For as long as SEO has been around, it has been divided into two main categories: onsite optimization and offsite optimization. “Onsite optimization” once referred to a process of keyword stuffing and now refers to writing high-quality onsite blog content and great user experiences, while “offsite optimization” has mostly been synonymous with link building. Though Google’s algorithms have gotten better at detecting deliberate attempts to manipulate rank with irrelevant links, link building itself is still a viable—and some would argue, essential—strategy.
On the other side of the fence, you have people who claim that link building is a dead strategy. Google itself has repeated, time and time again, that posting links to your site is not the best way to increase your rank, and that instead, you should only focus on creating a great user experience. Unfortunately, many great sites find themselves climbing ranks at a painfully slow rate without some offsite SEO support.
First, it’s important to address the fact that what constitutes “link building” to one person may not match what constitutes it to another. This is responsible for the vast divide you see among SEO experts who periodically attack or defend the strategy.
The first definition is the traditional and most logical one. Under this definition, link building is exactly what it sounds like—it’s the process of tracking down external sites and manually building links that point back to your own in a deliberate effort to increase your rank. For years, this was the accepted way of building authority, but Google’s Penguin update put a serious halt to that. Today, this method of link building is extremely risky, but if done well, can pass significant authority to your site. What’s important is the type of sites you post to, the diversity of sites you use, and the context in which you post links. If you’re staying relevant, helpful, and high in quality, there’s no reason this type of link building can harm you. On the other hand, pursuing this type of link building by buying “packs” of links directly from third party providers can seriously damage your reputation. This is the type of link building that Google would have you avoid.
The second definition is a more modern one, and is more frequently used by experts in the SEO community. Under this definition, link building refers to any strategy you use to attract links to your website. For example, if you produce a piece of high-quality content, which is hosted on your website, and you virally circulate that content on social media, hundreds or even thousands of users might link to you in order to cite your valuable information. In this way, you earn all the natural benefits of external links even though you haven’t formally “built” any. They’ve all come to you as a result of your effort, so you deserve the credit and can call it a strategic acquisition, but ultimately, it’s a hands-off model that doesn’t come with the risk of the first definition.
The final definition of link building is perhaps better represented by the term “relationship building,” as it sometimes features no links whatsoever. These days, Google is able to recognize and measure authority in different spaces without the need to consult links—for example, it can subjectively rank an individual’s association with a given industry or use mentions of a brand name to boost a company’s domain authority. Because of this, search optimizers can use guest posts, brand mentions, social connections, and other forms of soft relationship building to bolster their own authority. No links are involved by default, but because this strategy uses similar channels and operates for the same purpose, it can be called link building.
Each of these definitions of link building is useful in some way, though natural link acquisition and relationship building are better, safer, more long-term strategies for building authority than straightforward link building. Without any of them, you will have no verifiable web presence outside your own website, and Google will have no definitive measure of how authoritative you are. Essentially, without any form of link building, Google will have no gauge for your authority, and anything you do onsite will be stuck in an isolated island. There is still a very strong divide between onsite and offsite content, and you’ll need both if you want any chance of succeeding.
If you’re defining link building as the cut-and-dry process of constructing individual links on external sites, the answer is yes, it is possible to be successful in SEO without it. However, if you’re using link building as a collective term to refer to any process of building offsite authority, then no, it’s impossible to make any significant progress without it.
If you’re concerned about the risks of penalty associated with old-school link building, pursue softer approaches like naturally attracting links with valuable content or building relationships with well-written guest content. You need to establish your authority in some way offsite, or else Google will have no idea how to rank you and you’ll never be able to make significant progress. How you establish that authority is up to you.