Link Building History: An In Depth Look at the History & Evolution of Link Building Strategies

Throughout the years, link building has remained one of the most powerful ways of driving traffic to websites.

Way back when, there was a time the internet was chock-full of complex link pyramids, spammy articles, spun content, and quite possibly hundreds of other “quick wins” that ending up causing long term damage.

In the last twenty years, SEO gurus have endured challenges making it nearly impossible to spam. Now, the only options for creating high-quality links start with high quality content. We are now in a day in age where quality link building is widely appreciated and most certainly needed.

Wondering How Much Link Building Costs in 2020? Check Out Our Link Building Pricing Guide.

Although the tactics we use have grown complicated, the rewards of doing it correctly (according to Google) are better than ever.

In Google’s perspective, it is their job to filter through millions of search results and give its internet search users the upmost quality of content. In a perfect Google world, website owners would create engaging and useful content that can then be shared, reviewed, and recommended to other users across the web.

The practice of filtering content keeps the search engines clean and free of spammy content. Because let’s face it, no one wants to search for peanut butter only to be directed to something entirely different.

The main point is this; Google is a genius system that has grown in intelligence over the years and can now detect spammy content fairly easily. When you try to cheat your way through with cheap, spammy link building, you will find it only does more harm than good. In today’s world of link building, it is well worth writing quality content. Once you’ve built your online presence correctly, it will reflect in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

In the beginning though, the link building strategies of SEO were easy to follow. Sometimes it would be as easy as following a list of to-do’s that would lead to great results. However, quality control was launched by Google and it disrupted the laws online marketers had followed for years. Google’s only goal was quality, and then soon after, that became the goal of online marketers to please Google.

Below is a cultivated, in-depth timeline of how exactly we may have gotten to our practices today, and the hurdles we had to jump over to make it in this online-driven world. All the countless hours of work, all the cups of coffee, and all the sleepless nights were all part of the struggle we’ve had to endure for these changes. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. One thing is for sure, it’s never boring with the fast and ever changing rules of the internet marketing world.

However, as SEO professionals, we’ve learned to adapt. We have found the secret for staying up in the ranks of the online marketing world. Don’t underestimate the power of quality content and real editorial link placements.

Link Building in the 90s

link building in the 90s

#Throwback- Yahoo and AltaVista were royalty of the web. Back then, the most important ranking factors were heavily based on relevancy, on keyword density, and meta tags. At the time, site owners loaded up their sites richly in keywords, knowing the search engines would pick them up accordingly. Ranking was an incredibly new thing and it seems even search engines had a hard time of predicting how exactly certain pages would show up in the SERPs.

Before Google, no one ever thought anything better would come after Yahoo was introduced. Everyone who used the internet, used Yahoo as means of finding what they needed.

Skip ahead to good ole 1998…

For the first time in internet history, Google introduced its revolutionary Pagerank based algorithm. Sure, it took years for Google to really become the search engine of choice, but it had a great way of ranking websites, something that had never been done before. This allowed internet users to search and find pages that were accurate and relevant to the search based on the number of links pointing to any given site. 1998 was the first year this type of search algorithm was used, Google knowingly and suddenly created importance to links and continued with the power of keyword placement.

Link Building Strategies of the 2000’s

link building tactics of the 2000s

As the turn of the century hit, SEO suddenly became more focused on the importance of both keywords and links (thanks to Google). SEOs during this time found a way to quickly satisfy clients by creating sites and pages that had zero relevance in content, and yet, linked to other websites. SEOs rapidly found a way around Google’s algorithm and literally started tricking the system so that the sites they worked on, became viewable in top searches (relevant to the content or not). This tactic quickly became easy to do and easy to market, because it worked.

Low-quality sites with useless content unexpectedly started ranking in Google’s index, which became a problem Google started addressing over the years. Google was aware of the possibility that its users would go elsewhere to find proper relevant content in their searches.

One tactic that was used during this time that has little to no relevance now was same-source links. Links from unique domains have and always will weigh heavier in link ranks as it provides value in return as a credible third party indicator. Links from the same domains are only used for brand awareness or to generate referral traffic because after the first few links from a domain are built, the rest have little SEO value.

