A Link Builder’s Response to John Mueller

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A Link Builder’s Response to John Mueller

When I clocked into work on Monday, February 16, I saw this.


Screenshot taken on February 16, 2015


As I’m sure many of you will understand, I find it harder to “wake up” on Monday mornings. Mondays require me to consume a disproportionately high amount of coffee. This news gave me the requisite jolt however.

You see, I work at a custom link building agency. I’ve worked at this agency for close to three years now, so links and link building are ordinarily on the forefront of my mind.

You would think this kind of headline would strike panic into my heart. The voice of Google is squashing my trade, right?

Wrong. And here’s why.

The Context

On February 13–yes, it was Friday the 13th–John Mueller was part of the Google Webmaster office-hours hangout. This is not unusual. The office-hours hangout is a series hosted on G+ where Google employees like Mueller will address questions from webmasters around the world.

Indeed, Mueller has been known to break important news during these hangouts. He was the first person from Google to confirm Penguin 3.0, even though it turned out later that he was wrong about some crucial details.

At the 55:40 mark of February 13th’s hangout, one webmaster asked of Mueller: “Is link building in any way good for webmasters?”

Mueller answered by saying:

“In general, I’d try to avoid that. So that you are really sure your content kind of stands on its own and make it possible for other people of course to link to your content. Make it easy, maybe, put a little widget on your page, if you like this, this is how you can link to it. Make sure that the URLs on your website are easy to copy and paste. All of those things make it a little bit easier.

We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.”

The Controversy

Mueller said this on a Friday, but the story didn’t really pick up a lot of traction until the following Monday. No one keeps up with the news over the weekend. I didn’t even see a single mention on Twitter.

Monday morning, however, the criticism commenced. If you dug through the comments of the Search Engine Roundtable post, you would find remarks like:


Screenshot taken on February 16, 2015

Link building has been a hotbed for controversy in SEO ever since the Penguin algorithm was first launched in April 2012. This isn’t even close to the first time someone has prematurely issued a death certificate for link building. Just do a search query for “is link building dead?” and you will see a long line of results with practically the same title and, more importantly, varying dates.


Screenshot taken on February 18, 2015

Link building is so often eulogized because Penguin targeted spammy link building aggressively. A large amount of websites that were actively building manipulative links saw tremendous drops in rankings, which unfortunately culminates into a tremendous drop in revenue.

This is undisputed. Here’s the more important question: what is link building, really?

The Comeback

Mick Jagger once wrote a song called, “Old Habits Die Hard.” He released this song in 2004, about 25 years after people stopped listening to The Rolling Stones. I suppose he wanted to prove his own point.

Old habits do die hard. The old brand of instant-submit, spammy link building is alive. THIS is the kind of link building John Mueller doesn’t want to see anymore. This is the kind of link building I don’t want to see anymore either.

In the comments section of the Search Engine Roundtable post, Michael Martinez said:


Screenshot taken on February 18, 2015

It should be mentioned that Mr. Martinez is hardly the biggest proponent of link building, but even he understands the difference between pre-Penguin and post-Penguin link building.

Real, modern link building isn’t submitting a link to a list of low-quality sites that exist only for nefarious link equity purposes. Nor is link building a process of creating infographics with cleverly hidden anchor text.

To me and to many others, link building is another form of promotion.

The overwhelming majority of sites online today don’t have even a morsel of brand recognition. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. It just means that the Internet is a really noisy place. By the time you’re done reading this sentence, there will be a 100+ new blog posts uploaded. And that’s just WordPress.

Modern link building is all about finding relevant sites with audiences that could benefit from your unique value proposition, and persuading those sites to link to you. That’s it.

In order to rank, it’s essential to have quality backlinks in your link profile. Mueller says as much in the video.

Consider this comment from Marcus Krieg:


Screenshot taken on February 18, 2015

How can a newer site expect to rank if they just have to wait for other niche influencers to serendipitously discover them? If you don’t have links in your profile, you’re not going to rank. And if you don’t rank, it’s going to be hard to find you and your linkworthy pages/content. You couldn’t find a more exemplary catch-22 unless you were in the Joseph Heller section of a bookstore.

