A few years ago, the main activity of anyone undertaking search engine optimisation (SEO) was building inbound links through artificial means. There is of course a large dose of irony in describing the process of building inbound links as "optimisation".
The truth is that when you build a link to your website, you are not optimising anything for search engines. What you are doing is trying to artificially influence your ranking.
As search engines have become smarter, they have improved their algorithms to automatically spot and penalise webpages that are ranking primarily due to the weight of artificially built links pointing at them.
This is what the much talked about Google "Penguin" has been about. Penguin is Google's algorithmic project to remove sites from their search index that show signals of having participated in artificial linkbuilding techniques.
It's not really much of a surprise that this is happened. Some of the ways in which many people built links were so obvious that it's actually more surprising that it took so long for it to be penalised in the way it now is.
The use of software to create thousands of Internet directory links, profile links, forum links, blog comment links, article directory links and ludicrous reciprocal and three-way links went on for too long.
But this now raises the question as to where you should focus your efforts. Google continually tells us that if you build quality content, people will come. But unfortunately it's not actually that clear-cut.
So what is the truth, and how can you maximise the efficiency of time you spend on driving traffic to your website?
Focusing On Link Building
You could continue to focus on building links to your content.
The truth is you can still rank webpages by using dubious manual and automatic link building techniques. However, it's no coincidence that the blackhat SEO community refers to sites ranking through these tactics as "churn and burn" sites.
Yes you can rank, and you can rank well by throwing thousands of automated links at your sites. But because of the improvement in Google algorithms, these sites will get completely trashed within just a few weeks.
So it depends partly on the strategy you have for your websites. If you are seeking to make quick cash, perhaps through a seasonal event, then there may still be value in hurling thousands of links at your site.
But on the other side of that fence, why spend the time or money on such a temporary solution? You can still have a seasonal site, and it may only get traffic for a couple of months of the year, but why not allow it to get that traffic year after year?
Focus On Content
Alternatively, you could focus purely on creating great content for your website.
Using this strategy, you are not trying to rank your content through the power of the links, but through the power of your content.
By creating high quality and highly relevant content, that is strongly interlinked, you are focusing onsite to create content that the search engines will want to rank.
The benefit of this strategy is that it can create something you have control over, that can rank for the long-term.
The downside of a pure content generation strategy is that if your site is not trusted, or your niche is competitive then you may struggle to rank without the support of inbound links.
Focus On A Blended SEO Strategy
So the answer to the question of whether you should focus on building inbound links or quality content is… do both!
But you have to do it in an intelligent and structured manner.
In terms of building links, yes you should still look at constantly working to build them. But you should build links through partnerships and linkbait rather than building them yourself on platforms that can be spotted and penalised.
And the links you seek to build should be from relevant and quality webpages wherever possible. If you want to be around for the long term and avoid the scrutiny of the Google Penguin then you need to be seen in all the right neighbourhoods.
So look at a strategy around building content, linking to other websites, then contacting them to tell them about the content you have created. Look at contacting websites with broken links in your niche to ask if they would like to replace them with one to your site.
And when I talk of linkbait, I'm talking about content marketing.
You see, the truth is that great content will drive quality links to your site. If you build high quality content and then let people know you have built it through social media and direct contact, then you will see your natural inbound links grow.
So the focus needs to be on generating great content that people want to consume and share. It should be presented to them using all the latest information on usability and accessibility, especially across all viewing device types.
A great content marketing strategy will drive inbound links to your site. If you then carefully support that by trying to influence the building of links to some of your key content then you will have a strong SEO strategy.
But it's not easy to do. That's why some people give up and just generate content, while others find themselves panicking that they are not making progress and sliding back into building poor quality links.
The strategy we are talking about here involves communication and networking at its heart. It's not about automation or technology, but good old fashioned people skills. Many people find this difficult, but it is the key to success and following it ruthlessly for the long-term will see you rank well and out last many of those around you.