If you have any experience with modern SEO, you know that link building isn't just a matter of posting links on external sources and hoping for the best. Nor is it possible to attain any meaningful search rankings without some kind of link building strategy:
Links pass valuable authority to your domain (and the page in question), but thanks to Google Penguin, innumerable subsequent tweaks and updates, and evolving user preferences, more no longer means better. The quality of your links matters far more than the quantity.
In a perfect world, then, you'd be able to invest time and money into your link building strategy with abandon, guaranteeing the best-of-the-best content, publishers, and relationships for your brand. But in our practical, grounded world, you have a budget, and firm goals, and you need to make sure you get the most for every dollar spent. Bad link building tactics are risky but cheap, good link building tactics are reasonable and efficient, and great link building tactics are rich in rewards but expensive.
All in all, how much should you be spending for quality link building?
The Risk of Link Building
First, you have to know what the real cost of link building is. Old-school tactics and black-hat techniques are the easiest to identify as spammy. Black-hat typically arise as link spam, link schemes, or other deliberate efforts to manipulate rankings without any other benefit for the users involved. There's no shortage of people willing to employ these tactics for you, but you have to be aware of the risks.
You might be able to pay $5 for a link, but what is that link really doing for your brand? If you're unlucky, and the link is egregious enough to attract attention for a manual Google penalty, you could end up seeing a massive traffic drop like this:
(Image Source: Moz)
Even if you don't, the low authority of existing links in your link profile might actually dilute your website's authority and trust in the eyes of search engines. Put simply, they'll do more harm than good. In fact, in rare instances, hyper-competitive businesses have resorted to negative SEO attacks where they build these low-authority links pointing to their competitors' sites. Bad links, then, will always hold a risk of not just failing to return your investment, but actively sabotage your site's future ranking potential.
The Value of Good Link Building
Good link building, on the other hand, is more valuable than just avoiding the risk of bad link building. By attracting links naturally through original, high-value content and guest posting on high-authority, relevant sources, you'll gain authority, but you'll also open the door to other advantages.
For example, acquiring links from high-profile publishers can earn you high, recurring returns of referral traffic. Your affiliation with a major brand can give you trust badges, and authority by association, which strengthens your brand reputation and may lead to higher conversions. Here’s an example of how you could display logos of the websites from which you’ve received mentions or links. Would you be more likely to buy from a website that had received similar endorsements?
Furthermore, good link building has a permanence to it; because you know your tactics are valuable to users, you never have to worry about your links getting removed. Instead, they'll grow in value over time.
All in all, a single, well-placed link can return hundreds, or even thousands of dollars to your domain's value. This may seem like an exaggeration, but don't forget this includes direct traffic, increased Domain Authority and ranking potential, residual compounding effects, and increased brand visibility and authority. That doesn't mean that every link is worth thousands of dollars, but it's certainly possible for an intelligently strategized, long-term campaign.
Okay, so now we know the specifics of why bad link building is actually bad and why good link building is good, including the potential value of each, but before we settle on how much you should pay for link building, let's consider the raw costs of each strategy.
Bad link building is cheap because it takes almost no effort to acquire the links. There are a handful of usual suspects with these type of link builders so watch for these, and avoid any agencies or individuals that rely on these tactics:
Overseas Labor. There are some international companies who are excellent at SEO and marketing. However, many shady link builders rely on the low wages and low skillsets of workers in developing countries. As a result, your links will be marred by language barriers and a general absence of actual expertise.
Automated Software. Automated software is responsible for justifying insane offers like $99 for a thousand links since it requires virtually no overhead or human resource costs. These processes are spam, in the truest sense, and will almost certainly earn your website a penalty.
Link Networks and Schemes. Schemes rely on mutual exchanges of links or multi-layered link juicing maneuvers to try and fool Google. They're quick to execute, but Google is sharp and typically catches on quickly.
Fiverr and Manual Placement. Some independent link builders, especially those on sites like Fiverr, will offer to place individual links for arbitrarily small sums of cash. These users often mean well, but don't understand the true mechanics of modern link building. In fact, Fiverr is a popular destination for finding contractors to execute negative SEO because the quality of the links are so poor.
These techniques are cheap because they require no expertise, value, or time, and because there's little to no demand for them; even novice SEOs quickly figure out the lack of value in these tactics.
Good strategies, on the other hand, rely on building relationships. They rely on developing high-quality content that people actually want to read. They rely on experience and authority in knowing when and how to build different links, and how to diversify your strategy and scale up over time. You can't write a great article in 20 minutes. You can't build a relationship with a major publisher in a day. You can't become a link building expert in a month.
Good link building is expensive because it takes time, resources, relationships, and most of all, adds actual value.
I also want to touch on some other benefits you might receive from a professional link building vendor. Aside from the costs of building relationships and producing high-quality content, you'll also be paying for the following peripheral benefits and services (with individual contractors or broader agencies):
Transparency is a good quality in a link builder; you want to know the whats, whens, whys, and how it will help you both understand your campaign better and see better long-term results.
Even with good links, it's not enough to just place them and hope for the best. You need reporting metrics like traffic patterns and growth to justify your investment.
No link building strategy goes perfectly all the time. Eventually, you'll run into a problem. When you do, you want a link building vendor who's willing to go the extra mile to correct the problem and proactively prevent it from happening again.
Finally, link building doesn't exist in a vacuum. This isn't the final stage of link building. Google will continue to evolve, as will link building best practices, so you need a partner who's willing to evolve with the times. Think of future value, not just present value.
It's up to you whether you want to pay more for a provider who offers these kinds of services, but in my experience, they're well worth the cost.
You Get What You Pay For
As a general rule, when it comes to link building, you get what you pay for. The more you pay, assuming you're working with a reasonable provider, the more value you'll eventually get (including objective benefits like traffic and peripheral benefits like reliability and reporting). However, this doesn't function on a strictly sliding scale; paying low amounts for link building may actually cost you more money than you put in, and there's a certain threshold for link quality that doesn't take hold until you start investing in good link building strategies.
Though costs vary wildly based on your industry, your location, and your goals, link building is a necessary part of any SEO campaign. The more you put into it, the more SEO benefits you'll get out of it. It's an effort-intensive strategy, but the results are well worth it.