It’s simply ridiculous for Google to say you can’t promote your site to other sites with links in mind. Links are the backbone of Google, but they are also the backbone of the web in general. Any savvy marketer wants to build links for reasons even beyond the benefits of search.

One thing that’s NOT ridiculous about Mueller’s answer, however, is the last part of it.

“So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.”

Even though I’m a link builder, I couldn’t agree more. Same goes for Nick Stamoulis of Brick Marketing:


Screenshot taken on February 18, 2015

When you scale link building to the point where it’s your ONLY exposure strategy, you have two problems.

  1. You’re missing out on other opportunities that have their own set of benefits (social media, PPC, email marketing, etc.)
  2. Google will construe your efforts as manipulation, and rightfully so

But as long as you’re building the kind of links that are relevant to your niche AND better the overall user experience, Google won’t punish this kind of link building. They have a long history of not doing so. The founding father of link building, Eric Ward, left this fantastic comment on Search Engine Roundtable:


Screenshot taken on February 17, 2015

I couldn’t say it any better myself, Eric.


What are your thoughts on John Mueller’s comments?

Jesse Stoler

Jesse Stoler

Content Marketing Specialist at Page One Power
Jesse Stoler is a Content Specialist at Page One Power, a link building firm based out of Boise, Idaho. He is also a staff writer... Read Full Bio
Jesse Stoler
Jesse Stoler
Jesse Stoler

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  • Tim Hand

    As long as backlinks are a ranking factor, white hat link-building will have a place. And I don’t think there’s any risk of backlinks losing their importance.

    Remember when Matt Cutts talked about Google’s internal experiment in removing backlinks as a ranking factor? He said, “…We have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much much worse. It turns out that backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really really big win in terms of quality of search results.”

    • Jesse Stoler

      Well said Tim! Despite all of the linkspam abuse of the past decade or so, the purpose of a natural link hasn’t changed it all. Links are still editorial votes that of confidence from one site to the next. I can’t possibly think of a better display of relevancy than that.

    • Iman

      Google still counts backlinks for the SERP. Google only improves its algorithms for fighting spamming. The link building is never dead, so ignore all myths about “link building is dead.

      • Jesse Stoler

        Agreed Iman! There’s no evidence to support the idea that links are going to be devalued within Google’s algorithm anytime soon. Thanks for the comment!

      • Subrata Chakrabarty

        Google still and will be counting backlinks for the SERP. The link building will never dead, so ignore all myths about “link building is dead.

        I totally Agree with your answer @Iman

  • Gerald

    I think John was talking in a social give and take setting and not thinking that the bit of tid he dropped would be nom’d on so vigorously. Eric’s, of course, spot on… linking is essential and John would probably (and may still) further refine his statement to underscore that same truth – there are right ways and there are most certainly wrong ways. Google clearly factors the right ways and uses their super-powers-for-good-not-evil to amplify/dampen appropriately.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Gerald! What’s funny is that in an earlier draft of this article, I had an entire section where I talked about how I felt Mueller was slowly transitioning into the Matt Cutts role, or at least something similar. Of course, now it’s clear that we Gary Ilyes to fill that Matt Cutts-sized-hole in our lives. Perhaps Mueller had too many verbal guffaws in his past? I could be entirely offbase. Thanks again for the comment!

  • Josh Adams

    Awesome post, Jesse.

    I no longer take any notice of what any of the Webmaster guys are saying at Google – link building is perfectly fine and normal in my eyes and I genuinely believe it’s close to impossible for the majority to ever succeed without link building in some capacity.

    Obviously we know that black hat is unnatural.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Couldn’t agree more Josh. Who knows exactly what the Internet will look like five years from now, but it’s hard to imagine the power of the link ever becoming obsolete. Links are going to be a crucial ranking signal for the foreseeable future, and if so, Google would be wrong to squash our right to promote our sites. Thanks for the comment!

