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(just curious, because I read he's been doing that since 94..I even landed at an old WebmasterWorld thread on this)
My guess is that the top-notch link builders/some of the best SEOs probably could make a decent living from only referral traffic, too (I mean the guys making 7 figures from their sites....if 90% of their traffic (all search traffic) ceased to exist, their sites would probably still earn them a nice living)
He indicated that it was always exciting coming across people that had a similiar site because it was another source of potential traffic.
My guess was that if somebody made the effort to focus on it, it probably should have been possible...in particular, because links still flew freely. I mean, most webmasters were probably not thinking "Im giving away a link = Im giving away money", but simply linked to good content (but on the other hand there wasnt as much web-traffic around, yet, i guess)
I never considered myself a link builder, and I still don't. That's just what the industry decided to call it, especially after Google launched, and I went along for the ride. On my business card it says "content publicist".
Since my clients were ranking, I figured something about my approach appealed to whatever it was this new-fangled Google bot thingy was looking for. You have to remember that even after Google launched, it was still an AltaVista and Infoseek world for a long time. But, since links suddenly mattered for search rank, I studied and analyzed links more with whatever tools were available, and it became clearer to me what Google was looking for.
The key for me then was to
1) continue doing what I had been doing, because my merit based approach to link seeking created an inbound link profile that Google liked, and
2) be selective about what clients/content I accepted, because content has to earn the link based on quality, not negotiation.
If the links pointing at your site are nothing more than self-created links from name directories, article pushing software, or press releases, you are history. You always were. Those links aren't an indicator of quality. But this is nothing new. It was, and still is, about getting the right content introduced to the right people, in a highly subject specific manner, so that content will get the high trust links it deserves.
The tools have changed, but the goal has not. If the content is not linkworthy, it doesn't matter who the link builder or content publicist is.
[edited by: tedster at 2:21 am (utc) on April 10, 2009]