The Links vs. Content "Debate"
A debate of sorts is raging in the search engine optimization community, about whether content or linking is the best path to top rankings. This debate has been played out in all of the major search engine discussion forums and has become fodder for countless blogs.

In this article, I lay out the claims of both sides, reaching the conclusion that neither strategy is sufficient by itself. The number of people who truly believe you can do one without the other is small - they just happen to be extremely vocal.

The Case For Linking
The proponents of linking have a simple argument, which centers around the text used in "incoming links." Incoming links are the links pointing to your site's pages from another site. When certain words are used in the text of those links, your site is more likely to rank well for the words that were used.

Search engines now put so much emphasis on the text contained in links, that it is nearly impossible to achieve good rankings for competitive or generic search terms without an active linking strategy. Therefore, the argument goes, you must focus on cultivating incoming links with your targeted keywords.

They will cite countless examples of sites that rank in the top 10 with little or no content, and in many cases, where the words involved don't even appear on the page. This happens mainly with Google, but Google is still a dominant force in the search engine world.

The Case For Content
Rather than focus on highly competitive search terms, content advocates prefer to use "SEO copywriting" methods to enhance the content of a website, and cover a broader range of search terms.

The proponents of "content strategy" argue that the highly competitive or generic search terms are not the best targets for search engine optimization:

  • It is difficult to gain and keep top rankings for competitive search terms. For extremely competitive terms like "computers" or "pizza," dozens of SEO consultants are trying to land clients' sites in the top 10 positions.

  • Generic search terms may bring in less "targeted" visitors, who are less likely to take the desired action (buying a product, etc.) when they reach your site. Someone searching for "computers" may be a student working on a term paper, not a potential customer.

  • Because of the expense of an intensive linking strategy, competitive search terms are simply out of reach for many web sites.

Content advocates will also cite examples where sites have managed to land enviable rankings for very competitive search terms without a heavy emphasis on links.

Should You Ignore Half Of The Internet?
A recent study by OneStat ( was released in February 2004, with the somewhat misleading title "Most People Use 2 Word Phrases in Search Engines."

Their statistics show that searchers are using longer and more complex search terms, which you would expect as searchers gain more experience. Two-word search terms are the most popular (at 32.58%), but that doesn't really fit my definition of "most people."

At any rate, OnStat's numbers tell us that half of the Internet is still using very generic (1-2 word) queries, although the number has declined from 53% to 51% in less than a year, with one word searches declining from 24.8% in April 2003 to 19.0% in the latest study.

Proponents of linking should take comfort in the knowledge that 51% of searches were for one and two word search terms. The flip side of this coin, of course, is that 49% of searches used 3 words or more, and this number is rising.

My conclusion, based on these facts, is simple. Focusing on one side of the equation (content or links) represents a decision to ignore half of the Internet.

Determining A Strategy
For many search terms, it will be impossible to achieve top rankings without quality incoming links which include the targeted keywords. This would include almost all highly competitive, highly popular, and generic search terms.

Conversely, for very specific searches, it's not practical to achieve good rankings through a linking strategy. In these cases, you either have all the words on your page or you don't. If your page doesn't contain all of the words used by the searcher, it's not going to appear in the search results.

Now that we all understand why neither content nor links is a complete strategy by itself, the decision comes down to how you want to allocate your resources. Making a good decision depends on a careful assessment of the "keyword space" around your site, a review of existing content, and an accounting of your incoming links.

Assessing The "Keyword Space"
Every website has certain keywords, topics, and concepts that naturally fit with its targeted audience. In order to make effective decisions, you need to begin with a thorough assessment of those keywords. At SEO Research Labs (, we use a step by step process to identify these core keywords and concepts, using the Wordtracker service ( to estimate the relative popularity of each search term we find. Typically, we end up with anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand search terms for each website we examine.

Simply looking at the most popular search terms is a mistake, though. We recommend an additional step of assessing how "relevant" each search term is. The result of this second step is a "weighted popularity" that will help identify the highest value search terms. A realistic estimate of relevance will bring the true value of highly competitive keywords into sharp focus.

Once you have identified the highest value search terms, you will need to assess the level of competition for each of them. If you can reasonably expect to gain a top ten ranking for a search term, with a high inherent value due to its popularity and relevance, then you have found a good target.

Rather than dig into a long explanation of keyword research, which would be redundant for some folks, I'll offer readers a free download of our quick tips guide. This guide is distilled from a longer document, but it explains the key concepts very clearly:

Appraising Your Content
If your site is lacking in content, you will need to take a realistic look at the cost of developing additional content, and decide how much content you want to create. If the new content serves a dual purpose, and makes the site more attractive to visitors, some of the costs may be offset by higher sales.

In most cases, there is already a substantial amount of information available. Some of this will be internal, such as FAQ's from customers. Some may come in the form of content that others have created - all it takes is the copyright holder's permission to add this to your site. Adding your own commentary to "guest content" can create a valuable and unique resource.

For a site that already has a substantial amount of content, it's possible that simply optimizing existing content, and making it easier for search engines to find, will deliver good results. Any unique page on your site could potentially be optimized to target many specific search terms.

We often encounter database-driven (dynamic) sites, where simply changing the underlying templates will create optimized content. In some cases, search engines can't index the site effectively, and further changes must be made to resolve this issue.

As a general rule for all sites, content should be within 2 clicks of the home page whenever possible, and any navigation scheme that requires cookies, JavaScript, or "session IDs" in the URL may create problems. A combination of techniques like URL rewriting and site maps may be needed to put all of the content within reach of search engines.

Accounting For Links
If your site is not already well linked from the rest of the web, especially within the community of related sites, it's worth the effort to improve this. Just as adding content to a "thin" site can make your site more effective, getting links from relevant sources will bring in targeted traffic by itself. In addition, many search engines will not bother to index a site that doesn't have plenty of incoming links.

Submitting to topical and general directories, asking consumer-focused sites for product reviews, and publishing "guest content" on other sites are all simple and effective methods of building links that will help your rankings, but also add to your site's traffic.

If your site is already well linked, you may gain more "bang for the buck" from a content strategy, but for highly competitive search terms, it's essential that you target the right websites and control the text of incoming links as much as possible.

A very detailed explanation of linking strategy and tactics is available in the free "Linking Matters" report (, which I highly recommend.

Putting It All Together
Once you understand the issues, your strategy should be pretty clear. Focus on areas of weakness, especially if your site is highly deficient in one area or another.

If your site has almost no substantive incoming links, you must address this before you can expect anything else to matter. If you have neither links nor content, you may need to develop some content before a linking strategy will work.

In the short term, if your site is well linked, a little effort on content can go a long way. However, if your highest value search terms are extremely competitive, you will need to place more emphasis on linking strategy.

My own SEO Research Labs site, for example, is pretty well linked, but our content is still thin. Our immediate focus is on building a better information resource to broaden our search engine exposure. In the long term, we will emphasize linking strategy to target more popular search terms.
February 24, 2004

Dan Thies is the owner of SEO Research Labs, providing keyword research services to webmasters, site designers, and search engine (SEO/SEM) consultants. He offers coaching to web designers who want to "take the plunge" into offering SEO and SEM services, based on his top-selling e-book "Search Engine Optimization Fast Start," which is also available from his website.

Search Engine Guide > Dan Thies > Search Engine Strategy: Links or Content?