Image by René Andritsch via The Noun Project.

Image by René Andritsch via The Noun Project.

Last year, “SEO” was dropped from the name of the inbound marketing agency formerly known as SEOMoz. Along with the name change has come a change in the way its services are branded: Moz doesn’t provide SEO services anymore, it provides “inbound marketing services.”

And Moz isn’t alone: More and more SEO providers are offering broader digital marketing strategies. That’s because, as former Moz CEO Rand Fishkin explains in one of his weekly videos, once-standard SEO practices have become the target of Google’s webspam team.

Increasingly, SEO goals – improving search engine rankings, increasing website impressions and traffic, driving conversions – are being achieved with user first, algorithm second content-based methods. While this is how Google and other search engines have always intended SEO to be performed, it hasn’t always been this way.

This is certainly the case for the practice of link building – the offsite SEO effort of obtaining links back to a targeted domain.

The link building conundrum

Link building is one of the most steadfast SEO practices out there, but with so many black-hat tactics floating around, it’s also one of the most contentious. That’s why Google regularly rolls out algorithm changes meant to weed out sites using shady techniques like paying for links, linking in comments or sneaking links into widgets.

In turn, content-based practices like guest posting are now ubiquitous, and for good reason: Guest posting helps sites obtain links while building brand awareness and relationships. But like all link building techniques, guest posting and content-based approaches also have their evil twins, A.K.A. content farms.

Rather than generating shareable, well-written content, content farms churn out massive amounts of content with little to no value for readers. In worst-case scenarios, these sites house unreadable scrambles of computer-generated text that serve nothing more than search engine crawlers.

Demand Media, one of the most successful and reputable companies out there that uses the content farming approach (you might be familiar with its properties eHow and Livestrong), has experienced major setbacks as Google implements strategies that reward quality over quantity. As its troubles attest, it’s never been more important to lead with quality.

Beyond link building

It’s easy to dismiss the adage “quality over quantity” as cliché, but less so in the context of SEO and inbound marketing.

In a recent Forbes article dispensing SEO marketing advice for 2014, a major takeaway was that “[m]arketers should focus on cleaning up their link profiles and should aim their efforts at creating compelling and textually rich content that includes images, video, and audio.”

Put simply, Google rewards humans who create content for other humans.

The success of companies like Skyword and Contently, which base their business models on quality content creation, reflects this move towards editorial content. By creating networks of writers who produce content for users and not web crawlers, SEO practitioners can outsource content on a scalable level and get more than average SEO value.

This approach opens the doors for brands to build relationships with websites that aren’t just useful for SEO but also have an engaged audience that is interested in reading, sharing and clicking through on content.

I’ll mention it again: Google has always envisioned SEO practices to be about quality. Link building should be a validation by users that a site is linkworthy. A link is a vote of confidence for other sites – a sign that users find the site (and its content, services and brand) relevant, useful and engaging.

Complementing link building within a content marketing strategy (and vice versa) represents a shift towards writing for a human audience, while attracting the interest of the crawler. An approach that is about more than rankings, impressions and clicks, it’s about engagement and communication.