link building goals with content marketing goals

Link acquisition deployed carefully is still an important tactic to boost the individual ranking performance of pages in organic search. Though this activity shouldn’t be confused with the goal selection process for your content marketing efforts.

Providing that an item of content fully answers a user need in a search engine friendly way, the right promotion can achieve a variety of primary goals with links as the validating secondary outcome.

How we market Builtvisible

When I think about the marketing we do for Builtvisible today, none of it involves directly attempting to build links.

Our success metrics revolve around the lead generation capability of the site. In its simplest form; top of funnel growth is achieved via our blog and guides. The awareness garnered earlier in the funnel is converted from our home and services pages. Obviously word of mouth, referrals and positive mentions all play their role, but eventually, someone emails, calls or uses our contact form.


Our lead generation performance in Google is obviously a part consequence of our content attracting links but, I’d argue that is a product of learning what our audience likes to read. Then, we write for that. Our audience votes with positive mentions and shares.

What we’re not doing: learning what people link to and creating content to achieve that.

What we’re doing: learning what people love, creating the best content we can write and promoting in the right places.

Content, just not for links

In the end though, we’re still talking about the same thing: content, just not for links.

When you’re getting to know a new client, the conversation doesn’t start with “how many links will you need?”, it starts like this:

Internally, we’ve begun this discussion as a way to cut to the core of our customer’s requirements:

How is our client’s performance measured? What will get them a payrise at work?

Based on what we learn, the “drive-by” content strategy can be derived from answering:

How to get started

Steven wrote an exceptional introduction to content strategy for SMEs. I highly recommend you take his process into account: create personas, nail your voice and tone, ideate early concepts, plan a calendar and always have clear goals defined.

I think Steven’s approach for resource or budget thin marketing teams is an excellent starting point.

As soon as you’re ready to graduate, the process at Enterprise scale can go much deeper. Take a look at our introductory guide to content marketing or the process outlined below:

Kick Off: Phase 1

Start by:

Phase 2: Production

Production activities might include

*To learn more about how we approach the ideation phase, take a look at our ideas that work in content series or the web marketer’s guide to Reddit.

Key considerations

What format must your content take to achieve this goal?

You need to choose the format of your content very carefully. The medium you use will dictate how effectively the content spreads on the channel. Knowing what works well on Facebook probably won’t help you unpick the format you’ll need to use to promote something on Twitter or Instagram.

How can your content be repurposed to fit into a campaign that might work on different channels?

Repurposing content for budget constraints or campaign longevity is a subject Steven covered a few weeks ago. Content comes in a wide variety of formats.

The trick for a really effective campaign is knowing how to make each item of content more appropriate for the channel it’s destined for:

Greenpeace's Instagram, Facebook, Energy Desk blog and Twitter profile

Greenpeace’s Instagram, Facebook, Energy Desk blog and Twitter profile

What promotional strategy would work best to achieve your goals?

This is part of a forthcoming blog post, because it’s huge. For now, remember what you’re trying to achieve; the placement of a message in front of exactly the right audience. On that note I’ve always been a believer in organic exposure through the use of really targeted outreach.

Choose your paid and organic promotional placement wisely:


Performance measurement is a critical component of our iterative, phase based content marketing campaigns.

Analytics dashboard construction will be unique in some ways to the client and our agreed objectives. For example; Builtvisible has a dashboard setup that looks at surface performance metrics such as traffic, time on site and so on. We even look at AMP pages in a separate dashboard view.

Content is grouped by types such as blog posts, guides and services:


And then we measure outcomes such as:

And so on. The beginnings of a measurable content marketing strategy.

Of course, none of this gets you off the hook when it comes to link building.

When links *are* the correct metric

For now, link building is definitely part of the SEO process. It’s just that separating “content marketing” from SEO opens up a broad horizon of business goals. And, it makes choosing them, measuring them and applying attribution well so much easier.

Some companies need to maintain high converting organic traffic by ranking highly for individual groups of commercial keywords. This is when savvy, careful management of a domain’s link profile link building and link auditing and removal) comes into play.

To execute a fully effective digital campaign though, we should get comfortable with separate content marketing and SEO goals.

References / further reading

Comments are closed.

  • The challenge with pure content marketing is that it take a really long time to provide ROI, Mark Schaefer
    estimated between 4-5 years. It always takes a long time to achieve a reliable “reach” so a business is then able to create content that only needs support from their owned media.

    I am sure there will a time when the only way to push a brands sites in the SERP’s is through content marketing approach but we are not there yet and likely won’t for a number of years.

    I still see links and social as the best metric of how the real people view the content.

    Getting a real link is still the highest accolade for a piece of content and as of today is the main driver for search visibility for a domain.

    Content that does not earn links and social will just sit on a site looking pretty. If you have a big ad budget to support it, then maybe you can make it earn its keep -but if that is the case, we have moved into the realms of native advertising.

    Right now I wouldn’t recommend a pure content marketing approach for clients unless you have buy-in from the entire team and everyone is happy to wait 5 years for a return and don’t mind learning a lot along the way. I would also suggest that many agencies are still in this boat, considering content marketing only arrived in 2013.

    Although I totally agree that content should do more than attract links:

    6 months ago we added a content-giveaway to our interactive infographic – it has since added 4K+ subscribers to our list, but this content still had to earn the links and social share reach first, which means it is consistently attracting 4,000 people per week even 2 years after it went live.

  • Hi Danny,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

    I disagree with the basic assertion you made that CM ROI takes 4-5 years to prove itself. That’s utterly insane: a well researched campaign targets customers at every stage of user intent, the decision funnel, from growth to additional sales and retention, capitalising on quick wins in the long tail of search while making space and time for the bigger pieces. Achieving faster ROI and traffic growth is simply a function of a well executed project plan and an agency with plenty of resource to get the job done.

    When you said: “I am sure there will a time when the only way to push a brands sites in the SERP’s is through content marketing approach but we are not there yet and likely won’t for a number of years.” this implies that either it’s one tactic or the other in your mind and not a carefully considered balance of strategically led content development, content marketing, link building, PR and outreach. Surely not?

    Thanks for the food for thought!


    PS: pretty sure content marketing was an already an establishing specialism in 2006/7 – see Joe Pulizzi /

  • It will be interesting to see how the role of an agency adjusts to this new world.

    I can’t see a time when an agency will have the required understanding of a client’s brand, mission, product, goals, culture, structure and business plan to provide significant value outside of the awareness stage. Agencies by their very nature work with lots of different brands and have a limited time for each client.

    Most agencies have a hard time understanding the consideration/decision/retention stages of their businesses, never mind the large number of clients they work with.

    However, agencies are extremely powerful at the awareness stage. They can see how the brand is viewed externally without the curse of knowledge suffered by most clients and can quickly spot opportunities to connect pre-existing audiences to the brand. Content agencies working across many industries and clients are learning what makes audiences tick and can quickly apply learnings across their entire client base.

    Thanks for an interesting debate!

  • “I can’t see a time when an agency will have the required understanding of a client’s brand, mission, product, goals, culture, structure and business plan to provide significant value outside of the awareness stage.”

    Much of that required understanding happens at the onboarding stage for clients of BV. We get to know our client, their purpose and goals. We then set goals at a range of different consideration phases and take revenue, traffic growth / conversion kpis happily.

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