Directory submission links were another popular tactic during this time. There were very few directory websites at the time and the original goal of these sites was to provide audiences an opportunity to quickly find the content they were looking for (i.e. Finding products or services in various locations with contact information) (Ie. Basically, what Google does now). Because these directories were very few and not so hard to find, these were originally seen as incredibly qualitative links. It didn’t take long for these directories to explode in popularity. Soon enough, directory submissions became a hot commodity where everyone wanted one and wanted to be in one. It came to the point that many directories were created simply to allow for easy backlinks. Webmasters flocked to the popular ones and offered to pay for these submissions. Google quickly pulled the plug on the weight of these links knowing this was exactly what was happening.

The art of writing and pushing press releases was also heavily used during this time as a great method of link building. It was as easy as writing up a release that was richly filled with keywords, brand names, celeb names, phone numbers, addresses, the whole 9-yards. Those were easily distributed to media and news outlets (using PR distributing sources) and soon enough (if deemed worthy), the news that was submitted via PR, would be splattered across many platforms. Using press releases was an easy way to get a lot of backlinks form a single piece of content, however, Google dropped the weight of these links because the syndicated content was not adding any real value.

Popular Link Building Tactics of 2005-2009

link building tactics between 2005 and 2009

Between 2005 and 2009, SEO automation burst onto the scene with some agencies using mass link building tools like SEnuke (released in 2008) to create submission links and spinning tools to distribute multiple “unique” articles.

A simple summary of this meant an article would be written and different variations of words/sentences/paragraphs would be spun into other variations of the same meaning.

Example, “A woman wore a backpack” could then be spun into “A woman wore a purse” or “A lady wore a bag”.

The possibilities were quite literally endless. This formula was used to create thousands of articles and literally, at the time, puzzled Google into assuming each variation was unique content.

However, the quality of this content was typically bad and often times, made little to no sense to human readers. Google has since found a way to find these spun articles and has decreased the benefit of links coming from such content significantly. This is when SEOs first got the message that quality and original content was the safest means of gaining contextual link placements.

During this time, keyword rich anchor text was used heavily to influence rankings for those specific terms. Since then, Google has made it clear that keyword over-usage in your anchor texts is no longer helpful but it can get penalized. Modern link building requires savvy marketers to create a natural anchor text profile rich in branded anchor texts.

There is no denying that links were a hit and even though not all links were created equal, Google’s algorithm couldn’t differentiate between high and low quality placements. This fact lead to a number of high volume, low quality link building tactics, such as mass blog commenting using tools like Scrapebox (another piece of automation software).

During this time, after reading an interesting article you could scroll down and read the slew of comments plastered on the site. What really annoyed (genuine) readers was a number of comments where webmasters would spam their links on any and every site- relevant or not. This was the time where the internet allowed webmasters to simply post links anywhere they were accepted- directories, community blogs, comments sections on any site, etc. The interesting part of using comments to gain traction, was it simply worked. It did gain traction for those sites. Google didn’t do much about correcting this version of spam, until much later.

People  even made money off of schemes that did just that! Agencies who offered services that guaranteed a certain amount of link clicks to your site. They created bots who would post your link on those comments no one would read, post your links on an endless amount of directories and the list goes on… all for as low as $69 a month! Cheap? Yes! Worth it? Hell no! These service ads were just as spammy as the work they produced, and they are even more useless today.


link building strategies 2010

Google’s Panda Update 2011– This update was Google’s official first Panda update. It was a way of penalizing owners of websites that intentionally didn’t follow Google’s webmaster guidelines. This update affected 12 percent of sites on the web at the time, a colossal amount. The content farm type sites were the primary target. The sites who had an incredible amount of ads to content ratio were radically affected.

Google’s Venice Update in 2012, is very seldom spoken about. Google updated the way its ranks were viewed by localizing results. It was the first major update that proved its loyalty to well-marketed powerhouse brands over their opponents.

Google’s Penguin Update 2012– Possibly the toughest hits to link builders in internet history. This update targeted black hat link building strategies which struck about 3 percent of Google’s index. This penalty targeted the over-optimized sites and have continued to catch sites with black hat links since 2012 and refresh every few months. This is why when you see SEOs advertising their services, they are constantly offering “white hat links”.

The Penguin update was Google’s way of simply rewarding websites who naturally created useful content. It gave those quality sites a chance to actually rank higher in the SERPs rather than those who manipulated the search engine results by using unnatural gimmicks. Well… at least that is what is was supposed to do.


