An Open Letter to Content Marketers and Link Builders

Dear Content Marketers and Link Builders,

Do you send emails to authors and publishers that frame a backlink request as if you’re doing them a favor?

I’m on to you. And hopefully, other web publishers are too.

I know it’s becoming rare, but I research before I write about a topic. If a link helped me, it’s likely to help my readers, and so I always cite those sources and provide those links. Your URL was not a source for my article, and in spite of your claims, it almost never offers any value to my writing.

The dark secret you don’t authors to know is that giving you a backlink could affect their ranking.  If they link to your content using the keywords they want to rank for, Google may just decide your content is more authoritative than theirs.  But you already knew that, didn’t you? I understand this game because I’ve dipped my toes into your water deep enough to know just how gross it can be.

So I’m unlikely to ever respond positively to these emails. If you’ve got a “blacklist,” then kindly add me to it.

On its face, this strategy feels like it’s light-years ahead of old techniques like blog-spamming. You’re selective about your backlink targets. You’re asking permission rather than posting the unwanted link yourselves. But you’re still gaming the system by soliciting links your content hasn’t earned, and instead of exploiting weak comment forms you’re leveraging human psychology by framing the request as if you’re doing the author a favor.

I appreciate that folks in your line of work are putting effort into finding pages relevant and authoritative on a specific topic if that’s what you’re doing. But are you?

I have no proof, but my coder’s brain thinks you’re working smart, not hard.

It would be easy to write code that calls Ahrefs or some other keyword research tool to build lists of high-authority pages for a keyword. That script could then submit the site’s contact form automatically, filling out the message from a template.

You’ve got to accept that someone like me that works on the web every day knows what’s up when you send these requests. Unfortunately, I also understand I’m a minority. You wouldn’t be doing it if your game was well-understood because it wouldn’t be profitable.

I know you folks are just trying to make a living and I don’t fault you for that. But what you’re doing hurts the web, and it harms humanity.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, we’re all agonizingly familiar with the concept of fake news. But the problem did not start with them. Propaganda is probably as old as language itself. But the Internet scales the danger of misinformation like the atomic bomb scales the risk of combustion.

The world wide web started with the potential to transform humanity positively. It could equalize. It could bring us together in ways that physical geography makes impossible. All of the sudden we had a source of virtually free information that could level the intellectual playing field between the haves and the have-nots. Hyperlinks offered a mechanism to reference sources and other information in their entirety, making it very easy to quickly “deep dive” on topics or skills we wanted to master.

I had hope for this technology’s potential to improve our access to low-cost, high-quality education.

But money, advertising, and political gamesmanship left their mark, and now we’re left with a near limitless supply of untrustworthy information in which users ask questions, and get answers whose validity is gauged by how well their authors gamed the algorithms rather than quality or correctness.

The SEO field grew because everyone thinks their content deserves to be in the top 10 search result, or if they recognize that it doesn’t deserve a high ranking, they’re willing to pay to get it anyway. Search engines respond to this challenge with better algorithms to reward better answers and better content. Marketers react by switching tactics. This strategy of benevolent solicitation adds some nuance to link building efforts, but it’s still a game.

You want your client’s content to be the “best answer” to a particular search query. I get that. But unless the material actually fits that description, you’re hurting the web.

As long as marketers can influence and control what users see when they search, those marketers are helping to build the post-fact world, and shift the Internet from a tool of intellectual and political freedom into an engine of global propaganda. </tinfoilhat>

Plus your non-stop emails and follow-ups are just f*#!ing annoying. Make great content, and if it’s worth linking, I’m going to find it. I promise.