To succeed in today’s digital world, your site needs to contain valuable content and earn quality inbound links.

The most important word in that sentence is “and.” Performing well online is not a matter of publishing quality content or earning quality backlinks. One cannot thrive — or even live — without the other.

The two go hand-in-hand.

Content that provides its readers with value is excellent, but it’s not as excellent as it could be if no one finds it within Google’s search results. Conversely, achieving high rankings on the back of a few authoritative backlinks is quite the feat, but it will be all for naught if the content of your site isn’t effective enough to convert the traffic.

Even still, to what extent is the balance of valuable content and quality inbound links necessary for the online success of your business?

To single out the importance of another word, it’s very necessary.

 A Quick History Lesson of Content + Links 

For as long as Google has been around, the content on a site and the number of links inbound to that site have been the two main criteria in determining where it will rank.

The only difference between then and now is the degree of difficulty in getting the two to work in harmony. There was once a time when all of this SEO stuff wasn’t so hard.

From its infancy to not all that long ago, Google consistently struggled to keep up with the evolving black-hat tactics of website owners, webmasters, illegitimate (and some legitimate, unfortunately) search engine optimization professionals, and really anyone with enough technical know-how and the minimal time commitment to create spam.

A little keyword-stuffing here. A little link-farming there. Mix in some patience, and viola, first-page rankings!

And often, as a result, what Google presented end-users for a wide-ranging variety of searches was only mediocre at best and, at worst, downright atrocious.

Though the struggle still remains in some cases, Google has become more efficient in leveraging its resources to clean things up.

Over the past decade-plus, the search engine leader has stiffened considerably in its crusade against spam to produce a better experience for all, rolling out a constant stream of significant, game-changing algorithms designed to hold quality above quantity — and make examples of those who continue to try to game the system and take the easy way out.

At one point, Google unveiled in ultimate transparency its spam-scrubbing efforts, showing real-live examples of sites that had met the qualifications for removal from its search index.

These advances have made it tougher for those who choose not to put in the work to circumvent quality standards, but they have also upped the expectations for the rest of the field.

Nowadays, you either agree to go all-in with a comprehensive, holistic online approach or you surrender to the inevitable.

The Delicate Balance of Content + Links

Achieving this balance is not for the faint of heart.

It requires planning, effort, and, perhaps above all, patience. The shortcuts to SEO success that once existed have been demolished.

When planning your strategy, it’s important to shut out the noise that implies one factor should be assessed more weight than the other. As we’ve written in this space before, links are still the number one factor in achieving high rankings in Google, but we’ve also covered how auditing your site’s content to align with Google’s standards can spur more audience engagement, which validates those high rankings and leads to sustained success through increased conversions, sales, and revenue.

Treat your content and linking efforts equally, and you’ll be successful. But don’t take us for our work, even though we think we’re pretty trustworthy!

Let’s look at some real-world examples of how strongly quality content and authoritative links need one another.

The Content-Only Approach

The recent release of Google’s BERT update may forever change the manner in which publishers approach content to address search intent, but it does not diminish the role that links will play in giving this new-wave content a platform on the first page SERPs.

No matter how good your content is, you still need links to tell Google that your site is authoritative enough to garner robust rankings.

Take the curious case of Upper Ranks’ David Farkas, whose efforts to quantify the ongoing importance of links we detailed not long ago.

Over the course of 18 months, Farkas conducted an experiment that he hoped would validate this concept. What he found was astounding.

Ready to get serious about content marketing?

Using a brand-new site, Farkas spent six months littering it with nearly 30 pieces of high-quality content, only to be disappointed when the site generated virtually no traffic within the following six months.

It was clear that the site was not going to make it on the merit of its content alone. It needed inbound links, and badly. Farkas knew it, but even he could not have predicted the eventual impact of what was to come.

The last six-month segment of Farkas’ experiment was used to execute an ambitious link-building outreach campaign, in which he was ultimately able to secure 100 inbound links to his site, including several from .gov and .edu domains, both very high in authority.

By the time the experiment had concluded, the site ranked within the first five positions of Google for nearly 1,200 keywords and more than 9,600 terms overall.

Case settled.

The Links-Only Approach

We often work with companies who, in addition to wanting to improve existing efforts, have a need to fill gaps within their SEM strategy. Sometimes, that gap is paid search or website design, and others it’s an end of the content/links spectrum that has gone unaddressed.

A client we currently work with today came to us with a gap that could only be filled by content.

The two years prior to the partnership, this company had focused solely on enhancing the authority of the website by building referring domains as a way to increase the number of inbound links. This approach generated traffic, but the results quickly stagnated and stayed that way.

In other words, it wasn’t altogether unsuccessful, but the focus excluded a mandatory part of the equation. Like Farkas, our client realized the need to marry the concepts of content and links, and we were happy to help forge the union.

Content creation efforts started in earnest this past July. Within a month, results started to become apparent, as site traffic grew by more than 37% thanks to the high-quality content joining forces with what was already a considerable amount of domain authority.

And that was just the beginning.

Increases in revenue began to assume the same upward curve as site traffic.

By the end of October, the client had reported an additional 26,000 new starts to their process, resulting in more than $2.2 million in additional revenue.

What’s your link-building strategy look like?

Make no mistake, though: These content efforts involved a little more than simply dotting a page with a few related keywords.

The key was blending various important industry-related terms with simple language that spoke directly to the reader — both acknowledging questions and problems he or she had and faced and then layering in answers and solutions to tie it all together.

The icing on the cake was sprinkling in citations of supporting facts, such as survey results, government studies, research papers, etc.

In Google’s eyes, the valuable content on this site now validated the authoritative inbound links that had been created prior, turning the light green for a move up in the rankings.

The modern key to unlocking the power of content extends beyond keyword density. You want to write topically, of course, but if Google is going to value your content, it has to be able to confirm that your content is first providing value to those who are reading it.

And this means that what you write has to accomplish three things:

  • Convey Expertise
  • Portray Authority
  • Instill Trust

This is what Google calls its E-A-T rating, only it’s not really a scoring system that’s used to rate content.

It’s more or less a model used to help guide employees at Google in manually reviewing content on the Web to determine its value.

If your content satisfies the three requirements of this E-A-T model, Google will be more inclined to rank it prominently in search results, just as it did with the content that was created for our client.


Today, if you want to succeed online, you have to play by Google’s rules: produce valuable content on your site that attracts quality inbound links.

Executing this formula is challenging, but that’s a good thing. Nothing worth doing right is easy.

This challenge presents new and existing opportunities. Use it to improve your content sitewide and enhance your customer experience with increased levels of expertise, authority, and trust. Better experiences lead to more inbound links, which means higher rankings in Google.

And this partnership of content and links, when equal respect is given to each, will result in a higher rate of engagement, more conversions, and increased revenue for your business.


Ryan Faller

Learn more about Ryan Faller

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