Every week, without fail, I hear someone ask where they should put their SEO budget – in on-page tactics or in link-building. Unfortunately, there are plenty of SEO companies and consultants lining up to give them the answer – and that answer just happens (“coincidentally”) to be whatever the company/consultant is good at. When you’re an expert with a hammer, you start to think you can nail anyone (wait, that’s not right).
Here’s the honest answer that no one wants to hear: “It depends”. No one wants to hear it because they’re back where they started – having no idea what to do next. Instead of leaving you stranded or trying to sell you a hammer for your box of screws, I’m going to walk you through 4 cases and explain how I’d allocate your budgets for each one.
What Is On-page SEO?
To add to the confusion, “on-page” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Here, I’m taking a very broad view – it could mean keyword research, writing good TITLE tags, internal linking and crawl architecture, or even content creation. For the purposes of this post, on-page is anything you directly control in the code or content of your site.
Case #1: The Authority
70% On-page, 30% Link-building
The Authority 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 Authority could be suffering from any or all of the following:
Keyword research is 5 years out of date
Keywords are cannibalized 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 Authority’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 Authority should keep building solid links, but a shift (even for a few months) to really planning and focusing on on-page issues, from keyword research on up, could produce huge dividends.
Case #2: The Perfectionist
30% On-page, 70% Link-building
The Perfectionist 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 so obsessed with building the “perfect” site that they’ve hit the point of rapidly diminishing returns. The Perfectionist wants to know how to squeeze 0.01% more SEO value out of an already good URL by moving one keyword.
It’s time for The Perfectionist to remember the 80/20 rule – 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 Hot Mess
90% On-page, 10% Link-building
The Hot Mess 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 penalizing her for optimizing too much. The Hot Mess has let something spin out of control, including:
Blocked crawl paths and bad redirects
Massive URL-based duplication
Excessive internal search, categories, and tags
Aggressive ad-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-optimization” and an attempt to manipulate the search engines, but in other cases the Hot Mess is just that – a mess. 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.
Case #4: The Bad Boy
10% On-page, 90% Link-building
Finally, there’s the Bad Boy – 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:
Link farms, networks and exchanges
Excessive low-value links
Aggressive anchor-text targeting
If you’ve been bad enough, you could be talking 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). Youhave 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 Bad Boy isn’t going anywhere.
But What About Social?
Before I get a ton of comments, I purposely left social factors out of this post. I think the influence of social is growing and it definitely deserve 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 – with the exception of an ORM problem. Still, social should certainly be a part of any healthy mix in 2012.
Is There a Perfect Mix?
I'm adding this after the fact - a few people asked me in the comments about the 50/50 scenario. Of course, the four scenarios in the post are just examples – based on common problems I've seen – and there are many other valid permutations. I specifically avoided the 50/50 mix for one reason, though - it implies that there's one "perfect" mix that you can sustain throughout the life-cycle of a website. The optimal mix is dynamic, and you should never leave it on automatic pilot.
When you first build a new site, you're going to need to invest in your site structure, keyword research, and on-page aspects. That mix may be 100% or 90% on-page for a couple of months. When that structure's in place and you launch, you'll still need to build content, but you'll also want to get your link-building in gear. For a site that's naturally based on new content (like a blog or news site), on-page may still be 70-80% of the mix (since I'm counting content as "on-page"). For a directory or resource site that has a critical mass of content, you may go 30% on-page, building out the long-tail and 70% link-building for a while. The mix will always be changing, as your site evolves and your business needs change.
One Size Never Fits All
I'll try to keep the point short and sweet - 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 algo changes or you hit a snag on one pillar, at least there will still be enough left standing to keep your roof up.