Ever heard the saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket?” It applies to link building too, as SEOs and unknowing companies would soon find out.


Although this was great news for the humble, natural brands who’ve built up their empires equally outside the internet, it left the ones who were desperately trying to fake it till they make it, in the dust. Since this update, it has become nearly impossible to try and rank sites with junk content.

Though this came suddenly, Google initiated a slew of warnings that were viewable on their Webmaster Tools which reinforced their changes. It scared site owners and online marketers alike, could they have lost their edge in the online marketing world?

The Penguin update almost immediately devalued the once authoritative backlinks that so many sites were being propped up with. However, although this pushed many sites back who did have spammy links connected to their sites, not all was lost, as Google has allowed many penalized sites to recover once they cleaned up their act.

It became a catch 22, it confused the SEOs  who had created low-quality backlinks in the past to satisfy clients who needed traffic driven to their sites, quickly. The time element was strained because now agencies  had to work on quality versus quantity and the time frames didn’t change, according to the clientele.

They wanted results and they wanted them fast, just as it had been done in the years prior. This update scared many link building agencies away from the industry for good. But those of us who stuck around after this truly became stronger and smarter. We’ve figured out new strategies to please the almighty Google. As an added bonus, a lot of the cheap, offshore link building services were killed off by these updates, clearing the way for quality focused link building services.

We also have to keep in mind, Google’s number of updates truly did come down to quality control. Like with any business, if you see your company is losing its high-class quality because of a number of cheaters and manipulators, you become concerned with what other users or customers may think.

Quality control is part of any major brand, and Google was certainly playing in the big leagues, so there shouldn’t be room for error. It’s a blessing and a curse to see Google grow and change. Over the years the number of SEO “gurus” has definitely diminished (which means there are more clients to take hold of), but there’s also a learning curve with every single update that occurs. Always challenging.

Google’s ability to evaluate content also advanced during this time. Keyword stuffed articles stopped working like they used to, hell, they do more harm than good now. SEO writers had to learn how to include primary and LSI keywords into naturally into their content, all while making sure the main focus of the content was to deliver real value, a theme that carries through today.


But no so fast…


Good SEOs (White, Grey, or Black Hat) are not known for giving up or giving in easily. In response to the devaluing of formerly formidable links, PBNs would be thrust into the forefront.

A PBN (Private Blog Network) is a website that is created solely to link out to “money sites”. SEOs use this tactic and build a whole network of PBNs to skyrocket their ranks.

PBNs have been used and searched in Google as early as the 2006 and the surrounding years. These types of networks gained their incredible popularity in 2014. Google did penalize some of these networks shortly after their popularity struck and the use of PBNs shortly fizzed out for a bit. However, SEOs have once again prevailed, as they’ve found ways to build these sites in a way where Google can’t see the difference between a real site or a well-built PBN.

Link Building in 2017, A Whole New Ballgame?

In present day link building, blogger outreach, broken link building, brand mentions, and editorial placements are the golden standard of link building

If you take just a moment to reflect upon some of the changes we have discussed, it becomes pretty clear that quality outreach link building is a constant in the ever changing world of SEO.

Some of you may be aware that at one time Matt Cutts (formerly with Google) stated that guest posting should not be used for link building or at least that is the narrative the media ran with. In actuality, low quality guest posting that offers no value to readers is what he was talking about.

If you write an epic piece of content and have the opportunity to get that content published on a respected site in your industry, you are going to benefit from it. Forget SEO for a minute, that is just good marketing. In an instant you are being exposed to a massive, targeted audience. This means if you focus on quality, you can generate leads, get referral traffic, and see SEO benefits from guest posting.


The key word though is QUALITY.


If quality is not at the forefront of your link building strategy, you are just an update away from becoming irrelevant.

Many of you may have heard that if you create “great content” the rest will take care of itself. Unfortunately that is not the case, creating great content is just the first step.

If you’re trying to create quality content but don’t already have a large audience, getting links “naturally” will be difficult. Outreach link building is the means to get the ball rolling, enabling you to build an audience, gain visibility in search results, and to position your brand to start earning “natural” links.

Major publishing outlets have skyrocketed their contributing writers’ standards. The need to stay relevant and competitive among these guest posts is at the highest level it has ever been.

