Link Building or On-page SEO. Where do I spend my Money?

We get asked all the time whether our clients should be focussing on On-page SEO or Link building. Unfortunately, the answer tends to be both honest and frustrating – “That depends”. No one wants to hear that because they’re back where they started – having no idea what to do next. Here’s four examples to give you an idea of how I’d allocate your budget for each one.

What Is On-page SEO?

“On-page SEO” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It could mean keyword research, writing good TITLE tags, internal linking and crawl architecture, even content creation has been dumped into this pile of options. For the purposes of this post, on-page is anything you directly control in the code or content of your site.  Simple, right?  As a rule of thumb, think of the analogy of trying to build a house on sandy foundations, in the rain.  If you don’t have good strategy and site architecture in place with a good base of content and relevant information – forget about driving more links, you’re driving links to a pile of blocks that have fallen down and are crumbling in the sand.

Case #1: The Elephant

70% On-page, 30% Link-building

The Elephant is an established site with a solid, trusted link profile and usually a good base of content. In many cases, it’s a site that’s evolved “organically”, which is a fancy word for “without a plan”. The Elephant could be suffering from any or all of the following:

  • Keyword research is 5 years out of date
  • Keywords are cannibalised across many pages
  • Internal links have grown like weeds
  • Site architecture doesn’t reflect business goals
  • Page TITLEs overlap or are duplicated
  • Old but valuable (i.e. linked-to) content is 404’ing


In many cases, no one notices, because The Elephant’s strong link profile and solid content keep it ranking well. The problem is that you’re sitting on a gold mine of untapped potential. Of course, The Elephant should keep building solid links, but a shift in focus (even for a few months) to really planning and focusing on on-page issues, from keyword research on up, could produce huge dividends.  They say elephants never forget and that’s positive but there’s an element of “What have you done for me lately” that cannot be overlooked.

Case #2: Perfect Pat

30% On-page, 70% Link-building

Perfect Pat often comes out in new webmasters. They’ve read 500 SEO blogs and are following all the “rules” as best they can, but they’ve become sooo obsessed with building the “perfect” site that they’ve hit the tipping point of effort versus results. Perfect Pat wants to know how to squeeze 0.01% more SEO value out of an already good URL by moving one keyword.  Ouch, it’s going to take hours to achieve that 0.01% and that won’t deliver significant enough a return to justify the effort or expense.  You’re not quitting, it’s a case of doing the things that will make most difference to your sales growth.

It’s time for Perfect Pat to remember the 80/20 rule (Pareto principle) – there comes a point where your on-page is good enough, at least for now. You have to get Google to your site to put that on-page magic to work, and that means building links. It’s important to develop content (which is why I’ve left on-page at 30%), but put almost every other on-page tactic to the side temporarily and spend a solid 6 months developing and implementing a link-building campaign

Case #3: The World of Pain

90% On-page, 10% Link-building

The World of Pain is a Google engineer’s fantasy (or possibly nightmare). She’s broken every single rule of on-page SEO, which worked fine for a while, but then came “May Day” and “Panda”, and now Google is even talking about penalising her for optimising too much. The World of Pain has let something (Likely a lot of things) spin out of control, including:

  • Blocked crawl paths and bad redirects
  • Massive URL-based duplication
  • Excessive internal search, categories, and tags
  • Aggressive advertising-to-content ratio
  • Extremely “thin” content
  • Nonsensical site architecture and internal linking
  • Keyword stuffing that would embarrass 1998


In some cases, this could be “over-optimisation” and an attempt to manipulate the search engines (Inadvertent “Black Hat SEO” stuff), but in other cases the World of Pain is just that – a painful mess of garbage that has had every trick in the book fired at it without any strategy or structure whatsoever. Whatever the cause, put down everything and start fixing the problems now. Chasing new links without fixing the mess is like having your carpets cleaned while your house is burning down, or trying to sell the house to the fireman who’s putting out the fire.

Case #4: The Red Card

10% On-page, 90% Link-building

Finally, there’s The Red Card – he’s broken every rule in the Google link-building playbook, and they’ve finally noticed. This could be a large-scale devaluation or a Capital-P Penalty, including:

  • Paid links
  • Link farms, networks and exchanges
  • Excessive low-value links
  • Aggressive anchor-text targeting


If you’ve been naughty enough, you could be facing a serious ranking penalty or even de-indexation. At that point, all the on-page tweaks in the world won’t help you (I left 10% just to keep the site up and running). You have to fix the problem and address the problem links. Bare minimum, you have to stop doing what got you into trouble and show a pattern of positive link-building. You may even have to file for reconsideration. The fix can be tricky, and depends a lot on the situation, but until you fix it, The Red Card isn’t going anywhere.


But What About Social?

Before I get a tonne of comments, I purposely left social factors out of this post. I think the influence of social is growing and it definitely deserves your attention (and budget), but I don’t want to confuse an already complicated issue. Also, at this point, there are no major social “penalties” (small-p or Capital-P), so it’s hard to have an SEO crisis related to social media. Still, social should certainly be a part of any healthy mix in 2012.

One Size Never Fits All

I’ll try to keep the point short and sweet (Those of you who know me, will understand how difficult that can be for me 🙂 when it comes to the right mix, there is no one-sized-fits-all solution. On-page SEO and link-building are both important, but how important each one is really depends on your current strengths and weaknesses. Long-term, everyone should pursue a mix of solid on-page structure, unique content, an authoritative link profile, and substantive social presence. Diversity is the best way to future-proof your SEO – if the algorithm changes or you hit a snag on one pillar, at least there will still be enough left standing to keep your roof up and your doors OPEN FOR BUSINESS.