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Asking people for links (or asking existing links to tweak anchor text) isn't gaming the system and it isn't frowned upon by Google. BUYING them is-- that's what got this guy into trouble.

If you want to put a lilly-white hat on, the question you can ask is, "Given how valuable my content is, what lists, indexes, blogs, etc., would be interested in telling their readers about us?" Better yet, concoct a system where people are rewarded for linking to you in some (ideally pretty natural feeling) way. Yelp badges, the UrbanSpoon spoonback program, 37Signals' penchant for picking fights with the establishment, etc-- all great examples.

You can wait for linkers to stumble onto you-- but you'll never get to page 1 of any desirable phrase that way unless you are truly an order of magnitude better than your competition in terms of linkworthiness... Because you can be darn sure that they know the value of seeking links rather than waiting for them.

Of course, outreach to blogs and gaining traction on social networks is a necessary and productive endeavor. That's all about driving traffic. But that's not SEO, that's outreach. Getting a higher search ranking is a natural byproduct of outreach and marketing. And developers aren't necessarily the best people to do that.

It sounds like you're defining "SEO" as "The parts of SEO I don't like." Link-building is integral to a campaign like that. If you call it "outreach," that's fine, but there's still a big difference--you can target sites that rank well for your target keywords, which will net you more effective links than you'd otherwise get.

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