The  emphasis on content marketing has never been greater. SEOs and business owners alike are investing in quality content marketing, more than they ever have in the past. If you stop and think about it, the main reason for even having a website is to provide information that turns readers into customers or subscribers.

The Penguin update in 2012 may have unknowingly boosted the demand for quality content writers. If you are one, hone in your skill and know your value is much greater now than ever before.

If you’re an internet marketer, know the value of quality content and don’t go for cheap. Quality content allows for quality link building. Earning merit based links is not an easy task and that is EXACTLY what makes them so valuable.

In order to be successful, you need to have high quality resources on your website that can be linked to in guest posts. You need guest posts that are written well enough to pass strict editorial review, and you need to write well enough to interest editors in viewing your article in the first place.

As a newly launched site, you’re #1 goal is to produce (and continue producing) new, quality, entertaining, newsworthy content. Before writing your content ask yourself the following:

– Who’s your audience?

– What is their education level on the topic you are covering?

– What action do you want them to take after viewing your content?

– What differentiates your content/product/service from the competition?

Once you have successfully determined who your audience is, creating content that they find useful and engaging will be much easier.


Anyway, back to paid link building…


Wait, what?


Almost as prevalent as the need for quality focused link building is the urge to find a LAZY way to get quality link placements.

Once the need for editorial placements became undeniable, some SEOs sprung into action and began working feverishly, to find another shortcut (really? We know what Google will try to kill next)

Blog site owners also began to realize how valuable a link on their popular blog was and many came to expect getting paid to publish guest posts and other types of “text based advertising”.

Enter the era of “pay to play”.

“Native advertising” (i.e paid links, sponsored guest posts, paid reviews) became so popular that major brands started doing this to push their products to specific audiences, and so, the influencer was born!

A single-individual who grew his/her audience to astounding numbers and suddenly found their followers shopping in the same places they do, wearing the same clothes they do, and so on.

Influencers are today’s walking advertisements, so of course, brands saw a perfect opportunity of gifting and paying these people to talk about (or link to in a paid review) how much they love their brand. This type of marketing is as simple as inserting a link and watching as the money and link clicks piled up.


Fool proof?


In Google’s world, for now, sure, in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) world? Hell NO.

According to the FTC, influencers had created a new way of manipulating consumers into thinking they actually loved the products they advertised, when in reality, the brand just paid for that placement.

The FTC released its statements in early 2017 stating that all online influencers must indicate to their followers if the product they’re pushing was paid for or not. By tagging, hashtagging, posting, commenting, the influencers slowly started stating their ad’s using “#ad” or “#sponsored”. Although these influencers still drive major brands (willing to pay a high-ticket price) for these placements, the trust and loyalty these influencers originally started with their followers, has decreased immensely.

While paying site owners to drop paid links into content without marking the post as “sponsored” or something similar may not sound sinister, it does violate the FTC rules.

These types of paid links aren’t completely trackable by Google but are by the FTC. Feeling like you can’t catch a break yet? Don’t worry, there’s hope.


That brings us to our third recurring theme: Merit Based Links Last


When looking at the history of link building and the updates Google has made over time, it becomes pretty clear that quality, merit based link building is a strategy that will continue to work for as long as Google counts links in their ranking algorithm. It is equally clear that when you give into laziness and try to find shortcuts, it will catch up to you sooner or later.

The Future

Google has done a bang-up job of devaluing those fast and spammy links that may have worked like magic in the past, giving quality focused link builders the upper hand.

SEO has advanced from a bag of cheap tricks into a real, long term strategy that has earned its’ place in the marketing mix of brands large and small.

With these advancements, Google has closed some loopholes that allowed for fast rankings. As such, properly setting the expectations of your clients or supervisors is imperative.

Remember, Google isn’t out to get you, online marketer. The one job it has, since the very beginning, has always been to provide quality content to its users, it hasn’t changed its original concept.

Google’s smarter than you and will continuously evolve and catch whichever get rich quick tactic you may be thinking of. The end goal is this; to reward sites that provide real value. So, do it.

Do what’s right for your site and take the time to attract the right audience for you, numbers are good, but quality numbers are better.
If you don’t have the time needed to create content with real value and to promote that content effectively through outreach, our team is here to do it for you.


Achieving an exceptional digital presence requires experience, careful planning, and creativity.