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Just Like Detroit: SEO Is Forking Itself

Detroit is a ‘city in progress’, and we seem to have divided along some pretty clear lines lately: there’s the haters, and the builders. The interesting thing is that it’s not a socioeconomic divide; there are haters among our wealthy and builders that are squatting in abandoned homes. With the city trying to declare bankruptcy, a lot of our conservative elite are disgusted and threatening to — or actually — leaving. The city is forking itself, essentially creating two Detroits that coexist: the one where hopeful people are doing amazing things with almost nothing, and the one where bitter people are doing nothing even when they have amazing opportunities.

Like Detroit, SEO is in the middle of a forking process, too — only our fork is in between ‘old school’ linkbuilding, which Google is hating on, and ‘new school’ content marketing, which it loves. But here’s the trick: no matter how hard Google tries to make linkbuilding, there will always be success stories, because Google can’t catch every handmade link, and as ‘easy’ links are penalized, the remaining links that do get through are counted that much more powerfully.

The difference is profound: link builders start with keyword research, they find niches and unexploited market segments, and they exploit the crap out of them. Link builders find opportunities to generate high-relevance, high-authority links by finding people who own prime Web space and finding ways to get them to link up. They’re the Type-A personality, nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel types.

Content marketers, on the other hand, are those guys you knew from high school who always had more friends than they knew what to do with — or perhaps they were the guy in the hoodie and shades that hung out with the popular kid and suggested things to do. They don’t think in terms of backlinks, they think in terms of influencers and audiences. They also find unexploited market segments, but rather than market to them, they appeal to them, and hope that they respond in the form of links and social mentions.

Google loves the second group, because they’re doing what Google wants to see: they’re stimulating natural links by (theoretically) creating great content. (The truth is often more grim: they’re creating just-over-mediocre content and then tricking or manipulating influencers — people with lots of followers or friends — into mentioning their content knowing it’ll get a lot of attention.) But for all of it’s love, the two groups are turning out to be more or less equally functional, according to Moz.

The difference, if you’re a small business, is crucial: link building is the ‘quick version’ of SEO. Link building has results more or less overnight (i.e. within about a week.) Content marketing can build into a huge tsunami of awesomeness once you get known for creating viral content, but that can take month or years. It’s like torque vs. horsepower: do you want to jump off the line quickly, or cross the finish line faster?

It’s important to note that in both Detroit & SEO there are overlaps — it’s not a “true fork” like Amazon forking Android for the Kindle Fire; it’s more like a Venn diagram. There are people around me who work their butt off to improve their neighborhood while they complain about the city’s financial planners — and there are SEO people out there who happily use their link-building outreach skills to contact influencers and introduce them to content along the way. It’s mostly just a matter of what the SEOer in question is most comfortable doing.

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