  • Angelos Savvaidis

    People are confused.

    It’s not weird that even though we are fighting for organic reach we are using the expression “Link Building” which gives out a notion of people building links… not so organic if you ask me.

    The whole idea is to Gain Links… if you are good at what you do… if you offer value to the world wide web you will gain links.

    That’s it. Get use to it and stop fussing over couple of words you translated wrong.

    Nice article mate ! Keep up the good work.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Angelos! There are absolutely times where if you do great work and create great content, links will come without having to do a significant amount of legwork. But if you have a site that’s starting from scratch, that’s close to impossible. In these instances (and others as well), there should be absolutely nothing wrong with reaching out to webmasters within your niche and explaining how your site will benefit their respective audience. It’d be absurd for Google to prohibit such honest-to-goodness promotion. Cheers, and thanks for the kind words again!

      • Angelos Savvaidis

        Hey there Jesse,

        That’s one way to do it of-course. I am quite certain though that sites that just reach into their niche market for a friendly backlink wont be penalized for that action. If you recall Google penalized sites that did that for a living. Hundreds of thousands of Backlinks from Spammy websites.

        Of-course they did hurt the rankings of most sites that had backlinks that just didn’t add up. It was a necessary evil. They had to take those sites down and we all agreed on that at that period.

        Right now there are literally hundreds of ways to inform people of your new content with the simplest and most effective being Social Media.

        Inform your niche market through social media ( which of-course you did good job to optimize and gather them all in one place ) and links will still come.


        Not that I am any sort of a expert or anything. I’ve been wrong before.

  • Tim Hand

    As long as backlinks are a ranking factor, white hat link-building will have a place. And I don’t think there’s any risk of backlinks losing their importance.

    Remember when Matt Cutts talked about Google’s internal experiment in removing backlinks as a ranking factor? He said, “…We have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much much worse. It turns out that backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really really big win in terms of quality search results.”

    • Tim Hand

      Gah, didn’t think this first comment went through. Sorry for the dupe comment!

  • Andy McIlwain

    I think Mueller’s advice boils down to “don’t obsess over this single thing”.

    It’s like obsessing over the fixtures in a kitchen reno, but not paying attention to the flooring, the walls, the cabinetry, the appliances, the plumbing and electrical.

    Take link building into consideration, but don’t put it on a pedestal above everything else. It has a role. It’s important. But so are many other aspects of your site.

    • Mike Lowry

      Yes, John should saying that only “Quality measure always, not the quantity” .

    • Kelsey Jones

      Great overall takeaway. Over-focusing on one thing never helps.

      • Jesse Stoler

        Oh absolutely! I’m a link builder first and foremost, but there’s no question that if your marketing efforts depend EXCLUSIVELY upon link building, your doing your marketing all wrong. It’s absolutely important to consider other strategies to gain exposure. Link building may be an important piece of the puzzle imo, but it’s indeed only one piece. Thanks for the comments!

  • Alex Braga

    I can’t wait until that day when backlinks excluded from Google’s algorithm

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Alex. I suppose that’s your prerogative. All evidence points to the fact that it will be a long, long wait.

  • Tan

    He is advising to avoid spammy link building and focus on natural link gains. However I think in some countries, spammy link building still works. I saw many websites ranked high with auto generated backlinks, and they are still in their position for years.

    • Jesse Stoler

      I won’t disagree that spam can potentially still work. Google is getting better at fighting the good fight, but no one would ever accuse them of being perfect. That said, I think the cases of linkspam working are much more infrequent than the pre-Penguin era. Google is going to win the war outright, but they’re going to win a majority of the battles. Thanks for the comment!

  • Caffeine Clicks

    Well said and I couldn’t agree more. The only people that are panicking are the ones who loaded their sites with spammy links in order to manipulate the search results. Proper link building has always been based on quality, relevancy and diversity. Not much has changed.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, for all of the talk that link building has changed or evolved, I’d argue that’s not totally correct. White hat link building practices have remained fairly constant since Eric Ward ushered them in back in the 90s. When we say link building has changed, it’s more accurate to say that the spam boom of the aughts has caught up to the tried and true practices that many knew worked for years and years.

