Posted by Dr. Pete

Hammering screwsEvery 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  • Keyword research is 5 years out of date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:

  • Paid links
  • 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). 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 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.

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.

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