For the last few years, the term ‘content marketing’ has been a polite way of describing link building for SEO purposes. In the same way that telesales is ‘direct marketing’ the perpetrators use a less incriminating term to define a questionable activity. Anyone who works in direct marketing, though, will relay their frustrations about this. When asked what they do for a living, they nearly always have to follow up their job title with “no I am not a salesmen.” This intentional mislabeling of telesales and SEO has created a confusion of terms. Direct marketing is much more sophisticated than just making phone calls, and there is much more to content marketing than building links.

Links are an effect of content marketing, but not the initial objective. The primary aim is to build brand awareness, trust and authority by publishing content that is relevant, valuable and engaging. There are many good examples to be found online, but to show the true effect on good content, and the difference between it and link building, we have to look offline … where links are not an issue.

At the turn of the century (the last century), when motoring was a gentlemanly pursuit, Michelin started one of the earliest and most successful content marketing campaigns. The Michelin Restaurant Guide was put together for the benefit of early motorists, the upwardly mobile jet-setters of their day.

Early motorists did not spend their time in stuck in rush hour traffic on a bypass, they swanned leisurely on country roads, hopping between fancy hotels. Spending a lot of time and money in restaurants in unfamiliar towns, they needed a yardstick of quality, and Michelin’s guide offered something of value and relevance.

If this is offline content marketing, the link building equivalent would be to place coupons or branded material in every garage, road map, hotel etc. There is nothing wrong with this, it is perfectly good marketing practice, this takes time though, and the garages and hotels may demand a fee.

By producing something of value, they created demand. In an early example of viral marketing, the restaurant guide, with the Michelin brand, was spread around the world by the public not paid media. And there lies the difference. To put it simply, link building is when you manually go around placing your brand everywhere, content marketing is when you let other people do it.

The problem with manual link building is that Google does not look to favorably at it. While it is still a popular technique with the more old school SEO, they are running the risk of being penalized by the search engine. The main excuse they give for this is that the boring nature of their industry means that content marketing is not a realistic option. If a tire company can do it though, anyone can. Don’t concern yourself with links, they will come in time.