  • Luca Tagliaferro

    I think what they are saying is that we shouldn’t get stressed with link building as an activity in SEO. There are a lot of other ways to market your website, Adwords, Affiliates, Email, etc…Once you have the right content that people want to read and share, then link building should be started and it won’t be considered spammy. Also because high quality websites will want to share your content.
    I would never start a promotion from link buildings, this looks spammy for sure.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Luca! I agree that it’d be pretty foolish to make link building step one of your marketing and/or launch plan. And I would certainly never advocate the idea that you should focus exclusively on link building. Putting all of your eggs in one marketing basket will leave entirely too many opportunities on the table. Indeed, building links at an enormous scale for a site with little to offer could easily be construed as spam.

      Having said all that, once you have a clearly defined brand messaging and/or content, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to manually promote your site to relevant influencers and authorities. You say that high quality websites will want to share your content. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. I’ll tell you though that your chances increase when you actually converse with the people who run those websites.

      Thanks again for the comment!

  • Joe

    I think John is just trying to spread misinformation. He said this, then he said Panda / Penguin are manual updates, then just a few days ago he said duplicate content was essentially ok.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment! I won’t deny that Google appears to have egg all over its face. The controversy over the manual vs. machine updates isn’t manufactured – it’s a big deal. However, in this instance I think Mr. Mueller just gave an incomplete answer while speaking off-the-cuff. I could be wrong, As far as I’m aware, he has little to no PR experience. So I could be wrong, and I could be choosing to have a little too much faith in people, but I don’t think there was any malicious intent here.

  • Adam

    Two things which matters are :- Content and links. You take care of the quality and you will never fail.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Adam! While I’d say that content and links aren’t the only things that matter, they should of course be primary considerations for any website. And yes, the better your content is, the easier it will be for you to build great links!

  • Kundan

    Link building should be followed but following relevant and clean way. Quality Backlinks helps you to be different from website dont have any backlinks. Our effort to create good backlinks helps to get better visibilty.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Kundan! I agree that you should always pursue quality when building links.

  • Guy Max

    I guess one major point of Johns answer is: If you only do linkbuilding (and not combined with good content and marketing measures) it can get back to you in a negative way, because other algorithms will get you.

    A) Your site is sending bad user metrics (bounce back to search…) and your content is not worth to rank and b) its likely that the links are artifical because nobody likes to link to crappy sites. And c) google still got problems to identify some artifical links…

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Guy! I completely agree that link building should not be your only marketing strategy. You can miss out on a plethora of opportunities by not pursuing other channels. And yes, Google clearly still has problems detecting all the spam. It continues to be an uphill battle, but they’re getting better at finding ways to march up that hill. Thanks again!

  • Kristopher

    Hi Jesse, thanks for the post. I’m pretty new to the game, however it seems that natural linkbuilding over time is the way to go. I think for the majority of us looking to build sustainable businesses, SEO is a long distance race, rather than a sprint to instant results.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Yes Kristopher! This is the exact right kind of mindset for link building and SEO. Cultivating a reputable brand name takes an considerable amount of effort as opposed to simply spamming the web. The results, however, are long-term are far more rewarding. Thanks for the comment!

  • Dan Patterson

    Putting all your eggs into the “Google basket” is just a bad idea. I have seen first hand how links play a factor in rankings across the major search engines, and Google is by far the most “social aware”. But if some day Bing or another search engine makes a run for Googles’ crown and succeeds, then a lot of SEO’s are going to be kicking themselves for only following Google. But even Google will most likely always use links within their algorithm.

    • Jesse Stoler

      Thanks for the comment Dan! I’d agree that putting all of your eggs in Google’s basket is a bad idea. Yes, Google is the most powerful director of online traffic in the world, but it’s far from the only one. It’s risky to have your entire online campaign hinge on the whims of one search engine.